Ask Amy Amy Dickinson, Ask Amy

Amy Dickinson is a general advice columnist.

DEAR AMY: A few months ago, I was told by "Carly," an acquaintance, that my employee "Bernadette's" entire family was killed in a truly horrific, violent and tragic crime when she was young. Carly prefaced this story with, "I really shouldn't tell you...," to which I responded, "Then please don't!" but Carly proceeded anyway. Bernadette had already told me that her parents died when she was young. I have known Carly for more than 10 years (though only to say "hi" to) but I also know that she is an unapologetic blabbermouth. I was appalled by this breach of privacy, and decided not to say anything to Bernadette about it. Now I'm having second thoughts. If Carly was so quick to tell me, what's to say she hasn't already told lots of people, and that she won't continue to tell more? I think I would want to know if someone was spreading my tragic personal history around town. What do you think?

Want to Do the Right Thing

DEAR WANT: I would not want to know if someone was spreading my tragic history around town -- instead I would assume that this broadcasting had already happened.

Think this through: If "Carly" is the rumormonger you say she is, then she has already used her trumpet. I'm not sure what the utility is of notifying "Bernadette"; she already knows about and owns what happened in her family. Bringing this up to her will only emphasize to her that she has been discussed. Surely she deserves to let this story lie quietly with you, unless she wants to bring it up herself.

When you are told what is essentially tragic gossip about someone you are not called upon to do anything, except to feel compassion for the subject of the gossip. You should not feel the need to broadcast to the person that you know their story or to tell anyone else.

The only person you need to speak with is "Carly." And to her you should say, "I genuinely regret that you told me this highly personal story about one of my employees. It seems unkind to spread this story. I asked you to stop at the time but now I wish I had been more forceful. I am very sorry you did that."

DEAR AMY: It seems (more and more) that people are forgetting boundaries and simple manners. There seems to be a sense that their own entitlement makes them believe that they are allowed to confront a mother as she is purchasing groceries via the WIC program. Or shame a person who while he is or she doesn't appear to be disabled, still requires the use of a handicap tag and parking space. Oh -- and then there is the gem of, "You really shouldn't be eating that." What does one say to intervene in the least confrontational way possible? Or is the answer to mind your own business?

Want to Intervene

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DEAR WANT: I agree with you -- it is shocking how often people will weigh in with their opinions about behavior that has no direct impact on them. We all make assumptions about strangers -- and many of our assumptions are unfounded. A polite and kind person will challenge her own assumptions before deciding to comment on someone else's behavior.

Rather than intervene with the aggressor, I think it could be more effective (and safer for everyone) to offer support to the aggrieved.

Let's say you are standing in the checkout line behind a person using her WIC card to purchase groceries, which aren't deemed sufficiently "healthy" to someone else in line. The other person confronts the shopper in a way that is intrusive and rude. Instead of confronting the aggressive person, you touch the shopper's arm and reassure her by saying, "I want you to know that not everybody stands in judgment."

Offering supportive kindness to someone being picked on can serve two purposes: It can gently break the aggressive contact without being confrontational, and it might inspire the aggressor to back off.

DEAR AMY: "Concerned Son-in-Law" was worried about the fact that his mother-in-law (who has a problem with alcohol) got drunk at his child's first birthday party. Why on earth would anybody serve alcohol at a party for a one year old? Especially when they knew an alcoholic would be there? If the parents have to drink at every social occasion, they have drinking problems too.

Elaine

DEAR ELAINE: These parents didn't mention that they served alcohol at this party (but even so, it is their home and their right to drink and serve drinks to other adults). Many first birthday parties are actually celebrations pointed toward the parents and their adult circle.

It is also possible that this mother-in-law helped herself to the wine.