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MISS CONDUCT

Making Nice With Those You Hate

Can you avoid a wicked stepmother? Plus atheist woes and disability etiquette.

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August 10, 2008

I am graduating from business school in 2010. My father remarried a few years ago, and I find his new wife aggressive and superficial. They've already begun making travel plans to attend my graduation, but I'd prefer they not come. How do I tell them they are not invited to my big day without causing a major rift?
J.D. in Somerville

You don't. There is no way to uninvite your father to your graduation - or tell him not to bring his wife - without savaging the relationship. Invite them, show them a good time, wine and dine and schmooze. And cheer up. You may find two years in business school does wonders for your ability to tolerate aggressive and superficial people.

I'm an atheist/agnostic, brought up Christian. My mom, my sister, and a lot of my friends are very religious. I was startled - and offended and confused - to find that some of them are disappointed that I don't share their faith. I have no problem with their belief system, so I don't understand why they have a problem with mine. I know they're trying to help me; how can I tell them I'm fine with not being religious without offending them?
A.H. in York, Maine

Apparently, you can't - but that's their problem, not yours. The important difference between you and your family and friends isn't in what you believe, it's in how you believe it. People like you and me believe that there will always be great diversity in religious/spiritual experiences and convictions, and that as long as everyone is behaving well, there's no reason to be upset by the fact that person X believes in God and person Y does not and person Z doesn't either, deep down, but likes to go to church anyway because being an Irish Catholic is an important part of his identity. Other people, like your family and friends, think that everyone should believe the way they do. Such folk are always going to make other people who don't believe as they do unhappy, whether by mocking their faith or attempting to convert them. The only consolation, albeit a mean-spirited one, is that they're making themselves far more unhappy by feeling invalidated by something that they cannot change.

Be thankful for the freedom and peace that your open-mindedness brings you, and do your best to have compassion for those who cannot tolerate what they deem to be wrong thinking. "Compassion" in this case can be practiced by supporting them in their chosen path, while refusing to brook any criticism or tolerate any interference in yours.

I'm a recent college graduate working as a vocational counselor for people with disabilities. I hope my natural compassion comes shining through, but because the experience is so new, I often find myself having awkward exchanges with clients who have obvious mental or physical disabilities. Do you have any advice for introducing myself to such a person without any lingering stares (out of innocent curiosity and naivete) or saying anything patronizing during small talk?
G.D. in Boston

First off, talk to your supervisor. You shouldn't be thrust out in this situation on your own with no guidance; you ought to be given some orientation training on disability etiquette and appropriate interaction with your clients. If you're not getting any support in that area, be forgiving to yourself for the occasional and inevitable faux pas, and start taking charge of your own education.

Disability etiquette is its own field and would be well worth some Internet research on your part. Disability blogs are also a great source of learning - what's better than hearing people with disabilities talking among themselves about what bothers them?

In the short term, when you meet clients, ask them to tell you about themselves, so that you know how to best support them. "Are there any particular needs that I should know about?" It's fine to ask follow-up questions about their capacities and needs if the questions are motivated by desire to do your job right (as opposed to idle curiosity). Treat the situation as one in which you are the person in need of help: "I'm the counselor, but you're the expert on what it's like to be you! So I need your help to do my job right. I'll rely on you to let me know if I'm going too fast/speaking unclearly/getting in the way of your equipment." Don't make assumptions about what your clients can and can't do; ask, and pay attention to how they interact with their environment and other people. And don't offer pity or admiration for how well they've "overcome" their obstacles. People with disabilities - like all of us - are more interested in the things they can do than the things they can't.

My Word!

I generally inveigh against sending or forwarding long anonymous e-mails purporting to be inspirational or helpful. Occasionally, though, they do have useful bits in them, such as this, sent to me by a friend and reader: When asked questions that seem intrusive, smile and respond, "Why do you want to know?" That does sound like a good way of handling things!

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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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