Miss Conduct: What I’ve learned from 10 years of advice columns
The Globe Magazine’s Robin Abrahams looks back.
“HOW DID YOU BECOME an advice columnist?” people say when they first meet me.
“How did you become an advice columnist?” people say when they’ve known me awhile.
The short answer? Ten years ago, I was in the right place (a journalism conference) at the right time (when The Globe Magazine was looking for a Miss Conduct). But let’s unpack that statement. It implies that I got lucky and that environment matters, and those are two ideas that Americans often don’t like to think about. We want to believe that our success is a reflection of our innate talent and hard work and nothing else. But luck does matter. And trying to figure out what the people around you did in order to deserve what they’ve gotten can lead to some mighty impolite behavior — kissing up and kicking down, basically.
Environment also matters. Boston is a special place. Not every city would want to take social advice from a geek who describes herself as “Vulcan on my father’s side, Klingon on my mom’s.” After the Marathon bombing, local blogger Jim Dowd wrote, “This place will kick the screaming piss out of you, come up with a cure for having the screaming piss kicked out of you, give it to you for free, then win a Nobel prize for it and then use the medallion to break your knuckles.” Where else would a Vulcan-Klingon half-breed etiquette columnist feel at home?
The cultural space where advice columnists do their work — the awkward conversations, the misunderstandings, the sudden realization that no one ever knows what to do — is the space the television show Seinfeld lived in for nine years’ worth of (mostly) Thursday nights. Is it really all that bad to pee in the gym shower? Are cigar-store Indians racist? Can you say “bless you” to a sneezing atheist? What should a nice vegetarian girl do if Gypsies offer her bread smeared with lard? (Those last two are mine, but tell me they wouldn’t have made brilliant Seinfeld episodes!)
The modern world is too complex and dynamic to keep up with “the rules.” In the ’90s, we found the dramatization of that fact amusing on TV. These days, we’re older and tired-er and we just want the answers. I think this is why you now see advice columnists everywhere, from general-issue agony aunts to love doctors to advisers on office politics, child raising, or social life.
Writing this column comes with a couple perks. A favorite is that I always have something to talk to people about at parties. I’m still quoting this one: “How soon does one tell a prospective love interest that you are a Conspiracy Theorist? I did a little too soon with dire consequences.” That letter is a dynamo of a conversation starter.
Another good thing is that I can occasionally ask myself, “What would Miss Conduct do?” and thereby improve my own social functioning. I recently invited a friend who is an intimidatingly good chef to a dinner party. My cooking is nowhere near his level, but Miss Conduct would never let a hostess get away with such a paltry excuse for not extending hospitality! The food only has to be good enough — what people want is conversation and a free meal they don’t have to cook themselves. And just last month I had to put on my Miss Conduct shoes and do some fancy dancing when I accidentally sent an Evite to hundreds of people in my address book. (Earlier that day, I’d been researching what to do about the Facebook pages of the deceased, so I suppose I’m lucky not to have announced my death.)
It’s good to have something to live up to, as long as it’s something you can also live with. I hope to live up to, and with, Miss Conduct for many happily problem-filled years to come.
YOU CAN TELL A LOT ABOUT HOW WE’VE CHANGED (AND HAVEN’T) BY THE QUESTIONS WE ASK
When I began writing the “Miss Conduct” column in 2005, George W. Bush had just begun his second term in office, same-sex marriage had been legal in Massachusetts for less than a year, and Facebook was still only for college students. Times have changed! Here are some of the new themes I’ve seen appear in recent years.
> We struggle with technology in our social lives
The first question I ever answered about Facebook was in March 2009 from a Letter Writer (L.W.) who wondered how, if at all, she should congratulate renewed acquaintances on having come out of the closet. Such a snapshot in time! That same column also featured an L.W. annoyed that her workplace discussions of a television show were being shushed by those who watched the show later: Are “the non-DVR folks retro (as the DVR people claim) to watch the show, commercials and all, at the original time it airs?” If they weren’t retro in ’09, they certainly are today. We’re in the age of time-shifted entertainment.
The widespread adoption of DVRs, smartphones, and text messaging have all created confusion and, at times, irritation. The past 10 years have seen communication technologies proliferate faster than we can develop strategies to deal with them. Can you answer your cellphone at work? Does punctuation matter in a text? New technologies require new etiquette.
New technologies also tempt people to rudeness. In October 2007, a Letter Writer first complained about friends who pay more attention to their cellphones than to their dinner dates, and the theme has remained a constant one. Hosts wondered what to do about guests absorbed in their screens and questioned if they, themselves, contributed to the problem by busting out the laptop and showing cat videos to their company.
My favorite technology question ever came from an L.W. desperate to dissuade a friend from proposing to his girlfriend by gently hacking her computer to ask the question via pop-up screen. But Miss Conduct approved heartily of this gambit! These days, a practical woman marries for tech support, not for romance. At any rate, a proposal like this ensures that the lady in question knows what she’s getting herself into.
> We’re increasingly caught up in an ugly political climate
In my 2009 book, Miss Conduct’s Mind Over Manners, I wrote, “[F]or all the talk of culture war or red and blue states, I almost never get questions that are directly political in nature.” Whoops. (The rest of the book has aged a lot better, and it’s only $7.99 on Amazon. Just saying.)
I didn’t get my first straight-up political question until spring 2008, when an L.W. worried that her family’s red state-blue state division would cause discord at a wedding shower. My advice: Agree among all the participants beforehand that politics are a no-go topic, then enforce your rule strictly and in a bipartisan fashion.
My own experience on Facebook quickly convinced me that it’s a terrible venue for political debate, and I regularly advised readers to hide posts that they disagreed with. Even those who eschewed social media couldn’t escape the good old-fashioned misinformed e-mail forward, though. Delightfully, I actually got a letter once from the sender of such e-mails, indignant that a friend kept replying to her spam list with debunking links from Snopes. This person, alas, did not find the sympathetic ear hoped for in Miss Conduct.
Letter Writers were also frustrated when empirical questions were treated as matters of opinion, summed up well by the L.W. who asked, “How do I engage in polite discussions with relatives and co-workers who insist on acting as though scientific issues are not scientific, but rather political or religious?” Many people — many, many people — also expressed great frustration with people who refused to let political differences slide and “agree to disagree.” One particularly egregious brother-in-law (it’s always brothers-in-law, for some reason) gave his 2-year-old niece toy guns for Christmas after deciding that her parents’ “viewpoint is dumb, and so he was ‘overriding’ it.” I advised overriding him. With extreme prejudice.
> We all seem to worry a lot more about money now
Money has always complicated our social lives — read Jane Austen, if you don’t believe me — but after the crash, economic concerns loomed larger than Pemberley. A question in October 2009 from a woman wondering whether she should attend her neighbors’ holiday parties broke my heart: “I am not able to reciprocate properly, and I just feel like a freeloader to do so,” she wrote. “I’m not even in a position this year to take an appropriate thank you gift with me.” I told her to go, of course.
Meanwhile, hosts worried about the costs of entertaining — the hosts who write to Miss Conduct, anyway. On the other hand, the hosts that guests write to Miss Conduct about have taken some extreme measures to recoup the cost of their hospitality. These range from a dinner party where a relative of the host explained how expensive the steaks were and “rather pointedly suggested” that the L.W. “make a monetary contribution” to the cost of dinner, to some Cape Cod homeowners who invited a couple to spend a weekend with them — as long as they brought their own food, bottled water, and toilet paper.
Weddings and other special events always create extra sources of stress, exacerbated by the fact that people rarely want to talk honestly about their money situations. One couple chose to have only a civil wedding ceremony for financial reasons and wondered how to tell people this without going into too much detail. A sixtysomething couple needed to cut back on Christmas gifts to their children but weren’t sure how to tell them about it. People who had been laid off wondered how to notify friends, respond to inquiries about their job search, and compete with former colleagues for positions. (I generally advised that discretion and keeping people on a need-to-know basis was good while shame-driven secrecy was bad.)
As the recession limped on, Letter Writers increasingly wondered how to deal with friends’ charity or Kickstarter requests. How do you say no graciously when you disagree with the organization for which your friends are raising funds? When you’re pretty sure they’re involved in a pyramid scheme? The answer is a simple if not easy “I’m so sorry, I can’t.” No further explanation is necessary.
FOR ALL THE NEW SOURCES of social distress over the last decade, plenty of things have stayed the same. Etiquette has an evolutionary basis. Like all social animals, humans question how to find mates, raise kids, get their fair share to eat, and resolve conflicts. If you’re a chimpanzee or a wolf, your biology gives you the answers. If you’re a human, you write to an advice columnist. Here are three perpetual challenges of the human condition.
> We’re quick to feel taken advantage of
Fairness and quid pro quo are basic human concerns: You scratch my back, I scratch yours. I often get complaints from woefully unscratched L.W.s who claim to be the only person who ever hosts Thanksgiving/organizes parties/changes the water jug. My usual advice for these folks is, first, to think about what favors their relatives/friends/colleagues might be doing for them that aren’t reciprocated exactly in kind. If a little reflection confirms that you are indeed being taken advantage of, speak up! It’s an odd quirk of the human mind that sometimes “Mary changed the water jug” doesn’t register to us as “therefore I should change it next time” but as “therefore Mary will always change the water jug, and I need never think about it again.”
Just as often, I hear from people who are the recipients — at times so anguished one would fain call them “victims” — of a kind favor who want to know how to reciprocate. Sometimes, honestly, they shouldn’t. People like to do favors for other people; it makes cheerful chemicals squirt all over our brains. It’s a kindness at times to allow yourself to be the gracious and grateful recipient of other people’s kindnesses.
When it’s a kindness that the other person could (and sometimes does) charge for, though — when a friend with a salon gives you a complimentary cut and color or the attorney next door offers you some quick advice — then you need to ask. I’ve gotten many, many letters from both the givers and receivers of professional services wondering how to tactfully inquire or inform if a given favor should be considered billable or not. Be clear about those expectations up front. Awkward conversations can rarely be avoided, only postponed.
> We worry about whether we belong
Part of human nature is thinking of social life in terms of “us” and “them.” This can be a hard truth for some people to face, as they immediately think of the oppressive, apartheid-like horrors that such thinking can lead to. But us-and-them doesn’t need to mean us-versus-them.
Wedding couples and other party planners have to decide who is in and who is out, a process that causes endless tsoris. Are children invited? How about pets? If you have an event at a venue that isn’t accessible, what should you say to friends with disabilities? Should the same-sex spouse of a lesbian be invited to a “ladies night out” because she is, after all, a lady, or excluded, because what we really mean is “no spouses”? These questions are never easy.
Another aspect of us-and-them is how to politely treat people who aren’t like you. Consider these four questions: Can a non-transsexual use the term “tranny,” like her trans friend does? Is it OK for a Catholic to send a Mass card to a Jewish friend whose grandfather has passed away? What is proper etiquette at a Catholic wedding for someone who isn’t a member of the faith? Should a bride planning a religious wedding ask a “seriously atheist” friend to be a bridesmaid? (My answers, in order: No, no, ask, and ask.)
The flip side of these kindly questions is what to do when you’re “othered” by someone else. What’s a polite response when you tell someone you’re a lawyer and they say, “How can you stand that?” Or when your mixed-race self is bluntly asked, “What are you?” How should a blond respond to uninvited blond jokes? (By vacantly repeating “I don’t get it” until the jokester realizes he’s being played, of course.)
> We’re concerned about our kids
America has tremendous diversity — not only the demographic diversity of ethnicity and religion, but the diversity of values, priorities, and experiences. Nowhere does this come out more vividly than in Letter Writers’ questions about children, both their own and other people’s.
The problems start even before you have them, with nosy in-laws and co-workers wondering about your reproductive plans. The Terrible Twos have nothing on the Hairy Hypotheticals, as far as my Letter Writers are concerned. Get ready to field questions and unsolicited advice on natural childbirth, breast-feeding, vaccinations, circumcision, co-sleeping — the controversies are endless. Everyone has anecdotes, everyone has opinions, and everyone, it seems, feels judged by everyone else’s choices. Or afraid that others will feel judged by them — one couple who decided IVF was not for them wondered if their IVF-using friends would be offended. Miss Conduct never had IVF, but she did get a PhD and knows perfectly well that “I could never do what you did — too painful and expensive for me!” is a compliment, not an insult.
Parents and nonparents alike are flummoxed as to what to do when O.P.K. (Other People’s Kids) act up in public. My general rule is that you can’t discipline O.P.K., but you can always set your own house rules and defend your person and property from offenders of any age. You can also speak up when a child’s health and safety are at stake.
One L.W. wanted to know what to do after seeing a neighbor’s teenage son smoking on the back porch, so I asked a neighbor of mine, the father of a boy the same age, what he would want someone to do in a similar situation. He said that the neighbor should rat the kid out to his parents . . . so a few weeks later, when I saw my own neighbor’s son smoking, that’s exactly what I did. (And that’s what you get for not reading my column, Jules. Hope you didn’t get in too much trouble.)
For their part, parents wondered what to do about people who brought bad grammar, sugary food, and unwanted gifts (especially from grandparents on fixed incomes!) into their children’s lives.
My favorite was a couple who didn’t want their toddler to receive Disney princesses for all the usual feminist reasons — and also because they disapproved of the “fetishization of royalty.” I pointed out to the anti-monarchists that “In the child mind, ‘princess’ just equals ‘special and unique with pretty clothes and talking animal companions.’ ” If the girl still had royal aspirations by age 12 or so, her parents could then disillusion her with a copy of Tina Brown’s The Diana Chronicles.
MISS CONDUCT REGRETS
A few things I’ve gotten wrong
It’s a line from the Ashamnu, a prayer in which the entire congregation confesses to an alphabet of sins during Yom Kippur. I sing out “Yatznu ra!” the loudest of all, because that means “We have given bad advice.”
I have! I try not to do it often, and as regular readers know, I say it “depends” so much I should be a spokeswoman for adult diapers. But you can’t hedge your way out of ever making a mistake.
Writing an advice column is a marvelous way to learn your personal quirks. One of mine, apparently, is a slightly obsessive hatred of waste products. This made me believe that you could give yesterday’s doughnut bag and coffee cup to today’s drive-through worker and he or she would cheerfully dispose of it for you. He or she will not.
I also wrote that it was acceptable to sneak into a neighbor’s yard to dispose of bagged doggie doo because that’s preferable to running into them on the sidewalk and making awkward conversation while carrying a bag full of poo. Yes, I encouraged readers to trespass on private property. Six months later I got a dog, started hanging with the other doggie moms at the park, and within weeks paid no more mind to a poo bag in the middle of a conversation than Don Draper would have to a lighted cigarette. It’s just a thing people do to keep their hands busy, that’s all.
Sometimes, even if the advice was sound, I wish I’d taken a different tone. When the mother of a 6-year-old girl was worried about play dates at the homes of children with single fathers, my response was far more patient than her prejudice deserved. And I cringe when I remember how blase I was when a letter writer asked if it was rude to compliment people by telling them they looked as if they’d lost weight. Yes, it’s rude! I wasn’t nearly as awakened to fat prejudice in the early years of the column as I am today. To think I said I would be “utterly delighted at the prospect” of being asked if I’d lost weight myself. I learned my mistake the hard way a few years later, when health problems caused my own weight to drop precipitously.
Of course, I don’t even know the worst advice I’ve given. I know the mistakes above are mistakes, because I’ve learned new and deeper things about prejudice and human nature and dog poo. But what do I still not know? What do I miss? What — and this is the one that keeps me up at night — do I misinterpret? When the only information you have about a person is a few lines they write to you. Have I been harsher than I should with L.W.s?
The worst advice I’ve ever given is a Rumsfeldian unknown unknown. And this is why, every year, I confess and ask forgiveness for the mistakes I’ll never know I made.
FIVE REASONS PEOPLE WRITE TO ADVICE COLUMNISTS (AND YOU SHOULD, TOO!)
1. Because they don’t want to start gossip by asking a friend. People who comment on advice columns sometimes snark that Letter Writers must not have friends to take their problems to. Nonsense! Of course L.W.s have friends; that’s whom they’re writing to us about.
2. Because they agreed with a co-worker, spouse, or friend to settle a disagreement by asking an advice columnist. Call me Miss Moneypenny, boys, because I’m just the coin that gets flipped.
3. Because they want to ask someone with no stake in the matter. Friends, family, and colleagues love you more and know you better than an advice columnist does, but those people will also be affected by any changes you make in your life.
4. Because writing about your problems can help you get emotional distance from them. Once in a great while I will get a long letter in which, by the end of it, the L.W. has solved the problem through the magical exercise of writing and tells me I don’t need to respond. These are delightful.
5. Because they like how the columnist writes or thinks. Sometimes questions aren’t of great urgency, but the L.W. simply would like for me to opine on something that’s happened to them recently. Advice columnists are the only writers who take requests like bar bands.
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