DEAR MISS MANNERS: I have a male friend who is always bringing up people I don’t know: people he works with and people from his past. The content is almost always of a problem at work or a death. I have no interest in listening to such empty chatter.
He expects me to sit and joyfully listen to news about people I don’t know. Recently he got very angry when I said I didn’t want to hear about these people. He responded very angrily and loudly with, “Well, you know what? I’ll just call somebody who cares about me.” I never said I didn’t care about him; I said I didn’t want to hear about his work-related stories about strangers.
Am I wrong to not want to hear about the people he works (or worked) with or the people from his past, none of whom I know? Please help me set the conversation in a productive direction.
GENTLE READER: It is reasonable to set some boundaries to stories about people you do not know. Where that line is, however, depends not on your knowledge of the person being discussed -- you can always get to know them vicariously through these stories -- but on the nature and depth of the friendship, the amount of repetition and the level of reciprocity. In other words, does this friend listen to you in return?
Miss Manners will provide you with three ways to change the subject -- and one way not to. “Yes, you told me about that; it sounds really annoying,” is acceptable, so long as it is delivered with compassion, not impatience. “A similar thing happened to me ...” is another way out. (If your friend does not listen to your stories, you may wonder whether the friendship is worth continuing.) And finally, “You seem so upset. Let’s talk about something else to cheer you up.”
Let us agree, however, that you will not characterize news about the death of one of your friend’s acquaintances as “empty chatter.”
DEAR MISS MANNERS: I have a severe hearing loss that requires a hearing aid. Although I can hear fairly well when my aid is in use, I can only hear certain ranges.
Some friends and relatives will speak in low tones in my presence when they don’t want me to know what they are saying. Besides the fact that I find this rude when I am right there next to them, I also find it hurtful.
Should I just let this slide whenever it happens, or is there something I can say that may make them aware that this is not kind?
GENTLE READER: Such behavior is reprehensible, but it is also rude to correct another person’s manners. This limits your possible responses, as Miss Manners rejects the idea that one rudeness justifies another. (The mathematical logic behind such a trade ignores the fact that, in her eyes, one plus one equals two rude people -- which is twice as bad as one.)
Patiently ask what was said, as you could not hear it. Tiresome as this will be for you -- and your friends and relatives -- they will eventually avoid the inevitable request to repeat themselves by saving their secrets for later.
(Please send your questions to Miss Manners at her website, www.missmanners.com; to her email, email@example.com; or through postal mail to Miss Manners, Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.)