Friday, May 27, 2011

Breaking Away from Challenging & Demanding Parents

Dear Social Grace,

My adult siblings and I each live hundreds of miles away from my parents, and since none of us are in what anybody could define as a high-income bracket, visiting frequently is not an option. Visiting, period, tends to be difficult because one of my parents has an emotional disorder that makes any prolonged interaction unpleasant and damaging. The parent is not aware of the disorder nor the damage they consistently inflict, and is generally high-functioning in society, so the other parent will not push for any drastic therapy. As adults who have come to terms with our own needs for boundaries in this relationship, my siblings and I have chosen not to throw rocks at this particular hornet's nest.

It does leave us with interesting dilemmas when it comes to making sure that both parents feel loved and not abandoned. All of the siblings call our parents regularly (at least twice per month) and, for the past several years, have met our parents at another relative's home (in another part of the country entirely) for Christmas. However, I want to broach the idea of this Christmas gathering not being mandatory any longer. Only one of my siblings is married, and he did not make it to the gathering this year. My parent with the illness cannot conceive of a grown child NOT "coming home for Christmas" unless they are married, but this expectation is really unsustainable as I look ahead to the coming decades. My parents are in their early 50s and my youngest sibling is in his upper 20s.

Could you speak firstly to the kind and correct way to communicate with parents regarding holidays when their adult children are unmarried and therefore don't have a strong "excuse" for opting out, and also make any comments from your experience of the interaction between etiquette and having to deal with people whose social understanding is handicapped by emotional illness? (I am well aware that the particulars of a situation like ours is best addressed by a professional in the mental health field, but I would love to know your general thoughts and I know I am not the only person in your reading audience who finds themselves in such a situation.)

Grace Says:

Wow, that is a can of worms indeed. First of all, kudos to you and your sibs for making peace with such a volatile and seemingly toxic situation, and for your desire to remain loving, kind and inclusive of your parents despite these challenges.

As far as making them feel loved throughout the year without frequent visits, that's the easy part. Even on a budget, thoughtfulness is easily expressed: greeting cards, emails, the phone calls which you already do, small gifts in the mail (I'm talking fuzzy pink socks for Mom whose feet are always cold, or a packet of Dad's favorite licorice, not cashmere sweaters) are all nice ways to let them know you care without exposing yourself to pain and suffering.

To your other, more complicated questions....

I view the holiday issue in the same way I view removing a band-aid or getting an eyebrow wax--the quicker and sooner the better. If you know that you are not coming home for Christmas by July 4 weekend, then speak up. Let Mom and Dad know that you have other plans. Say calmly and clearly that this is in no way a reflection on them (even if it is), but that at this stage in your life you feel the need to establish your own traditions in your own home. They may well come back with the "you're single, childless and still have roots with us." In that case, you can respond equally calmly with "Yes, that is indeed my demographic, but I still really want to spend Christmas [feeding the homeless,/working on my novel/painting my living room/not traveling/hiking in the woods]." Stick to your guns, no matter how aggressive they get; if you let them beat you down on this one you reduce your chance of ever getting out from under this obligation. To soften the blow, you can offer up a "Christmas Visit" at some point in striking distance of December if you wish. Often times, the holidays trigger the worst in people, particularly those with emotional difficulties. The alteration in routine, bigger crowds, the expectation of fun, festivity and gifts can prove extremely stressful and for this reason often result in ugly scenes and unpleasant memories. A random weekend in January might be far less dramatic.

The flipside of making the early pronouncement, is of course, that the parent may harangue you from July 5 through December 25. In that case, there's no reason to prolong the agony for yourself; put off letting them know until you can't reasonably avoid it, and at that point fasten your seatbelt. You will have to make the decision whether sooner or later is better for you based on the individuals and their personalities.

As far as etiquette issues around people with emotional illness, first of all, let me once again commend you on your good heart. Few people (even Graces) have the ability or desire to accommodate someone who is seemingly so difficult. The best way to address people with these types of challenges is to be kind, clear, and non judgemental. Present information to them in the most non threatening way. Do not become defensive, regardless of their reaction. Keep in mind that they are hampered by their illness and that prevents them from responding appropriately much of the time. Choose times and places that are most comfortable and manageable for the afflicted person--if they get tired in the evening and struggle more with interpersonal relationships toward nightfall, try to limit any controversial conversations to early morning.

If certain situations or individuals bring out the worst or trigger bad reactions, avoid them. If you know Aunt Tillie sets Dad off every time they get together, extricate your group from her company. Ditto restaurants or long car rides in traffic, loud music, or pets--whatever the trouble spots are, you may be able to reduce the outbursts by reducing the stress inducers. You clearly have an understanding of the disorder as an illness, so just as you would help a blind person across the street or a physically handicapped person up the stairs, you can help your parent cope with challenging situations by offering an 'emotional helping hand'. When things start escalating, diffuse--offer to take Mom for a walk or out for a coffee. Ask the person who seems to be the trigger to help you in the kitchen and remove them him from the situation. It is a big responsibility for you, no doubt, but since you seem to visit infrequently, you can limit your exposure to manageable time spans.

And please don't hesitate to seek the help of a professional if this gets to be too much for you. Your parents' unwillingness to treat the illness should not translate to you with regard to collateral damage.

I hope these suggestions help.
Good Luck

While I normally add an amusing pic or video clip here, this post doesn't really lend itself to levity. But the title inspired me to add this--Breaking Away is a great movie, and really uplifting. If you haven't seen it, do so soon!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Grandparents Growing Old(er) Waiting for an Invitation

Dear Grace,
My wife and I, both in our late 60's have a married daughter with 2 children living about 100 miles away.

Our parents taught us that you just don't drop in friends or relatives but wait for an invitation.

Our daughter says we are always welcome & do not need an invitation. Consequently this is causing tension in the family. We never get an invitation for any occasion.

How should we address this?

Grace Says:

Ah, the variations and vagaries in generational etiquette.

The "drop in any time" works fine when you live a few minutes away and are buzzing by daughter dear's house frequently. When you see them out on the porch on your way home from the grocery store, say, or if you want to drop off some surplus lasagna you certainly can pop in for a bit. But for distances like yours that model is completely untenable.

Assuming you and the Mrs. do want to visit daughter, son in law and grandchildren with any regularity, you are going to have to adjust the tenets of your very good upbringing. When the mood strikes you to visit the kin, shoot them a call/email/smoke signal indicating your desire for a get together. Offer a few dates that work for you, and let them know that you are flexible and willing to work around their calendar. Since they have set up the protocol that they do not issue invitations to their home you will have to be a bit more assertive than strict, traditional etiquette would suggest.

Another tactic to employ: ask them when the kiddies have events that you could attend--ball games, school plays, music recitals, dance performances, tiddly winks championships, etc.. Let them know that you would like to come celebrate these occasions with the family and support the offspring in their pursuits. In this vein, I send my parents the softball schedule before opening day, same goes for dates of any performances or recitals--emphasizing that there is no pressure to come, but offering it up for their consumption if they wish to attend. When time permits, they do come and the grandkids are thrilled. Few parents will decline the offer by grandparents to swell the applause when their budding Mozart pounds away on "twinkle, twinkle, little star."

Finally, when holidays or other momentous events are on the horizon, throw your hat in the ring. Say, "Daughter, Thanksgiving is drawing near. We'd love to share a turkey with you and yours; can we get together?" If hosting is difficult for them due to the size of their home, the age of their kids or their level of neuroses, consider inviting them to your home or visiting them but staying elsewhere (a local hotel or B&B). This enables you to enjoy quality time without overdoing it.

Remember, this is about maintaining a relationship with your daughter and son-in-law, and cultivating one with your grandchildren. Standing on ceremony here may leave you standing alone when you'd much rather be standing room only at your grandson's chess tourney or standing at the buffet at your son's holiday party.

Good luck and thanks for writing!

And speaking of grandparents, I came across this hilarious clip--not exactly on point with this post but it made me laugh out loud. So, yes, Grace does have a low brow sense of humor on occasion.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Scent Etiqutte

Remember Kramer and his beach perfume? Today's question came from a loyal reader with a perfume problem....

Dear Grace,
I've appreciated your wisdom on Gracious workouts, and hope you can help with some locker room etiquette.

I enjoy going to the gym in the morning, and I shower and get ready there because the gym is half way between my home and office. There are a number of regulars in the locker room who keep something of the same schedule as I do. One of them has a job that is more flexible about start times than mine is, and she sometimes gets into the locker room earlier than I do and sometimes later, so it's hard for me to plan to avoid her. I was taught that if someone more than touching distance from you can smell you, you are wearing too much scent, and if your scent lingers, you are definitely wearing too much. I also work in a fragrance-free workplace. This makes it a problem that several days a week, Ms. Flexible Schedule sprays on so much perfume that the entire locker room smells (which I know, because I've tried to get ready in far, unscented corners of the room but can't find any), and I smell of her perfume all day at work. Since I can't predict her schedule so I can plan to avoid her in the locker room, is there anything Gracious I can say to her to suggest she cut back on her scent use so that I can continue to comply with my workplace policy?

Thank you for any insights on this!

Grace Says:
This is a tough one. Because people are grooming in the locker room, there is a wide array of scented items that may rear their aromatic heads so it may be difficult to limit them. For example, hair spray, antibacterial gel, even some body lotions, may have strong scents and people could justifiably object to a ban on them. But, this is clearly a problem for you in the workplace so we must at least attempt a Gracious remedy. As I see it you have two options.

1. The indirect approach: Alert the gym's management. This keeps you out of the direct discussion while hopefully addressing the problem. They ought to have a policy that deals with this issue. Assuming the club management is willing to work with you, posted signs could indicate a policy that requires a cease and desist of perfume spray--or at least a restricted zone on one side of the locker room. I know you said that the aroma carries, but if Fragrant Frances were required to spritz in a far and remote corner and you could set up on the opposite end, it would certainly mitigate the amount of smell that clung to you.
2. The direct approach: When you see Fragrant Frances wielding her atomizer, say, "Sorry to bother you but would you mind waiting to spray that [until I'm out of here/when you get outside?]. I work in a fragrance-free office and I've been reprimanded for coming in to work with scent on me--which can only come from other people b/c I never wear perfume to work. I have to be really careful. I'm sure your perfume smells great, and I hate to inconvenience you, but I end up in trouble at work if the slightest aroma, even a pleasant one, migrates in with me."

Neither of these is fail safe, but definitely worth a shot. The truth is, Graces are aware that, like flirtation, plastic surgery, and designer logos, perfume should be subtle. It should not precede your entry nor linger after your exit from a room. But as we see every day, the world is full of Grunts.

Good luck!

Saturday, May 14, 2011


Thank you, Anonymous, for bringing to my attention my posting glitch. (see comment below). This is where my technological limitations rear their ugly heads. Mainly, I am a writer with an interest in etiquette. As a necessary adjunct, I have had to learn to operate in the blogosphere, but I am barely competent with the tech stuff.

Like the way I approach driving a car, operating a food processor, or growing basil, I am on a "need to know" basis with my computer. I don't need to be able to find the auto's carburetor, disassemble the Cuisinart's blade rotor, or diagram the plant's cell wall--I simply call for help when things are beyond my rudimentary skill. Same goes with the Mac. But occasionally, I get myself into a jam--and don't even realize it. Like last week.

I had drafted a post about another case of workplace rudeness shared with me by a fellow Grace. I mistakenly used a title that I had used in the past for a post on a related topic. In the process of saving/posting, I obviously did something that dumped the newly composed article and reposted the old one with the same title.

Oops. Sorry, Graces. Not very Gracious of me to repeat content, even if it's accidental.

Good thing my readers are Graces!

Thanks again, Anonymous, for letting me know. Like spinach in the teeth, lipstick off the lips, open zippers, or any similar embarrassing scenario, Graces tell.

While drafting the post that was supposed to appear here yesterday, which is now somewhere in the ether of cyberspace, I came across this BBC spoof of cavemen conducting job interviews. I am leaving it up for your amusement.

Lest anyone think I am being anthropologically insensitive, well, this is a joke. I have the utmost respect for our Neanderthal ancestors.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Cough Up Some Consideration, Please!

Recent posts on workplace etiquette issues have opened the floodgates; questions are pouring in daily from Graces suffering the Gruntliness of others. In today's mail....

Dear Grace,

There is a woman in my office that has had a chronic cough for about 6 months. She attributes this to her medication, allergies and/or addiction to sunflower seeds. Let me tell you, this cough is loud and sudden, and in a quiet workplace, very disruptive. It is such a piercing cough that it makes me shudder every time I hear it. I have sympathy for her if she is not feeling well but she makes no effort to muffle the cough or walk away to the ladies room during sudden fits. I keep thinking she will get better and it will go away but it seems to be getting worse. How does a Grace deal with such a distraction?

Grace Says:

That does sound dreadful. I was in a book club with a woman who had similar issues and it drove me nuts--in fact, it contributed to my departure from the group. But you don't have that option at your place of work. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Express empathy and concern for the condition--couched in suggestions for addressing the problem: "Gosh, that cough sounds awful, can I offer you a lozenge?" ["the phone number for an allergist; a glass of water; chewing gum as a substitute for the seeds?"] This tactic has the dual benefit of potentially stopping the cough temporarily while also pointing out the disruption. Hopefully this conveys that you were so troubled by the cough that you felt inclined to try to deal with it, thus prompting her to take steps to do the same.

2. Confidentially speak to your HR person; this disruption does seem to fit into workplace comfort and productivity. While health issues are dicey in terms of confidentiality and discrimination, it is worth asking the question discreetly.

3. If all else fails, procure some noise cancelling headphones. You ought to be able to get your company to provide them since they seem to be necessary for your concentration due to conditions in the workplace that are beyond your control.

For a good laugh between coughs, have a look at how Kramer dealt with his cough. Gosh, I miss Seinfeld.
Good luck and thanks for writing,

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

He's Not Even My Boss Yet, and He's Already an Overbearing Jerk

Dear Grace,

I recently interviewed for a job that, on paper seemed a good fit. It was in a remote location, so all the interaction occurred via phone and email, and it was clear that that is primarily how the job would be, too. The employer seemed to be in a huge hurry, wanted me to basically drop everything and set up the interview on almost no notice, then asked me to produce a product for him using technology that was totally unfamiliar to me by the next day. (This was, in essence, my "audition".) I cleared my calendar, stayed up very late that night to create the thing, and sent it to him, along with a request for a phone appointment to ensure that I was going in the right direction and to address some technical questions I had. Again, he did not accommodate my schedule, but we finally picked a time the following day. When he called, he had not looked at my work, and all he did was lecture me on how he couldn't hold my hand on every little thing. I was furious! The way we left it, after a rather unpleasant exchange, is that I am supposed to finish the project and/or inform him next week if I want the job. I like the idea of the job, but I don't think I like him. Mostly, I want to tell him where to go. Your thoughts?

Grace Says:

Never, never, respond in anger. Especially around the workplace. I can't advise you whether to take the job or not--it sounds like the boss might not be your cup of Darjeeling, and depending on how much exposure you would have to him, this could be hell. Most employers are especially nice during the interview process--one wonders if this is his "good behavior" what type of terrorist he could become when you join his payroll. If, on the other hand, the work is exciting and you would have very little to do with this rather quixotic individual, then maybe it would be worth a try.

What I can definitely, absolutely, positively tell you is not to burn the bridge. If you don't want the job, then you can simply tell him (or write/email, if that is the format you have been using to communicate) "Mr. Rude, It's been wonderful exploring this opportunity with you. I have thought a lot about it, and in the end, I don't think it's a fit for me. I wish you much success as you go forward with this venture, and I thank you for offering me the chance to learn about it." You never know. He could turn out to be the next Bill Gates, and do you want him to remember you as that woman who seemed competent and he tried to hire, but then you got tetchy and sent him a howler of an email vehemently declining his job offer? I think not.

I know, it's tough not being an heiress, but the vast majority of us must earn our keep by working for a living. Grace is a major workplace asset. Practice it. Cultivate it. Spread it. Trust me, it makes your (and everyone else's) day much more pleasant, and in the long run, will serve you well. When you're neck and neck with a co-worker for a promotion, Grace wins over Grunt every time.

Found this clip of workplace mishaps rather amusing....enjoy.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Grace, Grace, Egg on her Face

Goose eggs from the Fair Food Farmstand in Reading Terminal Market--they're about the size of your fist.

Ok, Graces, looks like I goofed with yesterday's post. Got a lot of interesting feedback and commentary from my fellow Graces and ultimately concluded that my personal preferences regarding footwear were stated a tad strongly. (I really do love shoes, and I really don't like bare feet outside of Yoga class, beaches, or the bathtub, but that's my obsession, not everyone else's.) My characterization of the shoeless jane also may have been construed as potentially insensitive to cultures who eschew shoes for cultural, climatic, or religious reasons. The point is, I am calling myself out. It would not be very Gracious of me to ignore my own gaffe when I spend my days cataloging the Grunts around us.

So. I confess to a big goose egg on my face with yesterday's post. Here's the revised version of the advice.

Dear Teach,

Ah, yes, the personal habits of others.....

To the extent that the barefoot contessa is violating any type of health code, dress code, or hygiene protocol at work, her supervisor can and should intervene--and if that has to be done with a tip from the peanut gallery, i.e. you, so be it. Know that when/if barefoot identifies you as the stool pigeon, she will treat you differently, but at least your initial concern will be addressed.

If the lack of footwear does not violate any codes or guidelines, and the boss, the students and the parents are unbugged, you simply must grin and bear it. It's not up to you to regulate the wardrobe choices of others no matter how much they may differ from your own. (I confess to a personal bias against bare feet in this type of setting, but as I am not Queen of the World, alas, I must accept that different folks have different strokes.)

Thanks for writing!

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Barefootin' at Work?

Dear Social Grace,
I work in a preschool and there is one teacher who insists on walking around barefoot when the temperature gets above 70 degrees. As it happens, she is advanced in age, and has been here forever, so it's not a peer relationship that would enable me to say, "that's gross; cover up those dogs". On the other hand, she's not my boss. I think this is disgusting, and it teaches the kids this bad habit, too. How do I deal with this?

Grace Says:

Walking around barefoot at work? When your job is anything other than a lifeguard? Allow me a moment to cringe, and another to compose myself. I don't even like to enter homes that require me to shed my shoes. For one thing, the shoes are generally an integral part of my outfit (remember that Sex and the City episode when Carrie lost her Manolos at a party in a shoe-free apartment?). I shudder to think. For another thing, it's just gross.

As far as the problem of Shoeless Jane, investigate your facility's guidelines regarding dress code and hygiene. There may be a policy that SJ is violating with her podiatric nudity. If so, alert your supervisor or Human Resources department (requesting anonymity) and ask them to address it. If not, you could casually mention it to some of the more neurotic parents--you know who I mean--the ones who bring their kids to school sealed in cryovac to avoid germ exposure. Do it in the form of an amusing anecdote: "When Angelina did her customary pirouette into the song circle today, she stepped on poor Miss Jane's bare feet--you know how Jane loves to go barefoot--I think they were both a bit shocked, poor things." Smile adoringly on Angelina. Her mom just might then do your dirty work for you.

Good Luck!