Miss Conduct

Best frenemies

Who's right in a feud between old friends? Plus, tipping hairdressers and accounting for guests.

May 15, 2011

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A girlfriend was having her 57th birthday and was probably very unhappy about never marrying or having children. She had plans for dinner but at the last minute her friend canceled, so she asked me. (I am usually a backup when her other plans fall through.) I said it would be best if she came to where I live (I don’t drive at night), but she wanted to meet about 20 minutes away. Bottom line, I didn’t agree to go out with her, and she hasn’t talked to me since. Was I terribly wrong, since I didn’t want to go at all, let alone on a Friday after work when I was tired and when I am always a backup for her, anyway?

C.B. / Framingham

You are not friends. You’re frenemies, and that’s a disgraceful relationship for women over the age of 20 to engage in. You pity her, she disrespects you. By the time you’re old enough to use “I can’t drive at night” in your social power games, you should be too old to play them.

I am a hairdresser who recently purchased a salon, even though I wasn’t sure I could make it on my own. I am shocked at the clients who no longer tip me. I know they tip cabdrivers and waitresses and other service people, and I bend over backward to accommodate them and give them good service in a clean, professional environment, but I am struggling to make a living. Am I wrong to feel slighted?

C. C. / Stoughton

Unfortunately, yes. Employees of beauty salons are tipped; the owners are not. This custom was on its way out for a while, as a spirit of generosity and equality prevailed and people began to tip salon owners as well as their employees. In lean times, however, people are quick to rediscover the charm of old-fashioned etiquette that allows them to save face while saving money. I’m sorry that you got caught by surprise. There are a number of ways you can address the loss of tips as an economic problem, but try your hardest not to let it become an emotional problem. Your frustration is understandable, but resenting your clients will only backfire.

When out-of-town friends travel to visit me and stay at my home, what should I pay for when they’re here? They often treat me to dinner, which makes me feel a bit guilty because they’ve spent so much to come. On the other hand, I’m giving them a free place to stay (not that I would have it any other way).

A.C. / Northampton

Oh, I do love questions in which the major problem is an excess of generosity on all sides! As a host/ess, you aren’t obliged to provide anything other than free room and board in your beautifully picturesque town. (At least, this is how traditional etiquette interprets the situation: that the host or hostess is the giver, the guest the recipient of generosity.) Of course, if the reason that your friends or family are traveling to see you is because you haven’t the monetary, physical, or temporal resources to travel to them, then they are in a sense doing you a favor as well. But you’re asking me about the etiquette, not a reckoning of exact moral or emotional calculus.

Let your guests take you out by way of thanks. Give them the gift of your expertise and introduce them to a local gem that they wouldn’t find on their own, or play traveler yourself and try a more daring, touristy, or upscale venue than you normally would. Houseguests can provide an excuse to do things you’ve always meant to try but never get around to and can give you the chance to see your hometown through fresh eyes, a kind of mental vacation in itself. Let your guests give you the gift of that vacation, and you’ll be the host(ess) with the most(est).

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

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