Mind Your Manners

By Jean Hennelly Keith

Her stage background shows. With regal posture and a sleek, studied look all her own, Robin Abrahams (GRS’02) is a poised presence in any setting. But in conversation, the way she works her expressive eyebrows—“Vulcan,” she calls them—makes clear that despite her sophistication, she sees life’s funny side.

In describing her unlikely career path from theater gigs in Kansas City to writing a popular manners column in Boston and teaching psychology at Harvard, she quips, “I’m not a one-job woman.”

Abrahams earned a BA in theater at the University of Kansas, in her home state, then worked in the midwest for the next six years as a theater publicist, stand-up comedian, and volunteer at a battered women’s shelter. Figuring out that the common thread of her interests was human behavior—what makes people tick—she packed up and headed to Beantown to earn a doctorate in research psychology at Boston University. Despite a Presidential Scholarship at GRS, she needed a job to manage Boston’s steep living costs, so she juggled posts as a communications manager at Harvard and a psych adjunct at BU and other local colleges, while moonlighting as a writing teacher.

Today she’s still juggling, as a part-time research associate in organizational behavior at the Harvard Business School, a trustee and volunteer at the Underground Railway Theater in Cambridge, and an acclaimed author and speaker.

She is most well-known, though, as “Miss Conduct,” The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine columnist who advises inquiring readers on how to manage the complexities of 21st-century social situations: how to fend off creepy come-ons; what to say to a sneezing atheist; how to host a dinner party for fruitarian, Kosher-keeping, allergic, and carnivorous guests. She’s pleased to note that her readership spans a wide age range from teens to seniors—and even includes a fourth-grader.

Her new book, Miss Conduct’s Mind Over Manners: Master the Slippery Rules of Modern Ethics and Etiquette (Henry Holt/Times Books), published in May, delves into the evolution of behavior, including the tribal “fear of differences” that underlies our customs and quirks. Although Abrahams stresses that she has no disagreement with Emily and Peggy Post or other etiquette experts, she is more interested in the rationale behind the rules of conduct than strict adherence to them, preferring to offer “options and interpretations.” In Mind Over Manners, she tackles life’s essential topics: food, health, money, romance, and religion. The fond owner of mixed-breed terrier Milo, who twirls for company, Abrahams also devotes a chapter to human and pet relationships.

She is married to Marc Abrahams, founder of the Ig Nobel prizes—“for achievements that first make people laugh, then make them think”—and also a comedian. As a convert to Judaism who passionately embraces her adopted religion, Robin gives talks she calls “Jew by Choice, Yenta by Birth.”

Although she acknowledges that “new technology has complicated communications immensely,” Abrahams is an unabashed fan and user of social media. Her readers can chat with her on Twitter, link to some of her recent guest author appearances on the Today Show and Fox News, and hear her bimonthly WCRN Radio segments on her blog and website—and, as a bonus, see a video of mannerly Milo.

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