Is it your understanding that after people follow your advice, they are generally able to maintain their relationships with those involved? In your May 21 column, you indicate that Bob “messed up” and suggested telling him that fact as one option. I agree, but the few times I have exercised such “telling,” it has not had a good ending — not even when I made an extra effort to continue the friendship. Perhaps I am socially inept, but both jobs require a more than normal amount of interpersonal skills. In general, I find that recipients of the advice are terribly offended and never want to socialize again. Is this just my problem?
J.B. / Boston
(Announcer voice: “Previously on Miss Conduct, Bob bought his girlfriend a ticket to a destination wedding that only he had been invited to. The parents of the bride were militantly offended and Bob’s mother was mortified.” Cue intro music and theme montage.)
Yes, friendships can survive painful conversations and boundary-setting. What matters is context and framing.
The Context of Bob, which sounds like a correctly rejected title for an indie film, was intrafamily, and the clan elders seemed to be taking a strong role in stage-managing the event. I wasn’t suggesting that any old person read Bob the riot act, but rather that his mother play the Mom Card and explain the facts of invitations to him.
If you’re not Mom — or Boss or Mentor or Teacher or some other authority figure — the Mom Card can be tricky. Schooling another person in manners imposes a hierarchy on a relationship that can be damaging. (Of course, it’s perfectly fine to clue a friend in on the social norms at, say, his or her first candlepin game or drag show or barn raising. That only implies that you know a particular situation better than your friend does, not that you’re a more civilized being overall.) Workplace savoir-faire doesn’t always carry over to the social realm — treating friends like underlings, or even treasured clients, is deadly to relationships.
This doesn’t mean putting up with any and every annoying behavior. It means you frame your requests as setting your own boundaries, clearly and firmly, and then you enforce them. You don’t frame the conversation as enlightening the backward on proper social graces.
Think about how you’d like such a conversation to go if the shoe were on the other foot. You’d probably be quite happy to oblige friends who asked you to stop doing X in their presence because it bothered them. You would probably be far less happy to stop doing X because you’re told X is a terribly rude thing to do: Didn’t you know polite people never X in front of others? Of course, we still love you. You just didn’t know any better, that’s all. We’re so glad we got a chance to have this little talk. Dinner next Friday? What’s that? You don’t think you’ll have your appetite back by then? What a shame!
Since your question was inspired by The Context of Bob, I’m assuming that you’re referring to Bob-level offenses — faux pas creating awkwardness and inconvenience at worst; violations of etiquette, not ethics. Harmful or hateful behavior is different and calls for a different response. You don’t need to couch an aversion to racial slurs or drunken driving as a personal preference you hope your friends will accommodate.
Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.WAS YOUR ETIQUETTE ADVICE POORLY RECEIVED? Send your questions to Miss Conduct at firstname.lastname@example.org.