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When Parents Attack 

How do you handle a father who won't shut up about his conservative political views?

Wednesday, Jul 24 2002
Hi, Social Grace!

My father has a horrible habit of bringing up politics at family gatherings and then attacking people for not sharing his conservative point of view. He'll do this in the middle of otherwise amicable conversations, and it completely kills the mood: Mom goes silent, guests look uncomfortable -- I can't tell you how many birthdays/holidays/dinners this has ruined. He used to be tolerable, but he's grown increasingly strident over the past year, and I'm not sure how to put a stop to it. Respectfully disagreeing has been tried, and even staying completely neutral to just preserve what decorum remains, but he keeps trying to push his views down other people's throats (and he's not above personal insults, either). When I've come straight out and asked him to please keep his opinions to himself, he says he's "educating" everyone. I would have loved to have a close father-daughter relationship, but this just makes me dread talking to him at all. Help!

So Much for Family Values

Dear Family-Valuing Madam,

If his daughter's pleas, his wife's silence, and his guests' discomfort have had no effect, I'm afraid there's not a whole lot Social Grace can do. Proper etiquette -- polite subject changes, agreeing to disagree, private familial discussion -- isn't working with your father. That, along with his increasing stridency and personal attacks, leads me to suspect that the problem is something greater than bad manners. Your father sounds like a man who needs professional help. Unfortunately, he also sounds like a fellow who wouldn't agree placidly with such a notion.

Not every familial relationship is pleasant. You and your kin could strive to enjoy yourselves around his diatribes. Sometimes cheerfully agreeing with such a person helps: "I guess you're right, Dad; we really should overthrow Iceland's government and end their monopoly on cod. Do you want more potatoes?" Some families go on for decades like that -- once you settle into it, it's not so bad, I hear. And bizarre parental antics can make for interesting stories (or even best-selling memoirs).

Etiquette does have stronger ways to deal with people who are incorrigibly rude, mean, and insulting, and you may someday choose to employ them. Such a conversation might go like this: "I love you, Dad, but you've gone too far. I will not be insulted in front of my friends and family." And then don't be. Let him apologize, if he will, or find friendlier dinner companions. It's a severe solution, one not to be entered into lightly: Although etiquette puts a premium on cherishing family and respecting elders, it also insists that no one has the right to make us too miserable.

Dear Social Grace,

I recently had a birthday, and I received nice gifts that I wouldn't have bought for myself. I was truly grateful that my birthday was remembered. The problem was that, politically and ethically, I wish these gifts had not been given to me. I wish money had not been given, for my sake, to particular businesses with shady practices. I thanked the gift-givers for their kind intentions and whatever, and I'm sure they believe I'm really stoked on their gifts. I don't think I have radical values or anything -- but I guess I'm hard to shop for. How can I keep this from happening in the future? Like, how do I tell my mom that certain businesses are evil, as far as I'm concerned, and to never give them money to buy me a gift?


Via the Internet

Dear Ethical Madam or Sir,

As you already know, any gift should be accepted as a delightful surprise. We've all received presents we wish we hadn't, whether for political or other reasons. ("A brown velour track suit? Aunt Vivian, you shouldn't have.")

The next time shopping comes up in a conversation with your mother, you might say something like, "I'm trying to find a summer-weight jacket like one I saw at Store Such-and-Such; of course, I don't like to shop there because I understand they make use of sweatshop labor." You could then initiate a friendly conversation about your feelings on the subject. She may disagree -- or she may not get the hint -- but most mothers of adult children have gotten pretty good at reading between the lines. A gift just can't be answered with a lecture.

You did the right thing when you received these tokens from your friends and loved ones, and it's what you should continue to do. When you receive something that you find morally unacceptable, the gracious thing to do is express your gratitude, put the item away for a few months, and then donate it to a worthy charity. Your conscience will be clear, and you can truthfully assure the gift-giver that you put her gift to good use.

Dear Social Grace,

I was recently "invited" to dinner at an inexpensive restaurant by an old chum and his fiancee. He also "invited" another old buddy and his wife. At the end of the meal, my host "split the check" and wallets came out. To her credit, his fiancee refused my money, but the "host" gladly accepted the others' contributions.

Is this correct? Whenever I invite someone to a meal, I always pay, and I expect as an invitee that I will be similarly treated. I have hosted these people many times before. Should I expect reciprocation?


Dear Curious Madam or Sir,

If you invite someone to a meal, the cost of the food is your responsibility. This rule has become rather blurry, though, in part because we are all nice, generous people who want to share in expenses. Many folks, at the end of a restaurant dinner, will reach for their wallets when the check comes; it's up to the host to smilingly wave them away. Your friend and others like him have become confused by all the pocketbooks flung about; they are unclear about a host's role. (Of course, it's perfectly acceptable to invite someone out for a split-the-check meal -- you just have to make the terms plain when you propose the outing.)

When it becomes clear that a certain friend does not plan to provide you with food when he "invites" you to dine, you can help him out. The next time he phones with an invitation say, "Thanks, Frank, but I think you hosted me last time; let me treat you, and you can get the next one." This gambit might lead you in the right direction, with a small upfront expense. Another reply -- "Of course we'll come, but I insist on splitting the check" -- should elicit a response that will let you know if you need to hit the ATM before dinner.

No one likes a friend who keeps too close tabs on reciprocity, but most of us try to make sure that we give as much as we get. If you are truly irked by a friend who's not paying his "share," you can work to balance the scales. And there are lots of fun things to do that are free -- Scrabble, long walks on the beach, etc. With very close friends, you could even discuss your fear that the friendship is in danger.

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