Dear Carolyn:

Do you have any advice for how to handle situations in which people, whether it be relatives, friends, acquaintances, co-workers, service providers, whoever, make hateful comments or jokes that are anti-Semitic, anti-black, anti-gay, anti-Hispanic, you name it? I am way too old not to know how to handle these situations. I don't encourage the remarks in any way, but I don't condemn them either. I usually just stand there looking like an idiot and try to change the subject.

-- Spineless

Well, wait. Don't be so quick to dismiss the awkward pause and the subject-change. When circumstances demand a sleek, non-humiliating reproach -- say, when the hateful egg-layer is your new client, out to dinner with you and your boss -- the two can be a formidable and eloquent pair. "[Pause.] Well. About those Mets." No huffs, no puffs, no conceivable doubt where you stand.

Nevertheless, I think the Vocal and Righteous Objection is almost universally seen as a virtue -- despite the fact that few of us ever manage to rip one off under pressure. When our golden chance to do so presents itself and we just stand there dumbly instead, we usually conclude, as you did, that a skeletal failure's to blame.

I'm not so sure that's the case. When it's your kid or student or charge, yeah, it's your duty to scold. When it's a spouse or close friend, you talk about it. Close relative, you can say, "Okay, that was really offensive." When a casual acquaintance tells a rude joke, not laughing will likely suffice -- or the genial but unequivocal "I'm pretending I didn't just hear that."

The degree to which you're obliged to protest should reflect the degree to which you are responsible, by association, for this person's comments. Marrying a homophobe, for example, says tenfold more about you morally than working next to one, and so you should actively deplore in a spouse what you might eye-roll away in a cube mate.

Likewise, if a politician makes a racist comment, the onus to take a stand against it lies most heavily both on the constituents who elected him and the party that claims him. Not every battle is yours.

Gray? Absolutely -- but lobbing scold bombs regardless of context can put people on the defensive, and undermine lofty intent. When in doubt, aim for the most proportionate way to make it clear that you don't agree.

Hi Carolyn:

Since divorcing my mother, my father has been with a string of women half his age. Now, I'm almost sure he's set his sights on my beautiful fiancee. He leers at her frequently, and makes sexual remarks in her presence. I've spoken to him about it, but he just dismisses me with no explanation whatsoever. What should I do?

-- Paranoid in Pennsylvania

Explain what you mean by "paranoid," because you're scaring me. (So's your dad, but no need to dwell on your pain.)

If you're worried your fiancee will resent him, fine -- but please tell me it's not that she'll fall for the leering coot. Granted, it happens, but you don't prevent that by speaking to/scolding/muzzling Dad. You talk to your fiancee. As her future father-in-law's designated slobberee, she has an opinion, I promise. Ask it, trust her to share it completely, then, together, decide what to do.

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