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Doing unto others; aka "Going Postel"

Posted by Robin Abrahams  August 4, 2008 05:27 PM

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I wonder if I will hear from anyone today about Sunday's column, in which I said that it was kinder not to tell atheists and agnostics "I'm praying for you," if they're having a hard time with illness or bereavement. Will anyone think this contradicts my earlier advice (defended by PeaceBang) that if you are an unbeliever, and someone says they are praying for you, you should be gracious about it?

I hope not. I hope my readers are more sophisticated than that.

Because just last week, I learned a motto that I've been following, in a conscious but not articulated fashion, for years now, and which explains the apparent paradox above. It is this:

"Be liberal in what you accept, and conservative in what you send."

This is known as Postel's law, after Jon Postel, one of the developers of the internet, and it's also sometimes quoted as "Be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others."

Apparently, it has to do with internet protocols and things that I don't understand one whit. What I do understand is how it applies to interpersonal protocols, and it's a brilliant piece of advice. Avoid giving offense or alarm; avoid taking offense or alarm.

So, regarding praying for people, if you don't believe in prayer and someone informs you that they are praying for you (for your sick aunt or good mammogram results, that is, not for the salvation of your heathen soul), be liberal and say "Thank you," graciously.

If you are praying for an unbelieving friend or colleague, be conservative and don't mention it. It's not going to make them feel better; only you.

Thank you, Jon Postel, for putting this into words for me.

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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

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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