Is it acceptable to offer one’s sympathy about a recent divorce or death in a social setting? I was at a dinner party and ran into a woman whose mother had died and to whom I had never written a note. I felt awkward not acknowledging the death, but I didn’t feel that the setting was the right place to do so. The same thing happened to me again when I saw a woman who I knew was going through a difficult divorce.
— Empathy and etiquette
At the dinner table, bringing up a recent death or ugly divorce is sure to be a conversation stopper. You would succeed in embarrassing yourself and the recipient of your good intentions. If during a quiet moment before you are seated you find yourself alone with the person — and out of earshot of others — there is nothing wrong with mixing condolences with food and drink. You run the risk, however, of introducing a difficult topic at a time when the other person, out for a social evening, may not wish to be reminded of it. Trust your instincts and take comfort in knowing that no matter how badly you may bungle the situation, many others have done so before. The art of offering comfort is just that — an art — and one that few people have perfected. The good news is that most of us, when we are in pain, overlook stumbling deliveries for the sake of good intentions.
* * *
My husband and I have two children under the age of 3. Every time we talk about appointing legal guardians for the children, it turns into a major argument. He wants to appoint his sister. I say there are other options. Not only is my husband’s sister short-tempered and sharp-tongued, her own children are maladjusted and so needy that there would be little left for our children at the end of the day. My husband’s response is to impugn my family and their reliability. I could not rest in peace knowing that my kids are being raised by his choice of guardians, and my husband would probably say the same about my choice.
— Guarded about guardian
Think neutral. The good news about such an approach is that you can offend both sides of the family equally when they discover that neither has been chosen to raise your children. The better news is that you and your husband will be oblivious to any fallout from this decision. Surely you can agree on what values you wish to transmit to your children and what constitutes a loving, nurturing environment. If that means choosing friends you can both trust instead of family, so be it. Why not tackle all of the monetary and material decisions first, and leave the best — or worst — until last. There should be no disagreement as long as you place your children’s well-being first instead of your egos or your family allegiances.
Write to “Ask Wendy” at 954 Lexington Avenue #189, New York, N.Y. 10021 or at email@example.com.