A polite correction

June 16th, 2011

A reader writes:

I know how you feel about correcting others’ grammar, but I’ve been noticing a particular recurring mistake for years. I just need to get it off my chest, as it always immediately distracts me from what you’re writing. (I’ve read both your blogs and your column for as long as you’ve written them.) You write “here’s” or “there’s” when the construction should be plural (“here are” or “there are”). A recent example is your use of “Here’s palettes…” in the entry of 4/13/2011.

Obviously I mostly enjoy your writing, or else I wouldn’t continue to read. I just hope you might be more mindful of this in the future.

Thank you! This is an apt correction, politely delivered. My subjects and verbs may not always agree, but I can’t argue with what this writer points out. I will try to be more aware of here’ses and there’ses in my writing. (I suspect the problem has to do with finishing a different sentence on the screen than I had begun writing in my head.) And correcting the writer of a public blog is different than interrupting a friend in the middle of a dramatic or comedic tale in order to nitpick her grammar.

[I do, however, continue to reserve the right to use "they" as a singular when necessary. I realize it's technically incorrect, but it seems more natural and euphonious than alternatives. So don't bother trying to reform me on that.]

My friend will put me out of business

May 26th, 2011

My friend Jennifer House wrote this the other day:

I am thinking of going into business – creating greeting cards for shy neighbors.

“Are your enthusiastically amorous neighbors keeping you up at night?”
Poetic ANSWER – slip this under their door:

“Life without love is no life at all —but please move your headboard away from the wall.”

I’m a good advice columnist, but I’m no poet. Jennifer is.

Exile, fandom, acne, hair, dance

April 25th, 2011

And I’m back, everyone! The break was nice, although I never had any sort of great Passover-y moment of revelation. One thing I found myself thinking of a lot was the people who were born and died during those 40 years in the wilderness, who had no memory of Egypt and didn’t live long enough to see the Promised Land. I’ve never greatly identified with Moses — the Lord is always sayething unto him, for one thing, and the Lord doesn’t sayeth unto me very often, if at all. But those cynical Gen-Xers of Exodus, tired of the Greatest Generation’s war stories, wondering if they’re anything to hope for, really … them, I get.

Some good reading from last week: this article in the Globe about fandom. It focuses on sports fans, but many of the dynamics are true of fans of anything else (a celebrity, a television show, a band) as well. Are you a “fan” of anything, to the point of buying a t-shirt, following someone on Twitter, or joining a group (online or off) for the purposes of discussing that thing? I’ve become a fairly avid fan of several television shows, most notably “Deadwood,” to the point of writing fan fiction and buying a “Star & Bullock Hardware” shirt.

A piece in Slate on why humans are the only animals to have acne, and also the only ones that would be psychologically bothered by it. (Evolution is a cruel trickster.) New treatments have made acne rarer among teens, but that very fact might increase the suffering of those who can’t afford treatment, or for whom nothing has been successful.

I was fascinated to read that blogger S.E. Smith recently cut her long hair very short, and found that she was darned near considered antisocial for wanting to keep it her business what she did with the ponytail. Specifically, she faced a lot of pressure to donate her hair, a practice which has gone from being a nifty option for people suddenly in possession of a braid no longer attached to their head, to becoming near-mandatory, the default option. The thing you have to explain if you don’t do it.

This bothers me. A great deal. Two years ago, I wrote about a New Yorker article on people who donate kidneys to strangers. My reaction to it then was strong and visceral, and has since become more focused. This notion of one’s body as a resource that may be owed to strangers is deeply problematic. As I wrote two years ago:

I would not donate a kidney to a stranger, nor do I feel any sense of a moral call to do so merely on the grounds that I could. My body and its functions are not some form of wealth that I am hoarding like Scrooge McDuck: they are constitutive of my identity. They are ME. And no one has an a priori right to my blood, my organs, my womb. I may choose to share, but that is my choice. Having two kidneys when others have none is not the same has having two loaves of bread when others have none. The body is different. I do not owe anyone access to my body.

As an etiquette matter, let’s all take note that “Did you donate your hair?” is a question better left unasked.

Finally, on a less existential note, let this hilarious pantomime/interpretive dance by David Armand brighten your Monday. I love this guy’s work! Am I the only one who finds brilliantly talented physical comedians way sexy? (See also: Danny Pudi.)

Direct communication

April 7th, 2011

I did an e-mail interview last week in which I was asked “to come up with a couple situations, in your experience, that don’t necessarily require the most polite response. It would also be great if you could comment on how to handle them … This small piece is going within a larger piece about etiquette, so we wanted to highlight the situations where you shouldn’t allow yourself to be walked all over.”

There was more to it than that, but this was the basic idea. Which I found a frustrating question, because I think that’s a misreading of what “politeness” is. Here’s what I wrote in response:

Politeness is always important, but you can assert yourself while being civil and kind about it. Some people think that “good manners” means being terribly euphemistic and fancy all the time, but it really doesn’t. A well-mannered person is a person who can change her style to suit the occasion. Here are some times when direct communication is the best:

1. When you are in charge. When you are the boss (whether at work, hosting a party, or running a community event), act like it. This doesn’t mean barking commands — but it does mean giving clear directives and feedback. You aren’t being “polite” by making other people read your mind or reassure you that you’re really in control.

2. When “subtle hints don’t work.” As an advice columnist, I am constantly amazed by the number of people who write to me about clueless co-workers, spouses, roommates, or neighbors, whose behavior drives the Letter Writer righteously batty, and who don’t pick up on “hints” to change.

If hinting doesn’t work, stop hinting! There’s nothing wrong with asking a co-worker not to microwave broccoli because the smell bothers you; or telling your spouse that silly as it may be, Valentine’s Day is important to you, so get some game next year; or asking a roommate not to use the last of your milk.

3. When the answer is “No.” A “no” can be final and commanding (to a pushy stranger at a bar) or sweet and regretful (to a friend who wants you to volunteer yet again to organize the school auction), but when “No” is the answer you need to give, give it. Apologize only if necessary, and never offer excuses.

Bye Bye 101

April 5th, 2011

A friend of mine, a very Distinguished Professor, posted the following on Facebook last week:

I went to a fine dinner at the Charles Hotel this evening, which, among other things was to recognize the outstanding [Distinguished Area of Study] students. I sat next to two of them, who seemed nice enough, but toward the end of the meal they just got up and walked out while I was talking to the person on my other side. Prize winning [Distinguished University] seniors need to learn to say Bye Bye

Obviously, my friend is right. And yet, why do I have a certain sympathy for the vanishing valedictorians? Perhaps they were arrogant, or self-absorbed, or oblivious to the needs of others. Or perhaps they were painfully self-conscious, and somehow — unconsciously, irrationally — believed that they could escape the evening without notice, despite the fact that it was in their honor.

Like the lady who hit my friend with the door, and who believed if she didn’t apologize, he might not notice.

I hate to admit it, but I have a streak of that in me. Just a tiny bit, enough to understand.

How about you?

Dining out etiquette

March 25th, 2011

I did a print interview for the WBUR “Public Radio Kitchen” blog, which appeared during Boston’s Restaurant Week (and which I just now found online). In it, I brought up the concept of “dining local,” given that local eating has become so fashionable. At times, I feel that Mr. Improbable and I are awfully boring, returning over and over to our favorite neighborhood haunts. But the sense of a local place, of a relationship between the diner and the, er, diner (I didn’t say we went to fancy haunts), gives the experience a home-like quality. When you’re in a place where they know your name, or at least your face, all food is comfort food.

Restaurant Week etiquette

March 8th, 2011

It’s Restaurant Week here in Boston, and I’m going to be doing a segment on the etiquette thereof on NECN tomorrow morning at 8:45 EST. Servers, bartenders, gentlefolk-about-town, restaurant owners — have you any advice, horror stories, heartwarming anecdotes, or tips to share?

Out of Egypt

February 1st, 2011

As I mentioned, one of my cousins and his wife are living in Cairo. They’re out safely now. Two of his brothers, in particular, were helpful in getting them out and finding places for them to stay. The rest of the siblings (there are a lot of cousins from that family) helped pass news along through Facebook. It was both touching and impressive to watch all of this play out online — the next time I’m confronted by Facebook haters, this story will be Exhibit A for why the technology can an exceptionally good way to keep in touch. The story also reminded me, in a smaller though infinitely more immediate way, of a post I wrote back in 2007, after I’d watched “Hotel Rwanda.” I said, in part,

One thing that has stuck with me since seeing the movie, however, is that Paul Rusesabagina, the movie’s hero, who in the movie and in life managed to save some twelve hundred Tutsis and moderate Hutus from slaughter–was able to do this, in large part, because he had good manners. Mr. Rusesabagina is no action hero, and no idealist, either. He is a man who knows how to finesse a situation. How to figure out quickly what motivates people, and use that knowledge to negotiate with them. How to bank favors against an uncertain future. How to restrain himself in the face of provocation. How to maintain dignity and grace, and extend that possibility to others.

Most of us, I hope, will never be faced with a crisis the likes of which Mr. Rusesabagina faced. But what he did should help us remember that the small skills of manners, self-restraint, intuition, empathy are not frills, moral accessories, to be put on when we are feeling the luxuries of time and emotional energy. They are essential tools that can save lives, literally and figuratively.

Apologizing with style

December 3rd, 2010

We all make mistakes. And sometimes, dreadfully, we have to be told of those mistakes by other people. It’s awkward to be the person who has to tell someone they’ve screwed up, and it’s worse to be the person who’s done it. But if both parties take to their roles with enthusiasm, grace, humor, and goodwill, the results can be … surprisingly delightful.

My Cousin Dan has a good relationship with his dentist and their whole office — he’s even personal friends with some of them. Cousin Dan, also, although an extremely organized person, can let things slip occasionally. Like bills. Like dental bills. As he wrote me yesterday:

Anyway, this is embarrassing, but I’m really overdue on a payment. Rather than turn it over to collections, they wrote me a letter and reminded me of the Christmas party…and that I’ve been a guest there before…and that without my payment, there will be no Christmas party this year for anyone..no merriment..and on and on.

He felt terrible, of course, but genuinely appreciated the fact that they gave him a chance to make it right on a personal level, not just a business one, and handled it with a humorous touch at that. “I think the only way to respond to this is to go to the office tomorrow, wearing a paper bag over my head, carrying the payment and an arrangement from Edible Arrangements,” he continued.

And so he did:

“I told him I couldn’t find sack cloth so the brown paper bag on my head would have to do.”

Now this is the way to call someone out, and to make amends. It’s the antithesis in spirit to the Lady Who Hit My Friend with the Door. I sent Cousin Dan a link to that piece, afterward, and he told me it’s long been one of his favorite things I ever wrote.

Guess it runs in the family.

More on taking offense …

October 27th, 2010

So, the whole taking-offense thing. Y’all kind of felt I sprung that on you out of nowhere, didn’t you? I could tell by the comments. Here’s a little more context for it, in terms of what I’ve been reading and thinking and talking with friends about:

1. The national conversation around bullying. The woman who wrote the essay I posted on Monday is a friend of mine from very long ago, and it is likely that I would have had much worse bullying-induced psychological problems than I already did had I not been friends with her. She managed to make being an outcast feel like being an outlaw. So when she writes “I think self-empowerment, for some people, is a daily struggle,” I remember when it was, for both of us.

2. The question of empowerment versus entitlement. This is a distinction I came up with last week, and that I’m writing about in a November column. Here’s the key parts:

How about, instead of feeling entitled, feeling empowered instead? Entitled people believe they deserve certain things, and if they don’t get them, they lash out, or withdraw, or complain. Empowered people believe they deserve certain things, and if they don’t get them, they do something about it.

All the world’s a stage. When an actor flubs a line in a play, his scene partner doesn’t just stand there, waiting for him to get it right, because she is entitled to get her correct cue. She jumps in and improvises, because she is empowered to do that by her skills and training. That’s what etiquette is for: not teaching us what we are entitled to get, but teaching us how we are empowered to get it.

That’s the kind of thing that when it occurs to you, it’s going to occupy your head for a while.

3. The Evelyn Evelyn controversy. Keeping this as simple as possible, “Evelyn Evelyn” is a musical act/band/character created by Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley. Evelyn Evelyn are supposedly conjoined twins (played by Amanda and Jason in a specially-constructed dress and matching wigs) with a lurid backstory. They performed at this year’s Ig Nobels, which is how I found out about all this.

Anyway, a lot of people are very upset about Evelyn Evelyn, and about Amanda’s response to them when they told her how upset they were. It’s a complicated story, and that’s as basic yet honest as I can make it; start with the linkspam and follow the trail from there, if you’re interested.

And I find that, somehow, an impossible conversation. There’s no doubt when you read the words of the people who are offended by Evelyn Evelyn that they are genuinely hurt. And Amanda is saying, in essence, “I realize what I’m doing is hurting you, and I’m going to continue doing it anyway.” You can frame the discussion in lots of ways, but on a basic human level, that is the conversation being had. (And because of the nature of the internet and Amanda Palmer’s fanbase, it is very much a conversation: this isn’t a question of an artist creating a work and a dispassionate critic analyzing it for their own audience.)

I had a conversation like that myself in the past year, a relationship-ending one, because a friend was often hurt by the things I wrote about, and I kept writing about them (although I censored myself more than I realized).


Anyway, those are some of the things that have been floating around my mind regarding the whole concept of taking offense. When people talk/write about taking offense, they usually focus on the nature of the offense. Is endorsing a religious prohibition against homosexuality a personal moral choice, or a public affront? Is Evelyn Evelyn really ableist or not? Is it rude to ask a woman if she colors her hair, Miss Conduct?

I’d like to look away from the question of the offenses themselves, and more at the process of taking offense. How can you do it in a way that leaves you feeling empowered? How do you make the call whether to take your offense public or not? What do you do when you hit a brick wall in discourse? What do you do when you are the offender?

A hard line on self-defense and not taking offense

October 25th, 2010

A friend of mine sent me a draft of the following, which I thought was so good I asked her if I could publish it here, and she sent me an edited version:

I had an exchange with a friend today about sensitivity. I get very tired of some people expecting everyone else to tread very lightly on any topic that could possibly cause offense. How am I supposed to know all of your past trauma? I certainly don’t expect others to know and circumvent mine. I don’t want people thinking they have to walk on eggshells around me. It reduces the authenticity of interaction, and I appreciate authenticity. Careful conversation between polite strangers is deadly dull.

My beloved grandmother died of Alzheimer’s (yes, Alzheimer’s does kill a person after a while). Does this mean I think Alzheimer’s jokes should be avoided by everyone because of the mere possibility that someone in the vicinity might have had a loved one die of Alzheimer’s? Even in the deepest, most violent throes of my grief, I did not react defensively about Alzheimer’s jokes. I was inconsolable, for one thing, so it’s not like my grief ever left my consciousness long enough to allow me to be painfully reminded, and, how are people to know, if they don’t already know? I refused to be that whiny attention whore who says, “Hey! My grandmother just died of Alzheimer’s! This disease is no laughing matter!”

I sometimes feel alienated and misunderstood when people assume that, like them, I am religious. I don’t like it, but what am I going to do? Assault them for assuming that I am like everyone else they know?

I also get peeved when people ask me how many children I have, and then criticize my decision to be child-free-by-choice, asserting that my life is empty and meaningless, and that I have missed the point of everything. However, most women have had children by my age. Either I am in the mood to deliver my standard lecture, or I am not. It really doesn’t matter either way. There are many other things that bother, offend, bore and upset me. Perhaps I guess I should keep cards with me to hand out at work and at bars so everyone knows what not to bring up around me, because I have no skin.

Here’s what I’ve decided after all these years:

If I give other people the power to unhinge my self-esteem and inner well-being with their remarks, that is my problem.

I recognize that there are traumatic circumstances which cause heightened sensitivity to remarks made by others, and there are certainly some traumatic events that are beyond the scope of this post. Before you think I am talking about those things, I am not. Within the range to which this post logically applies, however, I want to come out on strongly on the side of self-empowerment. I think part of the healing process is doing the work to empower yourself, to stand with yourself, and not grant others the authority to make you feel bad. If you are truly a champion for anything, you must be a champion for yourself. Don’t put the way you feel about your choices or your history in someone else’s hands.

Most people cannot spring out of bed and create a permanent change in their perceptions by proclaiming, “From this day forward I shall be 100% impervious to everything everyone else says to me EVER.” Personally, I often enjoy being irritated, because it gives me fodder for the complaining I do for the amusement of those who appreciate me. I think self-empowerment, for some people, is a daily struggle. So be it. I don’t think it makes life more enjoyable or less stressful for anyone when we all have to be so intensely careful around each other. My guess is, we really don’t have get so hung up on what other people are talking about, unless we want to, and that, my friends, may be the crux of the issue.

Part of the impetus for my friend’s writing was a post from The Rotund that I had Tweeted, about how to be a sensitive dieter at work. I think we’re looking at it from different sides; I recently got a question from a nutrition-conscious office worker who wanted to know how not to be “that person on a diet,” and The Rotund’s advice was a good answer to that.

But I’ve been trying to tease apart the issue of offense and when it is taken, and when it is not, for some time now. I’ll put my thoughts, which are much more inchoate than the above, up later in the week. In the meantime, what do you think of my friend’s approach?

Etiquette tip du jour

September 29th, 2010

From one of my most wonderfully cranky friends, as posted on Facebook:

Do your boss a favor, and forego the long, detailed description of each and every symptom you are suffering. Please also don’t fill her cube with the beleaguered exhalations of the afflicted, heavy with virus. Call or IM and GTFO.

Good call. I think my friend should write an etiquette book, too. She’s an extroverted misanthrope, whereas I am an introverted, um, pro-anthrope. We are the perfect yin/yang of social relations.

Miss Manners, again: Quote of the day

September 23rd, 2010

A friend of mine posted this quote by Judith Martin to my wall on Facebook:

“It is exceedingly rude for anyone to guess from a lady’s size that she is pregnant. Should your wife go into labor in front of Miss Manners, she would merely say, ‘My dear, whatever is the matter? Can I help you?’ (Eventually, of course, she would have to say, ‘Oh, look who’s here.’)”

The powerless are rude

August 19th, 2010

I’ve thought that for a while now. Rudeness doesn’t come from a place of strength. A person who feels empowered to affect their environment doesn’t need to be rude. Maybe they still will be, but the rudeness of the powerful is more likely to be thoughtlessness; they are too oriented to their own goals to pay enough attention to others.

Active rudeness, though, comes from the powerless. It’s their way of shoving back against a world that shoves them around every day. It’s why the voices of the poor are louder than the voices of the rich. It’s why the wealthy go to symphony and the poor blast Eminem. FUCK YOU. I AM HERE AND YOU WILL NOT IGNORE ME. Those who feel powerful don’t need to make that assertion. Of course they won’t be ignored. Their hourly rates or their books or the message that their groomed and well-clad bodies send ensure that.

To be courteous you have to feel strong. You have to believe that your words and actions affect others. (Remember the brilliant “30 Rock” when Liz goes to her high-school reunion, only to discover that the popular girls had actually been terrified of her and her sharp tongue? She’d assumed nothing her dorky self would say could have ever hurt them.) You have to believe that you have agency, that you can act, not merely react to circumstances. You have to believe that you have other ways of getting status and attention — which we all need — besides impinging on the physical or psychological space of others.

I’ve been thinking about that for a long time, and this article on Salon, about an unemployed man’s little compensatory ritual of rudeness, spurred me to put it into words.

A Facebook friend of mine recently posted the following quote by Anna Deavere Smith: “Grace is in how we treat each other when we could choose to exert power and we find another way.” I don’t know the context, so I don’t know if I agree with the statement or not, but I think it’s a lot easier to be graceful when you have access to legitimate avenues of power.

People who don’t get listened to start to scream.

People who aren’t given enough space start to push.

People who get cut out of the main action will start their own. And you may not like it.

What are your thoughts?

To the man who stopped to let us cross the street

August 10th, 2010

… thank you.

Today, I decided to combine Milo’s morning walk with a trip to the library to return a book. This meant that I was juggling, in addition to Milo’s gear, a rather weighty hardback.* So I appreciated your stopping to let us cross the street.

I gave you my usual thank-you wave, and only subsequently realized that because of all the things I was carrying, I waved at you with the hand that was holding a fat, bright blue poop bag.

Although I am not an anthropologist, I am a social scientist, and I do not know of any cultures in which waving dog excrement at someone’s face is a sign of friendly gratitude. That is, however, the spirit in which it was intended.

I hope you understand.

*The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, if you’re interested. It’s remaindered now for less than the amount of the fines I have undoubtedly racked up on it. It’s a bit of a slow read.