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Miss Conduct

Really getting to ’no’

When declarations beat out excuses, plus the problem with “young lady.”

By Robin Abrahams
January 24, 2010

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My husband’s sister is moving to this area and insisted on staying with us while house hunting. I told her that it wasn’t a good time (I was painting, and my house was torn apart), but she insisted that the disarray wouldn’t bother her and her husband -- or their poodle. My grandsons are allergic to dogs, but she said that she’d keep the poodle in its cage (which she didn’t) and that poodles don’t cause allergic reactions. Now I need to have all my carpets cleaned, and I’m really upset that people can be so rude. How should I have handled it? She was obviously not taking “no” for an answer. N.G. / Pepperell It doesn’t sound as if she was getting a “no” for an answer -- it sounds as if she was getting a series of excuses or reasons, and as you’ve now learned, excuses and reasons can be argued down or just plain dismissed by those determined to get their way. So if she makes a second attempt, try an actual “no,” softened only with “I’m sorry, that won’t work for us.” Two things: You absolutely have to have your husband on your side on this one. That’s the easy part; I’m sure having his carpets steam-cleaned while his wife simply steams won’t be jolly times for him. The other is that you have to be willing to repeat the phrase “No, I’m afraid you can’t stay, that won’t work for us” until it has dissolved into a collection of meaningless phonemes in your brain. You will feel selfish and perhaps very silly doing this, but that is because you are a socially appropriate person. Your sister-in-law is not. No, we shouldn’t stoop to the level of discourteous people and return rudeness with rudeness. But this doesn’t mean letting people take advantage of us because we feel self-conscious.

And if she’s moving here, you had better start setting boundaries now, before she does something like buy a fixer-upper and decide that she’s staying with you until those granite countertops are done to her liking.

I am a woman “of a certain age.” Frequently, I am addressed as “young lady,” usually by a man at least my age. In my book, no one older than 8 should be addressed as “young lady.” I sometimes try to smile and say, “Both of us know I’m not young.” I’m tempted to say, “Either you’re patronizing me, trying to flatter me, or you think I’m stupid. I don’t like any of those.” Do we do a disservice to people by ignoring such comments? They think they’re being charming or cute. But the phrase annoys most women (if my friends are typical). Any suggestions? L.S. / Needham No one wants to be addressed as “young lady” -- not even someone under 8, so don’t try it on little girls, either.

However, thanks to the progress of women and the limitations of English, there isn’t anything you can call women these days that won’t get at least some percentage of them annoyed. Some hate “ma’am,” others “miss,” some think “girl” is insulting but “gal” is charming, and others the reverse. If I were a man, I’d probably give up and start addressing all women as “guv’nor,” with a cockney accent and a tip of my cap.

So, day to day, with store clerks or subway strangers, be gracious. If you’re in a mood, you could always say, “I’m not young, and if you keep that up, you’ll find out I’m no lady, either,” in one of those old-school aggressive-yet-flirtatious tones (think Rosalind Russell or Barbara Stanwyck). If a good friend has a habit of “young lady”-ing, you might let him know that the phrase doesn’t have the effect he’s hoping it might -- but you should also be able to suggest an alternative that a man “of a certain age” can use to address a woman whose name he does not know, or has forgotten.

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

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