DEAR MISS MANNERS: I have three friends who, at times, refuse to talk at all in social situations. I am going to visit one of them as her houseguest.
I suspect that the reason she does not chat or respond to remarks is solely due to her being hard of hearing, but she attributes it to the custom in her family. She does not even respond to practical questions or remarks. I have sat through dinners in total silence.
I suspect that she relies almost totally on lip-reading, hence she chats only when we sit down in a quiet place and she can face me. She will not discuss her hearing without extreme shame and upset. Is it OK if I read, go online, sleep or watch TV (depending on the situation) as I would if I were alone?
The second friend loves to go out for cocktails, but will sometimes sit in silence, barely responding to my questions and not bringing up any topics. I brought along a book to occupy myself during the usual two hours of silence one day, and she remarked angrily, “If I knew you were going to read, I would have brought my book.” I didn’t want to start a fight, so I put the book away and started to talk (that seems to be my job).
The third friend, also on vacation, refused to talk at all at meal times, saying she had to concentrate on her chewing. We were childhood friends and until recently had always chatted during meals. So I turned on the TV and brought a book to the table. She was extremely angry, but still refused to talk.
I am not able to force people to talk, so is it reasonable and polite for me to occupy myself as though I were alone?
GENTLE READER: Apparently your friends, who may well have hearing problems, do not think so. But rather than deal with that difficulty, they seem to consider it reasonable and polite to remain silent while you perform monologues for them -- so perhaps they are not the most trusted sources. Miss Manners also has to wonder how people who argue that they prioritize chewing over conversation have remained friends for this long.
If you are a houseguest or on vacation, the situation emulates an extension of being in one’s own home. You could say, “It seems that you are tired and I do not wish to burden you with conversation. Perhaps you wouldn’t mind if I read or turned on the television, unless there’s something that you particularly wish to discuss.” Or you can claim your own fatigue and retire to your room.
Unfortunately, when you are out in public together, it is not considered polite to otherwise occupy oneself, even if the conversation is strained. Although that has clearly not stopped most of the electronic device-carrying world.