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    Miss Conduct

    Advice: How to politely reject a request for help applying sunscreen

    Plus, how to respond when you’re cut from the list for a family wedding.

    Need advice? Submit questions for Miss Conduct here.

    Last summer, my gentleman companion and I were having an outdoor lunch with his elderly father. An acquaintance of his father joined us, and after the meal, drew out a container of sunscreen and asked me to apply this to his bare back, which caught me quite off guard. He was clearly being unsavory, yet I did not know any polite way to decline his request. As the only woman in this quartet, the experience made me very squeamish. My companion and I agreed that it was an extremely uncomfortable situation, but neither of us could think of how else to handle it. Your advice would be very welcome.

    L.C. / Boston

    What a pity your gentleman companion didn’t pipe up with, “Oh, I’ll do it!” That would have immediately revealed the request for what it was: A nasty ploy to get a backrub from a young woman. However, he didn’t — which is no failure on his part, people rarely think of these clever things in the moment — and anyway, you need to be able to handle such things on your own. Here’s how:

    When people ask you to do something you are uncomfortable with, you reply, “I’d rather not, thanks.” That’s a complete sentence, and a courteous one. It may not be the expected answer, but it is in no way an incorrect one. Do not under any circumstances give excuses or hedge the statement. If you are asked for an explanation — “Aw, why not, dollface? I asked politely!” — reply, “I’d rather not discuss it either, thanks.”


    Any further queries are to be blocked with “Asked and answered” ad infinitum.

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    Yes, it’s awkward. But the person who made the invasive request and then wouldn’t let it go is the one who is making it awkward, who is tearing the social fabric, not you. And such people know exactly what they are doing. Don’t let them use your fear of being rude or causing a scene to control your behavior.

    In my extended family, there are only a few first cousins. We see each other about once a year as we do not live near one another. Recently, my cousin’s son got married. Several months ago, my aunt mentioned that I “didn’t make the cut” and wouldn’t be receiving an invitation. I was told it would be a very small, intimate wedding but the pictures posted on Facebook showed a large, elaborate one. I feel very hurt. Is there a better way this should have been handled?

    S.S. / Stoneham

    Oh, there are several, many, multiple better ways this could have been handled! I’m so sorry this happened to you. I tend toward the jovially blunt myself, but even I wouldn’t tell someone they “didn’t make the cut” for a wedding. And they lied about the size and tenor of the event? How awful!

    I can’t quite make out all the branches of the family tree you’re describing here — you reference both a cousin and an aunt — or who is the person who actually hurt you. Some unsolicited advice, then: Clearly your relationships are not what you thought they were. You might want to either emotionally disinvest, or else double down and put more work into the family ties, and try to strengthen the connections.

    Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology. Send comments to Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.