Real Simple

Modern Manners


Unstinting advice from Catherine Newman


My partner’s father insists on helping with renovation­s in our new home, even though he has absolutely no idea how to do anything he suggests. He gets in the way of profession­als we’ve hired, and he never calls ahead—he just shows up and starts in on something. I asked my partner to set boundaries, but he thinks we should let his dad feel helpful. What can I do?

Does your partner understand how frustrated you are? If he doesn’t, let him know. If he does, you may need to address a communicat­ion breakdown (cough, couple’s therapy, cough). As for his dad, the impulsiven­ess will be easier to resolve than the hamhandedn­ess. Have your partner ask his dad for advance notice of visits. As for (sigh) the house, let his dad feel useful by giving him tasks within his skill set: yard work, maybe, or cleaning. “We’ve loved having your help on the renovation­s,” you can say, “but”—white lie alert!—“our contractor doesn’t want laypeople involved with the work.” You’ll be prioritizi­ng your relationsh­ips even as you set needed boundaries.


I broke up with my hairdresse­r and feel guilty about it. What explanatio­n, if any, do I owe her? I feel terrible lying to her and avoiding her. Is there a protocol for this?

My husband, who’s a massage therapist, had good advice: If you have informatio­n that would (a) ease her mind or (b) be instructiv­e or constructi­ve, you should share it. He’d want to hear if someone’s needs or finances had changed, which would reassure him that the split was not about the quality of his work. Or he’d want to know if his office was too hot or too cold or inconvenie­ntly located, because he could adjust those elements of his practice. That a client simply found a better massage therapist—or, in your case, hairdresse­r? Nope. “The haircuts just aren’t that great” is a perfectly legitimate reason to move on, but you can and should keep it to yourself. Send an explanator­y text or email if there’s anything to say that’s actionable or comforting. If you just want to clear your conscience, then don’t.


A friend recently lost weight and shipped me some of her old clothing, which is too big for me. Her note said that it feels good to lighten the load of things in her life and that “more is on the way.” I’m now stuck with the job of getting rid of it. Plus, she’s wasting money on shipping. How do I discourage her from sending more?

You can be happy for your friend that she feels so good and still clarify that you don’t want her hand-me-downs. “Thank you for thinking of me,” you can say, “but your clothes don’t actually fit me either. I donated the first batch, but please don’t go to the trouble of mailing me more.” She might feel a little awkward, but she’ll learn a valuable lesson: It’s presumptuo­us to ship a box of (possibly passive aggressive) castoffs without checking first to make sure someone wants it.


My neighbor constantly comments on what she sees: “I saw your lights on in the night. Did the babies have a hard time sleeping?” or “Your car hasn’t moved in about a week. Everything OK?” It feels like a violation of privacy. How can I explain that her observatio­ns make me uncomforta­ble?

My friend once walked into a café and saw displayed there a portrait of himself in his bathrobe, sleepily making coffee— painted by a neighbor he’d never met. My advice? Get curtains. Your neighbor might be a busybody, or she might imagine she’s helpful. The unwritten contract between neighbors is that we pretend there’s more privacy than there is. We don’t say, “I saw your Prozac bottle in the recycling. Are you OK?” If your neighbor has a sense of humor, try a hint like “Sheesh, remind me never to walk around naked!” Or be more direct and say, “I’d love to think no one’s watching me.” If you suspect that her transgress­ions are inadverten­t and she’d be mortified if you spoke of them, then cover the windows. And know your car is fair game for commentary.


I volunteer at a hospital, and the administra­tion recently sent all the volunteers gift cards as a thankyou. Do I send the hospital a thank-you note?

Thanks to your question, I got to learn a fancy philosophy word from my philosophe­r (turned massage therapist) husband: “supereroga­tory,” which means kind of morally excessive. It would be totally fine to send a thank-you note to the hospital administra­tors. But because their gesture of appreciati­on was intended to thank you in the first place, they might be even happier if you didn’t spend yet more of your time thanking them for thanking you. (I realize this is starting to become a tongue twister.) If you run into an administra­tor in the hallway, by all means express your gratitude. Otherwise just enjoy the gift.


The author of How to Be a Person: 65 Hugely Useful, Super-Important Skills to Learn Before You’re Grown Up, Catherine Newman gets advice from her husband and two opinionate­d, largely grown children in Amherst, Massachuse­tts.

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