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Miss Conduct

Overweight and Out of Patience

How to stop invasive body comments, plus advice how-tos and dismal phone manners.

By Robin Abrahams
November 30, 2008
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I am 26, female, and overweight. Both my immediate and extended family comment on my weight, along with any other flaw they perceive. So far, I have generally been polite and tried to ignore the comments. How can I kindly but firmly let them know that I wish they would stay silent? Touchy-feely explanations of feelings would be awkward in my family, and I don't want to be rude or create any rifts. But after 20-plus years of this, I am really at my wits' end!

S.D. in Malden

Stand up for yourself the next time it happens. You don't have to make some big teary moment out of it if that's not how your family communicates. Nobody is owed an explanation of why you don't like to have your body criticized, and anyone who would actually need an explanation of something so patently obvious wouldn't be capable of understanding it anyway. Assert your boundaries, and do it consistently. You've been letting your family get away with bad habits for a long time -- I say this not to blame you, but to let you know that you may have to draw the line in the sand more than once before everyone gets the point. And the line can be drawn something like this: "I realize you mean well, but I've decided that I don't care to have people criticize my body anymore. So please don't! If you'd like to tell me what you think of my new recipe for brisket/the election results/that new Stephen King novel I saw you reading, I'd love to hear it!" Particularly, you should use the phrase "my body" rather than "my appearance." Without being touchy-feely, this will get across the extraordinarily personal kind of rudeness that your relatives are engaging in.

I try to be encouraging or to give good advice when one particular friend needs support, but I feel that when I am the one seeking support, my friend gets frustrated and implies that I need to just get over it. How can I open a discussion that is helpful, not hurtful?

M.O. in Quincy

Your friend's lack of sympathy may not be due to callousness; it could be the result of feeling frustrated at being helpless. It is upsetting to hear about the problems of people we care about when we can't do anything about those problems, and unfortunately people sometimes turn that frustration onto their troubled friends. The next time you want to share a problem with your friend, tell him or her exactly what you are looking for. "I don't need you to solve this. I just want to vent," for example, or "Can you please reality-check me and tell me if this thing my boss did seems as out of bounds to you as it did to me?" or "If you have any suggestions for how I can handle this situation, I'd really like to hear them -- but if you don't, that's OK." Give your friend a script, in other words. If he or she doesn't follow it, guide the conversation back gently: "Oh, I know it's my problem, but what I was hoping you could do is just validate my sense that so-and-so was being a jerk. But if you think I'm wrong, I'd be open to hearing your point of view." The script shouldn't be so restrictive that your friend feels that expressing a contrary opinion to yours is verboten.

Keep in mind, too, that I'm taking your word on what's going down. If you are whining to your friend on a regular basis about a problem that you've taken no action to solve, then the person whose behavior needs to change is you, not your friend.

When my wife's friend calls and I answer the phone, my "Hello?" is answered by "Is Sharon there?" At a minimum, I would like to be acknowledged with a "Hi, Mark. It's Linda," prior to her asking for my wife. As a teenager, if any of my friends pulled an "Is Mark there?" with my father, he would say, "Yes. Would you like to speak with him?" I'm not suggesting I respond this way to a woman in her mid-20s, but is it appropriate to inform her of her lapse in phone etiquette? If so, how? Or should I just bear with it? Get caller ID?

M.S. in Somerville

What's your motive? To make her "more mannerly" and assuage your honor, or to reaffirm that you, too, are her friend? If it's primarily about your ego or about an abstract notion of correct manners, let it go. (Get caller ID anyway, though; it's wonderful.) Linda's rather task-oriented phone manners aren't your problem to fix. But if you'd like to communicate to her that, hey, you're her friend too, reply to "Is Sharon there?" with "Is this Linda? How are you?" before you announce Sharon's availability or nonavailability. If she continues to be brusque after you've done this a few times, either she's one of those people who are uncomfortable on the phone, and there's not much to be done about it, or else she's uncomfortable with you, and you could ask your wife to help you find out why.

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

My word!

If you get a cold this winter, it's always good public relations to put on a little security theater: Spray Lysol on your phone and leave the can visible on your desk; use hand sanitizer ostentatiously before handling documents or shared office equipment. You want not only to spare people from getting your cold, but spare them the worry that they are going to get your cold.

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