Culture Shock at the Dinner Table

Posted May 4, 2018 3:43 p.m. EDT

Q: My son is dating a wonderful woman: kind, hard-working, self-made. My husband and I would be thrilled if they married. She grew up in a country where people lick their knives during meals. Although she’s lived here for a decade, she still does this regularly. I’ve never raised the issue with our son; I want to be supportive. But if they marry and have children, their kids will likely pick up this habit from Mom. Our extended families might find fault, as would their children’s friends. How may I broach the subject with this lovely person?ANNE

A: So, this is about the imaginary friends of children yet to be conceived? (Color me skeptical!) The best-mannered people (somehow) manage to observe differences among us without judgment or comment.

This woman is not your child or mate, to whom you bear some responsibility. Nor do you seem to be her mentor, in which case, we might grapple with whether this knife licking is holding her back. She has simply kept a custom from home. Melting pots are like that: better for chunky stews than silky purées.

If she and your son marry and produce offspring, you will be entitled to express grandparental concern about sharp objects in tiny mouths. But that’s a problem for a far-off day. You’ve done very well to keep quiet about cutlery to date, and I encourage you to keep it up. A supportive mother-in-law trumps a Westernizing etiquette coach every day of the week.

— Coming Out Over Long Distance

Q: I am a college senior in Chicago. Over the past two years, I have embraced my lesbian identity. My parents don’t know yet. We don’t discuss my dating life, though I have told them about boyfriends in the past. I know I need to come out to them, but they live in California, and I only see them a couple of times a year. I expect them to be supportive, but I don’t want to rob them of any private time they need to deal with this news. Can I tell them over the phone? Is it selfish to tell them on a major holiday?A.M.F.

A: I respect your sensitivity to your parents’ (possible) need for processing time. But let me caution you that coming out is not often a “one and done” transaction with parents. You’ve had a couple of years to get comfortable with your sexuality. (I’m happy for you.) But your parents may have a range of feelings to express over time.

Have the initial conversation in person, if possible. It’s kinder to them to put the daughter they love within arms’ reach. As for timing, if major holidays are what you’ve got, then major holidays are what they get. But try the day after Thanksgiving or Christmas, not the evening before. Coming out can take up a lot of emotional space; a short delay may avoid dominating the entire holiday. I’m heartened by your prediction of a loving response. Get back in touch if it’s even slightly hairier than you expect, OK?

— Texting During a Memorial

Q: I was at a memorial service, and the woman next to me was on her phone, texting and browsing the internet. She didn’t seem to be dealing with an emergency, just checking her phone every few minutes when she got bored. I considered saying something to her after the service, to educate her politely that using a cellphone, while bereaved children were speaking of their departed parent, was out of line. Should I have? LIZ

A: Ladies and gentlemen, a new low: scrolling away at a memorial service! But there’s a funny thing about us adults, Liz. We don’t much care for being “educated” about our behavior by others. Better simply to lean in and whisper: “Your phone is distracting. Could you put it away, please?” That way, she can accommodate your reasonable request — or not. But you are much less likely to suffer the defensive fury I receive three out of 10 times I ask people to stop texting at the movies. (I know memorial services are different from multiplexes. I’m just telling you what I’ve observed.)

— About That Book I Gave You ...

Q: I gave my 10-year-old niece a book for her birthday: “Little House in the Big Woods,” by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It was a childhood favorite (and much better than the mediocre TV series). So far, she hasn’t mentioned reading it, nor have I seen it among her possessions. Perhaps her parents banned it, based on the TV series. Should I ask how she liked it?ANONYMOUS

A: Thanks for making me feel super-lowbrow for loving the Michael Landon TV show. (“Pa! Pa!”) There’s a difference between a book report and a birthday present: Your niece may read the book when she likes, but she’s not required to. I don’t know her parents, but it seems extreme to ban Laura Ingalls Wilder from the house. We all have our childhood favorites, but I’d let this one slide. Let your niece discover the book in her own time.