Faux pas or fresh approach? Social pariah or ethical hero? Let Cerberus, Squintus, and Caecilius answer your questions about social dilemmas and modern etiquette.
20th November 2010
Q. Hypothetically, someone keeps sending me so called ‘humorous’ emails. However these are definitely in a different field of humour to my own, and I do not know how to prevent this from happening. I would leave them unanswered, though this is almost seen as encouragement through default. Should I perhaps send my own examples of emails in my vein of humour as an example, or will that be confusing?
Squintus: Oh, the bane of the ‘humorous’ email. Exceeded in the irritation stakes only by the ‘Pass this onto 20 people NOW or something AWFUL will happen to YOU’ chain email, and the ‘This REALLY happened’ urban scaremongering spam. This pestilence needs to be dealt with promptly and firmly.
First of all, do not respond with humour of your own. This only validates the appropriateness of their emails, and will encourage them to respond until you’re suffering from a frantic exchange of increasingly ‘hilarious’ emails.
Secondly, leaving the emails unanswered is akin to not responding to spam. It neither encourages nor discourages it, and your inbox continues to be regularly offended.
Thirdly, firm but friendly words must be exchanged. A courteous email explaining that your inbox is quite busy, and you’re trying to keep incomings to a minimum. While their contact is appreciated, perhaps they could cease sending you jokes and links until your correspondence is more manageable. Failing that, you could try negative conditioning, and reply to every ‘humorous’ email with an ‘autoresponder’ that states in size 40 font that ‘This email address does not accept tacky emails’ accompanied by a photo of a frowning face.
Q. I was seated on a full bus when a gentleman boarded with grey hair. He didn’t look very old but he was definitely a senior. I was in a dilemma. Usually it is very easy to draw the line between who I should and should not offer a seat to – frailty, looking likely not to balance well on a bus, if they remind me of an older relative, etc. I’m happy to jump up for an older person. However this gentleman could have been in his 60s and perfectly comfortable standing for long stretches of time. I wasn’t sure if it would be embarrassing or insulting to offer my seat to a man who thought of himself as quite healthy and fit, to have a woman half his age offer her seat to him, but I didn’t want to offend by not even looking like I considered giving up the seat. So I did what I normally do in ambiguous bus seat offering situations – I looked down and pretended to be asleep. How should I have proceeded?
Squintus: It’s all about the disparity. Despite the common belief that you should offer your seat to the frail, elderly or pregnant, in my opinion, the more appropriate assessment should be based on whether that person is more frail, elderly, or pregnant than yourself.
For example, it would be appropriate for someone with bunions to offer their seat to someone with a broken leg. Or for someone four months pregnant to offer their seat to someone eight months pregnant. Or for a fifteen year old to step aside for a tired and cranky thirty year old.
The key in this situation is the fact that you were half the age of the potentially offended senior. His age alone, compared to yours, would have made it appropriate to offer your seat. However, his fitness in comparison to yours, would not have made it compulsory. Pretending to nap, however, is always an acceptable option, particularly if the gentleman looks to be the chatty type, and you’re exhausted from staying up late watching Korean comedies.
Q. I have recently met a close talker. An extremely personal-space-invading close talker. I don’t mind a friend occasionally need a close-talk but not a stranger or new acquaintance. I don’t really know how to gain more space as they usually approach me while I’m at my station, so it’s hard for me to step away as I could if I was in the street. I’m not sure how to distance a close talker except to maybe try coughing or sneezing to gain some distance, though having to do this every time seems a little contrived. Any suggestions?
Squintus: Ah, I have offended many a close talker by deploying the ‘excessive lean away’, and even once avoided a hug with a tactical side step. Trying to dissuade a close talker without causing mortal offence is a trickier challenge.
My initial recommendation would be to try a ‘mild lean away’, which is less likely to cause offence than the ‘horrified lean away’. If necessary, adjust your station and equipment while talking in order to accommodate your new position.
If this fails to enlighten the speaker, you may need to erect a ‘personal barrier’ upon approach next time. A suitably positioned chair, an angled easel, or failing all else, strategically located feet and elbows, can help to casually maintain your speaker’s distance. (See diagram below).
However, it’s always possible that your speaker is simply short sighted and hard of hearing, in which case, making large gestures and speaking at three times your normal volume may encourage them to maintain a more appropriate distance.
Diagram: Anti Close Talker Position
30th October 2010
Q: If two work colleagues are having a private, but very loud, conversation nearby, is it rude to laugh out loud at the punchline of their anecdote?
Caecilius: I wouldn't hesitate to laugh. I have done this in the past and when questioned I have pointed out I was merely laughing at something else I had just coincidently found absolutely hilarious at the exact same moment. This is often met with suspicion, but they nod slowly. However my good reason tells me to try to stifle your chuckles if you suspect they would be mortified that you heard their anecdote.
Squintus: Hmm, it's like the tricky question of when does 'following' become 'stalking' and when does 'overhearing' become 'eavesdropping'? In both cases, there are issues of detection, plausible denial, and intent. If you laugh at the anecdote quietly to yourself, then detection is less likely than if you guffaw raucously and slap your thigh. If you laugh while typing intently on your computer, you have a more plausible alternative explanation for your mirth than if you're craning over your cubicle wall with binoculars. If you listen casually because they're talking loudly, it's more acceptable than if you're straining to catch every word because it's more interesting than what you're doing. Bottom line is, if you can't avoid overhearing, at least be discreet. (Note: Stalking is a crime. Don't do it.)
19th June 2010
Q: Is it appropriate to make personal grooming suggestions? For example, if someone has protruding nose hair, excessive dandruff, or constant bad breath, and this may be off-putting, distracting or affecting the impression they give to clients, co-workers and friends. When, with whom, and how can you broach this topic?
Cerberus: Ooh, minefield. Personal grooming is a rather delicate topic, where awkwardness or offence can easily result. I would advise only broaching this topic if you have a relationship of trust with the person concerned, where both of you are comfortable with that level of discussion. Talk to them in private, and lead up to the issue in a sensitive way. For example, "There's something I've wanted to ask you about..." or "Have you ever thought about trying something for...?" If awkwardness or offence results anyway, well, you can avoid them, or at least avoid eye contact.
Squintus: I think it's important to enlighten those around us – intellectually, morally, and emotionally – but certain issues should be approached with extreme caution. Personal grooming is a seriously touchy topic, more so than someone's political affiliations, child rearing strategy, or life partner choice. One poorly worded comment about someone's appearance or odour can send them freewheeling back into their traumatic schoolyard days.
I recommend being sensitive, constructive, and oblique. The more unfamiliar the person, the more oblique you need to be. Say, during a friendly conversation with product placement eg. ‘have your heard about this revolutionary new anti-dandruff shampoo, available now from your local pharmacy?'. Or perhaps while sharing some fascinating news eg. ‘did you know regular flossing can reduce halitosis as much as using a tongue scraper?'. Or even via a cleverly compiled gift hamper eg. ‘Happy World Migratory Bird Day! Here's some kumquat jam, gourmet nuts, and a pair of nose hair clippers.'
Q: How can you help someone who complains but doesn't want to do anything about it?
Cerberus: Sometimes people complain because they need to vent emotion, not because they actually desire change. If this is the case, they don't want your help, they just want a sympathetic ear. On the other hand, if they do desire change, but are reluctant to take action, well, you can surprise them with action of your own! For example, if your friend is always saying, "I hate my job," now you can tell them, "I sent out a dozen resumes for you, to places I think you would like to work!" This may inspire them to take action themselves, or at least get them to think before complaining to you.
Squintus: I'm a believer in the saying ‘You can only help those who help themselves'. You can't change someone who makes no effort to change themselves, unless you're a skilled psychologist, or armed with a cattle prod. Possibly both.
If you want to help someone who is obstructive or apathetic, all you can do is be encouraging, make suggestions, and behave in a way that supports preferred behaviour. A quick primer on operant conditioning might be helpful.
If you just want them to stop complaining, a ‘talk to the hand' gesture should be sufficient.
13th June 2010
Q: Self help books. Appropriate or offensive gifts?
Cerberus: It's all about the approach! Appropriate: "This book on breaking bad habits changed my life! It's really inspiring. I wanted to share it with you because I think you'd get a lot out of it too." Offensive: "This book on breaking bad habits made me think of you, because you have so many, especially that thing where you talk with your mouth full."
Squintus: Books are usually a great gift idea – there's something to suit everyone, and if the recipient doesn't like it, books are super easy to re-gift unless you've written an inconvenient greeting on the fly page. Self help books are tricky because they're a comment about the recipient, but the key question is: do you want to make that comment? Do they want to help themselves? Are they even aware they need helping? If you can answer ‘yes' to all of the above, the self help book is a safe option. If you answered ‘no' or ‘not sure', it might be best to discuss the self improvement issue prior to the gift wrap coming off amidst an awkward silence.
9th June 2010
Q: I recently had a housewarming party, butI didn't write down who the gifts were from because I didn't want to look like I wouldn't remember. Now it's three months later, and there's still one gift I haven't managed to match up with a guest. What should I do?
Cerberus: Three months?! Let sleeping dogs lie. It will only cause awkwardness to start asking questions now. Also! People! Label your gifts!
Squintus: It's never too late to ask awkward questions! Or to say 'thank you'. It's just like one of those mathematical deduction puzzles they used to give us in school when they hadn't prepared a lesson. Or Minesweeper. Once you've eliminated all the guests whose gifts you've identified, you just have to take an electronically assisted stab in the dark. Send a friendly email to the remaining guests, asking them if they know who brought the unlabelled gift. Most people are happy to be helpful, and aren't going to think twice about it. In future, I recommend taking each gift into the next room as it's presented, and quickly whacking on a pre-prepared sticky note labelled with the guest's name.