Etiquette Guide

Answers to your health-related etiquette questions, by manners expert Charles Purdy

Q: I was diagnosed with Crohn’s a year ago and just started a relationship. This is my first relationship since my diagnosis, and I haven’t told her about my condition. Because our relationship is getting serious, I think I should tell her—but I’m on the fence. It’s definitely not a sexy condition. Any advice on this would be great. — Jeffrey, Ventura, CA

A: Your question presents an opportunity to talk about two of the principles that ought to guide our interpersonal relationships—but these principles are slightly contradictory, so it’s a good thing we all have our common sense to rely on when it’s time to make decisions.

The first principle is this: Your health is your business, and you may therefore choose not to discuss it in just about any social or personal situation. In the area of romance, we certainly needn’t unpack our various sorrows and health concerns in those first rapturous dates and lovers’ rendezvous. (Indeed, in the interest of not being a bore, these topics are often good to avoid.)

The second principle is this: When your health  affects someone else’s life, it becomes that person’s business, too. Now, let’s pause a moment and think about what “affect” means. Your Crohn’s could, arguably, have very little effect on the life of a woman you were dating—even someone whom you were dating seriously. But if, for you, “serious” means that you’re talking about long-term plans and building a life together, that’s a different story—in that case, her life will likely be affected by your condition. At the very least, she’ll need to know about your dietary requirements and limitations, so a romantic dinner doesn’t become a medical emergency.

So Crohn’s isn’t “sexy.” Well, a lot of things that come up in our lives are not too sexy, and our loved ones take them in stride—and help us to bear them.

If I were dating a girl who wasn’t going to be able to handle my not-so-sexy qualities, I think I’d want to know sooner than later. 

Q: I’ve been managing my Crohn’s disease for over a decade now with few problems. I switched jobs six months ago. The job is extremely stressful, and it’s causing me to have flare-ups. When it’s a really bad flare-up, I ask my boss if I can work from home, and so far he’s been extremely accommodating. My fear is that if my flare-ups continue and I need to work from home more often, he will think I have an addiction or something. Should I be honest and tell him? — Steven, Boulder, CO

A: Again, with your question, we need to do a bit of thinking about another person’s “need to know,” as pertains to the details of our health. When we’re talking about a workplace situation, I’d say that your boss’ need to know begins at the same place where your health begins to affect your ability to do your job.

Rather than let him assume the worst, why not explain that you have a manageable health situation that requires some minor accommodation? You don’t need to go into too much more detail other than that. It sounds as though he is an understanding person, and perhaps some telecommuting provisions can be put into place, making things easier on you and your colleagues when you need to work from home.

Depending on your situation, you might prefer to speak to a human-resources representative at your company first—and you might consider other small changes to your work environment (for example, a cube closer to the bathroom might be helpful—as will clarifying dietary restrictions for things like workplace social events).

Lastly, I’m sure I don’t need to say this, but I will: talk to your healthcare providers about your increase in flare-ups. They may have recommendations or solutions even beyond what an etiquette expert has to say.

Q: My boyfriend was diagnosed with Crohn’s about a year ago, and he’s able to manage it with his diet, with very few flare-ups. This wasn’t an earth-shattering diagnosis for us—there are worse things that can happen to people, it doesn’t change my love for him, and I feel I’ve been very supportive. But lately he keeps providing way too much information to me when has a flare-up. I don’t want to hear those details, you know? What’s the best way to tell him this without making him more embarrassed? — Tina, San Francisco, CA 

A: With all this talk about when and how to discuss medical issues, I guess it’s important to remind people about the dangers of what is called, in our modern times, “over-sharing.” 

Crohn’s disease needs to be talked about—there lot of misconceptions out there, as well as a lot of unnecessary embarrassment and shame. Crohn’s is nothing to be ashamed of, of course! But just because something has no reason for shame doesn’t mean that its details are always appropriate for conversation. All toddlers learn this shortly after they learn to go poopy on the potty.

So how can you gently correct your boyfriend? All relationships are different, so I’m going to offer two options for you to consider—go ahead and try them on for size with your imagination.

The first is what I think the best: a straightforward conversation. Crohn’s disease may mean that your boyfriend can’t eat some things, but it doesn’t mean that he has lost any emotional maturity. Simply explain that you love him, support him, and will continue to be there for him—but that Crohn’s doesn’t change the fact that excessively clinical details of our digestive systems aren’t for everyday conversation. 

Or there’s a subtler way: get him to play the “grossed out” card, by over-sharing an intimate bodily detail with him. Use your imagination. Then, when he calls you on it, apologize, and say, “You’re right; I’m sorry. It’s a totally natural thing, but I can see why it would gross you out. I’d hate for ‘over-sharing’ to put a damper on your romantic feelings for me.”

Now the necessary conversation has begun.

Charles Purdy writes frequently about issues related to manners (among other things). He is the author of the book “Urban Etiquette.”