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MISS CONDUCT

My sister’s real name is Karen. And it’s suddenly causing her lots of grief

What to do when a loved one’s name becomes a meme and a symbol of bad behavior.

Need advice? Send your questions to Miss Conduct.

My sister’s name is Karen. Two times recently she’s met other white women at social occasions who respond with, “Oh! Karen — how do you handle having that name!?” I realize many people have never been taught common social rules, such as what topics should be taboo with strangers. Perhaps the young are more naive and inexperienced in social occasions. I’d love to give her your advice as to what to say.

W.B. / Boston

Oh heavens, she’s your baby sister, isn’t she? I wish I’d had a big sister like you in junior high. You would have told my bullies what’s what.

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Here’s the thing, though: You aren’t in junior high. It’s not your job to buffer Karen from the slings and arrows of social life. If Karen needs a script, I’m right here. So are dozens of other good advice-givers.

Karen is a grown woman who can use her words well enough to ask for additional words, if she needs them. Which she might not, because here’s the other thing: Nobody’s bullying Karen! Asking someone how they handle having the name they’ve been sporting all their life now that it has suddenly turned into a meme isn’t mocking them, nor is it a “taboo” topic. I’m flummoxed by why you think so. I’m also flummoxed by the aspersions you cast on young people. Yes, they are less experienced by definition, but not only is the behavior you object to not rude, young people aren’t even overrepresented among the “offenders.”

At worst, asking Karen about her name is in the category of vapid questions (V.Q.) that a moment’s thought would prevent, because you’d realize that ugh, the person must get asked that all the time. People do ask such questions, though, and one can only let such queries roll off, and try to remember that the 100th person to ask the V.Q. is not the same person asking it 100 times, so don’t treat them as if they were.

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Karen, like anyone else asked a V.Q., can bat it away (“My parents’ initial choice was ‘Siri’”) and change the topic, or use it to launch the conversation into deeper waters. Who knows what those might be? The randomness of names; the lack of a male “Karen” equivalent and the implicit misogyny of that; that Seinfeld episode where Elaine dated the guy with the same name as a serial killer, with the unfortunate O.J. joke that didn’t age well. It’s a Karen’s-choice situation.


Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.