jonathan harris is the advice mensch

Bad manners, bad body odor — this situation stinks!

My wife adores her brother and in her eyes he can do no wrong. I, on the other hand, think the guy is a jerk and do not like spending time with him. Mostly, I can grit my teeth and bear it (with the help of a few cocktails) at family gatherings. However, there are times I cannot. My brother-in-law, “Jim,” acts very rudely to waitstaff in restaurants. He loudly berates them if he perceives service is slow and often complains about his food and sends it back to the kitchen. I find this behavior mortifying. It makes his dinner companions uncomfortable, holds up meals and is downright mean. Furthermore, I do not want my school-age children exposed to this kind of disrespectful behavior. When I mention this issue to my wife, she tosses it off with phrases like, “He’s always been like this,” “Nobody’s perfect” and “He’s family.” How can I make her understand his behavior is unacceptable? — Guy

Dear Guy: There is a concept in Judaism known as derech eretz, which translates literally as “the way of the land” but refers to a code of behavior necessary for people to coexist peacefully. It would have us show respect to others and behave politely in public. In order for society to function and for people to get along, we’re expected to follow basic rules of decorum. Life is hard enough without having to suffer rudeness.

Your brother-in-law is a boor and not doing his part to live by derech eretz. Furthermore, you are correct in wanting to prevent his example from influencing your children. Of course, as your wife asserts, if somewhat misguidedly, Jim is family. So what to do?

Mensch recommends you let your wife know in more forceful terms how uncomfortable Jim’s behavior makes you feel and the effect you fear it could have on the kids. Your wife should be made to understand that what she sees as quirky behavior is in fact malicious.

Since Jim’s behavior in public seems particularly odious, perhaps you can draw the line and let your wife know you will tolerate him at family gatherings but that restaurants are to be avoided. Either she will understand and work with you, or you will have to artfully strike a balance between her affection for her brother and your sanity. Regardless of the outcome, you are beholden to demonstrate and pass on the tenets of derech eretz to your children and to let them know that Uncle Jim’s example is not one to be admired nor emulated.


A group of three co-workers and myself have been carpooling to work for two years, alternating driving duties and saving on gas and fatigue. Recently, one of our members got a job elsewhere and so another (Bob) invited his boss to ride with us. The problem is that this new rider has absolutely atrocious body odor. He smells like he towels off with dirty gym socks and it’s made our ride, sometimes over an hour each way, unbearable. We all agree the situation stinks (so to speak) but, understandably, Bob does not feel he can disinvite his boss without risking professional setback. Is there a solution? — Ken

Dear Ken: This dilemma calls for an artful solution (as well as a soapy one). Bob should absolutely not be put in the position of disinviting his boss. There are tips online for informing a co-worker he is odiferous, and one of you who is not Bob might consider taking that tack (tactfully). Alternately, maybe the two of you who are not Bob could engage in long, heated conversations about awkward topics such as erectile dysfunction or menopause. If that fails, consider driving through a car wash with the windows open.

Jonathan Harris
Jonathan Harris

Jonathan Harris is a synagogue administrator and writer-editor living in San Francisco with his wife, three daughters and an ungrateful cat. He can be reached at advicemensch@gmail.com.