Miss Conduct

Mother to daughter: ‘Is your period on the way?’

Sometimes a rude question deserves a rude answer. Plus, when a clerk helps another customer at checkout.

Lucy Truman

My adult daughter and I generally have a good relationship, but if she is acting irritable or more emotional, and I ask her if her period is on the way, she becomes defensive and tells me you should never ask anyone about that. And accuses me of being rude. How should I handle that?

C.H. / Arcadia, California

By ceasing to offend and apologizing for your previous tactless and crass remarks, is how. Even if there were nothing wrong with your comments — and there is — if person X, whom you love and respect, is regularly offended when you make statement Z, stop making statement Z, for heaven’s sake. This is hardly rocket science, more like the wheels on the conversation bus going ’round and ’round.

Why might your adult daughter object to your line of questioning? For one thing, menstruation, along with other bodily functions, is generally considered a private matter. Constipation can also lead a person to be irritable, but I’m sure it has never occurred to you to ask your cranky neighbor if he pooped that morning. Secondly, asking a woman if she is having her period is a time-honored way of dismissing what she is talking about. This may not be your intent, but that doesn’t matter — that’s how your daughter is reading it, and given the entire history of women being asked if they are on their periods, she has a point.

Here are some good ways of handling irritable people: Avoid them until their mood improves; let them vent uninterrupted (or interrupted only by supportive cries of “Yeah! You tell ’em!”); ask questions about the source of their annoyance and offer your assistance if possible. Here is a bad way of handling irritable people: Say something that you know for a fact will irritate them further.

Often, a salesclerk will be handling my transaction when a customer interrupts, “Do you carry such-and-such?” The clerk stops my transaction and answers the customer. Or, the clerk will answer the phone and instead of saying “Please hold,” proceed to answer questions. Meanwhile, I am ignored. How could the situation be handled?


A.O. / Attleboro

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Talk to the management if this is a persistent annoyance at a particular store. Clerks who take phone calls while waiting on customers haven’t been adequately trained, and one annoyed customer isn’t going to make a difference. They need to know that it matters to the bosses. Responding to an interruption is a strongly ingrained habit in most people, and getting someone to overcome such habits requires regular reinforcement. (Behaviorists call this “instinctive drift.” You can teach a raccoon to put a penny in a piggy bank, but without continual coaching, the raccoon will eventually revert to its natural behavior of “washing” the coin in its paws.)

When another customer interrupts a transaction, address him or her yourself: “I’m sorry, I was being helped.” This way, the clerk can simply back you up. If the other customer swooped in with her demands like an aristocratic velociraptor, leaving you uncertain about the wisdom of confrontation, chances are the salesclerk feels much the same, so empathy — as expressed by eye contact and a “Can you believe that?” face — is the order of the day.

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