Real Simple’s modern manners columnists Catherine Newman (etiquette expert and author of the parenting memoir Waiting for Birdy) and Michelle Slatalla (professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism and former columnist for the New York Times) offer advice to help you deal with know-it-alls.
A close friend and a few of my family members just love to give advice in everyday conversation, and I am fed up. They are so keen on telling me what to do that they will even suggest how I should have handled events that already happened. How should I deal with this? — D.Y.
I'll never forget rocking my colicky baby at the farmers' market and having a scowling stranger rush at me to advise, "You should try feeding him." Oh, that's what you're supposed to do with babies? Who knew?
Unsolicited counsel can trigger reactions ranging from gratitude to feelings of inadequacy to anger, as in my example above. The quickest fix? Be direct. Say, "Thank you for trying to help me, but I might have given the wrong impression. I'm not actually looking for advice."
You might also consider tweaking your own conversational style. Sure, it could be that your nearest and dearest are busybodies, but maybe they're just looking for a way to connect with you. Friends and family may be naturally inclined to offer guidance if, say, you tend to do a lot of venting or complaining. And, honestly, even if that's not the case, you're less likely to be offered unwanted suggestions if you steer discussions toward inclusive topics, like current events, as opposed to personal subjects. (Sorry to give so much advice. But you did ask...)
- Catherine Newman
My husband and I have been married for 7½ wonderful years. We visit his parents once or twice a year and generally love spending time with them, as they are warm and delightful people. They do, however, have a frustrating habit: They like to literally tell me what I should wear. The issue is, I like to wear dresses, and they want to make me a jeans and T-shirt kind of gal. Those clothes make me feel frumpy and not myself, but I don't want to offend them. Should I suck it up and put on jeans or assert my right to wear what I please? — C.K.
Outside of dress codes at work, how you clothe yourself is, and should be, completely up to you—and, yes, you should insist on it. For anyone to pressure you about your sartorial choices (even the most warm and delightful of in-laws) is totally unacceptable. And in this case it's somewhat bizarre. You're not wearing cutoffs to their fancy golf club or anything.
I'm glad you like your in-laws so much, because this particular behavior is potentially hurtful. If the issue comes up again, say, "You know I adore you guys, and I appreciate that you like to be casual. But dresses suit me, so that's what I choose to wear." You don't have to be a jeans and T-shirt gal. You just have to be yourself.
How do you politely reject parenting advice from your folks or in-laws?
After I gave birth to my first child, my mother came to town to help, enabling me to get three hours of uninterrupted sleep for the first time in weeks. I awoke full of gratitude for this wise, wonderful woman and followed the sound of her gentle humming into the nursery, where I found her drizzling oil on my daughter's head. "Mom, what are you doing?" I shrieked. "Why are you dressing the baby like a salad?"
"If you put oil on her head and then comb her hair, her cradle cap will go away," my mother replied. "Really—just do as I say and she'll be fine."
Grease up my baby? What a ridiculous suggestion! Doesn't she realize I'm the mother now? These were among the feverish thoughts that raced through my head, and I was about to share them when I caught a glimpse in the mirror of a flushed, wild-eyed woman. I realized that my reaction was a tad excessive. I felt even more chastened after my daughter's cradle cap cleared right up.
But here's why I got so agitated (sleep deprivation aside): When it comes to child-rearing advice, your parents—and in-laws, too—have a unique ability to press your buttons. One simple suggestion and you're catapulted back to your own powerless childhood. Also, the advice often comes at fraught moments when you're trying to assert your parental authority. No wonder it drives you crazy. But refusing one's mom or mother-in-law isn't easy; one misstep can ignite a family drama. So the next time you hear a well-meaning suggestion, consider these strategies—each tailored to a different situation.
If their advice is based on a genuine philosophical disagreement, hold your ground. For example, if your parents believe in spanking but you don't, be transparent and up-front. Say firmly, "I know that's what you did, Mom, but I feel differently." Then describe your approach—"I believe in time-outs instead," for example—so they can follow your lead when they watch or spend time with your kids.
If their advice is harmless, act like a slow student who doesn't understand the teacher. Sure, your father thinks your four-year-old's bedtime is too late and that no kid needs three Batman action figures, but you don't have to get worked up about his thoughts on these matters. Acknowledge such advice with a benign smile and then ignore it. Dad will go home eventually.
If their advice is unsafe, clue them in. Just because you bounced around in a basket in the backseat of a Chevy and lived to see adulthood doesn't mean it's OK (or legal) for your child to do so. Gently explain to your parents that you realize they care about your child's safety but that times have changed. And don't forget to tell them how grateful you are for their willingness to be flexible.
If their advice involves a home remedy for cradle cap, take it. Trust me.
- Michelle Slatalla
How can I respond to a family friend who constantly belittles my adult daughter's choice of sexy clothes and my adult son's baggy pants? I want to tell him off, but I don't want to stoop to his level. — J.F.
How about: "So I should cancel the chaps I ordered for your birthday?" If you want to go deeper but stay playful, you can bring up sartorial choices that horrified your own parents when you all were young. (Flowered bell-bottoms! Braless Fridays!) Then remind him of the basic-tolerance mantra "Different strokes for different folks." Your children are adults now, and it's not for you to control or judge their appearance. So the kids dress differently from how your friend—or perhaps you yourself—would. Who cares? Remind your friend of the kids' accomplishments, and encourage him to focus on the people they're becoming rather than on the clothes they're wearing.
- Catherine Newman
My husband and I have one four-year-old daughter. We have not decided if we will have another child. Friends and strangers constantly ask when I will give my daughter a sibling. Some push the idea so hard that I feel guilty and worry about it. How do I get these well-meaning friends to stop asking without offending them or damaging relationships? — A.S.
My 12-year-old daughter, largely ignored by her older brother, has joked about calling her memoir Sister of an Only Child. Rest assured, a sibling guarantees nothing in particular when it comes to companionship. Happy childhoods come in all forms. So take courage in the face of meddlesome questions! People can be quick to presume that what's right (or wrong) for them is right (or wrong) for everybody. They may be well-meaning, as you generously suggest, but they shouldn't pressure you. Try giving folks one free pass: If they ask a single time, say, "That's something we're still figuring out. Our hands—and hearts—are pretty full with the one we've got!" Only the most dogged busybodies will dig further, and then you can say, "It sounds like having more kids was the right thing for you guys. We're still not sure, and for now it's a sensitive and private matter." Maybe once you validate their decisions, they'll leave you alone about your own.
- Catherine Newman
Want to ask your own etiquette question? Submit your social conundrums to Catherine at realsimple.com/modernmanners. Selected letters will be featured on the website.