Since You Asked…

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Dear Caroline,

I have been seeing my girlfriend for six months. One of the long-running jokes in her family has to do with how forgetful her Uncle Hugo is. He’s a math professor and very intelligent. He always laughs along with the jokes.

Last Sunday at dinner, Uncle Hugo was so busy talking, he started to put sugar on his meat instead of salt. My girlfriend’s father made a joke. I started to join in with a joke, and my girlfriend kicked me under the table so hard I still have a bruise. I stopped talking, but she’s still a little bit mad at me. What did I do that was so wrong?

…Just Joe

Dear Joe,

I’m sorry your shin is bruised, but I’m glad you didn’t finish your joke. It’s an unspoken rule that only those who belong to a family, a country, a culture, a religion, etc. can poke good-natured fun at their own. They have that latitude because it’s understood that they’re also poised to defend their own — even with their lives, if necessary. The same joke from an outsider comes across as an insult. In this case, your girlfriend’s Uncle Hugo is also your elder, and a professor, which would have made it an even bigger faux pas.

Of course, I don’t advocate under-the-table kicking. To avoid such violence, I suggest all couples agree on a secret emergency code word or gesture that means “Stop talking. I’ll explain why later.” That ounce of prevention is a simple way to save face, feelings and shins.

Yours truly,


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