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Managing the Internet's Mojo

How to deal with blog criticism, plus Spanish struggles and divvying up dinner tabs.

Miss Conduct
(Illustration / Nathalie Dion)
 Divorce Before Dating? (10/07/07)

I recently received a comment on my blog that squarely (and perhaps justifiably) lambasted me for pigheadedness, ignorance, and prejudice. Although the comment was anonymous, I know the identity of the critic and fear there may be some awkwardness about that the next time I see her. The comment did not generate any bitterness on my part, as I think she was basically right. Yet it's still there - that proverbial elephant in the corner. Do you think that in time that elephant might shrink to a mouse and eventually disappear?

S. N. in Cambridge

First, remember that there is some strange mojo about the Internet that makes e-mails, blog comments, and the like seem far more hostile than they were meant to be. You may be reeling as though you've received a left hook, but it's possible that what was intended was only friendly noogies. (Or maybe not. Exactly how pigheaded and prejudiced were you in your original post, anyway?)

There is no greater joy than changing someone else's mind, and no sweeter words than "You were right." So if you post a response on your blog agreeing with the critic, you will undoubtedly endear yourself to her. We like people who agree with us, but we like people best who start off disagreeing and then come around. And the highest compliment in the blog world is to bring someone's comment out of the lowly comment queue and devote a whole new post to it, so do that. It's the bloggerville equivalent of that Springsteen video where he pulls a pre-Friends Courteney Cox out of the audience and dances with her onstage.

A more awkward issue is that you know the online handle of someone who may believe she is anonymous. It would be a kindness to let her know that you know who she is, to prevent her from embarrassing herself at some later date with a less-well-thought-out criticism or witticism.

Since I arrived in San Juan three years ago, I have been studying Spanish and want to use it, since it is the predominant language on the island and because I need the practice. But so often I end up in a "duel of languages": Rather than respond to me in Spanish, as I have addressed them, people use the opportunity to practice their English. Should I just cede ground and begin to converse with them in English? (And should I correct their English? I feel you would disapprove of this.) I feel rude continuing to respond to their English in Spanish.

J. G. in San Juan

With people you don't know or won't be interacting with a great deal in the future, go ahead and switch to English. Though if this makes you feel too much like an outsider, there's nothing wrong with occasionally saying, "Can we talk in Spanish?" (in Spanish) and carrying on as you were.

For people whom you will be talking to frequently, discuss how you want to handle the situation so that you can both get practice in your second languages. You don't need to set hard-and-fast rules about this - English on odd-numbered days and Spanish on even, say. Just be open about communicating, so that you feel comfortable saying, "I don't usually talk about baseball in Spanish - mind if I try?" and your friends or neighbors likewise feel free to request, "I haven't gotten to speak English for a week. I need to practice."

Also discuss how you would both like mistakes to be handled. (Three years of immersion is a long time, but you're probably still making subtle errors yourself.) If people want practice, they'd probably appreciate your letting them know when they've gotten something wrong, as that is rather the point of practice, after all. But it's a good idea to ask first - and never, of course, interrupt an important or emotional conversation to make a minor correction.

When my family celebrated my mom's 70th birthday, I organized and paid for the dinner and then figured out a per-person cost, with my parents' dinners added in, and told my three siblings what they owed me. My oldest sister has more children than the others and was angry that I had not just divided by four. My wife and I do not have children. I thought I was being fair to all with a per-person cost. We just celebrated my mom's 75th, organized by my oldest sister. She sent out an e-mail with the total cost divided by four. I am happily paying. What is the best way of dividing the cost for large family celebrations?

C. K. in Weston

The best way is a way that everyone has agreed upon beforehand. There are many ways to divide costs that would be fair. The important point is that all agree that it is fair and feel that they've had a chance to contribute their opinion as well as their cash. May your mother live long enough to inspire many future debates!

My Word!

Never sure which glass to drink from when seated with people on either side? Make "OK" signs with both hands, tip of index finger to thumb. Your left hand will look like a "b" - for bread - and your right like a "d" - for drink - to remind you where things go. Thanks to the anonymous reader who taught me this trick (helpful for children new to table manners, and also for left-handed advice columnists).

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

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