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BOSTON UNCOMMON

Honest, But Cruel?

Should you give a harsh haircut critique? Plus negative co-workers, eating before others and second-wedding gifts.

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By MISS CONDUCT
June 1, 2008

I have a friend who is giving up coloring her hair to go natural (a.k.a. gray). I think it makes her look old, and I'm terrified she's going to ask me what I think. I don't how I'd handle the question. I'm usually good at honest-in-a-nice-way responses, but in this case, I would be at a loss. I don't want to be caught off guard. What would you say?
L.B. in Quincy

I wouldn't say a word unless I was asked to! Which I don't mean in a snarky way at all - only to point out that if your friend does ask what you think, you'll surely be able to tell by the way she phrases the question and her tone of voice how straightforward a response she's hoping for. "I can't believe I wasted all that money on salons all those years! What do you think of the `real me'?" is a different question from "I'm still not sure I'm comfortable with the salt-and-pepper look. What's your honest opinion?"

Adjust your response accordingly, but its general outline should be something like this: "To be honest, it's hard to get used to! I just loved you so much with the auburn hair. It really brought out your coloring. The cut is great, though - and it must be terrific to save the time and money. Have you read Anne Kreamer's Going Gray yet, about when she stopped dyeing her hair? It's gotten a lot of publicity." To break it down: 1) Make it clear your reaction is partly about you, and not a wholly objective assessment; 2) praise the old look, don't denigrate the new; 3) couch your critique in terms other than "looking old"; 4) find something to praise; and 5) redirect conversation onto a more general plane. If you're already a master of the honest-but-kind response, I bet I'm not telling you anything you don't already know - just reminding you of the skills you already have.

How should I respond to a co-worker who constantly makes negative, judgmental comments about fellow workers behind their backs, yet is sugary sweet when talking to them? I'm sure that I'm not exempt from these types of comments when I'm out of earshot. Any advice?
K.C. in Wellesley

Don't ever participate in the bashing, not even (if she's truly that poisonous) by defending the people she's attacking. If you say anything at all about them, she'll twist it. Say, "I don't think it's professional to discuss our colleagues that way" and leave it at that. If she continues, repeat as necessary. Walk away, if necessary - my point is, don't engage. Don't ever engage. You can assume that your colleagues are smart enough to have figured out what you did - that she bad-mouths everyone, is doing the same thing to them regardless of how sweet she is to their faces, and that anything she's saying about anyone, including you, should be discounted. If she's everyone's best friend and confidante while the rest of you are at one another's throats, then the situation has gone into code-red toxicity. If this is the case, express your concern to your boss, but make sure you're promised confidentiality first. (Why, yes, Miss Conduct has worked with someone exactly like this! Why do you ask?)

Please settle an ongoing dispute: When dinner is served, is it proper to start eating while the others are still waiting for their plates, even when the waiting diners say, "Please go ahead and eat"?
P.M. in Quincy

If you're urged to do so, you should eat. It's distracting to talk to people who keep breaking eye contact to gaze wistfully at their penne all'arrabbiata. It's bad service on the part of restaurants not to serve an entire table at once, and the diners who get served first shouldn't be punished with cold food because of the restaurant's poor protocol. If a delay of more than a minute or two appears likely, the have-nots should urge the haves to eat, and the haves should take them at their word. If the rest of the food will be served momentarily - or if the haves were served salad, gazpacho, or other room temperature food - then it is more polite to wait.

In 2005 I was in the wedding of a good friend. She and her husband divorced shortly thereafter. None of the gifts was returned. I am now invited to her second wedding. For the first wedding I spent a considerable amount on gifts, travel, the expenses of being an attendant, etc. What is the protocol for gifts for a second wedding?
L.P. in Waltham

The protocol for gifts for all weddings is that you spend based on your closeness to the person or couple, your budget, and their level of need. People who marry later in life, whether for the first or fifth time, probably have blenders and toaster ovens already. So for these weddings, it's often a nicer idea to give creative or sentimentally meaningful gifts in which the thought outweighs the money spent.

My Word!

If you don't have children yourself and are unsure how to make conversation with them, the best thing to do is to ask them to show you their stuff. Children will quite happily display, demonstrate, and discuss their toys with you for as long as you can stand it. (This advice, of course, also holds true for adults.)

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

QUESTIONS? Write to missconduct@globe.com or The Boston Globe Magazine/Miss Conduct, PO Box 55819, Boston, MA 02205-5819.

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