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

November 30th, 2014

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!

Sunday column: Holidays coming and commas, matter, edition

November 23rd, 2014

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!

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.

Sunday column: Day late but with extras!–edition

November 17th, 2014

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!”

Sunday column: Vacation & sarcasm edition

November 9th, 2014

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.

Sunday column: Vacation edition

November 2nd, 2014

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.

Sunday column: Everyone chimes in edition

October 26th, 2014

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.

Sunday column: Tznius (geshundheit!) edition

October 19th, 2014

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!

Sunday column: Ladytax edition

October 12th, 2014

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.

Sunday column: Everyone’s Poor Edition

October 5th, 2014

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.

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

September 28th, 2014

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

Sunday column: Being the grownup

September 21st, 2014

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.

Sunday column: Medical TMI edition

September 14th, 2014

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.

Sunday column: Microbe Choir edition

September 7th, 2014

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.

Sunday column: Yankee hospitality edition

August 24th, 2014

Today’s column is online here, and both questions deal with hospitality in different ways–the first Letter Writer wants to know what courtesies and amenities a host owes (self-invited!) out-of-town guests, and the second LW is concerned about attending a party that someone she’s on the outs with will also be attending.

From my advice to LW 1:

Decide what you can easily do with and for your guests, and communicate it clearly: “We can all cook out in the backyard tonight, but tomorrow I’m working until 10, so you guys are on your own.” The amenities a host may provide depend on that particular host’s resources, but the one thing all hosts without exception must provide is information: what the house rules are, how appliances work, when the host is available for socializing and when not, what nearby stores and restaurants are worth checking out.

(A very Bostonian conception of hospitality.)

Having or being a houseguest is a rather fraught thing, isn’t it? Hosts want to make their guests comfortable and happy–and also to show their home and family off to best advantage, and also to not go broke or crazy in the process. Guests want to be as little trouble as possible, but not feel as though they are walking on eggshells. And it’s all supposed to look effortless.

Money helps. Can we just admit it?

So do shared rules and traditions. Do you give a guest the couch or your own bed? How do you let your host know if you are hungry? Should host and guest consider themselves included in all of each others’ social plans? Beliefs about hospitality go deep into a culture’s DNA. Check out these pieces on Middle Eastern and Japanese hospitality–would you, personally, enjoy that level of catering? I would not. I would infinitely prefer a host show me where the kettle and teabags are than for him to prepare my tea. And I really, really want to help with the dishes after dinner. I could train myself to be a good, passive recipient of traditional hospitality, but fundamentally, the more I can tell you’re trying to make me comfortable, the less comfortable I will actually be. (This is another situation in which the golden rule won’t help you out.)

But you don’t need a huge, cowboy-and-the-geisha culture clash to cause a guest-host disconnect–even within the US, ideas about hospitality vary across regions, social classes, ethnic groups, subcultures. And the image of hospitality that most Americans do, I think, hold in common–a guest room, clean linens, dinners together–is, let’s face it, much easier to manage if you’re middle class, middle-aged, and live in the middle of the country. If you’re 25, in debt, and working a flex schedule, you’re not going to live up to that ideal–but we’re not an “I will share my last bowl of rice with you my friend” culture either, so what do you do?

Sometimes clear situational constraints can simplify a complicated situation like houseguesting. At the beginning of the summer I went to New York to help a friend pack for a move, and what a delightful visit that was! She didn’t have to worry about what her apartment looked like, because of course it looked like a bomb hit it, she was moving. I didn’t feel guilty about letting her buy my meals because of course she was going to do that, I’d just spent several hours packing law books for her.

Our apartment has recently been renovated and I look forward to practicing much more hospitality in the future! There is kind of a very short hall between our kitchen and dining room now, with a cupboard and shelves on one side. I’m planning to use that as our “hospitality corner” and keep our bartending, and tea- and coffee-making ingredients and amenities there, along with anything else guests might want–napkins, board games (plus dictionary for Scrabble!), aspirin and bandaids, books that are available for the taking. What else should I keep our hospitality corner stocked with?

Sunday column: Golden Rule edition

August 17th, 2014

Today’s column is online here. The second question allows me to wax briefly philosophical, almost theological:

Two friends of mine are getting married, and my husband and I are at odds about what to give them. Neither of them gave us a wedding gift, though they joked and promised, “The check is in the mail.” I would never hold a grudge about it, but it was always in the back of my mind as strange. They both have good jobs, take elaborate vacations, purchase clothes and accessories from high-end stores. I gave them a very nice shower gift. I feel as if we should give them a wedding gift, treating others as we wish to be treated. My husband doesn’t want to give them anything.

You invoke the golden rule to argue that you liked getting wedding presents, therefore your friends would also like to get wedding presents. This is generically true, of course, but the particulars of your case differ. Thought experiment: If you had somehow — totally out of character! — neglected to buy a friend a wedding present, would you really want that friend to give you one? Or would it make you feel even guiltier and more ill at ease about how you were supposed to make your original gaffe right? The kindest thing to do might be to treat them, not as you wish to be treated, but as you, in fact, were treated.

There’s more, including a compromise option and the acknowledgment that I could be wholly off base, not knowing any of the parties involved, but I do think I’m onto something. Let’s say LW couple does pop for, oh, a Vita Mix blender (just got one this week, they’re amazing) for Couple X. Then Couple X feels worse and finally gives Couple LW a much-belated wedding present, which of course has to be at least as nice as a Vita Mix, and we all know how much those cost, so Couple X now has to get online and find a present that is in the same price range plus a couple of years’ belated-present “interest” for LW. And then there’s the race to see who will write a thank-you note first. And Christmas is around the corner, which means if either couple feels they’ve slacked in the summer exchange, they can start it all up again.

End it now, I say. Couple X clearly is awful at buying presents, so don’t make present-giving part of your friendship.

I’ll probably get several outraged letters for this.

My favorite part, though, was how the LW inadvertently got at the problem of the Golden Rule. When I converted to Judaism, I learned that the version of my youth–”Do unto others”–was considered the Christian version. The Jews say, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to others.” Framing it as a negative command, I think, is more appropriate, because the GR is a wonderful starting place for ethics, but it can’t take you all the way into etiquette and the finer points of social interaction. The more positive phrasing implies that the GR is the be-all and end-all, which … well, look. You can follow “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” to the letter and still out your birthday-having colleague to the staff at Applebee’s, as long as you think it would be great fun to have servers singing and clapping at you while diners at other tables gawk openly or stick to their conversations with grim determination.

Any ethical standard allowing–implicitly encouraging!–such behavior needs codicils and further explication, is all I’m saying.

The “That which is hateful to you” version wouldn’t stop a hardcore extrovert from pulling the Applebee’s stunt, technically, but its wording indicates that this is an ethic meant for the most fundamental questions of society-building. Nobody starts planning a party by musing, “Now, what would not be hateful unto me?”

The Golden Rule is about keeping you from committing existential sin. It still allows for many a faux pas.