Tag Archives: columns

Sunday column: Addiction edition

Today’s column is online here. The first question is about neighbors who smoke outdoors, and I’m sure to get angry letters about this bit of advice:

If you’re lucky, your neighbors will ask if their cigarette smoke bothers you, too, and then you can allow as to how it does. If they don’t bring it up themselves, however, tread lightly. I’ve yet to meet a smoker who is happy about his or her habit and the financial, health, and social costs that it entails. If your neighbors aren’t capable of quitting in order to improve their own quality of life, they’re certainly not going to do so to improve yours.

Tobacco is one of the most addictive substances out there and no neighborly requests, no matter how polite or eloquent, is going to change that. People like to think that their snarky comment or heartfelt plea or terrifying statistic will be the one that will Make The Difference, but it won’t. Think about how very, very many straws have told themselves that they, they would be the one to break the camel’s back. Think how many got chomped by that camel in return.

I try to give advice that will work, that isn’t overly based on “shoulds.” If the shoulds were working then nobody would have had to write to me in the first place.

What “works” with addicts is up for debate. One of the persistent themes of this blog is that stories are crucial to humans, and to our ability to understand an issue, but that stories are always a gloss on reality, not reality itself. And sometimes, a way of telling a story can be so compelling that it prevents us from seeing what is in fact happening.

This may be the case with addiction. The image of the trauma-created, spiritually bereft addict who must hit bottom, have a moral re-awakening, and struggle to achieve sobriety through lifelong abstinence and the creation of a “recovering addict” self-image … may not be the correct one. It’s a powerful, powerful cultural narrative, but the science simply doesn’t back it up, as Pacific Standard magazine reports:

The average cocaine addiction lasts four years, the average marijuana addiction lasts six years, and the average alcohol addiction is resolved within 15 years. Heroin addictions tend to last as long as alcoholism, but prescription opioid problems, on average, last five years. In these large samples, which are drawn from the general population, only a quarter of people who recover have ever sought assistance in doing so (including via 12-step programs). This actually makes addictions the psychiatric disorder with the highest odds of recovery.

Pacific Standard has more on addiction, here and here for starters. Aeon takes on the AA of addiction, which has been untouched by science since the 1930s:

The one-size-fits-all therapy of AA can’t possibly address every facet of the disease: addiction is a habit rooted in brain circuitry, but also frequently a consequence of a traumatic experience or exposure from childhood onwards. Most of us just flirt with addiction, stopping our habit without any formal treatment or intervention from self-help groups such as AA. Others struggle mightily over a lifetime, their addiction a spectre – an ever-present haunting.

Addiction, moreover, often exists in tandem with other neuropsychiatric disease – a find that the Big Book has not been revised to include. Nearly a third of adults who experience mental illness have an addiction. This number skyrockets for jail and prison inmates. Three quarters of those with mental health problems also have a substance use disorder.

AA can obviously be useful for individuals, of course–there’s no point denying those numbers–but it’s folk medicine with no empirical evidence, and that shouldn’t be forgotten, especially when judges are mandating treatment. (The program really does only work if you work it.)

Eve Tushnet of The American Conservative had a brilliant piece about what these competing views of addiction mean, in terms of storytelling and moral structures:

The two narratives have differing views of authority: The 12-Steppy model comes across as authoritarian, and can definitely be used as an excuse for cruelty, but it also has an anarchic respect for the wisdom of ordinary people. It attempts to turn followers into leaders through personal guidance. What I’m (again, super-reductively) calling the harm reduction model is simultaneously much more individualistic, and much more reliant on medical expertise. The expert-layperson hierarchy is in many ways more rigid than the sponsor/sponsee relationship. The harm reduction worldview tries to avoid the problems of class- and education-hierarchies by soliciting as much participation as possible from people on the ground, current drug users. “Nothing about us without us” is a slogan of the harm reduction movement, and one with which I agree… but it’s not a slogan AA ever needed, because AA’s whole genesis and development was by “us,” the alcoholics.

The harm reduction model is typically much more comfortable with the idea that different approaches to recovery are valid for different people. There’s much less pressure to force everybody into one method, goal, spirituality, and language.

Check out her entire piece. It’s an excellent meditation on the complex relationship between storytelling, science, morality, and public policy.

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Sunday column: Solving for the X in Xmas edition

Today’s column is here, a holiday-themed twofer of horrible houseguests and what to give the guy at the gym who lets you in without paying.

I’m also going to be speaking this afternoon at the Sunday Assembly, a humanist congregation that meets at 45 Mt. Auburn Street in Cambridge, at 4pm today about what a humanist “Xmas” might look like. Perhaps I’ll see you there!

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Today’s column: Call nine-wine-wine edition

Today’s column is online here. The second question is from a “grandma” who is concerned that her daughter is too tense and raises her voice too much with the “cuties.” What should grandma say?

I should have used this question in my exams back when I was teaching psychology, because if you don’t immediately realize that the daughter’s tension is probably connected to her mother’s presence and reduces as soon as Grandma goes back home, you weren’t paying attention. It’s called the Hawthorne Effect: Observing a behavior can change that behavior.

The first question is from a couple who regularly get inveigled (I don’t regularly write “inveigled,” so that there was a real thrill) into picking up the tab for another couple’s pricey wine habit. They just needed someone to officially let them off the hook from their excessive notions of hospitality and fear of seeming cheap, so I did that. I hate when people feel guilty or ashamed for spending their money in accordance with financial reality and their personal priorities.

Incidentally, did any of you happen to hear this story when it broke–the guy who ordered a bottle of wine for “thirty-seven fifty” that turned out to cost $3,750? Better call Saul!

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Sunday column: Holidays coming and commas, matter, edition

The subhead to today’s Letters section reads, “Readers respond to a story of a 91-year-old’s return to dating and Miss Conduct.” That … really gives people the wrong impression of my social life these days, I fear.

Today’s actual column is here, and features some gift-giving advice:

… as we move into the gift-giving season, those of us who have gift-able skills–tailors, pastry chefs, massage therapists, copy editors–should always be upfront with friends and family. Our labor and its fruits can be part of the everyday warp and weft of friendship–or it can be done for cash or barter–or given as an official gift, as you intended. But it’s on us to communicate our expectations in advance.

Do you need holiday advice? Write to me today at missconduct@Globe.com!

If you need holiday advice tonight, tune in to WBZ NewsRadio at 10:15 p.m. –I’ll be doing a call-in segment with host Dean Johnson.

And if you don’t mind filtering through a whole bunch of buzzy graphics to get your advice, check out this holiday etiquette “quiz” I did for BU Today.

Are you feeling in the spirit yet, people? I know I am. Going on vacation during the first two months of November is odd. We left the day after Halloween, spent most of our time in warm, sunny Arizona, and then came back to a chilly town all decorated for Christmas. It feels like we skipped forward by a couple of months.

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Sunday column: Day late but with extras!–edition

We got back from our excellent vacation through the Southwest yesterday. It was a slightly epic day of travel and travel hangover–it feels like we’ve been gone two months, not two weeks–but here, albeit delayed, is yesterday’s column. It’s a three-fer! How to deal with endless requests to contribute to friends’ charity drives, Kickstarter campaigns, and the like; putting on lipstick at the table; and how to thank someone without coming off like you’re tipping them. The classics.

Also, I did a special column on workplace etiquette and career planning, here.

The business one was fun because I my other job is at Harvard Business School, researching and writing about career planning, self-presentation, and the like. My boss and I got the cover story in Harvard Business Review in March with a piece on work-life balance. When Mr. Improbable and I were coming home yesterday, we saw a banner ad outside the airport newsstand featuring a picture of that very HBR!

It was the cosmos sending me a message, I know it. “Vacation is over! Back to work!”

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Sunday column: Vacation & sarcasm edition

Today’s column is here, and it’s one I’m quite proud of–it’s about prejudice against heavy people.

People who mock fat people are terrified of losing control of their temporarily acceptable lives. They fear dependency and loss of control, of being an object of pity instead of envy. To these human barracuda, being fat is the most visible symbol that you have “failed” at something—health, femininity, upward mobility. And they attack.

There was also an angry letter about my “snarky, sarcastic” responses to one of my earlier columns. But you know, I was wholly sincere in both those answers. People do dress like crap anymore to an astonishing degree, and that second letter writer really does need some counseling. I don’t know how anyone could disagree with either assessment.

We’re on vacation and will remain so through next Sunday, so posting will be slim-to-none. We’re driving through the Southwest. Here is the motel we stayed at on Wednesday night–the misnamed “Wigwam Village” in Holbrook, some 20 miles from the Petrified Forest National Park. Many vintage cars also live at the Wigwam.

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Sunday column: Vacation edition

Today’s column is online here. What do you do when you’re invited to be a guest at a home that has recently hosted several generations of bedbugs? And how annoying is the “Mr. and Mrs. John Smith” thing?

Mr. Improbable and I are on vacation!–for the next two weeks, so posting may be scant. I’ll try to get some pictures up of the places we go.

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Sunday column: Everyone chimes in edition

Today’s column is online here, and I’ve got yet another “Is he/Am I being greedy/cheap?” recessionista questions. (For those keeping track at home, we’ve recently had the lady who tried to cheap out her babysitter, the Cape Cod homeowners who ask guests to bring their own toilet paper, and the lesbian couple that wants to be considered as one person when making donations. And more to come!)

I’m no Dear Prudence when it comes to getting weird questions, so when I do get an off-the-wall-one, I’ll sometimes put it on Facebook to amuse my readers and do a little research on reader responses at the same time. A while ago, I posted this:

Here’s a question I’m working on right now. Can you even–?!

“Recently, my wife and I were dinner guests at the home of a new acquaintance. After dinner, a relative of the host (also a guest) approached me and told me how much had been spent on the purchase of the steaks that were the main course. He, then, rather pointedly suggested that I make a monetary contribution. As I had never encountered such a request, I complied. Is such a request appropriate? How should I have responded?”

… and here, for your amusement, is the conversation that followed:

Karen Wow. Never heard of that. Is there a cultural difference that is not conveyed by the letter? If not, a simple ‘we are planning to reciprocate in the future’ should be sufficient.

Robin “Miss Conduct” Abrahams That was my question, too. I can easily imagine some Old Country parent pulling a stunt like that.

Robin “Miss Conduct” Abrahams But damn, if you can’t afford to feed your guests steak, feed ’em spaghetti! Just don’t CHARGE them for it!

Karen OTOH, maybe the host’s ne’er do well relative was looking for cab fare and thought this was a good way to get it. Was the relative really acting on behalf of the hosts or for his own benefit?

Robin “Miss Conduct” Abrahams Karen, I like that hypothesis! Very old-school farce.

I think the real question–and it’s not one I have the answer to, unfortunately–isn’t what the LW should have done, but if he should tell his host about what happened. If one of my relatives were shaking down my houseguests I’d want to know. But they’re just “acquaintances,” not friends, so …

Ben Pay the man, and then never come back.

Gary Of all the dozens of questions this immediately raises, the one I’m pondering is whether the host had any idea whatever that the relative was asking for contributions, or whether the relative is some kind of weird family loose cannon.

I suppose one possible response — especially if there were several other guests present — would be the entirely artless approach, calling out, “Say there, Winston, did you know that your brother-in-law Nick is actually going around asking for money to repay for the dinner?” That might solve the “do we want to be better acquainted with these people?” question right then and there.

Kellie Could the LW ask the host indirectly? Something like: Your relative let me know how crazy-expensive those steaks were. I was happy to chip in, but next time, let’s keep it simple, ok?

Kelly I would have responded to the relative in question “Thanks for letting me know, I will certainly give some money to [host]” and wait to see their response. If they backtrack or try to get me to give the money to them instead, then I’d know they were acting alone. If the relative seems OK with the plan, I would follow through and say nicely to the host “[relative] suggested that we should contribute something to the cost of dinner. Here’s some money.” How the host reacts would determine my likelihood of returning.

Marty I would offer to make a donation, and then inquire as to whether a donation might secure the hostess for the rest of the evening.

Robin “Miss Conduct” Abrahams “Money? Oh, I already left some on the dresser!”

Ed This is why I always bring my needlepoints to dinners like this. Makes a great gift in lieu of cash

Antonia ‘And perhaps you’d like a 30% tip?’ But seriously, it is difficult to field with the hosts. The problem if you bring up with Acquaintance Host is that if Relative was acting alone Acquaintance Host will probably be mortified and it can have an impact on a buddy friendship. If you’re interested in seeing these people again, perhaps let is slide this time and see what happens next time. If it happens again, then you don’t want to know them. If it doesn’t, and it seems to be Relative acting on his own, you’ll know the Acquaintance Host better and had have more of a feel of how to address it with them.

Michele They next time they invite them over, the response should be “sorry, I can’t afford it.”

David That’s so completely unexpected that I would probably have chipped in if it had happened to me. Mortifying or not, I think any host would want to know that this happened on the side of their dinner party – the question is HOW to tell them, and that depends on how well you got on, how soon will you see them, how casually you feel you can talk to them, etc.

Karen “Betty Sue– your {brother} mentioned to me your tradition of paying for our own meal when we are a guest in your home. Do you prefer paypal or is a check ok?”

Gary I just noticed that the question you actually asked was, “Can you even–?!” And my answer to that would be, “No, I can’t even.”

Margaret Mortified silence is probably not the right answer, although it is my first instinct.

Dakota What Ben said (pay and don’t come back) and then if another invitation comes along, mention that last time you were a little caught off guard by so-and-so’s request – should you expect to bring cash this time? Phrased ever so graciously, of course.

Robin “Miss Conduct” Abrahams Margaret, if people knew how often “mortified silence” was my IRL answer, I’d lose my job!

Gary I’m imagining a thing where the Globe lets you invite all your LWs to a big reception, and you get to wander about, chatting with them each, trying to figure out which one wrote which letter.

Robin “Miss Conduct” Abrahams … and hitting each other up for cash …


We’ll never know, but I still think Karen’s hypothesis is the best one–that the relative was scamming for his own purposes, and the host never knew nor saw a dollar of the poor LW’s contribution.

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Sunday column: Tznius (geshundheit!) edition

Today’s column is online here. I’ve got a funny little backstage story on this one. The first question begins, “I may be old-fashioned, but it annoys me when men and boys wear hats in a restaurant.” I edited this from the original “males of any age” to “men and boys,” because I hate, hate, hate referring to human beings as “males” and “females,” and if I’d left the wording intact, I would have had to make my answer all about how we must look past aesthetic offenses–like hats in restaurants, or horrible writing style–to see the intention of someone’s soul. Which was, frankly, not the answer I wanted to write, so I edited the wording to something less egregious.

One can and should expect dignity and courtesy from men. Why would one expect anything other than barnyard behavior from mere males?

The question about fashionetiquette inspired me to go back and look up a post I wrote around last year’s High Holy Days about modesty. Modesty is called “tznius” in Hebrew, and like most modesty codes is primarily concerned, nowadays, with restricting women’s visibility in public spaces. But what would a modern modesty code based on the Torah look like? I suggested three principles:

1. Don’t dress like something you’re not. This raises modern hackles at first, because one of the few clear-cut clothing commandments is that women shouldn’t dress like men. There are also long, detailed descriptions of priestly garments that are mandatory for priests and obviously forbidden for anyone else. All very Bronze Age!

But if the particulars are no longer on-point, the principle is. Clothing often reflects social roles, and it’s inappropriate to dress for a role that isn’t yours. At a wedding, don’t be more glamorous than the bride. If you’re the teacher, don’t dress like your students. If you’re the keynote speaker, don’t blend into the wallpaper.

2. Dressing up shows respect. According to the Bible, the first thing people did after becoming morally conscious was to put some clothes on, already, and the impulse, if not always the fig leaves, stuck. Esther dressed up before pleading her people’s case to the king. Jews wear our nicest clothes on Rosh Hashanah to show our respect for God.

3. But don’t dress to incite envy. Envy, much more than lust, is the emotion that modesty codes are designed to control. A community can’t function if its members are constantly competing for status, measuring themselves against each other. So you don’t dress in a way that looks like you’re competing for status, in ostentatious clothes that are better than anyone else can afford. You know, like Joseph with that amazing technicolor dreamcoat that got him sold into slavery. Look what happens to people who dress too fancy!

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Sunday column: Ladytax edition

Today’s column is online here, and it’s one of those odd ones with one serious and one not-so-very question. I hope they balance all right to the reader.

The first is from a woman who has overheard neighbors fighting, and seen the relationship end and then, unfortunately, renew itself. What struck me when I read it the first time was how much mental energy the LW had put into the situation already. I wrote, “First off, I’m sorry that you’re experiencing this. Intimate-partner abuse doesn’t only affect the direct victim but that person’s family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors?—?it’s not merely a private concern, but a public health problem.” The immediate evil of domestic violence, or rape, or harassment, or discrimination, is apparent, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the amount of energy even women who are not victims spend in thinking about these things. The waste of all that energy.

And this week Amanda Taub wrote a piece in Vox that sums up everything I was thinking:

Which brings us to the ways in which these sorts of attitudes disadvantage all women. When our society treats consent as “everything other than sustained, active, uninterrupted resistance,” that misclassifies a whole range of behavior as sexually inviting. That, in turn, pressures women to avoid such behavior in order to protect themselves from assault.

As a result, certain opportunities are left unavailable to women, while still others are subject to expensive safety precautions, such as not traveling for professional networking unless you can afford your own hotel room. It amounts, essentially, to a tax that is levied exclusively on women. And it sucks.

Taub’s piece focuses on rape and sexual crimes, but her point can be taken more generally. A smart analysis, and a sobering one.

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Sunday column: Everyone’s Poor Edition

Today’s column is online here and, like last week’s, features a story of cheapness. Last week’s LW wanted to skimp on paying a babysitter the going rate–this week’s LWs have been “invited to spend a weekend with friends at their Cape vacation home. In addition to the request to buy and cook dinner one night, we are also asked to bring a roll of toilet paper, paper towels, our own beverages, including bottled water, and provide our own lunches throughout the weekend.”

I’ve got a few more like that in the pipeline, too. I try to keep the column balanced, with not too many questions in a row on the same topic, or too many where I say the LW is wrong, or so on. People like variety. But the money questions are coming in fast and furious. In the next couple of weeks I’ve got one about how much one should contribute to a group gift, another one about cheap hosts that I discussed on my Facebook page, and one about what to do when you’re hit up for donations by friends.

I’ll believe the recession is over when I stop having to worry about running too many money questions in a row.

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Sunday column: Never Mind That, Go See This Play Edition

Today’s column is online here, and it’s a scorcher–I don’t often come down hard on Letter Writers, even when they’re wrong, but I did on this one. You just don’t argue a teenager into taking less money than she thinks is fair to babysit your kid for a whole day. That’s just wrong:

But I’m not fussed that you didn’t know the current market rates. What I am fussed by is that you verbally bullied a teenager into giving up an entire Saturday for an amount of money that she clearly felt wasn’t worth it. Oh yes you did. Don’t you play all innocent with me. When an adult dumps a whole load of facts over a kid’s head like a verbal ice bucket challenge, that’s bullying?—?the polite, civilized kind that leaves the victim feeling like the bad guy. Have you read any of the studies about how women don’t negotiate their salaries as aggressively as men do? The next time you’re sitting down over the latte and cronut that you bought with the $16 you saved by haggling a teenager down to minimum wage, you might want to catch up on that literature. And ask yourself where, exactly, young women get the notion that their labor isn’t worth much and that assertiveness doesn’t pay off. And ask yourself if that’s the world you want your daughter to grow up in.

I’m glad people are still talking about the ice bucket challenge. That’s the problem with writing a hip, “now” advice column that has a four-week-advance deadline–I do sometimes throw in pop-culture references and hope that we’re still doing that thing, or no one has found out anything horrible about that instant celebrity, in three more weeks when the column runs.

What I really want to talk about, though, is Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s freaking gorgeous production of “Comedy of Errors,” which we saw last night (and which also illustrates the character-eroding dangers of treating one’s household help poorly). Director David Gammons conceived the play as the production of a small number of off-hours circus sideshow performers–sisters Ariana and Luciana, for example, are played by a pair of “conjoined twins,” Sarah Newhouse and Richard Snee. (Yes, Richard. Because it’s a madhouse circus!) It’s hilariously funny–there is usually more going on onstage than you can fully take in–and surprisingly moving. Mostly, though, it’s breathtakingly inventive and fun to watch–the showbiz hilarity of “30 Rock” with the creepy vibe of Tom Waits and Amanda Palmer layered over it.

If you’ve never seen a Shakespeare play before because you thought it would be boring, or that you wouldn’t understand the language–go see this one. The actors are all playing characters who also think that about Shakespeare, see! So it’s all extremely clear and vividly illustrated.

Basically, with this production, ASP just did for Shakespeare what Joss Whedon did for horror movies in “Cabin in the Woods.”

I’m going to shut up about it now and leave you with a picture and a link to the tickets page.

Photo by Stratton McCrady Photography

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Sunday column: Being the grownup

Today’s column is online here, and both questions have a similar theme–knowing when you’re the grownup, the person in charge, the buckstopper. Knowing when it’s on you to set the tone. In the first question, two young couples seem to have developed a pattern where the slightly older couple plays host more often, and more comprehensively, than they would like. They need to back off and create some space for their younger friends to step up:

From the gentle condescension of your description (“only boyfriend and girlfriend,” and so on) it sounds as though your differences, though minor, have created a psychological rift, with you and your wife building your fortress as the wise, established couple on one side and your friends as the junior proteges who goof and frolic and provide occasional comic relief on the other. It’s entirely possible that all four of you are a bit tired of that dynamic. Moving to a more equal footing doesn’t require some dreadfully awkward Relationship Talk, fortunately. But if you and the missus want your friends to unlearn the habit of relying on you to provide space, food, and labor, then you will need to learn the habit of asking them to pitch in.

The second question was one of those Rorschach questions: “Should my son’s girlfriend who’s in town call me or should I call her?” Quick, what’s your impression of the Letter Writer? How do you envision the girlfriend? There, that just told you more about yourself than a dozen “Which Great House in Westeros Would You Belong to?” quizzes. I answered it as objectively as I could, but I’m sure my own unconscious biases came into play.

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Sunday column: Medical TMI edition

Today’s column deals with medical TMI, or at least the Letter Writer’s perception of same. Medical TMI is definitely a thing–if you haven’t experienced it yet, kids, just wait until you, and more importantly your friends, are 40!–but one of the LW’s examples was a perfectly professional note from his veterinarian letting her clients know that she was undergoing cancer treatment, and the other two were passing strangers, and there is not much to be done about the discourse of passing strangers. By this guy’s rubric, I’m subjected to “sports TMI” every time I get on the T.

My own medical TMI is that I have some digestive problems that can occasionally make it hard for me to eat, and very, very easy for me to lose my appetite. So you’d best not be telling me details of your surgery over dinner. One of my good friends is a biologist and I don’t even let her talk about her job when we’re eating. (Gossip of grants and grad students is fine, but no details on the actual experiments, please.) But you can ask friends to indulge you.

I’m also coming down with a bit of a cold today, which I attribute to the weather change and the September Ingathering of thousands and thousands of new students and their germs. I get one this time every year. Since many of you probably do, as well, here’s the section of my book that deals with cold etiquette* for the office:

Take visible precautions. When you’ve got a cold, take every precaution to avoid passing it on, and take these precautions somewhat ostentatiously, so that people know you’re looking out for them. Put on a little “security theater”: you want not only to spare people from getting your cold, you want to spare them the worry that they are going to get your cold. So wash your hands longer and more thoroughly in the bathroom than you normally do. Don’t leave used tissues on your desk, even if you used them only to wipe up a bit of spilled tea. Carry a small bottle of Purell with you and disinfect shared office equipment after handling it. Spray your phone with Lysol and keep the can out where others can see it. Don’t partake of shared food or ask to borrow anyone’s stapler. Toll a bell before you as you approach the cubicles of the untainted and scatter ashes on your head. (Well, perhaps not that.) And don’t ever feel embarrassed saying, “I have a cold, so I can’t shake hands” when introduced to someone. This is a courtesy that people truly appreciate. The warmest, most sincere hug in the world doesn’t convey quite as much care and consideration for others as refusing to touch them when you’re germy.
Apologize in advance. If your cold is noisy—or if you have hay fever—send around an e-mail to your colleagues letting them know that you appreciate their patience until the hacking and schnortling subsides. People are generally willing to be awfully patient and good-natured as long as they feel they’re being recognized for being patient and good-natured, and that whoever is inconveniencing them knows that they are being inconvenienced.
Provide a bit of information—as much as you feel is necessary and are comfortable with. Even when your illness or injury doesn’t affect others, it’s still a good idea to let people know what’s going on if you are visibly or audibly sick or injured. You don’t have to give everyone the full rundown of every highlight of the camping trip that left you with that nasty case of poison ivy, and exactly how much of your body it’s covering, and what exactly you were doing with that cute wilderness guide that led you to get it there. A simple, “Do I look disgusting or what? At least the next time I go on a wilderness excursion I’ll know how to identify poison ivy!” sufficiently acknowledges the scabby, oozing elephant in the room and makes others feel more comfortable.
It’s not as though coworkers or other PTA members aren’t noticing your rash or cast, even if they’re too polite to say anything. Take control of your own information and set yourself, and everyone else, at ease. (This benefits you, too. People are staring when you’re not looking and gossiping when you’re not listening, but they’ll do so less if you acknowledge whatever’s wrong.) This is especially important for women who are injured in such a way that it looks as though they might have been the victims of domestic violence. It can be very upsetting for coworkers or casual acquaintances to fear for your safety and well-being and not know if they should stage some sort of intervention.

*Etiquette for when you have a cold, not, like, Yankee as opposed to Southern etiquette.

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Sunday column: Microbe Choir edition

Today’s column is online here and oy! This month! September, December, and June are simply ridiculous months with far too much going on during them. You really notice this kind of thing as a social-advice columnist. (January and February, however, are dead, and therefore the most brilliant months in which to throw a party. No one has any social plans, and people aren’t traveling then, either.)

In addition to the usual back-to-school, high holidays, can-we-all-just-admit-September-is-the-real-New-Years madness, we’ve got the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony coming up week after next. I got drafted into the role of assistant to the opera director over the weekend, which was … unexpected, to say the least, but I could hardly say no. Even if it weren’t my husband who needed me, how could I turn down an opportunity to assistant-direct a science opera? After only a week of blogging about science theater? Most people would be delighted if their blogs paid off like that, I expect.

(This is all going to circle around to today’s column. Be patient.)

The opera this year is about two eccentric billionaires who decide to live on only vitamin supplements, no food–and their gut bacteria, the Microbe Chorus. I was in charge of the Microbe Chorus.

How would you go about directing a Microbe Chorus? How should they move? What kinds of emotions do they have? What do they do when they’re not singing? What motivates them?

This is what I am spending my weekend contemplating.

Today’s column dealt with two fairly straightforward, common problems in modern social life–whether or not to keep another person’s secret, and how to show gratitude to someone without being crassly quid-pro-quo about it. On the first question, I wrote “It’s a complicated business, the ethics of keeping other people’s secrets (or not). Some professions have ironclad rules: Teachers must report evidence of abuse, priests cannot reveal anything said in the confessional. Everyone knows the rules.”

There are so many ways that a given society or culture can solve the problems of secret-keeping, or thanks-giving, or the proper relations of host and guest, or which side of the road to drive on. Social life is so much easier when everyone agrees on these things. Even if the solution is unfair–hosts must give up everything to their guests, say, and cater to their every whim–at least everyone knows what to expect. 21st-century America is a challenging place to live–and a great place to start a career as an advice columnist–because we are so complicated and diverse a nation that we no longer have these shared agreements. Which means, first, that people have to figure things out on their own, and second, that it’s increasingly difficult to interpret other people’s behavior. Your friend ignored your birthday–is this a slight, or do they simply not care for birthdays? Does the new transfer in Accounts like you like you, or is that just Midwestern friendliness confusing your Boston heart?

Most of us, if asked, would prefer to live in a diverse, individualistic culture that allowed a lot of leeway in behavior. But there will always be something attractive about the idea of societies in which everyone has a role, in which proper behavior is codified, not improvised, in which you can communicate volumes of respect or love or disdain by the way you tip your hat or what kind of flower you bring.

Microbes, I decided, have that kind of culture.

The Microbe Choir will move as one. They will not notice each other, because they are all parts of a whole–I don’t carry on a private conversation with my own hand, now, do I. Their movements are repetitive and their motivation is simple and profound: to love and ultimately consume their human hosts.

The Microbe Choir is a deeply religious thing.

I don’t know if that’s how every director would have seen them. I don’t know if that’s how I myself would see them if I hadn’t been thrown into the project more than two weeks before showtime. Sometimes you can explore with your actors and do all kinds of imagination and improv work to discover what a character is really, truly about. And sometimes, like I’ll be doing in an hour, you say, “This is the emotion your character is feeling, so put it on your face.”

The Microbe Choir is the opposite of a Miss Conduct letter writer. The Microbe Choir never doubts itself. It is not modern. It does not question. It has no ulterior motive. It has no need to make a good impression. It loves in purity and consumes what it loves.

Time to top off the iced coffee and head to the Science Center for rehearsal.

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