Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Dec 02, 2013

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.

I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving. And I'm already filled with dread about hearing Dean Martin sing "Let it Snow" for the next three plus weeks.

I am very lucky to be married to a kind and loving man, but his father is a problem. Ever since we met, his father has made jokes that really aren't appropriate. Joking about how my mother-in-law's shoulder bruise was because he hit her, suggesting my father was cheap because he is Jewish, belittling my husband's career (at which he is excellent) etc. At a disastrous Thanksgiving last year during which he made a Polish joke in front of a Polish friend and made fun of another friend's wife's unusual name, we decided we just can't take him to any more parties or introduce him to our friends or coworkers. For the sake of my husband, I always tried to be polite and accept apologies when they were (rarely) offered. However, now we have a baby, and the comments have turned on her. My father-in-law now says things like how she's not that cute and would be cuter if she had blonde hair. This is his only grandchild, and my mother-in-law is a kind and loving person who adores the baby to no end. My baby can't understand these comments now, but she will some day, and I just can't stand the thought of her being treated by her grandfather the way he has treated me. What do I do? There is a family reunion next summer.

Your father-in-law is the jokester jerk who sees life as a Comedy Central roast, the only problem being he does the insults but leaves out the humor. I understand that you want to keep this dad under wraps as regards your friends, but since he and your mother-in-law are a pair, the rest of you need to practice the deadpan reaction and quick esacape to refresh your drink. It's unlikely you will reform this guy. I'm not defending his cracks, which have an ugly edge, but he's also not the kind of raging abuser for whom severing relations is the best solution. If you see him as the pathetic throw-back he is (Jewish jokes, Polish joke, wife-beating jokes!) that will reduce his power to sting. As for your child, next year she is only going to be a toddler and will be too young to understand your father-in-law's "humor." At a family reunion there will be so much tumult and activity it's hard to imagine anything grandpa does will really register.  But now is the time for your husband to tell your father that his grandchild is off limits for his jokes -- poking fun at how his granddaughter looks isn't funny and if it doesn't stop you will have to reduce his ability to see her. As your daughter gets older, you can explain to her that some adults say stupid things, and unfortunately, grandpa thinks saying mean things is funny. All of you have told him you don't like it, but sometimes he still does it. You can tell her if he says something mean to her she's free to say, "Grandpa, that wasn't funny." Dealing with difficult relatives can actually provide useful life lessons.

My boyfriend of three years, hopefully soon to be fiance, has asked me if I would convert to his parents' religion so that they can accept me. His parents have always been very insistent on him marrying someone of their own religion/culture, and this would be a way for them to accept me and prevent them from disowning him. However, the prospect of essentially lying to them (he and I are both agnostic) is not appealing to me. Also, I worry that my agreeing to convert now also means agreeing to follow his parents wishes on other issues in our life together. I don't want him to lose his family, but I also don't want to get myself into a marriage where his parents wishes come first. Am I being closed-minded in thinking this might be a deal-breaker?

Your boyfriend wants you to convert to a religion he no longer practices so his parents will like you better, so getting married is perhaps not the best potential outcome here. I agree with you that if during the three years you've been together he hasn't been able to establish a beachhead of independence, that is a terrible sign. That moving toward a possible proposal from him requires you to enter into a fake conversion is alarming. I don't like anything you're describing about your relationship. If you hope to marry him, this should be a discussion the two of you engage in as equals, not some waiting game for him to finally make up his mind. That he cares more about what his parents think about you than what you think about your own beliefs is also a bad sign.  If you want to try to salvage this relationship, hash all this out with a counselor. But if it's this hard at this point, your prospects don't sound too promising.

My sister-in-law favors her second child. The child has caught on to this and milks it for all it's worth. If she doesn't get what she wants, she turns on the water works. As soon as she does, the first one usually ends up with a spanking, a scolding, or a time out even if number one has done nothing wrong. I have witnessed this a few times myself, and even though I speak up each time and let sister-in-law know that child number one has done absolutely nothing wrong, she disagrees and rebukes the first child. Others in the family have told sister-in-law the same. When I babysat the two girls, number two tried the water works with me. When she realized it wasn't working, she simply whimpered and sulked and acted pitifully because she couldn't get her sister in trouble. What can I do to help sister-in-law treat the children equally without favoring her second child?   It's troubling to me to see number one constantly in trouble as well as child two enjoying it.

A small group of family members should talk to the husband about what's going on.  These representatives need to make clear that grave damage is going to be done to both his daughters unless he intervenes and gets some counseling and his wife gets on board with some basic principles of childrearing. Your sister-in-law has established a pernicious and destructive pattern and if it isn't broken, it will echo through both these children's lives, damaging the favored as well as the unfavored. In the meantime, the family should try to get some time alone with the older child to give her the positive reinforcement and love she so badly needs.  If things don't change, the older girl also needs to hear from other adults that they disapprove of things her mother says and does. She needs to hear good things about herself and the sad truth that sometimes the people who should love us the most have problems of their own and don't do the right thing.

My daughter was born at 26 weeks gestation earlier this year, she weighed 1lb and 12oz at birth. She spent 73 days in the NICU, but I'm thrilled to say she's home and doing very well now. Because she seems so healthy, it's hard to explain to friends and family that she's immunodeficient (she missed a critical three months of maternal antibodies!) with lungs that are still not up to term baby strength. Everyone wants to hold her and love on her (and I want them to!) but cold and flu season is dangerous for her. What would just be a cold in a regular infant could land us back in the hospital, which is a thought I just cannot bear. How do I tell these well-meaning people, who did so much for us while she was in the hospital, that it's hands-off until she is stronger and better able to handle their germs? I could skip the gatherings all-together, which some micro-preemie moms do, but we love seeing everyone-- just at a healthy distance.

What good news about your daughter, and what understandable restrictions you have just laid out.  You will not be hurting anyone's feelings by simply explaining to them what you've written here. That is, that your daughter is still fragile and exposure to germs has to be limited.  If you have gotten in the habit of informing people of your daughter's progress on Facebook, put up a post saying you look forward to seeing people this holiday season, but you want to let everyone know that your baby's immune system is not yet up to speed and you have to keep her away from germs for a while longer. Anyone who loves this child, anyone would a shred of decency,  would not want to be the person who unwittingly passed along some potentially devastating bug. Don't worry about sounding defensive or hostile; it's hard to imagine who won't be understanding about this medical necessity.

My wife and I spent Thanksgiving weekend with her family for the first time last week.  I was appalled by the rowdy behavior of her two elder brothers. They just run roughshod over her and frequently use verbal jabs and physical roughness while interacting with her. One day, one brother picked her up and tossed her, fully clothed, into the swimming pool while the other laughed his head off. They have been treating her like this her whole life, so she knows no better and just laughs it off. She refuses to tell them to stop, but I do think they should, especially as we have a 1-year old son who I don't want to see his mother being manhandled in this fashion. How can I convince her and them to stop?

You need to have a serious talk with your wife about her brothers' humor.  I understand that you were appalled, but it is possible that for her this kind of roughhousing was a fun part of her childhood and that she loved the verbal and physical rough and tumble of adored older brothers. It's also possible she's so inured to it that she can't make a distinction between affection and abuse. I hope your wife's family lives somewhere tropical, or else a toss into the pool at Thanksgiving sounds like a recipe for hypothermia. But you have to get a real reading from you wife about whether this -- and all the other stuff -- was a frat house kind of fun she enjoys, or whether she doesn't know how to defend herself and say stop. Tell her how it all looked to you, and how disturbed and upset you were by it. And as an aside, be prepared that these two wild and crazy uncles may turn out to be your son's favorite people.

I was immature in my early 20s and never finished college. I left with a lot of debt and only about 55 credits. For the last few years (I'm now 29), I've been working and making anywhere from $10-12 an hour. My wife graduated nursing school and got her dream job and is making more than double what I was. So looking at our finances we decided that if we made it on half of her salary for the last few years then we could make it on her salary now and I quit my job and got set up to go back to school. I start in January and if I hunker down and go all year I can graduate with my bachelors in mathematics in December 2016. I keep thinking that I made the wrong decision in going back to school at age 29 and should have just stayed in a dead end job. I'm being stupid right? My wife supports me but I still can't get it out of my head.

If you don't do this, in 10 years you'll be 39, and unless you see a path upward in your career absent a college degree, you will regret you never buckled down and got your diploma. You are a late-bloomer and you will find college has plenty of people like you who are going back to make the investment in themselves. A mathematics degree should open a lot of doors. So while you're paying tuition, make sure you're taking advantage of all the programs on campus for people like you. There maybe counseling for older, returning students. And as soon as classes start, go over to the career counseling office and make friends there.  It's perfectly understandable you're daunted and intimidated by the task ahead of you. But you should be excited and proud, too, that with the support of your wife you're making good decisions that will make the future better for both of you.

Your answer to LW is completely wrong, imo. My father is just like LW's FIL, and to this day he thinks people are "too sensitive" when people call him out on his "humor." It doesn't matter the tone he uses, it still hurts. LW's priorities are to her child first, in-laws second. People like FIL don't see consequences in blank stares or "that wasn't funny." They DO see consequences when they see they've been cut off. Trust me, when I started telling my dad that I wasn't gonna listen to his crap and followed through by hanging up the phone or simply not wanting to be around him anymore, the "jokes" practically stopped. FIL and my dad are bullies, they only understand when people stand up for themselves. LW needs to teach her daughter about boundaries NOW, because FIL is only going to get worse.

I agree that cutting people off is sometimes the only way and I suggest that a whole lot. Maybe that's what has to happen here. But I'm recommending drawing some clear boundaries -- which is what you did.  For some  jokesters a flat, "Not funny," can be an effective tool.  I said the son should make clear disparaging jokes about his daughter are off-limits and see if he his father gets it.  If he doesn't, then they can start limiting access to the granddaughter.  I will add that I grew up in a family of Don Rickles wannabes and learning to deal with them -- and toss it back at them -- had its benefits.

This past year my brother and SIL lost their newborn. Last Christmas the family bought said newborn (while in utero) a lot of gifts, celebrating the upcoming birth. This year she is pregnant again (second trimester). We really don't know what's proper for Christmas this year. We don't know if we should give gifts for the baby or not.

Talk to your brother about this and tell him the family wants to be sensitive to where they both are at.  You can imagine the complicated and conflicting emotions they are going through. But it's perfectly standard not to buy lots of gifts for an unborn child. I think it sounds like a better idea to bring the baby gifts a few months from now when there's a healthy baby to celebrate.

I have seen many families that do interact this way with each other. Verbal and physical jabs. The key is does your wife participate or is she just the target? If she enjoys participating and is involved in a back and forth, I see no harm at all. Unfortunately some of these types of relationships can turn very bitter if one person is the target and does not participate other than to receive verbal and physical jabs.

Yes, the key is how all participants really feel. And that means separating out feeling pressure to go along with a style of interaction that you hate. But it also means that what can look appalling to an outsider is a blast for the insiders.

I have a friend that consistently gets involved with married men. I can't keep quiet anymore about how awful I think this is on so many levels. I know it all stems from her incredibly low self esteem but it needs to stop. She always says she wants to find a man but because she's always involved with these married guys she never does. How can I tactfully and forcefully tell her enough already without wrecking our friendship?

The next time she confesses that she's found someone who's good husband material -- because he's already someone else's husband -- you just tell her her what you think. You say that you find cheating deplorable and that she's gotten herself in a very destructive pattern that's going to mean she never finds an available man. If that wrecks your friendship, so be it. Your contempt for her behavior is going to destroy it anyway.

Prudie, I need some advice about staying at my parents' house. Neither of my parents have ever been clean freaks, but since my siblings and I have left the house, it's gotten worse. My father is a hoarder--there is a whole room dedicated to stuff he's bought, but the biggest problem is just the lack of cleaning. The bathroom my siblings and my family and I use when we visit has not been cleaned in years, sheets have not been washed or changed in months. We have to bring our own sheets and blankets from home to ensure there will be some to use there. What should I do? My parents do not seem depressed and it's only this one area of the house that is suffering (out of sight, out of mind?). I'm dreading our visit for Christmas. Staying in a hotel is not very possible (small town). Thanks.

It sounds as if it's time to blast Mom and Dad out of their filth pile and move the family celebration to another venue. Your parents have a serious problem. It's possible that if all the children try to address this with them -- and even suggest pooling resources to get the house cleaned -- they might listen. I'm guessing not, because this kind of thing is infernally difficult to deal with. Of course all of you could also arrive with cleaning supplies and get the bathroom into usuable shape, and do a load of laundry and some vacuuming. But if your parents would object to this, you have to decide how much disgust you can bear over Christmas dinner.

Don't be discouraged! My husband is one of the smartest people I know and he was also a late bloomer. Started college at 18, dropped out at 19 and joined the navy, returned to school at 26, and had his BS and MBA by age 31. I, by contrast, had finished both undergrad and law school by age 26. So what if he did it "later" and I did it "on schedule" - we are both happy with where we've ended up where we are. More people than you think have a "non-traditional" path for their education. Best of luck to you!

Great to hear -- and this is only one of the many responses that have come in telling the same story.  It's way more common than the 29 year-old thinks, and I hope he will connect with others on campus who are walking the same path.

Speaking from first hand knowledge: Please give the older girl time away from her mom and little sister. The best confidence builder for me was going on "dates" with my father; a run to the hardware store or to pick-up pizza still make me smile sixty some odd years later.

I agree the older child needs time alone with supportive adults. But hearing your story makes me sad that there are parents who knowingly allow a spouse to emotionally damage their children.

Dear Prudence, I am a kind, considerate person, and generally have a very happy disposition. I also suffer from what it is known as "Bitchy Resting Face." It's pretty bad. I look either very unhappy, or downright evil, depending on one's interpretation. Friends have had to assure other people that I won't bite their heads off if approached! My husband is in the military, so every few years I have to start over from scratch with my social life, and it isn't easy when I look so unapproachable. What can I do? I can't walk around with a big, fake smile plastered on my face... it's exhausting and I'd probably look a little looney! Signed, This is just how my face looks.

Please read, "Why Smile: The Science Behind Facial Expressions," a fascinating book by social psychologist Marianne LaFrance.  It's a look at why the looks on our faces are so important. I get what you're saying because when I was younger people -- including strangers -- would urge me to smile. Yes, this is something people do to young women and without exploring the inherent sexism of this, as you've discovered it's actually better not to look like an ogre. I disagree with you that your choices are BRF or a huge fake smile. It is possible for you to train yourself to adopt a more Mona Lisa look -- a slightly upturned, intriguing expression that doesn't make you look like a clown, but doesn't put people off either.  You can also enlist your friends who have stepped up to explain to others you're actually really nice, to help you in your facial muscle retraining. Tell them what you're trying to do and that you want their feedback. It will be a gratifying loop to have people respond to you as if you are the happy person you feel to be inside.

My MIL looks after my children while I'm at work. I gave her a credit card to pay for child care related expenses. I told her if she occasionally wanted to use it to treat herself I was happy for her to charge it to the credit card, sort of as a bonus/thank you for looking after my children (I also pay her salary for child care). She uses it every couple of months for an inexpensive facial or massage, which is completely fine with me. The only problem comes around at Christmas. She uses the card to buy a massive amount of food for the annual family get together, spending amost $1000. It takes place at her home and my husband and I are the only ones who help with all the cooking and preparation, which takes days. My siblings-in-law contribute towards the dinner by giving my MIL money, but instead of reimbursing us, she pockets it herself. At first I thought she forgot, but she's been doing this for the past three Christmases. Is it stingy of me to raise this issue with her?

Since you're paying your mother-in-law for her child care,  if it's a fair salary according to both parties, then you need to either set up a fund for incidentals related to the kids, or ask her for weekly or monthly accounting of her expenses so you can reimburse her. If you separately want to give her a gift certificate for a year's worth of facials or massages at her favorite spa, that would be a great Christmas gift. But it's just too weird that your mother-in-law takes to charging you for the family Christmas dinner because she's got your credit card.  But, as usual with in-law questions, I think it's a better idea for you husband to  have this conversation, He can tell his mother how much her help means to all of you, but that going forward you two want to have a more predictable outlay for her services.

My step-sister is getting married and I don't live in the area my family lives, so getting to the wedding and hotel costs will run me around $1000. I have been told that because she's family I am required to provide a gift that's worth at least $100. I feel as though I could get them a small gift and my presence would be sufficient. This is a couple who makes good money and the wedding is primarily paid for by the parents so I also don't feel it should be an obligation for a gift in the first place. What is appropriate?

Of course it's better to attend family weddings. But if you don't have the $1,000 to do it, then you need to decline. That will free up some money to send a gift and a heartfelt note. If you are planning to go, then whoever is your etiquette advisor needs an etiquette advisor.  There isn't a minimum price of admission. You get something you can afford: a picture frame, a set of salad tongs, some trivets.  And if you go, go remember this is someone's joyous occasion and not the opportunity for you to pile a quarry's worth of chips on your shoulder.

Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.

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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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