Wednesday, March 9, 2016

My Friend Let Her Dog Eat My Purse

Dear Cyndie,

My daughter’s friend came over last week, and one of the items they played with was an old purse of mine that is not valuable, but which has sentimental value to me.

When the girl’s mother came, the girl wanted to keep playing with the purse, and her mother asked if she could take it home and return it another day. I thought it was a bold thing to ask, but I said okay because I didn’t know what else to do. I made sure to tell her that the purse was special to me.

Well, I finally got the purse back yesterday. She sent it to school with her daughter, who gave it to my daughter to bring home. My purse had obviously been attacked by this woman’s dog. It was chewed and covered in hair and disgusting. I told her the purse was special, and she let her dog ruin it! She didn’t even apologize when she texted to ask if I got the purse back.

I don’t want to lose this lady’s friendship because my daughter really likes her daughter, but she is always asking for things she shouldn’t. She’ll ask if her daughter can come earlier or stay later than my invitation, she asks if her daughter can take our things home—she doesn’t seem to respect my time or our possessions.

So, given that history, should I say something to her about the ruined purse? Normally, I wouldn’t, but enough is enough.

Dear Friend,

You know, part of me wishes you would respond to her text, “Yes. Looks like your dog got it, too.” But snappy retorts are rude, and I don’t think it would make you feel any better. Your purse is ruined, and if this woman didn’t bother to apologize (profusely) and bring you a token “I’m sorry” gift, it seems unlikely that she will be moved to regret by your rebuke.

Whether the value of the purse was great or small, it was yours and she had borrowed it. She should have apologized and offered to replace it. Then, you could have said, “Oh, dear, how disappointing. Thank you for telling me.” And you could have declined a replacement, as the purse was of sentimental, not monetary value. (If the purse had been valuable, it might be another story. But that’s another column.)

Apologizing and offering to replace something you have broken or ruined is elementary good manners, and I imagine you are feeling somewhere between hurt and incredulous that she either doesn’t seem to know this rule, or that she doesn’t think you merit such basic consideration.

Perhaps it has never occurred to her that not all people accept with equanimity the destruction of property by a dog, especially when the property is theirs and the dog is someone else’s. But whether she is clueless, selfish or socially inept, you now know that you cannot trust her to take care of things or to be honest when she has damaged your property.

Add to that her presumptions upon your time, and I can see why you’ve had enough.

Fortunately, the solution to this problem is entirely within your control. True, this woman was presumptuous enough to ask to borrow the purse, careless enough to allow it to be chewed up and rude enough to return it without acknowledging and apologizing for the damage. But it was you who let her borrow the purse that you cared about.

In the future, therefore, I suggest you say no when she asks to borrow something. You needn’t be tart or sarcastic about it. You need only be pleasant and firm. If her daughter wants to leave your house with a stuffed bunny, you will say, mildly, “No. Sorry.” If you like, you can kindly tell the daughter that, “You can play with it the next time you come,” or “Our rule is that all toys stay here in the house.”

If the mother continues to ask a second or third time, continue to say no. Don’t let her create an uncomfortable situation that you feel obligated to diffuse by giving in.

You can apply this principle to other interactions with this woman. Make a rule for yourself that you will say no if she asks for something that is not convenient or that you don’t want to do. There is nothing rude or unfriendly about declining such requests. Unless you regularly ask her for similar favors, you are not required to rearrange your schedule for her or to let her borrow your possessions.

In fact, this woman probably thinks you don’t mind such requests because you so often agree to them. Your agreement has communicated to her that she can keep asking.

As you do mind, you need to stop agreeing. So, the next time this woman calls to ask if her daughter can stay for dinner at your house, say, “No, I’m sorry.” If she wants to drop off her daughter an hour early to play, say, “No, we can’t play until 1.” If she asks you to take her daughter to the pool with you today, say, “I’m sorry, I can’t.” Keep a firm and pleasant tone, but do not give in.

Finally, and perhaps I should have mentioned this first, but it is possible that this woman does not know what happened to the purse. You are assuming, based on this woman’s generally presumptuous behavior, that she knows that her dog ruined your purse, and did not bother to say anything about it. However, her daughter might have left the purse somewhere she oughtn’t, and might have hidden the damage from her mother.

If my child had done such a thing, I would appreciate a call from the other child’s mother. “This is a little awkward,” I would expect to hear, “but when Hal returned Trevor’s microscope yesterday, the lens was cracked. Do you know what happened?” I would then reply that I appreciated the call, that I didn’t know about the damage, and that I would ask Hal about it immediately and call her back.

Hal, assuming he was at fault, would then be taught the proper thing to do when he damaged someone else’s property and given the chance to make good his error. He would also learn not to lend anything you would be crushed to lose, and not to borrow anything you don’t want to replace.

That phone call is what I would appreciate. You will have to decide if you think this woman would appreciate it, too.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

I'm a Non-Political Hostess

This column originally ran on August 9, 2012 in Nauvoo Times. In honor of primary election season, we are reprinting it today. 


I am not someone who enjoys heated political conversations, particularly when they are started in my home by someone who is not part of my household. This is partly because I lack interest, but more importantly because I don't enjoy the feeling of contention it brings.

How can I ask a guest to stop bringing up politics, or at least to keep them friendly, without offending him or making him feel unwelcome?


I sense that you would like a non-confrontational approach to this problem. Three ideas come to mind.

1. Don't go there.

As hostess, you can steer conversation away from political topics. Start conversations about non-political topics. And avoid any topic that might act as a bridge to a political rant, such as farm subsidies or high-speed rail.

If you hear someone else mention such a topic, jump in with a segue, such as "Did you ever hear about Jake's trip on a Soviet train? It was so interesting." And then turn to Jake expectantly.

Or you can choose the one non-political aspect of what your guest just said and ask about that. For example, if your guest says that his niece can't get in to see her doctor anymore because of Obamacare, and you smell a rant coming on, ask where his niece lives or what she does or if she is the same niece you met when she visited last April.

2. The sudden interruption that you simply cannot contain.

Let's say your guest starts down a contentious path. You might say, "Oh! I just remembered! Before I forget I have to ask you . . . ." and then ask about a totally different topic within the person's expertise.

You could also call away your guest or his conversation partner to do something that only he or she can do, such as opening a stubborn jar of pickles or setting up the game of Catan everyone has been waiting to play. Be sure to act embarrassed that you are interrupting.

3. Look politely blank. Say, "Oh." And then change the subject.

This will be difficult if you think the person's statement is absurd -- or dead-on. But if you rebut -- or endorse -- the statement, your interest in the subject will be established and the conversation will gain momentum instead of stopping.

Depending on your relationship with your guest and on his personality, there is a fourth option.

4. Disagree blandly.

When met with an outlandish statement, respond calmly. "Really? I don't think so." Or, "Really? I read [the opposite]." Then shrug and change the subject.

You can only do this if you appear calm, slightly bored, and well informed. It will not work if the person is intent on evangelizing.

Some people might advocate telling the person flat out that you don't want to hear his political rants.

But this is not very gracious. It will likely create a horrible, awkward moment for everyone, and you will look mean. There are very few people in the world who could accomplish it without making everyone at the gathering feel uncomfortable.

But if you must attempt it, nix the topic and not the person. The second you feel the conversation going south, hop in with a quick laugh and say something like, "Oh, no, no, no! Let's not talk about labor unions tonight!" It's hard to pull off in a way that amuses instead of insults, so use great caution.

Guests, for their part, should remember the old rule against discussing politics and religion. Unless you are 100% sure you are gathered with people who have a similar interest in discussing politics at a similar volume, it is best to avoid the topic.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

How Do I Overcome My Hurt Feelings?

Dear Cyndie,

I’m having a problem with a person in my ward. This person has said cruel, manipulative and insulting things to me, lied to me, gone out of her way to exclude me from people and activities I enjoy, and been generally awful, all the while acting like I was the problem. It has been horrible. I don’t even want to go to church because I dread seeing her. 

I try to avoid this person, but she seems to be everywhere. I don’t know how to act around her or how to stop re-hashing in my head all the things she has done to me. For months, I tried being extra nice to her, in case there had been a misunderstanding, but that only made things worse. It doesn’t help, either, that she seems like a totally normal person on the surface.

I have never had a problem like this before, and it is consuming me. 

What should I do?

Dear Friend,

Your question is a good reminder that intense personal dramas and hurt feelings are not the sole province of overly-emotional teenagers. Adults are just as capable of cruelty, manipulation, selfishness, lies and unkindness. And although adults should, generally speaking, be able to roll with the hurly burly of life, in which potential offenses are legion, even reasonable adults can suffer offense and hurt feelings when people are cruel to them.

Your question is also a good reminder that not all hurt feelings arise from simple misunderstandings or personality clashes. Some hurt feelings arise when one person actually mistreats another person in a way that goes beyond the normal ebb and flow of human interaction. 

Interestingly, your experience also shows that approaching a person to resolve differences is not always effective. If one party is, in effect, abusing the other, no amount of talk is going to resolve the situation. As you found, treating this person with extra kindness only made the problem worse. Instead of bringing you together, it showed her that the worse she treated you, the more compliant and solicitous you were towards her. Ironically, your mature approach to a personal conflict actually made it easier for her to mistreat you further.

Fortunately, you have already taken steps to remove this person from your life. But the only way I know to feel permanently better is to forgive this person. That’s a tall order when she was horrible and your feelings are raw. So file it away in your mind as a long-term goal, which you someday hope to achieve. 

For the short term, I suggest you disengage entirely from this person. You need to get her out of your head and out of your life. As you are in the same ward, complete avoidance will indeed be impossible, but there are things you can do to put physical, mental and emotional distance between you.  

Here are four suggestions.

One, avoid and ignore this person as much as possible. Delete her from your social media and don’t read her posts. Develop friendships in social circles that do not include her. Skip book club when it’s at her house. When milling about the church lobby, stand so that you cannot see her.

Two, be scrupulously polite. Behaving well will always make you feel better than behaving badly. In the long run, anyway. So stow your temper and do not attempt to guilt trip her or tell her off. Why? Because (1) pointing out the bad behavior of others is bad behavior and (2) it won’t work. Anything you do will only cause a kerfuffle in which she will look persecuted and you will look unhinged. If she has lied to and manipulated you, she will lie about you in order to manipulate others. Don’t give her any ammunition.

Remember that polite behavior is not necessarily friendly or familiar. There is nothing rude about deciding not to socialize with a person who treated you badly. You don’t have to treat her the same nice way you treat your friends, or even with the normal warmth you show acquaintances and strangers.

But you should observe social norms. For example, “Excuse me,” and “I’m sorry, but I won’t be able to come.”

Three, if you think you will be attending the same function as this person, plan in advance what you will say and do if you encounter her. This might seem like overkill, but having something polite and bland to say will take some of the dread out of seeing her at social and church events.

“Hello, Jezebel,” delivered in a bland tone with the minimal length of polite eye contact as you walk past her would be a good phrase to practice. You might also plan to sit in a different part of the room, to talk to people who are not talking with her and to get up and refill your plate if she sits down near you.

Four, if you catch yourself thinking about her, telling her off in your mind or mentally re-hashing what happened between you, replace the negative thoughts with something else. An uplifting hymn is a traditional choice, but you could also recite the Gettysburg Address, the periodic table of elements or irregular French verbs. Discipline yourself to switch gears immediately to your safe, replacement topic any time this person enters your thoughts.

In many ways, this is the hardest part of disengaging from this person, because letting go of your negative thoughts requires you to want to forgive her. It requires you to not indulge your anger or revel in your aggrieved party status. But if and when you can manage it, you will, in fact, start to feel better as you spend less and less of your mental and emotional capacity thinking about this person.

Finally, three thoughts. First, the next time you hurt someone’s feelings, even inadvertently, go and apologize to that person. Apologizing will salve hurt feelings and show people that you care about them.

Second, if this person has treated you this badly, it is likely that she has treated, is now treating or will in the future treat other people just as badly. If you see a situation unfolding in which you can tell that she is persecuting someone else, you should take steps to protect that person. Confronting this woman is unlikely to be effective, but you may be able to have a discreet but direct and helpful conversation with her new victim in which you can provide comfort, validation and advice.

Third, think of this experience the next time you hear that a person in your ward stopped attending church because his feelings were hurt, or because he was offended. We too often dismiss as immature the people who stopped coming to church because their feelings were hurt.

As your experience shows, it is possible for a reasonable adult to have his or her feelings hurt by genuinely bad treatment to such a degree that the experience feels all-consuming, and coming to church becomes difficult.

Further, to treat someone badly and then insist that that person is wrong to be so easily offended is manipulative and hypocritical.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Creative Baby Name Train Wreck

Dear Cyndie,
A young relative of mine has just welcomed a new baby girl into her family. She and her husband are planning to give the baby an unusual name with a creative spelling. 

Unfortunately, when you pronounce the name according to their spelling, you get a recognizable word that produces surprise and then laughter, and not in a good way. I have noted this reaction to the baby’s printed name several times, so I know I am not the only one making this connection. 

Do I say something, or not?

Dear Friend,

Do you ever wonder what leads parents to give a child a name with an ill-conceived creative spelling that, when pronounced, produces unflattering surprise and laughter?

I do. I wonder why they are not thinking ahead to every time that name is read aloud, said aloud, printed on a resume or listed in a company directory. Why they are not thinking about how it would feel to live with that spelling. And, most of all, why they did not listen when the unflatteringly humorous pronunciation was pointed out to them by their own parents, friends and loved ones.

Surely, at some point in the naming process, someone close to these parents said something like, “Sayid is a wonderful name. But why did you spell it “sighed?” Or, “I received your baby’s birth announcement. She’s darling, and her name is “Analyze?” 

Or even, from their blunt uncle, “You’re not really going to name her “Medusa” just so you can call her Maddy, are you? You know that Medusa is mythical Greek monster with a hideous face and snakes for hair who will turn you to stone if you look at her. Here, check Wikipedia if you don’t believe me.”

All of these statements, of course, are potentially hurtful. They unmistakably imply that the parents are ignorant and lacking in judgement.

These statements are also intrusive. Naming a child is his parents’ prerogative, in every sense of the word, and parents are entitled to great deference on the matter.

Even so, if a baby’s parents really were contemplating “Medusa” as a baby name, I think it’s safe to say that intervention would be warranted. Not because the intervenor has any kind of right to name the baby or to criticize the parents, but because there are some times in life when the duty to mind one’s own business takes a back seat to the duty to provide information to a person who is making a decision.

The trick, of course, is knowing when to speak up and when to keep your thoughts to yourself. I suggest you ask yourself four questions.

One, is your concern over a preference (a name you don’t care for) or a problem (Medusa)? If you simply don’t care for a name, you should welcome the opportunity to learn to love it. But if there is an articulable problem with the name, you might consider saying something.

Two, do you have the kind of relationship with these young parents that allows you to bring up a sensitive topic? If you are close, your relative might expect you to bring such facts to her attention. I, for example, would be shocked if my sisters and close friends did not tell me important information they knew I lacked. Such a conversation would begin, “Okay, but have you thought about . . . .”

However, if you know that any comment from you will be taken the wrong way (i.e. they will think you’re trying to criticize and control them no matter how objectively reasonable your point), you might decide to keep mum. Hopefully, though, your affection is so steady, so sure, that a potentially offensive and hurtful comment can be taken as information instead of insult.

Three, is the information you wish to convey important enough to risk hurting their feelings? Is it important enough that you will feel peace about any rift that develops between you because of your actions.

Four, would your information be novel, or would you be the eleventy-millionth person to pile on? If you are the sole source of the information,  you should be more willing to risk a rift than if you know that many other people have already expressed the same concern.

So, how do these factors shake out in your case? It seems like you have a legitimate (rather than preference-based) concern, and a baby’s name is at stake. Names are a big deal. They last a long time. You will have to evaluate for yourself whether your relationship can bear the weight; or, conversely, whether your relationship is close enough that your young relative would expect you to bring such a fact to her attention.

I think your claim is most likely to fail on the fourth question: Is seems unlikely that no one has brought this ill-fated pronunciation to these young parents’ attention. Surely someone—a friend, a relative, a co-worker—has said, “I like the name Annalise, but do you realize that spelling reads “analyze” because you used ‘es’ instead of ‘se’ at the end? Hey—it also reads ‘Anna lies!’”

In fact, I suspect that if you call this young relative’s mother and, in a pleasant tone, mention the baby’s name, she’ll let you know that, Yes, she is aware of the ill-conceived spelling, and Yes, the problem has been brought to new parents’ attention. And Yes, they are sticking with it. If that is the case, you are better off saving your breath and your personal capital.

Finally, before you talk to anyone, I suggest you do some research. It is possible that the objectionably word has a historically negative connotation that has faded or even reversed in recent years. The name and spelling could be a family name, a reference to popular culture, or common in a language other than English. 

Whether those considerations should overpower the unflattering creative spelling is a matter for debate, but they would indicate that the spelling was chosen purposefully, despite its defects, which would weigh against your interference.