Carolyn Hax: Family members fail to close ranks against bully

Carolyn Hax
Columnist September 8, 2013

Dear Carolyn: At family gatherings, my brother’s wife puts my brother down with negative comments, says indirect, hurtful comments to her son’s girlfriend, and is, in general, denigrating to other relatives. My mother has started to speak up when my brother’s wife says something negative about my brother, which appears to have brought on comments from my brother’s wife about how difficult my mother is and how she should go to a nursing home because of her age. (Both of these comments about my mother are utterly wrong.)

My sister and I are trying to figure out how to not enable these situations and also, how to not engage in her negative behavior. We don’t think avoiding family gatherings is an option. Should we set boundaries? Should we ignore her? We need help with how we should handle ourselves to make our family gatherings more pleasant. — Two Sisters

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

No one has your mother’s back?

When she draws your sister-in-law’s wrath for speaking up, the answer isn’t to leave your mother hanging out there; that’s some thanks for her courage. You need to denounce the negativity, openly, and stop making it so easy for your sister-in-law to dismiss your mother, or brother.


(Nick Galifianakis/The Washington Post)

The key to any bullying situation isn’t the bully or the victim. It’s the witness. When witnesses stand up, step in, say — in word or deed — that nastiness won’t be tolerated in this crowd, then bullying stops.

When witnesses cower or shrug, or when no one supports the brave ones who do step in, then the bully gets a clear message: “Carry on.” Declining to engage is enabling her.

So please stop wringing your hands and respond to every negative blast, direct or otherwise, with a firm message: Not here, not now, and not to my family. If you’re concerned that it will put your brother in a worse spot, remember he isn’t his wife’s only victim, nor is your mother. The wife’s negativity poisons the shared air of your family gatherings, and every single one of you has standing to suggest she take her hatefulness somewhere else.

* * *

Hi, Carolyn! I have been a very healthy vegetarian (mostly vegan) for 20 years. I have found dinner parties and other gatherings revolving around food to be stressful. People ask if I’m vegetarian when they notice what I’m eating, and always (always!) at least one person will ask, “How do you know you’re getting enough protein (or calcium/iron/B12/omega-3s/
nutrition)?”

I know people are curious, but it makes me uncomfortable to be put on the spot. I would never question someone, especially in front of a group, if they’re sure they get enough folate or how many vegetables they eat! I have started just saying, “I don’t want to talk about it,” which is true but is obviously unfriendly. And I want to be friendly! — A.

How is it possible that a vegetarian is still an exotic species.

Actually, you can say exactly that — especially since it conveys the important message that that’s how you’re being treated when you’re subjected to such questions. A kinder version might be, “Did you know vegetarians have been grazing the Earth for at least two millennia?”

If you can’t say that in good fun — necessary to keeping it friendly — then I suggest something I usually don’t: being willfully obtuse.

“You’re worried about my health, how kind of you.” No further elaboration. Of course they’re not really worried about your protein (etc.) intake, they’re just somewhere on the nosiness spectrum between mildly curious and self-justifying, which you well know. However, (non-) answering as if they have the most generous motives is dinner-party perfect.

Another such approach is to treat questions as a technical interest in becoming a vegetarian: “You’re thinking of trying it? I’m happy to talk to you about it after dinner.” No harm in deflecting the nosies while giving the sincere a chance.

If anyone (rudely) presses the nutrition point: “I’d rather not get into it, thanks.”

* * *

Dear Carolyn: My parents are deceased. I have known relatives only on my mother’s side.

After doing some research, I found family on my father’s side a few years ago — a first cousin and her husband. We’ve met in person and spoken on the phone and through e-mail.

This cousin, “Joyce,” only wants me to be in contact with her — no other relatives, including her children and their families. I’m not comfortable with that. I’d appreciate your feedback! — J.

An odd request for sure, and the best approach to any odd request is to insist, gently, on knowing why before you agree.

Obviously Joyce has no business telling you whom you can and can’t contact, the adults at least — but because she has presumed to do so anyway, expect that ignoring Joyce’s wishes will cost you Joyce. Whether that’s an acceptable price is entirely up to you.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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