Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Dec 17, 2012

Need help getting along with partners, relatives, coworkers... and people in general? Ask Prudence! Emily Yoffe -- a.k.a. Slate's advice columnist Dear Prudence takes your questions on manners, morals and more.

It's been hard to think of anything but the horror that just took place in Connecticut and the agony of those affected. Tragic letters sometimes do come to this column. But mostly people write about day to day frustrations. I do look forward to your questions, but  I'm sure all of us will be feeling how lucky we are if we just have normal problems.

10 years ago, a male colleague and I enjoyed going to sporting events together. He was a bit of a player, but we never dated. He later married a nice woman who, for whatever reason, seemed to have it in for me. We remain friendly at work but don't see each other outside the office except for the very occasional office social event. A couple months ago his wife, still in her 30s, was diagosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer. I sent her a card and note saying I was very sorry to hear this and hoped teatment would go well. In response, I got a diatribe saying I was counting the days until her death so I could get my claws back into her husband, and much more and much worse. Had she sent this only to me, I would have ignored it, but she put it on Facebook! Her husband followed up with a posting saying that, while we were friends, we had nver dated and had no romantic interest in each other. I'm debating seconding his comments, or is it better to just leave it alone? I have no idea why she hates me so and assure you we never did anything in the least inappropriate. I feel bad I so enraged a dying woman but can't think of anythng I can do to make it right.

I hope as social media rules evolve people will come to see that it is wrong and counterproductive to use a public forum to humiliate a spouse to try to make him change,  or excoriate an acquaintance for some faux pas, or, as in your case, work out some sad psychological issues. People dealing with devastating illnesses deserve a lot of leeway, but making false accusations is a leeway too far, and I'm glad the husband stepped up to respond to his wife's rant.  I'm sure you are embarrassed and humiliated, but I assure you almost everyone reading what she wrote will be appalled and perhaps wonder if the woman's treatment was affecting her judgment.  Keep silent. You didn't do anything wrong, but there's nothing you can do to right her fantasies.

I was raped four years ago and became pregnant. Eventually a paternity test proved the rapist and not my husband was my baby's father. The rapist was never caught, so I have no idea who my child's biological father was. My husband decided before we knew our baby's paternity to raise and love him no matter what. We initially agreed not to tell anyone about our baby's origins, so we could eventually control if and how we told our son. My husband told my mother-in-law, though - and since then she has tried to convince him that I "cried rape" to cover up an affair. She thinks I knew about the pregnancy, faked a rape, and have been duping my husband into raising another man's child. She seems to love her grandson, but she also judges me harshly and behaves rudely towards me because of her beliefs. Sadly, I think a small part of my husband believes her. He pushes me for painful details of my rape and becomes suspicious when I do not immediately supply them. I don't know what to do. I love my son beyond all else. Being raped was hell, and it hurts so badly that my husband thinks I'd lie about it.

I'm so sorry for your trauma, and I'm assuming that following your rape you called the police. I hope your husband was by your side through this ordeal -- which certainly should have made very clear to him that you were criminally assaulted.  Even at this late date, you need support. Start by calling RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network to discuss finding a counselor and possibly a support group.  Instead of enduring your husband's badgering, you need help getting him to understand how to help you recover from your assault, how you two keep your marriage strong, and how you tell your son about his origins.  You both made a decision to raise and love your son. But this is being undermined by the vile accusations of your mother-in-law. After you and your husband get some counseling, ask the counselor for advice on your husband dealing with his mother. The message she has to receive is that either she shuts up and starts behaving decently, or all of you won't be seeing her.

Dear Prudence,  I work in a small office (five men and two women) and we share a unisex bathroom. A few weeks back, somebody put up a sign saying "Please leave the seat upright." I assume that our boss approves since he hasn't taken the sign down. I was extremely indignant by the sign! Even though we girls are the juniormost employees and are in the minority, why should we have to leave the seat upright? This isn't really an issue that I can take up with my boss as he's very formal and reserved and this isn't something that bothers my colleague. Should I suck it up and comply? Or should I rebel by refusing to leave the seat up?

The man who put this sign up sure is  anal.  The guys in your office must have extremely strong thigh muscles if they hover over a seat-less toilet bowl when certain kinds of duty calls.  Usually in the battle of the sexes, plumbing version, it's the women who have the upper hand, forcing the men to return the seat to the down position.  I've never heard of a directive insisting the toilet set remain up, therefor universally inconveniencing women every time they seek relief. If you take the sign down, it will be pretty clear it was either you or your female co-worker, thus getting you tangled up with the a**hole in the office.  Leave the sign alone, but feel free to ignore its directive.

My husband's sister has always been the annoying person who documents her every single move on Facebook. She had a baby two weeks ago, and I am getting concerned. She updates with pictures, status updates, etc., multiple times an hour - over the course of several hours. Sometimes 10 to 15 updates an hour, spaced every 5 or so minutes. It's to the point where I am worried that she will spend so much time taking and uploading pictures that her daughter won't get the attention she needs. SIL was like this before with pictures of her pregnant belly, but now there's a child at stake. She freely shares tons of personal information about her daughter - full name, birthdate, etc. - on Facebook too. I feel awful for my niece, who seems to be more like an accessory to make her mother's life look better than it really is. What can I do?

Again, Facebook can be wonderful for letting people know about your poetry reading,  or for getting recommendations for places to eat in Venice. But its dark side is that it becomes a forum for the expression of narcissistic personality disorder.  I don't even understand how your sister-in-law's schedule is possible. When I had an infant I felt as if I was on a non-stop loop of feeding and changing. It's not so easy to post updates on these activities when your hands are occupied doing it.  You obviously don't like your sister-in-law very much ("...to make her mother's life look better than it really is") so try to contain your contempt as you look at this situation.  Consider that your sister-in-law is obnoxious, but you're overreacting. Maybe the solution is that you  just need  get off her FB feed. She may be overly displaying her daughter, but it sure doesn't sound as if she's neglecting her. But if as things unfold you truly worry that  things are  off with this new mother, then you should have a gentle talk with your husband about your concerns. Maybe his side of the family can give her some guidance on privacy and time management.

Dear Prudie, My family has always had a difficult time sharing the holidays with my husband's family. Since we moved across the country two years ago, it has become even worse. My husband's family does a very large Christmas brunch, while my family does an early Christmas dinner. My family is mad that they have to push the start of their party back to accommodate my husband's family. Prudie, we eat Christmas dinner at 3:30 pm! My family complains that they will only push their party back if my in-laws push their party earlier, which I have asked in the past and they have done, but as I have explained to my family, you can only start Christmas so early in the morning. I have also explained to my family that we eat ridiculously early and that they actually get to spend more time with us on Christmas since we spend all afternoon and evening with them. We can't combine our two families Christmases (and I wouldn't want to), and I don't know how to make them stop complaining unless we trade Christmases each year, which I really don't want to do since it's the only holiday we get to see everyone at. Help, please! They're turning me into a Grinch.

Give up. Tell your family to go ahead and eat when they want. If they then start chowing down  at noon, you will get there after they eat, but you should still be full from brunch. Then you can hang out for the afternoon and get a plate of  left-overs in the evening. If they want to keep dinner at 3:30, then you show up, let their grumbling roll off you, and get in the true spirit of the season. 

Hi Prudence. My sister-in-law and I are both mothers to beautiful girls who are about the same age. What I find disconcerting is that every time she visits, my sister-in-law wants to know about my daughter's grades, how many friends she has (and their social status!), what toys she has, and even compares the girl's sizes with comments like, "My daughter is so tiny and petite, and yours is getting so big!" These comments are incredibly hurtful; usually I've just walked away when she starts with the comparison game. But now these games are clearly affecting her daughter too. I've noticed that my niece will often pry my daughter for the same answers, and appears visibly distraught if my daughter happens to be doing better in some area of life. Apparently, my sister-in-law was upset one night that my daughter is, in her words, "more beautiful" than her own - and this was something my niece told me. I'm heartbroken for the pain my sister-in-law is causing this child. I grew up with friends who were constantly told they were not good enough, and as a result, they could never make friends because they ended up being so competitive. I'd hate to see the same happen to my niece. I have also tried complimenting my niece or my daughter when I notice my sister-in-law getting critical, but I am unsure about how to approach this. I wouldn't put it past my sister-in-law to keep my husband and me from seeing my niece.

Did this sister-in-law post updates every five minutes on Facebook when her daughter was born? Or maybe the girls are too old to have been subject to that.  Every week I am sadly reminded of how many people  use parenthood as a stage on which to relive their own damage.  How sad for this little girl, and I'm afraid there's not going to be that much you can do. You can try modeling good behavior. "Both our daughters are beautiful and smart. I'm not going to do any point by point comparisons." When the kids get together, beforehand you can instruct your daughter that she doesn't have to answer certain questions. You can even role play with her and let her practice saying, "I don't want to talk about my grades or how much I weigh." Let her know she should come to you if she's being badgered.  Maybe there's  someone in the family who is seeing these awful patterns and can intervene.  If it's possible, you could try getting your niece to come over without her mother and be a sane, kind presence in her life. The kind of psychological damage you describe unfortunately often goes unchecked.  You just hope there are enough contravening influences in this child's life so the mother's craziness doesn't permanently damage her.

Prudence! My partner is incredibly awesome in every way - except one: he's yawns louder and more ridiculously than anyone I know. When we're outside or with company, he may do a quiet, discreet yawn. But when it's just him and I at home, relaxing. then his yawns couldn't be louder and larger-than-life. Sometimes when I'm in a really good mood, I actually find it hilarious that out of nowhere, I hear "YEEEAAAWWWWWHHHHHHHHHH!" from several rooms over. But, more often than not this loud, random, long noise is startling and annoying. Even worse? It's not always the same noise - sometimes it's long and stretched out (like above), other times it's short and staccato-like, such as "YAH!" and other times they're the kind of sound that cartoon character makes falling down a well "EEEEEeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhuuuuh............" I've told him that I find these noises unpleasant and often upsetting (every night or two, basically my partner randomly shouts) and how I wished he'd stop. He says that's just how he yawns. But! I say, if he can yawn like a normal person in public, then he can yawn like a normal person at home? What say you, Prudie?

There are lots of things people suppress in public that they let fly at home. If you think you've got a problem, go to the Dear Prudence archives and use the keyword "fart." So your partner occasionally sounds like a lion on the veldt. Let him enjoy this piece of wildness and don't try to tame it out of him.

My parents had been married for 38 years when my mother died suddenly in 2007. Her death was a huge loss for my family. Over the years, my brother, other family members and I have let my dad know that we'd be ok if he decided to date. He always said he could never find someone like my mom. Imagine my delight when he recently told me he found someone very special! That delight turned to shock when my 71 year old father told me that he's dating a 29 year old! (I'm 40.) I don't know what to do..... I really cannot be supportive of this relationship but at the same time he seems very happy.

I can imagine he's happy.  She probably happy too, because your father is suave,  sophisticated, and so much more mature than the average twentysomething. Then there's the size of his bank account! I'm relieved you don't mention that you're concerned that this granddaughter-aged girlfriend is going to work her way through your inheritance. Unless your father is mentally incompetent, which you also don't indicate, there's nothing for you to do. If he brings up his romantic life, you can say, "You seem very happy," then decline to hear more.

Dear Prudie, My husband and I have been married for 3 months and did not live together before we married. We have a great relationship and are in a stable if not wildly wealthy financial status. For years I've kept a honeypot of spare change and save it up to buy something fun or extravagant every so often. Over the past three months, my new hubby has been dipping into it for parking or beer, or ...et.al. to the point that I feel like I should just hand him my wallet. My comments of " where did the honeypot go?" or " how much does it cost to park now a days?" are met with bland "seriously?" rebuttals. How can I get him to stop dipping in without seeming cheap. I've offered to save for something we both like to no end.

Even if you've decided to share your life and your bank account with your beloved, you each are entitled to your own separate source of money. So get your honeypot out of his sight. Explain to him you've always collected your spare change then treated yourself later with it. Explain you're moving this temptation out of his sight so it won't be taunting him, because you want to continue having this private  indulgence.

Prudence, I'm a black male college student. In what's an apparent shock to everyone around me, I never did pick up on slang and I speak very proper English. The problem is that I'm now at a university in which I am the only black student and a large number of the other students seem to be taking an inappropriate fascination to how well I disprove the stereotypes. I get comments like, "You're one of the only black people I talk to, and I could easily confuse you for being white," or "all black people should be like you." It's almost like they think I should be honored that they've actually accepted one of my kind into their elitist group. And while I'm sure the other students think they're handing me compliments, I find these comments particularly aggravating. What is a quick response I can have at the ready that will squash the comments without creating conflict?

The admissions office at your university has a lot of work to do if they are unable to attract a racially mixed student body. I would be tempted to say back, "And I hope all white people are not like you." But you want to make your way through this place with as little hassle and possible. You could try something like, "I know you think you're giving me a compliment. But  what you've just said is actually very demeaning to black people." Then let them sputter.

I was that kid. My mom made me competitive with all of the other kids growing up. She always told me I had to beat them. I was never striving for the A grade, I was striving to beat the kid next to me. I can tell you that it really stunted me because I didn't know how to be a decent friend to anyone. People would like me in the beginning, then realize that I just wanted to beat them, and then our friendship would sour. It wasn't until college that I realized what was happening and grew out of it. I had a very lonely childhood because I had no friends. I would suggest talking to the mom asap. The goal should always be the A grade, not beating your peer.

I'm encouraged to hear you were about to see these destructive patterns and leave them behind. I agree intervening with the mother would be good. But unfortunately some bad parents are very resistant to change.

My daughter Penny's first grade class visits her school's special education students twice a week. When they return from their visits, they get to eat their afternoon snack. Last week Penny was hungry and asked her teacher when they would return to their classroom. Her teacher chastised her for being rude and made Penny apologize to both classes. Penny was humiliated. Her teacher has now called a meeting with my husband and me because she thinks Penny is intolerant of her mentally delayed classmates. Last month I guess Penny asked a student in the special education class to not blow his nose on his sleeve. I'm having a hard time seeing how Penny's behavior is intolerant, but maybe I'm too biased in her favor. In your professional opinion, is Penny's teacher right?

Oh lovely, on a forced march to teach empathy, your daughter's teacher forces her to humiliate herself in front of her classmates.  This teacher seems to have little understanding of the developmental stage that 6 year-olds are at, which is a serious failing for a 1st grade teacher. Have the meeting, listen, then firmly explain from your perspective what happened. Say that nothing you've heard indicates your daughter  deserved the kind of reprimand she received. One, she was hungry. As for the comment to the other student, that's the kind of thing 6 year-olds say, and the teacher could have quietly instructed your daughter that she was right about not blowing your nose on one's sleeve, but that telling other people they're being rude can hurt their feelings. See how it goes. If you're not satisfied, you should definitely ask for a meeting with the principal.

Prudie, it might not be that far out of the question to consider that this is the first time that these white students have been around a black person, and part of what they're saying is out of just not knowing what to say, vs. coming from a negative place. While it's a shame this may be the case, it is reality, and this young man is getting to be the standard bearer, so to speak, by being the first black person at his university. So perhaps even a humorous comment would be more appropriate, letting them gently know this is not really an acceptable response, without getting the dukes up--something like "yeah, that'll work only if all white people are like you." (Of course, if the comment stated to him is not coming from this perspective, then the response, too, would be different.)

Even if these students have lived racially sheltered lives, maybe they've heard that the president of the United States is black. Maybe they've even heard him speak! Yes, keeping a sense of humor about social situations is a good thing. But this student should feel free to cut the racial commentary short. What I suggested is not belligerent, just direct.

Dear Prudie, My husband and I have a 19-month-old daughter. My husband works a lot, and unfortunately doesn't get to spend a great deal of time with our daughter. The problem is that when he does come home, he rarely interacts with her. And his interaction with her consists almost entirely of tickling her and trying to "raspberry" her belly. Every day, that's his entire interaction with his daughter. I think he doesn't know any other way to interact with her, and he's entirely closed to my suggestions to read to her, play blocks, play with balls, etc. He just digs his fingers into her armpits and gives her beard burn on her belly for a few minutes and considers his fatherly duties done. Could you give me any suggestions for getting him to bury the tickle monster and truly interact with his child?

There are some parents, especially tired ones, who just aren't that great with babies and toddlers. For these parents (let's acknowledge they're often men) fatherhood really becomes interesting once their child is verbally responsive and able to interact make competently (i.e. run, kick a ball, understand a book).  Do not denigrate the raspberries and the tickling. This kind of roughhousing, even if it's brief, is wonderful for kids and something fathers are particularly good at supplying.  Maybe if you've got a group of young mothers you're friendly with, all of you could organize monthly family brunches. That way the fathers will get to know each other and the other kids. Then it might be easier to put together some father and child weekend outings to the playground -- which would give the mothers a break. Your husband will get some lessons in interacting with little kids from the other dads. If things just never improve and your husband remains checked out, look for some parenting classes  that you two could attend together.

Dear Prudence: Yesterday my two daugthers, they're 7 and 8, were on a playdate with a classmate of the oldest one.  When they were playing with the girl's tablet, the classmate showed my daugthers a sex game with very explicit images.  My girls weren't comfortable and asked her to change the game.  Aafter, when we came home, they told me about it. My question to you is, should I contact the girl's mother to make her aware of this, and if so, what's the best to broach the subject? We are not friends. Thanks for your help.

That's concerning and yes, I think you should say something. I'm hoping the little girl just got her hands on a tablet that belongs to the adults and was doing some unauthorized searching among undeleted websites.  Don't be alarmist, just stick to the facts and explain what happened, and say your sure she would want to know. 

I have volunteered at the same soup kitchen on a weekly basis for the past eight years. I've become friends with several of the people who dine there regularly. This summer, my awesome stepdaughter Alicia started to volunteer with me when her schedule permitted. One of the "regulars," Joe, has taken an interest in Alicia. He hovers near the serving line when she's present and tries to flirt with her. Alicia confided in my last night that once, when she went into a back office, Joe followed her and tried to touch her hair. I'm very uncomfortable with Joe's behavior to Alicia, and if she's to continue volunteering here, it needs to change. The issue is, the director of the soup kitchen is very sensitive to what she percieves to be "prejudice" against homeless people or people who use the soup kitchen. In the past, clients have made other volunteers uncomfortable, and she has always pushed the volunteer to examine why the client makes them uncomfortable. I worry if I explain the situation to her she'll dismiss Alicia's discomfort and side with Joe. I'd like to continue volunteering here, but my stepdaughter comes first. What should I say?

Don't tell me the director of the soup kitchen is also a 1st grade teacher.  It does absolutely no good for people with  serious social problems not to be told that there are standards of behavior at the soup kitchen -- and elsewhere. Joe is unlikely to learn to function in society if the director thinks it's just fine for him to touch the volunteers.  I would urge your stepdaughter to volunteer her time elsewhere -- she might not be safe at this soup kitchen.  Whether you want to continue, or find someplace else that takes a more holistic approach to helping people, is up to you.

I'd be VERY tempted to tell the teacher that special ed kids are not there to serve as empathy-inducing zoo animals. OMFG.

I know what you mean. But the parents have to handle this delicately because this teacher can make life miserable for students she deems "unempathetic."

Thank you everyone.  And I will be here to chat next Monday on Christmas Eve

In This Chat
Emily Yoffe
Emily Yoffe -- a.k.a. Slate's advice columnist Dear Prudence, offers advice on manners, morals and more. She is also Slate's Human Guinea Pig, a contributor to the XX Factor blog, and the author of What the Dog Did: Tales From a Formerly Reluctant Dog Owner.

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