Miss Conduct

The boorish beau

Problems with a daughter's boyfriend, plus clueless spouses and immodest relatives

By Robin Abrahams
February 20, 2011

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My husband and I took my daughter and her boyfriend out to dinner. During the meal, he ridiculed her and made derogatory comments about women, then said he was “just kidding.” My husband and I both saw his behavior as abusive, but we did not feel as if it was our place to intervene. Would it have been appropriate for me to say something like “Jim, I am not comfortable with you referring to my daughter as a ‘dumb blonde.’ Why don’t you tell us more about your experience in the Navy?”

J.D. / Wenham

As a hostess, it is your right – in my severer moments, I would say it is your responsibility – to arrest and redirect the conversational efforts of guests who have gone awry. I admire your decision not to interfere in your daughter’s love life, but that doesn’t mean you have to put up with her boyfriend’s bad behavior. Actions have consequences, and insulting the hostess’s daughter can get you thrown out of a nice restaurant, I’ve heard.

Hosts and hostesses have every right to insist on a certain level of civility and respect. Any guests who choose not to abide by that level may be invited to leave. Do not be drawn into an argument: State the boundaries, and enforce them. If the badly behaving guest responds, “I was just kidding,” you respond, “We don’t care.” If he says, “You’re being unreasonable,” you say, “Perhaps so,” followed by a silent stare.

I understand that when declining an invitation, social convention dictates that a polite excuse be offered and that the host should not question it. Is the same etiquette appropriate for requests made by a spouse? For example, suppose my husband invites me out to dinner, and I decline by saying my high heel has broken. If he says, “You can wear your tennis shoes,” is he being pushy by not accepting that I don’t wish to go out?

S.Q. / Oakland, California

Why would you think that “social convention” applies in your own home? One of the challenges and delights of marriage is that spouses may create their own conventions together. You are the monarchs of your castle: Rule!

I must admit I find it disturbing that you don’t feel able to communicate your desires directly to your husband. I’m not sure why you can’t – or why you think you can’t – but you’re making your marriage far more difficult than it needs to be. If you truly cannot discern each other’s wishes, consider marriage counseling to help you develop better communication habits. (This may rock your world, but I don’t even think the “social convention” you speak of is necessarily in effect, or a good idea, in many social situations. How is a person to know if you really don’t want to go out or if you have some real but easily solved problem?)

How does one tell a relative to stop sending those awful bragging letters when people who receive them are losing their jobs, going through divorces, and suffering with illnesses. I never respond to the letter, but it arrives year after year. I guess your answer will be “Just tell her.”

M.D. / Boston

You guessed wrong, I’m afraid. Throw the letters out if you must. But here is someone who has been trying to keep in touch with you, despite being ignored, and you, in what is presumably a time of need, are willing to cut that person off because you are angered by her good fortune. I’m not so sure that’s a good idea. Can you possibly read the letters in a different spirit? And reach out? If not, then continue disposing of them, year after year. But don’t use them to bring yet more misery into your life.

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

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