Wednesday, September 3, 2008

It's so easy (it's so easy it's so easy it's so easy)

In most cases, we know, it's practically impossible for an advice columnist to speak both specifically to a writer's own situation, and also give insights for the masses. They can't get all the information they need to lead the writer in the right direction based on three sentences in a letter.

That's why so often they fall back on "seek counseling" or, if the writer is a minor, "talk to a trusted adult." These answers aren't particularly helpful, but neither are they harmful. They're not particularly satisfying to readers (nor to the writers, I imagine), but at least it's an answer.

But there's (at least) one area where columnists can be specific, while also broadly helpful to readers across all types of columns: giving people the words to bring up difficult, contentious, or embarrassing subjects with colleagues, partners, and, in today's case, strangers on the subway.

Today Miss Manners printed a letter from a woman frustrated with fellow commuters who take whole subway poles for themselves by leaning on them, preventing others from holding on:

Is there a polite way to confront these violators? After all, it is another breach of subway etiquette to speak to strangers (unless there is an unusual event, of course). On the occasions when I have tried a gentle request not to lean, I have usually been met with hostility.

Miss Manners assures her that there is, and it goes a little something like this: "Excuse me, may I hold on here please?"

So simple...yet so effective. For the rider who has been seething for years over this breach of transportetiquette and assault against her safety and personal rights, plotting in her bubbling brain the poster of subway rules she is going to passive aggressively and surreptitiously post throughout the city, such a simple, neutral request probably seems to come out of the blue.

If she's anything like me, she practiced it in her head over and over and over again. And tried it. And it worked. And, hopefully, it made her day.

Miss Manners is great at these--turning potential confrontations of the offenders by the offended into simple, gracious interactions. Undermining the lecture in manners they want to give by reminding them to simply use their own.

Amy is also great at this. Her forte is less in reminding people not to be crazy, and more in helping them approach potentially embarrassing conversations--the co-worker who is unaware of their fatally bad breath/obnoxious and interfering habit, the partner who gives lame gifts (at Christmas or in bed...), the neighbor who has overstepped their picket fence.

When we feel like we're being put upon, we tend to seethe until the issue seems too huge for us to approach, and we don't know what to say, because we'd rather just never face the person again than address what is bothering us. This is the niche where advice columnists have real power and the good ones have real skill--they have the objectivity and distance to see the situation for what it is and spell out in simple, non-confrontational but efficient terms, a script for handling these difficult conversations.

They make it look so damn easy.

No comments: