Miss Conduct

Heavy matter

Eating in front of a weight-loss-surgery patient, plus dodging the manners police

By Robin Abrahams
January 30, 2011

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My brother recently had bariatric surgery for a weight problem. Shortly afterward, I visited him at home and was plied with two kinds of coffee-cake by my sister-in-law. I tried admiring it and not serving myself, but it became clear that not eating would be rude to her, even though eating would be rude to him. I ended up taking a see-through slice of cake and refusing seconds, but it made me miserable to eat in front of someone who had been persuaded by doctors that his only choice was irreversible surgery or death by obesity. My brother, being a stoic, just continued talking about what the kids were up to and about his new walking regimen. What else might I have done?

A.L. / Great Barrington

You might have shrieked, “What in the name of sweet fancy Moses is wrong with you? You don’t serve cake when someone comes to visit a weight-loss-surgery patient! Are you out of your raspberry-swirl mind?”

But that would be wrong.

You did your best in the moment, and I’m sure your brother sympathized with the awkward position his wife put you in. Like you, I’m gobsmacked by her lack of sensitivity, but every marriage is its own little nation with its own culture and treaties and laws. Are you sure that your brother was really being stoic? Maybe he doesn’t like her baking! Or perhaps he’s decided that he lives in a cake-eating world and that he needs to get used to other people having things that he can’t.

So give your brother a call sometime before your next visit and find out what was up with the cake scenario. Tell him how awkward you felt and that you want to support him.

I had to edit your letter down because of space constraints, but you implied in the full version that you disagreed with the need for your brother’s surgery. I sympathize with your views, but whether you are right or wrong, this is what he has decided to do with his body. Find out how he feels about it and what he wants from you. A simple “I felt really uncomfortable when ‘Jean’ offered me that cake. I feel so bad for what you’ve gone through” ought to be enough to get the conversation started.

I need some advice on how to handle a friend who takes pride in being a shining beacon of manners and conduct but is probably the rudest person I have ever met. I have seen this person be demeaning to waitstaff at almost every restaurant we have been to; call people out for not wearing “appropriate” attire to certain events; look past me when I am speaking to see what else is happening in the room; and comment, in front of others, on how atrocious my manners are. What’s the best way to deal with this person, if at all?

C.P. / Boston

“If at all” is rather to the point here. The behavior you describe is so over the top that I don’t really see any point in an intervention. A friend with a single bad habit is one thing; an entire pattern of terrible behavior is another. Why do you even bother? If you can’t bring yourself to treat this social hurricane only as an amusement and a source of “can you believe this one” anecdotes, then avoid spending time with him or her as much as possible. This person is not a friend in any known definition of the word. (All right, in the debased modern definition of “friend” as “person I know,” I suppose he or she is. But not in the proper Aristotelian sense or in the sense of puppies and kittens playing together in a basket. )

If you do continue to spend time with this miscreant, though, here I charge thee: You must not allow him or her to insult or abuse others in your presence. Silence is consent.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology. Got a question or comment? Write to

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