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Miss Conduct

Pet sitter's lament

When neighborly relationships go to the dogs, plus cutting restroom lines and closing thoughts.

By Robin Abraham
September 11, 2011

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> My neighbor frequently asks my wife and me to watch his dog when he travels. We like the dog and had fun watching it the first couple of times, but the task is starting to get old because we do it every other month. Also, the neighbor has a list of instructions that include scheduled feedings and playtimes. He pushes to know our weekend schedules, often saying, “Let me know as soon as possible, so I can make my arrangements.” I want to remain neighborly, but we are getting tired of this responsibility. What to say?

Y.A. / Boston

The next time Mr. Dogfoister asks you to send him your 2012 travel schedule, be firm but friendly. “Maxie’s adorable, but we never meant for this to get into a routine,” you say in a self-deprecating tone that gently mocks your own contribution to the situation. “We’re happy to take the dog [when you have an emergency/a couple of times a year/sometime in April] , but generally we’re just not as available as we thought we were.” Then stick to it. Don’t offer excuses, which can be argued with. Make some appeasing gesture such as inviting Dogfoister (and Maxie, too!) over for a glass of wine, so that he’ll know that you’re still on good terms. And when you do take the dog, there’s no need to treat it like a visiting dignitary. It’s a dog. Feeding it at regular times is a good idea, but it doesn’t need fixed playtimes. It will whine at fetch-o’clock the first day, but ignore it steadfastly and soon it will figure out that when it’s at Uncle Y.A.’s house, it plays when Uncle Y.A. feels like it.

> During intermission at a warm concert at Tanglewood recently, I decided to take off the leggings I was wearing under my skirt. Thinking a corner of the ladies’ room would afford me enough privacy, I hurried past the long line of ladies and slipped in the door. About six ladies called after me to get in line, and I replied that I wasn’t going to use a stall. Was it my etiquette responsibility to reassure them, or should they have trusted a stranger’s innocent intentions?

A.K. / Natick

It’s the responsibility of the person whose behavior looks suspicious to reassure others. If you don’t, you are putting them in the awkward position of having either to call out another person in public or to ignore a violation of social norms. I get letters almost every week from people who have witnessed a minor social infraction and wonder whether they should have said something. What is civilization coming to if people can’t observe a simple restroom queue at a high-cultural mecca like Tanglewood and so forth.

> I’m a middle-aged woman who signs cards with the closing “Fondly” if I’m not writing to someone who is very close. Is this old-fashioned?

L.L. / Sharon

Yes. And what’s wrong with being old-fashioned in etiquette and aesthetics? Nothing at all, especially if you’re clever enough to call it retro.

Of course, this particular middle-aged woman is retro enough to think of “fond” in its more archaic sense of foolish, as in this lovely line from historian Thomas Carlyle: “And yet, as usual, it ever remains doubtful whether he is laughing in his sleeve at these Autobiographical times of ours, or writing from the abundance of his own fond ineptitude.” But most folks probably aren’t as old-fashioned as I am. Of course, in these gastronomical times of ours, your sign-off may also remind people of the lovely brown crispy bits left in a pan after they’ve sauteed a steak. But being “deliciously yours” is no bad thing either.

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

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