Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Oct 07, 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!

My brother in law became permanently disabled after an accident nine months ago. He now works two days a week, but obviously has a much reduced income. My husband and his three siblings all pulled in and gave him and his wife a large amount of money. None of us are well off, and the money came from our own savings for retirement, children's college, etc. My elderly mother-in -law sold her home and drastically downgraded to give money. As a result my brother-in-law and his wife had their mortgage paid off and have some to spare for whatever expenses they have (my sisterinlaw works a much lower pay job so without our help they would have struggled significantly). Then recently I found out they are planning on enrolling their kids at an expensive private school. Maybe they think now they don't have a mortgage, they can afford some "luxury" expenses (they live near well known, excellent public schools). I do not begrudge giving up our savings so they can continue living in their home and pay for living/medical expenses, but paying for a private education seems unnecessary and even unappreciative of the sacrifices other family members have made. How can I approach this topic tactfully?

In one way this is entirely none of your business. One of the worst things that can happen to a family happened to them, and all of you gave out of a spirit of concern and generosity. I hope they showed their appreciation, but they are adults able to make what they think are the best decisions for their family. However,  a  legitimate concern among all of you could be that if they go through this "trust fund" they will inevitably be turning to their family members again.  I am no financial planner, but I do wonder about the choices they are making. I'm not sure paying off the mortgage was the wisest thing to do with a lump sum that's supposed to help keep this family afloat. You don't know about the decision-making that went into the private school choice. These kids have just been through a trauma and it may be that the parents know the smaller classes and closer attention is what they need. But it's true that private school tuition is a large and recurring expense, one that could eat up a lot of this family's nest egg. I think the best thing you can do as a family is designate a kind, nonconfrontational member to talk to them about the need for a reputable financial advisor. They need someone who knows what services (Social Security disability?) should be tapped and how to safely invest for the long haul the money they have.  If they are agreeable, then as a family you should find someone for them; they already have enough on their plate. If they are offended or unresponsive to this suggestion, then back off. You can decide down the road what you want to do if they come asking for a refill of their coffers.

My husband and I recently found our we're pregnant with our first child. We're thrilled, of course, but we decided to wait to tell anyone outside our immediate families for a few more weeks. I teach art at a large school and I decided to tell my teaching assistant, the mother of three teenage boys, so she'd know why it seemed like I was feeling under the weather. She was elated, but completely ignored me when I asked her to keep the news to herself. Within moments of me telling her, she had (literally) shrieked the news to several other staff members and brushed me off when I asked her to be quiet and noted that I especially didn't want my students to find out. When I returned to work the next day, I found that she had hung a banner over my door that read, "Bun in the Oven." I was mortified and furious. When I spoke to her about it, she insisted that miscarriages are caused by negativity and that if I act like it's a secret, I'll cause one. In addition, any time I mention feeling tired or nauseous, she rolls her eyes and tells me that I need to enjoy my pregnancy. I am enjoying it, but I'm not enjoying the fact that half the school knows at such an early date or that she has no empathy for how difficult the early stages of pregnancy are on my body. Any tips for dealing with this? She's otherwise a wonderful assistant.

She may be a wonderful assistant but she violated your privacy, your express wishes, and she's also crackers. It's true that you took her into your confidence, which always comes with potential  peril,  but usually not of the kind that results in literal banners over the door.  What you do now is develop a completely professional relationship with her -- no intimacies, no sharing pregnancy stories. If you're tired or nauseated you deal with it as you would if you had a bug. If she acts put out that you're refusing to share, or if she offers some of her cockamamie theories, you say, "Shelly, let's just stick to professional issues." If that makes her hard to work with, then she actually isn't wonderful.

Dear Prudence, My fiancee and I are both widows. Her husband left her a trust in excess of three million dollars. She insists on a prenuptial agreement to safeguard her assets. While I agree on the importance of said contracts I also believe it cheapens wedding vows. If roles were reversed and I thought it important to safeguard my assets, I would prefer not to get married than to ever ask my future spouse for a signature along with her hand in marriage. I agreed to sign the prenuptial agreement, but sugessted that we get married without ceremony -- simple, to the point, by a Justice of the Peace at the Clerk's office and that she keep her last name. Your thoughts would be appreciated.

It's perfectly reasonable that two people later in life with accumulated assets and possibly children to be provided for, want make sure their wealth is looked after.  If you were sitting on three million dollars, I'm betting it would actually change your outlook about trust and trusts.  It's easy to be generous with your resources when you don't have any. It's perfectly reasonable that your future spouse wanted a prenup, but when signing a legal document you need legal represenation of your own. If you don't have the means to hire a lawyer, it would a gesture of goodwill if your wife-to-be hired one for you so your interests are looked after and you both feel comfortable with what the future holds. What you don't do is say, "I'll sign. Then to get even I'll insist on a crappy wedding!" I see nothing wrong with a simple ceremony, but you obviously are suggesting it as a way of sticking it to her. I suggest instead of saying "I do" while steaming, you take this situation as a chance to take a pause and have an open-minded and non-rancorous discussion about how you plan to divide your living expenses, and how you two expect to provide for each other if death indeed does you two part.

Dear Prudie, My boss is (mostly) a good boss. He is fair and reasonable with work assignments and letting us take time off when we need to/want to. However, when it comes to keeping personal information personal, he does NOT have fair and reasonable boundaries. He constantly pokes and prods about what people are up to outside of work, be it over a weekend, or a holiday or vacation time. My problem is I recently found a lump in my breast and will need to schedule several appointments to have it checked out. I do NOT want to discuss this with my boss. I don't want him knowing any of my personal medical information, and I especially don't want to discuss my breasts with him! My question is how much of this information is he "entitled to" as my boss? Do I owe him an explanation for why I'll be out, or it is acceptable to just tell him I have a Dr's appointment and not provide any further details? I know he'll ask, and I'll be much more comfortable not providing any details if I have your blessing. Thank you!

Obviously what you need to do is have a banner made up that says, "Breast Biopsy!" Your boss is entitled to zero information about your condition beyond the fact that you need to be away for some medical treatment. You need to develop some polite but firm ways of dealing with his extreme boundary problems.  "Thanks for your concern, I'd just rather not discuss it." "It's one of those private, medical issues" etc. If he keeps pressing, or makes work uncomfortable because you won't spill, then document this and take it to HR or a supervisor. A good boss does not pry into people's personal business.

Prudie, don't just let this lady off the hook. What she did is a huge breach of trust and should be brought to the principal of the school (or whoever supervises the teaching assistants). This goes beyond just blabbing - she seems obsessed with it! In many states, pregnancy is a "protected characteristic" and what the teaching assistant is doing could be considered harassment that could potentially put the school on the hook for her actions, so they should know about it in order to put a lid on it. The school should, at the very least, discipline this woman. The OP shouldn't have to suffer in silence on this.

Good point. She absolutely should bring this to the attention of the principal if this continues and she feels it's necessary. The banner is beyond belief. But it's also a lesson in not telling co-workers secret, private information unless you are ready to make it common knowledge.

Dear Prudie, I just started a new job--my first in a leadership position. Although I am in charge of my department, my position requires close interaction with the director of another department. My problem is that the director makes me really uncomfortable. I am fairly sure he finds me attractive - I've caught him looking at me in meetings, he finds reasons to stop by my office, and his body language seems to confirm it. I don't think it would be an issue, except I think he's ridiculously handsome, and I feel nervous around him. I am happily married, so I'm definitely not interested in pursuing a relationship with him. I've never had this experience with another coworker before, so I'm not sure how to handle it. I want to get over my schoolgirl crush and make sure we have a successful professional relationship, but I'm not sure how to go about that. Any ideas? Keeping it Professional

Your letter took a left turn because I expected it to conclude with a question about how you deal with a creepy colleague. Instead it's about what you do about the fact that the two of you are acting like moony middle-schoolers, and although you don't raise the issue, I can assure you others have noted the body language and the lingering glances.  What you do is act like the professional you are. When comes to your door you glance up and say, "Hi, Channing, can I help you?" and when you're done with the business at hand you say, "I don't want to be abrupt, but I'm swamped." No hair-tossing, lip-parting, eye-lingering subliminal messages. There's nothing wrong with an office crush or noticing there's some eye candy down the hall -- it can help get you into work early. But it's up to you to keep your thoughts encased in your personal hard candy shell.

My husband is a pack rat. He saves everything (egg cartons, junk mail, the cardboard roll in the middle of a roll of TP, anything). There are piles everywhere. I recently tripped over a pile and broke my arm. The irony is, he has to help me since there is a lot I can't do (I broke the dominant arm and am typing this one- handed). Do you have any ideas? It seems silly to think of divorce, but he won't change. Help!

Your "pack rat" sounds like a hoarder. This is a pernicious, difficult to treat condition -- one that's potentially hazardous as you have recently discovered. Your arm will heal, but unless your husband seeks treatment, he won't.  Breaking a limb is warning sign enough. You don't want to wake up one day and realize you're buried alive under a collection of National Geographics. It's time for an ultimatum: the house gets cleaned up, he gets therapy, or you're out.

Is it possible that the family got scholarships for the children to attend the private school? Or perhaps the school has tuition assistance programs, or a sliding scale for family income. Many expensive private schools, especially those affiliated with religious organizations, have some method set up so children from all walks of life can afford to attend. It is entirely possible that thanks to their now reduced income, the family is able to "afford" the school because they made too much money before to be able to apply for reduced or waived tuition.

Good point, and again the decision about private school is a private one for this family. But since others have made deep sacrifices to keep them afloat, it still makes sense to help ensure this couple is making wise decisions with the resources they have.

I care for my 38-year-old husband, who has cancer. We know there isn't much hope. I love him and I consider it a privilege to look after him throughout his sickness. But what causes me more stress and anxiety is his mother. If ever I shop for my husband's food at a regular supermarket (as opposed to an organic store) she treats me like I committed murder and screams abuse at me. We once went out to a restaurant to celebrate our wedding anniversary and she became hysterical towards me. She doesn't trust any food that she doesn't personally make herself. When we're at the hospital together she interferes and nags with everything - including the thickness of the socks I brought him. How can I get her to cut me some slack without fighting? I don't want my husband to stress out over this issue.

I am so sorry about this situation and your husband's prognosis. Everyone who loves your husband is in agony, and I'm sure your heart goes out to your mother-in-law who is watching her child face an early death. But she just can't dump all her fear and anxiety on you. Being a caretaker for a gravely ill spouse is yes, a privilege, but also a hard, sad, lonely undertaking.  Your mother-in-law is not entitled to make it more painful. I hope there is someone close to your mother-in-law she trusts who can intervene here. Someone you can confide in who can talk to your mother-in-law about her grief and urge her to seek counseling so that she can channel her fears elsewhere. If not, get in touch with the social work department at the hospital where your husband is being treated. They may be able to help, and also intervene. Someone needs to tell your mother-in-law that any nutrition is good and that obsessing about organic food is unneccesary and stressful for her son. It sounds like you and your mother-in-law shoud stagger your time at the hospital.   You don't have to be there together; let your mother-in-law spell you so you can take a walk, a nap, or otherwise attend to your own needs.  And please seek a counselor of your own -- you shouldn't have to carry this burden alone.

You often (just now, in fact) recommend taking a dispute with a supervisor to a higher supervisor or "HR." I don't think you've spent much time in large organizations. If you put a higher supervisor in the position of siding with you or your boss, he will almost always side with your boss. To do otherwise would demonstrate his lack of confidence in someone that he may have hired for that job in the first place. HR is primarily concerned with fulfilling legal responsibilities and avoiding lawsuits. And even if you win, a resentful boss will find a way to retaliate. In the above case, the boss would very likely be within his rights to demand a doctor's note for every single medical absence, and could claim in performance reviews that your work has suffered from your "frequent" (likely his word) absences. Complaining about a supervisor to higher authority is something you should do only if you are ready to look for another job, because there's a good chance that will be the result.

I totally get your point. I've talked to employment attorneys about many of the issues that arise in the column and I've learned from them that it's important to try to deal directly and firmly with the situation first. That's why I suggested consistenly drawing boundaries with the boss and sticking to them. But something has to give if the boss just pushes and pushes for private medical details and won't be deterred -- and acts resentful if the details aren't forthcoming. I agree in these sticky situations there is often no great solution. But it just can't be that the essential rule of office life is that whatever the boss does, you just have to take it.

I feel like I'm on the other side of "hot coworker's" dilemma. I'm a woman and have a crush on a coworker. He's got a girlfriend -- its not going to happen. I actually told him I liked him (even knowing about the girlfriend). He gave me some distance but has slowly started coming back to being chatty and friendly. (I joked to friends we were "one date" away from being Office Spouses before I decided to tell him I liked him, which changed the friendship immediately). My only issue is now I don't know how to navigate our relationship. I saw his girlfriend is coming to a work event -- he didn't tell me this, our boss did. I'm trying to figure out how I should behave. He may not want me to talk to her.

You are co-workers so you behave the way you do with any other co-worker. The various relationship scenarios you have played out remain entirely in your head. This guy started acting friendly again because he probably assumed you got his message that he's not interested. But you didn't. There's no drama surrounding his girlfriend because he's not interested in you. So if you happen to meet the girlfriend, try to act like a normal person.

My husband has recently endured (and is in remission! Yay!) chemotherapy due to a cancer diagnosis. While most people have been great, my 'best friend' has not shown much compassion or concern outside of saying "I know things will be fine. Just stay positive." Anytime I have talked about having a lot on my plate, she seems to want to make it into a contest -- Who is More Stressed Out. She repeatedly needs to be reminded of key major dates in his treatment, and regularly wanted me to rehash the same things over and over again. It was as if she wasn't listening to me or reading her texts/emails. It feels like she wants updates so that she can appear to be the Supportive Best Friend for our social circle. I just don't have the energy to continue to do this, so now I am avoiding her calls and limiting my text responses. It's not like she's paying attention anyway. Should I try to discuss this with her? How? Or, should I just accept that she has shown me who she really is?

It's really hard to discover that someone you thought had was dear to you just runs for the hills when things get tough. Your best friend may just be one of those people who can't deal with illness, which is a significant character flaw. Or it may be that she's the kind of person who's fun to have lunch with and see a movie, but she really doesn't understand true friendship. If you do value her, sure, go to lunch and say that you've been feeling hurt and abandoned during your husband's illness. Maybe she'll apologize and confess hospitals and doctors freak her out and she's sorry she wasn't there for you. Maybe she'll be defensive and resentful. Whatever happens you can then judge about her place in your life.

Dear Prudence, I am furious with another set of parents. My 16-year-old daughter has recently told her mother and me that she is pregnant. It happened at a party that was not well supervised and there was alcohol involved. The boy involved and his family are owning up to their share of the responsibility, but the owners of the house are absolutely infuriating me. They need to admit their share of this burden as it was their booze and their house party that allowed this to happen. My family is going to have a lot of expenses due to this new baby, and I don't know how much the boy's family can help, so it seems that the party's host should help out, again as it was on their watch that this happened. So far, that family has ignored me when I have tried to speak with them about this. I am ready to call a lawyer to press the issue, but my wife thinks I am overreacting. What do you think?

I believe this is a yet unexplored avenue of tort law. I am awaiting the television ads for law firms that announce, "Was your daughter knocked up in the basement at a friend's house while the parents were upstairs watching Masters of Sex? You may be entitled to compensation!"  Dad, you wouldn't be suing yourself if it happened in your basement while you were out at a football game. Listen to your wife and forget the other parents. The issue here is that is a couple of dopey teens on track to become parents themselves. Your family need to be seriously addressing this issue and all your options. Perhaps proceeding with the pregnancy is not a good idea. Perhaps if termination is not a possibility, placing the child for adoption is.  If your daughter is going to keep the baby, the burden is going to fall on your family. So stop trying to displace your anger and anxiety. It's time to show your daughter how mature parents face tough situations.

Dear Prudence, My brother-in-law is active duty in the military. I have two nephews and a daughter and son. When My BIL is deployed, I see my sister often, especially since our kids attend the same school and are in many different activities together. However, when my BIL is on furlough or has extended time at home, it is pretty much radio silence on her end. I know having a military spouse must be a unique and horrifying challenge, and I certainly appreciate her wanting to spend as much time as possible with her husband. However, a few times during her husband's last stay, some genuinely important things happened (I lost a late-term pregnancy and our mother was in the hospital) both of which were either ignored or brushed off by my sister. When her husband is deployed, and she is by herself, I highly doubt she would have reacted in this manner. Our current dynamic is starting to wear on me. My husband gets frustrated that when her husband is gone, she frequently asks him for help with things around the house, but rarely responds in kind to us. I love my sister and I want a better relationship with her, but I'm not sure how to bring this up to her. She can be very sensitive about military duty and the sacrifice involved and I want to maintain as much of a relationship as we can.

It's good you understand the unique pressure the family of deployed military personnel face. And it also makes some sense that when Dad is home the family is focused on getting every moment possible out of it. But ignoring a sister who lost a late-term pregnancy or a mother who was in the hospital is not okay. Yes, you give your sister a lot of leeway, but her circumstances do not entitle her to act as if no one else experiences pain or needs support.   This is another one of those "painful talk" times. You start by acknowledging her situation and that you hope she feels you're there for her. But you say that when you lost your baby, you really felt alone, and that your mother was hurt she didn't show up at the hospital. Then hear her out, but don't get in an extended dialogue about whose situation is worse. Let's hope upon reflection she can understand the rightness of what you have to say.

To cope with the onslaught of fundraisers, some of us neighbors have banded together to establish a "buying circle" so we don't all end up with too many of the same thing. Basically, I will buy from you, you buy from Mary, Mary buys from Alice and Alice buys from me. It's worked really well and the kids still have lots of opportunity to go door-to-door selling. However, one set of parents now claim they are too busy to take their kids door-to-door and they can't sell at work. They are making a big fuss about how their kid won't win any of the sales competitions. It's starting to get ugly over such a simple thing. Any thoughts on how to frame a civil discussion?

Oh, how I hate these things. It's a reasonable solution that all of you agree to buy a limited amount of crap. (My answer has been to bow out. I simply concluded I don't need any ridiculously expensive wrapping paper.) I can't imagine how ugly this could really get. Banners strung across the neighborhood saying, "Buy My Kid's Scented Candles Or Else!" This other family sounds like it's having a tantrum. Veteran parents know the best thing to do with tantrums is ignore them.

My anger is that this would NOT have happened at my home. I supervise parties and visits, and the fact that this other family was so irresponsibly really galls me. I do think they have a duty to make right their lapse.

Ever heard of a car? They have backseats that have been the site of innumerable conceptions since the creation of the Model Ford. You can't seriously think that as long as parents supervise parties, a pair of horny 16 year-olds can't find a place get it on. If you want to pursue this as a legal action, you will get nowhere and humilate your daughter. Focus on the issue, Dad, which is that you're on track to become a grandfather.

Dear Prudence: My girlfriend passed away from lung cancer two years ago. Before she passed, she made me promise to look after her mother, who is 87, widowed, with no other children, living alone, and housebound. I've been a faithful visitor, but lately she is making it very clear that she wants more.... a LOT more. For a lot of reasons, I don't want a romantic relationship with her - primarily because she's 25 years my senior, but until now I have just laughed off her flirting. Now, she's hitting my phone twice a day, begging me to visit her, telling me that she misses my hugs and kisses. HELP!!!! How can I keep my promise and my dignity at the same time, without hurting the old lady too much?

You get her a doctor and explain there has been an alarming change in her behavior and she gets a complete work up. If this is the beginning of dementia, you are going to have to have a serious assessment as to what "looking after" the elderly mother of your late girlfriend means. You could be in for a long, expensive decline and if that is beyond your capacity to oversee, you have to make sure that there are social services in place to look after this lonely woman.  Once you get a diagnosis, you can check with a support group for Alzheimer's, if that's what this is, about how to deal with someone who is losing the ability to make appropriate choices.  I'm sorry for the loss of your girlfriend, and you should be proud that you have done yeoman's work in stepping up and caring for her mother.

Thanks, everyone. I hope you all have a banner 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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