Miss Conduct

Empty-handed visitors

Should houseguests bring thank you gifts? Plus, halting political e-mails.

By Robin Abrahams
May 9, 2010

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I am wondering if my expectations are too high or if I’ve been taken advantage of. I was going to be out of town for a week, and a friend was attending a local training session during that time, so I offered to let him stay at my house to save him a commute. I thought that he would leave a bottle of wine or some token of thanks. I got an e-mail thanking me. I was brought up to bring a token of appreciation when I arrive at someone’s house for an overnight visit. I am feeling a bit used and don’t really know how to respond. M.K. / Boston You feel “taken advantage of” and “used,” all because you didn’t get a bottle of wine out of the deal? I agree your friend could ideally have been more effusive in his thanks, but he probably saw your offer as a mutually beneficial one: He got a convenient place to stay while taking his class, and you got someone to water your plants, bring in your mail, and make the place look lived in. In other words, you got a free house sitter, and he got a free house to sit in. You weren’t hosting him in the traditional sense of being around to make conversation and breakfast. Unless he trashed your place rock-star style or raided your supply of Iranian caviar or Vicodin, your level of outrage appears misplaced. Let it go, and the next time you want to do something nice for someone, ask yourself if you’re doing it out of generosity or if you’re expecting a favor or ego-stroking in return.

We have a cordial relationship with our closest neighbors. We help one another with favors and chat as we work in our yards or as our children play outside. Their politics differ from ours and we have occasionally received e-mails from them in support of their preferred candidates, which we have ignored. Yesterday, we got a political e-mail that was offensive and contained misleading statements and outright lies. On the one hand, we feel morally obligated to respond and try to end this malicious misinformation. On the other, we wish to keep our cordial relationship. Do we value the principle at the risk of creating a frost on this relationship? C.V. / Chelmsford As a moral question, only you can answer this for yourself. As a tactical one, however, I’d strongly advise you to stay friends and mutually agree to keep politics out of it. If we can’t reach across the lines at all, even to borrow a pair of hedge clippers, America is going to become an even more divided, polemical country than it already is. And it’s not as though you’ve got a good chance of changing their minds. People’s political views rarely come from a fully rational place, and confronting people with empirical facts has a remarkably low success rate as a persuasive device.

However, this doesn’t mean you have to be subjected to noxious e-mails. The next time you’re all out doing yardwork or watching the kiddies play, mention that you both know you’re on the opposite side of the political as well as picket fence, and you’d prefer being left off their political e-mail lists in the future. This doesn’t have to be a stilted or awkward conversation; take an exaggeratedly self-deprecating, lighthearted tone. “By the way, Bob, you’ve probably figured out by now that we’re [total dittoheads who want pictures of Ayn Rand and Jesus on the dollar bill] [moonbat liberals who want to outlaw gun ownership except for illegal immigrants]. Let’s keep politics out of our friendship, OK? We won’t try to convert you if you won’t try to convert us. And when they come [to drill for oil in your backyard] [take your grandma to a death panel], we’ll protect you! Friendsies?” Respond to any other political e-mails from them with a cheerful “I thought we agreed not to go there!”

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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