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Meta-question

Posted by Robin Abrahams  March 19, 2008 07:19 AM

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In response to Sunday's question about how to keep politics from intruding on a wedding shower, a reader writes,

I thought it was, as a general rule, inappropriate for family members, especially the mother of the bride, to host wedding showers. I think my real question is, when someone writes to ask a question about one point of etiquette, when should they be provided guidance on a different point of etiquette that they may not have asked about directly?

Good question, and my answer is a simple one: when it matters. The practice of relatives not hosting showers has fallen by the wayside in many circles, and it's not a terribly important point these days. In a rancorous political climate, however, keeping peace with one's relatives is important. So I focused on that. In 2007, though, I did use the "relatives don't host showers" tradition to beat up on a mother-to-be with a bad attitude, viz.:

My mother is hosting a baby shower for me. Should she extend invitations to my husband's family and my mother-in-law's friends? Or is it the responsibility of my mother-in-law to host something, if she is so inclined? I don't feel that my mother needs to incur the additional cost of inviting these folks, but she wants to do the right thing and avoid creating any ill will. K.M. in Boston

“Incur the additional cost of inviting these folks”?! These are your child’s future grandparents, aunts, and potential babysitters you’re talking about, not a gang of schnorrers hoping to scarf up all the spinach dip and fruit punch going. You need to change your attitude fast and acknowledge that “these folks” are not “your husband’s family” anymore, but yours too. If people wish to celebrate the coming birth of your child, and provide you with onesies and Raffi CDs, the proper response is gratitude that you are part of such a warm, supportive family and community. The shower is not a treat you are giving them, it is a benefit they are giving you.

It is certainly not your mother-in-law’s responsibility to host a shower herself for her own friends. It is generally considered poor form for future grandparents to host a shower anyway. Although this rule is loosening up in some circles, your mother-in-law may be old school, and good for her if she is.

Here, it seemed worthwhile to bring it up because K.M.'s overall attitude was so off-putting, and her notion of what a shower is so wrong, that I wanted to pull out all the stops to let her know that she was out of line and ought not expect a separate shower from her in-laws. (Note that I didn't criticize her mother for hosting the shower.)

Choosing the angle of attack for a question can be a challenge--I could write essays about some of the questions I receive, but I have a word limit to stick to. If I have to make a choice, I will always focus on ethics rather than etiquette, because the former is more important.

I'll also focus on the issues that I think are most useful or interesting to my readers. Sometimes this means that I write about the most universal aspects--not everyone is going to host a shower in the next six months, but many of us will preside over dinner parties, picnics, bar mitzvahs, or bowling tournaments where political arguments might break out. Sometimes, on the other hand, it means focusing on what is unique and idiosyncratic about the question. In my experience, people read advice columns for two opposing reasons: both to get useful advice for their own lives, and to have a nice voyeuristic gander at the problems faced by other folks. So an advice columnist needs to balance the universal and the particular.

For more about how I decide what goes in the column, check the two "How to Get a Letter in Miss Conduct" posts under "Favorite Posts" on the right sidebar.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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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 missconduct@globe.com.
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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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Curious if you should say "bless you" to a sneezing atheist? How to host a dinner party for carbophobes, vegans, and Atkins disciples—all at the same time? The finer points of regifting? Ask it here, or email missconduct@globe.com.

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