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The Boston Globe

Magazine

Miss Conduct

Keeping up appearances

Advice on chin hairs and unzipped flies, plus how to dodge questions about your health history.

Illustration by Lucy Truman

> A lovely lady with whom I work and who, like me (another lady), is at the age where eyes aren’t reliable, has a chin hair. I suspect she doesn’t know of its existence. Do I tell her? I’d be mortified if someone told me, but I’d want to know. What’s the etiquette on telling people about spinach in the teeth, a run in the hose, a hair where it shouldn’t be?  

L.H. / Shawnee, Kansas  

The fact that you yourself are une femme d’un certain age makes the situation with your co-worker manageable. The next time you find yourselves sprucing up in the ladies room at the same time — an easily arranged coincidence — you glance over at her while touching up your own lipstick, frown a bit, and say, “Do you have a smudge on your chin?” and then natter on about the nuisances of office lighting and aging eyes as she discreetly investigates. If she claims not to see anything, agree that it was your mistake. (Place a bet with yourself and get a cupcake with your morning coffee if the hair is gone tomorrow.) If she cries, “Oh, my God, a chin hair!” then you, of course, happen to have a tweezer or brow razor in your bag for when your own unwanted hairs, which should most definitely exist in this conversation even if never in your follicles, erupt.

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I’m U.F.d.’u.C.A. myself, and it’s in the spirit of that sisterhood that I offer my advice. In general, such hairy conversations (I’m sorry, already) are best avoided unless you are in a job or a situation where appearances are crucial.

For less intimate imperfections — unzipped flies, garnished teeth, laddered stockings — speak up bluntly but quietly if the person can fix the problem (as is the case with the first two but perhaps not the last one) and if she or he is going into the board meeting, not coming out of it.

 

> I stopped working a year ago due to severe depression. I am beginning to recover, but I can’t come up with good answers for well-meaning questions about work and what I am “up to” from acquaintances. Any ideas on how to gently stop this line of questioning?

A.B. / Cambridge

“I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you,” said with a laugh, and then: “Seriously, I don’t know what I’m up to these days. I’d rather not talk about myself. Are you putting in a garden this year?” will put a cork in it without giving offense. Unfortunately, that still leaves the well-meaning acquaintance wondering what is up with you, and it is from this rich peat that gossip grows.

A better response might be “I’ve been dealing with some health problems” — in a tone that clearly conveys “which are far too dreary to discuss, dahlink” — “but I’m thinking about [insert project on which interlocutor will have opinion here]. What do you think?” The project can be anything from getting a kitten to applying to MBA programs to starting a wine blog — whatever might be fun for the fully recovered A.B. to pursue. Use these conversations as a chance to visit some possible futures, to fuel your imagination. If you are still too gripped in depression’s claws to even think of what you might enjoy once “enjoy” becomes a more viable proposition, dust off some high school hobbies and ambitions for conversational — and constructive daydream — fodder.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology.NEED MISS CONDUCT’S HELP? Write to her at missconduct@globe.com. And read her blog at boston.com/missconduct.
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