Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

May 28, 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.

Good afternoon. I look forward to your questions.

I went on a date with a woman who lives in my building. It was going well, but towards the end a couple sat behind her and started making out. They were literally sucking each other's faces and I saw more of their tongues than I would like to have seen. After a few minutes I suggested to my date we go elsewhere, and rolled my eyes in the direction of the couple. She turned around and saw the two guys making out. We left shortly afterwards and she said she had to go home and finish some work. I called her a couple of times afterwards but she didn't respond, so I got the hint and let it go. To be honest, it really bummed me out as I like her a lot. Then I saw her and a friend talking downstairs (she couldn't see me) and she was telling her friend she liked me until she found out I was homophobic. Should I bother explaining to her I would have been just as put off by a straight couple slobbering on each other in the middle of a cafe? Or just forget about it?

The entire Jane Austen oeuvre wouldn't exist without such misunderstandings of character that fortunately get clarified in the end. Here is a modern retelling of one of her tales, and I hope, Mr. Darcy, that  you can convince Miss Bennett that her assumption about your prejudice is wrong. You have the advantage of knowing exactly why she so abruptly rejected you, but your dilemma is that you don't want to appear to have been monitoring her communications when you try to explain this. I suggest you turn to an old form: the letter. After all, you know where she lives. Without giving away what you overheard, put a note in her mailbox in which you say that you  enjoyed her company very much and have been distressed by the abrupt apparent conclusion of your budding acquaintance. Say you've thought a lot about what might have caused this and you think perhaps it was a misunderstanding over your discomfort with the couple seated behind you during your date. Explain that she couldn't see them going at it, but you could, and your desire to move away had absolutely nothing to do with the gender of the pair but with the dramatic tongue swordsmanship you were witnessing.  Say that you'd enjoy getting together again, but if you get no response from her, you will leave her alone and simply nod pleasantly if you run into each other in the lobby.  I hope in this case life imitates art and your romance comes to a satisfying conclusion.

My best friend is terminally ill. She refuses to tell anyone, most especially her parents. She is close to her dad, but not her mom, whom she considers to be a cold, heartless person. Her parents are her only family. As her best friend, I am now in the position of making decisions, although this is not formally written. She is getting worse as each day passes. I have encouraged her to get her wishes in writing - power of attorney, will, etc ... this has been a tough subject. I feel the need to reach out to her parents and let them know but if I do, I breech her trust. I will have to be the one who makes the phone call and live with the aftermath and I fear it will get messy. What to do???

What a dreadful situation for all concerned. Of course,  dying people deserve a lot of leeway, but if you are at the breaking point, and also fear the aftermath of her death, then you have to attend to your own legitmate   concerns. The hospital where she is being treated should have a social work department, and your friend needs to access that. Tell her you will go with her to discuss her wishes about her family. Then with a third party you can bring out that you feel it is too heavy a burden for you to keep her parents in the dark. Say you want to protect her from her mother, but that you feel she will cause undue agony for her father if her parents aren't given a chance to be there in some capacity during her illness. Whatever she says, there may come a point where you have to say point blank to your friend, "I want to honor you, but I feel compelled to tell your parents what's happening. I'm going to make the call this week, so we need to talk about what I should say." If she resists,  you might also want to consult with an attorney about how to protect yourself in the aftermath of her death.

Hi Prudie, I have a close, life-long friend who married and had kids later than me and several others in our social circle. She was never really into kids, and she also made disparaging remarks about mutual friends who decided to stay home after having kids. Fast forward to now and this friend has a one year old baby and is preparing to quit her job to stay home. She talks about her kid and the challenges of parenting. All. The. Time. I'd like to come up with a polite way to respond and redirect the conversation when she starts dominating it with mommy-talk. Any suggestions?

I hope your friend has a sense of humor or a recognition of irony. When she starts in with her single-minded patter, you can laugh and say, "Oh, so the person who couldn't stand hearing one more story from the rest of us about poopy diapers is now giving us technicolor details!"  Then you can say that you want to support her through the early years because you know how overwhelming they can be. But as she used to remind you when you started perseverating about your kids, there are still other things to talk about. Say you're going to do her the same favor she did for you of changing the subject.  But if she's simply the kind of person who lacks self-awareness and thinks her point of view of the moment deserves constant and full airing, then you might want to take a break until she emerges from her child-obsessed cocoon.

My neighbor has taken to taking off his clothes outside on his deck in full view of my kitchen window. It's a bit alarming to see a 70-year-old man in the all-together. I'd like him to stop, but don't know how to broach the subject since he probably thinks no one sees him (and believe me I wish I didn't). I'm also wondering if it signals some impairment --  dementia, maybe -- and might indicate larger problems. His wife died recently. Any suggestions besides buy new curtains? -- Averting my eyes

It may be dementia, or it may be, "I miss you, Mabel, but now I can finally hang out on the deck in the all together without being nagged." If his deck is in the back, then he's probably assuming that while his backside is getting aired, his privates are private. Consider your alternatives. You could slip an anonymous note under his door, but if other neighbors don't have access to an eyeful, he'll know it's you. He could be violating some kind of decency code, but you probably don't want to call the police to have them try to wrestle Grampa into a pair of boxers. I suggest you get a set of sheer blinds for your kitchen window so you can still see the light, but not the view.

Dear Prudie, At our upcoming wedding, my fiance and I would like to have a display with wedding pictures of our parents, grandparents, and others who are dearest to us. The snag is that my parents divorced when I was 5 years old, and my father has been with his current wife for over 20 years and they have two pre-teens. (All parties are on amicable terms.) I adore my mom and dad's wedding picture, but displaying it might be strange, given that they haven't been together since 1985. I also don't want to include a picture of my father with his current wife, because a) it's awkward to have a picture of the same man marrying two different women, and b) while we get along, I'm not terribly fond of his wife. I'm not intending this as a snub - she's just not in that circle of intimates for my fiance and I. Should we give up on the display and eliminate the awkwardness? It would be a shame not to admire photographs of the beautiful marriages that have lasted.

I've never seen this done before, but what a wonderful tradition it could be as long as the photos get an exegesis with sticky notes. On your parents' you could post, "Came asunder in 1985." On others you could write, "Still crazy about each other despite the bickering you'll hear when Harry has a couple of drinks."  Or you could forget this whole idea since the point of it seems to be to rewrite history and pretend your parents are still together when in fact they've been divorced forever and you have have two half-siblings (who you'd apparently like to write out of existence).  No one is stopping you from admiring beautiful marriages that have lasted, just do so without making a bizarre and awkward display.

After years of dealing with my husband's infidelity, I finally told him I wanted a divorce (this was after years of counseling and other attempts to try and save our marriage). That was three years ago. And while we are now living separate lives (sharing custody of our three kids), we are still technically married. And he doesn't seem at all interested in changing that. He claims things are fine the way they are and he can't be bothered by dealing with the details. Because we began the process in a collaborative way, I can't force the issue without his participation, unless I start from scratch and spend a small fortune. And if all of that wasn't frustrating enough, I just found out from a mutual friend that my ex's serious girlfriend is under the impression that I'm the one holding things up. Apparently she told a whole tale of woe this weekend to a room full of people about how I'm preventing him from moving on with his life because I'm still in love with him. So now everything in me wants to pick up the phone and tell her exactly who the problem really is. But I also recognize it may backfire and undermine the decent relationship we have in regards to our kids. What do you think--do I call or not?

I was only a few sentences in before I thought, "And he wants to stay married so he can screw around at will but no girlfriend can bring up the subject of marriage because he already has a wife." It's fine that you wanted to embark on the divorce in a collaborative way, but now he's trying to turn you into a collaborator in his continuing deceit. I say forget informing his girlfriend of his true character. If she hasn't figured out what a liar and manipulator he is, it's not your job to enlighten her. What you need to do is get your legal situation taken care of.  I don't know the ins and outs of matriomonial law, but your lawyer does and you need to inform him or her about this stalling and get a plan to move forward. Yes, it will probably make things more difficult and expensive, but this guy will never be your ex unless you force him to stop leaving you in limbo.

Recently my niece confided in me that she had turned her father in for molesting her a few years ago. While this was not really shocking to me (I'd always thought he was a creep), she also told me that within the last year my husband had asked her for a flash of her breasts. She said he was drunk at the time and she refused and took off. I confronted him about it and he says he doesn't remember anything about this. I find it hard to believe that he would be drunk around any of his family, but my gut tells me he has actually done this. To top it off I have two little girls with this guy. Any advice would be welcome.

When your gut tells you your husband tried to molest his niece and you refer to the father of your children as "this guy" things have come to a dire pass. But this whole situation sounds both horrible and confusing. If your brother-in-law molested his daughter and she reported him to the police, how can this be a secret? Wasn't he prosecuted? And you say that it's out of character for your husband to be drunk, but plausible to you he would come onto his niece. You need to see a counselor immediately who specializes in abuse  to try to get a handle on what really happened and how to proceed.

I am doing this at my wedding, only we are asking all guests to provide a photo of their wedding for a slideshow. I think it will be fun to see how styles change throughout the years, since about six decades will be represented. I am just asking people to either email or mail me a wedding photo if they wish to do so and let them do whatever they are comfortable. Wedding planning can get overwhelming, but it is important to remember that this is a small detail.

What you're doing sounds like fun -- no judgment about whose marriage is worthy and a model to emulate, just a lot of charming photos of the guests.  What the letter writer is planning to do is  going to create awkwardness and bad feelings.

I am a stay-at-home mom, so usually it's my son and myself at home all day while my husband is at work. I don't mind the occasional visitor, but with my MIL and SIL right next door, I have them all the time. They are also both home all day, so it happens a lot. I have a roofed front porch. Combine this with the "oh we're related" mentality, they just won't leave. My MIL brings her crochet projects, cigarettes, and mp3-playing phone (without headphones) and invites our other neighbors over to visit with her here. Even if I do stay inside, she sits for hours on my porch. How can I let her know that she's welcome when invited or informs me she's coming, but donot welcome to just plop down and host her own get together?

"Everybody Loves Raymond", with its next-door in-laws constantly in and out of each others' houses went off the air a few years ago. So you have to bring your version of this sit com to an end.  From the outside it's kind of amusing to think of you as a prisoner in your own home as your mother-in-law takes over the porch with her tatting and smoking.  But relatives who live next door have to have a kind of psychological invisible fence along the property lines so that they don't drive each other crazy.  Your husband should be the one to step up here and explain to Mom and Sis that while it's  great you get to see each other all the time, in order to make this work, everyone needs privacy. He needs to say if either of them want to visit, they should call you, with the understanding that sometimes, for reasons that don't have to be articulated, a visit is not good at the moment. Then, when they continue to barge in or park on the porch, you have to have the guts to say, "Arlene, I'd love to see you on Thursday afternoon, but today is just not good." Ultimately, I think you're going to need the services of a real estate agent. I doubt this is going to get fixed until you find a place across town.

I don't think the sheer curtains would do it. Even a note would not help. I think that the kitchen viewer should actually say something to the old fellow. Sometimes a loss of a spouse can send someone over the deep end, and they may need a little reminder that he is not alone. If the unintentional voyeur happens to know the neighbor has family, it might help to let them know, so they can address the view.

Let's hope the letter writer knows the neighbors well enough to know if they have grown children and where they are reachable. Sure, it would be an awkward conversation, but the kids are in a better position to tell dad to cover up, or to realize he needs a check up.

Dear Prudence, I work for a large, well-known non-profit. I'm a college grad, and truly love what I do, even though it isn't the most lucrative career. I socialize frequently with my friends from college, and for the most part, life is good. The problem is that one of my friends is always bringing her kids' fundraising brochures, for scouts, sports teams, school trips, etc. She even brings her kids to ask in person at times. The problem is that while some of my other friends are fine with this and will buy an item or two of the overpriced stuff, I simply can't, as my budget is very limited. She has gotten upset with me, and has complained (not to my face) about my "miserly ways" given that I "obviously believe in charity" because I work for one. My other friends seem to think this is rather amusing and so I am at a loss as to what to do. Continue to act oblivious to her comments? Confront her directly? Say so long to my college crowd?

I don't understand what's amusing -- being constantly hit on to fund someone else's children's activities or listening to the bad-mouthing of a mutual friend.  The woman with the kids is way out of line. First of all, there should be a limit (maximum of twice a year) that this mother hits up her friends for these fundraising activities. Second of all, she has to humble about it and teach her kids to be polite to people who decline.  At all this she's failing abysmally. Obviously, someone in your group has reported to you her bad-mouthing, but I don't know in what spirit this was said. If it was, "Oh, it was so funny when Maureen went on and on about a miser you are!" then your group sounds rather obnoxious. The next time Maureen hits you up you can simply say you know it's a good cause, but it's not within your budget. If she is anything but polite, then you can say being pressured to write her checks is causing a serious strain on your friendship. I hope your other friendships with the gang are robust enough that they will survive this blip.

Please check with a family law attorney regarding her end of life wishes and how to state them. Your state might have restrictions on who can call the shots on her treatment once she's no longer coherent. Might be immediate family only. 

Yes, the best friend needs to make sure she doesn't get herself into a legal situation with the parents.  She needs to tell her terminally ill friend that as painful as it is, the time is now for legal decisions to be made.

Prudie, help please! I've been at my first post-grad position since January. My department is a small, fun group of people - sometimes too fun. A few of them have trouble distinguishing between private and work settings. Often, a group of two or three will hang out in one office with music, laughing, weekend planning, and general fun. The managers do not always see the problem with this. In many ways, it's a very collaborative environment, so it makes sense - to a degree. However, I've heard too many inappropriate conversations (some sexual in nature) to believe that it's all work-related. I'm not sure how to handle it. I've mentioned this to my boss a few times, but she's non-confrontational and will mention it to the offending parties but then not follow up.  Especially since I'm one of the newest, I don't want to make waves. HR is not an ideal solution, since that department is newly restructured. Please give me some suggestions - and I already have headphones and earplugs. I'm afraid of hearing loss from trying to drown it out with my music. I'm in a cubicle - at times, I will go to my boss' office and close the door. That's not always an option, however. I need a longer term solution, please!

The conversation may be loud and raunchy, but you're the newest person in the office and it's unlikely you'll change the office culture, but you could make yourself a pariah.  This doesn't mean that it's acceptable for people to gather and make it impossible for others to work.  First of all, forget drowning out the party with music and invest in sound-cancelling earphones. That technical fix might allow you to do your work.  Second, if everyone gathers in an office for the hilarity and it's too loud for you to work,  go over and with a smile on your face say, "Guys, do you mind if I just close this door.  I'm unfortunately easily distracted by sounds. Thanks!" You could also try to lighten up. On a Friday afternoon when people start planning their weekend, try to join in the fun. Ultimately, though, the longer term solution may be finding a place of work where work is the priority.

Why can't she just knock on his door and tell him, or send a note with her name and let him know that she can see him? This is offensive behavior. If he doesn't comply then she can take the next step of contacting the authorities.

True, just telling him, "I can see you!" is the most direct way of dealing with it. And I generally agree with direct ways of dealing with things. But I'm trying to imagine having that conversation with one of my elderly neighbors. Certainly if I was unloading the dishwasher and got an eyeful,  I'd call to my husband and say, "Dear, hurry, there's a red-cocaded woodpecker right outside the window!" But the idea of then knocking on said neighbor's door would fill me with dread. 

I recently stayed with a friend while on vacation. I am not by any means a neat freak. My friend's home was filthy. Papers and stuff was strewn everywhere. The whole place smelled. I stayed in the guest room which doubles as the place my friend keeps her cat's litter. She did move the litter out of the room while I was there, but there were clearly remnants still there. The tub was dirty and you could see dirt on the floorboards A few years ago, she mentioned that a couple of her friends had staged an intervention about her home. She was living in a different place. I had visited briefly and while it was messy, her place wasn't dirty. She no longer speaks to those friends. My friend is a truly, wonderful person. I have known her for many years and I would have never guessed she lives this way. I am not sure how to approach this with her. 

Never, ever accept her hospitality again.  That she is so oblivious to her surroundings she would invite you stay says how out of touch she is. These kinds of disorders are sad, bizarre, and resistent to treatment. There's something wrong with your friend, but you already know her admirable qualities. Stick with getting together in public settings.

Since she can affect having inside knowledge of the charity game, OP should decline along with a comment about how little this type of activity actually raises for the school, and how much it earns for the fundraising company. Only about 10% goes to the charity. When I was in high school and we realized this, we found other ways to raise funds for activities.

Good point. I'm happy to write a check for a worthwhile school activity. And while many dedicated parents put hours of effort into these fundraisers, I don't like having my contribution skimmed off by overpriced gift-wrapping manufacturers.

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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