Miss Conduct

Advice: I called someone by the wrong name, and now she’s mad

When you mess up on a name, what’s the best way to make amends? Plus, my friends undervalue my work.

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At a high school function, I called another parent by the wrong name — I mixed her up with someone else. I think I may have done the exact same thing once before. It can be hard when you see other parents only once every few months or so. She didn’t seem happy afterward. If a similar situation happens again, it would be great to have a response.

S.T. / Concord

You’d think anyone old enough to have high-school-aged children — or teach them, or be one, for that matter — would have been in the same situation often enough to relate! We evolved to keep track of only a few hundred people, after all.


The best response is to apologize sincerely and say something to bolster the other person’s ego and reestablish your bond with him or her — “I forget your name, but you made a great point about the parking situation at the last meeting.” Make it clear, in other words, that it’s the name, not the person, you’ve forgotten. If there’s a complicating element to the mix-up — if you’ve just confused two women of color, or two bitter rivals for PTA president — don’t make it worse with excessive self-abasement and excuses. Apologize, reconnect, ask an intelligent question focused on the other person, and listen good and hard to the answer.

And talk to whoever is in charge of the meetings about getting name tags in the future (or bring them in yourself), which would make things easier for everyone. Not every etiquette problem has an engineering solution, but this one does.

I am a professional artist who is constantly asked to donate my work to charity auctions, where my paintings are sold for far less than they earn in galleries. The people soliciting donations mean well, believe in their cause, and are often friends. But this is not a hobby. When I tell the auction solicitors that underselling my work adversely affects my livelihood and hurts my professional reputation, they tend to get affronted. This affects my relationship with them on a personal level. What should I do besides ignore that initial phone call completely?


D.B. / Boston

You’re overthinking the situation, which is causing a problem for you, and you’re severely overexplaining it, which is causing problems with everyone else.

Philosophically, I couldn’t be more on your side. Artists should be paid fairly, and if you believe it’s a bad career move to donate more than a certain number of paintings, well, you know your business. But the friends who ask you to donate aren’t challenging the value of your work or your industry knowledge. They’re simply off on their own highfalutin well-meaning scavenger hunt for desirable goods. Simply say no — “I’m so sorry, I can’t this time!” — and skip the explanations. When people ask for financial donations, you don’t tell them the details of your household budget, after all.

Also, if it’s a close friend or a good cause and you want to help out, must you donate a gallery-worthy painting? How about a sketch, or an early or experimental work, or a tour of your art space and a short painting lesson, or something like that? You sound unusually creative and analytical — I’m sure you can find some good workarounds.


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