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Miss Conduct

How can it be rude to thank veterans for their service?

Plus, a guest speaker gets put up at a sketchy hotel.

lucy truman

I am baffled by the recent news reports that some veterans resent being “thanked for their service.” I am old enough to remember World War II vividly. Serving in the military is a family tradition going back many generations. I always say thank you to military personnel in uniform — at parties, airports, wherever. And now I learn that this is bad behavior? I understand the response of the soldiers who object. But do all soldiers feel this way? Are some pleased to have their work acknowledged?

B.N. / Milton

Soldiers aren’t uniform (oh, you know what I mean). Some dislike being thanked for their service for a variety of personal and political reasons, others appreciate it, and for a large number, it probably depends on how they’re feeling that day. Some soldiers may be pleased by the gesture itself but come over all self-conscious when a stranger makes eye contact and offers heartfelt sentiments.

As a general rule, it’s bad manners to single people out for attention based on what they look like or are wearing. This principle applies not only to uniformed soldiers but also to pregnant women, people with assistive devices, hijabis, mixed-race families, and the like. Just because a person looks conspicuous doesn’t mean he or she wants to be the center of attention. Just because you think you can tell what another person’s story is doesn’t mean you can.


Let’s apply some probability theory. Some soldiers dislike being thanked. However, no soldiers believe that every civilian they encounter is obligated to thank them. The non-thanking condition is utterly neutral. So you have, say, a 50/50 chance of an undesired outcome if you thank a soldier, and a vanishingly small chance of a bad outcome if you don’t.

I speak on college campuses a lot. Recently, a student group invited me but the accommodations they had arranged were sub-optimal: a motel whose check-in desk was behind bulletproof glass that proudly displayed a certificate thanking them for their cooperation with the local narcotics task force. I’ll spare you further details. Should I have said something? Have I inadvertently set my hosts up to mistreat their next speaker?


J.A. / Cambridge

Cheap and inelegant are one thing, lack of safety is unacceptable. You should have said something, especially since it was a student group. That’s the whole point of extracurricular activities: to make stupid mistakes like putting up guests at the Courtyard by Crackhouse and to get called out for it and embarrassed and learn better, so that you don’t make these mistakes later in your life when it could cost you your job.

How to break the news depends on your style. I would frame it as “look at this wacky misadventure we are all having together” and be blunt but jovial about why the hotel was unacceptable. If you’d wanted them to move you, make with the Google and the Yelp and present an alternative. (That’s their job, but by this point you don’t trust their hotel-choosing skills.) If you were content to stay, you should only mention the hotel problems after the fact.

Which could even be now, if you wanted to e-mail them. Say you felt uncomfortable mentioning it, tell them what happened, send them a link to a Yelp review, and use about 20 percent more emojis and exclamation marks than you normally would, to ensure that you don’t come across as harsh.


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

WHAT INADVERTENT RUDENESS HAVE YOU CAUSED (OR BEEN ON THE RECEIVING END OF)? Send your questions to Miss Conduct at missconduct@globe.com.