Manner Matters

Some of you may have already heard, but The Sensible Midwesterner is also dishing out advice over at Serious Eats. Every Wednesday I sensibly answer questions related to dining – from table manners to hosting etiquette to how to split a check to fending off a dessert stealer – in a column called Manner Matters. When a question and answer over there seem to have a particularly sensible air about them, like the ones above, I’ll be sure to post a link here. It won’t interfere with my Thursday column here, though, where Midwestern sensibility can be more widely applied to life’s varied vexing problems. Let me know what’s eating you at askasensiblemidwesterner (at) gmail (dot) com.

Feeling Attacked

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

What is the most effective way to handle a passive-aggressive coworker? Politely, of course.


Feeling Attacked

Dear Feeling Attacked,

Gold star for you for knowing you must do this politely. It’s the only sensible course since you don’t want to create a situation in which you’re the one being aggressive (passively or otherwise) at work.

The best was to handle this person? Avoid them as much as possible.

Since it’s a co-worker, however, you obviously can’t avoid them completely. In that case, there are a few things you can do to minimize their impact on you.

First things first, no matter what, do not take their actions personally. Even if (especially if) you suspect they are intended personally. Your buttons, this person will not push; the more reaction they get, the more satisfaction the passive-aggressive person takes. The more their missed deadline is their problem and not yours, the better. If their actions are impeding your ability to do your job, be sure to keep a record of all communications with them so they can’t passive-aggressively throw you under the bus when projects stall. (Keep emails, take notes at meetings.)

Second, recognize that passive-aggression comes from a place of anger, and most often from a place of being angry about feeling powerless. Pre-empt their sad sack stabs and give them some power. Solicit their opinion, ask for their take on a solution, give them a voice. In short, throw the dog a bone.

Third, communicate with them in as neutral and measured and observational tone as possible. Don’t accuse them, simple observe your take on the situation and give them a chance to correct themselves and add value by tossing the ball back in their court: “I was under the understanding that you were supposed to get me those files by Tuesday – was I wrong about that?” “I thought the agenda we’d set covered all our clients, did you have more issues you wanted to raise?” “I remember at the last office party people seemed pretty happy with the cheese and wine, did you have a different menu in mind?”

Much like dealing with a toddler, it’s all about consistency and repetition. And for that very reason, I suggest you avoid them as much as possible.

Stressed About Real Estate

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

After years of saving and pinching pennies, my husband and I are trying to buy our first house. I am what one would describe as a magical thinker about money. “The money will come from somewhere,” is how I tend to think. My husband, on the other hand, is what one would describe as conservative about money. His approach to money involves hard numbers and never spending what one does not have. (He is also a sensible Midwesterner.)

During the past few weeks we have gone into escrow on a house and these weeks have possibly been the most stressful in our 13-year relationship. The nice savings account we accrued will be completely gone, and because we live in a highly desirable city, the house we can afford is a real fixer-upper. Plus we will be leaving a comfortable, spacious, inexpensive rental apartment.

My question for you: is it worth the stress on ourselves and our relationship to buy a house? I still feel it is the best move, even though the next couple of years will be tight to say the least, and our standard of living will go down in every aspect of our lives. My husband is not sure buying makes sense, and would be happiest with the status quo. Any advice on how to make this process easier on both of us?

Warm regards,

Stressed About Real Estate

Dear Stressed About Real Estate,

The Sensible Midwesterner takes great comfort in how clearly you understand the differences – both in terms of financial thinking and in terms of desire to move – between your and your husband. This sets her mind at ease because the answer is to communicate, listen, see things from each others’ points of view, compromise, and come the decision together.

As the Sensible Midwesterner looks at the 102-year-old plaster ceiling in her living room crumble (plaster walls are excellent, they last about 100 years) as the plumber once again works on the downstairs toilet that won’t seems to top running, she cannot, in good conscience and with her whole heart, recommend home ownership.

Yet we want what we want and you’re in escrow, so I’m guessing the stress will be yours. And there are many fine arguments – some of them even financial (mortgage interest is tax deductible! your home costs are an investment!) – in favor of buying over renting, particularly in hot markets where you can imagine the value of the home will increase even as you lock in your monthly payments and you won’t face scary rent increases. These reasons all involve some amount of hard numbers and some magical thinking, and thus should appeal to and comfort both of you.

You ask how to make the process easier on you both. Tough request. Buying a home is inherently stressful since it is both a large financial decision that also involves lots of issues of taste and emotion and expectation. Moving – after death and divorce – is supposedly one of the most stressful things we ever do. Even some of the good things about moving, like excitement and anticipation, we often experience, on a physical level, as stress.

Hopefully you’ve figured out how much talking about stressful things you both need and found a way to balance that in your marriage. Give each other all the benefit of the doubt you can scrape together during this trying time. You both want your family to have a nice place to live where you can all flourish, that you may disagree on the exact specifics of how best to achieve that is fine and you should be able to discuss them as long as you keep that bigger picture in view.

I would also recommend really playing to each others’ strengths as much as possible. Hard numbers-man can look into home values in different neighborhoods, figure out the costs of necessary repairs, etc. Magical thinking-lady can compare lifestyle impacts from different locations, imaging for everyone how your lives will be improved or changed. Have the organized person do the organizing. Divide and conquer as much as possible. Clear duties and expectations, whether it’s looking into schools or boxing the dishes, should also keep unnecessary stress at bay.

Finally, prepare to fight. If you really don’t agree, coming to a decision and then following through on that decision will likely involve a fight or two. I’m guessing you’ll feel like you both decided to do this and you now want everyone to be enthusiastic about it. He may feel like he was a bit railroaded into a move that he doubted was best. You both have your points. As with most issues married folks fight over, both people are right. Fight fair. Don’t bring up old fights during a new one. Try to remember the big picture even as you may feel like cracking a picture right over his sensible head.

Bedazzled in California

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

My dilemma concerns jewelry. I have a diamond ring – actually two rings, one real and the other its doppelganger, identical by all appearances but fake – of my grandmother’s. Not just any ring, either. It is a 4-carat behemoth that was valued in the mid five figures, and that was 30 years ago. (I’m getting it appraised right now to get a current value.) My grandma’s style was over the top, and mine isn’t so much, but I do like to wear it from time to time. But I do as my grandma did before me: I wear the fake one and keep the real one in the safe deposit box.

I think my grandmother got a charge out of knowing she owned the real deal; I, however, feel conflicted about it. On the one hand, the real ring was special to my beloved grandma and also is super fabulous.  On the other hand, the fake is also super fabulous and that money could do a hell of a lot of good in the world *and*, you know, beef up my kids’ college fund or whatever, and how much good is the super fabulousness doing in my safe deposit box?

If I were to sell the ring, which I’m tempted to do, I would split the proceeds among me, my brother, and my cousin (my grandparents’ only surviving descendants); I ended up with the ring by default, not by a clause in the will or anything, and I don’t think any of us realized its outsized value when I did. I’d also donate at least part of my share of the proceeds (maybe to an organization that helps people affected by wars funded by blood diamonds). But I still feel kind of strange and cold about selling what is, after all, a family heirloom. Yet I’d keep and wear the fake, a simulacrum family heirloom that actually sees the light of day. Honestly, we’re not short on family heirlooms, though this is the most valuable.

What should I do?

Bedazzled in California

Dear Bedazzled in California,

You need to talk to the other heirs. You say you ended up with it without anyone truly realizing its value. Get the appraisal, make a plan you think is sensible, and present it to your brother and cousin.

That plan? Sell the ring.

Plain and simple. Sell it. Unless one of the other heirs is willing to buy the others out in order to own it, that is. In either case, do with your proceeds as you like (donations are lovely, college funds are sensible, a new piece of jewelry you’d actually wear is perfectly reasonable). What any sensible Midwesterner would agree with is that keeping something that never sees the light of day is absurd. Heirlooms are treasures only because we treasure them. As much as your grandmother loved the real ring, you, clearly, do not. This is fine and you should feel no guilt about it. The Sensible Midwesterner has never understood the notion that not attaching feelings to things is “cold.” Things are things and they don’t feel back. And if the ring did have feelings, how do you think it’s enjoying that vault?

The one sensible argument that occurs to the Sensible Midwesterner is that the ring could further appreciate in value. One could maintain the position that the diamond is an investment, similar to a stock portfolio or piece of real estate, that should be kept in trust for future generations since its value will increase.

And yet…. There are no sure things in this life. Diamonds could, theoretically, dramatically decline in value. The bank and its safety deposit boxes could be destroyed in an earthquake/fire one-two punch. George Clooney and his cronies could rob the place in Oceans 14. And all this could go down as the insurance company (you sounds sensible, so one can only assume this valuable gem is properly insured) goes belly-up in some Ponzi scheme. The world economy could collapse and the market for 4-carat diamonds completely dry up. All things are possible even as they are unlikely. The Sensible Midwesterner merely mentions these scenarios to make the point that the ring is not doing anyone any good sitting in a box somewhere. The answer might be different if you said you took it out once or twice a year to wear to… the Oscars? The opening at the Met? But you specifically say you never wear it.

The odd brilliance of a woman who had a copy made of a real diamond in order to be able to wear it without worrying about it impresses the Sensible Midwesterner in an odd way. I suggest you think of the fake as the real family heirloom, one that reminds you of a woman blessed with both crazy blinged-out taste and extraordinarily sly cunning. Get a kick out of knowing its story, and pass that along to your heirs. You could even use your proceeds from the sale to have copies made for any other descendants who might enjoy the tale.