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Response to "Five large looms large"

Posted by Robin Abrahams  June 29, 2012 06:58 PM

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First off, the LW in Monday's question is a man. Having a husband does not necessarily mean you are a woman! And as happy as I am about that societal development, it can still trip me up linguistically from time to time. 

Having a husband, however, does mean that you'd better consult him before you decide what to do about his sister's defaulting on a loan. As always with in-law dilemmas, that is Rule #1. Assuming he's on board, I think the couple really ought to bring up the money with the sister. Five grand is not the kind of sum you forget about, and if no one ever mentions it, it will poison the relationship like William Blake's sick rose. I very much like katemc's advice

Make sure you and your husband discuss with each other what exactly you feel is the minimum you need to feel like this has been appropriately addressed: a thank-you and acknowledgement of the loan? or an apology for not making a payment on it for seven years? and/or an apology for not acknowledging it for seven years? Then discuss if there is an amount that you feel she needs to repay and what the deadline needs to be for that. Even if it's just a token amount, make sure you are clear with each other and with her what that amount is. You wouldn't want to be thinking that obviously any normal person could graciously let it slide with a 10% payback, and then she gives you twenty bucks and you feel more outraged than you do now! Or, perhaps you could ask her to treat you all to a dinner out to celebrate burying the hatchet and finish up with a trip to a nearby bridge to watch the water flow under it. And ask her what she feels she can do, how can she make the payback possible. 

Whatever you come up with, be clear that you're coming from a place of hurt and want to repair the relationship, and be clear and specific about what you need for that to happen. On her part, she may be so overwhelmed by compounded guilt and fear about the unknown of what you might expect from her (immediate payback plus seven years' interest?!) that you approaching her with something specific may be a relief. If she fails to meet your minimum, then I'm afraid you may have to write her off as someone who has disappointed you. But then you can at least let go, knowing you did your best to resolve it, and not live in a limbo of wondering what to do about it. 

Coopflyer wrote, bravely, from the borrower's perspective: 

As someone in your sister's position, I know she feels very badly and the %5k probably just looks really daunting to her. I would bring it up in a kind, gentle way and make some doable arrangement. It will be best for both of you. 

I borrowed a lot of money from 2 uncles. One died before I was able to repay. I "keep meaning" to repay his heirs, but I have to do it in chunks, which I never seem to get to because it involves initiating an uncomfortable conversation with people I never see. I know, pathetic, but true. The other I repaid at some very useful times to him. Everyone thinks he is rich, but if you live into your 90s this is often not the case. He was appreciative that I was someone who acknowledged his financial hardship and it has led to a special bond. I am very grateful that I repaired that relationship. Thanks, LW, for reminding me I need to clean my house right away. 

Finally, poppy609 wrote: 

I'm sort of surprised by some of the comments. It seems to me a given that you should deal with a situation like this differently if it's family vs. non-family. Dealing with it in a cold, financially-driven sort of way seems like it would further increase either awkwardness or estrangement, which isn't something I'd think they'd would want to do unless they don't care about their future relationship with her. Robin - do you think the manner in which this type of situation is dealt should be different with family than with non-family, from an etiquette perspective? 

I do think that there are different kinds of etiquette. It's not so much "family" versus "non-family," however. It's more like "people you'd loan $5,000 to on a handshake" versus "people you wouldn't." And while I think that being willing to ultimately forgive the loan is best for the couple's bottom line and mental health and the extended family's harmony, the fact that the original terms of repayment have been completely ignored does need to be addressed. "Different etiquette for family" doesn't mean letting yourself be taken advantage of.

Have a lovely long weekend, those of you who are taking Monday and Tuesday off!
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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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