Concerned in Connecticut

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,


I know these people.

The man and the woman are divorced. When the man comes to visit his 2 children ages 5 and 9 at the mother’s home and she has prepared a plate of food for each child, as they sit down to eat, the father always steals food off their plates and scoffs it down before they have had a chance to eat. He does this every time. I’m wondering what this must do psychologically to the children.

I feel it is domineering behavior and belittling to the kids and making them feel worthless. What do you think about this scenario?

Many thanks,
Concerned in Connecticut

Dear Concerned in Connecticut,

A sensible Midwesterner can read that you don’t like this man much, that’s for sure. Word choices like “steals” and “scoffs” (along with “worthless”) give you away. Does your dislike make you see otherwise fairly typical behavior (how much mas-and-cheese have most parents eaten off their children’s plates?) in a sinister light? Perhaps.

Reading your letter with that in mind, it’s tricky not to think this man is doing what parents have done for generations—nay eons!—with varying degrees of fall-out.

The thing about psychological effects of parenting choices is that they vary. Different children can experience the exact same action in wildly different ways. Take a father who steal the frosting off a child’s birthday cake. To some people that would become story that summarized their father’s overall selfishness or lack of regard; to others it would become a hilarious anecdote about their father’s love of sweets. They could both be totally correct, by the way. Context, personality, and perspective are everything in these things.

That the mother appears to be inviting her ex-husband into her home while she’s feeding the children despite this behavior, and you don’t mention that she objects, a sensible Midwesterner can’t help but think you are, perhaps, blowing things a tad out of proportion.

You don’t mention where you fit in this situation. Are you a grandparent of the children? A neighbor whose children play with the ones in your letter? It sort of matters and it sort of doesn’t. In the end, unless the children and/or their mother object, any sensible person would realize that this stretches the definition of “scenario,” with its implications of plot and drama, and is, in any case, none of their business.

Not Sure How to Network

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

I’m in the process of applying for a prestigious artist residency. I just found out that an acquaintance of mine (we’ve been in the same book group for just over a year, so we know each other through the mutual friend who put the group together; I have his email address, but have heretofore only used it for book group business) serves on the board for the institution that hosts the residency.

Would it be untoward to ask him what they look for in successful applicants?


Not Sure How to Network

Dear Not Sure,

Not at all! People who volunteer their time and other resources to serve on boards are, for the most part, devoted advocates of those organizations. And in general, people like to help other people, especially those they know, and especially in areas of their expertise.

It would be most inappropriate, as you seem to know, to ask for special treatment of your application, but it would be short-sighted of you not to 1) let him know you’re applying in case he’d like to bring special attention to your application, and 2) ask him for general advice in case he feels like giving it.

An email along the lines of, “Dear John, You mentioned that you’re on the board of the Great Residency Group. I’ve decided to apply for the fall term and was wondering if you have any advice as I put my application together. Any insight into what makes a successful applicant would be much appreciated.” The open and general nature of this request will allow your acquaintance to offer the exact amount of assistance he feels comfortable giving (including “follow the guidelines on the site,” which is code for “please don’t ask me about this anymore”). You should be able to gauge how specific any follow-up questions you may have should be (or if there should be any) based on his response.


Stuck in the Middle (of the Table)

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

I was at a dinner where my wife was seated to my left and a lady to my right at the end of the table. (There was no one to her left). I must admit I spent more time time talking with her than I probably should have. The gentleman sitting to the left of my wife did not spend much time talking to her, so she then became quite angry with me for leaving her alone.


Stuck in the Middle (of the Table)


Dear Stuck,

When in doubt, talk to your wife.

That’s just a sensible catch-all.

Without knowing the parties and specifics involved, it’s tricky to say whether your wife is being overly sensitive or you were being a thoughtless clod. The sensible guess would be somewhere in the middle of those two.

In this case, it would have been just as rude to ignore the stranger (perhaps a bit more so, since the picture you’ve drawn places the woman to your right having no one else she could talk to, at the section of the table known around my house as Siberia), but without nearly the same risk of an unpleasant drive home afterwards.

Had your wife written in, a sensible Midwesterner may have advised her to address the problem in the moment, by creating her own conversation with those next to or across from her, poking her husband and getting his attention if things were, indeed, that dire. Alas, she has not written.

Ideally, you would have picked up on your wife’s lack of company and had a three-way. Side-by-side seating can make this a challenge, but if the person seated in the center pushes back from the table a bit, it’s manageable, and the physical awkwardness is well worth it so you, your wife, and the woman to your right are all satisfied in your dinner conversation (what did you think?).

Sensible people of any regional background want everyone at the dinner (or party) to enjoy themselves; it’s simply decent and human. Making that desire a reality isn’t all that tricky, it simply means remembering that the very essence of social situations is thinking about those around you. (That is, perhaps, why some find social situations so terribly taxing; if you do it right, it’s exhausting!)

Any sensible person also hopes that you weren’t so animated or uncharacteristically charming in your conversation with the woman to your right that you were wittingly or unwittingly courting jealousy.

Introduction Question

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

If a husband and wife are out together at a dance club and either one runs into old friends, when is the appropriate time to introduce one another? I was taught right after the hello exchanges. Ex: hi! John Doe hi Jane doe – this is my wife / husband, Jane/ John, then carry on the conversation, so at this point if it’s just small talk or a conversation carries on, the other spouse can engage. Or does one let conversation carry on then introduce one another when he/she feels it’s more of a natural introduction?


Introduction Question

Dear Introduction Question,

It’s great to start the New Year with the basics!

If introductions are to be made, they are to be made immediately. As you say, right after the two acquaintances say hello.

While it’s rarely improper to introduce people*, it isn’t always necessary. It’s necessary if you’re going to be standing there talking for awhile and the un-introduced party is a spouse or significant other left standing there, smiling like an idiot without a way into the conversation taking place before their very eyes, but if it’s a quick exchange of pleasantries with an acquaintance at a dance club, you may choose to skip it altogether. But an old friend and a spouse? That introduction needs to happen.

“John! So great to see you! Do you know my husband, Ken Barbie? Ken, this is John Doe, who I know from college/with whom I worked at Widgets Co./who used to date Kitty.”

That’s how it’s done. Full names, complete with context of how you know them.

Let’s try in a slightly different situation:

“Hi Sarah! So good to see you! I don’t think you know my aunt, Nancy Abodo. Nancy, this is my friend Sarah Starshine from work.”

You get the pattern, as any sensible person would, I’m sure.

Spouses and other pairings may wish to develop a sign for when they don’t remember someone’s name. When this sensible midwesterner hasn’t introduced her husband to someone within one or two back-and-forths, he knows to extend his hand and introduce himself, the Sensible Midwesterner can then act like introducing them slipped my mind and we both learn/re-learn the third party’s name.

* It’s an old-fashioned truth: once two people are formally introduced they are socially obligated to acknowledge one another. Today, this seems of little matter; back when hierarchies were the raison d’être of social life, an unwanted acquaintance could be a burden the weight of which we 21st-century folks can, thankfully and truly, not begin to imagine.