Dear Margo: Sick of Talking Shop at Parties

My work has ties with the pharmaceutical industry and everyone I meet feels the need to tell me about all of the drugs they are on. Margo Howard’s advice

Sick of Talking Shop at Parties

Dear Margo: I’m experiencing a problem I assume other medical professionals experience. I’m a graduate student in a medicinal chemistry and drug design program, but I’m considering telling people I’ve just met that I clean houses for a living. Don’t get me wrong, I love and am proud of what I do. The problem arises when I explain that my work has ties to the pharmaceutical industry.

Upon hearing this, many middle-aged and older people begin telling me about the drugs they take. Often, the person inadvertently tells me a lot more about their medical history than they intended, because I know why each of their drugs is prescribed. A few times, people have even confided in me that they take a lower dose than their doctor told them to, or they don’t always pick up drugs their doctor calls in.

How do I get myself out of these conversations so that I can enjoy a party? And how do I explain that these are conversations they should be having with their doctor (about not taking the correct dosage, or not taking drugs prescribed to them), and not with a new acquaintance at a party? — Cornered

Dear Corn: The way to get yourself out of these conversations is not to get into them. Because you are referring to people you’ve just met, I offer you The Airplane Trick.

When traveling by air (mostly in the U.S., because “What do you do?” is an American question), some people in interesting professions have taken to saying their field is “geotechnical engineering” or some such highfalutin endeavor unintelligible to most people. Should an outlier ask, “What’s that?” simply say the explanation would take longer than the flight. — Margo, abstrusely

When Cost Doesn’t Matter

Dear Margo: I am a couponer who has been lucky to stockpile expensive products. My question concerns my coupons and etiquette. Is it acceptable to use items from my stockpile as gifts? For example, a friend of the family is having a baby. They are struggling financially, and the husband was laid off soon after the wife found out she was pregnant. In lieu of a gift I asked the woman to come over and “shop” at my house. I wanted to help cut their expenses so the money they do have can be used for other things. Since I have every thing from cleaning supplies to personal hygiene items to baby wipes, I thought it more prudent to help with everyday items, rather than buy, say, baby clothes.

Do you think this is appropriate? I do not want to come off as cheap. The woman will be taking home more than $250 in products that are the best name-brand items. Because of the coupons, though, I only paid about $20 for it all. I also make gift baskets of full size and sample-sized matching items from the stockpile. What do you think of this? — Coupon Crazy in Kansas City

Dear Coup: I think it sounds wonderful. It doesn’t matter what the items cost the person giving the gift. What’s important is what your friends get. Think of your cost as “wholesale,” and the recipients not having to pay retail — or pay anything, actually — makes it a gift. You sound as though you are very thoughtful about who should get what, and I suspect your young pregnant friend will have a great time shopping for free. And the gift baskets sound very festive. You sound like a master couponer, so I would just keep on doing what you’re doing. — Margo, generously

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Dear Margo is written by Margo Howard, Ann Landers’ daughter. All letters must be sent via the online form at Due to a high volume of e-mail, not all letters will be answered.


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45 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Katharine Gray says:

    LW#1:  Margo’s advice is good but if you feel uncomfortable making up a story, simply say you are a graduate student in chemistry.  This is true but leaves no clue that you know anything about pharmaceuticals and to most people will be a rather *boring* subject because they do not know much about it.  Then follow up with a question about their work or hobbies and get them off on another converstational track altogether.  I realize people can be a pain in the neck about asking for medical and legal and other professional advice or offering their own take on what you do for a living but try to realize that most people are at a loss what to talk to a stranger about and not that inventive with small talk. 

    LW#2:  Absolutely you are not being *cheap* by using your stockpile of products as gifts to people who need the products you have.   I think its a wonderful idea and I think the woman you mentioned will be thrilled to pick out her gifts from your pantry.   To make you feel better, consider the time, energy and brainwork you put in to amass your stockpile by using coupons.  Couponing at your level is darn near a full time job in itself based on what I see on those extreme couponing shows.  Your time is worth something too. 


    • avatar Lila says:

      Katherine, I think your answer to LW1 was the best. “Talking shop” happens to everyone, and your answer is probably the easiest way to deflect the questions. Besides, people like talking about themselves, so quickly turning the conversation to them before they hear the word “pharmaceuticals” is key. Once that happens… all the talk about themselves, will be about their pharmaceuticals!

  2. avatar Rebecca Sava says:

    As a side note, there’s a veterans of foreign wars (VFW) near my house; if you have a ‘stockpile’, consider donating some to them or other assistance places. You should be able to use the price prior to the coupon (correct me if I’m wrong) as a tax write-off.

    • avatar Lisa Cornell says:

      It’s an excellent idea to donate the goods to vets or women’s shelters or the like. However, the IRS only permits a write off on what was paid not the original cost of the goods. Still, many of these coupon queens amass a stockpile and they could never use 60 jars of mustard in this lifetime, so donating makes sense. The IRS gets skeptical of people deducting groceries and it would probably trigger an audit. They would ask for original receipts to allow the deduction and that is why you can’t claim more than you paid for them.

    • avatar stateoflove_N_Trust says:

      I agree with Lisa. 

    • avatar Messy ONE says:

      Or she could do it just because it’s a nice thing to do. Charitable donations are a wonderful thing and there’s nothing like a tax break to take the edge off of April, but I would never take that tax break for anything other than cash.

      I just donated several bags of clothes and a LOT of books (how did they even fit in my house?) to charity and I would never even consider itemizing all of that for taxes. Giving stuff away is committing a niceness for the sake of it. I don’t need to be rewarded financially for cleaning my house.

      • avatar David Bolton says:

        I hear ya, Messy. And the tax laws for donations are so arcane and screwy that it’s not worth the time or effort to even figure it out.

        And I tried selling stuff one time on Craigslist. One word: freaks.

  3. avatar Island_Doc_to_KS_Doc says:

    LW 1: I am 30’s professional with 7 college degrees, one of them being an M.D.. While I am very proud of my job, it has literally taken my entire life [I am married to another physician]. I eat, breathe, and ,often, sleep my career. When I go to a party where people know I am educated, I simply tell them I am a master of Byzantine Numismatics. Then I proceed to say–enough about me, tell me about that wonderful pair of shoes/spouse/dog I hear you have. They usually get the message and I get 15 minutes of medical free conversation.

    • avatar Kriss says:

      “I simply tell them I am a master of Byzantine Numismatics.”—LOL.  and then there are the parties I go to that are filled w/ people who have geeky interests & obscure professions who would be able to pummel you with questions you were trying to avoid.  (oddly enough most of them started out w/ coin collecting.)

      • avatar Island_Doc_to_KS_Doc says:

        Yeah, I’m waiting for someone to get into a very interesting conversation about said coins to which I will reply,”I’m not actually a master, I just have a few old coins I swiped from a museum. I am really a novice about to take vows.” The entire point is to have a very interesting conversation, true or not. 😀

  4. avatar Jennifer juniper says:

    I disagree about couponer. What she is doing IS nice, but the aspect of ‘come rummage through my pantry’ really does take the gift aspect out of things somehow. She says she makes gift baskets … so why doesn’t she just make a fabulous one for her friend?

    • avatar Messy ONE says:

      A gift basket is a classier way to go about this. Most people would be a little weirded out at the idea of rooting through another person’s basement for basic supplies.

      • avatar A R says:

        Agreed. Besides, the giver may wish to share more than the taker feels comfortable taking. I know that if I were offered some items, I’d feel weird about taking all that I wanted. I’d rather someone hand me what they wish me to have!

        • avatar Lym BO says:

          Agree with all of you. A gift basket is totally the way to go/give. One of my baby shower gifts was a ton of lotions, soaps, wipes, etc in s acute laundry basket with a magazine. Actually, there was a game made out of the items, which I got to keep… It was a story using all the items – each one was pulled out as the story was read: a bad example but it went something like: “People” ((magazine)) often like to have Good “n Plenty of Cheer when they see the Tide in a Jif, but that’s is their Biz.”

          Why is no one commenting the the LW’s obvious OCD/hoarding?

          • avatar Mandy says:

            Agreed. And if she wants to give her friend a TON of stuff? Get a trashcan and fill it up. I’ve seen it at bridal showers where the couple will be moving into a home together for the first time so they have all the stuff they need. I don’t see why it wouldn’t work here. 🙂

            And c’mon, the friend can use the trashcan for all those dirty diapers!

  5. avatar Cindy Marek says:

    L #1: Lol!! Love your answer, Margo. Right on. 😉
    L #2: I think it’s an excellent idea and hope your friends/acquaintances are appreciative. You’re resourceful, thoughtful, etc. Kudos to you! 🙂

  6. avatar JCF4612 says:

    LW1: My own very modest livelihood comes with fabulous perks that generate a nearly guaranteed response from people I meet — if I tell them. So I don’t.  The inevitable responses range from the fairly benigh “lucky you” to the crass “you mean you get to travel for free?” Stop spurring your own misery, and create a generic response that avoids any tie to Big Pharma.

    LW2: Mixed emotions here. Am not sure what you mean by “in lieu of a gift.” What’s wrong with wrapping up one of the items as a gift (which it is) … and including a handcrafted card/gift certificate for the additional stash, which YOU will deliver at a convenient time. (Unless you live around the corner, keep in mind you are adding to her automotive expenses for gasoline by asking her to come fetch.)  

    Asking the pregnant friend under financial duress to “come shop” at your house might seem a bit condescending and awkward unless it’s linked with an invitation to come have lunch or tea, and then surprising her with the additional cache of goodies. 

    Couponing is a terrific way to stretch dollars, so maybe you can share your skills with her, along with the bounty.     

    • avatar LandofLove says:

      Good ideas for LW2!

      • avatar A R says:

        When I tell what I do, I get a reaction from many strangers that is pseudo-political in nature. I don’t know if they mean to be offensive, but they often are. I have a civil reply, and a blunt reply prepared. Which one the person gets depends on how far they take their commentary. 🙂

  7. avatar Momof5 says:

    I think sharing your skills is a fabulous idea! It takes real dedication to do extreme couponing and build the kind of reserves that you are willing to gift to your friend. Be ready for her to be very reserved in what she is willing to take from you. Anybody with any intelligence will be reluctant to take what you have obviously worked hard to stockpile. I would be thrilled with the gift but would be even more thrilled if you showed me what you have learned to be able to do it for myself. Teach her what you have learned! Save her from having to learn the hard way. Sit down and make a list of do’s and don’ts, where to get the best coupons, the most cooperative stores and all of the other things that go into being successful at extreme couponing. If her husband is still out of work, teach him too!

  8. avatar Briana Baran says:

    I, for better or worse, know what both “Byzantine” and “Numismatics” mean. Sadly, Margo’s suggestion of “geotechnical engineering” wouldn’t work either, if I were the prying sort, nor would “geophysicist”, as my husband is an IT administrator for a petrochemical exploration company and I have long-time friends who are in various of the geological fields. However, I don’t ask people at social events what they do, or about their level of education. Perhaps that has a lot to do with my lack of interest in “parties”, but I do get roped into these sorts of things occasionally. At the last one, the wife of his supervisor was asking a lot of questions, including my plans once my youngest was off to high school next year, and I told her (the truth) that I was returning to college to study chemistry, criminal sciences and forensic sciences. She immediately got a glazed look, and wandered off. Success…as I’d gotten rather tired of her clear contempt for the “peons”.

    The bane of my existence is people insisting upon asking about my religious affiliations. In some instances, it is enough to say, “I really feel that this is a personal matter”…in others, no matter how gentle one is, this is construed as rude for some obscure reason…even though it is, in my opinion, the truth. The question, “What church do you attend?”, when met with, “I don’t”, and a smile that says, “End of discussion” always provokes some sort of unwanted response. I do so ***really*** wish people wouldn’t press the issue. I have three modes of social discourse…that which I use with people I very much like or have begun to take a liking to, that which I use with people to whom I am indifferent, but to whom I must be polite for some reason…and the rest. I do not like to find myself engaged with the latter category…nor will anyone who finds themselves there. But it is a given that there are certain people who feel it not only their duty, but god-given right to not only proselytize, but convert in the process, and drag into the mix their politics and personal ideologies and force them down one’s throat.

    Unless one refuses to gag, or swallow.

    • avatar Lila says:

      Oh, but Briana, they are only trying to save your immortal soul!! In, of course, the one and only right way to do it! I’m sure it is only out of concern… oh, wait. I’m actually getting a little snarky, but sadly I have just hit my religious imbibement limit for a while. An old friend is very, very Catholic. We got together out of town for a recent birthday celebration with other old friends, most of whom are Catholic, but none quite as… um… thoroughly so, as “Jane.” Well, we ended up dragged to Mass the next morning. A 90-minute Mass! That’s 90 minutes I’ll never get back, and worse – any time I am in church, something is always said that makes me want to pop out of the pew and scream, “Noooo!” This time it was the pastor calling upon his flock to talk to their representatives about why contraception should not be covered in health plans. I managed to bite down on the wooden spoon, so to speak, to stifle my screams. But this kind of thing is sheer torture. Willpower depleted, I decimated the chocolate supply in the pantry upon arriving back home, and unloaded to my hubby while he just laughed and laughed. Ugh.

      I love my friend, but I don’t love her religion. Wish others could do the same…

    • avatar Sadie BB says:

      ‘ I belong to the Church of Saint Satan and Pandemons! And you?’

      10 bonus points if you know where that’s from

    • avatar April says:

      I would have so much fun if somebody pressed me for my religious affiliation. I think I’d start, “Well, I was Catholic until I found out those little wafers aren’t really made from people. Talk about a rip off…”

      The trick is to say it with a straight face.

  9. avatar A R says:

    I too am a couponer. (Thanks folks by the way for not automatically associating the LW with the really far-out folks that do the TV shows. Most couponers don’t have *insane* amounts of stuff, just a small stash for their family’s own use for 6 to 8 weeks or so.)
    Half the fun of couponing is sharing with others; it’s not much fun to stockpile for your own self endlessly. I buy for my parents, co-workers, families in need, etc.

    I am with those who suggest the gift basket. Buy a large, multi-use container (laundry basket, storage basket, etc.) and fill it with items, poking tissue paper squares between the items for a festive look. It will seem more gift-like and less raid-my-pantry-like. 🙂

    • avatar Lila says:

      AR, yes, that would be more classy. I’m with those who think the friend would feel a bit awkward literally coming over and taking; I know I would feel very awkward, anyway. And the reusable basket would be great, too. Or maybe a couple of reusable fabric shopping totes.

  10. avatar normadesmond says:

    don’t dogs sniff each other’s toches when they first meet?

  11. avatar Violet says:

    I disagree with the answer to letter 1. You shouldn’t have to lie about what you do. In the long run it doesn’t solve the problem. I’m a lawyer and people think I have nothing better to do than send free letters, which take a lot of work, to everyone with whom they have any petty dispute, or do a “quick” free review of a 60-page contract or spend 20 hours finding out the answer to some obscure legal question they assume I can answer off the top of my head.

    I have two approaches. One is to politely say I’m not working right now, or to ask what they do and whatever it is ask for a free product or service from them on the spot so they get it.

    • avatar JCF4612 says:

      Love it! … “I’ll write your demand letter as soon you deliver $750 in baked goods or liquor for my next brunch.”    

  12. avatar R Scott says:

    LW1 – “I’m experiencing a problem I assume other medical professionals experience.” Along with hair stylists, and vets, and teachers, and chefs, and dog groomers, and computer programmers and IT managers who work for the local phone company (guilty) and nurses and, plumbers and, interior designers and, and and …… You just need to learn how to handle conversations at parties.

    LW2 – Although I think the idea is sweet and very generous and certainly nothing amiss with the coupon aspect I would not be comfortable going through someone’s pantry to pick out my gift. It would just be odd. Pick something. Wrap it and present it.

    “I didn’t buy you a gift but thought instead you could just go through my pantry and pick out something nice”…. huh, no.

  13. avatar HelliePie says:

    LW 1, I confess, on reading your letter at first I thought, “Why is this young person going to so many parties with old, sick people?” (I have lots of much-younger as well as much-older friends, but the two groups tend to self-segregate for celebrations.) Your letter also made me wonder how people who have jobs that require secrecy handle this question. Maybe one of them will chime in.

    But I think your best bet is really to practice some interesting conversation-starters of your own, so you can have a bit more control over the conversation.

    • avatar Lila says:

      HelliePie, I had a long run of jobs involving classified. It’s similar to what LW1 is describing in the sense that acquaintances knew that I was working on this or that issue, or that I was stationed in a particular place, and sometimes would ask questions based on what they were seeing in the news. The most frustrating thing for me was hearing someone hold forth on the obvious, simple solution to an issue, when they were missing a rather important fact or two that I could not reveal (it is never really obvious or simple). When it came to that, I would just say, “I really can’t talk about this anymore.” Not even to give my opinion on their thoughts.

      And that’s where it’s different from what LW1 describes. Once it got to that point, generally folks knew better than to press. If they continued to press, I would just say “excuse me,” and walk away.

  14. avatar Briana Baran says:

    I know that “pandemos” refers to both Aphrodite and Eros, and that it is appended to both of their names to indicate that they are deities of “all of the people”…or earthly, not celestial beings.

    I also know that Pandemos is a website dedicated to Dominatrix Mistresses, leather and BDSM fetish, and has live web-cam streaming (a warning to the curious: Be careful what you wish for…not everyone should own a web-cam), and the BDSM dominant female lifestyle.

    A “Pan demon” is a “daimon” of Pan…but I haven’t a clue about the quote, though it sounds like something from a metal group’s lyrics (given the plethora of Satan/Old Religion/pagan/I-don’t-know-what-I-m-doing-but-I’m-sure-my-mommy-will-hate-it mash-up bands of late). I thought it might be Ozzie…but it sounds a bit too…clever for him (I still drag out Black Sabbath once in a while, because I can).

    “Demon” means “wise one” in Greek. Lucifer means “bearer of light”. Sometimes…

    • avatar Sadie BB says:

      From the title of a speculative fiction short story by the should-have-been-more-famous Avram Davidson, one of my very favorite authors.

  15. avatar Briana Baran says:

    I’ve tried “You mean the wine really ***isn’t*** blood?” with a mournful voice and dejected expression. “I’m not a big fan of human sacrifice and cannibalism” also does the trick. I’ve had decades to perfect these…I’m really quite expert (for the sarcasm inhibited: I’m not bragging. Shut up).

  16. avatar sdpooh says:

    When I have coupons I am not going to use and are near expiration, I place them on the grocery store shelf on the item.  That way, the next person who comes along to buy it will have the coupon.  One day a mom saw me and bought the cereal immediately.  She thanked me and said she might do the same in the future with her coupons.     

  17. avatar animelily says:

    I feel for you L2! As an RN I’ve gotten all sorts of people tell me about their medical problems. Some have even shown me whatever strange wounds/warts/did-not-want-to-see-that-body-part-thank-you-very-much. I usually give them a general answer and a “go get that checked out with your doctor.”

    Meanwhile my husband is an auditor and CPA. Every friend and acquaintance crawls out of the woodwork to give him a call around tax season even though he doesn’t do taxes. I’m sure my friend who just passed the bar will get people coming up to him for legal advice soon too. You’re always on the job even when you’re not!

  18. avatar Briana Baran says:

    @Lila: I have the perfect out when invited to religious services…I have full-blown anxiety attacks (I am not joking: cold sweat, shakes, panic, dizziness, nausea, crying, inability to breathe and fainting) when attending Christian religious services. I’ve tried numerous times when there was a “reason” (my father’s funeral was the last such effort) and it was a no go. I have a phobia.

    It’s all too real.And since I have no legal obligation to attend (at least for now…but the GOP is certainly making an all-out effort), nor compunction about telling people the truth…I don’t get many invitations.

    • avatar Lila says:

      Briana, I can’t say I envy you your “get out of church free” ticket. A real panic attack like that sure wouldn’t be fun, and I am surprised that SOME folks haven’t tried to exorcise you… there are still a lot of ignorant ones out there… which would, of course, only make things worse.

      As much as I really hate going to church, it doesn’t happen often. I was stuck because I wasn’t at my own house and didn’t have my own car. Next time… I will make up some story to justify bringing my car and skating out Sunday morning (that’s my version of being prepared… ha!).

  19. avatar Briana Baran says:

    Is it in his own anthology, or another? Rusty knows who he is…but if by “speculative” you mean more “science” or “fantasy”…and less “horror” or, mmm, sort of not easily classified speculative general weirdness, I wouldn’t know him at all.

    I tend to avoid fantasy and science fiction like the bubonic plague. Or diptheria. I have issues with misandrist heroines, and misogynist heroes, and people who meet and fall in love and everyone gets their person in the end, 12 book series and magic always saves the day. I love the old “Dangerous Visions” anthologies, and I rather liked the Earthsea Trilogy (but not the dreadful fourth book), and the Thomas Covenant Books (but loathed Linden Avery and wished something would eat her), and have several first edition Arkham House books.

    I love horror, but not V. C. Andrews (ugh) or paranormal romance (blargh, I um ded). M. R. James, Peter Straub’s earlier work, Clive Barker, some Stephen King, Poppy Z. Brite. O, well.

    In my version of “Sleeping Beauty”, someone would suffer far more terribly for awakening the princess than Ann Rice could ever have dreamed of in her “Beauty” books. But then, I grew up on the unadulterated Grimm’s.

  20. avatar Nikki Sunset says:

    If the question is “What do you do?” why are you answering with how you earn a living? That is a different question. Stop giving more information than they need. Tell them what you do- you like to hike, fish, dance, you are a gourmet cook, you are in a bowling league.

    Just because someone asks a question does not mean you have to answer it. I have had many different professions but never answer the “What do you do?” question with that info. I think who I am is way more interesting than what I do for a living.