Answer Lady: March 2010

This month our wise and witty expert takes on chatty coworkers, overly expensive gifts, and the best things to say when a friend is sick.
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Q. One of my friends just learned she has breast cancer. I want to be comforting but I have no idea what to say. Any advice?

A. First let's cover the things you may be tempted to say but shouldn't. Anything along the lines of "Don't worry, I'm sure you'll be fine" is a major no-no. Those may seem like soothing words, but you end up sounding as though you're trying to diminish her situation. Also verboten: "I can imagine how you feel." (You can't.) You may get the urge to tell her about everyone you've ever known who's had breast cancer, but that knee-jerk response gets old quickly. It's a way of taking the focus off your friend and her individual experience. In general, don't act too freaked-out -- no bursting into tears or worrying aloud about worst-case scenarios. Here's what you say, in essence: You're sorry she has to go through this, it totally stinks, you're going to be there for her through treatment and recovery and you hope she'll let you take her to lots of silly movies to keep her spirits up. Make sure you give her a hug, too, which means a lot in a situation like this.

Q. My brother just bought my daughter a birthday gift that I know wasn't cheap. His daughter's birthday is next month. Do I have to buy an equally expensive present?

A. You shouldn't feel obligated to do so, especially if money's tight. If you and your brother are close, he probably knows you're not knee-deep in cash right now anyway. But even if you were, it would still be fine to give a less-pricey present because -- forgive me for trotting out this ancient cliche -- it really is the thought that counts. Buy something you can afford that you know your niece will like and don't worry about it. However, if you suspect that your brother's gift was an attempt to start a spending contest, say something like, "I know those American Girl dolls cost a lot of money, and we were blown away by your gift. But I'm worried because I'm not able to spend quite that much on Jennifer's present. Will you be offended?" He's sure to say no, and you will have cut the competition off before it starts.

Q. I work in an open office, and the woman in the cube next to me constantly pokes her head over the wall to talk to me. It's very distracting but I can't figure out a delicate way to tell her that.

A. How's this for delicate: Get her to zip it with an it's-not-you-it's-me approach. Try something like, "Oh, honey, I have the worst attention span. It takes me 10 minutes to remember what the heck I was doing whenever I lose my train of thought. Can we just go out to lunch one day and save the conversation until then?" If she does it again, just turn and shrug or wink, then go back to what you were doing. If there's a next time after that, start wearing a pair of headphones. As for lunch, it would be nice to follow through and see if you enjoy her conversation more when it's not disrupting your work. If not, you don't have to go twice.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, March 2010.

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