Tag Archives: communication

Sunday column: The role of the audience

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.

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A proper e-mail

Last week, I received an e-mail from my 10-year-old grandcousin.* The subject line was “Read-a-Thon,” and was sent from my grandcousin to his own e-mail address, with recipients in the BCC. The text was as follows:


I am e-mailing you to ask if you will sign up for a fundraiser for [NAME] School called the read-a-thon. It is when I ask you to donate money to my school for every minute I read.

I will let you decide on how much you will pay me per minute. I plan to read 500 to 800 minutes,maybe more. I hope to raise $500. 1c per minute would equal $8.00, and 5c per minute would equal $40.00. Please reply telling me if you would like to participate, and how much money you will give per min. if you will participate.

I will take any contribution, including just an amount no matter how much I read.

I don’t normally do this,so this is new and exciting. Thank You.


I thought this was pretty darned good. Informative subject header, recipients kept private, full information (including, usefully, doing the math on an 800-minute commitment), no pressure except to let him know, and appropriate thanks and excitement about the endeavor expressed.

How many e-mails have you gotten from adults that aren’t as concise, respectful, and informative as that? I know I’ve gotten plenty.

And I don’t plan on retiring anytime soon, but I’ve got a new name on my list for people to take over the column if I ever do.

*My cousins’ kid. Technically, he is my first cousin once removed, but I prefer the term “grandcousin.” He was once removed, but after a quick time-out he got his act together again.

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Mr. Improbable and I had a mildly bad day yesterday (no point going into details) and were definitely in the mood for some escapist entertainment last night. We found it on Hulu, in this gloriously overwrought Gothic melodrama based on a Daphne Du Maurier novel:


My favorite bit of dialogue was:

“You’ve been drinking!”
“Only at the springs of love!”

It makes me really sad that I’ve quit drinking now, because I probably won’t be accused of having been drinking, and I want to, so I can say that.

Which actually, now that I think about it, does get at something. We’ve often talked about the “witty comeback” and its shortcomings.* Well-meaning people don’t deserve to be the recipient of a nasty crack; ill-meaning people ought to be confronted more directly; the generally clueless (non-neurotypical folks, or people from cultures with different privacy/conversational norms) won’t be helped to understand boundaries by a sarcastic comment that may well confuse them more.

But the surreal, as opposed to snarky comeback, can work, if it lets the other person in on the joke. Look at all the beautifully surreal responses my friends’ wonderful relative came up with for the question of how she lost her arm. The surreal response can let the other person know, “Whatever question you just asked me isn’t the story of my life. But I’m comfortable that you asked, and I’m not mad at you. However, I’m not going to talk about it, so let’s change the subject.”

Isn’t the writing process magical? When I started this post I never thought I’d get from “My Cousin Rachel” to the witty-retort topic! How about that.

*If you go back to that post, you’ll notice I never responded to Chris’s criticism. That’s because every time I tried to, I started laughing too hard. I am fairly sure the shades of Dorothy Parker and Oscar Wilde would be on my side on this one.

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April, fools

How can you do an April Fools’ Day prank when every day, reality surpasses satire? “Vice President Dubs Health Care Reform ‘A Big Fucking Deal.'” “Oscar Winner for Heartwarming Film about Inter-Racial Friendship Dumped for Neo-Nazi Mistress.” “Thousands of American Refuse to Answer ‘Invasive’ Census Questions While Posting Drunken Pictures of Selves on Facebook.” “Rod Blagojevich to Be Contestant on ‘The Apprentice.'”

As they say, you couldn’t make this stuff up. So I’m sympathetic, overall, to people who fall for hoaxes or rumors at first. (No sympathy for those who run to e-mail everyone they know about it without first checking on snopes.com.)

But today, I thought I’d share my favorite with you, and this, I promise, is not made up. I’m not messing with you.

Back in 2000, The Onion — a satirical newspaper parody — published an article entitled “Harry Potter Books Spark Rise In Satanism Among Children.”

Shortly after, Readers’ Digest published an article about J.K. Rowling. Reader response was positive, except for one woman who wrote:

“I am shocked that Reader’s Digest would put someone like J.K. Rowling on the cover without more investigation about what she really believes. Harry Potter is doing much to further the evil in this world through spells and incantations. It saddens me that parents prefer to look the other way when something is ‘popular.'”

This is where it gets awesome, though. Because a few months later, this same woman — Laurie Rice of Athens, Georgia — wrote back to Readers’ Digest with this gem:

I was angered you did not print my entire comments on Harry Potter (“You Said It”, February) and left important points out. I made these comments because I read an article from theonion.com quoting J.K. Rowling. These concerns need to be publicized. She is an admitted Satan worshipper. There has been an increase in 14 million children into the church of Satan as a result of these books.

The editors responded:

We hope you’ll be relieved to learn theonion.com is actually the website for a satirical newspaper, with a readership of five million. The article you read was a spoof — unfortunately passed along as a fact by countless people. Even Christianity Today calls the Harry Potter series “a Book of Virtues with a pre-adolescent funny bone,” containing “wonderful examples of compassion, loyalty, courage, friendship, and self-sacrifice.” — Eds.

I hope you agree with me that the editors’ response was a perfect blend of snark and politesse. Because you know perfectly well that Ms. Rice would not be relieved to learn this. It’s not as though you or I thought that our laptops were being recalled, and then found out that in fact, they weren’t. Ms. Rice wanted to believe that Harry Potter is evil, and I’m sure she was very, very disappointed to have her “evidence” debunked.

What do you think the odds are that she found some brand new “evidence” right quick-like to support that which she wanted to believe anyway?

Happy April! Fool the day!

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The conundrum of the witty retort

I wanted to hold up a comment made by occhiblu in response to my Sunday column, in which I suggested “confessing” to one’s barista that you’ve been seeing other coffee shops. occhiblu wrote:

I think most people think of “witty retort” as one that puts down the other person; it’s nice to see one suggested that lets the other person in on the joke.

Yes! This is exactly it. Long-time readers know my frustration with the request for a “witty retort” to shut someone down. (You know who was really good at witty comebacks? Dorothy Parker and Oscar Wilde. Check out how life ended up for them sometime.) But of course I do recommend humor, and often. Thanks, occhiblu, for finally putting that distinction into words for me.

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Southern lessons

Last week we went to Tupelo’s with some friends. Tupelo’s, as the geographically astute among us might have figured out, specializes in Southern cuisine and it is indeed all that. (And reasonably priced, Boston locals take note.) However authentic the food and drink may be, however, the wait staff is distinctly New England.

One of our friends, who is from the South herself, decided to give our delightful Italian waiter some lessons to expand his Southern repertoire beyond “you all.” I’m not sure if my friend has had server experience herself, but she focused her language lesson on the art of the hidden insult, the deployment of which surely everyone who works with the public would find a soothing balm to their psyche.

The phrase she taught him was “Bless his/her heart.” This, apparently, is a codicil to conversation that will alert one’s fellow Southerner that one does not, in fact, approve of the individual whose heart has just been blessed. As in, “My sister in law certainly does love her Yankee Swap,* bless her heart,” or a simple, “Ahmedinejad, bless his heart.” Our waiter seemed to like this a lot, and I wonder how many “Of course we can substitute olive oil for bacon drippings, bless your heart”s he’ll be muttering in days to come.

(*The mere existence of the Yankee Swap ought to be enough to convince anyone that the South, despite its iron-fist-in-velvet-glove reputation, has not entirely cornered the market on sweet-seeming passive aggression.)

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Lessons from a Dan: Listening

This is something I meant to post about after our trip to the Genoa Science Festival last year. Alas. At any rate, this year was the third time Mr. Improbable has been to the festival, and both this year and last, our sword-swallower friend Dan Meyer has come with us to be part of the show.*

Dan, who used to be happy just speaking Danish and feeding his wallaby, is fairly good with languages. Last year, when he came down to join us, he’d taken a nine-hour train ride from one of the northern countries. And he experienced the situation we all dread being caught in: nine hours next to a loud, dysfunctional, argumentative family.

So many times we can’t change the situation that we are in, but can only control our response to it. Dan decided that since the family was Italian, and he was bound for Italy anyway, he’d take the opportunity to eavesdrop himself into linguistic competence. Whenever he could identify a discrete word, he’d look it up, make a note of it, and practice it. By the time he arrived in Genoa, he had enough of a working vocabulary to be able to acquire more. I’m sure Dan might have preferred peace and quiet on his train ride, but if the opportunity to learn some Italian was on offer, he wasn’t going to turn it down.

*Dan won the 2007 Ig Nobel Medicine Prize along with Dr. Brian Witcombe for their report, “Sword Swallowing and Its Side Effects.”

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Marine etiquette

This blog post on the New York Times, by a returning Marine, is a fascinating read. The traditional narrative of the returning soldier’s readjustment tends to follow one of two lines: either that of a person so damaged by the horrors of war that they have been rendered unfit for life in polite society, or that of a person whose sense of discipline and honor is so refined that they are repelled by civilian sloppiness and laziness. This post is neither. Entitled “Let Me Get Right to the Point,” it focuses primarily on the difference in communication style between civilians and the military — and the different philosophical assumptions that underlie those differences:

One of the biggest changes I’ve undertaken has been relaxing my communication style. The Marine Corps values clear, direct, and accurate communication. Senior officers have little tolerance for meandering around your point, and they have zero tolerance for trivial or deceptive nonsense. Junior Marines are similar, except they can perceive this better than most field grade officers. I’ve learned that in civilian life many people want to banter about nothing for about 90 seconds before discussing anything of substance. I don’t necessarily like it, but now I can handle it.

At the root of the issue is that I strive to employ the Golden Rule: I treat people as I want to be treated. I do not want anyone to waste my time, so I try to be extremely respectful of others’ time.

There is much more in the article, but there’s so much to unpack just in those two brief bits!

For one thing, note that the communication style that the author, Jeffrey Barnett, considers respectful, many people and cultures (from national cultures to corporate ones) would consider distinctly rude. Even within the same city — Boston — and the same industry — academia — I have noticed this difference. I went to graduate school at Boston University and worked at Harvard during my last years of grad school, and in general, when dealing with the administrative staff, I tended toward Mr. Barnett’s mode. “Hello, Payroll Person. You clearly have several hundred other problems to solve, so I will present mine as concisely as possible and do my best to give you all the information you need, but no more, so that you may get on with your work.” Then I taught at wee little Emmanuel College for two years, and quickly realized that big-bureaucracy etiquette was not the same thing as small-community etiquette. At the big schools, you showed respect to Payroll Person by not wasting their time; at Emmanuel, you showed respect with a little small talk to acknowledge that they weren’t only Payroll Person, they were Sam or Betty, and had their own life outside of Payroll, thank you very much.

(This may have been slightly complicated by the fact that I was faculty at EC, instead of a lowly grad student or fellow administrator, and therefore very much needed to avoid copping Faculty Attitude. But I think the size had more to do with it, because you see the same difference in small towns versus big ones.)

The directness and clarity of the military, the strength of its culture, is part of why it has excelled, as an institution, at integrating people from many different ethnic groups and walks of life. The identity of “Marine” overrides that of race, creed, or color. And there must be a certain comfort to knowing so clearly how you are supposed to communicate, and why, and who is in charge of what at all times. I wrote recently about how, although I am neurotypical, moving around a lot as a kid gave me the same sense that people with Asperger’s have that the social world is mysterious and unknowable. Maybe this is part of why in high school I was considerably tempted to join Naval Junior ROTC, despite my manifest unsuitability for military life. The idea of a culture where the rules were explicit and clear, and where social status was indicated by clearly marked rank rather than shifting tides of popularity, seemed awfully soothing to me.

Please go read the post, and let me know your thoughts on it. I’ve been unable to get it out of my head for days, which is probably why it took me so long to get it on my blog — I couldn’t decide what of the essay’s many riches I wanted to focus on.

I’ll only mention one more, which is a particular pet peeve of mine — flag etiquette! Mr. Barnett, please know that at least one civilian gets it. I don’t know why it bothers me so, but people who own a flag and do not follow the flag code drive me nuts. It’s more respectful of the flag to burn it in protest (which acknowledges its power as a symbol) than to leave a battered flag out in the rain, or keep a flag out 24 hours a day without lights. I’m not saying one should necessarily respect the flag, but presumably, if you are displaying one, you do, so why not do it right? I’m particularly irritated by the soi-disant patriots with their sad, tattered antenna flags and ratty post-9/11 bumper stickers. Perhaps “These Colors Don’t Run,” but they do fade, so think about the message you’re sending, eh?

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Dealing with difficult people

Before yesterday’s appearance, I wrote up some notes about dealing with difficult people–both in general, and a few specific varieties. Here’s the 411, since I didn’t get to deliver it all on the TEEvee:

Some general advice for dealing with difficult people:

1. Dilute them! If you are obliged to entertain someone you don’t much care for, invite them to group events–or activities with the emphasis on activity.
2. Reinforce the behaviors you want and ignore the ones you don’t. Giving in to whining, flattery, bullying, etc. is tempting, but makes it more likely that the person will continue in their bad behavior.
3. If you decide to confront someone, present the situation as a problem for both of you to solve together, and be willing to make compromises in your own behavior.
4. Pick your battles. Not everyone is going to be pleasing to you in all ways at all times. Learn to not be easily annoyed.
5. Getting along well with difficult people is a marketable skill. Developing a reputation as someone who can handle tricky, temperamental people can be a great help in your career.

Some particular types …

The socially overbearing spouse/significant other of a good friend. Don’t try to socialize as couples if you can’t stand a friend’s worse half. Instead, get together in large groups–or else get together with your friend sans spouses. When entertaining Beauty and the Beast is unavoidable, let it enhance your appreciation of your own marriage.

The know-it-all new co-worker. You could let the obnoxious new kid fall on their face–and maybe they’ll need to once or twice before they listen to you. Rather than hazing a workplace newcomer, even–or especially–if they’re getting off on the wrong foot, become their mentor. Help them navigate your workplace culture, and translate their ideas and perspectives.

The overly helpful neighbor. Some people just can’t help themselves–they want to bring a casserole to your carefully planned sushi brunch, tell you about the new supplement that’s supposed to be so good for people with that medical condition you wish you hadn’t told them you had, help you plant tulip bulbs whether you like tulips or not. These folks only want to be helpful, and you can’t block their energy–but you can redirect it. Ask them specifically for the kind of help or advice you do want–and if you truly don’t want anything at all, then ask them for the favor of a listening, nonjudgmental ear.

The nosy in-law. The only way to put off a barrage of nosy questions is with good-natured, laughing stubbornness and a refusal to give in, ever. When are you going to have children? They’ll be among the first to know! How much rent are you paying? Enough but not too much, thanks! Make sure your spouse is on the same page with this tactic. (“Why do you want to know?” is usually a good response to a nosy question, but you can’t use it with family, because they will TELL YOU.)

The one-upper.
You went to Cape Cod; SHE went to Paris. You are thinking of getting a Prius; SHE is moving to a yurt in Montana. You can’t beat the one-upper at her own game; the only thing to do, really, is to enjoy and applaud the gusto with which she plays it. Because ultimately, these people aren’t competing with you, but with some unattainable image of themselves.

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Crying “Tori!”

So, yesterday, a friend of mine mentioned on Facebook that Hoda Kotb was on vacation and Tori Spelling was guest-hosting with Kathie Lee.

Imagine my shock when I got to the studio today and saw–Tori Spelling. In fact, when I saw her in the dressing room, I vaguely thought, “Wow, that chick kinda looks like Tori Spelling. Pretty funny, considering what my friend said.”

Because this friend–if she’s anything like she used to be in high school, when last, pre-Facebook, I knew her–is entirely the kind of person who would make something like that up just to rattle me. It never even occurred to me that she was telling the truth.

I have another, similar, story about a mischief-making friend who told me something shocking and improbable that turned out to be true, and because I was so sure that he was making it up, I very nearly committed a horrible faux pas.* If you’re my friend, you probably know this story; if not, it involves too many innocent parties for me to write about.

But have you ever done this? Discounted a true statement because a friend was such a joker? Or do I have an unusually high percentage of friends who like to play mild practical jokes of this sort?

Or do I have an unusually suspicious nature?

*Frankly, if I’d said what I almost did, it would have blasted through the atmosphere of “faux pas” and gone faster than light into the deep space of “dick move,” it would have been so bad.

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Yes, we have no bambinos

We’ve been talking a while now about awkward questions and the difficulties they’ve posed. How about some success stories?

What are difficult questions you’ve found a good answer to?

Here’s one I’ve finally figured out an answer to: “Do you have children?”

Why is this awkward? As I’ve mentioned, I’m childless by choice, and I wasn’t even offended when I was asked to explain how I could possibly feel that way. So it’s not that I think the question is invasive, or rude, or hurtful in any way.

It’s just awkward because the answer is “No.”

And I hate answering questions “No” with no followup. I’ve had too much theater training to do that. There’s a rule in improv called “yes-and”: the idea being that you never stonewall your partner’s attempt to connect. You agree, and then take things in a new direction. Like so:

When I was starting out in Chicago, doing improvisational theatre with Second City and other places, there was really only one rule I was taught about improv. That was, “yes-and.” In this case, “yes-and” is a verb. To “yes-and.” I yes-and, you yes-and, he, she or it yes-ands. And yes-anding means that when you go onstage to improvise a scene with no script, you have no idea what’s going to happen, maybe with someone you’ve never met before. To build a scene, you have to accept. To build anything onstage, you have to accept what the other improviser initiates on stage. They say you’re doctors—you’re doctors. And then, you add to that: We’re doctors and we’re trapped in an ice cave. That’s the “-and.” And then hopefully they “yes-and” you back. You have to keep your eyes open when you do this. You have to be aware of what the other performer is offering you, so that you can agree and add to it. And through these agreements, you can improvise a scene or a one-act play.

Obviously, in real life, you don’t have to answer “Yes-and” to every question literally. (“Do you have a moment for the environment?” “Yes, and I’m not going to waste it talking to you!”) But you do, if you want to be a successful conversationalist, have to give someone something back when they hand you a question, some other peg to hang the conversation on.

“I like your scarf.” “Thanks, I got it in New York. Do you get down to the city much?”

“What do you do?” “I’m a nuclear physicist. And I coach my kids’ soccer on the weekend. Do you ever play?”

“Do you have children?” “Yes, two. And I’m just trying to get our oldest into a good day school. You wouldn’t believe the paperwork!”

See, all those answers give the other person somewhere to go, conversationally, in a way that a flat, factual answer just won’t. Especially if the answer is “no.”

And I’ve never found anything to stick on the end of that “no” when the question is about kids. Sometimes you can stick the actual reason on the end of the “no”: you say, “Are you taking any trips this summer?” and they say, “No, we’re trying to save money,” and then you talk money-saving tips. But I’m not going to offer, unsolicited, my reasons for not having kids, especially to someone I’ve just met who does have them, because yeesh.*

The ConductMom sometimes responds, when people ask her if she has grandchildren, that Mr. Improbable and I are very involved in our careers and travel a lot. This is true, but that isn’t why we don’t have children. If we’d wanted them, we’d figure out ways to juggle our other commitments, just as other parents do. Besides, I’m uncomfortable with painting a picture of us as so ambitious and driven that we’ve sacrificed parenthood on the altar of Mammon. (Especially given the modest Mammon we’re bringing in; if it were a sacrifice, we wuz robbed.) We didn’t not have kids in order to do some other thing, and I don’t want to present it that way. (Although the ConductMom can deal with that question however she likes; I’m not criticizing her, only explaining why her solution doesn’t work for me.)

When we got Milo, I immediately considered and rejected the “No, but we have a dog!” This implies that dogs are child substitutes, which is a notion that as a responsible dog lover I think is incredibly dangerous. Milo is not a child substitute because 1) he is not a child, and 2) he is not a substitute. A substitute is something that takes the place of some other, desired, thing. I don’t want kids, so Milo is no substitute for them. It’s also insulting to parents to compare children and pets. (In some ways, anyway. I talk about what you can and can’t say in that regard in the pets chapter of Mind over Manners.)

But my little guy did come to my rhetorical rescue after all, when I realized I didn’t have to compare Milo to a child–I could compare dog-owner me with potential-mommy me instead. So now, my usual response is, “No, and it’s a good thing! As bad as I spoil my dog and bore my friends with stories about him, I would be insufferable if I actually had my own children!”

This is self-deprecating but not self-insulting, not anti-child or -parenthood, honest, and provides a lot of areas for the conversation to go afterward (sharing dog/kid stories, sharing stories about friends or relatives who won’t shut up about their kid or dog, etc.).

So thanks, Milo. You really are the gift that keeps on giving.

What are awkward conversations that you’ve found good answers to?

*Although I’ve never gotten grief about my choice from an actual mother of children still living at home. Moms, more than anyone, get that bearing and raising kids is incredibly difficult, and far too great a responsibility to be undertaken out of a vague sense that having kids is just what people do. The most common response I’ve gotten from mothers if I mention I don’t want kids isn’t, “Oh, but you’re missing out on nature’s greatest miracle!”, it’s “Well, good for you! Being a parent is so hard no one should do it unless they absolutely want to 110%.”

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