Miss Conduct

Advice: I can’t deal with my friend’s grief

How do you continue a relationship with someone who’s too needy? Plus, the line between polite and patronizing.

A friend’s mother received a terrible diagnosis in her late 80s. I realize people grieve in different ways, but the quantity of very emotional messages and texts from my friend is burdensome — her outcry seems out of proportion. We are middle-aged professionals. I resent the amount of support that is being requested and the care I must put into wording my responses. She is thin-skinned and does not take criticism well. I am happy to be friends but would like our interaction to be less intense and emotional. Advice?

Anonymous / Boston

Why do you want to stay in this friendship? You don’t seem to like your friend very much or to respect her at all. Nothing destroys a relationship faster or more thoroughly than contempt, and your emotional needle is definitely moving into that range. So why not cut the cord? You would free yourself from a friendship that feels like a burden and free your friend from her futile efforts to get the kind of support she wants from someone who isn’t willing or capable of giving it to her.

“Oh, no, Miss Conduct!” you say. “What you don’t understand is that Meg Mourner and I were freshman roommates, that she is the only person who I let read my Scandal fan fiction, that we have been tennis partners for over a decade.” Is your first reaction something like this? Then steer your friendship back to these fertile shores. This may require some mea culpa on your part. You don’t get to tell your friend she’s grieving too hard, but you can tell her that you’re terrible at supporting grieving people and ask her if she can please, for your sake, pull back. (Either, both, or neither of these things may be true. The point isn’t who is behaving badly  but that what she needs isn’t compatible with what you can provide. Politeness demands that in this situation, we put the blame on ourselves, not the other person.) Then you love-bomb her with nostalgia, Olivia/Mellie road-trip stories, tennis dates, or whatever until your relationship is solid and rewarding for both of you again.


But if this is not your first reaction — and my Spidey Sense says it won’t be — then ending the friendship is kindest for both of you.

I find I say “Thank you, sir” to people who may not be used to being called sir because of their age and/or status: cabdrivers, the men who check in my rental car, cashiers. Am I coming off as patronizing and therefore rude?

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L.R. / Cambridge

If honorifics are an automatic and natural part of how you talk, no one should take offense. “Should” doesn’t equal “will,” unfortunately, and people in this part of the country can get mighty testy about “sir” and “ma’am.” (You say “ma’am,” too, right? You’re not calling women “sir” like Marcie from Peanuts, are you?) They don’t say it’s condescending, though, they say it makes them feel old. So if you’re of a certain age and sir-and-ma’aming younger people, they may well find it eccentric and charming.

The sad fact is, there are no universally acceptable forms of address to strangers anymore. I’ve heard objections to “sir,’’ “ma’am,’’ “miss,’’ “you all,’’ “you guys,’’ “dude,’’ “sweetie,” other pet names, and to simply stating your business without calling the other person anything at all. Until we as a society solve this problem, I stick with “sir” and “ma’am” and encourage you to do the same.

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

WHAT ABOUT YOUR FRIENDS HAS YOU FUMING? Send your questions to Miss Conduct at