Q. I will be turning 60 this year, and have noticed a sort of trend among many of my friends, acquaintances, and co-workers.
It seems like every time we get together, someone starts to talk about a loved one who is very ill, dying, or has died.
This often sets off a morbid competition of who can come up with the most heartbreaking — and graphic — details.
Obviously, we’re all at an age where we’ve experienced this type of loss. Both my parents and three of my siblings have passed on, but I would never reveal details of their deaths in a casual, mixed-company setting.
If we’re out having drinks before a concert, at a baby shower, or in the lunchroom at work, I’d rather not hear about a beloved aunt’s courageous but losing battle with cancer.
I’m not an unsympathetic person — quite the opposite. But there is a time and place to reveal this sort of personal information.
My question is: How would you handle this tricky social situation without coming across as a callous jerk?
My next question: Am I being a callous jerk?
Buzz-killed in Boston
A. I don’t know if I would call you a callous jerk, mainly because you got there before me. I exaggerate, but I do believe you sound . . . intolerant.
Perhaps you remember your own life about three decades ago, when your peers (and possibly you, also) were all talking about pregnancy, childbirth, the terrible twos, or your terrible bosses.
Yes, back in those days there were probably people who laid on too much graphic detail in recounting their childbirth stories. I’d venture that these might be the same people who offer up too much detail (for you) regarding their loved-ones’ illness or death stories.
However, what your cohorts are doing is not mindless, tactless talk. They are narrating their lives. What you describe as a “morbid competition” might otherwise be seen as “relating.”
You may declare that reporting on, recounting, and remembering your loved ones is bad form, but (in my view) this is a matter of opinion. I agree that going on and on in a larger social setting and describing (private) medical details about a perfect stranger is not polite or pro-social behavior.
But anyone who wants to talk about and/or remember a loved one is welcome to sit by me (and that includes you).
If someone is engaged in a topic that makes you genuinely uncomfortable, you can gently try to change the subject by saying, “I’m so sorry to hear all of this. I seem to remember that you are planning a long trip this summer. Will you still be able to do that?” Or, you could pull the person off of sharing medical details by asking pointed questions about the subject’s life, such as where (and how) they lived, versus how they are dying.
Q. My sister-in-law had minor surgery.
I made a few frozen casserole “comfort food” dishes for her and my brother-in-law to consume during her recovery.
Generally, it is acknowledged that I am a good cook.
When I next saw them, they returned one of the casseroles, saying that it is a dish that they don’t care for. I know that it is something they eat.
Am I wrong to think it would have been kinder to simply regift the dish, or simply dispose of it, rather than returning it to me?
A. Because a casserole is a word describing both a baked dish and also the dish it is baked in, I take it that this dish was returned to you, food intact.
I agree with you that this is strange, and rude. This was a kind and generous gesture on your part. When receiving gifts of food, there is no rule that this food must be consumed and enjoyed, but the dish (sans food) should be returned, clean, and the giver should be thanked.
Q. This is for “Disappointed,” your reader who thinks that a man grabbing a woman’s crotch is a minor infraction.
Any form of sexual misconduct should be called out.
Public cases show how long an abuser gets away with this behavior when not reported.
Reporting an event can help to prevent this conduct from being forced onto others.
A. Many readers have reacted to the question similarly. If this sort of behavior goes unchallenged, then it continues. In a worst-case scenario, this sort of drunken groping could escalate into a more serious assault.
Amy Dickinson can be reached at email@example.com.