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Why Can’t My Friend Accept That My Disabled Son Has a Great Life?

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Our son was partly paralyzed in a sporting accident as a teenager. Now, years later, he lives a full life — with friends, a job, sports and lots of fun. Still, when we socialize with a certain friend, our son’s disability is her main concern: We get sad eyes, soft touches and pronouncements about how brave we are. I know she means to be supportive, but it makes me uncomfortable. When I respond that his paralysis is not as problematic as she thinks, she goes on and on about how inspirational he is. Sometimes, it casts a pall over the room. Obviously, I am not uncaring about my son’s situation, but he is more than his legs. How should I handle this?

MOTHER

I think there may be two issues here: Your friend’s well-intentioned compassion — which you kindly acknowledge — seems to have tipped into pity. That would make many of us bristle. Pity carries a whiff of superiority. And I second your objection to your friend’s (implicit) judgment that your son is somehow inferior because he’s paralyzed. He seems to be living a full and happy life!

Now, we can manage this first issue pretty easily. But the challenge comes — in my experience — because your friend may be frightened by your son’s disability: She brings it up endlessly because she can’t imagine how she would cope in your position. The prospect may unnerve her.

So I would be direct but gentle with her. When you have some time alone with her, say: “You seem so focused on my son’s disability. We’ve all had years to process his accident. And look at what a fulfilling life he leads. You may want to consider why his disability strikes such a deep chord in you.” As you aptly put it, we are all more than our challenges.

In restaurants recently, several waiters have delivered meals to our table and then proceeded to talk to us the whole time we were eating. In retrospect, I realize they shared — in great detail — their hard-luck stories. I wonder if they do this in hopes of getting bigger tips. I know times are tough, and I want to be sympathetic. But restaurant meals are treats, and we’d like to be left alone to enjoy them. Any advice? We don’t want to be rude.

DINER

One of the problems with keeping quiet about small complaints is that we can blow them out of proportion — even create conspiracy theories around them. Here, for instance, your being “nice” to chatty waiters and letting them talk on has, in fact, created the opposite of niceness in you: Without a shred of evidence, you have turned the waiters into schemers who are trying to squeeze bigger tips out of you. Everyone loses this way!

So, speak up: “Thanks for taking such good care of us. Now, if you’ll excuse us, my friend and I would like to talk.” Problem solved. You’ve told the waiters what you reasonably want, so they can give you the restaurant experience you desire.

My fiancé and I are a middle-aged couple. We’re both divorced without children. We are getting married at City Hall and then hosting a big dinner at a restaurant with music and dancing. The restaurant seats 60, so we are inviting only close family and friends. The problem: My fiancé’s sibling and that sibling’s spouse refuse to come unless they can bring their two small children, 5 and 8. No other children are coming. They live an hour away, but they refuse to hire a sitter. They’ve also refused our offer to rent a hotel room nearby so they can take turns watching the kids. We really want them to come, but the kids would take seats from close friends. Thoughts?

WIFE-TO-BE

I really dislike ultimatums. That doesn’t stop people from making them, though. And here, not caving may mean starting your married life with two enemies for in-laws. Personally, I find their refusal to hire a sitter for a few hours silly, but we don’t choose our family, do we?

Still, I can’t make this decision for you. I will say that you’re not likely to spend much one-on-one time with your 60 guests, and in my experience, it has generally paid off to make allowances for my in-laws. If you expect to see this sibling regularly — on major holidays, for instance — the decision almost becomes a no-brainer, if an unpleasant one.

In the past, it was polite to address people we didn’t know as “Sir” or “Madam.” But that no longer seems appropriate. Is there a polite, non-gendered honorific to use in circumstances like “Excuse me, Madam”?

SETH

In 15 years, I have never received a letter from someone who was upset at hearing “excuse me” without an honorific attached. I have countless letters, on the other hand, from people who objected to the specific honorific used: the “Miss” who felt condescended to, the “Ma’am” who felt younger than that and the “Sir” who was a tall woman. (I am not a fan of chummy, gender-neutral honorifics like “friend.”) There’s no reason to organize strangers by gender. So why not simply address people politely and lose the honorifics?


For help with your awkward situation, send a question to [email protected], to Philip Galanes on Facebook or @SocialQPhilip on the platform X.

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