I’m a working mother of teenagers who is also pursuing a master’s degree. I spend most nights and every weekend doing schoolwork. But last weekend I invited my mother over for dinner. I then asked my sister and her boyfriend. She happily agreed. I went grocery shopping, made a maple-syrup brine for pork chops, cancelled my Saturday run to clean up and prepped the rest of dinner. Right before the party, my sister cancelled. She had spoken to my mother, who she determined to have a cold. My sister didn’t want to catch it and, besides, had seen her last weekend. We were left with a pile of food – plus, my family and I could have done something nice ourselves, or I could have invited some neglected friends. I was gracious, but am actually livid. How do I convey how unhappy I am? (PS: My mom was fine.)
Well, you know, we advice columnists are always counselling people to take the calm, rational route, adopt the long view, be the better person, and la la la.
But in this case, I think you should let your sister have it, right between the eyes.
A wise man (might have been me) once said: “We teach people how to treat us.”
I’ve always had to wrestle with this. I’m “the funny guy.” The tragic clown. I amuse people. And when people are used to snickering and chortling over your jokes and antics, it can easily tip over into disrespect.
Even in high school, when I was “class clown,” I remember my English teacher saying to my parents, “Dave could walk into a classroom and fall flat on his face and everyone would just laugh.” Meaning: It’s at the point where his peers don’t treat your son with respect or even compassion.
In the fullness of time I decided that I didn’t want to be that guy. I like to make jokes, but there’s nothing funny about people mocking you behind your back – or to your face.
So every once in a while, I’ve had to bring friends up short. It’s been confusing for them, at times, I think. One moment we’ll all be laughing and cracking wise, but then someone will go too far and I’ll say (usually later, in a fit of l’esprit de l’escalier): “Hey, you crossed the line there and hurt my feelings.”
I’ve even broken off relations with people I care about deeply for months at a time, because I felt they got into a rut where they were generally treating me disrespectfully. I call it “putting them in the penalty box.” And it seems to work.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you’re a clown. But perhaps your sister has got to the point where she’s treating you like one. Or to put it another way: She’s convinced she can treat you more cavalierly than she would other people.
You’ve got to bring your big old clown shoe (metaphorically speaking) down on that notion immediately. Everyone knows it’s rude to cancel on a dinner party at the last moment, for precisely the reasons you’ve delineated. The host must shop, prepare, clean, buy flowers, etc. It tends to be an all-day undertaking.
It’s particularly rude in a case like yours, where she knows how much you’re juggling.
And sorry, but all that business about your mother’s “cold” sounds trumped-up. Liars often gild the lily, and your sister mentioning that, “besides,” she saw your mother last weekend is a veritable semaphore of mendacity.
Let’s call a spade a spade. She decided she didn’t feel like coming any more (or something more fun-sounding came up), so she bailed at the last minute with a phoney-baloney excuse. Unacceptable! And lame!
I think you’re right to feel burned. So give your sis a whiff of your displeasure.
Best-case scenario: She sees the error of her ways, apologizes, and the two of you resume your lives in a spirit of sisterly solidarity.
If she squawks, or drops a hauteur-filled froideur upon you, so be it. She’s in the wrong, and may need to spend time in the penalty box to reflect upon her fallibility.
Meanwhile, as you say, there are plenty of other people you can have over who will appreciate your maple-brined pork chops – which, by the way, sound delicious – while she’s stewing in her own brine of entitlement and self-righteous bitterness.
Your friendly neighbourhood advice columnist, for example. The upside to the downside of my tragic trajectory as Faux-Pas-varotti, the Clown Prince of Comeuppance, is that I’m a lot of fun at dinner parties.
David Eddie is the author of Damage Control, the book.
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