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Miss Conduct

Advice on explaining a school decision

Talking about why the public school wasn’t right for you.

> I am a student who recently transferred to a small private school even though my town has a prestigious public school ranked among the top in the nation. Every time I mention where I go, people express dismay about my choice. The truth (which I would rather not share with anyone who asks) is that I transferred because I was very unhappy in my former school. Is there a way to deflect such comments?

J.W. / Lexington

There is indeed, and you can make friends and influence people while you do it.

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It’s called “narrative management,” which sounds like a consultant’s way of saying “lying your garters off.” But what it means is telling your story in a way that makes sense to other people and protects your own privacy and psyche. The next few years of your life will give you plenty of experience in narrative management, what with college essays and job interviews and friendly nosy people at graduations and holidays. The fact that you’ve got a story to work on now, for practice, isn’t a bad thing.

People who do the thing that seems logical to most folks, like going to the excellent nearby public school, don’t have to explain why. If you leave your job for another one in the same field making 25 percent more money, no one will ask you why. If you leave a thriving law practice to study horticulture, you’ll need a story.

When they’re telling their stories, most people think only of themselves: the star of the show. The secret ninjas of storytelling, however, create a role for the audience.

This is what you need to do when people ask why you chose Benjamin Franklin Private Academy over John Q. Public School. You feel put on the spot and forced to confess your unhappy past, but the person who is asking you why you chose BFP doesn’t know that. Chances are, that person is feeling slightly defensive because, hey, JQP is good enough for her kid, so what exactly are you saying? (No, people shouldn’t get prickly at the personal choices of others, but they often do, so you may as well deal with it.) This puts you in an excellent position to recast both of your roles. Instead of playing Misfit Teen and Defensive Parent, you can play Wise Sophisticates together. Like so:

Random Person: “Why don’t you go to John Q. Public, where the SATs are as high as an elephant’s eye?”

You: “Aren’t we lucky to live in an area with so many choices? JQP is great and I [envy the variety of electives/think the library is awesome/something else to indicate sincere appreciation]. But I’m at a place where I felt comfortable in a smaller school, and BFP is only 200 students. Right now, though, I’m trying to decide whether I want to go big or small on colleges. Where did you go to college? Did you like it?”

This little story does quite a few jobs: It reassures the listener that you respect his choices and judgment. It posits your decision to attend BFP as an informed choice based on your private emotions, not on JQP’s inferiority. It also posits that decision as a done deal and invites the Random Person to give advice, if he feels the need, on a choice that is in your future rather than your past. Good luck!

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a 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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