This was the first Christmas I celebrated with my new husband and his family. In November, his sister sent a specific list of gifts for her and her three young kids (with links!). It was odd. My husband said he’d never received one before. But we’re big readers, so we went to the bookstore and chose books for everyone, instead. When we opened gifts, my sister-in-law was furious at me (but not at my husband) for buying off-list. She even asked me to take back the books when we left! I did. But how do we move forward? My husband offered to talk to her. She was lovely to me before.


Look on the bright side, Suzy: At least you were spared a good old-fashioned book burning! Your husband was supportive to offer to speak to his sister. But it’s unlikely that this will be the last time anyone has to talk to her about this. Let’s establish your agency now.

Let’s also note that your sister-in-law seems to have some retrograde ideas about division of labor in a marriage: She sent a gift list to her brother only after he had a wife to execute it, and she was angry with you alone for going off script. If she hews to this notion of “women’s work,” the holidays must be exhausting with three young kids.

Of course, her list and her fury were ridiculous and rude. Still, I’d take the long view and ignore them (temporarily). Calling her out now, while she’s agitated, may just cause her to dig in her heels. Give her a chance to come to her senses on her own. We all mess up (and freak out) occasionally.

If she doesn’t, decide with your husband — who is still her brother, after all — whether to cringe and submit to future gifting demands, the path of lesser resistance, or say to her: “Your brother and I shop for gifts together. We love doing it! But we can skip the gift exchange, if you prefer. We’d rather not tick off items from your shopping list.” Then let her choose.


CreditChristoph Niemann

Although we aren’t in frequent contact, I still feel close to my small circle of girlfriends from college (except for one who’s been cold to me). I am in turmoil now. My partner is going to jail for six months. It’s been painful to keep this secret from my friends, but I don’t want the one I’ve fallen out with to find out. Our 10th reunion is approaching, so I’m concerned about making the elephant in the room even larger. Is it fair to ask friends to keep secrets from other friends?


Hang on! Your partner is going to jail, and you’re concerned about which of your pals from 10 years ago finds out? Trust me: They all will. Some dirt is irresistible and spreads like dandelion fluff. Focus on friends who make you feel safe and supported, not on secrecy. (Count yourself lucky if you find two or three.) And take good care of yourself. This is a crisis, not a baby shower guest list.

My father is a big shot in finance. When I saw him recently, he asked about a friend and former roommate. I mentioned where he works. My father grimaced and said that my friend’s company will soon be sold. According to my dad, this will be terrible for my friend. Should I tell him to find a new job?


Paging the Schlegel sisters from E.M. Forster’s novel “Howards End” (or its terrific TV adaptation that aired this year)! In similar circumstances, the heroines insisted that their friend quit his job, which he did to his detriment, while the “doomed” firm sailed along just fine. So much for big shots and predicting the future.

Assuming your father was not sharing confidential information (and let’s give a bigwig credit for knowing not to), tell your pal about the rumored sale, but play down the dire warning. Let him investigate his prospects and decide on his own whether it’s time to move on.

I am a young grandmother (56). Walking home with my 7-year-old granddaughter from seeing “Mary Poppins Returns,” we bumped into a friend who asked what we’d seen. When I told her, she said, “I heard it’s a pile of dog [expletive].” I was shocked! How do I re-educate my friends about swearing in front of kids?


You don’t (probably). As a boy, when my mother barked at her naughty pals (“Language!”), I imagined something sophisticated and cool had transpired. Go to work on your granddaughter, instead. Tell her how dim and unimaginative vulgar language is.

That may work for a few years, until she’s swearing like a sailor (and most of the rest of us). For the record, your friend was wrong about “Mary Poppins Returns.” It’s not terrible, just leaden — and underscores how the original floats above that fine line between treacle and genuine feeling.

For help with your awkward situation, send a question to or to Philip Galanes on Facebook or @SocialQPhilip on Twitter.