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Miss Conduct

The unkind kidder

When to put up with someone who follows up insults with ‘just joking.’ And when not to.

Lucy Truman

> A neighbor often stops to say hi and chat — then makes offensive off-color remarks and adds that he is only joking. The last time I ran into him, he made a rude remark about my daughter. Now with the good weather coming, it is just a matter of time before we bump into him again. My husband plans to insult his kids. I also feel like giving him a zing back. However, the adult side of me says not to stoop to his level. Please tell me what you think is the best way to deal with this.    D.V. / Watertown

There’s a part of me that frankly delights in the prospect of suburban fathers getting into an ever-escalating game of the dozens using each other’s children. “Your kid’s quantitative SAT score is so low I thought it was your credit rating.” That part of me, however, would be more properly employed directing an improv comedy troupe than writing an etiquette column.

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I can’t condone your husband’s decision. Returning an insult in kind is one thing, but dragging innocents — children, yet! — into the rhetorical battle is really a bit much. No one, I hope, has ever felt better about themselves on account of having insulted a child.

Let’s start spring with a clean slate. You’re optimistic enough to anticipate good weather coming to Boston in late April — let’s apply some of that good cheer to your neighbor. Greet him as if spring rains have washed winter’s grime off your hearts, as though you expect nothing from him or, for that matter, from life itself except kind reason and courtesy.

Then, when Mr. Justkidding makes his usual crass comment, crack down on him hard and fast like a spring-loaded bear trap.

People seem to think that this is a social juncture where having a witty comeback would do them no end of good. Perhaps it would, in a placebo confidence-boosting sort of way; some people might only feel comfortable speaking up if they believed their words to be unimpeachable. But you don’t need a witty comeback when a dog decides to hump your leg. All you need is a command voice and the will to use it.

Mr. Justkidding doesn’t require or deserve any more wit than a rude dog does. You’re friendly and polite as long as he is. The minute he steps over the line: “That was offensive. Goodbye.’’ Leave, or take your attention from him. If Mr. Justkidding lives up to his name, reply that he wasn’t funny. Don’t engage any further than that. Identify his statement for what it was, and leave his presence.

People like Mr. Justkidding take advantage of decent people’s instinct to be “nice,’’ to avoid awkward moments, to accept apologies and laugh at jokes in order to keep from tearing the social fabric. Push a decent person too far, and he might react like your husband, planning to fight back. But it’s a waste of resources to engage in a battle against a sad passive-aggressive bully getting his sick little jollies. Smack him on the nose with a newspaper, shake him off your shin, and get on with your day. With any luck, other neighbors will get wind of your approach and try it out themselves. Wouldn’t it be a lovely spring in your neighborhood if nobody played along with Mr. Justkidding’s little games?

 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 this Wednesday from noon to 1 p.m.

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