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The Annals of It's Not About You

Posted by Robin Abrahams  November 19, 2007 07:06 AM

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I like that title, and think I might have a potential ongoing series there.

So I was at a tea for Harvard's Memorial Church last week, because I am part of the Harvard community (in my other job) and a big fan of Rev. Peter Gomes, a delightfully outsized personality. Rev. Gomes's weekly teas are a good way to meet other people from different walks of Harvardian life, from undergraduates to faculty to security guards.

Most of them have some connection to the Church, of course, and one such gentleman asked me if I attended services there. "No," I replied. "I'm Jewish."

"Well, you'd still be welcome!" he heartily affirmed.

I was too astonished to make the correct reply, which would have been, "Not at my synagogue if my rabbi found out I'd been going to a church, I wouldn't be."

I recognized that the man meant well, and you know my feelings about how we deal with well-meaning religious folk. So I only made some mild joke about if I was in temple on Saturday, and church on Sunday, when would the laundry get done, and left it at that. But his attempt to be welcoming had some remarkable assumptions behind it. I don't not attend Christian church because I think my presence there would offend them, I don't attend Christian church because I have another religion. Obviously I'll go if there's some reason--an interfaith event, a particular speaker, a friend who wants support or company. But as a general practice, uh, no.

It would be as if a friend of mine were going to a singles event and invited me along, and I said no, and she said, "Oh, come on! You've still got your looks!" Yes, I do, and I've got a husband too. That's why I don't go to singles events. I have my commitments and my preferences, and they preclude certain other avenues of action.

I think a lot of the time we--all of us--tend to assume that people are doing or not doing things for reasons having to do with us, or for the reasons we would do them or not do them. Which can be annoying at best and offensive at worst. Women do this a lot, particularly, around food:

Person A: "I don't want any dessert, thank you."
Person B: "Oh, it won't hurt you, you're so thin!"

But maybe A wants to stay thin. Or maybe she's diabetic. Or allergic to chocolate. Or maybe she just doesn't feel like having any dessert. It's pointless and rude to imply "Well, here's the only reason you could possibly have for doing/not doing X, and that reason is invalid, so do X, already!" And then there's this:

Person A: "I don't want any dessert, thank you."
Person B: "Oh, now I'm going to feel guilty for having some!"

Well, that's B's problem, then, isn't it? Because A's decision is about her own lack of desire for dessert, and is not a comment on A's desire for same.

And this has been the first volume of "The Annals of It's Not About You." Do you have a story about someone who mistakenly believed it was About Them? Of course you do. So send it on in to missconduct@globe.com, and your story might just be featured in a future installment.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at missconduct@globe.com.
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Who is Miss Conduct?

Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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Curious if you should say "bless you" to a sneezing atheist? How to host a dinner party for carbophobes, vegans, and Atkins disciples—all at the same time? The finer points of regifting? Ask it here, or email missconduct@globe.com.

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