Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Sep 26, 2011

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 took your questions on manners, morals and more.

Hello, everyone.  I look forward to your questions.

One of my close friends is, I fear, on the brink of killing herself. She and I are in the same graduate program and, since breaking up with her fiance about a year ago, she has steadily sunk deeper and deeper into cocaine and alcohol addictions. She has also been sleeping with dozens of random guys and partying almost non-stop. My friends and I tried to stage an intervention last winter, but she accused us of just trying to scare her. We thought things were improving in the spring, but I just learned (from another close friend who has become the only person in whom she confides) that, over the summer, her addictions and partying became worse. I suggested to the friend in whom she confides that we tell her parents everything that's happening. They seem to be clueless about it, and though she's 29 years old, it's clear that she needs to be saved from herself. My friend's response was "I'm not sure about that, but I'll think about it." Should I be the one to tell her parents, even though I don't have direct knowledge of her recent actions? I'm not sure why my friend is hesitant about telling her parents.

Her close friend may be hesitant to break a confidence, but keeping a secret should not trump trying to rescue someone who's sinking. Probably your troubled friend confessed her substance abuse and her promiscuity under the condition that the conversation stay private. But it's unsual when someone harms herself, or ends up being hospitalized for a mental collapse, that those around her say they had no idea that things were spiraling out of control.  Your friend may have some treatable, underlying mental illness that's fueling many of her destructive behaviors.  She needs a comprehensive physical and mental evaluation and a plan of action. Since she isn't capable right now of helping herself, please be the one to tell her parents.  Yes, your friend might be very angry at you for this.  So what? You will be very angry with yourself if the worst happens and you look back and realize you didn't do what you could to help.

Dear Pru, My child is turning 7 this year, and we decided to let her have her first "birthday party" with kids from school. We gave out invites two weeks in advance and started planning a party for 16 guests. The problem is no one has called. I am an easy going person who understands issues arise and things happen, but all of them? Forget the money and time I spent, my child is soo excited for this party. I am seeing red and having a hard time with my anger. I have not even recieved a "sorry we cant make it" call. Just silence. How would someone feel if this was their little suzy! How do I break it to my child that this is going to be a "party for one"?

Let's set aside the possiblity that for some reason you child is disliked by the other kids and they don't want to come. (If that's the case, you need to be on top of that and taking action with the school.)   What you more likely are experience is the death of the RSVP.  Increasingly people look on invitations as just one appetizer in the social buffet of life.  Why commit when something better may  come along, or they won't feel like hauling themselves to your house the day of the party.  Sadly, this means not only are you responsible for sending invitations, you must then act like a big game hunter stalking your prey as you attempt to force a yes or no out of them.  For your daughter's sake, you really do need to know if you're going to have a party for one, five, or ten. So start calling the other parents. Do not be accusatory or make them defensive.  Just say, "I hope you got the invitation for Suzy's birthday party. We just wanted to know how much food to plan for, so we're really hoping  Sophia will be coming."

Prudence, I recently ended a 3-year relationship with a man I loved - but although I loved him, we kept running into the same problems. A few months ago, I broke it off with him and moved out. This weekend, I heard from mutual friends that he had killed himself and his parents indicated that he wrote a great deal about me prior to his death. I'm shocked and horrified by this. His funeral is later this week and I have no idea what the etiquette is. Should I attend his funeral? Send a card? Do I just pretend I didn't hear anything about it? I suspect my presence may grieve his family more.

You are not responsible for his death. I hope his mourning parents understand that your break up was because he was so deeply troubled, and not that your ending the relationship is the cause of his suicide. However,  it's also possible that his devastated parents might want to shift the blame for this terrible loss onto you.  Since you have friends who know his parents, I think one of them should be your go-between here.  Ask one of your friends to tell his parents you are deeply shaken and grieving their son's loss and would like to pay your respects by attending the funeral. But that you  wanted to make sure your presence would not be upsetting to them.  Then, no matter what they say, do write a letter to his parents.  Tell them that you loved their son and write about what was fine and good about him, and express that you will always regret you didn't know just how much pain he was in. (And for the letter writer with the troubled friend in graduate school -- please let this letter be a spur to action.)

Dear Prudie, I opened my wallet yesterday and $40 I knew should have been there, was missing. I confronted my six year old boy, who denied any knowledge. When I checked his pockets - I found the $40. I should I deal with a young child that steals?

He's six, so you don't act as if this is a capital offense. Many people who go on to live lives of integrity have flirted with criminal behavior during their elementary school years.  Surely this "boy" knew he was doing something wrong when he took the money, then didn't see any way out when you confronted him.  So you need to have a calm talk with him, showing him by your tone and manner that you are not angry.  Say after you saw the money was missing, you did find it in his pocket.  Explain you think that he was probably scared to tell you what he'd done, and ask if that's the case.  If he starts talking, hear him out without judgment. Then explain that even though it's tempting to take things of other people's it's just not right -- he wouldn't want a friend to take one of his favorite toys without asking.  Most of all you want to express to him that it's all right for him to let you know when he's done something wrong.  This doesn't mean behavior never gets punished, but that if punishments need to be meted out they will be done fairly and without vindictiveness.

Unless you personally handed out the invites to each child, please check with the teacher or aide to make sure they didn't accidentally get forgotten somewhere in the beginning of school chaos of papers, papers, and more papers. Also, sometimes, they will be handed out and fall into the abyss of the bottom of the backpacks. Please do call the parents. I would hate for another person to think I was just plain rude (I refuse to give into the death of the RSVP theory!).

Great point.  It is not the school's responsibility to take care of personal invitations, and they should not be entrusted to 7 year-olds. That may be the source of the trouble.

I met my husband in my mid 20s. When I was pregnant with my second child he started seeing other women. We separated 10 years ago when I found out his mistress was pregnant. Since then I raised my two kids on my own, never formally divorced, and he occasionally sends me $500 as child support but does not have regular contact with his kids. Recently my sister in law (my husband's brother's wife) phoned. During our conversation she mentioned he is living with another woman and has a 17 month old child. My older son is fiercely protective of his father, despite not knowing him. He hates that I am seeing another man and says he eventually wants to live near dad. I've not told my children that they have half siblings for fear this would shock them. Should they know? If so, when do I tell them?

Here are some things you need in your life, pronto: a lawyer, a divorce, regular child support, and honesty. It is a shame that all of you have been living in this netherworld of secrets for so long. No wonder your son has idealized the portrait he's created of the father he barely knows.  You need to move on, and that means taking some legal action to make your husband your ex and work out financial arrangements and possibly setting up some regular visitation.  All this would include letting your children know that they have (at least) two half-siblings they are entitled to meet, and possible have a relationship with.  Your children are going to have a lot of questions about all of this, and you need to let them know they can always bring their concerns to you, even if you don't always have answer.

Hi Prudie, Is it reasonable/normal to get upset over someone's Facebook postings? For example, my live-in boyfriend of two and a half years posting that he's never been in love, for all of our mutual friends and acquaintances to see (it was news to me, too - we've discussed kids and future plans). Thanks.

Let me stipulate that I hope despite that fact that your live-in boyfriend has never been in love, he likes you well enough to have friended you, so that you can be privy to the innermost thoughts he posts for everyone he knows to see.  I'm going to infer that you already raised with him the fact that you were wounded to find out via Facebook that he doesn't love you, and he said something to the effect that his Facebook postings are his business.  Without taking your own grievance to Facebook, you need to tell him that this revelation has understandably put your present living arrangements, and your future plans, in jeopardy. Insist that you two  need to have a serious discussion, and it has to be off-line.

A family in my daughter's class at school is struggling to make ends meet. I would like to help and am very conscious of not wanting to make them uncomfortable, disrupt our daughters' friendship, or otherwise be well-meaning to the point of insensitivity. Any advice for the best way to proceed? I was leaning toward gift cards to supermarkets or Target sent anonymously through the mail. Or do I just support nonprofit agencies that provide these services and hope the universe directs help toward this family? Thank you!

Because so many people are struggling these days, the stigma of trying to make do after a lay off is far less than it used to be.  Sure, they could be embarrassed by an offer of help, but if you make it in an understated way, that should protect everyone's feelings.  You could say something like, "I do a lot of bulk shopping.  I know things are tough at the moment because of this terrible economy, and I would happy to pick up extra groceries for you."  Readers, any other suggestions for how to handle this or what help to offer?

I have been dating my boyfriend for a year and things are going well. We decided to meet each other's parents, and he warned me that his mother was eccentric. At the meeting I thought his mom was friendly, although she said a few nutty things. It all went well and I was happy to get a call from his mom a few days later for brunch, "just us two girls", to get to know each other better. Halfway through brunch she started a long dialogue on some of the financial problems she was having. Then she asked me for money - $2000. She said I must never let her son know, because some of the money was needed for various medical check ups to see if she had breast cancer (I am certain this is a lie, based on several bizarre things she said). I politely told her I was broke, to which she asked if I had a credit card, and perhaps I could just go into overdraft. The following weeks she contacted me a few more times to ask if there was any way I could give her money. When I began ignoring her she phoned my work and screamed at the receptionist. It's clear to me that my boyfriend's mother is a nut job. I am wondering now if this should be a dealbreaker. Things with my boyfriend are going so well, but I've seen my mom in conflict with my dad's parents for decades. Is a good man worth his crazy mother?

It's a good thing that everyone with crazy parents is not considered unmarriageble or else the rate of marriage in this country would plummet.  Your boyfriend's mother is far more than eccentric, she sounds disturbed and no wonder he's kept her stashed.  Forget not letting your boyfriend know she hit you up for money and caused trouble for you at work.  You need to tell your boyfriend eveything that happened, and see if he has any influence on keeping his mother in check.  He may not, and that may not be his fault.  But what's important here is that he recognizes how troubling this is and that he joins with you in trying to protect you from his mother.  If he just shrugs it off and say that's how she is, then that is concerning about he would deal with her if she became your mother-in-law.

The kids in a class might not like someone so you want to take action with the school? How about getting Congress involved? They could write a law that says that everyone should be nice to each other, write thank you notes, and say please.

Yes, if one child is a pariah, this should be addressed with the teachers and administrators.  I'll leave John Boehner of it for the time being.  But I agree with the readers who surmised the invitations were not mailed to the kids' homes, but were supposed to go in their backpacks via the teacher.  I will not ask for a law mandating the distribution of birthday invitations.

My daughter, 8, has a friend from school who constantly invites her over for sleep overs. The problem is that this friend's dad gives my wife and I the willies, as he does to other parents. What do we tell our 8 year old?

You trust your gut and don't let your daughter sleep over there.  You just have to tell her, "Mom and I like Samantha but we prefer that when you two  have sleep-overs you do it over our house."  If your daughter asks why, you can say that different parents run their households different ways, and that's their choice, but you are more comfortable with Samantha being here. 

A coworker of mine, "Betsy", is having her first girl. She and I are not very close at work though we get along just fine. A few weeks ago, Betsy announced that she is inviting everyone to her baby shower and that she's registered at some local stores. Because I don't know her very well and because things are exceptionally tight at home (this is one of two jobs) I respectfully declined. She's started telling people at work that I'm a party pooper and that I've hurt her feelings by not wanting to go. It seems like every other woman in the office is going and is pestering me about the shower and why I can't show up. I feel like I'm being pressured to go buy something I can't afford for a woman I'm now greatly disliking. How do I handle this?

Let's fervently hope Betsy takes a long, long maternity leave.  It sounds as if you whole office needs a shake up. This is a workplace. Of course people make friendships that extend to socializing outside the office.  Some offices even have social events to celebrate certain milestones of the people who work there.  But you are under no obligation to buckle to Betsy's extortion.  I would hope that the bad-mouthing she is giving you would annoy your co-workers.  If they continue to bug you, just smile and say you wish Betsy the best but you are unable to attend her shower, you told her so politely, and there's nothing more to say.

Before I got married, my SIL warned me that our parents in law were totally fanatic grandparents, and that they would want me and my husband to have kids straight away. I've been married for 5 months now and as expected, my ILs have been pestering us to have children straight after we returned from our honeymoon. We actually have been trying for a baby but didn't tell my ILs until last month. Since then, they have been even more insistent than ever before. Last night my MIL even called to say she set up an appointment at the fertility clinic for today and that "all four of us" (as in, me, my husband, and his parents) should go together. What do I do with this fanatical MIL?

You must enlist your husband to draw some boundaries with your parents on the order of those around Fort Knox.  I'm shuddering to imagine a fertility appointment for the four of you -- will your father-in-law offer some sperm? Assuming you successfully reproduce without their help, you will not want to have to patrol your home with stun guns to keep the "fanatic grandparents" at bay.  Keep practicing saying, "We will let you know in due time if there is a grandchild on the way.  Otherwise, I don't want to talk about this."  If they keep talking, end the conversation or the visit.

My husband's dad is crazy. However, I love my husband and so of course it is worth dealing with the crazy. If your boyfriend loves you, he will protect you from his mother, as Prudence said. Your boyfriend should always be the one dealing with his mother. My husband deals with is dad when necessary and I only have to deal with him when we see him every other month or so. Since my husband is understanding and sympathetic to my position, the situation is not so bad.

Thanks for illustrating an excellent way to handle a difficult situation.

I know your reader just wants to help, but anonymous gift cards, or free groceries? Don't, just, don't. If you are friends with this family, then invite them over for dinner, offer to take their kids on a outing, your treat. Make these events low-key, a night of chili and board games, so the family won't feel like you spent too much on them. If you have any outgrown clothes or sports equipment, offer them to your friends (but let them decide whether to accept). However, if you aren't friends with this family already, then your attempts to help are just going to feel like a hand-out. In that case, you'd be better off giving to non-profit agencies, or at most, steering the family toward services they could use.

I agree with your suggestions (inviting the family over for dinner, handing down clothes and equipment).  I also agree anonymous gift cards would be disturbing.  But if the families are friendly enough, I don't think helping with groceries occasionally is necessarily humiliating.

After seven years of employment, my telecommuting management position is being eliminated at my company at the end of the week. The position they offered me to stay was insulting under the circumstances, so I opted for a severance package. Traditionally, major staff changes are announced by the CEO at company meetings and/or via email. Last week, we had a management team meeting during which he announced several staffing additions and eluded to "all the changes" but never once mentioned my name. Last month, he spoke for 5 minutes about the departure of a woman who was only on staff a couple months. I feel slighted and insulted. Do I let it go, or do I say something? Considering I've agreed to go above and beyond by working for two months while they secured additional staff and have been training the person that will take on some of my duties in-house, I think that expecting the traditional public "thank you" is not to much to ask. Am I being overly sensitive?

Sure, I understand you are hurt and miffed. But these are the people you are going to rely on for recommendations for your next job.  During your negotiations it sounds as if made your grievances clear, so that may be why the boss decided not to mention your departure, even though he should have been gracious.  But now is a good opportunity to heal the breach.  Write notes to the top people saying that you wanted to let them know what a great experience working for their company has been and list some reasons why.  It will greatly benefit you to be the big one here.

This woman is throwing herself a baby shower?

Good catch.  And let's agree this is no surprise.

Also, talk to the school. A lot of schools have programs to help their families and are happy to have volunteers or donations to support those programs (which do often give grocery gift cards etc). That is one way to give more directed help without causing discomfort to the family.

Thanks, good advice.

Those parents who wrote in about not letting their daughter sleep over because the dad "gives them the willies" are absolutely right. When my daughter was at prime sleep-over age, a girl in her class kept asking her to come over. We refused steadfastly, because another friend had spent the night and a) the mother drank herself into a stupor and b) the father showed up in the middle of the night with another woman. Trust your gut!!

No wonder this girl wanted company -- this was probably her way of trying to rescue herself.  Readers have said shouldn't a father who gives everyone "the willies" be reported.  Unfortunately, "willies" don't sound like enough to go on.  But the community should be keeping an eye out for his little girl.

Thanks so much, 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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