Miss Conduct

Advice: Help, my unstable sister-in-law desperately wants to be friends

Plus, shouldn’t the host eat when the guests eat?

Get the best of the Magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.

One of my sisters-in-law is emotionally unstable and heavily medicated. She’s been hospitalized for depression and anxiety before. She keeps trying to be my friend. Every time she sends me a message, I grit my teeth and try to be nice but I just want to scream “Your jokes aren’t funny, the links you send aren’t interesting, I don’t want to be your friend!” I feel guilty and sad that I can’t like her; she doesn’t have many people in her life. But from her uber-religious conservative ideas to her interests and personality, there’s nothing for me to like. I feel like ignoring her messages would be hurtful but what do I do?

M.M. / Medford

First off, there’s having a mental illness, and then there is being a jerk. These two qualities are conceptually independent. (Your sister-in-law could be cured of all her problems tomorrow, and she would still have the same ideology and hobbies and fondness for Minion memes.)

So give yourself permission to dislike her. Doing so will free you from guilt and also from the unfortunate rhetorical tendency to stigmatize the mentally ill.


And you can be friendly without being her friend. Right now her messages get your own psychic kettle boiling over. Turn down the flame! Get in the habit of replying to her with brief, cheerful, impersonal responses — “Interesting!” “Wow, I had no idea.” Laughing puppy emojis. Don’t engage, don’t argue, don’t agree, simply acknowledge. You are not a person. You are a Magic 8-Ball.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

If there’s a particular genre of message that you find annoying (the religious proselytizing, perhaps?) then don’t respond to those at all, and perhaps the behaviorists will be proved right and lack of reward will eventually lead her to stop sending them to you.

When my husband and I have dinner guests, should he sit down at the beginning of the meal? In the past, he has insisted on first cleaning off the grill, which can take 10-plus minutes. Recently he agreed to immediately join everyone at the dinner table but didn’t start eating until most of us were finished, then got seconds after everyone else was done. I tried to explain to him that you don’t watch guests eat dinner while you talk. He said he was just engaging in conversation and being an active listener.

E.W. / Boston

Yes, hosts sit and eat when their guests do. It’s not so much that hosts must eat when their guests do as that they must not eat while everyone else is twiddling their thumbs, sated and wishing for more comfortable seating, perhaps even in the privacy of their own homes. What did your poor guests do once they’d exhausted all conversation topics, and their host was just beginning to chow down? Did they “actively listen” to his mastication? How delightful for them!

If a host misses the window for eating the main course, he or she should skip it and move on. He can always eat after the guests are gone — your house, your leftovers!

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

The holidays are nearly here. Worried about travel, gift-giving, entertaining? Miss Conduct can help! Write