Saturday, July 09, 2011

More help for Abby

Missed opportunities

Perhaps I should stop reading Dear Abby. I sense danger. It's gotten to the point that I can't peruse Jeanne Phillips' column without thinking, “Oh, girl! That's not what your mama would have said!” The temptation, of course, is to try to rewrite her every response. I'll indulge that impulse just a little today, but I really should swear off. This week, however, the low-hanging fruit was hanging pretty darn low.
DEAR ABBY: I apparently have a problem communicating with people. I have had conversations with colleagues, managers, friends—even my girlfriend—and have been told my words were too harsh and made them feel defeated. It's at the point where people are afraid before I even open my mouth.

I don't mean to be cruel. I just speak the truth as it comes to me and I don't sugarcoat things. Some folks appreciate my candor, but it's getting in the way of having decent relationships. How do I learn to communicate differently when I'm just being myself? The words flow naturally out of my mouth. Am I a jerk? —UNVARNISHED in Inglewood, CA

DEAR UNVARNISHED: You may be grossly insensitive—or you may have a disorder of some kind. (Forgive my candor.) Because you are having difficulty relating to others and it has become a handicap, you should discuss the problem with a psychologist who can help you to gain the tools for better communication.
Geez, Jeanne. Could you have blown a more perfect straight line? Try this answer on for size:
DEAR UNVARNISHED: Yes, you are a jerk. Stop being yourself. Try shutting up for a change. If “people are afraid” before you even open your mouth, you have clearly demonstrated a complete lack of consideration for the feelings of others. No one needs to hear every thought that crosses your mind. Use some self-discipline and stop the words that “flow naturally” from your mouth when they consist of such boorish statements as, “Damn, you sure are fat!” or “You look like hell. You sick or something?” or “It sure must be a bitch to find out your girlfriend was cheating on you, right?” I'm sure you learned to control your bladder although urine “flows naturally” from it. Try something similar with your words. If necessary, get help.
How's that for candor?

Later in the week we got treated to this exchange:
DEAR ABBY: For the past 10 years or so, at bridal and baby showers I have attended, blank envelopes have been handed to guests upon arrival with instructions to self-address them. This, apparently, saves the gift recipient time having to address envelopes to the gift-givers.

I usually set the envelope aside and don't fill it out, but last week the guest of honor's mother handed me an envelope and pen and stood there until I completed the task.

After spending time and money shopping for and paying for a gift, I feel insulted having to address my own thank-you envelope!

Can you think of an appropriate response when I'm asked to participate in this insulting new party ritual? Or should I stay quiet and accept that most people are ignorant regarding good manners? —INSULTED IN OHIO

DEAR INSULTED: How about this for a response: “After spending my time shopping for a gift, and my hard-earned money to pay for it, it is insulting to be expected to address my own thank-you envelope. If she likes the gift, she can address the envelope herself. If not, she can return the gift to me.”
It's like she's not even trying! Here are some alternatives, beginning with the short, sweet, and obvious one:
DEAR INSULTED: How about “After spending time and money shopping for and paying for a gift, I feel insulted having to address my own thank-you envelope.”
Pauline Phillips would not have been so tone-deaf as to reply to a correspondent with a lame paraphrase of the correspondent's own words. When the writer has already done your work for you, just point it out gently! Simple. And it's less insulting than giving the correspondent's own words a trivial rewrite. Put your stamp of approval on the original and move on.

Perhaps the writer should have approached Miss Manners instead. I imagine Judith Martin would have had a deft suggestion for a subtle response that eschews even a trace of overt rudeness. This is the best I could come up with for Dear Abby working in a Miss Manners vein:
DEAR INSULTED: Thank the mother-in-law effusively for the envelope and pen and tuck them promptly into your handbag. Resume conversation with other nearby guests. If she does not walk away in befuddled defeat and continues to hover over you, say “Oh, dear. Whatever was I thinking? You'll want your pen back, of course.” Give it back to her and perhaps now she'll go away.

The really incorrigible cases will resolutely ignore all the indications that they are being a pest and may even resort to giving you detailed and explicit instructions. Be gracious in your response to this boorishness: “Oh, you wanted me to perform a clerical task now, in the midst of this lovely reception. Please forgive me. It would never have occurred to me that you would be expecting such a thing! Just give me a moment, please.” Retrieve the pen and fill out your address on the envelope, but write “Occupant” in place of your name. If the indomitable mother-in-law notices and retains enough reserves of effrontery to point this out, smile ever-so-cheerfully and say, “Oh, heavens! I would never want to deny the lovely young couple the opportunity to add a nice personal touch of their own!”
Pauline Phillips used to claim that none of her Dear Abby responses were ghost-written. The same may be true of Jeanne Phillips, but the record suggests she should considering staffing up with a wordsmith or two. Anyway, that's my advice.


Divalent said...

Your "Miss Manners" response is dead on. Well done.

Kaleberg said...

Hilarious! I had read the original column and think your take is exactly on target. Sometimes it doesn't pay to be mealy mouthed, especially when given such pointed options.