Carolyn Hax: Sister-in-law denigrates most of the family

DEAR CAROLYN: At family gatherings, my brother’s wife puts my brother down, says hurtful things to her son’s girlfriend, and denigrates others. My mother has started to speak up when my brother’s wife gets negative about my brother, which has brought comments from my brother’s wife about how difficult my mother is and how she should go to a nursing home.

My sister and I are trying to figure out how to not enable these situations and also how to not engage in sister-in-law’s behavior. We don’t feel avoiding family gatherings is an option. Should we set boundaries? Ignore her?

– Two Sisters

DEAR SISTERS: No one has your mother’s back?

When she draws your sister-in-law’s wrath, the answer isn’t to leave your mother hanging out there; that’s some thanks for her courage. You need to denounce the negativity, openly, and stop making it easy for your sister-in-law to dismiss your mother, or brother.

When witnesses cower or shrug, or when no one supports brave ones who step in, the bully hears: “Carry on.”

DEAR CAROLYN: I’ve been a healthy vegetarian (mostly vegan) for 20 years. I have found dinner parties and other gatherings revolving around food stressful. People ask if I’m vegetarian when they notice what I’m eating, and always at least one person will ask, “How do you know you’re getting enough protein (or calcium/iron/B12/omega-3s/nutrition)?”

I know people are curious, but it makes me uncomfortable to be put on the spot. I would never question someone, especially in a group, as to whether they’re getting enough vegetables.

I have started just saying, “I don’t want to talk about it,” which is true but unfriendly. And I want to be friendly.

– A.

DEAR A.: How is it possible that a vegetarian is still an exotic species?

“You’re worried about my health. How kind of you.” No further elaboration. Of course they’re not really worried about your protein (etc.) intake; they’re just somewhere on the nosiness spectrum between mildly curious and self-justifying, which you well know. However, (non-)answering as if they have the most generous motives is dinner-party perfect.

Another such approach is to treat questions as a technical interest in becoming a vegetarian: “You’re thinking of trying it? I’m happy to talk to you about it after dinner.”

No harm in deflecting the nosies while giving the sincere a chance.

If anyone presses the nutrition point: “I’d rather not get into it, thanks.”