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(Thinkstock)

David Eddie

When should a joke lead to an apology? Add to ...

The question

On New Year’s Day, my husband and I were invited for lunch at the neighbours’. She is a gourmet cook and, as expected, we had a super meal with fine wines. But when she poured the coffee, it looked liked tea. I commented on it in a joking fashion, but my husband assured her that it was fine.

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After taking a sip, I told her that it was much too weak and that I couldn’t drink it. She went back in the kitchen and made an espresso for me and for herself.

My husband kept on drinking the weak coffee, while giving me a reproachful look, which encouraged me to make more jokes about the brew. We felt that I may have offended the husband, as he was somewhat quieter after the incident. Once we returned home, my husband lectured me on my rudeness and thought I should offer an apology. I haven’t so far.

We are generally on very good terms with these neighbours. We take their bins out on garbage day and even shovel their driveway, as they have mobility concerns.

Please tell me that you are also a dedicated coffee drinker and can understand my plight and why I took a stand. If you think I should apologize, I will immediately.

The answer

Madam, I am beyond a mere “dedicated coffee drinker.”

I drink it all day every day, always have it on hand and become testy if we run out, which we almost never do because I make damn sure we always have some in the cupboard.

Ha, ha, it’s almost like I’m addicted. Also, like any other – let’s not say “coffee snob,” how about “coffee curmudgeon”? – I’m very particular about my brew. I always get my fresh-roasted, fresh-ground beans from a particular spot, one that I consider to have the best coffee in the city.

Moreover, I attribute any success I may have had to coffee. We have long known coffee improves cognitive ability. Recent research suggests a single cup of your beloved java a day boosts both long-term and short-term memory.

I remember an old cartoon strip of two homeless guys sitting on a park bench and one of them says: “I was the head of a Fortune 500 company, I had 300 employees working for me – then I switched to decaf.” That struck a chord with me and I double-doubled my already high-octane caffeine consumption.

However – and as a smart coffee drinker you knew a “but” or “however” was coming soon, didn’t you? – having said all that, I think you were way, way out of line.

First, by “sending back” your coffee, you treated your neighbour as if she were a waiter and her house a restaurant. And then continuing to make cracks about it even after she’d fetched you an error-rectifying espresso? Yeah, picture me in a stripey shirt and blowing a whistle attached to a string around my neck as I proclaim you to be: Offside!

When we cross over the threshold of a person’s house, someone who has graciously taken on the time, expense and bother of preparing a meal or even a snack or drink for us, we set aside all our precious preferences and accept what is on offer and shower our hosts and hostesses with thanks and praise – even if in our secret hearts we feel that praise is unmerited.

The only exception is if something is absolutely inedible or un-potable or is forbidden by your religion or dietary regimen. In which case you say: “Looks delicious but I simply can’t. I’m a [insert belief or regimen here].”

In short, I do feel you owe your neighbours an apology. Nothing too effusive, that’d just freshen up the wound, but something succinct and genuinely contrite. I don’t think it would even hurt to add a slight autobiographical note, something like: “You know, my husband pointed out to me that I was out of line vis-à-vis the coffee you served that night, and having thought it over, I realize he was right. I’m very sorry about it.”

Maybe a joke: “You get a free pass to come over and criticize something in my house.”

Because, all in all, it probably wasn’t that big a deal. Meanwhile, keep up all the bin-grabbing and driveway-shovelling. That’s good stuff. In my book Damage Control: How to Tiptoe Away From the Smoking Wreckage of Your Latest Screw-Up With a Minimum of Harm to Your Reputation (that’s seriously the title: you can look it up), I wrote that when it comes to damage control, “it is indescribably helpful if your offending actions are perceived as out of character, i.e. ‘unlike you.’”

And that sounds like the case here. In future just apply the same helpfulness and good neighbourliness you exercise around the exterior of their house to when you go inside as well, and I predict you will be happily sipping coffee and fine wines with them for many years to come.

What am I supposed to do now?

Are you in a sticky situation? Send your dilemmas to damage@globeandmail.com. Please keep your submissions to 150 words and include a daytime contact number so we can follow up with any queries.

 

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