Miss Conduct

The gray hair blues

Plus, is there a way to compose an invitation that encourages people not to come?

Having finally left corporate America to pursue my dream of writing, I’ve quit wearing makeup and coloring my shoulder-length hair. I’m in my early 50s and the gray is mostly in the front, so it almost looks as if it were colored that way. Or so I thought. I’ve now been asked three times at the grocery store if I’d like to use my senior citizen discount. The first time I was so stunned I couldn’t talk. The last time I almost whacked her with my asparagus. How do I handle this if it happens again?

J.B. / Weymouth

Spend an afternoon people-watching at one of the local campuses. Can you reliably tell the undergraduates apart from the grad students? Can you tell the junior faculty apart from the undergrads? Well, there you are, love. The difference between “early 50s” and “mid-60s” looms large to you, but it’s as invisible to a teenage store clerk as the difference between 22 and 29 is to you. And if a 29-year-old assistant professor put a pink streak in her hair? She’d get carded everywhere.

Just like you, in reverse.


If someone offers you a senior discount, say, “No, thanks,” and carry on. If it’s been the same clerk all three times and you make a fuss, she’ll only do it more, not out of orneriness, but because that’s how the brain works. You’ll wind up reinforcing the mental association between your face and the early-bird special.

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You presented something to the world — your natural hair — and it was interpreted, or “read,” in a way you don’t like. What do you do when readers take your text the wrong way? Revise? Snatch your manuscript away and pray for a more enlightened audience? Marvel at the infinity of perspectives?

If it bothers you that much, think about coloring your hair again. Definitely start wearing lipstick.

Don’t turn your back entirely on your 9-to-5 self. Business-Casual J.B., with her dye job and Dilbert cartoons and decaf cappuccino every day at 3, had a lot more in common with your intended reading audience than you, Living-the-Dream J.B., has. Ever notice how writers sometimes produce one terrific novel about office culture, or old-age homes, or eccentric families in small towns . . . and, their store of life knowledge exhausted, churn out a line of samey-sames about adultery at writers’ workshops? You don’t want to be that cliche.

My fiance and I want to hold an intimate weddinglike party for our closest family and friends. While there are those whom we really want there, we are not quite as excited about certain significant others and children. Is there a way to invite guests that might allow some of them  —  or their loved ones  —  an easy out if it is inconvenient for them to attend? (I am aware that this does not sound very nice.)

G.L. / Somerville


The very fact that an invitation is an invitation, and not a legal summons, gives people an easy out if they want one. But there’s no acceptable way of phrasing “Please don’t come just to be polite — that’s the only reason we invited you!” The people we love don’t always, alas, choose their own lovers on the basis of compatibility with us, and they will at times give birth to the most unfortunate children. We forgive them these lapses in judgment as we hope they will forgive us in our turn.

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

NEED ADVICE ON AN AGE-RELATED DILEMMA? Write to Miss Conduct at And read her blog at