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    Miss Conduct

    Hang on to that handbag

    Dodging a host’s request to take your purse. Plus, e-mail thank yous and fail-safe gifts.

    At a recent party, the hostess insisted that we allow the waitstaff to take both coats and handbags upstairs. One guest mentioned needing Kleenex. Response: “There’s plenty in the bathroom.’’ One might also need lipstick, dental floss, a pad to write on — or simply want to know where one’s wallet is.  What do you suggest for this awkward moment?

    S.T. / Hingham

    Or one might need an EpiPen, or a tampon, or a glucose meter, or, or, or . . . There are dozens of reasons for wanting to keep one’s purse on one’s person, and no good ones I can think of for coercing guests to do otherwise.

    But giving reasons when people demand the unreasonable is a mug’s game — it invites them to argue, and implicitly accepts their terms for that argument. Rather than proffering excuses for why you need to keep your bag about you, simply tuck it more firmly under your arm and say, “I’m sorry, I need to keep it with me.’’ Then either begin to move into the room or change the topic in the same breath: “IneedtokeepitwithmeandLook!Webroughtwine!’’ — shoving the bottle into her hands.


    In other words, you want to be able to quickly and accurately gauge the acceptability of an interpersonal situation and react with an instinctive verbal stonewall followed by a physical redirect. When I put it that way, it sounds like the extraordinarily difficult social-ninja move it really is, doesn’t it? So don’t be too hard on yourself if you got flustered in the moment.

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    If I am invited to a dinner party by e-mail, is it OK to send a thank you note by e-mail after the event?

    D.W. / Hingham

    Yes. Social communications can be kept on the same channel: paper to paper, pixel to pixel, phone to phone. Shift to a more formal or immediate medium when you want to convey the importance or urgency of your communique.


    What do you do with people who are impossible to buy for? My mother-in-law has given us wish lists and then complained about items we chose; has piles of unused gift certificates; and interprets gifts as slights (when we got her a Snuggie, she threw a fit and ranted for months about how everyone thinks she sits around lounging all day). Sometimes she’ll say not to get her anything, but of course if we didn’t, she would pout and complain about how everyone forgets about her. Help! 


    S.M. / Chicago

    As I see it, you have three options:

    1) Take her at her word and give her nothing for her next birthday. You’ve already thought about the advantages and disadvantages of this.

    2) Make a donation in her name to a charity you both agree with. Or buy her food or crafts made by local artisans whom you support. This way, at least your money will be doing some good.

    3) Lean into the pain. To find insult in a Snuggie requires a virtually Nixonian lust to be loathed. Aren’t you tempted to prod that sore tooth a little bit? What on earth might such a woman do if confronted with a gift that more strongly hinted at a need for self-improvement — a Pilates ball and mat with DVDs, reinforced Spanx, a book on etiquette, or Chicken Soup for the Ingrate’s Soul?

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

    NEED MISS CONDUCT’S HELP?Write to her at And get advice live during a chat with Robin Abrahams this Wednesday from noon to 1 p.m.