The Conventional Politeness of Congratulations

by admin on January 29, 2013

I have been a long-time reader of your wonderful site, and have often shaken my head at the cluelessness of some of the individuals discussed in the submitted stories. However, as it stands, I find that I may be one of the clueless. If I am, please let me know, as I truly don’t know what to do in situations like I have encountered.

First, a tiny bit of back story about myself. I am a childless adult, both by virtue of being a homosexual male (and the troubles involved with same-sex adoption in my state, especially by men), and by choice (I don’t really wish to have children, even if I could have them the “old fashioned” way). However, I hold no animosity toward children or parents, and my own nephews and nieces are the shining lights of my life. Now, that said, I am afraid that I may have inadvertently severed a decent friendship recently.

A friend of mine, who I will call “Sally” for the sake of the story, recently announced that she and her husband, here to be known as “Jim,” were expecting their first child. Sally and Jim were not trying for a child, and had actually planned on waiting a bit longer before having children. However, as Sally put it, “sometimes Mother Nature changes your plans.” Though the child-to-come is a surprise to them, they are quite excited. Once Sally and Jim had shared the news with their families, they began to share the news with the rest of their friends. I was told amidst a group of five other friends when Sally joined us all for our social circle’s monthly night out to dinner.

Immediately, the chorus of “Congratulations” echoed around the table, immediately followed by the barrage of “When are you due?” and “Are you going to find out the child’s sex?” It was baby-palooza at our dinner table, and I was perfectly fine with it all. I asked my own questions, participated in the conversation, and had a wonderful time discussing Sally’s news. At the end of the meal, Sally handed each of us an invitation to a celebratory barbecue to be hosted by her mother a few weeks down the line. It was not a baby shower, and the invitation made that clear. Rather, it was a party for family and friends – a chance to get together, have some good food, and share in Sally and Jim’s baby excitement at the treat of Sally’s mother. This child is to be the first grandchild, and Sally’s mother is over-the-moon with excitement.

After dinner, once I was back home and had filled out the RSVP card to be mailed to Sally’s mother the next day, I received an uncomfortable phone call from Sally. It seems, after we had gone our separate ways following dinner, “Rachel,” with whom Sally had carpooled to the restaurant, informed Sally that I had committed a serious violation of etiquette. Though I hugged Sally, asked her plenty of questions regarding her expected child, and commented upon how lovely the barbecue was sure to be, I had neglected to say the one word that, apparently, I was socially obligated to say: “Congratulations.” Sally, at Rachel’s behest, wanted to know why.

I did not lie to her. It is true, I did not say the magic word. I rarely say “Congratulations” to expectant parents for two reasons, both of which I communicated to Sally when she asked. First, when a person, or a couple, is expecting a child that is unplanned, I find “Congratulations” to be a bit awkward. I can understand saying it to the woman, or couple, who had been attempting to conceive but who had been having a rough go of it. However, when the child is unplanned, I feel like it is an out of place remark. This leads to the second reason I don’t say it. It is out of place because, in the end, I feel like all I am saying is “Congratulations on having functioning reproductive organs,” or even worse, I feel like I am congratulating them for having enjoyed the activity required to make the baby. Neither of those situations is, to me, is worthy of congratulations.

But, I did also explain to Sally that I am happy because she is happy. As her friend, I want her to be happy. So, when a situation arises, planned or unplanned, in which a friend finds themselves in a happy place, I am happy for them.

Apparently, this wasn’t enough for Sally. Through tears, and with Rachel’s voice audible in the background, Sally stated that I had deeply hurt her. She then offered the opinion that I am, perhaps, jaded about babies and pregnancy because my sexual orientation leaves me unable to have a child with my romantic partner. I was, in Sally’s words, “a jealous man who couldn’t be happy for her.” She then, rather abruptly, withdrew the invitation to her mother’s barbecue and hung up on me.

After getting off the phone with her, I stewed in my own anger for a while. I truly was happy for her, but I didn’t feel that I needed to be socially pressured in to saying some magic word to her just because everyone else was saying it. But, as my anger subsided, I began to focus on Sally’s accusation. I don’t consider myself to be jealous or jaded when it comes to pregnancy or babies. As I said, I am childless partially by circumstance of sexual orientation and partially by choice.

Please help me. Am I in the wrong here? Did I break a social contract by not saying “congratulations” to Sally? Did I, in an oafish way, truly hurt someone I did, and still do, consider a friend? 0128-13

First point of business – Get yourself a copy of “Miss Manners’ Basic Training:  The Right Thing To Say”.   It is out of print but there are still used copies for sale online and occasionally Ehell gives away copies.   In the first chapter, Judith Martin explains the importance of “conventional politeness” in response to other people’s good (and sometimes bad) news.

Etiquette can provide people with the right thing to say -but not because its so adorably creative (although heaven knows it sometimes has to be to get through the situations people throw at it nowadays).   It is because it expresses its feelings in the time-tested ways that it knows will be appreciated and understood.

I underlined “understood” because when people announce significant life events, they do have a deeply engrained, culture expectation of hearing responses they will understand as being supportive.    Judith Martin writes further,

People whose lives are being enriched often take the simple view that if life is good, one should be happy – and the outrageous view that their friends should be happy for them.  They would enjoy hearing their friends say so, in those highly conventional ways.

Unfortunately you used the happy occasion of your friend’s pregnancy to not focus on their good news but rather to gird up your beliefs as to why you cannot utter the word “congratulations”.    To put it bluntly,  you were selfish and only thought of your own opinion rather than laying them aside to genuinely wish someone, in the conventional politeness they would understand, congratulations on this new season of their lives.  And then you deepened the problem by actually defending your actions to Sally when discretionary restraint would have been a wiser choice.    It is not lying to be discreet in your choice of words.    Later in the book, Martin addresses what to say upon hearing the news of a most unexpected pregnancy or one you think is not a good idea.  It’s one word – “Congratulations.”

Rachel doesn’t get off the hook.  She took offense at something that was not hers to take up and etiquette doesn’t give much grace to secondhand offendees.   She is a troublemaker who created drama and conflict that could have been easily avoided by simply ignoring your lack of graciousness.    My imagination takes me to the point where you, confronted on the phone by Sally, could have said, “Did I? Forgive my oversight!  Many congratulations to you!  I am excited for you!”, and Rachel would have looked like an meddling idiot and this whole drama utterly diffused.  Good heavens, you played right into Rachel’s hand on this one whereas if you had used conventional etiquette to congratulate Sally in the first place, you would have never ceded any power to a rude boor.

As for Sally, two words. “Pregnancy hormones”.   It doesn’t excuse her selfish demand that you must be happy for her and her rude insistence that you will explain yourself but it does explain the high emotions.

How to fix the friendship?  Here on Etiquette Hell, we understand that we cannot change the behaviors of others but we can change our own by taking ownership of our actions.   If you want to heal the friendship, I suggest arranging to meet Sally AND JIM to offer no excuses for your behavior but rather to humble apologize for your part of this debacle.   I emphasize her husband because you need someone who is not influenced by pregnancy hormones to hear your words and who will remind Sally later of what you really did say.   Here is what you would say,

“Sally, you were right.  I did not use the word, ‘congratulations’ upon hearing your good news.   I was selfishly thinking of my own reasons why I prefer to not use the word and not focusing on your happy news.   I do apologize for that.  I am very happy for both of you and look forward to meeting the newest member of your family.” 

Whatever you say, always bring the focus back to Sally, husband and the baby and do not give in to any desires to explain yourself further.


{ 50 comments… read them below or add one }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: