On a recent flight, I bumped into the new live-in boyfriend of a very good friend. He was in first class, so he got on the plane before me. Of course, I stopped to say hello when I boarded the plane – and was a bit surprised that he was having a cocktail (light brown drink – ice – stirrer, NOT a bloody mary) at 7 a.m. My wife thinks I need to tell our friend, but I won’t, because I don’t want to look like a schoolyard tattletale. Is there any way that it’s not a big, red flag that someone is drinking at 7 a.m.? Could the drink have been something else? Really watered-down Coke? Bitters?
Do you think I should tell her or is this just none of our business?
First, I believe that your instinct to stay out of other people’s business puts you on solid ground, so we could leave it at that. From what you say, however, I gather that your wife is on the more squishy turf of offering unsolicited information and poised to lean in. That being the case, let’s organize your decision-making. Drawing on my Marine Corps training as well as business school experience, the question I have for you is, “What do you hope to accomplish?” Then the logical follow-up, “Can you accomplish it?” and, if so, “How can you accomplish it?”
What you hope to accomplish, if I read you correctly, is to let your friend know that her live-in boyfriend has a drinking problem. You base that conclusion on having seen the guy at 7 in the morning drinking something that looked like a cocktail. As you say, you’re not sure if he was actually drinking alcohol, but let’s assume that he was.
You ask, “Is there any way that it’s not a big, red flag?” Several factors could explain his having a drink at a time when most people who don’t have a drinking problem would not be drinking: This could be the last connecting flight for him; he could be coming back from a business trip to China, where the time is early evening and a more acceptable time to drink. Maybe he is unwinding from some kind of tense, business negotiation or other similar situation. Possibly he doesn’t like flying and finds that a drink helps to calm him down.
Now let’s consider the second question: Can you accomplish your goal? Can you inform your friend that her live-in boyfriend (let’s call him Lance) has a drinking problem? You don’t say how long they have been together, only that as a live-in boyfriend he is new. Since they are living together, let’s assume at least one year. If they have been a couple for that long, do you think that she knows what kind of a drinker he is? Do you think that you are going to reveal something unknown to her, uncovered in a glance about a person whom she knows intimately?
Assuming that you, or more accurately, your wife still wants to tell the friend what you saw, the last question is how would you go about it? Do you approach the friend, does your wife, or do you go as a task force? Then what do you say? Something like this, maybe: “I happened to be on the same plane as Lance recently and thought you ought to know that he was drinking something that looked like alcohol at 7 in the morning!” Or does your wife describe to her friend what you saw? Either way, no matter how well intentioned the two of you are, you and your wife’s noses are going to look like Cyrano de Bergerac’s to your friend.
Let’s take this problem back to the business-school model and do a quick-and-dirty, cost/benefit analysis to make your decision clearer. What is the likelihood that Lance has a drinking problem? You don’t know. What are the chances that you are telling your friend something that she doesn’t already know? Approaching zero. What are the chances that this conversation will make your friend feel awkward? Existential certainty.
What it comes down to is what I think you already know: It’s none of your business. If your wife, however, is determined to make this her business and won’t let go, ask your friend and Lance out for drinks and see whether he drinks anything that looks like a really watered-down Coke.
Got questions about life? Love? Parenting? Friendship? Work? Write to Whit’s End, an advice column by local husband, father, teacher, coach, former executive and former Marine Corps officer Al Whitaker. Send your questions to email@example.com