Miss Conduct

Rover speaks

How to reply to questions directed at your pet, plus surviving catty co-workers.

By Robin Abrahams
September 20, 2009

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I am a dog owner for the first time since childhood, and I am stymied as to how to respond to the many strangers who want to strike up a conversation with my pet. For example, if someone says, “You are sooo cute,” should I respond in the voice of the dog, say nothing, or craft a non sequitur in my own voice? Most times, I don’t really want to chat, but sometimes a question is involved, such as “What kind of doggie are you?” I don’t want to appear rude, but I don’t really want to respond, “I am a mutt.” I find these situations awkward. J.W. / Salem There’s nothing like having a dog to get you on speaking terms with your neighbors, a fact that social scientists, mystifyingly, continue to present as an unadulterated good. You say that you usually don’t want to chat, but I’m afraid you’re in for a bit of small talk, whether you like it or not. It’s part of having a dog.

But that doesn’t mean that you need to make the small talk as the dog. If someone coos, “What’s your name?” to Maxie, you needn’t respond in a similar coo, or an imitation of Maxie’s growl, or some sad, strangled Scooby-Doo impersonation. (Though if you ever do, I hope I’m around to witness it. I can so easily envision a repellently cute meeting scene in a romantic comedy in which the couple start a sort of baby-talk/doggie-voice dialogue and don’t know how to get out of it. “And what’s your owner’s phone number?” “Rix run revren . . .”)

Go ahead and answer the question that was, for all intents and purposes, addressed to you: “His name is Maxie; he’s a mixed breed.”

This “addressing the dog” business can go two ways, and after a while you may find yourself saying things to your dog that are really meant for another human: “No, that man isn’t jogging so you can chase him.” “I know you’d like to stay in the park, but we need to go home and get breakfast,” and so on.

I have a co-worker who goes out of her way to throw people under the proverbial bus. She does catty high school things, such as CC our boss when she’s e-mailing us about simple mistakes we make. She also will call someone out on errors in our weekly department meetings. However, if someone brings up one of her errors, she will make up every excuse in the book to prove that she was right all along. I cannot stand working like this. Do you have any tips on how to approach her? M.P. / Boston Approach her to what end? Do you think that a reasonable and civil conversation would help this woman understand the harm she is causing and induce her to change her behavior?

Me neither.

I’m sorry you have to work with Ms. Rat -- but so does everyone else in your office, including your boss, and Ms. Rat probably has the same effect on them that she does on you. I doubt she’s making any friends anywhere, and I doubt that your boss takes her petty games seriously. (If he or she does seem inclined to give weight to Ms. Rat’s attempts at character assassination, think seriously about looking for a new job. A back-stabbing co-worker is a nuisance, but a foolish boss can be a career-killer.) Don’t allow yourself to get defensive about any mistakes she points out -- thank her, fix it if it’s a genuine mistake and fixable, and move on. I know this situation is frustrating, but you have a good opportunity to demonstrate to your boss and co-workers that you can deal well with difficult people and that you put the quality of your work above your own ego. So grit your teeth and work that thing!

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology. Got a question or comment? Write to BLOG Read more of Miss Conduct’s wit and wisdom at CHAT Get advice live every first and third Wednesday, noon to 1 p.m., at

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