Q: My husband and I were engaging in some after-dinner reading, one recent evening. He sat down beside me and began to relate the details of an article he had just read on the topic of nuclear nonproliferation treaties.
I wasn't at all interested in the topic (I know everyone is supposed to be interested in nuclear warfare, but I am not interested all of the time), and showed my noninterest by my nonverbal behavior. I did not maintain eye contact, I did not look enthusiastic, I offered no verbal encouragement and I even yawned a few times (unfeigned, I assure you).
After about five minutes of nuclear nonproliferation details, my husband broke off and exclaimed angrily: "You're not listening. You're doing everything you can to discourage me from talking."
I replied, also angrily: "That's right. So why don't you take a hint?"
A quarrel ensued, with no resolution of the issue, which is: Was I rude to show a lack of interest, or should I have feigned attention? Was he rude to continue talking in the face of obvious lack of interest?
Would your opinion of this be any different if the interchange occurred between friends, coworkers or strangers, rather than spouses?
The best question bears on a larger issue of whether standards of civility ought to differ within families, as opposed to outside them.
A: They should, and you have violated them. There is hardly a more devastating insult you can deliver to another human being than the judgment that he is boring you.
This is not to say that we all have to allow others to talk us to death, even those to whom we are married, but only that you must offer some excuse other than ennui.
Here are some samples:
"Just a minute, dear, I'm in the middle of something -- can you tell me later?"
"My poor brain is too exhausted to follow what you're saying right now."
"That sounds interesting, but I can't quite follow it this way. Why don't you just give me the article when you're finished, and I'll read it myself as soon as I can."
"Darling, this is just not the day for me to worry about nuclear warfare. I know everyone is supposed to be interested, and you know I am, but I just can't face it all the time."
Notice that the last one is taken from your own words, with just a little tact applied.
Incidentally, Miss Manners believes that exclaiming aloud about what one is reading is, if not abused, one of the basic rights of matrimony. If you discourage your husband from telling you what interests him, you will be making an extremely serious mistake. A few minutes of boredom, cheerfully endured, are certainly worth keeping alive the habit of sharing thoughts.
But Miss Manners is not entirely without sympathy for you, so she will tell you how to discourage him from excesses, such as reading the newspaper, or whatever magazines or books he is in the middle of, aloud to you every day.
Jump up, say enthusiastically, "Let me see that!" and take the reading material away from him and start reading it yourself. He will learn to be more cautious about this particular subdivision of sharing, but without feeling that he bores you and should therefore control all desire to communicate.
Q: What is the proper thing to say to a new mother who has just given birth to a handicapped baby?
"Congratulations" sounds like I'm pleased that the baby has a handicap which, of course, I am not. I realize that parents naturally hope for healthy babies.
But "Oh, I'm so sorry" sounds as though there has been a death or as though I'm ignorant of the many blessings a very special child can bring.
In this case, the baby has been diagnosed as mentally retarded, but would your phrasing change if the baby had been born blind or crippled?
A: A mixed blessing does not always require a mixed remark. Prenatal parental hopes are as nothing compared to the strength of parental love for the baby that exists.
So unless your commiseration is invited, you must respond to the pleasure the parents have in having a new baby, rather than the distress about the baby's handicap. The correct statement, therefore, is "Congratulations.