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Miss Conduct

Accidental intrusion

Overhearing difficult conversations at work. Plus, gifts for the once and future married.

Lucy Truman

> I recently walked into the break room to find a tearful colleague (with whom I am friendly but not friends) telling another that her daughter is very ill. Feeling awkward, I walked past them, quietly got some tea, and quickly left. Am I horrible for not stopping to share some kind words? Or would it have been rude to intrude?

D.P. / Andover

How miserable for all of you! It’s one of those no-fault awkward situations in which everyone feels bad even though no one has done anything wrong. Most of us have participated in this little three-person drama at some point or another, and everyone can empathize with all three parts. Your role as the inadvertent intruder, of course. And Penny Teller, not even intending to discuss it that day, but then Lois Listener came up and it all just came out in one long hiccuping breath. Or we’ve been Lois, sympathizing and anxiously aware that the sales meeting is ending and will be invading the break room shortly, and can we get Penny out of there gently before that happens?

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When real life cuts into the social dance we can all lose our footing. We generally forgive each other for this, and should forgive ourselves as well.

The best — or least bad, anyway — thing to have done in your position was to slip away, as you did. Maybe in the South this would be wrong, but in reserved New England we show respect by giving people their privacy, or at least the illusion thereof. We also show respect through common sense, which means not insulting Penny’s intelligence by pretending you didn’t hear what you obviously did. Don’t accost her by surprise, though, which can bring all the emotions up again. Talk to her at the end of the workday, when she’ll have her commute to compose her thoughts, or e-mail or leave a note on her desk that she can open when she is more collected. Offer your condolences and tell her your thoughts (and prayers, if appropriate) are with her, and apologize for your inadvertent eavesdropping. I said you didn’t do anything wrong, and you didn’t, but apologizing is a tactful code for “I’m not going to gossip about this to anyone else.” Afterward, be your usual friendly but not overly solicitous self with Penny.

> My cousin, who is in her early 60s, has decided to remarry her ex-husband in an elaborate ceremony that I am happy to attend. My question is about a gift. I was thinking of a nice card and possibly a donation made in their names. I don’t want to get caught with my etiquette pants down, however!

E.B. / Boston

Etiquette pants! You said “etiquette pants,’’ and for that I think I love you. So many people do seem to be walking around these days with their etiquette pants showing half their bum, don’t they? Or am I confusing that with their actual pants?

Your plans will ensure that your etiquette pants remain pressed and high-waisted, with reinforced seams. A card and donation are quite respectable for a second wedding. And given the drama inherent in the novella “remarry her ex-husband in an elaborate ceremony,’’ it is easy to imagine that any more personal gift might be misread.

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 get advice live during a Boston.com chat with Robin Abrahams on March 6 from noon to 1 p.m.

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