DEAR MISS MANNERS: We have a family member, a 57-year-old woman, who is, to put it bluntly, a tyrant. She heaps verbal abuse on people, says intentionally cruel things, and rarely attends a family gathering without making someone cry.
No one has said anything to her because she is so overbearing that everyone else is afraid of her.
At a family barbecue, she began berating my 87-year-old mother. My son, who is 16, apparently had had enough, because he picked up a bucket of water that happened to be handy and threw it in her face. She stood there stunned for a moment and then left. Several people cheered as she did so.
My husband and I disagree on what should happen next. I don’t think a 16-year-old boy should be throwing buckets of water at a 57-year-old woman, no matter how provoked, and that he should apologize. My husband says that he did what one of the adults in the family should have done long ago, and the way to deal with bullies is by standing up to them.
I agree that part of the problem is that the adults in the family should have acted years ago, but that still doesn’t excuse a teenager abusing an elder. What do you think?
GENTLE READER: It never fails to amaze Miss Manners that many people who are against rudeness are in favor of violence. As many of your relatives have signaled their approval of this way of settling scores, you should probably bring a towel to the next family gathering.
Your dissent seems to be based on the relative ages of the combatants. Miss Manners agrees that respect for elders is important, but is your only lesson to your son going to be to attack someone of his own age? And what if the next bully he faces is the same age but physically stronger than he?
There are other ways to stand up to bullies. Your son could have achieved the same effect by saying firmly, “I won’t let you talk to my grandmother that way,” or, considering that he was addressing a repeat offender, a rousing, “How dare you talk that way to my grandmother?”
When you explain tactics to your son, you should also commend him for coming to her defense. But yes, he should apologize – not just to his drenched victim, but to the entire family for his action. But he can add that he will not stand for bullying.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: Is it ever all right to say to an overly helpful guest, “Sit down or I’ll break both your legs”?
GENTLE READER: It is tempting. People look so proud of themselves when they keep on helping after they have been thanked and told to stop.
But no. Even breaking one leg would violate the rules of hospitality. Rather you should say, clearly and decisively, “I know you mean well, but please respect my wishes.”
Please send your questions to Miss Manners at her website, www.missmanners.com.
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