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Travel

The question that tests diplomacy: ‘How was your vacation?’

DANIEL SANNUM LAUTEN/AFP/Getty Images (left) and Gustave Dore/istockphoTO (right)

I faced a quandary. A few years ago, my family and I found ourselves staying in the same Tel Aviv hotel as Justin Bieber (we came upon him pouting near the breakfast room). When we returned home, it was to the expected question: “How was Israel?” But here was my problem. If I started with the Bieber brush, I’d sound really shallow. But if I didn’t mention our proximity to the global star until the end, people wondered why I’d buried the lead.

The art of the debrief was on my mind recently because we went to Israel again, and again when I returned everyone dutifully asked, “How was it?” I could see their gaze heading toward their iPhones as I launched into a description of an exotic nighttime trip to the tomb of Samuel, the prophet. Then, almost to a person they’d suddenly snap awake. “You went to Israel before, didn’t you? You saw Justin Bieber.”

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We’d share a superior chuckle about the singer, and move onto other topics. But it left me wondering about the best way to respond to a question no one really wants answered.

Lauren Beckham Falcone , the WROR personality, borrowed from the late Gore Vidal to get right to the point: “Every time a friend takes a great trip, a part of me dies.”

With her own jealousy issues in mind, she came up with rules: “Don’t talk about the 20 massages you got or the seaside accommodations. Mention weight gain. Make it sound horrible.”

In Falcone’s view, the best answer leaves the other person feeling “triumphant.” But she’s working with an advantage. Because she usually rises at 3 a.m. for her gig on the Loren & Wally Morning Show, she simply plays up the fact that her vacation allowed her to sleep past 6 a.m. “People walk away thinking, ‘Jeez, if that’s all she did, mine was better,’ ” she said.

Jodi R. R. Smith , an etiquette consultant in Marblehead, said the trick is to know your audience, for reasons of both “depth and duration.”

‘[Posting photos and anecdotes on Facebook] . . . gives people the cathartic experience of having shared information, without anyone having to listen.’

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“So a friend asks about your vacation, you tell her the whole story. You include when your hubby got tipsy and hit on the waitress, how a kid had an allergic reaction to the sunscreen, and you spent a day in the dirtiest ER you have ever seen, and your full review of the ‘Shades’ trilogy that you read by the pool.”

She contrasted that with the way to answer the boss as she breezes by in the hallway. “You tell her ‘fabulous’ and keep moving.”

Entire books have been written on bad trips, but if whining isn’t entertaining, Smith says, no one wants to hear it. “If there is a great ending to the bad vacation story, then regale us. Otherwise, pick on one good thing from the disaster and share just that.”

Of course, no discussion of the downside of other people’s vacations is complete without talking about Facebook. While they can trigger feelings of intense personal doubt in the staycation crowd, the relentless beach shots and clambake close-ups do serve one purpose, said Marie Morris, who, as a travel-book writer, has heard more vacation stories than most people could comfortably tolerate.

“One of the good things about the ability to post photos and anecdotes on Facebook is that it gives people the cathartic experience of having shared information, without anyone having to listen,” said Morris, author of the forthcoming “Frommer’s Boston Day by Day.”

“In person,” she said, “you have to nod and be polite. There’s no way to say, ‘I’m not interested in the experience you had at the Holiday Inn in Crested Butte, Colo.’”

With that in mind, maybe it’s time to call a truce and eliminate the question. In a better world, when someone returns from a trip the person who’s stayed in town will simply hold aloft a foam version of Facebook’s shallow sign of support, the thumb’s up.

Unless, of course, there was a Bieber spotting. Then we want to hear all about it.

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.
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