Dear Margo: When “Shush, Mother” Doesn’t Work

My mother-in-law is ruining my children’s musical concerts! Margo Howard’s advice

When “Shush, Mother” Doesn’t Work

Dear Margo: My mother-in-law talks constantly during her grandchildren’s concerts. Once, when my husband shushed her, she snapped, “I wasn’t talking. I was making a comment!” We have explained that hearing the performers is important to us, and that we welcome her comments between musical selections, but not during them. This only annoyed her and didn’t change her behavior. (My husband and his sibs can take her to a neurologist or psychiatrist if they want to delve into the cause. I just want her to shut up so I can hear my kids.)

Here’s the immediate problem: My son has been selected to perform a solo at his high school graduation in June. I’ve tried to convince myself that a few comments during the music would be no big deal, but honestly, it would ruin it for me. My husband feels the same. We’ve left his mother off the guest list for other performances, but I doubt we can omit her from graduation. Short of duct-taping her mouth shut or paying a driver to “get lost on the way,” how should we handle this? –Sharon

Dear Shar: You stopped me dead in my tracks with, “I wasn’t talking. I was making a comment!” The reason is that I tend to whine to my husband about nonsense, and he tells me there is no point in complaining about trivia. Then I tell him, “I am not complaining. I am narrating.” But I am wrong — and so is your m-i-l. One thing is certain, though: You cannot retrain your son’s grandmother. (See: old dogs/new tricks.) Your options are actually quite clear-cut. Leave her out of the graduation, saying seating is limited. Take her along and grin and bear it. Or … sit apart from your husband and Chatty Kathy. After all, it is his mother. –Margo, realistically

When the Office Chatterbox is Related to the Boss

Dear Margo: I work in a small office for a family-run business. In the nearly 20 years I’ve worked there, my co-workers and I have established very pleasant working relationships save for one particular new cog in the wheel who I fear will drive us all crazy before long.

She’s not necessarily an unpleasant person; she just NEVER SHUTS UP. And if she’s not talking to hear herself talk, she will make nonsense noises — clicks, clacks, smacks, you name it — to fill the void. To add insult to injury, she’s the boss’s daughter (strike one) with an “everyone’s out to get me” complex (strike two). Is there any way on God’s green earth to get this woman-child to learn silence can be golden? –My Ears are Bleeding

Dear My: Alas, the silver spoon will trump the golden silence. I can’t imagine you’ll come out on top after telling the boss’s daughter to put a sock in it. I suppose a neurobiological perspective would entertain some variant of Tourette’s. You are pretty well stuck if the compulsive noisemaker is part of the owning family. (Too bad she didn’t grow up and decide to be a doctor.)

As for her feeling that everyone’s out to get her, if she’s making those noises all over town, she may well be correct in her perception. If the nature of your work does not require continual interaction with your co-workers, you might give headphones a try. You could say you’re “trying them out” for a plane trip down the road, or that you find music helps you do your work. Good luck. –Margo, silently

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


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37 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Jane Jordan says:

    Both of these letter writers have my sympathy, as I’ve been annoyed my whole life with people like this who couldn’t close their mouths if their lives depended on it.

  2. avatar crystalclear says:

    Letter One:   Margo, I agree with your advice to invite her to the graduation but plan to sit somewhere away from her.  That would be the win/win solution.   Some people cannot stop talking.   We’ve all known people like that.   It can be extremely annoying while sucking the air out of the room.   My dentist’s wife works in his office at the front desk.   This woman will talk your ear off and will eventually get around to saying something personal about her husband.   Now when I am checking out I tell her “it is possible for you to schedule my next appointment quickly I’m running late for my next appointment!”    So far that has worked.

    Letter Two:   It is best to ignore the boss’s daughter.   Complaining about her will not have a good result.   I have worked in two offices long term and in both positions there was one person who drove us crazy.  

  3. avatar Cindy Marek says:

    Both letters prove “it’s always got to be one person.” Always.

    L #1: Well how DARE your husband try and tell her to do something?! This is America, everyone can do whatever they want WHEN they want!! :-p *Spoiled brat attitude.* Yeah, it seems you cannot NOT invite her to the graduation. I would probably sit apart from them just to make a point; but that might offend your husband. You can’t control her behaviors (sad to say). Either sit apart or endure it.

    L #2: She’s the boss’s daughter. You and happy coworkers are screwed. She’s going to be there until doomsday. Learn to ignore it (nearly impossible I know) or find work elsewhere. Probably “all the noise” is passive-aggressiveness on her part; she’s unhappy, miserable, etc.; what better way to “get even with everyone” than to be totally annoying.

    • avatar Laury says:

      Sitting apart from chatty Granny won’t solve the problem for other (non-family) members who are forced to endure her commentary. Although this is America, people don’t have the “right” to spoil graduation events for other people. Attending a graduation ceremony is a privilege, not a right. Anyone who lacks the capacity to sit quietly during a formal event should be left home. That means that Granny should not be invited nor should a teething baby.

      • avatar A R says:

        Laury, I hear you. Maybe Granny can babysit the teething baby out in the parking lot or foyer? Can I add tantrum throwing three year-olds to your list?

    • avatar Caramia says:

      A few years ago, the mother of a very important and favorite employee here was hired, and it was miserable.  But because she was the mother, she got by with murder.  She was impulsive, demanding and self-righteous.  But the worst she did was make decisions that weren’t hers to make.  She was unpopular with everyone in the building and when she finally quit to leave town as her own child was in the process of quitting, it was a breath of fresh air in the office.

  4. avatar Lisa Bonnice says:

    I’m not a fan of being passive-aggressive or less than honest, but since the MIL has proven over time that she can not be silenced, I would do this: I would bring a video camera to the event, because I would want to video my child’s performance anyway, and sit away from everyone because I wouldn’t want to “pick up any background chatter” on the video.

    • avatar Lila says:

      Lisa, that’s perfect. Could do it for every occasion.

    • avatar Mandy McNalis says:

      Bring along two cameras. One to record the performance and the other to point at grandma. Next time grandma visits, make sure to put in HER tape so that she can hear just how stupid she sounds interrupting the performance. Bonus points if she asks you to turn up the volume because she can’t hear her grandchild’s performance over her own talking.

      I don’t do passive aggressive crap and you can call me rude if you’d like, but my response on this one would have been, ‘Doris, no one wants to hear your comments, they’re here to listen to the performance. Unless you want to get up on stage and entertain the room with your commentary, do us all a favour and be quiet. Act your age, you’re not a toddler.’

      • avatar Eileen Heath says:

        I love this.
        So we can have the husband stand behind the MIL with a recorder and the Letter Writer can be elsewhere with another under the guise “She’s just going to get some close up shots” for maybe a Christmas tape.
        Then grandma gets the tape she “made” while Dad can still hear the performance later.


        Now go get that deficit while yer hot!

  5. avatar Sharonah says:

    L#1 I think she AND her husband should sit away from his mother. He doesn’t like it either, why should he suffer as well and have his son’s graduation ruined for him. Then she wouldn’t have anyone to “comment” to.

    L#2  Good luck w/ that.

  6. avatar Jrz Wrld says:

    LW2, she sounds like she does have a neurological affliction. I’ve known a few people who have exhibited similar behaviors. And yes, this could lead to paranoia, especially if she’s undiagnosed. Compassion and headphones are your best bets – otherwise, find a new job.

  7. avatar Katharine Gray says:

    LW#1:  The video camera idea is truly inspired.  Gives you a chance to get away from the MIL and also have a permanent record of your son’s performance.  I wonder if she comments while other’s children are performing.  I suspect there are a few parents who would happily throttle her if she does. 

    LW#2:  Everyone is right.  Either find another job or find a way to live with it.  Chances are the woman cannot hold a job anyplace else because of her disruptive behavior and mom and dad have found this solution for her.  Working in a *family* business can lead to great work place teamwork and cooperation and comraderie but there is always a danger of the boss’ daughter or son or niece or nephew or brother or sister creating problems with their behavior, incompetence, or just plain laziness and there is no solution that co-workers can bring about.

    An anecdote about family in the business.  I worked for a company that franchised and operated a chain of retail stores.  It was (and remains) a successful chain and its franchisees became very wealthy, particularly those who got in on the ground floor.  One franchisee was ready to *cash out* a group of his stores by selling them to my company (the franchisor).  When the question of price came up, he was quite surprised to learn that the offer was lower than he expected.  It was pointed out to him that a group of his stores were underperforming and the offering price reflected that.   That group of stores just happened to be those managed by his sons, who were running them into the ground.  When he saw that his sons were significantly impacting his OWN wallet, he promptly fired each son, gave them each a million dollars and said to them…go make your own life.  One son took this well.  The other son promptly informed his mother that his father was engaged in a long-term affair with one of his employees.  Costly divorce ensued.    

    • avatar Carib Island Girl says:

      Wow Katherine, great story! I suspect that the parents are aware of the girl’s problem and as soon as it starts impacting THEIR wallets through lower morale and employee turnover, they will correct the problem one way or another.

      LW#1: give MIL one more chance and tell her this is her LAST chance to shut up or she will no longer be invited to ANY event. OR just tell her you’ve asked repeatedly and can no longer tolerate it and she’s no longer on the guest list. If she throws a tantrum, walk away.

      I just don’t understand when people say “We can’t NOT invite so and so”, why not? I’ve used it on the rellies for years and it works. Curb the obnoxious behavior or you will see significantly less of us. Works like a charm and our life is so much more stress free. Of course, moving out of the country helped too 😀

  8. avatar D C says:

    LW#1 – Obviously MIL enjoys using the “running commentary” selection on DVD movies.   She is a selfish child who never grew up — she makes the performances “all about her” by her commentary.  It’s a bit late — this is something you should have done years ago, but I suggest having a frank talk with MIL prior to the occasion and tell her that for years you have put up with her running commentary, and it is incredibly annoying, and has caused bad feelings.  Tell her that this upcoming performance is extremely important to you and that if she cannot find it within her to control her commentary, she needs to sit away from you as well as anyone else in the venue so as not to disturb.  That will surely hurt her feelings and there will likely be a family rift, but from there, there can be healing if you try to make it work.  She needs to know that she is creating a disturbance for you and everyone around you, and that it is time to stop.  Sometimes the nicest thing a friend can do for someone is tell them they have BO and really should use deoderant, or they have bad breath and really need to see a dentist about it, or they have diarrhea of the mouth and need to put a sock in it.  If you do this at a separate time, rather than shushing her during the event, there will be time to digest the information and make a choice. 

  9. avatar Jane H says:

    I laughed out loud reading letter #1. My daughter’s nickname is Miss Yakkety-Yak. She wakes up in the morning and opens her mouth and goes off and forgets to close it. If she is telling me she needs notebook paper she start with the creation of trees. One day she started to tell me something and, knowing it would be a while before I could speak, I raised my hand to ask her to wait. She was so excited to tell me whatever it was that she said, “Please, mom, I’ll be quiet if you just let me talk.’

  10. avatar D C says:

    LW#2 – This is a no-win situation.  You have two choices — Find somewhere else to work, or learn to live with it.  My husband and I have been putting up with a non-stop talker/texter/emailer/facebooker we met relatively recently, and the time has come for us to say farewell because we just can’t stand her anymore.  She helped us with our latest taxes as that’s a strong suit for her and we had some major changes in the past year.  And I’ve helped her with her young son, passing on the wealth of information I acquired over the past 15 years with my youngest son (autistic).  But the socializing is mind-numbing and we are through trying to be nice.  We have that choice — you do not.  If you shut her out, like we are now doing with our chatterbox, you may be perceived as a bad employee and end up fired.  I say start looking for your next job now.  It may take a while in this economy.  And in the meantime, be as nice as you can.  And when the time comes to move on, tell your boss how much you will miss the company, but that it just was time to move on.  Let him know that someday you might like to come back, but for now you have to explore other options.  Then if you truly do love that job, and the daughter moves on, you may have an option to come back one day. 

  11. avatar Carrie A says:

    LW #1: Just get her a seat away from everyone including your husband. It may be his mother but you’re his wife and this is a big moment for you two – your son’s high school graduation. Maybe if she doesn’t know anyone by her she’ll shut up and everyone at the graduation ceremony will be grateful.
    LW #2: I would definitely go with the headphones. I worked with a lady who would never shut up but most of the time she would be talking to herself – at full volume. It drove me nuts because I couldn’t concentrate and was always looking to see if she was talking to me. Headphones saved my sanity (and she knew why I was wearing them but I didn’t care).

  12. avatar Scrapper79 says:

    When I graduated from high school, our school had a “system” for seating.  Each graduate received 4 tickets for the “premium” seats (seating in front of the stage) and then anyone additional invited had to sit in the bleachers.  For me, my 4 tickets went to my parents (obviously) and then I had my Grandma and her husband take the additional 2 seats.  My siblings had to sit in the bleachers.  The letter writer’s son’s school may do something similar and may help get her out of having to endure the MIL.  Good Luck!

  13. avatar mb says:

    LW2 – that is classic ADD. Textbook. can’t sit still, can’t shut up, must make little noises if not talking. It is a neurological disorder – try to have some compassion and wear headphones.

    For that matter, LW1’s MIL may have the same disorder, or she may just be selfish, but it is certainly possible that she can’t shut up either, has had a lifetime of being complained about, can’t change her behavior, and so becomes defensive. My boyfriend – dyslexic and ADD, says, when I am about to go insane over both his non-stop commenting about everything (never a quiet moment on a road trip, that is for sure) and what seems to be to be his frequent complaining about trivialities, that he is not complaining, he is just “observing.” I think these are just rationalizations people who can’t control their behavior use to explain or justify something that they have probably spent years banging their head against a wall to stop, and finally gave up and just come up with what they see as good excuses.

    • avatar Lisa Bonnice says:

      I said almost those exact same words to my husband a few weeks ago. I constantly think out loud when I’m with someone comfortable (not on purpose, I just find myself doing it), and he lightly accused me of complaining all the time.

      Stunned that he thought that’s what I was doing, I said, “I’m not complaining, I’m narrating.” I’m a writer, so everything I see, hear and do is relevant to describing the scene as I mentally write it down. I didn’t realize, until he said that, that I might sound like I’m complaining when I think I’m just pointing out everything that deviates from a flat line.

      I appreciate your post because it’s always nice to see that I’m not alone in doing this.

    • avatar engineer_gurl says:

      Honestly? As an ADD’er who can keep my mouth shut when I have to regardless of medicated/unmedicated, I am going to venture and say it sounds more autistic because of the noises. I work with autistic kids (volunteer work) and that is something nearly all them do. Tourette’s can have “tics” also. ADD can too, but not all. We have to be careful diagnosing people, but yeah, first thing I thought of was “neurological issue”.

  14. avatar David Bolton says:

    LW1: At some point after your MIL’s death, her chattering is going to mysteriously change into something missed and endearing and a source of humor in your memories of her. If this is the worst aspect of her character, I’d take it gladly, and I wouldn’t disinvite her. Just sit somewhere further away. In the meantime—here’s a suggestion: borrow one of those small video cameras and tape her entire “performance” at an event, and then hold a screening of her for the entire family. If this doesn’t embarrass her and get the results you want, well—there is no Plan B.

    LW2: Jesus, another “my coworker won’t shut up and it annoys me” letter with the added caveat of “she’s the boss’s daughter” added to it. Honey, you’ve been there 20 years. Be the bigger person, absorb her into the fold and move on (and maybe Wikipedia “tics,” “Aspergers” and “patience” while you’re at it).

    • avatar Lisa Bonnice says:

      I like your idea of videotaping to deliberately catch her performance. I think you’re right, that when she watches the video and hears herself yammering away, it will have a much bigger impact than anything anyone can say to her about it.

  15. avatar Lym BO says:

    LW1: I wold tell her if she can’t keep it zipped this will be the last performance she is invited. I would also tell her you are going to record it & if she so much as makes a peep during it she will not have only ruined it, but you will also have evidence. Make it a challenge if you have to. You could also tell her you are going to make a sign anytime she starts so it will remind her to hush. Tell her she can use it on you too for fairness.

  16. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    Like Margo I “narrate” a lot but there’s a time and place and concerts of any kind are not the place unless it’s during intermission. Some just don’t understand the “time and place” and I suspect the only choices are to either “grin and bear it” or “leave it at home” which sometimes isn’t an option so you have to “grin and bear it.”  Especially at work. 

    You can change employers. You cannot change the mothers-in-law.  They are part of the “”for better or worse.”   And trying to dump the mother-in-law can be risky. The husband may revert to the son and dump you.

  17. avatar wendyblueeyes says:

    Haha, the video camera brought back memories. My son, age 12 would talk nonstop when his 10 year old sister was competing in equestrian events. We taped one and were shocked when we played it back…..there was my daughter, riding to this soundtrack:”My stomach hurts. I wanna eat something. It smells bad in here. Why do I have to go to this thing, it’s so boring. All the girls are fat. How long is this gonna take?”

    • avatar David Bolton says:

      Yes, and the win/win of that is the family will have a record of her being at a family event. The non-stop talking aside—I’m sure there are some smiles and happy memories associated with having the MIL present.

    • avatar darlean washington says:

      Just wait until he starts dating. You’ve got the naked baby in the tub type of video to show to his girlfriend.

  18. avatar Benton says:

    LW#2  Videotape her and then play it back to her.

  19. avatar Eileen Heath says:

    Actually……. “My Ears are Bleeding” give HER a nice headset. Find out what her music is and get her an MP3 player full of it.
    She’s filling the silence. Something I see A LOT. So I did an experiment with one girl. When I felt the conversation was done. I’d smile and put my headphones on saying as I did so “We gotta get back to work.”
    However my job requires me to keep an ear open so I was just wearing them. However, she’d follow suit and it worked.
    Not ALL the time, but I certainly had a 33% improvement. She’s the boss’s daughter? Then she can wear a headset.

  20. avatar darlean washington says:

    The comments about making a tape with her talking on it made me laugh so hard that I couldn’t stop. This is a fantastic idea. While you’re at it, why not shoot the person sitting in front of you for most of the performance, like the back of his head? Go for broke here.

    As to the second letter, I completely disagree with not telling the boss about his daughter. However, I think it should be done in a kind, polite, and totally anonymous email sent from a local internet cafe from an anonymous email address. Add some links to Tourette’s and Autism, and be kindly honest about how hard it is to work with her, and that you are afraid to give your identity for fear of retaliation. This way even if the boss does get upset he doesn’t know who to address.

    Just make sure to stop complaining about her with your workmates, and don’t type like you normally do. In fact, have a stranger write it, someone who’s at the cafe.

    I wish you the very best.

  21. avatar Jay Gentile says:

    I have a good friend who talks constantly. He talks so much that I’ve given up on going to movies with him. He “comments/narrates” throughout the film. He didn’t see what the big deal was because he was just whispering to me. One day I was at his house and his attention was riveted on a football game. So I started talking — about nothing, about the color of the uniforms, about the weather in Tampa, about the cheer leaders, non-stop babbling. Finally, he looked at me and said, “I’m trying to hear the play-by-play.” I said, “It really IS annoying when someone blathers non-stop when someone else is trying to hear, isn’t it?”

    Next time the M-I-L is speaking, simply interrupt her over and over again. Don’t let her finish a sentence until she finally says something. Then drop the bomb on her. Yeah, that’s passive aggressive. Margo’s advice about sitting elsewhere is much more civilized. Sit down with the M-I-L and then get up for a “bathroom visit” just as the performance is about to start and sit somewhere else.

  22. avatar A R says:

    Please, please could we have one column where the problem person is not automatically afflicted with some neuro, psycho, physio condition where they “can’t help” themselves?

    Could it be that in our society there are just ANNOYING people who don’t think about how their choices impact others?

    How refreshing it would be to call a spade a spade and to NOT find a medical excuse for stupid people’s actions…..