Miss Conduct

E-mail fail

Lured away from dinner by messages on the computer, plus why not to overpay your nanny.

By Robin Abrahams
April 10, 2011

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Last night my husband and I were at the table finishing our wine and chatting about this and that. Our daughter asked to be logged in to the computer in another room, and my husband went to do it. I sat and waited for him . . . and waited . . . and waited . . . and finally went to find him – he had started answering e-mail! I told him he was a boor, and he told me I was hysterical. I don’t know the protocol for ending a table-for-two moment, but I feel certain that walking away without a word is not it. Can you please help?

L.V. / Walpole

No, I can’t. Because whatever I say, if it’s going to fuel more name-calling, it won’t help. Your conflict isn’t about protocol, it’s about basic kindness and assuming good intentions on the part of the other. If your husband thought that your post-dinner chitchat had wrapped up, he should have expressed that sentiment – “Good dinner. I’m going to go check e-mail. Let’s play Scrabble later.” On the other hand, it may have seemed obvious to him that your conversation had run its course. Not everything has to be spelled out in a marriage (especially one longstanding enough to have produced computer-using children), but even the most attuned couples find the telepathy goes awry at times. The answer isn’t to create more rules of household etiquette, it’s to develop the habit of cheerful course correction when the mind reading fails.

Take a look at how you chose to react to your husband’s dinner-table defection. No one was forcing you to remain at the table. You could have enjoyed another sip – or glass – of wine and a quiet moment with your own thoughts and then gone in search of your husband. You could have asked him if dinner was over, and given him a noogie and told him that you preferred not to be left at the table drinking alone, because it made you feel like something out of a Patsy Cline song. No one was forcing you to sit there until you were in a rage.

I’m not saying you’re the only one at fault. I can’t judge anything from one incident. But you wrote to me, so I’m asking you to examine your own actions first. How did an omitted “excuse me” lead to such nasty (and gendered) insults? Did the two of you get caught up in some kind of bad feedback loop that night? Was the fight a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing? Or was it symptomatic of a larger pattern of behavior? If the former, I’m happy for you. If the latter, get help.

I have a “looking a gift horse in the mouth” type of question. I am paying a woman to look after my little girl during the day. She takes care of three babies in her home and does a fabulous job. Here’s the problem: I don’t think she’s charging enough. I have encouraged her to raise her rates, but she doesn’t feel right about it. Can I just pay her what I think she’s worth, or is that condescending?

S.N. / Thoiry, France

Yes, it is condescending, and thank you for sparing me the work of coming up with the precisely right word. I’m getting a sense of the kind of person you are.

Pay your baby sitter as she asks, and make your appreciation clear in other ways: a generous year-end tip, for example, or gifts of treats or supplies that she can use with your daughter and other clients. Also, keep an eye out for what kind of nonfinancial rewards might be meaningful to her: news of other relevant work opportunities, references, the donation of your professional services, homemade zucchini bread. If you put your mind to it, there are probably many things you could do to make her work more pleasant and remunerative without forcing cash into her hands.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology.

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