Do nieces and nephews reach an age where it’s OK to shut them off from the annual Christmas gift? Is this something that should get discussed with their parents (your siblings)?
P.B. / Cambridge
Your wording implies that there is some widely held — yet mysteriously unknown to you! — rule of etiquette that would make it unquestionably proper and not at all drama-inducing for you to cut off the gift train. It’s very tempting to believe such rules exist, but if they do, it’s in a cozy elf-ridden workshop somewhere near the North Pole. In other words, they don’t.
The good news is that you don’t need a rule — you can simply decide on whatever Christmas gift-giving practices make sense for you and your family. Whatever you do ought to be fair and consistent, of course. And you should always give people a heads-up if you are planning to change your gift-giving routine, so they won’t worry that you suddenly hate them or went bankrupt or something. So do say something — to your nieces and nephews themselves, not to your siblings. If the kids are old enough to get stiffed on Christmas, they’re old enough to be spoken to directly about matters that affect them, don’t you think?
A smart, kind, generous, hard-working friend has a lovely Colonial home in our village. It’s picture-perfect from the outside, but filled to the ceilings inside with stuff, as is her garage and car. There is barely space to walk in. She has two local sons and grandchildren who visit her. Her house is a fire hazard. Is there something I can say that might be helpful? I like her very much, but think she needs to address her hoarding.
R.M. / Hamilton, New York
There isn’t anything you can say. Your neighbor is in the grip of a severe mental disorder and will not be amenable to reason. Writers and directors are told “Show, don’t tell,” because showing is so much more powerful. Think: What could you possibly tell her that her house in its present condition isn’t showing her? Trying to address her problem will only cause her to turn against you and add further to her isolation.
Accept that this is beyond your pay grade and stay out of it. Your neighbor needs professional help, and finding that professional and persuading her to accept that help is her family’s job. It’s one thing to step out of your comfort zone to show up for a friend or neighbor who needs you; that’s a good thing and we should do more of it. (I know I should.) But stepping out of your competence zone can be dangerous — all the good will in the world won’t help you do CPR on that collapsing old gent if you don’t know CPR! — and it’s no insult to say this situation is well beyond yours.
Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.