Posts Tagged ‘manners’

Nosy questions

A woman once wrote to Miss Manners (aka Haragamam) with a story about a man she had sat next to on a plane trip.  In the story, the man had asked her, “Are you a career girl?”  What should she have answered? asked the woman.  Miss Manners answered that she was perfectly within her rights to answer in the affirmative (since she was indeed a “career girl”) and, in the spirit of friendliness and reciprocity, ask the man if he was a “career boy.”

I’m all for turning the tables on people who ask jarring questions.  And one of the silliest questions I and other converts to Judaism are asked is, “Why would you convert to such a nutty religion?”  If the asker wants to discuss the ways in which Judaism is nutty, well and good; I can partake.  But if the question is really just a thinly-veiled insult (another way of saying, “How could you have been so stupid?”), a snappy answer may be called for.  Here are a few responses to consider for those who want to answer the question in the same spirit:
1) because the Jews have all the money;
2) because the Moonies rejected me;
3) because Jews control the world.  Just read the papers;
4) because the Scientologists are too nutty, and the Unitarians aren’t nutty enough;
5) because I heard Jews aren’t supposed to ask nosy questions.

One can also ask the asker, “Why would you ask such a question?”  After all, why a convert did what she or he did is not anyone else’s business.  (This retort also works for people who ask if your triplets are “real,” how much money you make, and why you don’t cover your hair.  Thanks to Heather for the tip on this one.  Another Miss Manners response, I believe.)

Of course, one is always welcome to plumb the depths of one’s soul and come up with a real answer if the asker is someone with any right at all to know.

But I have a fourth way to deal with this situation.  Converts or potential converts should try asking born-Jews why they stayed Jewish.  If they think it’s so nutty, why don’t they convert to something else?  Bet they haven’t thought about that one.  (If you get the opportunity to ask this question of a born-Jew who has opened the subject, please come back and write about what happened.)

How do you think one should answer a question like this?

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Many years ago, my brother developed a pithy answer to the question, “Mind if I smoke?”  He would respond, “Not at all.  Mind if I fart?”

This raises my main issue with smoking in public.  I respect the right of smokers to engage in a habit that is bad for their own health.  I respect the right of smokers to turn their teeth and fingernails yellow, make their voices gravely, and carry around with them the stale reek of an overflowing ashtray.  I respect the right of smokers to challenge the research leading to warnings about second-hand smoke.  And I respect the right of smokers to patronize establishments alongside non-smokers.  I just don’t respect their right to smoke there.

Why not?  Because sitting in a smoke-filled room feels no different from sitting in a closed garage with the car motor running.  Because when an unwashed person enters a room and then leaves, you can open a window and air it out.  Because when you fry your dinner in grease and set off the smoke detector, you can open a window and by the next day, the smell is gone.  But let smokers do their thing in a room day after day and you’re ripping up carpet, replacing curtains, and scrubbing tar off the walls to get the smell out.  In short, it’s offensive and disgusting.

While apartment-hunting in Jerusalem, I once saw a furnished place that stank of cigarette smoke.  The landlady asked what I thought, and I told her someone had been smoking there.  “But the smoker is gone,” she said.  I told her it still smelled like cigarettes.  “But the smoker is gone,” she persisted.  Not entirely, I thought.

It’s not easy having a canine sense of smell.  I smell things other people don’t, and not just when I’m pregnant and that sense has gone haywire.  If M. Night Shyamalan had written the Shimshonit version of “The Sixth Sense,” the memorable line would have been, “I smell dead people.”

I don’t want to sit in a restaurant with people who sit at their tables and sing opera or recite “Howl” at the top of their voices.  I also don’t want people slamming into me as they pass by my chair, or wearing unsightly clothing or makeup.  Why should the sense of smell be treated with so little compassion compared to the other senses?

I support smokers having designated areas and special restaurants, bars, and places of entertainment where their habit is permitted.  But I consider it a basic necessity to be able to breathe air free of noxious odors, so let smokers, wearers of Giorgio, and people with uncontrollable flatulence have their own place to eat, drink, and listen to music.

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Thank you

Among the many chores that get added to a new mom’s already lengthy list is that of writing thank-you notes for gifts and meals from friends, neighbors, and family.

Many people are put off by writing thank-you notes, as attested to by the dearth of thank-you notes the Cap’n and I have received since buying all the baby, bnei mitzvah, and wedding gifts we have given others.  I try to be modern and do not take offense at this lapse in etiquette, since I suspect the handwritten note has gone the way of the Surrey (with a fringe on top) in the era of computers.  I readily accept an email or a phone call in lieu of a handwritten thank-you.  One thing I hate, though, is a pre-printed thank-you note.  (I received one of these after writing a heartfelt note to a man I hardly knew who had lost his father.  I would rather have waited five years for two hand-scrawled lines on the back of a shopping list than received the pre-fab card that arrived.)

But not to acknowledge a gift or a gesture of kindness in any form is just bad manners.  According to Haragamam (HaRav HaGaon Miss Manners), even a hangover is not an excuse.  (In her Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, she writes, “Actually, during a hangover is an excellent time for a nice, quiet activity such as writing thank-you notes, if one can stand the sound of the pen’s scratching on the paper.”)  I once worked with a man who admitted to me that he and his wife still hadn’t written their wedding thank-yous, and they had just passed their third anniversary.  To this I say, It’s never too late.  If he and his wife were finally to write those thank-yous and mail them out, their recipients might be baffled or even amused, but I can guarantee that their belated gratitude would be accepted.

Excuses abound for not expressing gratitude in writing: “I don’t know what to say,” “I don’t even know this person,” “I returned/exchanged/gave away the gift,” “I don’t have her/his address.”  The resourceful recipient can always find a solution to these problems: say “Thank you for the lovely [name of gift]”; write “Dear [name of person]”; thank the person for their gift and don’t mention what you did with it; get the person’s address from someone who knows it.  It’s not that complicated!

The most important thing to remember when planning a simcha is that time must be factored in afterwards to write notes of thanks.  It takes some time and effort (not to mention money) to choose a gift for someone.  It takes less than five minutes to write a thank-you note.  I’m not a mathematician, but by my calculations the recipient still comes out on top time-wise.  If someone who cares about you (or has known your mother since the third grade) takes the time to select and buy a gift, it’s appropriate to spend a few minutes thanking them for their kindness.

I hope the thank-you note will come back into fashion soon, if for no other reason than to wipe the shocked look off people’s faces when I hand them a thank-you note and get them to stop coming over to my house and saying silly things like, “Thank you for that sweet note.”  I saw a neighbor in the pharmacy yesterday who made me a delicious tuna noodle casserole last week (the first I’ve had since my mother made them for me) who said, “You really didn’t have to write me that sweet thank-you note.”  I replied, in my broadest Southern drawl, “Actually, I did.  My mama told me I do.”

Everyone does.

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Professional curiosity

A man finds himself sitting at a Shabbat table lined with religious Jews next to a physician whom he’s never met. This is an informal, social occasion. Yet when the physician learns that the man sitting next to him has triplets, he asks, “Oh, did your wife have hormone injections?”

A physician sits at the dining room table in the presence of children telling them stories about their father. While the children eat, she tells them about a time when their father was ill, giving graphic details that clearly disgust the children and nearly drive one of them from the table altogether.

A man in the psychology field notices that a child in the room mispronounces certain words, and begins a commentary on the topic in the child’s hearing that continues intermittently for days.

A couple in the medical field, sitting in a restaurant, notice that a patron who has just walked in has a limp. They stare, confer together in whispers, and stare some more until the patron walks out, then begin a discussion of what sort of health problem the patron must have.

All of these situations involve what the active parties would class as “professional curiosity.” The oddities, imperfections, and even misfortunes of others, if they correspond in any way to the parties’ professions, offer boundless opportunities for amusement for the parties themselves.

However, there are two key facts that these “professionals” overlook in their indulgence of this form of amusement. One, that their subjects have ears, and two, that their subjects have feelings. Outside the lecture hall, therapy room, or examination room, their professional lives continue regardless of the fact that their subjects of interest are not consulting or paying them. The fact that their commentary and questioning embarrass or gross out their subjects of interest escapes them. They don’t seem to notice.

“Sorry, I just can’t help it,” one individual said to me when I requested a cessation of the uncalled-for medical commentary. “I just thought you’d want a medical opinion,” I heard on another occasion. A third was, “I have a professional interest in this.”

Discretion and good manners are Jewish values, but not exclusively. Confidentiality is expected of every medical and mental health professional. Every hospital elevator I’ve been in for the past decade has had notices posted reminding patients and visitors to avoid all conversation pertaining to a patient’s status to preserve confidentiality. And patients in the U.S. are given a form to sign acknowledging their rights to privacy and knowledge of how medical information can be shared according to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.

Professionals who teach or care for the sick are a necessity in any society. It is even understandable that their professional interest carries over into their civilian lives. However, no professional has license to breach the dictates of good manners, or to walk the earth criticizing, analyzing, embarrassing, browbeating, or humiliating others out of “professional curiosity.” In Judaism, to embarrass others is considered equal in severity to murdering them. Professionalism is best kept in its professional milieu.

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