Flustered Friend

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

What is an appropriate, civil response that also makes it clear that no follow-up questions will be entertained to use when people ask about the romantic status of a man and a woman who prefer to keep their private life private (and who don’t care for the flippant-yet-intriguing “It’s complicated”)? The friends in question are about to launch a joint professional project and such queries from the curious are being fielded by yours truly on a daily basis. Help! Please.


Flustered Friend

Dear Flustered Friend,

If I understand you correctly, these two people are, in fact, more than just friends or business partners, but aren’t ready to go public with that fact or aren’t sure exactly where they stand and prefer to figure that out in private. So, in fact, the answer “It’s complicated” is an honest one, but you’re absolutely correct in avoiding it because 1) it confirms that there is something beyond friendship and professional alliance going on and 2) it pretty much begs to be asked for details. In short, it fails on both counts of keeping the information private and ending the conversation topic.

This situation seems like an excellent time for a little white lie. Don’t lie about them; lie about what you know. “I have no idea,” said in a tone that conveys a complete lack of interest – and even a sense that someone being interested is perplexing – should do the trick.

There is, sadly, no answer that guarantees no follow-up questions will spring forth. Just stick with the same lack of knowledge, bafflement at the interest, and complete lack of curiosity. Even a sensible Midwesterner might be tempted to chide the enquirer on their nosy ways, but we’re assuming that you’re not looking to make enemies or piss people off while putting them off the scent of the potentially budding couple.

How to Say No

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

How do you kindly, yet firmly, attempt to say that no, you can’t even spare one hour to meet to talk about anything beyond what you’ve already committed to? I’m an artist and a teacher and I want to help everyone on their thing but even the commitments I already have are flagging. How can I let people know that I want to help, but I can’t? Give me specific words and sentences that I could say. The old adage of “I’m busy” sounds so generic and also really not firm enough to explain the extent of why it’s not because I don’t like him/her, but I’m seriously suffering on my own stuff already and can’t help them.

Helpful but Can’t Help

Dear Helpful but Can’t Help,

In an age when everyone is “busy” all the time, it is difficult to stand out. Luckily, you don’t need to stand out or impress upon people how busy you are or explain anything, you simply need to say no.

The truth here is on your side, so use it. You ask for specific words. They are: “Unfortunately, I’m already booked that day/week/month/for the semester” or “Unfortunately, I’m not taking on anything new right now.”* If you want to, you could start with “I wish I could help, you know how much I respect your work/believe in this cause/enjoy your company,” but only say that if it’s true. Otherwise, just the polite but firm “no” will suffice.

The key after you’ve delivered the above is to stick with it. If the request isn’t for a specific time and the person insists it would “only be an hour,” your response is “I understand that, but I’m simply not taking on any new commitments right now, of any size.” Repeat as necessary.

If there is some direction, feedback, or resources that could be useful to them that you can provide off the top of your head, go ahead and offer it up. Perhaps you have colleagues or friends who would be interested and available and can direct requests their way.

What you do not need to do is explain your schedule or lay out the commitments you already have. To do so communicates guilt, and people know that guilt is a crack in the armor of “no.”

This sensible Midwesterner senses that you do, in fact, feel guilty about not being able to find 29 hours in a day in order to do more. It’s a common ailment, particularly among women. Don’t fall for it. Your schedule is yours to make, and you’re making appointments and commitments as you see fit, that work for you, your like, and your career; do not feel guilty about that.

* I suppose many people, Midwesterners in particular, would start off with “I’m sorry.” I greatly prefer “Unfortunately” because it is less specific. It acknowledges that the answer isn’t what the person wants to hear, without being an outright apology. Of course, there may be situations in which you are truly sorry – requests from close friends or favorite students, for example – but be careful the thin edge of the wedge that any sense of guilt creates!

Knee-length Sister

Dear ASM,

How do I politely ask my (smart, accomplished, much-loved) sister to dress appropriately for a family wedding celebration (mine)? I am 46, my sister is almost 50. She runs marathons, works out constantly, and keeps herself very thin, fit, and attractive. So, she looks great, but she also leaves next to nothing to the imagination in how she dresses, wearing super-short, very skimpy dresses, tight low rise jeans, short-shorts, high heels, etc. Basically, she still dresses as she did as a hot 20-something. I’m having a small family wedding (my first) and I’m trying to figure out how to tell her, gently, that I’d like her to wear something pretty that’s neither skin-tight or panty-revealing. The last time I brought this up (for a holiday dinner with my fiancé’s family) she took it very personally and said my request hurt her feelings. But I’m afraid if I don’t say anything, she’ll show up in five-inch heels and six inches of black lace at the post-wedding dinner. What to do? I’d like family discussions of the wedding to be happy, not focused on what my sister was wearing.

Knee-length Sister

Dear Knee-length Sister,

First off, best wishes on your impending nuptials! That is happy news indeed.

To your question…. While I like your use of words like “politely” and “gently” – they betray a non-bridezilla quality often missing in today’s weddings – I’m sorry to say that the way you do this is that you don’t. There is no polite way to tell someone to dress differently than they do. Imagine if the tables were turned and instead of what I’m sure is a flattering and age-appropriate outfit you wanted to wear, your sister politely and gently asked you to tart it up and show off the goods a bit more. How we dress communicates something to the world. Your sister has had many decades to figure out the message she wants to send; unless she asks for your opinion or expresses a desire to change, you need to butt out.

One sensible run-around you could try is to make an event of buying her wedding outfit together if you think there is a chance you could influence her decision a bit without hurting her feelings. If shopping and lunch or drinks or tea is a sisterly-type day you might enjoy together, give it a try. To pull this option off, though, you’re going to need to get on board the revealing train, gently nudging towards a bit less tight or a bit longer or less lace, not a wholesale change.

Keep top in mind, though, that you’ve already gone down this road and she let you know that your request hurt her feelings. To bring it up again is unlikely to work, is guaranteed to cause more hurt feelings, and is likely to cause bad blood between the two of you – hardly what weddings are about.

Comfort yourself with this knowledge: you have a serious misunderstanding of human nature if you think discussion of your sister’s revealing outfit won’t be happy. A highlight of my extremely sensible Midwestern family’s Christmas is the arrival of a card from old family friends who dress younger and trashier (with her showing off an ever-increasing cup size) as each year passes. Their atrocious taste brings us no end of joy and merriment.

After all, what’s better after a wedding than dishing on everyone there? I, for one, would rather have cousins and in-laws making catty remarks about a happy sister’s Forever 21 attire than conjecturing about why a Talbots-clad sibling seemed so glum.