Terrie's Rules of Etiquette


To the disappointment of my trainer, I often read magazines while on the elliptical machine at the gym.  A favorite is Real Simple Magazine.  I like the pictures, quotes, suggestions and some articles, though I often find myself disagreeing with the advice given in the Life Lessons section.  Here’s an example:


My cousin, who lives one state away is a terrible hostess.  Her home is such a mess (think soiled clothes and piles of paper in the hallway) that I’m not comfortable having my family stay there when we visit.  However, I don’t want to hurt her feelings by confronting her about her bad housekeeping.  What should I do?


You’re right to stay away from chastising your cousin.  Unless your family’s health or welfare is directly affected (for example, your child has an allergy to dust), it’s not your place to critique her homemaking.

Of course, you are under no obligation to put up with it either.  Why not simply stay with a friend, if you have one nearby, or in a hotel?  If she asks why you’re bunking elsewhere, avoid hurting her feelings by saying, “You’ve been so generous to host my family and overlook the disruption that a lot of guests cause.  I want to see you, but without creating so much hassle.  With any luck, she’ll thank you for being so considerate.


When I first read this article I was nodding my head up until the part when the author tells the advice-seeker to lie to her cousin. Of course she should stay somewhere else if she feels uncomfortable with the surroundings in her cousin’s home; a sense of obligation is not a good reason to do anything. However, by being dishonest or evasive about her reasons for doing so, she misses a chance build connection and understanding in her relationship with her cousin.


We all have opinions about what people do, how they live, and what they say. The problem comes when we believe that our assessment is the ‘right’ one.  What we think is neither right nor wrong.  It is just a mechanism to help us determine what we value.  In this case, the writer values order and cleanliness as well as family and connection. 


Just because we do not like the way someone does something, in this case, housekeeping, does not mean that we must judge the person as wrong for doing it that way.  By letting go of judgments and using language that emphasizes connection - for example, asking with curiosity and concern about why the house looks the way it does - we promote understanding.  


For the advice seeker to lie about what is going on for her, or keep it to herself and hope that “she’ll thank you for being so considerate” seems at best misguided and at worst mean-spirited. This strategy assumes that expressing her desires will necessarily result in conflict or hurt feelings. 


In this case, there really is no need for confrontation or lying, nor to express condescension regarding the cousin’s housekeeping skills. Nothing needs to be said about the house at all. Rather than saying, “I don’t want to disrupt you”, which is not true, she could say, “I feel more comfortable staying at a hotel”, which is true. By saying what is true and letting go of the belief that the cousin needs to organize her house in a particular way, the connection between the two of them can deepen.  


Sharing what is really alive in our hearts seems so difficult, but by doing so we open up a world of possibilities for personal freedom, connection and satisfaction.  In this case, the advice-seeker would do well to recognize her own values- her preference for cleanliness and her concern for her cousin’s emotions - and ask for what she wants with honesty and compassion. While the short-term outcome might be the same - she’ll stay elsewhere - long term, her willingness to live from the heart can’t help but bring the two cousins closer.