Miss Manners: Doctor can deflect cocktail chatter about health care

August 10

DEAR MISS MANNERS: I am about to complete 14 years of medical training and graduate as an oncology physician. I am female, with a generally open, warm manner, and can usually handle a wide variety of social situations.

However, when I meet new people outside of work, and they ask what I do, I occasionally answer truthfully.

This too often results in unsolicited commentary that is at best embarrassing (“You’re an angel! How do you do it? Isn’t that SO SAD?”), and at worst a complete occasion-destroyer when people launch into their own, again unsolicited, health history, or the tragic history of a friend or family member. Or the conversation immediately devolves into a heated debate (between others) on the state of our health care system, or conspiracy theories about how “the cure is out there” but being kept from them.

I have tried answering less-than-truthfully (“I work in health care”), which can end in guessing games and draw out the conversation unnecessarily. How do I avoid being a cocktail party conversation killer?

GENTLE READER: Whatever is said about your profession, your response should be, “Well, it’s the kind of job that makes you grateful to get away among friends and talk about something else.”

Miss Manners trusts that you will say this with a smile. You can then turn to someone else and say, “I imagine you feel the same way about your work.”

It doesn’t matter what that person’s job is, because nowadays people consider it a disgrace to admit that they are not stressed. So the conversation will go on from there.

DEAR MISS MANNERS: Occasionally I enjoy entertaining friends by inviting them to a dinner party at my home, where I prepare the food. When I invited a somewhat new friend and his spouse to such a dinner, they accepted readily.

However, I was surprised when he called a little more than one day before the dinner to inquire about the menu. I felt this was a little odd (unless a guest has issues with particular foods, but I’d already asked about this). Basically, I was told that my planned menu simply wouldn’t do, as they would not care for anything I had planned to serve.

I was completely taken aback by this declaration. Uncertain what to do, I discussed alternatives with him and completely revised my menu, although I’d already purchased most of the planned ingredients and now had to go shopping once again.

They arrived late for the dinner and left before dessert was served because they had planned to visit a nearby ice cream emporium on the way home (implying, I suppose, that nothing I might have prepared would equal a commercial dessert).

Needless to say, I am not eager to invite them again. However, I would like your opinion as to how I should have reacted when the call was made to discuss the menu.

GENTLE READER: In effect, these people rejected your invitation, which was to attend a dinner you planned, not to order from you as if from a restaurant.

So Miss Manners would have advised you to accept that graciously, saying, “Well, I’m sorry my dinner won’t be suitable for you. Perhaps some other time . . .” The unspoken end of the second sentence would be “. . . I’ll have better luck with my guests.”

New Miss Manners columns are posted Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays on www.washingtonpost.com/advice. You can send questions to Miss Manners at her Web site, www.missmanners.com.

2014, by Judith Martin

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