Sunday column: Poached columns, skunked phrases edition

July 27th, 2014

Today’s column is online here, and both questions are a little more dramatic than usual — a daughter who wants permission to cut herself out of her mother’s life, at least temporarily, and a young man whose girlfriend doesn’t want him to stay the night while her ex is in town because it would be “flaunting their relationship.”

Two things:

1. There’s only one advice columnist whose name is synonymous with dramatic letters, and that’s Slate’s Dear Prudie. But has the tabloid Globe (not my Globe, obviously!) been stealing her questions for their own advice column, written by Debbie Reynolds? According to Emily Yoffe, questions similar in theme to ones that she has answered, but with certain details changed (a person’s gender, a housepet’s species), have regularly been running in Dear Debbie’s column a few weeks after they’ve appeared in her own.

People often send letters to more than one columnist–I once answered a question that also got sent to Ask Amy. As I wrote at the time,

Lots of people send in letters to multiple advice columns at the same time. There’s a strict rule in academia about multiple submissions to scholarly journals, but there’s not much we advice columnists can do about it–it’s not as though we have some sort of central clearinghouse of questions, nor does every single advice columnist read every other advice columnist every day to ensure that there are no repeats. (Given different publication schedules and lead times, even if we did, that wouldn’t prevent the occasional duplication.) As a result, it’s not uncommon for two advice columnists to run the same question within days of each other–or on the very same day, such as this “Dear Cary” question that also appeared in “Dear Prudence” (second one down). A quick Google search on “advice column” and “same question” also revealed this gem from Gawker: it appears that the same question ran in both “Dear Prudence” and “Ask Amy,” within months of each other–but the male half of the disagreeing couple wrote to Prudie, and the woman to Amy!

(It’s possible on that one, of course, that the letter-writer was the same in both cases, and was playing a gag. There isn’t much we can do about that, either. Advice columnists don’t make up the questions, but the people who send the questions in might. My editor will confirm before a question is published that the writer is indeed M.S. from Mansfield and the author of the question, but she isn’t going to send a team of fact-checkers to M.S.’s house to verify that her mother-in-law is, in fact, as annoying as M.S. says she is.)

People send letters to multiple columnists, and people may exaggerate for effect or even send letters about problems they don’t have, out of curiosity. What I’m quite sure readers of advice columns do not do is send a letter to one columnist, wait a few weeks, change “daughter” to “son” and send it in to another columnist. Ms. Yoffe took action:

Since Reynolds did not appear to be involved in the sourcing of the letters, I hoped the Globe would be able to provide an answer. I spoke to the Globe’s editor on the phone and sent over documentation of some of the concurrences. On Wednesday I got an email back from a lawyer for American Media, Lo-Mae Lai. She stated that “similarities between readers’ letters is just one of the many challenges that all authors of advice columns must face”—even me, she made sure to point out. But Lai went on to say that having reviewed the letters I brought to their attention, they “agree that there are some editorial similarities in the subject matter contained in these letters.” And in fact, Lai wrote, the person who managed the Dear Debbie column left the company on June 20, 2014. The new overseer “has assured us that all content in the Dear Debbie letters is original.”

That’s what Miss Conduct would have advised her to do.

2. Flaunting their relationship? As I said in the column, “Whether you’re arguing about exes or gay rights, the first person to refer to the normal functioning of a romantic relationship as ‘flaunting’ loses.” It’s such a skunked phrase! It carries with it a whole miasma of shame and propriety and the kind of excessive concern for the (perceived) sensibilities of others that makes you unable to stick to principle.

Are there other phrases–keeping away from the blatantly political–that cue you that a person is somehow not arguing in good faith, or that they’re arguing from a completely different set of standards? One that always tips me off is referring to any group as “the Xes” rather than simply “Xes.” “The Jews” rather than “Jews” or “Jewish people.” “The feminists” rather than “feminists.” Calling a group “the Xes” implies that you think of them as monolithic, subsumed to some group identity. (And once one X figures out that’s how you see them, they’re all gonna know soon. So watch it.)

Sunday column: Bad apples edition

July 20th, 2014

Today’s column is online here, and it’s about the options you have when a book club gets taken over by a nonstop talker. As synchronicity would have it, my unread copy of The Jane Austen Book Club popped up Friday (it’s delightful to reacquaint myself with all the books that were in storage during our renovation!) and I’m a couple of chapters into it and enjoying it greatly.

The author, Karen Joy Fowler, also wrote We Were All Completely Beside Ourselves, which I mentioned a few weeks ago. At the time, I was avoiding spoilers–but oh, what the hell, it’s about a girl who was raised with a chimp. Now you know. There were experiments around the 1970s in which scientists tried to raise chimpanzee babies as humans to see how much humanlike intelligence and language could be evoked in them, and Ms. Fowler’s novel is about a human woman who, as a girl, had a chimp “twin.” It’s absolutely wonderful.

And it all comes full circle with “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” which like today’s column is about the fact that when you’ve got a bad ‘un in your group, you’re going to have to do something unpleasant about it. It’s part of being a social species–deciding who’s in and who’s out. It’s what we have in common with apes and wolves. It’s what we like to write novels about.

Sunday column: Unfortunate acronyms

July 13th, 2014

Today’s column is a three-fer, which is something I occasionally enjoy doing. I don’t know if readers notice this or not, but I do try to change up the column a bit from week to week, in content and tone–I’ll try not to run two “heavy” columns in a row, or two in which I come down against the LW. I also like to balance out the columns where I give people quick-and-dirty “here’s what you do, hon” advice with longer exegeses. Next week’s column is one question, about how to handle That One Person who takes over a book group.

Here’s Q&A #3 from this week:

My second cousin is getting married to one of my sister-in-law’s best friends. I received the save-the-date but have not received an actual wedding invitation. I don’t know what’s worse?—?doing nothing and them thinking that I’m blowing them off or asking them about it and making them feel awkward.

Ask. You are in an unclear situation, and you are seeking clarification?—?this isn’t like hinting around to be given a “plus one.” Don’t worry about causing your friends grief. Your invitation was surely lost in the mail. However, if it turns out that they sent you a save-the-date and then decided not to invite you after all, then they deserve any discomfort the conversation might bring.

I mean, if someone’s given you an STD, they really have to invite you to the wedding.

The unfortunate acronymization of “Save The Date” isn’t the only time that particular TLA* has tripped me up. I used to work in human resources at Harvard, and was appalled one day to hear one of the benefits directors callously state that she considered pregnancy an STD. How offensive!

She meant Short-Term Disability.

Have you ever been tripped up by someone’s use of an acronym that means something very different in your world?

*Three-Letter Acronym

Sunday’s column: Fill in the blank

June 29th, 2014

Today’s column is online here, and the first question–well, see for yourself:

My sibling requested that my spouse no longer attend family get-togethers. My sibling stated that my spouse creates tension and causes others to be on edge and uncomfortable. The fact is my sibling is correct. My spouse does not like to visit or host family but says we should be together on such occasions. Should I share this request with my spouse?

Readers, can you spot what’s missing? Yes! The reason that Spouse and Family don’t get along has been utterly omitted by the LW! This puts Miss Conduct, perhaps intentionally, behind a veil of ignorance, required to craft an answer that would work whether the Spouse is the innocent victim of bigots, a miserable and misanthropic lout, or a complicated person who simply can’t mesh gears with another group of complicated people and it’s no one’s fault, exactly.

I posted the question on my personal Facebook (Miss Conduct is here: befriend me!) to brainstorm on possible causes of the Spouse-Family disconnect, and one of my friends replied with an extraordinary insight:

I am the tense one when my husband’s family gathers. It’s not because I am a shitty person … it’s because I am FUCKING TERRIFIED because my family dynamic is so very different from theirs and I have an ingrained distrust of family. I like them very much and I feel like I should be able to get over this – but it isn’t exactly easy even when you don’t have a mixed race or same sex relationship. There are tons of issues faced by abuse survivors and dealing with functional families can be one of them.

I was so grateful she shared that.

Anyway, no matter how I turned it over in my mind, the reason for the disconnect does matter, and I wound up offering the LW a range of choices.

The Peculiar Incident of the Missing Problem reminded me of a similar column from a year ago, in which a Letter Writer asked, briefly and tantalizingly, “How soon does one tell a prospective love interest that you are a conspiracy theorist? I did a little too soon, with dire consequences“–without mentioning exactly which conspiracy theory she held to.* I finally decided that the real question wasn’t about the substance of her beliefs, but about the tricky dance of revealing any controversial opinion to a potentially significant other:

The fact that you’re open to dating outside the fold?–not to mention the whole “willing to write to the mainstream media for advice” thing–suggests that your conspiracy beliefs exist in a kind of psychological silo. They might matter in your relationship to the world at large, but not necessarily in your relationship to other individuals.

Learn to tune in to that vibe in others, especially those with whom you’d like to conspire in that special candlelit way. Some people see politics (or religion or economics or science) as impersonal and vain, irrelevant between friends, lovers, family. Other people find these abstract ideas to be fundamental to their self and values and could never choose a life partner with whom they disagreed on the basic nature of reality. Some folks couldn’t imagine dating a creationist?—?or not dating one. Others couldn’t imagine … well, how to end this example without making a terribly tasteless joke about the big bang.

The column was behind a paywall when this was originally published, so if you didn’t catch it before, you can read it now here.

*There are theories so noxious I would be hesitant to facilitate the romantic lives of their adherents, but said adherents probably wouldn’t be seeking advice from the likes of me.

Sunday column: The role of the audience

June 22nd, 2014

Today’s column is online here. The second question is about a neighbor who harps on the Letter Writer’s parking. From my reply:

What do you think is motivating Florence? Personal animus against you? Or against something you represent? Does Florence appear to have a full life, with frequent opportunities to express herself? How would you describe the tone of her criticism: Worried? Superior? Helpful? This is a clue to how Florence sees herself. To know your enemy’s state of mind: Whether your goal be a battle won or a peace made, this must be your first step, grasshopper.

You and Florence are locked into a cycle of mutually assured aggravation. The trick you need to pull off is to briefly interrupt the cycle the next time it starts and treat Florence as your ally against this stupid meshugas that has developed between you. Almost as though there were some malicious third party sowing discord between you–you and Florence, who are such buddies at heart!

A crucial and overlooked aspect of being a good social actor is knowing how to cast your audience in a flattering role. Have you ever met someone at a party who told wonderful stories but nonetheless, you couldn’t wait to get away from? Chances are that person was casting you in the role of Goggling Peasant, shooting their tales over your head as though you couldn’t possibly have anything of similar value to contribute. It’s not a good look. Much better, when telling stories, to cast your interlocutor as a Trusted Confidant, someone who can marvel with you at the wonders you’ve witnessed and who, perhaps, might have avoided some of the traps you yourself have fallen into.

Sunday column: “Neighbors”

June 15th, 2014

Today’s column is online here. The second question is from a woman who got conversationally ambushed one night by her neighbor–”My next-door neighbor in my condo building came over and spilled her guts about her husband–cheating on her, being controlling and unkind. She talked for three hours straight”–and is wondering if one night’s conversation puts her on the hook to give yet more help if asked.

It doesn’t, and I pointed out that the neighbor might very well have been wanting to talk to a near-stranger anyway:

Occasionally you want to vent to someone who’s outside your normal social circle, so that gossip doesn’t start or people don’t ask “How are you?” with searching, compassionate eyes every time they see you for the rest of your life. You want a fresh perspective. You want someone who isn’t involved.

But her question does get at one of the difficulties of modern life. The Bible is full of injunctions about how to treat one’s “neighbor,” and whether you’re religious or not, those ideas make sense. We know we’re supposed to help each other, and offer aid and counsel. We know it takes a village.

We know we’re supposed to bring soup to someone when they’re sick. We just don’t know who.

When the Bible was written, and up until the past 100 years, you knew who your “neighbor” was. Your work colleagues, your friends, your extended family, your co-religionists–there was tremendous overlap between those groups, and that was your neighborhood. Nowadays, physical proximity and emotional attachment don’t necessarily go together. Your physical neighbors, whom you could help with chicken soup and lending power tools and babysitting now and then–you might not even know those people’s names. Meanwhile, your cousins and college roommates and other relationships of long emotional standing are scattered around the country. You can send them cards, or post a cartoon you know they’d like on their Facebook wall, or offer support and advice long-distance, but you can’t lend them your nicest party dress or take their dog for the weekend so they can get out of town.

(Oh, I also wrote a piece about long weekends that you might like.)

I don’t know what to do about that. It’s frustrating. I think it’s one of the factors that leads to a sense of social breakdown. Our physical environment doesn’t match up to our emotional reality.

Today’s column …

October 16th, 2011

… is online here.

Today’s column

October 9th, 2011

is online here.

Today’s column

October 2nd, 2011

… can be read here.

Column & chat

September 25th, 2011

Today’s column — the whole thing — is online here. And this week’s chat is here as well — my apologies for not posting it earlier.

Last week turned into a work-at-homeathon, as whenever my allergies took a break from beating me up, my stomach problems took over the job. However, this week features both Rosh Hashanah and the Ig Nobel festivities, so style palettes will abound!

Today’s column

September 18th, 2011

… is online here. I liked both questions very much. Regarding the second one, I wonder how many other advice columnists get asked questions about mirror neurons?

Today’s column

September 11th, 2011

… is online here.

Today’s column

August 28th, 2011

… is online here. I really enjoyed the first question.

Yesterday’s column

August 22nd, 2011

… is online here. Sorry for the late posting!

There won’t be a column over Labor Day weekend. so I think I’ll take that opportunity to make another little movie. I hope you all enjoyed the first one.

Also, for those of you who don’t follow my “Miss Conduct” blog, I’ve started posting there more frequently — links to news items, studies, or events related to social behavior. So you may want to check it out.

Today’s column

August 14th, 2011

… is online here. As you can see, I allowed myself to be just a wee bit snarkier this week than I usually am.

I’m trying to make an Xtranormal movie based on the third question (starring Queen Elizabeth and Gandhi). If I succeed, and you enjoy it, this may become a regular feature.