Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Sep 18, 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.

At Rosh Hashanah services yesterday we read Hannah's story in Samuel. Hannah suffered from infertility and neither her husband nor the high priest gave her comfort because instead of truly listening to her distress, they were dishing bad advice based on selfish or wrong assumptions.  A suitably chastening lesson I will keep in mind.

Dear Prudence, I have a wonderfully satisfying job at a small non-profit organization. I love my co-workers and more importantly the cause we advance and the people whose lives we make better. But recently there was an incident with my boss, "Mr. Johnson". He's a great leader and we couldn't function without him, but he's also kind of forgetful and seems to always have his head in the clouds. Mr. Johnson frequently neglects to adjust his wardrobe so that his pants zipper is up after using the gentleman's room. After a meeting we had yesterday it also seem apparent that he doesn't always wear underwear as his bull escaped from the barn. It wasn't intentional or sexual in any way, but every time I see my boss I can only think of his privates that didn't keep so private. I'm not even sure if he noticed it got out when this happened as he didn't react or seem embarrassed. Should I talk directly to Mr. Johnson about this, or should I report the incident to his supervisor? Or should I just let it go and hope it never happens again?

Oh, yeah, sweet, absent-minded Mr. Johnson is so busy making the world better that he often forgets to keep his johnson in his pants.  I have gotten so many letters about nutty people running around non-profits that I am developing a theory that this field attracts loons because under the guise of doing good, they get to behave badly. Normally when a man realizes he's forgotten to zip his pants, the humiliation makes him want to secure his fly with a padlock. But there's Mr. Johnson letting it all hang out day after day, seemingly oblivious. If this guy is really that out of it, I wonder if he has the  capacity to be running an organization. Alternately, he may be pretending to be a ding-dong because it's good cover for exposing his ding-dong.  Since this has happened more than once, I think it's gotten past the point where someone needs to quietly mention, "Dick, your zipper is down." It's fair for you to go to a supervisor and say you are too uncomfortable to have this conversation with Mr. Johnson yourself, but he needs to be told that the wardrobe malfunctions must come to an end.

My stepfather died last year. He was a huge hero in the commuity due to his involvement in various causes. He was an idol to my mother, who was a widow with four children when they met and married. Several relatives even suggested we pen a biography of him for our future generations. What people don't know is that he took advantage of me when I was 15. I mistakenly thought of his affections as genuine love and he was my first sexual encounter, which lasted six months. He was extremely manipulative, and when I began resisting he emotionally blackmailed me. He spread lies about me to other family members so if I ever told anyone, I would look like a liar and a delinquent. As an adult I had limited contact with my mother and siblings because it was too painful to see him. After he died I started to be in touch with my family more. But it remains difficult to hear my family reminisce what a wonderful person he was. A part of me wants to out him as the scumbag he is. Another part of me wants to protect my family's memory of the husband and father he was to them, however inaccurate that is. Should I tell or keep quiet?

Please get some counseling to help you both deal with this trauma and figure out what your next steps should be. RAINN and Stop It Now are two places you can start. How monstrous that not only did your step-father rape you, he used his power to estrange you from your family. I'm going to bet that depending on their sex and your late step-father's proclivities, it's likely you are not the only sibling  to have been abused by him.  But it's also true that families can create fortresses of lies, and since your step-father had already painted you as a delinquent, that might allow the others, especially your mother, to refuse to believe what happened. This is why you need some professional guidance. It might even be possible that a social worker could accompany you to a meeting with your family at which you explain the truth. He was able to bully and intimidate you into keeping his depraved secrets. But you have no obligation now to help others honor the memory of this criminal.

My eleven-year-old daughter Meghan recently went on her first solo play date with her new friend Brooke. Brooke's mom Cindy and I have spent time with the girls together, and Cindy seemed sane. Then Meghan came home and told me Cindy let her four-year-old son pee in the aisle of a bookstore because the bookstore's bathroom was only for customers. Brooke's little brother had to pee, and the sales associate wouldn't relax the rule. From what Meghan tells me, Cindy set her son down and helped him pull down her pants. Meghan and Brooke found the public urination to be hilarious, and Cindy told them the sales associate should have let them use the restroom, because it was "obviously an emergency." I think Cindy behaved like a crazy person, and I'm upset she behaved this way in front of my daughter. I don't want Meghan to spend time with Cindy anymore, but I also don't want to ruin her friendship with Brooke. This seems like an elaborate and weird story for my truthful daughter to create, but I probably need to talk to Cindy anyways. Any pointers?

It sounds as if Cindy's goal is to turn her son into the next "Mr. Johnson."  Yes, it's a foolish sales person who won't let a desperate mother take her 4 year-old son into the bathroom. But in response the answer is not liquid vandalism.  Tell your daughter that as hilarious as the prank may have seemed, you're concerned about Cindy's lack of judgment and you're going to talk to the other mother about it. Then call Cindy and in as light a way as possible, tell her what your daughter told you.  Assuming she confirms, while making some excuse about urgency,  tell her you understand what a full bladder means, but you think her solution was unfortunate.  Unless her response makes you think she is globally unbalanced, then let it go.  Two 11 year-old girls mostly want to hang out with each other, not with each other's moms.

I really like Audrey, a woman I met in one of my classes. We get along really well and have acknowledged we are attracted to one another. What stops me from asking her out is that she has two dads, and for religious and personal reasons I feel homosexuality is a sin. I do not treat gay people differently than straight people and I do not want harm to come to gay people. That said, I do not support gay marriage. Audrey is very outspoken about gay rights, and I worry that if we began dating I would have to compromise my beliefs to suit her. I know her dads did a great job raising her but on a basic level will never be comfortable with them. I really like Audrey, but is our potential relationship doomed from the start? I respect Audrey's right to believe what she believes and want her to respect my right to believe what I believe.

Leave Audrey alone. You're entitled to your beliefs, but it's ridiculous for you to get involved with a woman who in any way would have to defend her loving parents to you.  In matters like this minds are changed one person at a time, so it's most unfortunate that knowing the background of this great woman hasn't made you question your own bigoted assumptions.

My boyfriend of six months has an annoying habit. Every now and then, when I least expect it, he will lick my face. Mostly it's when he leans over as I'm expecting a goodbye peck on the cheek. Sometimes randomly when we sit together eating lunch. The first couple of times I thought he was trying to be cute and laughed it off. When he did it the third or fourth time I told him it was annoying and asked him to stop. He thinks it's a hilarious joke to annoy me and he's been doing it continuously ever since. The last time he did it I was so fed up I instinctively pushed him away without thinking. I felt very angry and raised my voice, telling him strongly to stop doing it. Then he got angry at me for "overreacting" and getting mad. He's otherwise a mature and thoughtful guy (I know I haven't made a good case for it but you just have to take my word for it) but this one habit irritates me to no end. I can't believe he keeps doing it to get a reaction out of me. Should I dump him? Signed, Worried

What good timing! With Halloween coming up you can get your boyfriend a jumbo sized bag of lollipops and give them to him with a goodbye note that reads, "Lick this."  I accept that except for his propensity to leave a trail of slime across your face, he's Mr. Wonderful. But I'm afraid given the case you've made, I can only think of him as Mr. Tongue.  Consider where his fetish, or compulsion, or whatever it is, has driven you.  You are finding yourself wanting to commit assault, which I assume is out of character for you. You've only been with this guy for six months and so far your protests have resulted in the escalation of him treating you like a popsicle. I suppose you could mix cayenne pepper into your blush, which might give him pause next time he swoops in for a slurp. But I say that before you are tempted to cut off his tongue, just cut your losses.

Seven years ago, when I was in college, I fell in love with and dated Hannah. We were together for almost two years, and I almost married her. Then she accused my best friend Anthony of raping her one night while she slept at our apartment; I was in my apartment's common area studying and didn't see anything. Anthony denied her accusations and told me she came on to him. Hannah did not have any signs of a struggle on her, and she had drunk a few glasses of wine, so I believed Anthony over her. I broke up with her, and many people shunned her when they learned that she accused Anthony of rape to cover up hitting on him. Anthony and I have remained good friends, and he and my wife Caroline get along really well. Two weeks ago, the police in our town arrested Anthony for raping two women. One was seventeen. He denies his guilt, but now I suspect I made a horrible mistake in trusting him. I am terrified Hannah was right and Anthony did rape her. Hannah never pressed charges so the police have no idea Anthony's been accused of rape before. I feel like I should tell them, but I don't want to harm Hannah any more. I also want to apologize to her, but maybe that's too much.

What a chilling conclusion to your youthful decision. I think that both the prosecutors and Hannah should know about this horrible turn of events. First you should contact Hannah.  If it's possible, this is the kind of news that should be delivered  in person.  Yes, this will be a painful meeting, if she agrees to see you. If she doesn't want to talk to you, you must find some third party to get the news to her. You  want to give her a warning that you feel you should tell the authorities about what happened to her 7 years ago.  As painful as reliving the entire episode may be for Hannah, it could also be therapeutic for her to tell her story to people who finally believe her.

My boyfriend (now my husband) also liked to lick my face and it also irritated me to no end. The reason he's now my husband and not my ex-boyfriend -- he stopped when I asked him to. Someone who thinks it's funny to irritate you is not good long term relationship material, no matter how sterling his other qualities.

I'd love to know how he explains what jollies he got from this. 

When I adopted my first daughter, my adoption announcements were a paraphrase of Hannah's statement to the priest after Samuel was born: "I am a woman who stood praying to the Lord. It was this child I prayed for and the Lord has given me what I asked. What I asked, I have received, and now I lend her to the Lord. For her whole life she is lent to the Lord."

I've got tears in my eyes. Thank you for this.

At the many large family gatherings I attend, my niece breast feeds her one-year-old multiple times over the course of the afternoon. This is not a newborn who needs feeding every couple hours so she uses her breast more as a pacifier than anything. To be clear, she does nothing to do this in any modest way, exposing her entire breast to the room each time. This makes my husband and his elderly father (who lives with us) uncomfortable enough that the older gentleman gets up to leave the room each time. Other people in the extended family have commented on it too.The next event is at my house. I try to make all my guests, but especially those of a certain age, comfortable in my home. It is just a matter of respect. I would like my niece to take her son to an adjoining room that is more private although not behind closed doors when she is with us and feels the need to placate him. I know she will be upset with me, but I feel that she needs to at least be aware that this is making her older extended family uncomfortable as this wasn't done in their generation. What do you think?

At least your niece isn't also giving a lecture on anthropology, like the American University professor recently in the news for breast-feeding in class. I am pro-lactation. I did it myself for a year, and yes, I occasionally had to breast feed (discreetly) in public places, and often  at my in-laws.  When I was at their house, I would almost always go to another room, or sit in a chair facing away from them.  They were in favor of breast-feeding, but there was no reason to shove it in their faces.  You're absolutely right that with a 1 year-old there is no compelling need for your niece to make everyone observers of this. When your niece arrives pull her aside and say while you support breast-feeding, you'd appreciate it that when she's feeding the baby she takes him into your bedroom for some privacy. Explain that the older family members are uncomfortable and it would be easier on them if she was the one to absent herself briefly. Then if in defiance she lets it all hang out, you can all go to another room.

Too funny! I married my face-licker, but as long as he is clean shaven, I lick him back! I guess that makes me annoying!


Dear Prudie, My spouse has an opposite-sexed friend who doesn't behave well. This person has tried to snuggle with my spouse and hold my spouse's hand while socializing with the two of us. My spouse agrees this is not OK. My spouse clearly rebuffs the friend when physical contact is initiated but the friend does not take the hint. My spouse is willing to talk to the friend and say that they do not feel comfortable with what the friend does. If this does not work, is it OK for me to ask that we do not see this friend anymore? My spouse would be very sad to lose this friendship, and I want to be fair to everyone. What should I do? Cuckolded

Friends like this give opposite-sex friendships a bad name.  Your spouse may be ineffectually rebuffing these moves in your presence, but it wouldn't make me too confident about what was going on when I wasn't around.  Your spouse is "willing" to tell the friend not to act as if they are a couple -- how thoughtful!  If the friend can't respect the boundaries of your marriage, then that opposite-sex person has already jettisoned this friendship. And if  your spouse doesn't see how insulting this is to you, your spouse is putting more than the friendship at stake.

My little sister is having a baby with a man who's divorcing his wife to be with her. Unbeknownst to all but a few of her close friends, she's been seeing this man for almost three years. My sister is pretty ashamed of breaking up his family, so she doesn't think she deserves a baby shower or should even discuss her baby in any positive way. I think our mom has been saying some pretty mean things to her, because my mom abhors infidelity. I'm not saying my sister and her fiancé are saints or that I approve of how their relationship began. For the record, I think my sister and her fiancé have caused innocent people (his wife, his kids) a lot of pain. At the same time, I really love my sister, and aside from this she has always been a selfless and caring person. I want to throw her a baby shower, and her friends want to pitch in and help me. We figure anyone who doesn't come because of moral objections to the terms of the baby's conception wasn't going to be a good friend to my sister anyways. My mom and some relatives are really against throwing a baby shower and think we're sugarcoating my sister's situation. Would it be rude or tasteless to throw my sister a baby shower or to celebrate her baby's birth?

Ah, another wonderful person except for the fact that she's not.  The baby is the innocent party here and does not come baring a mark of shame. Throw the shower and try not to cast  harsh judgments on the people who decline.

I agree that the gentleman should leave Audrey alone; there's really no way that's going to work out. But calling him "bigoted" for adhering faithfully to the precepts of his religion is bizarre. The purported bigot didn't even stoop to name-calling. You did.

That's right, I think he's a bigot.  I spent a day in synagogue yesterday reading the Bible, and it casually makes reference to people having slaves and multiple wives. That doesn't mean we think that's fine today. 

I am a recently-remarried widow with two college age children from my first marriage of twenty years ... the issue I'm having is with my former Mother-In- Law. Shortly after my late husband passed away from cancer she turned hostile and cold towards me - blaming me for the death, the funeral wasn't just right, the obituary wasn't right, everything I had done for the twenty years I was married to her son just wasn't ever right, I didn't grieve long enough for her, I was moving on with life just too fast, etc.Obviously this was toxic for me in my life/grief recovery and I terminated contact with her after one of her crazy phone call rants. Now over five years later,  she still says "distorted things as fact" about me and the past situations to my children, whenever she can. Most of that family knows it's not true, but no one would dare to disagree to her face. Despite all of her "nastiness," should I reach out to reconnect with her for the sake of my children/her grandchildren, or is it best left as is?  And if I do make a phone call, what points should I make initially? Would love your advice on this. Thanks!

How horrible that you were subjected to this abuse at a time of great loss.  It would be one thing if your former mother-in-law was so unhinged by her understandable grief that she mentally lost it. But that would mean that she came to her senses and apologized to you. Instead,  it sounds as if she is an impossible, if not malevolent person, everyone knows it, and no one wants to confront her. You mention in passing that she is still in touch with your children, so you have been generous enough not to ask them to cut off their relationship with her.  I hope you've explained to them why you can no longer have contact  with their grandmother and that they should ignore the toxic things she says about you.  You've  just entered a happy new phase of your life, so I don't see any reason why you need to let her poison seep in.  She can have her own relationship with your kids.  You shouldn't feel guilty about keeping her at arm's length.

Thanks Emily. The image of the entire family trotting out of the room, canes, walkers, and toddlers in tow gave me the giggles!

Let's hope your niece doesn't file a "hostile family environment" suit.

Is there something to the sister not wanting the shower, or do you think that's solely due to her mother's prior comments, do you think? If she truly doesn't want it, perhaps she would benefit more from lower-key interactions with her true friends and support system (gift-giving one-on-one as desired), rather than put her in a social setting she'd truly prefer not to be in, and showering the love on the baby once it does arrive. Baby won't be the one to remember the shower, after all.

Good point that someone who really doesn't want a shower shouldn't be forced into having one.  But however this new life got started, the baby shouldn't be treated differently from other children.

My SIL had her first child recently and I miscarried my second child. We're planning to try for a baby again next year. My SIL knows about my miscarriage and has been badgering me to lend her baby items and clothes because we're not using it at the moment. I've politely declined and instead gave her a $250 voucher for a baby shop. She keeps saying she doesn't want to waste money buying baby things and insists I should share what I'm not using right now. I know how much baby things wear and tear and I don't want my future child to use third hand items used by both his/her brother and cousin. Am I being selfish?

Your sister-in-law is badgering you to give her your possessions, so you don't have to worry about being the one who is rude.  If she brings it up again tell her the subject (and the clothing store) is closed.

Thanks, everyone.  Have a good 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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