Tag: Customs, Etiquette and Manners

How Can I Tell My Mother-in-Law to Buzz Off?

Nothing like a non-blood relative who won’t stay away.

My partner and I live on the West Coast; our families live on the East Coast. When we go home, we make detailed plans for seeing our parents to keep our visits evenly divided and fair. Over the past few years, though, when we’re visiting my family, my partner’s mother has a habit of stopping by unannounced and staying for the day. (Once, she stayed overnight!) This upsets me; she is preventing me from spending time alone with my parents. We’ve told her these days are reserved for my family, and that my parents don’t encroach on her designated time with her son, but she continues to drop by. I want her to respect my private time with my family. Any advice?

DAUGHTER-IN-LAW

It’s tempting to conclude that your partner’s mother is a rule-breaking monster. (And she may be!) What could be fairer, after all, than dividing a six-day visit into three days with your family and three days with your partner’s? Here’s the problem, though: Sometimes neutral rules (like yours) affect people in different circumstances very differently.

Let me give you an example from my marriage. My mom was a widow and a little lonely. My husband’s parents are married with an active social life. My mom needed our visits more than my in-laws did. So, we spent more time with her. Now, this may not be your situation — and more important, it may not be what you and your partner want. (That counts, too!)

By your own account, you and he have clearly asked his mother to stop dropping by. So, ask again, and this time, explore why she’s having trouble respecting your request. Or maybe (and this is just an idea) you and your partner can split up briefly and spend some time with your families individually and then some time with them together. Added bonus: A mini-break from our partners (whom we love)!

Miguel Porlan

Saving It for Later

My boss regularly buys lunch for the entire staff. When he does, there is a person in the office who always orders an appetizer, entree and dessert. Everyone else just orders a sandwich or salad. One day, this person said to me: “This is dinner for me tonight!” as she ordered a meal of penne à la vodka. Is this appropriate? Why does this bother me so much?

COLLEAGUE

Let’s start with the more interesting question: why this bothers you. I think your sense of fair play is offended by a colleague who takes advantage of your boss’s generosity. (I assume she doesn’t order three-course lunches when the company isn’t picking up the tab.) Still, if your boss doesn’t mind, why should you? I’d M.Y.O.B. here.

I agree that your colleague seems grabby. On the other hand, this occasional greed may help her feel better about any number of workplace grievances. And rest assured: Your boss is being reimbursed by the company for the cost of the lunches (or they’re being deducted as a business expense on his taxes).

The Noise Next Door

I am a caregiver for my husband who was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. He also has leukemia and an inoperable brain tumor. Our next-door neighbors recently installed loud wind chimes very close to our house. They keep us awake day and night! My husband needs his rest, and I have to give him 30 pills a day, which is hard when I’m sleep deprived. Their house is like a fortress, so we wrote them letters (including my husband’s dire diagnoses). But nothing changed. The husband is a doctor, but they seem not to care. Ear plugs and noise machines don’t help. Any advice?

ANDI

I’m so sorry for your troubles! Coldhearted neighbors seem like the last thing you need. For now, forget about contacting them again. Your town may have a noise ordinance. Call its administrative offices or the nonemergency number at the police department and ask if they can help you.

Also, tell the medical team that’s treating your husband what’s going on. Maybe a social worker can get involved. Or perhaps someone on your husband’s medical team knows the doctor-husband and can call on your behalf. If readers have other ideas, please send them in, and I will pass them on to Andi. Good luck!

Finders Keepers?

Friends of mine were vacationing in a small town and waiting for a local restaurant to open. It had rained, and the street was dotted with puddles. Their teenage daughter stuck her toe in one and found a diamond ring with a good-sized stone. Her parents let her keep it. Would you consider this a “finders keepers” situation?

JILL

Much to the chagrin of playground veterans, the law is often more complex than “finders keepers, losers weepers.” Our common law (the jurisprudence created by lawsuits and judges’ legal decisions) recognizes a finders keepers doctrine.

But many states have passed laws that require finders to try to confirm that the property was truly abandoned — and not merely lost. This often involves police reports. So, it’s a complicated situation. (And how much could you really enjoy a ring that turned on someone else’s sadness?)


For help with your awkward situation, send a question to SocialQ@nytimes.com, to Philip Galanes on Facebook or @SocialQPhilip on Twitter.

My Son Is Being Bullied, and I Don’t Know What to Do

A reader weighs her teenager’s shame against her own silence.

My 14-year-old son and I went to watch my younger son play in a baseball tournament. My younger son is popular and athletic; my older son is not. He’s more creative and a little effeminate. When we walked onto the field with our folding chairs, someone (I couldn’t tell who) shouted a gay slur. Some people laughed, and my son was clearly mortified. I felt frozen and unsure of what to do. And that feeling has lasted all week: I haven’t raised the issue with my son for fear of further embarrassing him, but I want him to know that I’m here for him. How should I handle this?

MOM

I think my heart just broke for both of you! I’ve been your son, and I’ve also been you, at different times in my life. I get the allure of pretending the bullying never happened. Please don’t do that. Speaking up can be awkward, but silence may reinforce your son’s embarrassment and shame when he has nothing to be ashamed of!

The most important thing you can do as a parent is open the door for a conversation with your son when he’s ready. Just open it, though. Don’t walk through the door, don’t shout through the door — just let your son know you’re there, with love and support for him, when he’s ready to talk.

Start with something simple, like: “Did you hear what that kid said when we walked in? That was really mean.” Then stop. Your son will let you know, in words or body language, if he wants to discuss it. Don’t push. It may take a while for him to open up. In the meantime, tell him you love him, and be alert for more bullying.

Depending on local conditions, confiding in a sympathetic teacher or counselor may help. You can also consult a therapist or, if you think it appropriate, an L.G.B.T.Q. support group in your area. However you proceed, though, make sure your son knows he has an ally in you who supports him exactly as he is. Good luck, Mom! I’m rooting for both of you.

Miguel Porlan

Seating by Vaccine Status?

We were invited to a wedding of the daughter of friends of 30 years. A week beforehand, the father of the bride called my husband and asked if we minded sitting at a table with an unvaccinated couple. (He said they were “anti-vaxxers.”) We said yes. We’re older and have health conditions. The father assured us the couple would not be attending. Then came the second call: “My daughter really wants this couple to be there.” My husband said we wouldn’t go, and the father thanked us. We’re flabbergasted! We want nothing more to do with these people. Thoughts, please?

L.

Well, the bride’s father really bobbled the ball. And I understand your distress. My guess: He really thought he could fix the problem when he told your husband he could, and he may have been surprised when his daughter insisted on including the unvaccinated couple. (It’s her wedding.)

Now, we don’t know several facts: Was this an indoor event with masks? If pressed, would the hosts have found another table for you? And did they notify other guests (whose risk factors may be unknown to them) that an unvaccinated couple would be attending?

I commend the bride’s father for trying, even though he failed. He shared important information. And who knows what battle ensued among the bride’s family over this? I’d hate to see you write off a friendship of 30 years over your friends’ stubborn daughter. This is new ground for all of us.

First Date

On a dating app, I met a guy who seemed great. After we were both fully vaccinated, he asked me out. And I agreed. The problem: He wants to go to a movie, and I’m not comfortable with indoor theaters yet. (If it helps, I’m in my 30s and don’t have any underlying conditions.) What do you think?

M.L.

For starters, let me quibble with the choice of a movie for a first date: How are you going to get to know each other better sitting quietly in the dark for two hours? More important, though, is that you go at your own speed.

We’ve all been through a lot during the pandemic, and if it takes you a little longer to get comfortable sitting indoors — even if it’s safe for you — wait. Is this great guy open to compromise?

But You Told Me to Hurry!

At the end of a long weekend, we drove our houseguests to the train station. They were running late and asked us to hurry. They didn’t want to miss their train. Cut to: We were stopped by the police for speeding. Who should pay the ticket?

JIM

Sorry, Jim! The person behind the wheel is responsible for driving infractions. Your guests may have egged you on, but they didn’t press the accelerator. Let me add, though: Thoughtful guests would have offered to pay the ticket — or at least split it with you — under these circumstances.


For help with your awkward situation, send a question to SocialQ@nytimes.com, to Philip Galanes on Facebook or @SocialQPhilip on Twitter.

How Do I Get My Parents to Stop Bankrolling Their Adult Son?

A reader would love to see his brother stop mooching and learn to support himself.

For 15 years, my parents have paid for my adult brother to live in an upscale apartment in the expensive city where he went to college. He doesn’t work. He barely graduated from college, lost touch with his friends, then flunked out of graduate school. My parents were mortified, and I encouraged him to find work. But he never did. Now my parents are resigned to supporting him indefinitely. With the pandemic ebbing, I keep trying to convince them that they should push my brother to apply for jobs and engage with the world. But when my brother refuses, my parents are cowed by him. So, they continue to support him, giving him nice hand-me-down cars and taking him to fancy dinners. This is madness! What more can I do?

BROTHER

If you’d expressed concern for your brother’s emotional well-being or the roots of his seeming paralysis as an adult, it would be easier to sympathize with you. (He may be depressed, not a grifter.) But your question reads like a jealous tale of middle-age sibling rivalry: Mommy and Daddy give him too much!

And even if you’re right — your brother is a mooch, and your parents enable his laziness — it doesn’t matter. Your family doesn’t take orders from you! You’ve expressed your opinion repeatedly, it seems, but your parents and brother are free to act as they choose. (To me, his issues seem more complex than the cost of an “upscale apartment” or the “fancy dinners” you focus on. I hope he seeks professional help.)

I also get that your frustration may be drowning out your loving concern. Still, it’s hard to see how your continued involvement helps matters here. No one is asking for your assistance. Disentangle yourself and get on with your own life. Your energy will be better spent exploring how this family dynamic affects you.

Miguel Porlan

Where’s My Kid’s Invite?

My 10-year-old daughter has two best friends. The three of them play together occasionally, but the other two aren’t really friends and only see each other through my daughter. One of the mothers of these girls told me she would like her daughter to have a best friend like the other girl. Now, that mother has organized a play date with the other girl and didn’t invite my daughter. My daughter is hurt, and I’m annoyed. Are we wrong? Is there an etiquette for this?

MOM

To my knowledge, there is no social equivalent of a “finder’s fee” that entitles your daughter to mandatory invitations every time children she’s introduced gather to play. Chill, Mom! It’s one play date.

One of the most common ways to make new friends is through our pals’ existing friendships. And that’s good! It creates community. I encourage you to stop policing your child’s social calendar and help her focus on making a variety of friends. No one gets invited to everything.

Dog Days of Summer

Like many Americans, my next-door neighbor adopted a cute puppy during the pandemic. While we were in lockdown, she and the dog were together all day. Now that she’s gone back to work, and the puppy is on its own for hours at a stretch, it cries and barks and whines — a lot. It’s miserable to be next door! How should I handle this with my neighbor?

JIL

Unless the puppy has a delayed reaction to being left alone (and doesn’t start crying until your neighbor is out of earshot), she is probably aware of this problem to some extent. Let her know gently that her dog’s distress continues for the length of her absence.

Say, “I’m sorry to tell you that your puppy barks and whines the whole time you’re away. It’s painful to hear! Have you started working on this yet?” Unfortunately for you and the puppy, improving its separation anxiety will be a process — one your neighbor will have to manage on her own or with the help of a good trainer (now that our dogs are accustomed to 24/7 companionship).

Typo Alert!

My brother-in-law sent us two free copies of his memoir. Our family tree is included in it. My husband (the author’s brother), one of our grandchildren and I all had our names misspelled in the book. When I pointed this out, he blamed a now-dead cousin for the mistake. No apology! May I return these unsolicited books?

HARRIET

Just curious: Did you ever congratulate your brother-in-law on the publication of his memoir or thank him for sending two copies, or did you launch right into the misspelling of your names? Often, the tenor in which we raise problems is a good barometer for the kind of response we will receive.

I’m sorry your feelings are hurt. No matter who provided the information or proofread the manuscript, it would have been thoughtful for the author to apologize. (Does anyone really need a proofreader to spell his brother’s name correctly?) Still, returning the books seems overdramatic. Your brother-in-law’s failure to apologize for minor errors probably doesn’t merit major escalation.


For help with your awkward situation, send a question to SocialQ@nytimes.com, to Philip Galanes on Facebook or @SocialQPhilip on Twitter.

Do I Really Have to Tip?

A consumer asks whether payment screens should solicit tips for service workers.

Now that we use credit cards to pay for coffees and ice cream cones, I’ve gotten used to seeing payment screens that show tip options. I consider these tips income transfers (from me to workers) rather than gratuities for services rendered. (Does scooping ice cream really require a tip?) Still, I was shocked recently when I used a credit card to pay for a carpet cleaning service and was shown tip options from five to 20 percent. It was uncomfortable to press “no tip” in front of the workers. But the service cost $700, so even a 10 percent tip would have raised the price significantly. I think these payment systems bully consumers. What do you think?

SUSAN

You’re asking, at heart, how to feel good about yourself while participating in an economy that denies many workers a living wage. Of course, you don’t set the pay for ice-cream scoopers or carpet cleaners. And it’s common among those who prefer not to think about our complicity to conclude that companies should pay their workers instead of relying on us to tip them. I see that point!

Spoiler, though: Most companies don’t seem to be in a big rush to pay their workers any better. So, what should we do? I suggest some research on wages, generosity (in keeping with our means) and carrying cash. Remember: You don’t have to tip as a percentage of sales. You can also knock yourself out with letters to C.E.O.s!

For ice-cream scoopers who likely earn minimum wage, for instance, I generally tip a dollar or two. I’d prefer that minimum wage was sufficient to live on. I also recognize that if workers were paid more, my ice cream cone would probably cost more too. I’m OK with that. I bet most people would be.

Now, consider service workers like carpet-cleaning technicians, who earn an average of $15 an hour. It would be hard to live on a salary of $30,000 in my area. So, under most circumstances, I would give them each $20 at the end of the day. You don’t have to! But let’s be real: The problem with income inequality — and particularly in the service industry — is not the payment screen.

Miguel Porlan

A Gift Return Trap

When our twins were born, we were given generous baby gifts by many people, including my mother-in-law. Now that the twins are getting older, they are outgrowing the strollers, baby clothes and car seats. So, my husband has been selling gifts that were given to us by his side of the family to buy new things that we need now. The problem: My mother-in-law recently asked us to return the bigger-ticket items she gave us so her daughter can use them for her baby. (Note: My sister-in-law isn’t pregnant or in a serious relationship.) I was taken aback by her request. Gifts are gifts, right?

DAUGHTER-IN-LAW

I am going to break one of my cardinal rules by assuming a few facts not in evidence. (It’s the only way I can make sense of this story.) Your mother-in-law has likely discovered that you are selling her gifts. Why else would she ask for them now?

And you are being a little disingenuous by ignoring the sentimental value of baby gifts from a loving grandmother. As a general matter, you’re right: Once given, gifts are yours to do with as you please. But if baby gifts have no emotional value, why aren’t you selling any from your side of the family?

Now, you lay the responsibility for these sales at your husband’s feet. But I suspect you agreed with his plan. So, speak to his mother together. Tell her (again?) how much you appreciate her gifts. Acknowledge that you’ve been selling them as the twins outgrow them. And assure her that the twins are told, with each new purchase, that their grandmother bought it for them. Maybe this will smooth some ruffled feathers.

Pool Party Planning

My wife and I, both fully-vaccinated, are hosting our son’s third birthday party at my in-laws’ house. The party will be held outdoors at their pool. The other guests will be a few family members who are also vaccinated. My wife’s sister initially said that she and her family would not attend because one of her sons is immunocompromised, and they are being extra cautious. Now, the sister is asking that my wife and I show her negative Covid test results before the party so she can feel more comfortable attending with her children. Her reasoning is that our son has contact with a teenage babysitter (also vaccinated) for two hours a week. The babysitter attends school in-person, so my sister-in-law thinks our son may have a risk of infection. Am I wrong to think this is an unreasonable request? It’s our party!

DAN

Very few of us are epidemiologists — though many of us have played one for the last 15 months. You and I can’t properly evaluate your nephew’s health risks. But we can be extra empathetic to a mother who has probably been under extreme stress with an at-risk child.

Say, “We’d love for your family to come to the party! But we’re not qualified to assess the risks to your son. If your pediatrician recommends testing in a situation where everyone is vaccinated, we’ll be happy to.” Think of it as a small mercy.


For help with your awkward situation, send a question to SocialQ@nytimes.com, to Philip Galanes on Facebook or @SocialQPhilip on Twitter.

Can My Kids Forgive Their Brother for His Secret Wedding?

A father of three adult children is trying to broker peace after two were excluded from a family milestone.

We have three adult children. Our middle son planned to be married last November, but the wedding was postponed for a year because of the pandemic. Recently we met him, his fiancée and his future in-laws in Florida, where the couple surprised us with a tiny beach wedding — just parents and one best friend. Trying to be inclusive, I sent a picture of the ceremony to my other two children. Rather than feeling joy for their brother, though, they were angry at being excluded and unaware of the wedding. (They both live thousands of miles away, and the large wedding postponed until this November is still on!) Further discussion has only led to more anger. The newlyweds are hurt that my other children won’t congratulate them, and I feel guilty for instigating the problem with the picture. How can I mediate peace?

DAD

By the power vested in me (by no one, actually) you are hereby absolved! You did nothing wrong in sending a picture of the surprise wedding to your adult children. (The marriage was not likely to stay secret for long.) Still, this may be an opportune moment for you to step aside as mediator and let your children settle their conflict as (purported) adults. Instead of further advocacy, send them this column.

I sympathize with all parties. On one side, there was a joyful wedding after a miserable year and a delicious surprise concocted by a bride and groom. On the other, there are the understandably hurt feelings of the groom’s siblings at being excluded from a big family event (or at least not being told about it in advance).

I hope the couple was empathetic enough to apologize for the hurt they caused inadvertently. I get their behavior, though: After a stressful, open-ended delay, they saw a golden opportunity and grabbed it! Sadly, they neglected to inform the siblings. If they haven’t apologized yet, they should. And if your other children haven’t accepted the apology, their self-centeredness is on them.

Miguel Porlan

The Strain of Slacktivism

I grew up in a Muslim Arab-American family that always supported the Palestinian cause. My best friend of 10 years is Jewish with family ties to Israel. We have always held opposing views about the conflict in the Middle East, but we’ve been able to discuss them respectfully. This time around, though, the conflict is putting a big strain on our relationship. Our social media activism has created distance and awkwardness between us. I love my friend and don’t want to hurt our relationship. But this is a subject on which we don’t see eye-to-eye. How should we handle it?

ANONYMOUS

I have a suggestion, though you may not like it. By your own account, the issue that’s creating distance between you and thwarting respectful communication, unlike before, is your “social media activism” — which I interpret as posting one-sided screeds that appeal only to people who already agree with you and make more nuanced discussion nearly impossible.

I suggest you stop it. Now, don’t get me wrong: I like the catharsis of an angry post as much as the next person. But activism that shuts down conversation, as yours (and your friend’s) seems to have done, is not worth much. I’d beat a hasty retreat back to respectful mode, and I’d encourage your bestie to do the same.

Dude, Where’s My Bandmate?

I play in a band. All of the bandmates are on a group text chat. One of our members — a guy who has been in the band for more than 10 years — has stopped responding to texts about practices, gigs, etc. When pressed about his behavior, he retreats even further. How do we handle this ghosting situation? We don’t want to just give him the boot.

JAMES

Sometimes, when people have personal difficulties, broadcasting them over group chat is uncomfortable. If you haven’t yet, call your bandmate directly and ask how he’s doing. It’s been a rough year. He may have a private explanation for his unresponsiveness, or he may simply have cooled on the band after a decade. It will be easier to figure out which it is one-on-one.

I’ll Venmo You Later …

My boyfriend’s brother is really bad at collecting debts. When we go out to dinner, for instance, he will pay with a credit card and tell us that he’ll send Venmo requests once he figures out what we owe. Because of this, I don’t thank him. Then weeks go by without a Venmo request. My boyfriend likes that his older brother is forgetful and refuses to remind him. But I don’t like owing people. Please help!

ACCIDENTAL MOOCHERS

How exactly is this mooching accidental? After a few days, it seems quite intentional to me. Unless the brother’s Venmo story is merely a charade to pick up dinner tabs without argument, you’re both taking advantage of his absent-mindedness.

I suggest texting him: “What do we owe you for dinner?” Just like that, he will probably tell you, and you can pay up! And next time, work out what you owe at the table. It’s really not that hard.


For help with your awkward situation, send a question to SocialQ@nytimes.com, to Philip Galanes on Facebook or @SocialQPhilip on Twitter.