One of my brothers — the sibling I’ve always felt closest to — recently told me that he will no longer speak to me. He claims I am self-righteous, judgmental and sarcastic, and he said he’s felt this way for a long time. (I will admit to being opinionated.) I am not entirely shocked; we’ve had bouts of tension before. But I am surprised by how well and for how long he kept his strong feelings to himself. He lives in a distant city and delivered his news over the phone. At the end of the call, it was clear he was severing ties with me indefinitely. Can I reach out to him to try to repair the damage?
The one thing I’m pretty sure of here is that reaching out to your brother is not the best first step. Your letter suggests that your go-to move may be to quibble with his assessment of your behavior: “I’m not judgmental, I’m just opinionated.” And that would be a surefire loser.
When someone we care about finally screws up the courage to tell us that we’ve been upsetting them for a while, our best path is to try to put aside denials and defensiveness. (Yes, I know how hard that is!) Assume your brother is correct. And let yourself feel how much you will miss him. If you can’t do these things, don’t bother getting in touch with him.
If you can, write an unambiguous note: “I’m sorry I’ve upset you, and I want to put things right. If you’re willing, I think it would help me to talk about specific times when my conversation has tipped into unpleasantness for you. That way, I can try to do better in the future. Can we talk?”
Your goal is to understand his perspective, not to “win” the conversation. So, if he’s willing to talk, just listen. Then sit with his critique for a few days and consider how you might modulate your style to keep your brother in your life.
Hold the Raisins
My sister-in-law invited us for Thanksgiving. When I offered to bring something, she asked for some basic chocolate chip cookies I’ve made before and perhaps another dessert. Then she ran through the list of things I typically make: No pineapple upside-down cake, no ambrosia, no trifle. Yes to my carrot cake, but positively no raisins in it. As she went down the list, I felt humiliated. Why would she do this?
I hate to break it to you, but your sister-in-law appears not to be a huge fan of your desserts. I’m willing to bet that her behavior was merely careless, though, and not intended to hurt you. Depending on your relationship, you could joke about it (“I guess I know what you think of my trifle”), speak up (“It hurt my feelings when you dissed my desserts”) or let this go. Do you really care what she thinks of your cooking?
Mind Your Grip!
At a national chain restaurant, our waitress brought us water glasses by holding them at the rim. I noticed another server doing the same thing. I squirmed but remained silent, deferring to my son who told me to use a straw and not to say anything that would jeopardize the server’s job. At home, I reported the issue to the restaurant’s headquarters. A representative promised to rectify the problem immediately. My son was aghast. But if customers don’t speak up, how will diners be safe from germs?
I get your desire for hygienic water glasses and your son’s reluctance to jeopardize anyone’s employment. In this case, though, local action would probably be more effective than conversations with corporate representatives who may be hundreds of miles away.
Next time, try some constructive criticism: Thank the restaurant manager for a nice meal and tell her (or him) that you noticed several servers handling drinking glasses at the rim instead of the base. Suggest that additional training may be useful. (You could also mention the problem to your server directly, but since you noticed a pattern at the restaurant, speaking to the manager may be more efficient.)
Isn’t There a Dog Park Nearby?
I moved into an apartment four years ago and was shocked to find that a neighbor runs her dog in our common hallway. Three or four times a day, she throws a ball down the hall, and the dog barks and chases it. It’s extremely noisy. A while ago, she agreed not to do this between noon and 5 p.m. But I’ve been working from home lately, and I’m often interrupted by the noise. I’m averse to contacting building management, but she’s been belligerent about requests to stop playing in the hallway. Advice?
I’m confused. Why have you tolerated this behavior for four years? (And why did you negotiate a “quiet period” that coincided with hours you used to work at an office?) Sometimes, compromise only normalizes bad behavior. Unless there is a compelling explanation for your neighbor’s ridiculous use of your hallway as a dog run, report her to building management tomorrow morning.