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Look past sting for critic’s point

Washington Post

Dear Carolyn: We stayed at my brother and sister-in-law’s home recently. My brother was very critical and also told me in a blunt way that I had butted into his conversations. It was very hurtful, as I take people the way they are and like to have fun. He was critical about other things also. They don’t have children and we do – maybe that makes them more picky.

Should I excuse this? I’d hate to have it come between us. – J.

So, you do something that upsets him, and it’s his fault for being “picky”? And not having kids? That’s not my idea of taking people the way they are.

Maybe you were trying to say that parenthood forces people to let the small stuff slide. However, that’s effectively using your brother’s childlessness as a blunt instrument against his character.

I don’t doubt that it hurt you when your brother accused you of butting in. Criticism stings. Unless your brother is critical by nature, though, the mature response to his criticism is not to lash out, but instead to look past your hurt feelings to the possibility that he has a point. In your letter, you show zero willingness to take responsibility. It’s just the decent thing to do, always, to consider first whether you harmed anyone. If you did, then you apologize. If you’re not sure, then you assure that you meant no harm, and ask for help understanding what you did so you don’t repeat your mistake. If you’re sure you harmed no one, then you apologize for your role in the misunderstanding, and gently clarify your intent.

Dear Carolyn: What is a good reply to someone whose punch line to a joke is at your expense, and that person knows you well enough to know it hits too close to home? What do you say to that same person, to whom you confided several secrets they promised not to divulge, when you find they have divulged those secrets? This person is a relative. I need to get the point across tactfully so as not to upset the family dominoes. – V.

It’s not your tactfulness that should concern you. After humiliating you in public and betraying your confidence, this person has made it clear she or he isn’t much for tact. And that means you’re overdue to adjust both your opinion of and approach to this person.

If you’d merely like this relative to know you’re hurting, then a post-party “I felt really humiliated” will suffice. Vanilla but effective.

But if you’re hoping to transform a rude person into a polite one, please just accept this isn’t someone you can trust. Vanilla, but necessary.

E-mail Carolyn at, or chat with her online at 9 a.m. Pacific time each Friday at
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