Advice Columns

Miss Manners: Stop the storyteller if you’ve heard it before

Q: I have a dear friend who just turned 80. I really do not believe he suffers from memory problems, as he has very good recall of both recent events and names, as well as those from the past.

Yet my friend has, for many years, brought up in our conversations the same facts or details of cases he has handled as a lawyer, or a lengthy retelling of one of his distant vacations or some event that occurred in his life.

He never prefaces these with “Have I told you this before?” or “Did I ever tell you about the case I handled?” Instead, he proceeds to describe in detail the facts as if he were telling them to me for the very first time.

I have, on occasion, told him as he begins one of these oft-told tales that he had already told me about it. But I was hoping there is a polite, non-condescending way of saying to him, before he begins to repeat one of these stories, that he should first ask me whether he has already told me about it. He is a good friend and I don’t wish to hurt his feelings, but I have grown weary of having to listen to the same thing over and over again.

A: Retelling one’s stories is human nature at any age, as are boredom and impatience among unwilling audience members.

While it might be helpful if your friend vetted his stories before telling them, getting him to do so should not be your goal. Your goal is to stop him once he has begun and you recognize the story.

As Miss Manners deals in etiquette, which often contradicts inclination, you have come to the right place. Use your knowledge of your friend’s punch lines: “I remember that, that’s a great story. I can’t believe you spent five days in Guam while they tried to find a replacement engine.” Then change the subject.

Miss Manners does not recommend changing it to one of your own well-worn stories, although she understands the temptation.

Q: One couple asked to bring their three young children to our adult dinner party. How to respectfully decline?

A: Your response must be both concrete and vague. “I’m so sorry, but this is (unambiguously) not an event for children (for no stated reason)” is both proper (assuming you do not say the clarifying notes out loud) and, usually, effective.

The guest who insists that “We can’t get a baby sitter that night, so we would have to bring them,” can be answered politely without changing your position: “I completely understand. Then another time.”

Miss Manners assures you that as uncomfortable as you may find this conversation, it is preferable to the results of being too vague or too concrete. “I’m not sure if they would enjoy it (and you’re not sure what I’m saying),” or “I just got new rugs and am trying to keep things clean,” will please neither side.

Judith Martin writes the Miss Manners column with help from her son, Nicholas Ivor Martin, and her daughter, Jacobina Martin. Send your questions to Miss Manners at her website, MissManners.com; or through postal mail to Miss Manners, Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.

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