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Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Dec 16, 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 send out a Christmas card/photo of our family plus a short form letter to about 70+ friends every year. We live overseas, and I admit that I sometimes feel a little desperate for contact with friends, so I really treasure their cards in return. However, we receive so few cards in response to our efforts--and this was the case before we moved overseas as well--that I find myself feeling hurt by the people who don't make any effort at all to even send a Facebook message or email and say "thanks--great to hear from you!". I'm thinking of eliminating the non-senders from our card list to spare myself the hassle and grief, but would like to make one last heartfelt plea for communication. How can I say, "I'm lonely and a card would make my day. Please let me know you're still alive by responding to this card!"

All year long people receive desperate pleas from overseas, but usually these involve strangers with large deposits in their bank accounts who would like you to give them your financial information in order to make some kind of exchange.  Tearful, lonely requests are unpleasant any time of year. But during the holidays, when people are running around, shopping, traveling, and hosting, you don't want to be that drippy, forgotten friend who everyone has to write off -- though not write to. I'm sure your friends are happy to get your annual greeting, and if you want to update the people you care about and don't get to see, then continue to do it. If you expect a quid pro quo, drop it.  I noticed a few years ago that my card sending efforts returned an ever dwindling amount of responses, so I basically packed it up.  With the advent of Facebook and other methods of being informed of every vacation your friends take or even meal they eat, people have less need for the yearly accouting. If you miss your friends, then Skype or email with them regularly through the year. Don't try to blackmail them with Christmas tears.

Dear Prudence: A man I work with whom I've had an affair with in the last two months died suddenly over the weekend. I am pregnant with his child. He didn't know. His current wife, now widow, doesn't either. How do I broach this subject. His estate is rather large.

I'd say I'm sorry for your loss, but since apparently you aren't, I won't bother. For your financial interests, contact a lawyer specializing in family law. I don't have any advice on where you go to get help for your lack of morals -- or heart.

Dear Prudence, "Celia" and I were friends and co-workers for many years. We were very close, or so I thought. Sadly, we haven't had any contact for three years. I have tried reaching out in multiple ways, but no response from Celia. I hadn't a clue what I had done to make her so angry she wouldn't speak to me, until just recently when a mutual friend enlightened me. Celia is apparently upset because three years ago at Christmastime, when she and her children unexpectedly dropped by, I was "distant and distracted." Here's what happened: My then-boyfriend (now husband) and I were in the preliminary stages of an "afternoon nap" (if you know what I mean) when Celia rang the doorbell. Because I was expecting packages and thought UPS might be running early, I pulled myself together and answered the door. Celia informed me they "just thought they'd drop by and surprise me." My guy came out of the bedroom and we visited for a few minutes, they invited us to lunch and we graciously declined. We walked them to the door and said what I thought were cordial goodbyes. I was too embarrassed to explain what they'd interrupted, especially in front of her then 9- and 12-year-olds, and it was not really her business anyway. Should I try to explain the situation in order to salvage the friendship, or just cut my losses and let it go?

It is disconcerting when you learn that someone you thought you knew well is actually a nut. Anyone who unexpectedly drops by should be prepared to be told that now is not a good time. You and your boyfriend behaved appropriately, but your erstwhile friend has nursed a three year grudge after she disrupted your matinee. No, you don't now tell her, "Hey, let's clear things up. I didn't want to explain to your children in 2010 that Rod and I were having intercourse, but I belatedly wanted to let you know." You just accept that it's for the best you don't have to deal with Celia's sense of entitlement.

Hi Prudence - I have a fairly good friend who recently told me that she booked a weekend in a party city (think: Vegas) with a "good male friend" of hers - just the two of them. We are all in the same professional graduate program, but I didn't even know that they knew each other, much less knew each other well enough to travel together. I asked her if she was romantically interested in him and she said no, that he's "just a good buddy," and that she is giving up on dating anyone for now due to recent dating episodes that ended very badly. She has dated/hooked up with a number of guys from our graduate program, which is no secret to anyone. Here's the problem - my other male friend told me that the guy she is traveling with tried to pressure his other female friend into sex at a party (they had just met), and "became scary" when that friend said no. Everyone was drunk at that party, and my male friend described it as a close call. Should I warn my original friend about this guy who she's about to travel with? I'm also concerned about ruining the friendship, because she may dismiss what I say since I'm in a relationship and "wouldn't understand" - she's expressed similar feelings before. What do I do?

Yes, you should warn her, but be prepared to be rebuffed. It sounds as if your friend has some larger issues that she needs to deal with than an ill-advised trip. Tell her you're concerned that she seems so frustrated and unhappy with her romantic life. Suggest  that since you're all in school and there is free counseling available that she talk about some of these issues with a professional.  Again, expect that she'll say she's not the problem, the men are. But you can calmly reply that you've known lots of people who have been helped to see unproductive patterns by talking to a neutral party. Let's hope she doesn't return with an account of a getaway gone horribly wrong.

Dear Prudence, I have been dating a beautiful and charming woman for the last two years. I have asked her several times to marry me, but she is hesitant because she does not want to create upheaval for her son, who is seven. Over the past few weeks she has been acting strangely - distracted, a little jumpy, cancelling our dates due to work etc. I saw her this weekend and her behavior was a little pre-occupied, but she said that was due to work projects. Her son also seemed excited to tell me about their visit to the zoo last weekend with "Steve," but went to bed before I could ask any details. How do I bring this up with her and what does it mean for our relationship? I would like to propose again over Xmas.

Forget the Christmas proposal and propose an honest  conversation about where your relationship is at and where you two want it to head. She has made it very clear she's not interested in heading to the altar anytime soon, so stop being like a needy boy who keeps asking his mother for a gift she's not going to get him.  You now  have to find out if she's stringing you along or even engaging in monkey business with "Steve."

My ex-husband remarried last year to a woman from another country. She is very kind and gets on well with my 6-year-old son, which is a huge blessing. The only thing I find awkward is her tendency for lots of tactile interaction, even with me. She's an avid hugger and every hello and goodbye is accompanied by kisses to both cheeks, not to mention an invariable arm over my shoulder or around the waist. I went along with it initially, so as not to alienate my son's stepmom, but now I do feel a little embarassed, especially as she takes on more parenting duties. At my son's soccer last week she not only sat next to me, but held my hand throughout the game, drawing strange looks from other parents. Is there a nice way to tell her to cut back on the affection (in public at least) without seeming rude, or like a hypocrite who has been playing along all this while?

I can understand that more eyes were on you two than on the game as people were trying to figure out whether they'd gotten it wrong about exactly whose partner Francesca is. Good for you for figuratively embracing this new person in your son's life. But you should not feel pressured to translate that into literal contact. It's one thing to do the cheek kiss at the door (although that's pretty cheeky for the second wife to initiate that with the first), but you need to firmly but pleasantly let her know there will be no hand-holding, etc. You should also check in with your husband and say while you understand that Francesa comes from a culture with different standards of physical contact, since she lives here now, you want to make sure your son doesn't feel uncomfortable and violated by her tactile expectations.

Dear Prudie: I HATE shaking hands with people. I also hate grasping door handles, touching elevator buttons, and using common-use pens, such as those you must use for electronic signatures when swiping your credit cards. Needless to say, I avoid buffets. But in the business environment, people are always holding out their hands for a shake. Then, I can't think about anything else until I can get to a bathroom for a wash. I realize this is a little over the top, but I hate hate hate getting colds, and I'm convinced that avoiding common contact helps prevent them. Science supports me in this, but social science is another thing. If someone offers me a hand, what is a graceful way to say that I don't shake hands? Or, should I say, no, I have a cold, and I don't want to give it to you?

It's true that keeping your hands clean reduces the spread of germs, but you are making this argument to justify what sounds like a significant case of germophobia. It's true to you could decline the handshake on the grounds of your being sick -- but people are going to wonder why you're always sick, even when you seem fine. I'm going to suggest that instead of having a strategy for avoiding all inevitable contact with surfaces and flesh, you see a therapist who deals with phobias to get some help loosening the grip of this obsession.

Dear Prudence, I was evicted out of my apartment a year ago due to it being sold to new owners. Since then I have been living in my parent's basement and paying rent. Last Spring I started back to school so that I would finally finish school and have a job that would allow me to be on my own. I also have a cat and lately feel like a loser because of my living situation. I'm starting to feel like I may never move out of my parents place and am doomed to be a crazy cat lady. What should I do?

Being crazy and having a cat makes you a crazy cat lady. Otherwise, you're a lady with a cat. What you do is work hard at school so that you finish your degree and develop  relationships with professors who would be happy to provide you with references. You keep up with your litterbox scooping so your place doesn't smell. And eventually you become a lady with a job, an apartment,  and a cat.

Dear Prudie, This is no monumental problem by any stretch, but just wondering what the etiquette is these days. I have not been to a wedding in over 20 years but in 2013 I was invited to and attended three, all couples in their mid 20s, one of them was my niece. In each case, I gave a nice gift and my niece was given a pretty substantial financial gift. I did not get a thank you note from any of them. Is that how things work now, thank you notes not required? I guess they were never "required" to begin with but over 20 years ago, I attended a lot of weddings, like when all my friends were getting married and always got some kind of note. Just curious.

My inbox would suggest that is often how things are done these days, but it's not because etiquette has changed.  When you send a gift for which you have not received an acknowledgement in a reasonable amount of time, it is perfectly fine to check with the recipient to make sure it was received. I have known of O.Henry like situations in which the bride was miffed at the lack of a gift, the sender was miffed at the lack of a thank you, and it turns out the gift was lost in the mail or stolen. Even if you assume the niece got the money because the check was cashed, you can double-check to make sure it wasn't pilfered. If that that doesn't result in a thank you note, then think of your future savings when you decline to send a baby shower gift to ungrateful people.

Dear Prudie, My grandmother is an alcoholic and refuses to get any help. The situation has been getting worse over the past few years. She lives in a second story apartment alone with narrow, slick steps and is constantly falling (both in and out of her house), mostly as a result of her drinking. I live several states away, but her slurred speech is becoming increasingly obvious on our weekly phone calls. She broke her leg earlier this year from a fall and has had a blood alcohol level double the legal limit or higher on several occasions when she was taken to the hospital. After she broke her leg, my uncle and staff at the rehabilitation center tried to stage an intervention, which she resisted. My uncle has decided to cut her off completely for the safety and mental health of himself and his family. My father, her only other child, passed away more than two decades ago and my grandma has very few surviving family members and no friends. My uncle is urging me to cut her off as well hoping that she will realize how much her drinking is costing her. I am torn. I would like her to get help and move into an assisted living community (we have tried pushing her for years to do that to no avail), but I also don't know if me cutting her off will make the situation worse. Any advice? -Unsure How to Help

One of the saddest lessons I've learned from writing this column is that some people cannot be helped. I understand your uncle's decision. However, you can make your own. If you feel better keeping in phone contact, then do so. When she is incoherent from drink, you can say, "Grandma, I have to get off the phone. You've been drinking and are not making any sense." If you catch her when she's sober, you can repeat how worried all of you are. Say that because no one is checking in, you fear she could fall and days could go by without anyone knowing. But in the absence of her being willing to address the problem that will likely eventually take her life, there's very little you can do.

I head to the gym three times a week. I really enjoy lifting weights, but also find having that hour to myself invaluable for my own sanity. I have a high stress job with long hours, and am newly married. The gym is currently the only time during the week that is mine and mine alone. During holidays, I'll typically wake up before my wife so that I can get to the gym, get my workout in, and get home just in time to prepare breakfast as she is waking up. The only problem is that we will have in-laws staying with us for about a week. They are, like me, also early risers, and this means I may see them on my way out the door. This inevitably leads to conversation, and my time quickly vanishes. I value my gym time, but also value my relationships with the inlaws, and don't want to be a bad host. Admittedly not a major issue, but what is the correct move here?

You are a guy who lets your wife sleep late while you go out to get in shape then you come home and make breakfast. I hope your wife acknowledges she is a lucky woman. What you do is when your in-laws arrive you show them around the kitchen then explain that in the morning you're on a tight schedule so you'll be running out the door to get to the gym. Say they should feel free to make themselves breakfast, or if they can wait until you return, you would be happy to be the chef. If on your way out they try to engage in more than greetings, just say, "Dan, Barbara, I'll catch up with you after I've had a work out and a shower."

I went to a wedding in November 2012 and didn't get a thank you note until about June of 2013. I know people have a year to send a gift, but if the gift is given at the time of the wedding, does the couple have a year to respond? I had assumed they weren't doing thank you notes and was honestly shocked to finally receive one (and even then it was a generic pre-printed photo card that they didn't even sign).

First, I don't know where the "you have a year to get a wedding gift" idea comes from. If someone has a citation, I'd like to see. Sure, some people don't get around to getting a gift until after the wedding, and that's fine, but there isn't a rule that you should wait to to see if the marriage takes. As for thank yous, no matter when the gift comes in, the thank you should go out as close to immediately as possible. I was going to say better a thank you seven months later than never, but not if it's a pre-printed card that is a marker for a thank you, but not actually one. If someone has been  long remiss in expressing appreciation, the note should contain an apology for the delay -- as well as actual words to the gift giver expressing appreciation for the specific and thoughful gift.

My husband and I got together while he was still married. They separated three months later and divorced. It was the worst thing that either of us had ever done, but through the years, we have done our best to be the best partners, family members, community members, friends and employees that we can be, and try to move on from our less-than-perfect beginning. Earlier this year (six years after his divorce was finalized), we married. Our families are thrilled for us, and we're eager to have children (there are no children involved in any other way). Our problem is that my husband's ex wife is constantly harassing me on social media, and by emailing my work and personal accounts. I would love to cancel all of my social media accounts, but I work in the industry, and cannot do so. As it is, I post mostly professional content, with very few personal posts --nothing that I would be ashamed for anyone to see. I have never responded to the weekly attacks in any way, and I never post anything that I think would directly bait her. Please help.

I hope you've done everything you can to block her from your accounts. Get in touch with the social media provider and explain you are being harassed. Sure, you broke up her marriage -- six years ago! -- and she's entitled to dislike you. But she's not entitled to carry on a bizarre campaign of public intimidation. (And believe me, she only makes herself look disturbed.) Contact a lawyer and have her or him send the ex a letter stating that the contact with you needs to cease or else you will take all the legal action open to you to stop this offensive behavior.

I just found out that my mom and my stepdad are separating. My mom characterized the split as "peaceful," saying that "he still loves you and we still love each other," but this was the "only solution." I'm very sad about this split because my stepdad is a truly wonderful, generous, and loving person. I'm also getting married in the spring, and would still like him to be included in the wedding, but I'm unsure how to do so without making everyone uncomfortable. My mom said we would most likely be excluding "the Smiths" (my stepdad's family) from the wedding, but I think my stepdad deserves to be there, or at least to have the choice whether to be there or not. Since it's coming up so quickly, I'm worried things will still be raw and that my mom will blow up if I say I still want my stepdad to be there.

Your mother is divorcing this man, but he has been a huge and adored part of your life, so you don't have to symbolically divorce him yourself. And since your mother says the split is peaceful, that helps you to make the case to your mother that you want him to be there at your wedding.  Tell her you will make sure he and the members of his family to whom you are closest will be seated far apart from her at the ceremony, and that his family will be seated at another end of the hall at the reception. If she blows up at this news, you stay calm. Explain you know even in a mutally agreed upon split the emotions are raw, but you know that everyone involved is a muture person who's able to be cordial on this important day.

I found your question to the expecting woman who had the affair to be rather harsh and to miss the mark. Of course it was wrong for both she and the deceased to have had an affair, but now she has a child -- who is totally innocent in this -- and it is her responsibility to provide for that child. Had he lived the kid would have been entitled to at least 18 years of child support and you'd hope the man would have included the kid in his estate planning. The only thing I agree with from your advice is that she should consult an attorney. But doing so is the right thing to do to take care of her kid -- not a heartless gesture at all. Keep in mind that the deceased was just as much a part of the affair as she was.

I agree the child needs to be protected, thus my suggestion to see a lawyer. And yes, the newly deceased father was just as much a participant as the woman. I was commenting on the cold crassness of her note -- no shock, no sorrow, no recognition that what she was up to was not right, nor any recognition that her news is going to be a devastating blow to the widow.

I went into a depression (I have bipolar disorder) after our wedding several years ago, and I never sent thank-you notes. I kept insisting to my husband that I would do it myself, and perhaps because I made it into such a big-seeming task, I never got it done. It is still a source of shame for me.

First of all, you obliquely raise the important point that the gifts are to a couple, so there's no reason the entire burden for the thank you notes should fall exclusively on the bride. Second, ameliorate your shame. Get some lovely cards that aren't specifically for Christmas but have a holiday look, and write those notes. You can say you are wishing  all the best for Christmas and the coming year, and your resolution for 2014 was to rectify having never thanking your guest for the lovely wedding gift. Mention how much you have enjoyed it and that having it in your home reminds you often of their thoughtfulness.  Think how great you will feel addressing  those envelopes and finally addressing this source of guilt.

Dear Prudie, I have decided to break up with my boyfriend and move out, as he has finally told me that he doesn't plan to propose anytime soon. I am 36 and don't feel like waiting on him anymore. He tells me he doesn't want me to leave, and blames me for the breakup. I feel I don't have a choice, though, as he has made it clear that marriage is not in the cards for him anytime soon. Am I right? Or should I stick it out and wait?

This is why I always recommend that before couples start splitting the rent, they figure out more than who pays the gas bill and who pays the electricity. You clearly assumed living together would lead to something permanent. He assumed living together would mean you would permanently live together. If you want to have children, you do not have time to continue in this limbo.  Hearing that you're leaving has not prompted him to reassess his life priorities -- he just doesn't want to lose his roommate.  Make the break and stop letting him waste your precious time.

I've encountered a handful of people throughout my career (law) that don't shake hands. They've simply said something like "I'm sorry, I don't shake hands, but it's a pleasure to meet you." I don't think I've ever heard anyone comment on it afterward, and certainly not negatively. I don't think that you're wrong for suggesting that the original submitter seek out some kind of therapy to get the germ phobias under control, I just wanted to throw it out there that plenty of people decline handshakes without upsetting any social apple carts.

Good point. There are people who have medical condition that mean a crushing handshake could be literally crushing, and there are people who don't shake hands with members of the opposite sex for religious reasons. But handshaking is so baked into our social rituals, that it is awkward to not have an outstretched hand grasped in return. I agree with you that a gracious explanation should mean this is only a fleeting moment of no importance. But I also think it's worth the investment to get some help so that someone doesn't go through life feeling every surface as teeming with peril.

When my wife and I were married (10plus years ago) we made a decision that I would write the thank yous to the people on "her side", and she would write the thanks to the people on "my side". We thought that would be a way for the folks that knew us the least to get to know us. Each year when we see her, one of my wife's aunts never fails to bring up the nice thank you note that I wrote. Just a follow up on the Wedding Note theme from today.

The aunt probably had to get the smelling salts when she got a prompt and lovely note from the groom!  I love your idea of switching "sides" -- a great way to divide the labor and make a wonderful impression on a new person in your life.

Hi Prudence, My 8th grade daughter has been dropped by the "in crowd". She doesn't get invited to the big parties, pushed out of the lunch table and pointedly left out of group projects. She had a falling out with one girl and it's escalated to this point. What do we do? We kept her in sports, church groups and a social club for mothers and daughters. Girls are nice to her face but clearly she is out of the loop. She is miserable and wants to be home schooled. I am not sure that's the answer either. We can't afford private school and there isn't another public middle school. How can I help her?

Please read Sticks and Stones by my Slate colleague Emily Bazelon, and Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons. Both will give you great insight and advice on dealing with the painful situation. When the winter break it over, bring this up with school administrators. The advice in the  books will help you figure out how best to frame it to them and work productively to address this problem. Accept there is no magic solution, but being a steady source of support and counsel for your daughter is crucial to helping her work through this sadly common problem.

I didn't think your response was harsh enough! The man is dead less than 48 hours and the LW is already talking about his "large estate."

At least she didn't bother with the crocodile tears!

Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week, on the eve of Christmas Eve!

In This Chat
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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