Miss Conduct

Dodging a third wheel

A trick for avoiding a friend’s husband (and other unwanted companions). Plus, when advice columnists attack!

Lucy Truman

I’m going back to a country where I lived for several years. My “best friend” from that time wants to meet up. We have maintained sporadic contact over the years, with only a few visits. I want to, but she said that she will have to bring her husband because he has often asked about me. My time is tight, and I dislike her husband and don’t want to waste a day with him. Should I “suck it up” or cancel the whole thing and blame family obligations? She is alternately devoted to this man, then talks of divorce.

S.B. / Boston

If you want my permission to get out of this, you’ve got it. You honestly don’t sound too enthusiastic about your friend, and I suspect — and suspect that you suspect — that even if you did manage to scamper off on your own, just the two of you, she still wouldn’t shut up about Himself, whether they happen to be in Loving or Loathing aspect at the time.

Even if you liked her husband, though, it’s reasonable to want to spend most of your limited time with your friend. Why not suggest meeting her for a long walk through a museum or shopping district that Himself isn’t interested in and having him join you afterward for a drink or coffee (which can, of course, be brief)?

I like to read advice columns. I’ve found one particular column can be extremely distressing at times. I once sent in a polite and informative e-mail disagreeing with the advice. The columnist sent me the nastiest e-mail I have ever seen in response, and it left me feeling overwhelmed and attacked for several days. I’ve been uncomfortable whenever I skim over the column since and seen bad advice, but I can’t seem to help glancing at it. What should I do?


A.S. / Stow

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That is truly uncalled for. If you still have a copy of the abusive e-mail, you could forward it to the columnist’s editor. There aren’t any qualifications required to write an advice column, and there shouldn’t be — except to be a decent person. If someone is clearly and repeatedly failing in that respect, get out the (rhetorical) pitchforks and torches, and see if you can’t get the publisher to find a new Answer Person.

(House lights up. Miss Conduct steps to the front of the stage to address the audience: “In case you’re wondering, A.S. did not say who the offending columnist is. It’s not me, though. A.S. was very clear about that and said nice things about me that I cut because of modesty. Thank you.” House lights down.)

You can also respond online in the comments sections, which isn’t going to change Answer Jerk’s mind, but may change the mind of other readers. Many advice columnists have extremely active comments sections. In fact, there is one online columnist whose actual advice I almost never read — only the questions and the reader responses, which make it clear I’m not the only one who does that.

To wax philosophical, even the best advice columnists are going to get it wrong a good percent of the time, because we’re applying our limited, imperfect knowledge to a question that may or may not contain all the relevant information in the first place. I know I won’t always have the right answer. What I do always try to provide is a fresh way of thinking about the problem, and a sense of what the letter writer’s options are.

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