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Is it rude to ask someone about the backstory of their tattoo?

Plus, how to handle people who eat while on the phone.

Yesterday I saw a woman with a beautiful tattoo and I would love to the know the story behind it. Is it ever OK to approach someone you don’t know and ask about their artwork? (I am also a woman.)

M.D. / Bedford

I wish there were a bit more small talk between strangers in Boston! New Yorkers are more comfortable chatting people up in public; I always enjoy it when I go there. So, please, be the change I’d like to see in the world, or at least this area.

That said, you absolutely do not want to ask a stranger the story behind their tattoo. Don’t ask people you don’t know the “why” behind any aspect of their appearance or behavior, as a general rule. Doing so is invasive and rarely welcomed. It can also result in information that it turns out you don’t want and don’t know how to react to appropriately. I know people who have tattoos to commemorate the deaths of beloved people or pets; to reclaim their bodies after an assault; as a way to celebrate achieving sobriety or surviving cancer. Is that a conversation you want to have with a random person on the T? Probably not (unless of course you’re waiting for the Red Line and have the time to really get into it on a deep level).

So compliment, don’t query: “I love your tattoo, such a beautiful image!” People usually respond to a compliment with some informational tidbit if they’re interested in conversing further: “Thanks, it’s an illustration from The Little Prince, my favorite book as a child.” If you want to nudge the conversation in that direction, you can always say you’ve thought of getting one yourself. It’s not a lie, surely you’ve thought about it if only to immediately reject the notion. And of course, read body language first. Don’t interrupt a task or conversation, or bother someone who’s sending out strong “this register is closed” signals.


I love my brother but he has a funny habit of eating while we are speaking on the phone, usually something crunchy. I don’t want to be so rigid about it but it bothers me to hear someone crunching in my ear, especially my beloved brother who’s 62 years old. I would have thought he’d know better.


M.S. / New York

Welp, he doesn’t! Isn’t it weird how siblings can be raised by the same parents and come away with such different ideas of social norms? It’s always surprising to this only child. So, speak up. “Do you mind not eating while we talk? It bothers me.” If he insists on doing so anyway, then conversations end when crunching begins. “I’ll let you get back to your dinner! Bye!” Consistency—in the sense of regular behavior, not crunchiness—is key here. Good luck!

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