Sunday, December 06, 2009


"Holidays can be so good, and yet so bad!," writes a reader from southern California. "If families get along, great, it's all wonderful. But what about if they don't?"

Some members of my reader's family have asked that she not invite a particular other family member to holiday gatherings because, well, they can't stand that person.

"They hate this person so much," she writes, "that they want to X them out of holiday gatherings in my home."

My reader is torn about how to respond. She still has treasured memories of good times spent with this family member in the past, and says that it "tears my soul" to think about excluding this person. Nonetheless she's convinced that it would likely be better to do so, because her life with the rest of her family - including those who live under the same roof - means more to her than anything.

"I should mention," she continues, "that this person is not perfect. They like attention and speak louder than they should. They like to have people listen to them. They talk too loud during movies at the theater and embarrass me. They don't take no for an answer. And, above all, they come back and talk to you when you have asked them to leave."

She refers to the family member as "them," rather than as "he" or "she," because she doesn't want to write anything that might help acquaintances identify the person if they should happen to see this column.

"Is it ethical for people to ask to eliminate a family member from gatherings," she asks, "just because everyone doesn't get along with them?"

My reader's question is easily answered. It's far more difficult, however, to provide a solution to her problem.

There is nothing unethical about her family members asking her not to invite a particular other member of the family. It may be rude or ungenerous, but it's not unethical. They have every right to ask, the same way they have the right to ask my reader to invite an extra guest. And my reader has the same right to honor their request or to turn them down. It's her house and her party, so she gets to call the dance.

So, should she invite the objectionable relative? That's not so easily answered.

Certainly most of us have, through the years, known someone whose behavior and manners make us prefer not to have to deal with them unless we absolutely have to. If that person is a relative, well, it's even more unpleasant, because there are certain to be some family occasions at which his/her presence is unavoidable.

When we can't escape spending time with that person, most of us find a way to be gracious, regardless of our discomfort, and save our spleen to be vented after we're safely back home from the party. It would be wrong for us to allow our discomfort with that one person to turn us into someone who is equally obnoxious - or, worse yet, even more obnoxious - by deliberately being rude or hurtful. It's fine to ask someone not to do something that makes you uncomfortable, but to respond by trying to make them equally uncomfortable is to become the same type of person we loathe being around.

I can't answer my reader's question because it isn't an ethical question - she won't be ethically wrong whether she does or doesn't invite the problem relative. It's a question of her feelings. There is no perfect solution here. She's going to have regrets either way, and only she can decide which way will leave her feeling better about the situation.

The right thing for my reader to do is to make the decision with which she feels most comfortable. If her fond memories and her loyalty to her problem relative are so strong that she wants him/her at the party and is willing to put up with his/her dislikable qualities, then an invitation is in order. If those feelings are outweighed by her concern for the comfort of the rest of her family, she should let the problem relative find somewhere else to celebrate the holidays.

Whatever she decides, she should tell her family members and close the subject, rather than inviting further discussion. She's the hostess, so it's her call.

Hopefully they will do the right thing and honor her decision, even if it means having to be on their best behavior with a family member who they simply wish would go away.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Anonymous said...

This is more a question for Miss Manners, and has an easy answer. In any social situation where I have been told "I won't come if ___ is going to be there," my response has always been "Sorry you choose not to come." When my then 14 year old daughter broke up with a parent-pleaser boyfriend, I was proud of her when I found it was because he had told her to choose between time with him and time with her best friend.

Anonymous said...

I agree that this is not an ethics question and you can only exclude yourself, not others, however…

A pragmatic approach is to approach the offensive person and speak frankly that he/she is welcome only if certain ground rules are agreed to and abided by. If the offensive person will not listen to the ground rules and argues against them, let him know that he has excluded himself. It might also be a good idea to not serve liquor at the gathering.

I once had to do this with my own father before inviting my Jewish girl friend over. My father was warned that sexual jokes and comments were off limits as were Jewish jokes. He was offended, but heeded the warning.