Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Apr 30, 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 took your questions on manners, morals and more.

Good afternoon, everyone.  I look forward to your questions!

Anne and I have daughters enrolled in the same dance classes. We both often stay at the lessons and chat with other moms. But I've always gotten the impression that Anne doesn't like me. She never returns my greetings and often turns away from the conversation when I'm talking. Last week we were both walking to our cars, so I asked, "Anne, have I done something to offend you? I hope not, because I'd really enjoy getting to know you better." Anne turned to me and said, "I'm sorry, but I am against adoption. I believe buying children is ethically deplorable." She got in her car and drove off. I should now explain that I am white and my husband is black, so our daughter has darker skin than me. Since she's never met my husband, Anne assumed I adopted my daughter from Africa. I found her assumption to be DEEPLY offensive, because although my daughter is not adopted, I am. I'm pretty grossed out by Anne's judgment, but I don't know how to respond, or if I should even bother engaging such a narrow-minded person.

Consider yourself lucky that Anne opened up to you. If you had  fit her criteria for  being acceptable you might have unwittingly become friendly with this deranged person. So she's against adoption, is probably a racist, and because she's such a seething mass of hatreds she doesn't even know how to behave courteously to a fellow mother at her daughter's dance class.  She's beneath contempt and now that she's expressed to you the reasons for her rudeness, there really isn't any need for a response from you. It's a delicate thing to remain polite in the face of such nuttiness, but as long as you are friendly to the other mothers, Anne's bizarre behavior will speak for itself.  Since you and your daughter are lovely, and Anne is obviously rude to you, the others will likely wonder if Anne is a roaring racist, which would be a good assumption.  Otherwise, forget about this nitwit and just have pity for her daughter.

Dear Prudence, When my best friend fell pregnant unexpectedly, her boyfriend confessed he was actually married. He initially said he would get a divorce, but then announced during her second trimester that he'd only stay with her if she gave the baby up for adoption. Needless to say, she dumped him and is preparing for single motherhood. I have attended antenatal appointments with her and have been helping her prepare for the baby's arrival, and generally doing most things a father would be doing. She asked me to be with her during the birth, and of course I happily said I would. Due to some previously unforeseen risks, however, she is now getting induced four weeks before the actual due date. The problem is, it is on a date where my husband and I are meant to be in Thailand. We booked the cheapest tickets and accommodation online last year so nothing is refundable. We can't even get more leave after this until next year and it's been incredibly difficult to arrange leave from work at the same time. I would like to go because it's a significant trip for me and my husband -- the first proper break we have since we got married -- and a chance to get away from the drama we've been experiencing in our own families. I'm scared of breaking the news to my friend, who might feel hurt and angry. Am I a terrible person for wanting to go on this vacation?

As your friend is experiencing, life presents us with many unexpected twists and turns. One of them is that her drama-filled pregnancy is ending a month early, and unfortunately you can't be there for the birth.  Your friend is going to need a big support network to help her care for her child, so it can't just consist of you. I hope she has a family member or other close friend who can step up and attend the birth with her.  You should not put off this trip. As much as you want to help your friend, it's important for her to recognize you are not a surrogate father. As for the actual father, I hope your friend hired an attorney so that child support payments will be starting a month earlier than expected.

Dear Prudence, I'm a university student still living at with home with my parents. This summer however, I'm studying at another university, and I'll be sharing an apartment with three other girls. This will be the first time I'll actually have to do my own laundry, and as I don't want to seem weird, I have a question. At my house, everyone has their own set of bath towels, and they get washed about every three weeks. While recently staying at a friend's house though, she told me that her family just washes their towels every time they use them. I never thought about it before, but will I seem dirty if I don't wash my towels everyday? Signed Dirty Towel?

This reminds me of the old Joan Rivers joke about hating to do laundry: "So I told my husband we had three sets of sheets -- white, gray, and black."  Washing your towels every time you use them sound a little OCD to me and would definitely make me want to install hand dryers at my home if that were the standard I was expected to keep.  I wash my towels once a week, so of course I think that's the right amount of cleanliness. Readers?

A few years ago, I purchased my first home. Through a little good fortune and lot of hard work, I have come very close to paying off the entire balance of the home loan rather quickly. I would love to share in this milestone with friends and family by throwing a celebratory get-together this summer, with food and drinks provided, to mark the occasion. However, some of my friends are unemployed or underemployed, and about half currently rent out the places they call home. I can't help but worry that, in this economic environment, a party to celebrate my lack of indebtedness might rub people the wrong way, especially those who may just be scraping by. Consequently, I've considered limiting the gathering to a few people with whom I'm especially close. Would I rain on some parades by throwing a larger party, or should I feel at liberty to share this news and invite the whole crew?

Throw a lovely summer party and keep the reason for the celebration private.  You don't need an excuse to have friends over for food and drink. But tapping on a glass to announce, "The reason I've gathered you all here is to raise a toast  to the fact that I have paid off my mortgage at an accelerated rate" will definitely be hard for everyone else to swallow.

For the past two months I have noticed, with increasing suspicion, my husband's newfound tendency to "work late." He would come home at two, three in the morning. After he denied cheating on me, I hired a private investigator, who discovered that my husband has been visiting his pancreatic cancer stricken mistress in the hospital. I confronted him, and my husband told me he wants to save our marriage. He's been with his mistress for four years and loves us both. But he values our life together more. His mistress will die soon, he tells me. And he's begging me to allow him to continue to visit her, because apart from her adult children, not many people do. I am experiencing all the emotional devastation that comes with discovering infidelity, and on top of that I'm dealing with the fact that the other woman is dying. I worry my husband only wants to stay with me because she'll be gone forever soon. And I don't want him to continue to visit her, even if it would bring her comfort. Am I a terrible person?

I think we'll give the "Terrible person" award to your husband. How nice for him to tell you once the other woman he loves is gone, he'll come crawling back to you. Obviously, what you have discovered is a shock and you're entitled to the full range of your reactions.  I hope you have some close friends who you feel comfortable confiding in, and a therapist to help guide your through your options would be a big help at a time like this.  All that said, I think you should not try to prevent your husband visiting this woman.  There's nothing for you to gain by what you might see in retrospect as a petty move.  I'm not defending this woman, who knowingly had an affair with a married man.  I'm just acknowledging that being a dying person changes things. Your husband owes you honesty from now on. Whether you want to stay in your marriage once the mistress is gone is  something you can decide on your own time.

saying, "Anne, I just wanted you to know how wrong your assumption was. My daughter is my biological biracial child. Not that this justifies your shunning me on the basis of a misguided principle. And don't worry, I am no longer interested in getting to know you any better."

That the daughter is not adopted is irrelevant. Anne is a worm and doesn't deserve any explanations.

My 9 year old daughter cannot sing. Really, it's awful. She gets this total tone deafness from me. Weirdly, her brother and sister have lovely singing voices. She loves to sing so I want to leave it alone, but should we tell her that's while she has many other talents, singing is not one of them? She loves to sing for others and it's painful sometimes.

Oh, I would love to have a World's Worst Singer contest with your daughter. I'm sure I would take the trophy. She's only 9 years old, so I'm hoping people are a little indulgent of her desire to belt out a few tunes for them. Soon enough, she will discover the world is full of Simon Cowells, and then you can lovingly tell her that everyone has their own special talents, but for you, and her (and me), singing isn't it.  But if she really wants not to sound like a cat tied in a burlap bag, singing classes won't get her to the Metropolitan Opera, but they might allow her to sing, "Happy Birthday" without miming the words (and I do). 

Washing them once a week sounds about right to me. Every day sounds ridiculous. Once every three weeks seems like a long time. Also, your reader should keep in mind that with a group of young people in a roommate situation, the whole hygiene situation may not be what it was at home. Especially true, probably, with guys, but probably also true for women. Try to roll with the flow.

Agreed -- but if that means putting a clothespin over your nose because of the stench, then a little lesson in laundry etiquette is appropriate.

I have just returned from a trip to China to adopt a 9 month old baby girl. Because we had a failed domestic adoption three years ago (birth parents changed their mind) we chose not to tell anyone except a few until we had her in our arms. We couldn't wait to tell our friends and coworkers. But when we arrived there, we were told our baby was hospitalized with what doctors initially thought was a trivial illness. Then she passed away four days later in the intensive care unit after we barely got to hug her. What kills me is that except for us and a few close family members, nobody even knows of our daughter's existence. I would like to tell everybody that we had a daughter, even for a few days, and that she was loved and cherished. Since we've never been in this situation before I am not quite sure how to spread the news. Should I write an email? Tell everyone in person? How should I do this and what can I say? Would it be appropriate to share a photo? -Grieving Mom

I'm so sorry for your heartbreak. First of all, please contact, this is a support group for people who have suffered a loss such as yours, and they will understand what you are experiencing.  I think an email to a group of friends -- but not everyone you know -- would be perfectly appropriate. You can make the subject line "Sad News" and then say you are sorry to send a mass email, but you thought it was the best way to let everyone know that you recently suffered a loss.  Explain briefly that the adoption had been underway for a while, but tragically your sweet little girl died of a medical issue before you could bring her home. A photograph of her would be fine.  You can say you wanted those close to you to understand that you are going through a difficult period of mourning.

I am five feet tall and weigh 118 pounds. My boyfriend is six feet ten inches tall and weighs 295 pounds, most of it muscle. As you can imagine, we make for an interesting looking couple. Family, friends, strangers make a number of false assumptions based on our contrasting appearances, like that sex is painful for me. Recently my boyfriend and I spent the weekend with my parents. We got into a brief argument, and I guess we did raise our voices at each other. My parents freaked out about our fight, which took place in our room. They burst into the room, yelled at my boyfriend for arguing with me, and almost kicked him out. My mom drew me aside and asked me if my boyfriend tried to intimidate my physically. Despite me telling them not to be, my parents remain wary of my boyfriend, mostly because he's so much bigger than me. Do you think there's anything I can do to convince them that I can hold my own against him?

Any parents would be distressed to hear their daughter and her boyfriend raise their voices. But if the parents live in fear that their little girl could be crushed to death every time she makes love, you've got some anxious parents.  A sense of humor here would help. Tell your parents you both apologize for the spat, you understand their concerns, but your boyfriend is actually a gentle giant, you're stronger than you look, and unlikely as you look together, you make each other very happy.

Dear Prudie, I have always been a tomboy and only really put a lot of attention to my appearance on special occasions. My job is casual and I must look nice, but there is no reason to get all dressed up. Last week my boyfriend of nine months and I were shopping for some new work clothes for him because he recently got a promotion. As we were shopping, numerous times he either pointed out or tried to get me to try on some more feminine clothing. I finally asked if there was something he wanted to tell me. He said that he wished I put a bit more effort into my appearance and offered to pay for new clothes or some makeup and makeup application lessons. I was floored. We have known each other for years and this is always how I dressed. He told me that it isn't just him who thinks this, but he thinks it might eventually impede job prospects. I am really torn about this. I've never been a girly-girl and my job really does not require anything special. Should I change this about myself because he wants me to?

I work at home so day in day out my outfit consists of casual pants, a tee shirt, and zip sweat shirt. It's my look, but at least I know I look like crap. (I also have a teenage daughter to remind me.) But you are a young professional. The adage for people in your position is "Dress for the job you want." But you're saying to everyone, "I'm the casual tomboy who's not going anywhere." It sounds as if your boyfriend and friends have been thinking of submitting your name to "What Not to Wear." But before Stacy London gets a hold of you, realize that doing the most with what you have is not selling yourself out.  Go to a department store, get a personal shopper and give her a budget. Get a make up application at the cosmetics counter and buy some basics. Marie Claire magzine has regular features on dressing for the job.  I promise you that making yourself as attractive as possible will result in some pleasant rewards. 

My Dad died a few weeks ago and I find I am always mad at my Mom now, which I know is not the way I want to be feeling. She refuses to sell her house or move closer so my sister and I can help her but she complains all of the time. My two adult children, my sister and, most important, my job are all in Northern VA. I have just 9 years to retirement and I don't want to give up everything to pack it up and go to CA. She is guilting my sister into moving to CA but my sister and I have a good relationship, go out to events, share holidays etc., and I am becoming very resentful of my Mom's demands. I find I am not answering her calls - which I really need to do because she has fallen once already and now has to have surgery. I am becoming more and more resentful of her inability to at least consider some other options. I don't like myself when I am like this -- how do I get over it? I can't help but worry about her but I don't want to leave it all behind and move to CA. I have spent a year's worth of leave going back and forth (6 weeks) and now can not visit my son who is in the military when he comes back from deployment (Mom wants him to go to CA to see her - aagh!). I don't want to have to choose between my kids and her either. Resentful in VA

If you are heading toward retirement yourself then you have a mother who is very old, alone, and it sounds as if she is not capable of caring for herself. Of course it would be wrenching for her to move from the house she may have lived in much of her life and where the memories of her late husband are. But unless you and your sister can put in place there the kind of supervision that would reassure you she is being looked after, I'm afraid it's time for a role reversal.  While respecting her independence and ability to make her own choices, you and your sister should present a united front and say that things have to change and what makes the most sense is for her to be with her family now. That would mean moving her to a facility near all of you. It may help if you hire an intermediary, let's say a social worker specializing in geriatric issues, who can be a neutral voice of authority sans emotional baggage.  If she absolutely refuses, then sadly you and your sister have to let her know some facts: You have limited time and money and can't be going back and forth across the country to attend to her.  Your son is going to be visiting all of his family in Virginia when he's on leave. Add that his visit would be a great time for your mother to fly out and look at living options here.  She can only guilt trip you if you acquiese to the guilt. 

That's a delicious, satisfying position, but . . . Really, no human being is a worm. Anne has some kind of deeply-buried wound that needs healing. The shock of realizing that an assumption was wrong, and that a darling little girl isn't the person she thought, just might be the shock she needs to revisit her assumptions and explore their foundation. Or maybe not, but you never know.

I'm going with worm.

Prudie, as a tomboy myself I agree w/your advice to have the OP consider actually getting some makeup application lessons from those dept store counters (maybe personal shopper help? Lord and Taylor offers them free in some locations) if only to help her realize how putting an effort into her appearance will actually help in her career (it helped me in mine). HOWEVER, the big issue here is the fact that her boyfriend is TELLING her to start wearing makeup and dress differently. For me, that would be a bit of a red flag...although I know that dressing a certain way will help me at work, I still would much rather date someone who loves me best when I look most like 'myself' in my everyday life.

But she always looks like her unadorned self. I don't think there's anything wrong with a boyfriend who would occasionally like his girlfriend to enhance her prettiness.  Turn it around -- it doesn't seen so objectionable for a woman to say, "Babe, I want to take you shopping. I think a nicer wardrobe and a better haircut would make a good impression at work, and I'd enjoy it, too. "

I'm 7 months pregnant. We often socialize with my husband's group of friends. Since the weather is getting nicer, more and more of these events are outdoors (backyard BBQs, restaurant patios, etc) Probably half of the group smokes cigarettes. I quit smoking years ago, don't care if others smoke, but wish they would NOT do it right next to me (even when outdoors) I often find myself sitting next to someone that will light up, and I don't want to be rude, but how do I politely ask them not to smoke near me? I feel weird jumping up and changing a BBQ last weekend I ended up moving repeatedly and found myself getting grumpy about it. I can't figure out a better way to handle it, except stay home. Am I being a jerk?

Even if you're outdoors, someone is being a jerk who is sitting next to you and doesn't inquire first whether the smoke would bother you.  For now, when you sit down you can say that you're really sensitive to smoke and is everyone okay with this being a non-smoking table?  Then if any else joins he or she can be warned not to light up.  It's 2012, surely these smokers know that the burden's on them not to impose their habit on people who want to eat, or gestate, without inhaling their toxic fumes.

I broke up with my ex-boyfriend three months ago because he cheated on me. He begged to reconsider and kept contacting me. He leaves voicemails of him crying and gets his friends to call to say he's missing and that they're worried he may have done something to harm himself. I know he just does that to get attention so I ignore it. I sent him a strongly worded email telling him to get the hell away from me, but he seems to think that he can get me to love him out of pity. Then, recently as I checked my banking statement, I noticed he started sending me money. He's deposited $5 or $10 several times in the past month, presumably to get his name printed on my bank statement and get my attention. I'm truly at a loss as to what to do. How can I get him to leave me alone?

How is he able to make a direct desposit to your bank account? If he had access to it during your relationship, then notify your bank you need to close that account and open another. Make sure all passwords he may have had access to are changed. When his friends call tell them all contact on his behalf needs to stop -- you feel you are being stalked. Since you have told him that you want him to leave you alone and he won't, see  a lawyer and have a cease and desist letter sent to your boyfriend. The letter can say that if the contact doesn't stop completely, the authorities will be informed of this continuing harassment.

I am a relatively normal 28 year old man. I have an odd digestive system, though, so I have more problems with gas than average. I usually manage to minimize such issues by choosing easily digested foods, and making quick trips out of the room when I can tell I'm about to pass wind. Rightly, this has caused a few chuckles among my friends once they realize why I wander off, but while it's a bit embarrassing, I've managed to deal, as I can handle their good natured teasing. But, my problem comes in when I date -- I can generally hide my problem for the first few dates, but when it begins to get more physical, and it's impossible to leave the room in the middle of things, I cringe at the thought of what to do when the inevitable happens. We're talking farts during sex. I do not want that to happen, and as a result, I've managed to mess up a few relationships that I had thought were going well with my inability to get physical. I have a new girlfriend, and I think things are going that way, but  I don't know what to do -- .risk the sounds and smells? Warn her? Continue to live monk-like?

See your doctor, and a gastroenterologist if necessary. You may need to try an elimination diet (ah, that is, eliminating potential offenders, such as dairy or wheat, from your intake). You may have some kind of digestive disorder that needs diagnosing. As one of my favorite children's books, "The Gas We Pass" points out, farting is normal. What's not normal is constructing your social and intimate life around your eruptions.

Over the past couple of years, as I have grown older and more perceptive, I've come to realize that my dad essentially abandoned his children from his first marriage. I also suspect my mom might have had a hand in driving a wedge between him and my half-siblings. I love my parents so much. In my opinion, they've been incredible, fantastic parents. So these revelations disturb me deeply. I am having trouble reconciling the way my dad treated his other children with the way he raised my brother and me. I want to talk with him and my mom about what I've learned, but I'm really worried that once we have that conversation, our relationship will be forever changed for the worse. I feel like I shouldn't be allowed to love them after I learn about their motivations and have absolute confirmation about what I've learned. Some guidance would be very much appreciated.

I usually hear from the children of the abandoned first family, so good for you for recognizing that a wrong was done,  even if you were the beneficiary. I think this is a good conversation to open up, but it has to be done with delicacy and without accusation (even if accusations would be justified). You could start by saying to your parents you are increasingly feeling that you would like your step-siblings to be more a part of your family's life and want to talk to them  about how to do this. Accept  these are going to be difficult, defensive, and guilt-ridden conversations, but if you stay calm and firm, you may make some progress.  There is no reason for you not to continue to love your parents. Part of growing older and more perceptive is understand the people we may once have thought were perfect are flawed, sometimes deeply.

Please tell "resentful in VA" to get a copy of the book "Coping with Your Difficult Older Parent: A guide for Stresed out Children". Then contact Aging Network Services in Bethesda, MD. They will have some strategies and suggestions for services which can help you and your sister.


My wife is very proper and would never pass gas in public (or even-semi-private), but when we have sex she farts. A lot, sometimes. Never bothered me in the slightest. Of course, I'm a guy. Still, if things are "going that way," then the other party might well be inclined to overlook such minor things.

Light up the incense and light my fire!

Thanks everyone! Have a great 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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