Thursday, July 30, 2015

Tell Me About It: How to respond to public criticism of mother?

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If you want to take down a "classless coward," then give her a megaphone and let her dismantle herself. (iStock)
If you want to take down a "classless coward," then give her a megaphone and let her dismantle herself. (iStock)

Question: What to do, as a full-grown adult, when a classless coward makes a loud, public, and derogatory comment about your mother (a former friend of hers) after your unknowing mother walked out of the restaurant, where this person and party were coincidentally seated near us?

And your father tells you in no uncertain terms - as you're fuming and about to confront the situation - not to go over there and not to say anything? Because this former friend's husband, who was seated there and was clearly upset by his wife's behavior, is a good and longtime friend of your father and a good guy toward us? And your father tells you not to say one word to your mother?

Shouldn't my father have defended his wife? He's very religious, gentle, and afraid of confrontation. And as a 40-year-old, was I right or wrong to obey my father despite my instincts to stand up for my mother?

Answer: If you want to take down a "classless coward," then give her a megaphone and let her dismantle herself.

With no amplifying equipment handy, it's OK just to let rude people think they won, to have faith that people of character know a boor when they hear one, and to trust you won't implode waiting for the vengeful urges to pass.

I understand you're reacting in part to a father who's "afraid" of confrontation; such fears can cast a shadow of defeat over decisions to walk away. I also get that a silent exit is not as satisfying as standing up for your mom, obviously, or offering a calm response to her husband (first thought as I read your question: "You might want to leash your dog.").

But please trust that there are other, excellent reasons not to engage with such a person besides fear of making a scene.

One is that firing back would lessen the attention on her poor character. One person slinging insults looks much worse than someone who trades insults with another; best to leave her alone in that spotlight.

And, you risk turning public opinion in her favor. Her husband was "clearly upset" with his wife's boorishness, which is an appropriate and effective natural consequence of her actions. Natural consequences are always preferable to taking matters into your own hands. Had you counterattacked, he might easily have come to her defense instead.

And, besting a heckler is harder than it looks; most of the time, you wind up saying something derogatory yourself, thereby validating a coward. Such is the mind of someone who feels justified in employing public verbal abuse to make a point.

The exceptions are Churchillian wit if you're so blessed, or the high road if you aren't: "I'm sorry you feel that way. My mother has only kind things to say of you." Eat that, you ill-mannered flesh-wad. Half-smile, nod, depart.

Even if you had just the right witticism ready, there was a reason to restrain yourself that trumped all: It wasn't your scene to direct. Your father was the one with standing to decide how to handle his friend and friend's wife. In your place, I'd have felt as frustrated as you did - but I, too, would have deferred to Dad.

 


tellme@washpost.com

Chat with Carolyn Hax online at noon Fridays at www.washingtonpost.com.

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