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Posted by Robin Abrahams  October 16, 2011 04:50 AM

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Each summer, my mother-in-law invites us and our three kids to stay with her at a cottage she rents for a few weeks. She'd complained before that we didn't stay long enough, so this year, we stayed for a week. We took her out to eat a few times and paid for half the groceries. Through the week, she hinted that the rental was too expensive and that if not for us, she wouldn't have needed such a big cottage. At the end of our stay, she asked us to help her pay for the rental! We were flabbergasted! How should I have handled this? 
L.G. / Beverly 

How did you handle it? I received your letter after summer's glories faded, so presumably you overcame your flabbergastedness enough to do something. Are you really wondering how you should handle future vacations? 

The etiquette for hosting in a vacation rental is straightforward: Any financial arrangement is acceptable, as long as the parties agree to it in advance. (I'd suggest that with three kids, you should have paid for more than half the groceries, but your mother-in-law apparently wasn't bothered by that.) 

This isn't a money problem; it's a communication problem. And the communication needs to start between you and your spouse. Why did you ask me what you should do, rather than what you and your spouse should do? Do you even want to be going to Grandma's cottage in the summer? How would the two of you ideally like to arrange your family visits and vacations? Once you've figured out what works for you and your kids, bring your mother-in-law into the loop, before she commits herself to next year's rental. She's already expressed dissatisfaction with the status quo, so you have an obvious entry point to suggest that the Giant Cottage Scheme isn't working perfectly. Calibrate the discussion to however the last conversation ended, which might mean a bit of relationship maintenance has to happen before you can get down to business. 

And when the three of you talk about options, try to talk openly. Hints and complaints and guilt trips are no way to converse about the perfectly delightful fact that you all love one another, and you have time to spend together and the money to do it up right. The only question is how. 

 A close friend and co-worker of mine is ambitious, brilliant, and has the capacity to be a major political figure -- if he weren't so filthy. He picks his nose during meetings. He rarely washes his clothes, insisting that their Brooks Brothers origin makes up for the stains. At dinner parties, he uses his hands to eat Chinese food and then wipes them on the tablecloth. And so forth. He sees nothing wrong with his behavior, and I don't know how to persuade him that it is socially unacceptable. Am I overreacting, or should I try to help? 
T.T. / Washington, D.C. 

I find it odd that you asked if you are overreacting. Has your friend been trying to gaslight you into believing his manners and hygiene are acceptable? Your assessment is correct, but it isn't your responsibility to help him. This is not a well-meaning kid from the sticks who needs a bit of polish or a new arrival who's having trouble adjusting to a particular corporate or national culture. This sounds like an intelligent man who has chosen to disregard the most basic principles of decorum and hygiene. He knows what he's doing; let him live with the personal and professional consequences. 

It seems as if your co-worker wants a reaction from people. I'd say don't give it to him. But I'm mean that way. Go right on correcting him if you're entertained by your role in his game of "Mommy should love me when I make a mess because I'm such a smart boy.'
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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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