Dear Carolyn: Tiny problem here. Today is my last day at my current office. A co-worker, who I’ve met a handful of times in 10-minute increments, handed me a goodbye letter. I took it and said thank you, etc. When I opened it, I found a very heartfelt letter about her worry for the condition of my soul. The central point was that God does not care about good works, but only the acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice.
I’m not particularly religious anymore (I was raised Catholic), but I can appreciate the spirit with which the letter was intended — she genuinely believes she is doing the good/right/kind thing in giving it to me. I don’t feel right repaying her kindness with silence (that feels rude), but I know if I go to her office and say, “Thank you for thinking of me,” that will invite follow-up questions.
I feel at peace with my spirituality, but I know that my answers are not the same as hers. I know most people would say to ignore it, but I can’t stand to be rude. I considered emailing her, but ignoring a reply from her would feel even more awkward. My paralytic fear of rudeness has been a stumbling block in the past and I’ve tried to have more of a spine when needed. (I think the fact that I’m writing in with such a small issue does a good job of showcasing the depth of this greater problem — ha.)
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Ignoring the letter is not rude. In accepting it, you completed the transaction. She did her “good/right/kind thing,” if muscling in on the condition of your faith and the current standing of your soul can ever be called that, a debate I’m not going to host here. You, upon accepting the letter, thanked her. Each of you now carries on with life accordingly.
Under different circumstances, I might say that responding via snail mail is an effective way to communicate at arm’s length, and therefore at low risk of starting a conversation you don’t want to have. You can also, of course, simply not answer any follow-up questions: “My faith is a private matter,” done. However, given that you have in fact already thanked her, and that you’re fighting a known compulsion to please others in spite of yourself, I think any attempt to close this circle will undermine your effort to have more of a spine.
What will also help you with that effort, by the way, is to stop using such a broad a definition of rudeness: To believe you’re having so significant an impact on someone by not responding (in this case) is to have an inflated sense of your impact on others’ lives. Not returning a call to a friend or family member, OK, that will hurt — but not responding to the proselytizing (or guilt-tripping, depending on your vantage point) of a soon-to-be-former colleague you barely know?
The absence of a response from you will likely be a speck in an outer orbit of her life, if that. An assumption, yes, but a pretty safe one to make.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at washingtonpost.com.