Wednesday, April 24, 2013

What do you call a lady?

Hello Polite Readers!

Today's request comes from reader Amy (I hope she doesn't mind that I use her name, I feel like there's enough Amies out there that she's practically anonymous). She writes: 
I was wondering about this the other day when I was thinking it's time to start having the toddler call people "sir" and "ma'am". What are your thoughts on calling women "ma'am"? I've always thought it a sign of respect and not any comment on marital status or age, and I personally get privately annoyed when I'm called "miss" instead (Don't I look older than thirteen?). But I've overheard so many women get testy with men who call them "ma'am" that I'm nervous he will get his head bitten off later in life.
 Personally, having grown up in two super-casual environments (Southern California and Tucson), I find that "sir" and "ma'am" always sound really formal to me, but really, there's no polite-but-casual alternatives. "Man" and "lady" sound weird, "dude" and "chick/babe" way too flip and/or 90s surfer-esque. So "sir" and "ma'am" it is. Your toddler may sound a little formal in our increasingly casual age, but I applaud you for teaching him proper manners (I know that this will be part of the lessons that also include "please" and "thank you" and holding the door open for the person behind you).

But... ma'am or miss? I think that a lot of people assume that "ma'am" is specifically for married ladies. There's also this idea that women are always automatically flattered when it's suggested that we couldn't possibly be old enough to be a "ma'am" (speaking as a woman in her early 30s who gets told she doesn't look old enough to be married on a regular basis, believe me, the novelty wears off). There might also be a certain amount of baggage with the word "ma'am." It may sound a little subservient to them, if they have bad memories of having to call a particularly overbearing relative or teacher "ma'am."

That said, you've settled on "ma'am" and there's nothing wrong with that. I think that while your toddler is young, most women are just going to be charmed by seeing such a polite little boy address them respectfully! It's then their option to say "You can call me Miss Anna/Mrs. Jones/Betty" or whatever they think is appropriate.

Once he gets older, you can sit him down and let him know that for reasons that are not at all his fault, sometimes women don't like to be called "ma'am." Tell him that if a woman gets upset with him, he can say something like "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend! My mother raised me to always call women 'ma'am' unless they asked to be addressed differently." Then they can tell him what they'd like to be called. Since he'll already have a lifetime of polite behavior behind him, he should be able to say this with grace and defuse the situation.

The good news for your boy is that when he grows up and gets a job, if he ends up in an industry where he has to refer to customers or clients by those honorifics, it will already be natural for him and he'll make a great impression!

Do you have an awkward situation that you need help with? E-mail me at and I'll do my best to help you find the right words!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

When people want to stand in the way of your dreams

Hello Polite Readers!

Today's letter is a bit of a heart-breaker for me. An anonymous friend (I'm going to dub him Rhys, because I'm in a Welsh mood) writes:
When I was 18 I had the chance to move to LA and live my dream by working for my favorite dance company. I ended up turning it down because my mother said she needed help taking care of my brothers. A few years later I decided to move to Chicago and stuck to my goals. It got UGLY between us and several other members of my family that didn't want me to move. I returned to Tucson and to be honest, I just know it's not for me. Now the dance company in LA is offering me a second chance and I'm ready to take it. I just know everyone is going to freak out and try to persuade me against it again. Any advice to negate fights about the topic?
Oh, Rhys Rhys Rhys, please don't let anyone talk you out of this. You had a rare chance to follow your dreams and you gave it up for family. Now you're being offered a second chance, not at a different dream, but at the same one you turned down before. How often does that happen? Never, that's how often. If you believe in any sort of higher power, you'd have to also believe that said higher power was bludgeoning you over the head with the message "Follow your dreams!!!"

Sadly, you're not the first person I've known whose family seemed determined to keep them where they were. Well, I'm here to tell you that you're an adult and no one can tell you where to live or what to do. Your brothers are not your children. It is not your responsibility to help your mother raise them. Few things break my heart more than seeing an older sibling forced to give up their life to take care of their younger siblings.

So how do you tell your family that you're going for it, you're moving to LA to follow your dreams? You know I'm going to tell you to be firm and polite, right? Ok, good. Let's do it.
Mom, I've decided I'm going to move to LA. Dream Dance Co has offered me a job again, and honestly, there's no opportunity anything like it here in Tucson. If I don't jump on this now, I may never get another chance. The job starts next month, and I'm going to head out a week or two early to get settled into a new place. I've already been looking at some apartments...
 Obviously tweak the facts I gave to fit your actual situation, but you get the idea. Don't ask for permission, make a statement. You are moving. You do have a job lined up. You're looking for a place to live. You have a date and a plan and everything. You are doing this thing, and you're doing her the courtesy of letting her know what's going on.

Other family members don't even need more than that. Just tell them you're moving. Or tell them after you move. I may not be the best person to ask about that, honestly. If not for Facebook I wouldn't be in touch with any of my extended family. If you're super close (although really, why be super close with people who want to crush your dreams?), you may want to give them a pared-down version of what you give your mother.

And then there's your brothers. I don't know how old they are, and I'm not good with kids, but you'll need to give them some age-appropriate chat. Obviously they survived you moving to Chicago for a time, so they can handle this. Especially since LA isn't that far from Tucson, maybe they can come for visits. Surely you'll come back for holidays. And modern technology makes it really easy to stay in touch, so I'm sure you can set up some video chats or XBox live gaming or something to let your little brothers feel like they're still part of your life.

Of course, if your family has given you push-back in the past, they'll probably not be stopped immediately by your firm announcement that you're moving. So when they bring up some sort of complaint, say "I understand your concern, but I've given this a lot of thought and I'm going." Don't explain yourself any more than that. If they try to start a fight, do your best to extricate yourself from it. Change the subject. If that doesn't work, hang up the phone or walk out of the room.

By the way, I know someone who did what you're thinking of doing, and he wasn't exactly polite when he told his parents he was doing what he wanted no matter what, and things were ugly for a bit... but they got better. There's hope for you, Rhys. Be polite. Stand your ground. Make compromises where you can (ie, promise to call your mom every week/other day/day, whatever, but don't let her berate you when you do call), but follow your dreams. Good luck, I'm rooting for you!

Do you have a situation that's left you at a loss for words? Drop me a line at and you could be in a future column.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Back off, he's mine!

Hello Polite Readers,

This week's topic is a doozy. What do you do when you're in a committed relationship, and a friend who you both socialize with clearly has a crush on your mate? Of course our natural reaction is to say something along the lines of the title of this post. "Back off!" or "Get your own man!" but that's not really polite, now is it? But you want to say or do something, because inaction can seem like approval.

Relationship advice isn't really my specialty, so I'm going to suggest that if you're worried about setting boundaries with your husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend that you go seek out someone who really knows their stuff. This will be all about handling the crusher.

Example 1: The Serial Crusher

This person develops a crush on just about anyone that shows attention to them and is of the gender they find attractive, regardless of how much they have in common or whether the crushee has done anything to encourage them. They may maintain simultaneous crushes on every applicable person in their vicinity, or they may bounce from dreamboat to dreamboat. Either way, don't stress much about this person because it's not personal and they probably won't do anything more than flirt shamelessly. At some point, you or your SO may need to say "Oh hey, not interested" but otherwise if you both ignore the flirtation and the crushee doesn't flirt back, it should die down.

Example 2: The One Who Flat-Out Admits It

Is there anything ickier than when someone tells you that your spouse is so hot that they rate right along this person's celebrity crush? I mean sure, it's a compliment to your ability to land a hot mate (I guess?), but when that person always talks about their fantasies about said celebrity crush, you really don't want to think about them having similar thoughts about your spouse. When someone says something like this to you, I would not at all blame you if you say something along the lines of "Ha ha, yeah, I'm glad he's mine." Put a slight emphasis on the mine even. Or if applicable, say, "Yeah, but Hunky McHunkerson is actually single" while leaving the "and my man isn't" silently hanging there.

Example 3: The One Who Wants You Both

Another awkward situation for the strictly monogamous couple is when you realize that a single friend or another couple is trying to broach the subject of a three-way or partner swap. If they're being subtle about it, be equally subtle by casually mentioning how you're not at all bisexual, or how you're amazed that such-and-such is successfully managing an open relationship, because you can't imagine being with anyone other than your spouse right now. If they bring it up outright, let them down gently, because you're still friends after all. "Ewwww no, that's gross" is not appropriate. A small smile and something along the lines of "We're flattered, but that's not the sort of relationship we want to have" and then change the subject.

Side note: This advice assumes that you're not into it. If you are, that's another one where you'll want to seek out the advice of an actual expert on how to do it right.

Example 4: The One Who Thinks They're Totally Subtle

This person doesn't do anything as blatant as sending you texts about how hot your spouse is. They didn't drunkenly kiss your boyfriend on New Year's Eve and then claim not to remember it the next day. But it's still obvious that they're crushing on your mate, because somehow at every party they end up sitting next to him or her. There's constant IM or FB conversations, not about anything sexual, but with a certain level of emotional intimacy. They bring little presents for your spouse, remember their birthday and favorite color. While the crush may have originally been fostered by some shared interests, now they're suddenly into his favorite band, her favorite TV show, and reading all the same books.

This is the most annoying thing, because if you complain, suddenly you're the unreasonable, jealous one. After all, nothing is actually happening, and don't you trust their mate? YOU have opposite-sex friends, why can't they? Ugh. You're left to either pretend you're fine with a situation that makes you uncomfortable and wait for it to inevitably fall apart one way or another, or you get to look like the bad guy when you "force" your spouse to dial-back the friendship.

So what do you do? First you go find that good advice on dealing with your spouse, and you have a conversation about how s/he needs to set some boundaries with the crusher and they can't hang out alone together. Be prepared to hear all of the above things and more. It may turn into a fight. People don't like it when they think they're being told who they can and cannot be friends with, even if they don't return the crush and you aren't saying they can't be friends, you're just saying dial it back a notch.

Next, talk with the crusher. Don't be accusatory, give them the benefit of the doubt. "I'm sure you don't mean it that way but lately some of your behavior towards Lee has been pretty flirtatious and I don't want anyone to get the wrong idea." I mean gosh, wouldn't it be so embarrassing if someone else noticed and came to you to warn you that your SO might be cheating? Let that idea sink in.

At times, it may be possible and appropriate to re-direct, too. Maybe the person crushing on your SO is lonely and really drawn to people like your partner, and maybe you guys just happen to have another friend who is single and shares a lot of the same qualities that makes your mate so attractive. Have a big party. Invite them both. Let them know that they both love Battlestar Galactica. Maybe sparks will fly! Or maybe it will at least remind the crusher that there are other fish in the sea, and they shouldn't go after one who has already been hooked.

Do you have an awkward situation you need help addressing? Drop me a line at and you could be in one of my upcoming columns!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Criticism Sandwich

Hello Polite Readers!

Every now and then we find ourselves in the position where we have to offer polite criticism. And there's nothing wrong with that! I think sometimes people are too afraid of saying anything critical, lest they hurt feelings. But the truth is that without criticism, it's very hard to grow as an artist because we don't know what we need to do better (as an artist I tend to focus on artists in this blog, but of course you might also have to give constructive criticism in an academic or professional situation).

My favorite method, which I have seen recommended in various places, is the criticism sandwich. Some people call it a compliment sandwich, but that's silly because sandwiches are named after their filling, not their bread. You might also see it called by a more vulgar name, but this is a family-friendly blog. The criticism sandwich is very simple: First, you say something nice, then you offer your criticism (but phrased politely and with a suggestion on how to fix it), then you top it off with something else nice. As an example, if a friend sent you the first few chapters of your book and you felt that the dialog was really wooden, you would present it this way:
First, the bottom slice of tasty sourdough bread -- "The story sucked me in right away!"

Then the gooey cheese in the middle -- "But the dialog felt a little awkward at times and pulled me out of the narration. I think you should really focus on how the conversations flow when you do your second draft."

Lastly, the second slice of delicious bread -- "The fast-paced action scene in chapter two was amazing, by the way! I can't wait to read what happens next!"
You may have noticed that my sandwich is grilled cheese. I love grilled cheese.

If you stick to this simple format, you can avoid hurting the feelings of all but the most thin-skinned creative types. You can also use it on yourself. My dance teacher once had us do this as a practice in class.  We had to give ourselves criticism sandwiches, not because we had to learn to criticize ourselves but because we had to learn to be nice to ourselves. So instead of saying "Argh, I'm so frustrated, my shimmies suck!" We could say to ourselves, "I have great posture. My shimmies aren't very good right now so I should practice them every day this week. I'm also really happy with how my turns are progressing." I think that this is such a beautiful way to treat yourself. It's hard to get depressed about what you're struggling with when at the same time you remind yourself of what you're doing right.

Do you have an awkward situation that you need help with? E-mail me at and you could be featured in my next column!