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Stop Sending Me Chain Letters!

When e-mailed jokes become annoying, plus blabbing co-workers, exiting etiquette, and keeping dates.

Miss Conduct
(Illustration / Nathalie Dion)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Miss Conduct
April 6, 2008

Some friends and relatives constantly forward religious chain e-mails or every joke they come across on the Web. While I realize the intention is good, I am irritated by the assumption that everyone welcomes these e-mails or that I have all the time in the world to read through the endless communications. How do I get the chain letters and jokes to stop without being offensive?

L.S. in Peabody

Hit the delete key. You're not obligated to respond to such e-mails. I agree that these mass e-mails are rude and annoying. (It's fine to forward the occasional joke, article, or recipe to a select list of folks who will appreciate it, but people shouldn't spam their friends and relatives indiscriminately with every bit of trivia they find inspirational or amusing.) What a wonderful world it would be if only all rudenesses were consignable to the abyss with the mere flick of a key!

If you're getting e-mails that are downright offensive - politically inflammatory rhetoric that goes against your own beliefs, demeaning sexist or racist "jokes," proselytizing paeans to religions that you don't practice - then e-mail the sender directly. Explain, in neutral language, that you find these e-mails offensive and unhelpful and would prefer to be left off their distribution list. Add that if you continue to receive such e-mails, you will delete e-mails from this sender unread if you think it is a mass mailing. Point out that this policy means that you may occasionally delete an inoffensive e-mail that was intended for you, alone, and that you hope that you don't, but, hey, it could happen. (Be clear but as polite as possible in your wording - you may even want to stoop to the use of emoticons. For some reason, e-mail often comes across as more aggressive than it's intended to.)

A co-worker talks nonstop about my pregnancy and projects negative "horror pregnancy emotions" onto me: hormonal, tired, crying jags, you name it. The problem is, I feel great, and it's really becoming an issue. This woman has no internal mute button and talks a lot about other things inappropriate to the office. How can I get her to zip it?

C.P. in Arlington

Be firm and specific. You can't get her to change her personality ("Oh, thanks for pointing out my lack of executive control. I'll just grow a new prefrontal cortex over the weekend, and that should fix that!"), but you can, possibly, get her to stop a particular bad habit. The next time she brings up your pregnancy, say "I prefer not to discuss my pregnancy in the office." Repeat as necessary, even if you feel stupid or embarrassed by saying the same thing over and over. She won't feel stupid or embarrassed - people like that never do - so you can't let her lack of self-consciousness make her the winner by default. You might want to give your boss the heads-up that "no pregnancy talk" is the new rule as far as you're concerned, and why. I'm sure your boss, and co-workers, will be supportive - this woman's behavior is surely affecting more people's morale than just your own.

When leaving a shop or restaurant at the same time as someone is arriving, who has the right of way? How do you avoid the awkward jockeying?

S.H. in Bourne

There is no avoiding the awkward jockeying. You could apply the same rule as in subways, where those who are on (or in) get off (or out) first, but if there isn't general agreement on the principle, it's not going to solve anything. And the problem is compounded by people with bags who need help, doors that don't open in the direction you expect them to, and so on. Instead of trying to avoid the inevitable silliness, take a moment to make eye contact, smile, and acknowledge each other's humanity, thereby turning a moment of literal awkwardness into one of metaphorical grace.

Several years ago, a close friend got engaged. I said I'd definitely go to her wedding. Six months later, another close friend got engaged to be married on the same date in a different state. I kept my promise to attend the first wedding, much to my second friend's chagrin. I managed to save the friendship, but it took some time. Did I do the right thing?

Anonymous in Rockport

Yes, you did, and I'm sorry your second friend did not recognize this. How would she have felt if you'd broken a similar promise to her? It's bad manners and bad ethics to break a promise to attend an event because a second offer, even a "better" one, has come along (within reason, obviously; no one's going to get offended if you break, say, a TGIF cocktails date because you just learned your best friend from high school whom you haven't seen since 1987 is in town for one night only).

My Word!

If a friend, relative, or colleague asks for a favor that you're not immediately comfortable with, you don't need to respond right away. Ask this person for a day or two to think about it. Taking even a little bit of time can do wonders to help you get perspective on a situation.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology.

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