> How on earth does one politely respond to the sanctimommy who brags that her kids are going trick-or-treating and get a pillowcase full of candy and then the “Candy Fairy” will let them eat one piece and trade the rest for a nice coloring book? I try to let it go in one ear and out the other, but if I absolutely have to say something, what should it be? I’d like to ask why it’s OK to lie to your kids so you don’t look like the bad guy, but that tends to be frowned upon.
D.I. / San Diego
A useful response to anyone who advocates a course of action that you find implausible is “How does that work out for you?” Another good response is “What made you think to do that?” (Say it as though you think “that” is at least a halfway reasonable idea; putting the emphasis on “do” instead of “that” should do the trick.) The advantage of both of these questions is that it might be the case that you’re the dim one in the conversation and the other person has a simply brilliant plan that you didn’t understand, in which case further elaboration will clue you in. If your skepticism is warranted, however, you’ve just given your interlocutor enough room to hang herself with. Either outcome is desirable.
In this particular situation, I would like to ask her what she’ll do with the remaining pillowcase-minus-one of candy. Eat it herself? Dispense it to the kids throughout the year as positive reinforcement? Throw it away? If she does the last, does she also recommend that other parents do as she does? If so, wouldn’t trick-or-treating turn into a kind of symbolic sacrifice of candy, as the wee ghosts and goblins first redeem, then destroy their toothsome prizes? Closer to the true spirit of Halloween, perhaps, but it does seem wasteful.
But, of course, those questions wouldn’t be polite either, any more than asking her why she lies to her children would be. Which brings us to an interesting way to distinguish between a bad plan and a good one: Can you ask specific follow-up questions without appearing rude?
> Could you clarify proper etiquette for giving someone a house tour? When someone is invited to my house for the first time, should I offer a tour or only give one if asked? It seems like showing off to offer a tour.
T.B. / Boston
What an excellent question as we approach the season of entertaining and family visits.
The house tour has two purposes, utilitarian and expressive. A host should show guests the rooms that are relevant to them and explain any dos or don’ts – “Help yourself to the beer in the refrigerator” or “The hot-water faucet sticks.” It’s acceptable to indicate what rooms are off-limits, too. Your guests will be relieved to know that they’re not going to walk in on your teenager in the bathroom and to realize that when you come over they can lock all the laundry and the bad-tempered cat in the spare bedroom and forbid you entry. If someone is staying overnight or longer, take them through the entire house.
That’s as much house tour as you have to give. If you want to show folks around more (guests are not supposed to ask for a tour), you should. Think of it as show and tell, not showing off. Homes don’t just say what we have, they say who we are. Your home can give you a chance to introduce your interests and history to guests. Customize your tours to your guests’ interests; don’t always give the same speech. If your tour sparks conversation – about art, travel, gardening, child-raising, cooking, whatever passion or preoccupation is reflected in your home and in your visitor alike – you’re doing it right.
Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology.
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