'Times' Advice Guru Answers Your Social Q's

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Need advice on when it's appropriate to break up with someone over email? Want to know how to react if your dinner companion whips out a cellphone midway through a meal? What about how to deal with your annoying relatives during the holidays?

Ask Philip Galanes. The New York Times advice columnist has been answering readers' questions about all sorts of social conundrums for the past three years. In his new book, Social Q's: How to Survive the Quirks, Quandaries and Quagmires of Today, Galanes details how to handle relationships, moral dilemmas and everyday scenarios made all the more difficult by the peculiarities of our digital world.

"The e-explosion has caused us to lose some of our savvy in dealing with people," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "[Before] we started talking to people almost exclusively on email and Twitter and Facebook ... we could hear a little hitch in someone's voice and think, 'Oh, oh, there's a problem. I better circle back around to that.' So we don't do that anymore. Everything now is type and send, type and send."

The Internet may make communication easier, but that doesn't mean the rules of etiquette change, he says. Take, for instance, the breakup via text or email. It might be easier for the breaker-upper to avoid a face-to-face meeting, says Galanes, but that doesn't mean it's appropriate.

"When we actually imagine that someone with feelings is going to open an email or text message and say, 'You're toast' — that can just never be right," he says.

Galanes says it is appropriate, however, for the breaker-upper to send an email saying something like, 'This isn't working out. We have to talk,' in preparation for the in-person breakup.

"[In that instance,] you're using an email or text to be even kinder so that somebody isn't taken by surprise," he says. "I still want to make sure that the person gets the telephone call or the coffee date where the personal conversation happens. ... I can't tell you the number of people who express hurt or confusion and anger at not knowing what went wrong or 'Is it really over? Am I supposed to be fighting to get it back?' after getting a [breakup] text.' [But] as long as the e-communication is a prelude to the real conversation, I'm down with that, too."

On cellphone and email etiquette

Earlier this month, we asked our Facebook fans for any burning etiquette questions they wanted to ask Galanes. More than a few people wondered whether it was rude to text or accept a cellphone call in the middle of a conversation.

Galanes says it definitely is.

"I think it's pretty rude," he says. "I'm going to come down on the old-fashioned side of this and say, 'Just turn off the cellphone when you're at the cocktail party or when you sit down for your dinner date or business meeting.' And then if there's something [important] in the offing — if your daughter was fluish when you left home that morning or your boss seemed like he really needed to speak with you — excuse yourself to the men or ladies room 20 minutes in and check."

Another thing to keep in mind? You should never email when you're angry, says Galanes. He suggests waiting two hours before clicking send — because you might want to change your message.

"I love the idea of creating a draft folder where I'll write emails from 9:00 to 9:30. I'll go do something else for a while. And then at 11:00 I'll come back and reread them," he says. "I'm not a hissy-fit person, but I can be sharp sometimes. So the number of emails ... where I go, 'Wow. There was really no reason for me to write that sentence in that email.' So if something inordinately sharp was in it, [it is] gone. Cut. And I feel like I've done myself and the [recipient] a really big service."

The Galanes Family

Galanes grew up not only reading the advice column Dear Abby — but reading it out loud to the rest of his family. He says he was drawn to Abby's advice because he felt it was his job to keep his family running smoothly.

"As far back as I can remember, I was the family fixer," he says. "What I loved about Dear Abby, was in two sentences, she just sorted everybody out. ... I think I took a lot of comfort in the idea that problems could be solved."

Galanes says that even as a child, he wanted to make sure his mother was "running smoothly" and that his father was "unburdened." So six days a week, he would assemble his parents and brothers at the kitchen table and perform a dramatic reading of Abby's column.

After high school, Galanes went to Yale University and then entered law school. When he was 23, his father committed suicide in the family basement with a shotgun. Galanes says he felt responsible.

"At 23, I was thinking — this is going to sound selfish — that it was like a double-slap because I'm the fixer," he says. "If anyone should have seen this coming, it should have been me. ... You couldn't talk to a suicide survivor who didn't feel responsible for some reason. But that was the reason I felt responsible."

Galanes went to therapy, both with his family and alone. He visited ashrams and talked about his feelings. He also wrote Father's Day, a novel about his father's death.

"I thought by fictionalizing him, I'm going to circle around him that way and I will understand this story," he says. "And the novel was pretty good. And it got published. And like so many novels, 17 people bought it. But in a weird, happy fluke — and this is the weird, happy fluke that makes both the column and the book mean so much to me — that out of this awful tragedy of my life, one of the 17 readers of this novel was the editor of [The New York Times] Style section.'"

That editor then got in touch with Galanes about writing an advice column.

"I think she thought that the voice of the novel was smart-alecky but wrapped around a broken heart," he says. "Somehow I think what's made this column so much more than The Times or I or this editor of mine, who's a lovely editor, more successful than we had imagined is that ... we are embracing the fact that everybody's got a hungry heart ... [The column] grew out of the worst imaginable tragedy, but I think somehow that that tragedy sends me out into the world really conscious of how hard we all have it, and I think we need each other a lot more than we don't."


Interview Highlights

On responding to inappropriate personal questions

"I think the best response is to say, 'Why do you ask?' because it delivers the question back to them in a way that lets them see it, hopefully, for how inappropriate [it is]. I don't want to judge the people — people will send questions in and they'll be furious that someone will say to them, 'You're 40 and not having a baby. How much longer can you wait?' Most people are just thoughtless. They didn't mean to hurt your feelings. So by saying 'Why did you ask?' you give them an opportunity to say, 'Wow, that really was pretty inappropriate.' "

On taking cellphone calls during conversations with other people

"Our focus is splintered enough as it is. If we can't sit down with our friends for an hour and be present at the dinner with them, it's having a negative impact on the relationship that is entirely unnecessary."

On breaking up via email

"Back in the old days, women and men had all sorts of strategies to say 'thank you but no thank you' [to potential dates]. But the idea that somebody now could think typing 'not interested' and then maybe add a little yellow emoticon frowny face and hit send ... what this digital revolution has given us with one hand, it's taken away with another — just some basic human skills."

On a question asking about how to keep your kids at the dinner table

"Getting them to sit through a dinner and eat their meals politely with a fork and a knife and get through it — and no 'pull my finger jokes' and no nonsense ... Terrific. You've done your job, Mother, and congratulations to you.

"Now why not take this family — because she was interested in keeping the family together — so why not take them for a walk around the neighborhood and find as many license plates that begin with the letter 'T' as they can find. The idea was not to keep the kids hostage at the table, but instead to keep the family together."

On knowing when to leave a party

"I think [if] you've gotten through the entire meal, through dessert and through another 15 or 20 minutes of conversation, I think you're good to go."

On going to a party when you have food sensitivities

"The kindest thing that the guest can do is call up the host with options, and say, 'I am just not able to eat wheat because I have a celiac condition, and foods that have been created with wheat will give me trouble. So here's some thoughts and you tell me what you think. I understand you're cooking for 30. I don't want to add to your woes. I could bring my own meal. I could eat a green salad as long as the dressing doesn't have these following ingredients in them, or I could eat around what you've got if I understand how it was cooked, or I can stay home and watch The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which I understand that they're showing on TCM, and I will be really happy with any of those results.' And I think if you make that call sincerely and the host hears it in the right way — meaning not 12 hours before you're supposed to take your seat at his/her table — I think everything's going to work out great."

On his father's suicide

"People feel very entitled to start asking wildly inappropriate questions. The first thing generally people will say to you after you say that your father killed himself is, 'How did he do it?' They might say, 'Oh I'm sorry' or 'Oh, that must be terrible for you' and then they'll go, 'How did he do it?' And I don't know if that's some macabre thing coming up or what it is."

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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