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Miss Conduct

Stopping Snoopers

Can you say "None of your business"? Plus retirement urgings and when to open gifts.

Miss Conduct
(Illustration / Nathalie Dion)

I recently had a minor medical procedure that required a major bandage on my face. A stranger stopped me in a parking lot, asking what happened. I hesitated briefly and then said, "It's personal." What would have been the polite way to tell him it was none of his business?

J.B. in Cambridge

Oh, I get so many letters asking how to deal with invasive questions! One tactic that helps is to determine the questioners' intent. Are they looking for useful information for themselves? ("How much do you pay in condo fees?") If so, redirect them to a more appropriate source. ("It varies a lot around here, but there's a great informational website on the Boston condo market. I'll e-mail it to you.") Or do they have different privacy standards, and not see their questions as inadmissibly personal? ("So how much do they pay you over there?") Then assert your own boundaries without being judgmental and move on. ("Oh, good grief, I'm a thousand times too repressed to tell you my salary. They do OK by me, how's that? Anyway, so Marge was telling me . . .") Or are they moralizing, subtly or not so subtly? ("Don't you think it's selfish not to share all this with a child?") If that's the case, call them on it! ("If I'm such a selfish person, isn't it kinder not to have children?")

And in the case of your own personal Nosy Parker ('cause you met him in a parking lot, get it? Get it?), I think his intent was to make sure you were OK. It's upsetting to see someone with a bandaged face and not know if he or she is the survivor of a minor medical procedure or a major assault and battery. I once lost sleep for a week over a student who started attending class in big, shiner-hiding sunglasses; finally, she realized I might be concerned and told me she'd had an eye lift. Such a relief! You are, of course, right that your physical well-being is your own business. But given that anyone asking about your bandage would almost certainly be motivated by well-meaning concern, the kindest answer would have been: "It's a medical thing. I'm OK. No one hurt me."

I'm a woman in my early 60s, approaching retirement but certainly not quite ready for it. Co-workers have told me that I can't ever retire because I'm "too valuable" to the business. I have never mentioned retirement to my officemates and find the comment condescending, as my job isn't that difficult. Perhaps it's a subtle hint to move to Florida! A friend tells me it's better than what she hears, which is "When are you retiring?" How should I respond?

ANONYMOUS in Boston

It's simple: When people compliment you, you say thank you. It doesn't matter if the compliment is sincere or snarky or subtly undermining your very core of self. Compliment. Thank you. Always.

I'm not sure why you think your coworkers are nudging you out to pasture; their comments sound innocent to me. Perhaps you feel it's tactless of them even to mention that you are at a stage to be considering retirement, but that seems oversensitive. And so what if your job is "not that difficult"? Whether it is or not (it may only seem easy to you because you're experienced at it), you might just do it awfully well. There's a difference between a warm body in a cubicle and someone who knows the customers' names, how the legacy software systems work, and the location of the bagel place that still has everything bagels left at 9 a.m.

In short, I don't think your co-workers are telling you to think about retirement - but I am. You see condescension in a compliment and don't value your contribution at the office. Take a step back. If your co-workers are snide and your job dull, is this really where you want to be? Or is it you who needs to get a fresh perspective and reevaluate what you bring to the office? Maybe your co-workers see potential in you that you've lost sight of.

My husband, a tax accountant, sometimes receives thank you gifts from clients. Should my husband open the present when it's handed to him, so he can thank the client immediately, or should he wait until later, assuming the client wouldn't expect a thank you note for his or her thank you gift?

E.B. in Westborough

I'm not so sure about the either/or you're proposing: Either the client gets thanked in person and doesn't get a thank you note, or the client doesn't get thanked in person and doesn't get a thank you note? Neither one sounds like good client-management strategy to me. The most professional thing to do would be to delay opening the gift, then send the client a thank you note. Tearing into presents at once suggests a surfeit of childlike enthusiasm that is charming in some contexts but disconcerting in a tax accountant. You wouldn't necessarily send a thank you note for a thank you gift to a friend or family member, but it's always wise to be extra etiquette-y with clients.

My Word!
A nifty - and thrifty - idea for a wedding shower: Send along three or four blank recipe cards with each invitation and ask the guests to fill in and bring their favorite recipes to the shower. The organizer(s) can collect the recipes in an attractive box for the newlyweds. Thanks to reader Nancy Lent for this tip!

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

Questions? Write to missconduct@globe.com or The Boston Globe Magazine/Miss Conduct, PO Box 55819, Boston, MA 02205-5819.

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