Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Bosom Buddies

Dear Mr. Steichen,

I have a question that's been on my mind for several years! Here it goes:

I have been friends with a girl I met in college for about five years now. We were fairly close in college and always hung out with the same group of people. However, towards the end of college I started to realize what a crappy friend she is. She constantly made plans with me and canceled at the last minute (using excuses like she was tired or didn't feel like going out anymore), she would agree to meet me at a particular time and be 30+ minutes late, she was growing increasingly materialistic, and slowly I realized what a shallow and insecure person she was. After college, she moved away and I did not make a special effort to keep in touch since I felt annoyed by the way I was treated, but we did see each other once or twice when she was in town.

Then about 6 months ago I found out she had a complete mental breakdown. Our mutual friend told me she actually suffers from bipolar disorder and she had stopped taking her medications. I called her during this period to let her know I was here for her and to show her I cared. Fortunately, she is now back to normal and working well at her job. She moved back to the city I live in about a month ago and is now looking to rekindle our friendship. The problem is, I don't know if she was so flaky before because of her illness or because of her true personality...which in this case I'm not sure how to separate the two! I still feel like our personalities don't mesh well together, but I also feel bad for her and don't want her to be alone in the city. How should I approach this friendship?

Personally, I would give your friend another chance, given all that she's been through, and given that some of her past inconsiderate behavior towards you was indeed probably due at least in part to her personal instability. Call me a cock-eyed optimist, or just a pushover, but I think it's always better to take the high road and give people that second (or third, or fifteenth) chance.

Reverse the roles for a second. Imagine how much that kind of reaching-out would mean to you if you had been through what she has been through and you found yourself in a new city? My take is that there but for the grace of [insert Higher Power of your choice] go I. If I'm in a position to reach out to someone, I sure as h*ll better do it, because who knows when I might need it down the line...the proverbial what-goes-around-comes-around.

But speaking of karma, just because she's been through a lot doesn't mean she should get carte blanche to treat you like crap again, and also don't expect years of tension to resolve themselves instantly. Remember the end of the Cold War? Reagan and Gorbachev weren't doing Madlibs and playing with the ouija board at a special State Sleepover as soon as the Berlin wall fell. It took some time to bring things back together. (And you know, it was really awkward when Reagan wanted Gorby to braid his hair and Gorby would get all self-concsious and want to go home. But then they'd just do another quiz from Seventeen and all was forgiven. Fun fact, they reportedly never could agree on who was the cutest member of NKOTB, but those records are sealed for only another twenty years, so stay tuned...)

For your little "detente" or "glasnost" or whatever fancy term you want to use for your act of hatchet-burying, start small. Bring your friend out with a group to a bar or a party, or if you're having a large-ish gathering at your house invite her to come...just the way you would with any old friend with whom you had lost touch. Test the waters, and if it seems right, keep hanging out. As with any relationship, let it rise or fall on its own strength--you're not doing yourself or her a favor if you try to force it out of pity for her. And if the old behavior starts to resurface, you will obviously know to slow things down, if not let them come to a halt. But you could be missing out on a good friendship (you obviously were friends way back when for SOME reason) and you won't know unless you extend the proverbial olive branch. Both you and your friend have nothing to lose by this, and in fact stand only to gain.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Bringing up Baby

Dear Mr. Steichen:

I am expecting twins and keep encountering several awkward questions, often from people who I am not so close to. Do you have any witty retorts (or just tactful replies) for the following?

First, when I tell people I am having twins they often immediately ask, "Oh, so are stopping after these two?" I find it so bizarre to be asked this when we have NO children out of womb at present. It's like your breakfast waitress asking you what you'd like for dinner.

Another awkward question: "Oh, you are having twins? Did you have fertility treatment?" As a matter of fact, my husband and I did consult with several doctors about fertility matters. But this seems so inappropriate and somehow makes me feel like these kids are less mine or natural. What is an expectant mother or father to say to such questions?

Yes indeed, these are dicey. Some might say "Oh but what's the harm in asking these kinds of questions...I'm just trying to find out more about their situation." But think about what you're really asking. In fact, let's test these using the diagnostic tool of hyperbole.

Using exaggeration for emphasis, the first is in effect asking, "I know that you have no idea about what being a parent will be like, but can you seriously think about having another kid after raising twins?" Hardly an uplifting or encouraging sentiment. The second is even more outrageous when you hyperbolize: "When you and your spouse were trying to conceive, did you have sex at home until you got pregnant, or did you go to a doctor's office and have them do stuff to you." Whoa...didn't mean to go there, did you?

Unless you're having a heart-to-heart conversation on the subject--a conversation initiated by the person, not you--it's not your place to give his or her life your own running commentary, which is exactly what these questions have the effect of doing. (Very close friends and family members can get a pass on this particular point, but they should still proceed with caution.) But how to respond...

When in doubt, keep them in doubt: To the first question you reply with an honest, "You know, we just aren't sure, but we're so excited about becoming parents." Because you honestly don't know, right? You may or may not have more kids...time will tell. To the second you can offer a slight variation, "You know, we're not sure how it happened, but we couldn't be happier." Because again, you don't know exactly how it happened. Lots of people who undergo fertility treatment have single births, and lots of people end up with twins just through mother nature taking a hand in.

If they persist, just stick to the same line. Remember, it's none of their business unless you want to make it their business, and it sounds like you don't. Being vague may seem flaky, but it's probably the quickest and most polite way to shut down an uncomfortable line of questioning. Once you make it clear that they are not going to get the information they're asking for, they'll probably move on.

Alternatively, you can turn either question back on them with a neutral "Why do you ask?" (Incidentally, this is the universal response to any question that you don't think should have been asked in the first place--thanks, mom!) "Why do you ask?" will usually make a person realize his error on his own. Of course, this keeps the topic active, so you have to be ready to parry a follow up question. And in the event that they don't take the hint, you can always just shut them down with one of the polite vaguenesses noted above.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Kindness and Strangers: ok to say no?

Dear Mr. Steichen:

Yesterday I took my son to dance class, held in a neighborhood about 20 minutes away from the main part of town. A parent who I have just seen in passing, and not even exchanged names with, out of the blue asked me to drive her son to a parking lot in the center of town to meet her after class, rather than coming back to pick him up. Our two sons don't know each others' names, either--partially because of a language barrier (the family is Korean). I was very uncomfortable with this. Thoughts that went through my head were that her son is of an age and size where I would put him in a booster seat in the car, but she made no mention of him needing one, how did I know if she would be where she said she would be, in an area that is pretty unfamiliar to me as we've only lived here for two months, and wow, I would never ask anyone to do such a thing for me unless it were some kind of life or death emergency. So, I made up a lame excuse about needing to be somewhere directly after class. I hope it was plausible, but I feel bad about not helping out when I probably could have. What would you have done?

I think in this instance your polite excuse was the best route, even if you had to obscure the truth a bit. Behaving humanely means that more often than not you bite your tongue (not the same as lying), especially when you are not confident about the full background of a situation.

You had multiple good reasons for not agreeing to the request. Your excuse allowed you to excuse yourself (the words are related for a reason!) from a situation you were not comfortable with, and without getting into it with the person about why you were uncomfortable. Although it sounds as though the thoughts running through your head were bordering on the inappropriate (e.g. "What kind of mother would ask a perfect stranger to drive her son to some parking lot?!?!”) you very decorously kept these to yourself. Who knows, maybe where the family has lived previously such a request was perfectly above board.

If making amends would make you feel better and if carpooling is genuinely something you would like to consider, you can take this up with the woman next time you see her, making it clear that any ride-sharing will have to be coordinated well in advance. And if going alone is better for your situation, you can also explain this to her too: "Our family has such a hectic schedule, I'm afraid I can't commit to coordinating rides with anyone." If you are polite and upfront and don't make it a big deal, she probably won't either.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Host and Guest: open arms, empty hands?

Dear Mr. Steichen,

When you're invited to a dinner party, what is appropriate to bring? What if the host explicitly says NOT to bring anything? What about a cocktail hour or a smaller party?

Ah the dilemma...to follow instructions and show up empty handed, or to be the only one who doesn't bring something along and feel like a heel.

[Note: the following thoughts are NOT meant to address the question of whether to bring a PRESENT for a guest of honor, but rather the question of gifts for a host or other items brought to contribute to a gathering itself. Presents are a whole other can of worms!]

First, the bad news: there is no hard and fast answer to these questions. It will always be a judgment call that you will have to make depending on the circumstances of the occasion and your relationship to the host. Even if the host tells you not to bring anything, it's not out of the question to bring a small gift as a thank-you. BUT, the good news: there are a few general guidelines you can keep in mind as you weigh the situation. Oddly, there seems to be a sort of a bell curve at work on this issue...stretching from most formal to least formal types of events.

For formal social occasions (let's say a dinner party for a dozen--weddings and other bigger life events are in a different league altogether), it's very appropriate and thoughtful to bring something for the hosts. They are presumably going to a lot of trouble, and are inviting you into their home for an intimate evening. ["But what do I bring?" you ask. We'll get to that presently.]

On the other end of the curve, there are very informal events (a house or apartment party), for which it's also common practice for everyone to bring something along, in this case to help the party cause. Even though you are certainly entitled to show up empty-handed, it's generally bad form in these situations. Unless you plan to drink only tap water all evening.

For everything in between (barbecue, birthday party), it's a bit fuzzier. If you're really in doubt, you can always ask the host whether you can bring anything, although you are technically not obligated to do so. If you think about it, the whole point of HOSTING is just that: it's an opportunity to take care of guests and show them a good time, which shouldn't mean that they feel obliged to pitch in. [Addressing the creeping and somewhat pernicious influence of "potluck" culture will have to wait for another column.]

But back to the question of what to bring... We'll speak here to more formal occasions...the informal events seem to work themselves out. And to reiterate these are GUIDELINES, not rules, as you've got take every occasion by the each.

Host gift guideline #1: Keep it simple. Bottle of wine, chocolates, flowers--something you think the host will enjoy. And something consumable or perishable, that presumably won't have to remain in your host's life indefinitely. Every gift has potential pitfalls of course. If you don't know the host very well, flowers are probably the safest on this front.

[Note to HOSTS: if a guest's gift doesn't sit right for some reason (you have given up drinking, you are on a diet, you are allergic to tulips), just smile, say thank you, and keep it to yourself for the evening...why would you want to make your guest feel bad about a gift at the very beginning of the event? You can fill them in at a later date in a discreet and polite manner, if you really find it necessary.]

Host gift guideline #2: Keep it quiet. Present your gift as soon as you arrive to whichever of the hosts receives you first. Don't wait until the hosts are in the same room or make a big show of your gift to all the other guests. Also, do not raise the subject of your gift in the course of the event. For example, if you bring a bottle of wine, don't suggest that your host crack open the bottle you brought when the bottle at the table runs dry. Or at the end of dinner, don't suggest that your host bring out those truffles you brought back from your trip to Europe. Why the cloak and dagger? Out of respect to everyone gathered. A gift should stay between you and the hosts.

Your hosts might have very specific ideas for what they wish to serve, and your suggestion that they serve it puts them in the awkward position of either changing their plans or turning down your suggestion in front of the other guests. For the other guests, your making a fuss over what you brought puts them in an awkward position if they didn't happen to bring anything. If your host does use something you brought in the course of the evening, you can acknowledge it graciously, when and if the host acknowledges the item as your gift. If you think about it, making a big deal over your own gift is like fishing for a compliment, which is no way to behave under any circumstances, and even less so when you're a guest.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Too soon for a thank you note?

Dear Mr. Steichen:

Earlier this week I had an informational interview. It went really well, and we ended up not having enough time to finish talking. My interviewer suggested we get together again later in the week, and we set up the second meeting before I left. Should I write a thank you note for the first meeting even though we are meeting again so soon?

Although it might seem like overkill, you should write a thank you note for the first meeting. For one, you should never pass up a chance to write a prompt thank you note. If you met with him once and then again a month later you would write two notes, yes? So why treat the situation differently just because the meetings are a bit closer together? He's still taking the time to meet with you on two occasions, so by all means write two notes. More important, you have no way of knowing whether the second meeting will be canceled or postponed, in which case then you'd end up having to write a belated thank you note for the first meeting, which would be less than ideal. Knowing that you will be seeing him again soon to continue your conversation, you can certainly make the note shorter than what you might otherwise write. And by all means try to get it in the mail such that it will arrive before your second meeting.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Host and Guest - do NOT try to guess who's coming to dinner

Dear Mr. Steichen:

Lately I have encountered an awkward question in the workplace. When being invited by colleagues or clients to events they sometimes say, "feel free to bring your boyfriend...or girlfriend." I assume they are trying to be inclusive and polite. They don't know me so they don't want to make assumptions. Here's the thing - I'm straight and single. Of course, I need to reply to their invitation by saying whether or not I'm bringing someone. Normally I would say "thanks, but I'll be coming on my own." Is it more or less awkward to address the implicit question about sexual orientation? I tried recently saying "thanks, I'll be coming on my own, but if you know any eligible bachelors, feel free to let me know!" I didn't say this because I'm trying to turn work functions into a dating scene, rather because it seemed more graceful than saying "thanks, I'm coming on my own and I'm not a lesbian." (Followed by the unsaid "not that there's anything wrong with that...") Can you please let me know the best way to answer, and also advise readers that even as they are trying to be inclusive, that such invitations are a bit uncomfortably phrased?

Your discomfort over the phrasing of this invitation stems from the fact that it was indeed not asked appropriately. An invitation should never be used as an opportunity to inquire about the personal life of the invitee, even more so in a professional environment. This invitation has the apparent virtue of being “inclusive,” (and this instinct is to be commended), but in fact the only sure-fire way to be politically correct is by minding your own business: “I hope you can join us for dinner Saturday. And please feel free to bring a guest.” Period. Such restraint may come off as rude in our confessional culture, but doing otherwise is far more perilous.

Congratulations to you for finding a gracious way to respond to this invitation in a way that was comfortable for you, and also did not land you in an icky “but some of my best friends are lesbians” trap. That fact that you were able to think creatively on your feet, however, does not make the question any more appropriate. If anything, it placed you in the impolite situation of seeming to turn a professional engagement into an episode of The Bachelorette, which was clearly not your intention. Furthermore, for all they know, you could be recently separated, divorced, or widowed…conditions that are increasingly available to people of all sexual orientations. Your sensitive host would doubtless be horrified to make such a faux pas. Lesson learned: unless you can ask in an appropriately informed manner, don’t get too personal with invitations.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

You don't have to live like this: Eat your food!

Eat your food. We all heard it growing up as mom and dad enjoined us to clean our plates. Now we’ve got an even better reason: climate change. Seriously: when you let food go to waste, that means you have to get more, which means a bigger carbon footprint (not to mention money NOT spent on that down payment for a home or that cross-country road trip). Before you hit the grocery store, what’s in your refrigerator? If you’re not excited about using that broccoli that you know you need to eat in the next two days, think about polar bears drowning and disappearing Andean lakes. Or turn your fridge into a game of “Oregon Trail.” Big shout out those old enough to have used those fabulously boxy Apple computers...for a walk down memory lane check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Oregon_Trail_(computer_game). Remember how you and your pioneer family had to make do with your provisions until you reached the Willamette valley? You certainly wouldn’t turn your nose up at those veggies in the middle of a Wyoming winter. Eat your food.

Workplace Gossip - to indulge or avoid?

Dear Mr. Steichen:

Yesterday we had a staff retreat at work and afterwards all went out to happy hour, which turned into happy hours after all the supervisors left. It was really great to bond with my coworkers (I just started this month) and they are lots of fun, but inevitably they all started gossiping and filling me in on all the dirty dark secrets of the office. I’m glad that they feel like I’m one of the gang and are willing to get me in the loop, however, I know participating in this kind of talk isn’t necessarily the smartest thing professionally. Being chummy with your co-workers can definitely come in handy, but how chummy is too chummy?

Office gossip is hard to resist. You’re right that socializing with coworkers can help build rapport, but it can also go downhill fast if leisure time turns into a complaint-fest. There are myriad reasons to avoid talking shop off the clock, apart from your correct reaction that, however seductive it may be, such behavior is always professionally suspect. More devastating for the purposes of good living, however, is the fact that it is almost always unbearably tedious. Who wants to listen to so-and-so dish about Ms. X’s awful taste in skirts or Mr. Y’s unbecoming hair plugs? Wasn’t sixth grade bad enough the first time around? Yawn.

There’s also a more self-interested reason: your employer is presumably not paying you to talk work off the clock, so leave your work at work for God’s sake. If what you’re discussing is really so vital, take time to discuss it during normal business hours--you know, when you’re being paid.

The most gracious way to head off such behavior is first, don’t engage. If your colleagues want to spill their guts, that’s their right (cue “God Bless the USA”) but don't egg them on or reciprocate in the conversation. A neutral "Oh really?" works well for this. If the talk doesn’t peter out on its own, try to change the subject at an opportune time with a lighthearted "well, you know every office has their different personalities" and try to steer the conversation to something else like movies, music, your weekend plans--you know, things you do when you’re NOT working. Finally, if it continues unabated, graciously excuse yourself, citing whatever neutral pretext you wish—catching your train, walking your dog, calling your mother. And think twice about accepting next time you’re invited out for drinks with colleagues.