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Miss Conduct

My friends the flakes

What to do when pals cancel plans at the last minute, plus uncouth booth tactics.

By Robin Abrahams
June 14, 2009
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I am an American woman married to a Brazilian man. I love the warmth and affection of Brazilian culture, but many of my Brazilian friends cancel plans at the last minute, for reasons that surely could have been foreseen. This makes me feel as though my time and friendship are not valued. I have stopped making plans with many of these friends, but is there anything else I can do? My husband and my more Americanized Brazilian friends just laugh and say, "Yes, that is typical Brazilian behavior."
K.K. / Waltham

I'm a planful type, too, and that behavior would drive me completely nuts, and I'd be tempted to get all screechy and "Typical Brazilian behavior, my foot. You're not in Brazil now, are you?" about it. Which would be, alas for you and me, completely ineffective. People don't change unless they want to, and changing the way you relate to time itself is profoundly difficult. I wonder how much pressure to change your Brazilian friends are even experiencing. It seems that native-born Americans are increasingly lax about RSVP-ing and following through on social commitments, as well.

When you've got friends who are socially unreliable -- due to a different cultural norm or plain old US-style spaciness -- there's no point taking it personally. They truly don't mean their behavior as the inconvenience and insult that it is.

Instead of giving up on these friends or trying to change them, change how you communicate with them. Call them spontaneously: "We're going hiking at Blue Hills in an hour. Want us to come pick you up?" Or inform them of plans that you've already made: "We're going to go see Star Trek this Friday at 7. If you want to join us, get your tickets and meet us in the lobby at 6:45." This might keep your plans, your friendships, and your sanity intact.

My husband and I have a few favorite restaurants with booth seating. Occasionally, our mealtime bliss is interrupted by a child (or worse, a fidgety adult) kicking the bottom of the booth. My husband will often turn around and shoot a glare, which is rarely successful. I prefer to kick back on the seat or squirm in response to let them know their booth neighbor is being disturbed. Should we say something or just continue with our passive-aggressive strategies?
H.M. / Millbury

There are no words for how much I love the fact that you define your own behavior as passive-aggressive and then more or less ask me to approve of it. I don't, of course, because you're returning rudeness with rudeness, and as you admit, it's not even working. Little kids, by their nature, don't usually know when they're annoying others, so glaring at them is mean. And wriggling or kicking back may well convey "Let's play Morse code!" rather than "Knock it off, kid."

If children are kicking your seat, try addressing them directly and politely: "Excuse me, I can feel it when you kick the booth like that. Can you not do that? Thank you!" I have heard from parents that this works, because the child appreciates being treated like an adult. This implies that the same approach would work with adults, too.

If you are the sort of confrontation-phobic person who simply can't address another person directly, then learn deep breathing or some other psychological technique to resign yourself to the occasional booth-kicking in peace.

Either adapt to the annoying behavior of others or do something straightforward to stop it. Glares, sighs, and tit-for-tats are the worst techniques, both morally and strategically.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology. Her new book is Miss Conduct's Mind Over Manners.

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