Miss Conduct

A relative burden

When one family member is asked to do too much. Plus, late thank you notes that work.

> After inviting family to a birthday dinner, one relative complained that she had only five days’ notice to cancel other plans. I told her later that I was hurt by her annoyance. She thinks she should be able to say whatever she likes, but I’m not sure honesty should have been the way to go. I was trying to juggle multiple schedules for family members. I’m not quite sure what to do next.

H.F. / Boston

You are doing too much already, and it’s hurting you and your family — the fight between you and Relative is surely making everyone else uncomfortable. You sound thin of skin and frayed of nerves. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Call Relative and apologize for blowing things out of proportion. Tell her you need very badly to be taken out for a pastry at your favorite bakery or a cocktail at your favorite bar, and ask her to do that for you. When you go out, talk about your busy schedules, the different hats you wear, how many constituencies you feel you have to please. She’ll hear you. She’s not your enemy — she’s a fellow soldier in the trenches who had a bad day.


Then change. Let someone else take over the organizing duties for a while. When you do plan events, stop trying to accommodate everyone. It’s not the end of the world if every single person can’t make it to every single birthday, recital, or tag sale. That’s what smartphones and Facebook are for, so you can text Uncle Bob a picture.

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Making this change could be as simple as switching to decaf or as profound and far-reaching as deconstructing a role you’ve played since childhood. I don’t know. But I do know it’s what you need to do. And I’ve got a hunch that Relative might just be your best ally.


> When I finished grad school, my girlfriend threw me a party and a few people brought gifts, some rather generous ($50-$100). So much time has passed that I am embarrassed. Should I send thank you notes for gifts that I thanked people for in person? And ought I address how extremely late the notes are?

J.E. / Worcester

I assume the reference to specific amounts meant that you received some gifts of money. (If, instead, graduate school has left you with a compulsion to quantify and cross-reference everything you encounter, I sympathize. It fades with time.) You should always thank people for money or gift cards with a note, so that you can tell them what you bought with their largesse. A gift of warm sentiment — a first edition, Aunt Bessie’s mourning ring — should also get a note. 


In the notes, go ahead and fess up to your tardiness with self-deprecating good will and without excuses. It will make people like you. As Thackeray wrote in Vanity Fair: “By humbly and frankly acknowledging yourself to be in the wrong, there is no knowing, my son, what good you may do. I knew once a gentleman . . . who used to do little wrongs to his neighbours on purpose, and in order to apologise for them in an open and manly way afterwards — and what ensued? My friend Crocky Doyle was liked everywhere, and deemed to be rather impetuous — but the honestest fellow.”

 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 on April 3 from noon to 1 p.m.