My brother-in-law and his wife adopted a dog a year ago. Since then, every time they have come over to our home, they have brought the dog too. My husband and children aren’t incredibly fond of pets. This creates some uncomfortable situations for us. I don’t think we truly enjoy their company, because they are always running around after the dog while they are with us. I have tried to indirectly hint that getting a dog sitter may be an option, but that’s hit or miss.
Nowadays we don’t feel that comfortable inviting them over as often. I feel sad, because it’s creating a distance between us. Shouldn’t they just accept the fact that not everyone is comfortable with a pet and find ways to leave it at home (for a few hours) instead of taking it with them everywhere they go? I hate bringing this up with my husband, because I know he is torn as well. How can we delicately and politely let them know without hurting their feelings? — Name Withheld
From the Ethicist:
I agree that visitors — including family members — should ask their hosts if they’re OK with pets being brought to their home. Still, pet lovers aren’t always aware that not everyone finds their furry friends as charming as they do (and that, either way, many have allergies to contend with). If you had spoken up at the start, this whole thing would have probably been a nonissue. Instead, the approach you chose — avoiding tension by staying silent — is now driving you all apart. It’s a shortsighted form of conflict avoidance that simply magnifies the conflict over time.
Your in-laws can’t take your aversion into account if you don’t tell them about it. Your indirect hinting is clearly a dog whistle they’re unable to hear. Being truly courteous calls for being clear: You want to see them without their furry companion. At this point, you may have to explain why you didn’t convey your concerns earlier, and you may not be able to avoid hurt feelings altogether. But affectionate candor would be an improvement over what you’re currently doing: rolling over while growling inaudibly.
A Bonus Question
A while back, I tried to help a young man establish his own business so he could avoid having to work for others. He possesses an astounding amount of mechanical intelligence, and he is an excellent carpenter and all-around handyman. He also comes from a poor family.
I believed in his abilities, so I bought him supplies for his business and paid him generously for a project. I also got him some business referrals, but he didn’t follow up on them. He stopped responding to my texts, and when I saw him in person, he just walked away. I feel bad about this, but I feel worse for him because he doesn’t know how to treat someone who was good to him. I spent a lot of time, energy and money trying to help this man become an independent worker. Where do I go from here? — Name Withheld
From the Ethicist:
Let’s figure that this young man is aware that he has behaved badly toward a benefactor. It’s worth thinking about why.
Maybe he is embarrassed by having let you down. You set him up for jobs; for whatever reason, he couldn’t get it together to take advantage of what you did for him. Maybe some of your messages struck him as disrespectful (possibly those about his failure to follow up on your referrals). It’s hard to get the right tone in situations of mentorship. Or maybe — who knows? — a friend has persuaded him that your kindness was motivated by a sexual interest in him. Social scientists tell us that lower socioeconomic status corresponds with lower levels of generalized trust; precarity breeds vigilance. People who are on guard make themselves harder to hurt — but also harder to help.
If you want to try again to repair your relationship, you can propose meeting him for coffee and asking whether he thinks you’ve done something wrong and whether you can set it right. If there’s no response, then he has made his choice. An attitude of ingratitude is, alas, a common form of self-sabotage.
Last week’s question was from an employer wondering when it was appropriate to fire their employee, whose father had just passed away. They wrote: “He has been with our company for almost a decade — since he graduated from college — but his productivity and commitment have been declining for a long time. We knew his father was dying of cancer and therefore decided not to fire him during this difficult period. … His father has now died. How long do we need to wait before we can let him go?”
In his response, the Ethicist noted: “Your letter suggests that you have shown proper concern for him. … I assume that you’ve told him clearly what you think is wrong with his performance and have allowed him an opportunity to improve. Giving him notice would then be acceptable; bad employees put a burden on good ones. I can’t tell you what would count as a decent post-bereavement interval — a few weeks? a couple of months? — but you’ll have to balance your firm’s needs with your sense of compassion, and that’s always a difficult business.” (Reread the full question and answer here.)
I have to disagree that care and attention have been shown toward this employee. It would seem to me that a young person who has worked for your company for 10 years would have advanced in his position had he been given proper guidance and encouragement. Usually productivity and allegiance toward a company happen when an employee feels valued. — Emanuela
A bigger ethical dilemma than the recent death of the employee’s father may be the fact that he has worked at the company for 10 years. One certainly should not fire someone after 10 years without a tremendous amount of warning. I would be curious to know what specifically has changed over these years, and whether those changes have been articulated clearly to him. — Jeanne
While I agree with the Ethicist’s response, my 41 years as a union representative tells me that his assumption that the employer has tried to work with the man regarding his performance is likely unfounded. I have countless examples where the employer finds fault with performance and either doesn’t convey it or does so without helping the person improve with adequate support. — Dorine
As a manager, if I have an employee with “poor reliability and work ethic,” that’s a serious failing — on my part. The letter writer doesn’t mention that they’ve done anything to fix this employee’s lacking behavior over his 10 years with the company. If an employee is going to be fired, he should fully expect it based on previous corrective actions and communication. — Mick
A parent’s long illness and death is a devastating event. As a former hospital administrator, I say wait awhile and then speak to the employee and give him a few months to correct the problems. Two huge losses, parent and job, would be a lot for anyone to handle. I suggest compassion and a process, rather than an abrupt decision at this sensitive time. — Marilyn
Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to [email protected].