Miss Conduct

Advice: Should you speak up when people say hateful things?

Plus, a question from someone who sounds awfully similar to a fictional wizard.

Occasionally at a dinner party someone will speak in a derogatory manner about people who are gay or disabled or of a different ethnicity. When I say something, no matter how gently phrased, an uncomfortable silence usually falls over the crowd and it takes quite a while before normal conversation resumes. Recently at my sister’s home, a special-ed teacher said many unkind things about her students and their problems. I don’t want to be a bad guest, but I feel wrong to sit there and say nothing.

Anonymous / Boston

You aren’t being a bad guest, the person who mistakes trash talk for appropriate dinner table conversation is. Shutting down a hateful guest is rightly the host’s job, so don’t be the first to leap in — but if the host doesn’t step up after the first couple of vile statements, speak up. Make sure you don’t just shut the person down, but offer a change of subject for everyone else to grab onto. “I’d rather not insult whole groups of people as a topic of conversation — unless it’s the [sportsball team currently rivaling our sportsball team]!” you say. Then everyone can happily talk sportsball for a while until the conversational dance recovers its rhythm.

(At larger events, where people break into small groups and the hosts are circulating, the best response to an obnoxious line of conversation is to simply say, “I’m not available for this line of talk” and walk away. Nothing is more delicious than depriving a boor of an audience. Go freshen your drink, examine the bookshelves, and find another grouplet to attach to.)


Whatever you do, don’t allow yourself to be sucked into a debate about “free speech” or “political correctness” or the legitimacy of the trash talker’s claims. Hateful people love to pretend that they are victims and that their incivility represents some kind of political statement. Laugh at this notion as the childish thing it is. Insulting people at the dinner table is not entertainment for respectable adults. Period.

My biological parents were killed when I was a year old. I was raised by my aunt and uncle, who neglect and mistreat me. Their spoiled son gets to go on extravagant trips for his birthdays while I am lucky to get a pair of socks. But the worst is being lied to. They said my parents died in a car crash and the scar on my forehead was proof, but I don’t believe them. They forbid me from asking questions about my parents. I’ve always been gifted and feel they might mistreat me because I’m not “normal.” How I can improve my situation and learn more about my parents?

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H.P. / Town Withheld

Unlike some of your professors, dear H.P., I do not possess the gift of divination. Still, I know for many nonconforming youth, “it gets better,” as the saying goes. You are energetic and I assume usually honest, and people with those qualities usually find a sympathetic community sooner or later. (You are also a compelling storyteller, but your original letter was filled with misspellings. Try to befriend a more academically minded classmate.) Be patient in the meantime. Lower your expectations of your adoptive family. Remember that you are a bigger person than they are. Eventually their narrowness of mind, heart, and stairwell may inspire bemused pity rather than anger.

I would love to chat more, H.P., but I’ve got to catch up on my Harry Potter reading. I can tell you’re a fan, too!

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

WHAT KIND OF RUDENESS TAKES YOUR BREATH AWAY? Send your questions to Miss Conduct at