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Today's column

Posted by Robin Abrahams April 20, 2014 06:57 AM

... is online here. A Letter Writer is disappointed that the extravagant birthday she planned for a friend wasn't returned in kind:

Say something, but don't "confront"--simply share. And before you speak up, back out of your hurt and look at the wider context. Is your friend going through financial hard times (without possessing the compensatory craft skills of a Leslie Knope)? Is she generally a poor planner or juggling more than the usual number of responsibilities? Or is she not all the way plugged in on social skills, so it might not have even occurred to her that your efforts weren't symmetrical? She may have promised you a lovebomb that she simply doesn't have the capacity to deliver.

Today's column

Posted by Robin Abrahams April 13, 2014 09:02 AM

... is online here. A woman wrote in about her husband's corn-eating habits, and I got all silly and indulged myself in bad puns like I was Dear Prudence:

The important thing to realize is that yours is not the first marriage to experience conflict, and even pain, because of corn.
Even before technology, otherwise peaceful marriages could be endangered by the scourge of corn, when roasters married boilers or a young woman brought up to nibble from the cob in neat rows discovered with horror that she had married one of the dread "random gougers." In the 21st century, with so many devices--forks! spoons!--capable of delivering corn to our very faces at any hour of the day or night, it is no wonder husbands and wives can find themselves wondering if corn has turned their marriage into an empty husk. Is there a way out of the maze of corn?

Today's column

Posted by Robin Abrahams April 6, 2014 07:49 AM

... is online here. Should you send a personal note to a bereaved colleague, even if you weren't friends?

In absence of any greater connection to the person or the event, though, your silence was in no way offensive or thoughtless. People who have lost a loved one want sympathy and intense emotional support, and they also want to exercise and reaffirm all the parts of their identity that aren't Bereaved Betty and resume normal life. You are part of your supervisor's normal life, and that's all you have to be. She needs that as much or more than she needs a shoulder to cry on.

Chat today at noon!

Posted by Robin Abrahams April 2, 2014 10:05 AM

It's showering men!

Posted by Robin Abrahams April 1, 2014 08:18 AM

Sunday's column featured a bride who was being pressured by her future mother-in-law to have a shower, which she didn't want. Naturally, I took the bride's side on this and urged her fiance to tell his mom to back off. A reader sends in an excellent alternative method of handling the dispute:

How about suggesting to the groom's mother that she give a shower for her son? We had a double wedding in which our sons were the grooms. A neighbor gave a formal (hats and sundresses and tea) backyard shower for the two grooms. It was wonderful. People were clever and funny. The boys got things like rakes, hammers, paint brushes. It was such a success that a year later when another son got married my aunt had a shower for him with all my female cousins. Again, it was a kick. Husbands need stuff, too. The bride's family and bridesmaids were included in the three showers, but if, in this case, the bride does not want a shower it could be limited to the groom's family and ushers. It would work with less hostility, just fun.

Great idea!

Today's column

Posted by Robin Abrahams March 30, 2014 09:02 AM online here. It's a difficult-to-excerpt one in which I handle an overbearing soon-to-be-mother-in-law, and address a conflict between the parents of two friends. Also featuring the brilliant Polish proverb "Not my circus, not my monkeys."


Today's column

Posted by Robin Abrahams March 23, 2014 09:49 AM

... is online here. Is it ever permissible to cancel plan A because Plan B showed up?

The official etiquette line is that you don't cancel plans because something better comes along. If you've promised the new girl in class that you'll come over and help her alphabetize her record collection, you don't ditch her just because the quarterback asked you out for a malted. As an ethical principle, this is simple and perfect, a little touch of Golden Rule. In practice though, everyone knows that Old College Roommate in Town for One Night trumps Hanging Out at Home Depot with Jim, even if you promised Jim weeks ago that Sunday was Home Depot night. Jim, of course, would bail on you if it were his old college roommate in town, so he understands. Sometimes we do wind up canceling plans, not because we value one friend more than the other, but because some feasts are movable and others are not.

Chat today at noon!

Posted by Robin Abrahams March 19, 2014 07:09 AM

Today's column

Posted by Robin Abrahams March 16, 2014 09:45 AM

... is online here. You won't believe the horror story the first Letter Writer has to share, about a storage pod that's been inhabiting his property line for nine years:

You've clearly been living podside so long that the situation has begun to feel almost normal, which in Bizarro World logic means you are the troublemaker for upsetting the status quo. But that's pod thinkin', son! The pod needs to go. Bottom line: It doesn't matter if calling the city makes your neighbors feel bad. It doesn't matter if they get angry at you. Their feelings do not make you the bad guys.

Friday roundup: St. Purim's Day edition

Posted by Robin Abrahams March 14, 2014 10:14 AM

This weekend is both Purim and St. Patrick's Day. Last year I wrote up some thoughts about Purim that ring even more true today:

Moderation in the face of the outrageous is no virtue. Purim reminds us of our capacity to be outraged, and to be outrageous.

And it is a holiday meant to be celebrated once a year. And designed, frankly, to give you a bad enough hangover that you'll think twice the next time you're tempted to stray from the path of moderation.

Now we live in a world that tries to sell us both the wild decadent glee of Purim, and the existential threat of Esther, 24/7.

How do we live in a world of Permanent Purim?

It's also Lent, of course. I asked about readers' observance of Lent on my Facebook page, and got some thoughtful answers. Many people talked about a practice they were taking on rather than giving anything up--extra charity, prayer, or so on. I should think if one followed the giving-something-up route, the difficult bit is to choose something that is a spiritual challenge to give up, and not merely a secular goal (like wanting to lose 10 pounds) conveniently tacked on to a religious season.

I was going to say that it was surprising no one mentioned giving up any technology for Lent, until I realized that I'd asked it after the season started and anyone who did that was probably not going to be Facebooking with Miss Conduct, now, were they? MD Mama blogged about a recent study on smartphones and parenting:

R]esearchers from Boston University hung out in a fast food restaurant and watched people. Specifically (because people-watching in fast-food restaurants can be interesting for all sorts of reasons), they watched caregivers with children who were less than ten years old (or at least who looked like they were less than ten). They were curious about their use of "devices" and how it affected the interactions between them. 
What they found is what anybody who has been paying attention would predict. Of the 55 families they watched, 40 of them used a device. The amount they used that device varied--from 3 who left it on the table to 16 who were completely absorbed in it the whole time they were at the restaurant. Not surprisingly, being really absorbed in your phone means you're really not interacting with your children. 
The kids had varied responses; some were busy and didn't care, some seemed to accept it, and some kept trying to get their caregiver's attention--sometimes getting angry responses. ... The researchers talked about some of the questions we really need to study, and one of them was the long-term effects on children of "presence-absence," when their caregivers are there, but not really.
I'm trying to pull out of screen-world a bit. I sprained my leg and arm in late November, which means I've been apartment-bound for even longer than most of us this winter. (The polar vortex hit the very weekend that I was able to get down the stairs of the house on my own.) I have devoured the current crop of political melodramas--"Scandal," "House of Cards," "The Good Wife"--out of hunger for a world where people walked outdoors and wore attractive suits to meetings and ate lunch with other people in public places. I suppose the best comment in response to my Facebook question was, "I'm giving up winter."

Adventures in capsule living and a question for you

Posted by Robin Abrahams March 12, 2014 06:18 AM

The house Mr. Improbable and I live in is being renovated, top to bottom, inside and out, and as a result we have had to condense two entire apartments' worth of stuff (and, in Mr. Improbable's case, over 30 years' worth of history) into three rooms, one of which is storage.

We're living in the other two rooms, and it's not half bad, even considering that we both work at home. All the houses on our block have had work done in the past few years, it seems, and mostly during the summer when we have our windows open, so we're used to writing with construction noise in the background.

Here's my question to you, readers: When the renovation is over, we'll have a much nicer and more guest-friendly apartment. Our place was so oddly-configured and old and difficult to maintain that I gave in to learned helplessness years ago: You try gracious entertaining when your kitchen is on a different floor than your dining room and there's no dumbwaiter. So I'm looking forward to upping my game on the domestic front.

What are your favorite books, magazines, websites, or other resources for decorating, entertaining, and housekeeping? What are your own best practices? What products or tips or tricks do you find helpful?

Some pictures of our current capsule lifestyle. The Front Room: 


The red bra hanging on the wall there isn't any old bra, it's Dr. Elena Bodnar's Emergency Bra, which can also be used as a particle-filtering mask. Or, actually, two particle-filtering masks. This could be useful if dust from construction becomes overwhelming. 

Thumbnail image for P1000871.JPG


And this is the Back Room. 



This is where Milo spends most of his time, although he also has a blanket on the floor of the Front Room. It occurred to me the other day that he probably thinks of the bed as his territory that he graciously shares with us, and why wouldn't he? He's in it 18 hours a day. 

Tickets not trinkets

Posted by Robin Abrahams March 11, 2014 07:48 AM

Lindsay Abrams interviews James Wallman at at Salon on one of Miss Conduct's favorite themes--"experientialism," or why spending money and time on experiences is better than spending it on stuff (assuming, of course, you have all the basic stuff you need):

Some people like to go skiing. Some people like to go for a walk. Some people like to rock climb. Some people like to ramble in the hills. There's a very interesting piece of research that I came across recently that says really gung-ho, seat of your pants, exciting experiences really work well for young people whereas for older people, what they should look to do is the simple experiences. Going for a walk with a friend, having dinner with a friend, whatever it might be. I think you're trying to make a statement about who you are. And what's interesting, I think today, is that instead of making a statement about who we are in terms of our material goods, we're much more focused on making a statement on who we are through experiences instead. So if you think of the rise of Tough Mudder, there's a great example.

Long-time readers know I'm a huge advocate of giving experiential gifts rather than material possessions:

Give experiences. The best present is a cherished memory. Tickets to a concert, play, or sporting event make wonderful gifts. A friend gave her wife trapeze lessons for her birthday--something she won't forget any time soon. If you usually exchange gifts with friends, suggest spending the money together on a fancy dinner or a paintball excursion.

(No, you can't give everyone trapeze lessons, and the article quoted offers a few more tips for giving gifts in a world where we all have too much stuff and not enough money.)

Wallman, who is a British "trend forecaster," summarizes quite a bit of research from different disciplines--it's a juicy little interview. He cites five reasons that experiences are better than material possessions, this being my favorite:

If you think about the things that you have versus the things that you've done, the things you have contribute far less to your identity. Wedding gifts are a great example, as compared to actually having had a wedding. Or if you just had to choose between giving back $1,000 worth of clothes and things that you have, versus giving back $1,000 worth of a weekend away with friends, most people would give back the stuff. Have you seen the movie "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"? Experiences really matter -- things that happen to us, that we have done, really contribute to our identity.
If you've climbed the hill, if you've done the Tough Mudder course, if you've learned to surf, if you've learned how to make bread or cupcakes, or you've run the New York Marathon, or you've gone ice skating in Central Park -- that contributes to who you are. Whereas having a material good doesn't contribute in the same way nearly as much.

Today's column

Posted by Robin Abrahams March 9, 2014 07:57 AM

... is online here. The great "ma'am"-or-"miss," "you guys," et cetera dilemma comes up again!

If you don't like how you are being addressed, but the address is clearly intended to be friendly and respectful, take it as such. What sounds right---or least wrong, anyway--to any given person is a complex matter of geographical background, age, profession, gender ideology, and how naturally formal that person tends to be. If other people take umbrage at your "ma'am" or "folks," say that you didn't intend it as an insult and carry on. (Anyone who believes that being addressed respectfully means that one is old, and that to be old is somehow shameful, should take these notions up with some sort of professional, but perhaps not a restaurant server.)

Friday roundup: Milo edition

Posted by Robin Abrahams March 7, 2014 09:18 AM

Milo has cancer.

We love him, and he is only around 10 years old, and we were not ready for this one.

He is a happy dog at the moment, and when he can no longer be a happy dog, he will no longer be. We will take care of that. He is taking prednisone to reduce the tumors, for as long as that can help. That is all we are doing. He's too high-strung to tolerate regular hospital visits, even though dogs don't suffer from chemo like people do.

He has been immensely cheerful of late, even making a new friend for the first time in years--a puppy, yet, and Milo does not generally enjoy the company of youth. Our house is being renovated, and we've condensed our living space into two rooms, and I think Milo has been enjoying having his people in closer quarters. We're giving him lots of treats and attention.

And we're trying not to let on, which is pretty much taking every shred of self-control either of us possesses. I think we're doing a good job. Milo sleeps in bed with us, and if he's feeling secure and confident he sleeps at the foot of the bed. He edges up closer to us when he's nervous. If he's had a very bad day, he sleeps right up top by our faces.

He's been staying down at the foot of the bed lately. So he thinks life is going pretty well.

And it will, little man. There will always be good times for you until you fall asleep with our hands on your body and our whispers in your ears.







Bad artists, good art

Posted by Robin Abrahams March 6, 2014 03:03 PM

Earlier this week I read and greatly enjoyed Ender's Game. It's a shame I didn't read it at a younger age; I'm sure it would have messed with my head in all the most wonderful ways.

The author, Orson Scott Card, is messed up in the head in some distinctly non-wonderful ways. What do we do about artists who are also bad people? My Facebook feed has been the Woody Allen Show for almost a month now, as people debate his character, his work, and the appropriate response to it all.

We all enjoy work by artists who were bad people. It's like living on stolen land: Everybody does it. Liking the work doesn't imply approval of the artist's behavior or life. That said, there is far more music and art and literature and performing arts than anyone will ever be able to hear and see and read, so excluding works from your personal canon on the grounds that the creator is a schmuck seems as fair a reason as any.

These are my personal guidelines when I'm faced with the Bad Person/Good Artist conundrum:

1. Will I be benefiting this person? Well, yes, this is just a polite way of asking if they're dead yet. Patricia Highsmith was a big ol' Jew-hater, but I've got all her books because my shekels aren't going into her pocketses. Mr. Card, on the other hand, is still with us, so his books I get from the library.

2. Does the personal evil permeate the work? This is an extraordinarily subjective call. I adore Patricia Highsmith, but I know many people feel that her writing, if not explicitly anti-Semitic, is generally too misanthropic to take. On the other hand, Woody Allen has been tripping my Spidey Sense for years. I find his work narcissistic, predatory, and nausea-inducing.

Ender's Game, by contrast, was an extraordinary book, generous of spirit and broad of mind, that is quite possibly better than its author intended.

What about you? Are there artists whom you think are terrible people, but who create work that is markedly better than they are? 

Work-life balance & my other job

Posted by Robin Abrahams March 6, 2014 12:48 PM

At my other job, my boss and I made the cover of Harvard Business Review with this article on how top executives combine work and family. You have to pay for that article, unfortunately. But we wrote some blog posts that are both complementary (to the article) and complimentary:

A Successful International Assignment Depends on These Factors -- what you should think about before accepting an overseas transfer

What Does Success Mean to You -- the difference between subjective and objective success

Buying Gold -- our take on the phenomenon of athletes who take on a new citizenship in order to compete in the Olympics

Our article was also covered in Slate yesterday. Jessica Grose remarked on one of the gender differences we found:

The most disheartening thing about the survey results is that executives--both male and female--continue to see the tension between work and family as a women's problem. Male executives admit they don't prioritize their families enough, and they don't seem too bothered by it. They praise their spouses for taking over the homefront entirely, while female executives praise their spouses for not interfering with their careers ...  
The one silver lining of the article is that the HBS students who interviewed the executives were dismayed by the findings. Both male and female students resisted the notion that you can't be an executive and also lead a balanced life. What remains to be seen is whether they'll do anything to change it decades from now when they're the ones in power.

Chat Wednesday at noon! First chat of spring?

Posted by Robin Abrahams March 4, 2014 04:50 PM

Monday question: Invitation obligation

Posted by Robin Abrahams March 3, 2014 07:26 AM

Happy March, everyone! I'm choosing to take this as the first day of spring, and don't you even think about arguing with me, you hear?

Here's a question for my readers, especially those with kids:

Because my work schedule doesn't allow me to get out in time, the mother of a child in my daughter's gymnastics class picks my daughter up once a week from her after school program and brings her to gymnastics. I drive the girls home. The girls are not really friends, merely acquaintances in the same class. I met the mother as we waited for our girls at various classes around town and we get along well, though our interactions are limited to drop offs and pick ups. 
My daughter and I are now planning her birthday party and my daughter adamantly doesn't want to invite this child saying that they aren't friends and she shouldn't have to invite someone she doesn't want there. I think that is valid, however I think it would be kind to invite her and I also worry that if she finds out, it would hurt her feelings, maybe even jeopardize the mother's helpfulness. They go to the same school, but are not in the same class and my daughter is civil to her, but has no interest in play dates with this girl. Should I insist, or respect my daughter's wishes for her birthday celebration?

I think the mother should insist. Sometimes you invite people because of obligation, that's just how it is. It's not going to spoil the kid's birthday party to have a mere acquaintance there.

But I'm interested in hearing from readers, particularly those with children. How do you manage invite lists for your kids' parties? And should this mother include the gymnastics acquaintance or not?

Today's column

Posted by Robin Abrahams March 2, 2014 10:04 AM

... is online here. The LW is bothered by her spoiled and unpleasant niece and nephew. Miss Conduct sympathizes:

The nuisance posed by the children themselves can be managed into reasonable parameters. How is your relationship with their parents? Nothing can renew your faith in humanity more than seeing dear friends or relatives rise brilliantly to the task of parenting, revealing greater depths of resourcefulness and courage than you ever dreamed they possessed. And nothing is quite as dismaying as the opposite, when people you love raise their children to be people you can't even like.

Today's column

Posted by Robin Abrahams February 23, 2014 08:54 AM

... is online here. The first LW had an excellent question--what do you do when a friend wants sympathy about being criticised by someone else ("Imogene") ... whom you actually sort of agree with?

We respond, "How ridiculous and immature of Imogene to trash you on Facebook like that!" The Imogene Protocol, as we shall call it, is to roundly condemn Imogene's method of communication and skate around the substance of Imogene's accusations. This sounds weaselly, but it really isn't. Victims of Imogene usually aren't upset about the actual criticism, but because Imogene involved other people in a personal dispute or criticized something that was none of her business in the first place. So, that's what you go after. "I know! Like it's any of her business how other people spend their money!" or "Classy move to air dirty laundry in public! I just don't know about Imogene."
About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at

Who is Miss Conduct?

Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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