Miss Conduct

Here’s to dry toast

When celebrants question your lack of alcohol, plus should you say no to posh parties?

By Robin Abraham
October 18, 2009

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Recently I was at a restaurant with a group of people for a birthday celebration. I can’t drink. When a fellow stood up and started to give a toast, I raised my water glass to join in. The person to the right of me stared and said, “You can’t toast with that.” Didn’t I feel like crawling back under the rock from which I came. Please, Miss Conduct, tell me it isn’t so! M.U. / Worcester Tell you what isn’t so? That you can’t toast with water if alcohol would endanger your physical and/or psychological well-being? Of course that isn’t so! The person who said this to you is a malign fool.

What, however, should you have said? You didn’t ask me this question, but one I frequently get asked in similar situations is “What is a witty retort I could have used?” I hate that question for oh-so-many reasons. If someone is well-meaning but clueless, he or she deserves better than a snarky comeback. Those are the situations in which I recommend setting the other person straight in a direct, non-shaming manner, and then changing the topic so that the offender has somewhere to go, conversationally, other than into a pit of self-abnegation.

But if someone is, in essence, verbally assaulting you or another person -- as this lowlife was -- then that person needs to be shut down fast and hard. And a “witty retort” doesn’t do it.

Think about all the great tough-guy lines in movies: “Go ahead, make my day.” “What do you mean I’m funny?” “They call me Mister Tibbs.” They’re not the sort of apercus you associate with Oscar Wilde or Dorothy Parker, are they? But they get the job done. It’s all in how you say it, not in what you say. So when someone not only crosses a line, but blasts right through it and is clearly pretty pleased about having done so, you say something simple, and you say it in a tone of voice that not only cuts off the conversation but also cauterizes it like a red-hot machete. (I probably would have responded to “You can’t toast with that” with “And yet I am” in that voice I do, and believe you me, that person would think twice before ever commenting on another individual’s choice of beverage again.)

I want to decline attending two lavish parties during the upcoming holiday season. I am not able to reciprocate properly and so would feel like a freeloader if I went. The two hostesses of these events live very close to my home and we shop the same grocery store, so I can’t use the usual excuses for declining to attend (out of town, illness of self or family). I’m not even in a position this year to take an appropriate thank you gift with me. What reason can I give when asked to RSVP with regrets? J.R. / Las Vegas

No. You go. Go. Every virtue can turn into its opposite, and that is what you are allowing to happen. Your entirely reasonable, and commendable, desire to give back has curdled into pride. I’m not judging you -- well, all right, I am, but I am judging you with compassion and the full knowledge that I’ve done stuff like that, too. Your heart is in the right place. But how can you be so stingy as to deprive your friends of the joy of your company? How can you be so prideful as to deny them the pleasure of entertaining and celebrating? How can you be so self-centered as not to think of what you would want them to do, if the situations were reversed?

Swallow your pride. Know that your situation may change someday, as may theirs, and do unto them as you would want them to do unto you if you were on Easy Street and they were on Skid Row. Which means: Go. Eat, drink, and be merry -- and that is your “payback.”

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 this Wednesday, noon to 1 p.m., at

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  • october 18 globe magazine cover
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