DEAR MISS MANNERS: I am a person one might call the “blue sheep” in my otherwise completely red, large extended family. That fact happens to be a known “hot button” that many in my family openly and joyfully push, often in bold and condescending ways, when I am around them.
I would much prefer to keep topics light and jovial, such as learning how they have been since last seeing them (which has been much less over the recent years), discussing the event we’re attending, commenting on the weather or food, and other neutral topics.
How can I politely yet firmly shut down direct, hurtful comments made to provoke me without appearing defensive, weak or unaware of their intentional attempts to engage me? Civil discourse is never their goal when approaching me with their agendas.
GENTLE READER: That it is undesirable to seem defensive or weak toward people who are trying to provoke you, Miss Manners understands. But what is wrong with seeming to be unaware?
Goading people is only fun if they react. Surely you must have been told that by a parent when you came home from kindergarten crying.
So your response to a political jibe should be, “Great to see you, Uncle Horace. I hope your gout hasn’t been bothering you too much.”
DEAR MISS MANNERS: I prefer not to hug, and not even to shake hands. As a (female, if that matters) homeowner, I have had salespersons come to give quotes for work to be done on my property. They shook hands at the beginning and again at the end of our meeting.
I later found out they had lied to me -- for instance, about not having a license to work in my town, or not having insurance for their employees. I felt the handshake -- which used to convey not only good will but honesty, work ethic, etc. -- was used to try to trick me into believing lies, and hiring someone because I “felt good” about them, rather than based on facts.
Another place I no longer feel the handshake is reasonable or necessary is in the doctor’s office. I had one doctor who would come in, shake my hand, THEN go wash her hands (presumably washing my germs off her hands after passing the previous patient’s germs on to me!). In this case, I feel there is a medical reason not to shake hands.
I therefore have begun refusing: “I prefer not to shake hands. Nothing personal.” If they request more of an explanation, I explain that I no longer feel it has the meaning it used to. While most people are surprised, after giving it a bit of thought, it’s accepted without annoyance.
GENTLE READER: Indeed, most people would flee in terror from the prospect of a conversation about the meaningfulness of conventional gestures. But what happens when some salesperson sees it as a chance to have a bonding philosophical exchange?
So when there are follow-up questions to your first statement, Miss Manners recommends shrugging it off, saying, “Oh, it’s just a quirk of mine.”
(Please send your questions to Miss Manners at her website, www.missmanners.com; to her email, firstname.lastname@example.org; or through postal mail to Miss Manners, Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.)