> A certain family member often double dips, then “cleans the bowl” with her fingers and licks them. “The Princess” is sensitive and defensive. How can I handle this situation without hurting her feelings? I feel like setting up a secret chamber with “uncontaminated food,” so that everyone feels comfortable.
Anonymous / Boston
Can you do that? It’s easier to control things than people. I’ll go for an engineering solution over an awkward conversation every time. And I live for awkward conversations! But the engineering solutions are more effective.
If there’s no easy way to arrange the food so that Princess Fingerlicken is confined to her own servings, though, you’re going to have to say something. The number one duty that hosts owe their guests is to protect them from one another. This means that when someone misbehaves at a party — by starting a nasty argument, drinking too much, or licking the serving ware — it is your unavoidable duty to crack down.
When cracking down on a guest who is sticking a paw in the punch bowl (that is, committing a hygienically unpardonable but not aggressive faux pas), do so in a brisk “oopsie-daisy” manner. “Oh, my heavens! Did you just double dip? We all do that at home, don’t we? I’ll go refresh this. Susan, you get Princess Fingerlicken another iced tea, will you? And Bob, put another CD on!” It’s a laughable, easily corrected mistake, and you will determinedly treat it as such.
Don’t even give Princess a chance to feel accused (because you’ve already explained her error and laughed it off!) or defensive (because you’ve already absconded with the molested chip dip!). If your momentum is strong and swift, you will override her objections. It’s sort of like when a kid takes a tumble, and you laugh and swoop her up and treat it as if it were not a problem. Even if the kid wants to cry, she won’t be able to commit to it because you’ve already established that the incident is nothing more than a silly mishap.
> Our neighbors (about 10 feet away) let their dog out at 6:30 a.m.; he does his business and then barks repeatedly. If the dog doesn’t wake us up, one of the homeowners speaking very loudly (one might call it yelling) will. I’m struggling with a sleep disorder, and every second of sleep is precious to me. We are generally on good terms with these neighbors. How can I gently tell them that leaving the dog out, and then yelling at him for barking, is waking us up regularly?
R.M. / Medford
Darling, if you’re going to write to me, give a girl something to do, will you? You already have a good relationship with the neighbors, so I can’t tell you to develop one. You have an actual medical excuse that allows you to frame the issue as “your problem,” so I can’t tell you to invent something. So just go ask! Phrase it as a request for a favor, not as you scolding them for poor dog ownership. And since your houses are so close, you aren’t even accusing her of yelling. (She is, but you’re not accusing her of it.) You have all the external circumstances to hand to make this very much a discussion where it’s no one’s fault, just a problem that we all have to solve together.
Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.