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Miss Conduct

Dissenters, unite!

Telling a co-worker you disagree, plus accommodating candle-sensitive guests.

By Robin Abrahams
January 17, 2010

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At a work meeting, a colleague asked rather passionately why anyone wouldn’t want to chip in even just a dollar to an office charity drive. I can think of several good reasons but didn’t speak up because this wasn’t relevant to the meeting. It bothers me that this co-worker could presume I agree with her assumption that the large number of employees who do not participate, including myself, are apathetic or selfish. Is there a way to note disagreement without triggering a long discussion? K.D. / Cincinnati There is indeed, and it’s buried right there in the last sentence of your letter like a chest of gold doubloons. You say, “In fact, I don’t agree with that/I can see their point of view/[whatever phrasing is appropriate], but let’s focus on the agenda. I think the first order of business was to approve last week’s minutes.” Other useful phrases to indicate disagreement without getting into it are “That’s one reason” or “That’s one way of looking at things,” the clear implication being that there are other ways of interpreting the situation at hand.

If the person you’re disagreeing with fastens on like a tick and will not let the subject drop, then he or she is the one who is behaving badly. In a work situation, it’s up to the boss to get the meeting back on track. In a social setting, you can always say, “If you’d like to discuss the issue more, we could do so at some other time, but right now I want to try out Jan’s fondue. I’ve never made fondue, have you?” In other words, you dissent (with Ms. Righteous), defer (to the demands of the occasion), and distract (with an appropriate activity or topic).

Why even bother? For the sake of others who also dissent but who are too chronically shy or just don’t have the energy that day to defend themselves. Rarely will you change the minds of people who are passionately invested in their opinions. That’s not your goal. Your goal is to let the people who disagree with -- or, in some cases, feel attacked by -- Ms. or Mr. Right-eous know that they are not alone.

I have a friend who is sensitive to smells, such as from perfumes and candles. Recently I was at a party with her where she insisted the hostess blow out a large candle because the dessert-like scent was bothering her. I’m planning a party at which I would like to light some candles. I am happy to let my friend know in advance that there will be candles (so she can take allergy meds, etc.) and reduce the number of them, but I’m concerned that she may insist that there be no candles. Please let me know how to handle the situation. S.E. / Melrose You handle the situation by not using candles. Your friends are more important than candles. (There’s one sentence I never thought I’d have to write, but every year brings something new.) Sometimes, there is nothing we can do about allergens in our home. Even if I were to banish Milo for an evening of dog-free entertaining, his dander would still remain and bother a guest with severe dog allergies, nor could anyone who has life-threatening reactions to peanuts even enter our house. Situations like these are what advance notices are for.

But candles? These are so crucial to your entertaining plans that you think you’re making a gracious compromise by using fewer than you would ideally prefer and allowing your friend sufficient notice to medicate herself? (With, let me point out, a medication that might well impair her ability to eat, drink, or drive.) I don’t think so. Skip the candles, hang up some fairy lights if you’re gung-ho on indirect lighting (they’re probably half price now that Christmas is over), and get your hostessing priorities in order.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology. Got a question or comment? Write to missconduct@globe.com. Read more of Miss Conduct’s wit and wisdom at boston.com/missconduct. Get advice live this Wednesday, noon to 1 p.m., at boston.com.

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