Miss Conduct

Christmas party postmortem

Did a family try to do the right thing for the holidays? Plus, how to compliment just one member of a group.

Lucy Truman

For 50 years or so, my father has had his brothers and their wives to his house on Christmas. This year, “Sarah,” the much younger wife of the oldest brother, “Bob,” asked my father not to invite them, as she believes Bob is developing dementia and cannot safely drive. (My father doesn’t think so, and apparently it wasn’t an option for Sarah to drive.) She also asked him to keep quiet about the call and the “uninvitation.” My father invited Bob anyway, Bob came, and Sarah will probably never set foot in his house again. My father doesn’t view that as a great loss. How should he have handled it?

Anonymous / Wakefield

Your father did the right thing. You can’t — oh, dear. I’ve started this sentence a dozen times and can’t finish it for the life of me, because everything I write sounds ridiculous. “You can’t banish your brother from a lifelong holiday tradition.” “You can’t manage incipient dementia by destroying the sufferer’s closest relationships.” Bless us with more of your wisdom, Miss Conduct! You probably can’t negotiate a raise during a salary freeze by threatening to hold your breath until you turn blue either.

Sarah may not be a paragon of either compassion or strategic thinking, but her fears aren’t groundless. She may be seeing a problem where there isn’t one yet, but sooner or later it will not be safe for Bob to make the holiday trek. Your father’s Christmas tradition — and, for that matter, the absence of Sarah from his home — is delightful but not sustainable. He should start thinking now about the logistics of Christmases Future.

I saw an exceptionally stylishly dressed young woman on the subway recently. I wanted to compliment her outfit, but she was with another woman who, while presentable, wasn’t particularly fashionable. Is there a way to compliment one person in a group, or should compliments be delivered one-on-one?


R.S. / Boston

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Complimenting a person’s outfit is complimenting her achievements, not her appearance. This is particularly the case when complimenting not only a particular item but also the coordination of the whole — e.g., “I love how you accessorized that dress” versus “Cute scarf!” What is being praised is the person’s eye and imagination, not his or her body or bank account.

It is quite legitimate to give compliments on achievements to one person in a group, especially when that person is clearly crushing it. You can include the other group members in your circle of warmth. Ms. Starquality’s people aren’t the hoi polloi being unfavorably compared with Ms. Starquality, they are the ultimate hipsters who knew how awesome Ms. Starquality was long before you clued in.

Contra stereotypes, women aren’t in constant competition with one another to be the prettiest, so dropping a style compliment into a group of ladies isn’t like tossing a piglet into Piranha Bay. The “presentable” woman undoubtedly knew perfectly well that her friend cut a more stylish figure: Either her friend had bigger plans that day than she did or she doesn’t care about clothes to begin with. We stylistas who want to compliment strangers on the subtle details and clever juxtapositions of their ensembles may find it hard to comprehend, but some people prefer to think as little about clothes as possible.

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

NEED ADVICE ON TRICKY FAMILY POLITICS? Write to Miss Conduct at And read her blog at