Social studies for adults

Author gives fresh insight, modern advice on handling awkward moments

January 05, 2012|Susan Reimer

Having learned the tough lesson that my taste in clothing, jewelry and even toys does not match that of anyone in my family, I often retreat to my fallback gift: books.

My choice for the young women in my life right now is "Why We Broke Up," written by Daniel Handler with wonderful illustrations by Maira Kalman. A couple is breaking up, and she sends him a letter and a box filled with totems from their love adventure, each one carrying a clue about why they broke up. Totally cool.

For the avid pre-teen reader, I like "Trapped: How the World Rescued 33 Miners from 2,000 Feet Below the Chilean Desert." I am certain this adventurous tale will be a hit with my nephew, even if I didn't have the sense to deliver it to him on his new Nook.

And for everybody else, including some of my fellow boomers, my go-to book is "Social Q's: How to Survive the Quirks, Quandaries and Quagmires of Today," by New York Times advice columnist Philip Galanes.

Galanes' is not your mama's advice column. There is nothing here, the author declares proudly, to help you figure out which fork to use at a fancy dinner party. Instead, fueled by questions from his hold-nothing-back readers, Galanes tackles some of the most entertaining — if not common — social miscues out there.

Like what to do if you suspect the woman you swim laps with is urinating in the pool. Like what to do when your father accidentally sends you the sexting messages meant for the woman he is cheating on your mother with.

Galanes describes the book as a path through "the Black Forest of awkward moments" in the workplace, in the family and in private relationships. His bottom line: Not everyone is the same, so they don't deserve the same treatment. Much depends on their relationship to you — a boss, a roommate or a relative stranger — and he divides his advice along those lines.

If I thought that this was a book just for people in their 20s who are still learning the limits of discretion on Facebook or how to get along with a grabby boss or a lazy roommate, I realized my error when I read Galanes' chapter on kids and parenting. For anyone adjusting to the new role of grandparent-in-law, he has sage advice: "Never discipline other people's kids when they are there to do it themselves."

And this, "Lesson No. 2 for parents: The rest of us aren't as enthralled with your kids as you are. Corollary for non-parents: Somehow, parents never believe this."

A lot of his advice for those of us on the sidelines in the war between parents and their children is tough love: Who cares what you think? Nobody wants your two cents.

That's hard to remember when you are convinced that you learned all the right moves while raising your own.

Galanes' tone is flip and snarky and sharp — pretty much what you'd expect from a New York advice columnist. But he offers a glimpse into how our children's generation thinks about us. If at all.

We can avoid lots of tense family dinners if we just understand that.

In one chapter, "If it's not one thing, it's your mother," Galanes sketches out a four-step plan for not making things worse, which includes a healthy dose of backing off and keeping your mouth shut.

No one can irk us as efficiently as our relatives, he writes. "And try as we might, it's nearly impossible to turn the volume down."

And he makes this astute argument in favor of keeping the peace. "We only get one family. When they're gone, we can't replace them. So it's worth going the extra mile to keep them in our lives.

"You never know when you might need a bone marrow transplant."

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