I am a twentysomething American musician living in Europe. Part of my job is meeting new people—musicians with whom I play, sponsors, and the audience after a concert. I’ve been here about a year, and I repeatedly run into the same situation. I’ll meet a group of people, we’ll chat about two minutes, and someone will make some comment about how my president should be killed (really!) and seems to want to know how much I agree. I don’t bring up politics before this happens. Regardless of my political views, I find it offensive to have anyone bring up the subject of how someone else should be killed. I’m still not sure what the best response is to this statement. I don’t want to share my politics with a complete stranger, and I don’t want to do anything to further any American stereotypes they already have. However, I want to convey how this statement is inappropriate and makes me uncomfortable.
—Speechless in Europe
If “Nice weather we’re having” has been replaced with “It’s about time someone shot your president” as small talk in Europe, don’t worry about giving Americans a bad name if you convey your abhorrence. But because this comes up in the course of your work, it’s understandable that you want to turn the remarks aside without getting into a political debate. You could reply directly: “No, I wouldn’t like to see any president assassinated.” You could change the subject: “Hmm … So, I hope you enjoyed the concert.” You could point out the logical consequence of their desire: “You must be a Dick Cheney fan, because he would become the next president.” One discouraging feature of today’s political discourse is the assumption that if you and someone else share particular characteristics (a love of music), then you certainly must be like-minded on all things (the desirability of killing the president). If your polite attempts to end the assassination discussion are met with more fervent efforts to draw you in, then say what you said so well in your letter: “I’m uncomfortable discussing how someone should be killed. Let’s not talk about politics.”
I have two terrific grandchildren, ages 12 and 10. They are well-behaved, intelligent, and funny as all get out. My problem is that when they are here for dinner, their table manners are terrible. The 10-year-old eats like a 3-year-old. Food all over her face. She eats with her hands, her head is always hung low so her hair is in her food. The 12-year-old has his head next to his plate and shovels the food in like he was a starving refugee. They talk with food in their mouths and I’m not sure they even chew before swallowing. I’m always correcting them, but I don’t want to seem like a nagging grandma. I can’t figure out why my daughter hasn’t taught them better manners. I couldn’t take them to a restaurant because I would be embarrassed. Am I overreacting? Or should I continue to correct this problem? They are here a lot and I like dinner to be relaxed so we can talk about their day.
One ironic consequence of not wanting to “ruin” dinner by making it an endless series of table-manner instructions is that children are then raised to eat like hyenas disemboweling wildebeests, thus ruining dinner for anyone sharing the table with them. Your corrections are having no effect because you are probably reluctant to enforce them, and because the children don’t have to carry them over in their home. Only you know if you have the kind of relationship with your daughter in which you can tell her that your darling grandchildren need a crash course in table manners so they don’t embarrass themselves when they are invited to social events. But if you can’t talk to her about it, you don’t need your daughter’s permission to enforce the rules of your own home. Tell the kids that you want to take them to a fancy restaurant a month or so from now, and to prepare, you’re going to get their table manners up to speed. Start by showing them how to set the table, and proceed from there. For ideas on how to make it fun, not punitive, take a look at Elbows Off the Table, Napkin in the Lap, No Video Games During Dinner: The Modern Guide to Teaching Children Good Mannersby Carol McD. Wallace. If your grandchildren are as intelligent and well-behaved as you say they are, it shouldn’t take long to domesticate them.
I am in a wonderful live-in relationship with a man I adore. We have one problem that keeps recurring. Occasionally, when we are either engaged in a conversation or watching something on television, I’ll make a comment with which he takes personal offense, and he either leaves the room in a huff without saying why, or simply explodes in anger. Most of the time, I’m completely taken aback by this behavior and am unaware that I have said anything “offensive” until he reacts to it, and then I must try to figure out what set him off. My comments usually have nothing to do with him personally, but are merely about what we’re watching on television or something he’s said in conversation. He feels I’m being overly sarcastic and therefore hostile, and I feel he is excessively sensitive. Many of his friends and relatives feel that he tends to be excessively sensitive and has a tendency to see personal offense where none is intended. He thinks I should be more careful about what I say, but I feel he should be more thick-skinned. I am constantly walking on eggshells to avoid saying something that will unexpectedly set him off. When this has happened in the past, we’ve discussed it at length afterward, and he usually ends up apologizing for his behavior. Then everything is fine until the next time it happens. And it always does. Should I try to be more aware of sarcastic remarks I may make about something that often has nothing to do with him, or is he simply overreacting?
I wonder how wonderful a relationship it is when you are constantly editing yourself to head off his explosions. To be fair, since you have established that his friends and relatives think he is excessively thin-skinned, do your friends and relatives think you are excessively cutting? But even if you are, his response is unacceptable. If you are just amusingly acerbic, do you adore him so much that you want to either change your personality or put up with his behavior? There are combos of opposites who can make it work—gregarious with shy, neatnik with slob—as long as they accept these are fundamental differences (that will occasionally drive each other crazy). But sensitive with sarcastic is more of a stretch, especially given that your Mr. Sensitive responds with rage. I don’t know how you two resolve this without a third party. He needs to learn a nonexplosive way to let you know that his feelings are hurt, while he comes to understand that your conversational style is not a personal attack. And a counselor could perhaps help you see if there’s a specific type of remark you make that bothers him that would be easy for you to drop from your repertoire. But if that doesn’t succeed, a lifetime of eggs underfoot will get awfully sticky.
How do I inform a co-worker that I don’t really appreciate receiving clothes that she no longer wears? This individual has lost a good deal of weight recently, and because I’m rather plump, she has decided that I should be the recipient of her too-large wardrobe. The clothes are nice, and I’m sure she could either sell them through a consignment shop or give them to a charity, but instead she’s been bringing them to me. It’s as if she’s saying, “I’m not fat anymore, but you are, so have some fat clothes.” The first time it happened, I was caught off-guard and didn’t know how to respond. I just said, “Thanks,” and ended up taking the item to a local charity. Since then, I come back from lunch to find neatly folded items on my desk. I don’t think the intention is to be insulting, but it’s really starting to wear on my self-esteem.
—Thanks, But No Thanks
What’s next? She brings you her doggie bags when she comes back from lunch? Return her package to her desk with a note on top that says, “Thanks for thinking of me, but I don’t need any more clothing.”