Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Feb 24, 2014

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.

Hi, Prudie. Last week my partner and I went for a much-needed and long-overdue stay at a bed and breakfast in Florida. The day before we left, while laying by the pool I saw the concierge/desk helper let himself into our room. Wondering why, I got up to check and found him wrapped up in our bed sheets and smelling a pillow. I got angry, and he started crying and said we were an attractive couple and that he "just wanted to feel alive again." It was awkward and embarrassing, and he said he would never do it again, so I just let it drop and didn't tell my partner or the proprietor about this. I figured the sheets are their property, and I'd think it was just weird or kind of funny had he just replaced the linens and done that in the laundry room, but in the room itself it felt like a gross violation of our privacy. Plus, if it had been a big chain hotel there's no question I'd have marched straight to the manager's office. Should I have told anyone?

I can just imagine the Yelp review you can give this place: "The setting is magnificent, the food sensational. And if you're looking to find the concierge in your bed, masturbating to the scent you've left on the pillows, the Come Again Lodge is the place for you." Let's put aside for the moment the pervert in your bed. If I were to stumble upon this scene, I cannot imagine going back to the pool and not saying, "Ah, Dear, you remember that nice guy who checked us in..." This would have become treasured vacation tale we dined out on for years. However, once we regained our composure, I would have insisted we packed our bags (after carefully checking our underwear) because I would not be able to spend a night at a place where there was a guy with a serious fetish about my bedsheets and a key to my room. You absolutely should have told the proprietor. If you ran a B&B, I assume you'd want to know if you had an employee who felt the aromas of the guests were a form of True Blood. And surely finding the concierge rolling in your sheets would have gotten you comped for the entire vacation.

Before he met me, my husband started a relationship with a woman who stated she was pregnant as a result of stranger rape. They got married, but eventually divorced and she is now in prison. My husband has custody of the child who is 7. While my husband is the only daddy my stepson has known, we tried to be honest about his biological parentage as age appropriately as we could. He knows, for instance, that his biological father was a bad person who hurt his mommy and is in jail, too. Then we got the shock of our lives when a man contacted us stating he was the real biological father. Contrary to the original story, it turns out this man was married to my stepson's mom, she divorced him without telling him she was pregnant, and ran off after depleting his bank account. He eventually discovered the existence of his son and spent some time tracking us down with the help of a private investigator. He came with proof of a paternity test and told us he is open to us conducting our own tests - but looking at the two of them, it's obvious they are father and son. He wants to meet my stepson and start a relationship with him, but we are scared and worried. My stepson has already gone through series of emotional upheaval in his life, he thinks his biological father is a 'bad man' and most of all, we are scared he might sue for custody. If we refuse, are we denying our son's right to know his true parentage?

Indeed, you are right, your stepson has known far too much travail in his seven years. And the arrival of his biological father -- who was another in the string of victims your husband's ex has left behind  -- means that more upheaval is ahead. But surely you understand you can't keep the boy's father from him.  Before you make any introductions, all of you adults need some excellent professional advice. You and your husband need a family law attorney to look out for your interests and that of your stepson. Unless the mother committed the most heinous of crimes, she'll be getting out of jail one day and likely will want to assert her own custody rights.  So you and your husband need to clarify your legal situation. You also need an excellent child therapist. Get some recommendations and talk to the therapists first to get a feel for them before you choose someone to  introduce to your son. This is a very complicated story for him to absorb, and given his age (or any age!) it has to be handled with psychological care. He's going to find out his father is not a "bad person." He will come to understand the bad actor in his life is his mother who told the most awful lies. (While telling your son what you thought was the truth about his father, I wish it had been done in a way hat didn't make the boy feel that he sprung from someone evil. He could have known his father made a mistake and did something bad, not simply that he was a globally bad person.) What's important now is that all the adults recognize the need for your stepson to feel he is in a stable situation and that there will be no abrupt changes. That means you and the biological father agree about how he gets introduced and the next steps to take.  At best, this will be a good turning point for this boy. He has essentially lost one damaged parent, but perhaps he is gaining a more loving one.

My girlfriend and I have an argument going and are looking to you to help us. Whenever we go out to eat, I pay for the meal and tip on my credit card. When I tip, I always tip at least 20%, but I tip in such a way that the total bill comes out to a whole dollar amount. For example, if the meal was 28.42, I would probably tip 6.58, for a total bill of 35.00. Having the total bill be a whole dollar amount is my slight OCD quirk. My girlfriend thinks it is rude to tip those odd change amounts, envisioning waiters with pocketfuls of "useless change" at the end of their shift. My response is that I am a courteous customer, a good tipper and that any extra money is good for the waiter/waitress. What are your thoughts? --OCD Tipper

If you are tipping servers at least 20 percent, I'm sure they don't mind what calculations are used to arrive at this. Given that most people tip in whole dollar amounts, if it's added to the total after tax, the servers are going to be getting an odd amount of change, anyway. There's nothing rude about what you're doing and if your girlfriend is so concerned about this harmless quirk, she should be the one whipping out her credit card.

I am in the process of divorcing my husband due to his soliciting other married women on the internet to have sex with and carrying out his intentions multiple times over many months. His adult son from a previous marriage, who I am close to, continues to live in my home, along with the son's wife and 2 young children. They can not afford to live elsewhere currently. I am fine with that. My soon to be ex-husband lives 2 miles away. Initially, I allowed him to come for dinner twice weekly. I made plans to be out of the house on those nights. It allowed my ex to see his grandchildren, 2 and 4 yrs old in their own home and read them a bedtime story, etc. This has become quite uncomfortable for me. I have suggested to my ex that he childproof his own home and see his family there. While I would like to treat my stepson as if this were their home too and they could entertain friends and family, I am thinking of limiting my ex to one time per week or even none. What do you think?

I think you are a really nice person if own the home you and your soon-to-be ex were living in and you are allowing his son and family to continue to stay on an open-ended basis. You have to know that even if you wish to forget you ever married this cheater, you won't be able to since you are the landlord for his immediate family. However, of course it is within your right to say you are tired of having to vacate your own home in order for him to see this group. If you don't want your ex around, tell him so and tell his son and daughter-in-law. Say you do not want to interfere with their relationship with him, but he is no longer welcome and you want them to see him at his new place. If gramps had the means to wine and dine other women, he surely can spring for a baby gate.

Dear Prudie, My husband and I recently moved to a new city and are trying our best to make friends. Last night we went to a dinner party organized by my co-workers, one of whom brought her baby. Imagine my surprise when, as we're all seated at the dinner table, "Lauren" whips out her breast and starts feeding baby right along with us! I have no problem with breast feeding and I know baby has to eat, too, but I admit I was a little surprised to see bared breasts at the dinner table, in particular at a gathering where not everyone knew one another. Am I being a prude Prudie? Or can I balance being supportive of breastfeeding and still draw the line at what I have to watch while I eat?

I'm very glad you didn't announce:  "Lauren, I'm lactose intolerant, please take  your milk elsewhere." When I was a nursing mother,  I excused myself from the table unless it was an all female event. But okay, okay, I understand that leaving means the mother might miss the whole meal. If you're going to stay, every nursing woman knows how to accomplish this discreetly so that baby and breast are covered. Given the general din of a dinner party, no one would even have heard the baby's lip-smacking praise of his or her meal. You are new in town and want to make friends. You may personally have been put off, but declaring aloud you are disgusted with the behavior of those at table is best left unsaid.

My husband's sister gifted me a beautiful diamond necklace for my birthday. I wanted to thank her and also invite her for my birthday party, but have hesitated based on past experience. Last year, she showed up for my party in a flashy designer gown and was the center of attention with her humorous anecdotes. I don't possess her shapely figure or her wit and can not afford designer clothes. Is there a way I can ask her to tone down the act this time? I don't want to sound petty and insecure while doing it.

I suppose you could tell her that the party this year is going to be casual so you'd appreciate if she'd wear a Hefty bag. Then you can give her a dog muzzle at the door so as to cut back on the humorous anecdotes. I actually don't know if your sister is the life of the party and everyone leaves having been thoroughly entertained, or whether she's an attention hog who take over the evening. You concede she looks great and is very funny. Guests like that are generally perceived to be a plus.  So either you invite her and enjoy the sparkle and liveliness she brings, or you leave her off the list and deal with the consequences.

No question, just had to comment that so far we have two nominee's for Stepmothers of the year today! After all the "how can I get my ex to ignore his kids and pay more attention to me?" types, these two ladies are awesome examples of step-parents showing that you don't have to give birth to someone to be an excellent parent to them.

Thank you for pointing this out. Yes, we have two women not biologically related to the children in their lives, who want to do the best by them under difficult circumstances. How refreshing!

Dear Prudence, I am estranged from my parents, with whom I cut contact after over 12 years of therapy. They were emotionally abusive, and I still have panic attacks when I visit friends in the area in which they live. My question is the following: my grandmother, whose side of the family recognizes my mother's abuse and has been supportive of my decision, is in her nineties and recently went on hospice. I know that a funeral will be approaching. I also know that my parents will be attending the funeral when it happens, and I panic when I even consider being around them. None of this is my extended family's fault, however. I do not want to attend the funeral, but I am worried about what they will think of me if I don't. I should also mention that I have bipolar disorder, and my parents are my worst trigger. Should I suck it up and go to the funeral out of respect for my other relatives? (I leave my grandmother out of this, since she won't know whether I'm there or not.) Thanks for your thoughts on this.

You must do what is best for your mental health. You've made a strong case that  attending your grandmother's funeral will be a setback for you, so that means you have to stay home. You don't have to offer a lot of explanations. But to those in the family who know and understand your situation, you can say that you need to avoid interacting with your parents, so since you knew they would be at the funeral, you were unable to go. Then you can ask that a smaller group of you get together for a meal to tell stories and pay tribute to your grandmother. You can raise a glass and say how she came to your emotional rescue, understood the pain of your childhood, and was instrumental in your healing.

My brother and his girlfriend make out passionately in front of everyone, including when people are sitting on the couch next to them. They're not teenagers -- both are in their mid-twenties. Our immediate family, as well as several extended family members and friends, have expressed our discomfort in being basically forced to watch them making out. We have attempted to be very welcoming of the girlfriend. Recently, she and my brother announced that our family is rude because we ask them not to exhibit PDA in front of us. That it's a sign that we don't like her and in order for us to accept their relationship, we need to be ok with their displays of affection. His GF has actually been rather hostile recently and it's apparently due to the fact that we're all "rude." I guess I'm just looking for confirmation that none of us are crazy to feel like we don't need to witness our brother making out with his girlfriend constantly and how you would suggest handling the situation.

It's too bad that, "Hey, you two, get a room!" didn't make them realize they needed to get a room. However, now that you'v spoken up, she is seething with hostility. That perhaps is preferable to watching them French kiss. So what you do now is ignore their bad behavior no matter what form it takes. If she's uncommunicative, then people should excuse themselves and  go refresh their drinks. If the two of them start humping each other and turn every piece of furniture they're on into a love seat, you just get up and sit somewhere less exciting. Keep in mind either these two will break up, or they will stay together. If it's the latter, in years to come you can all titter among yourselves about your memories of when they couldn't keep their hands off each other.

How does he have proof of paternity? With the facts as listed, he's never met the boy, so how did he do DNA testing?

Great point! I hope the original letter writer will clarify this. And if there isn't a good explanation, new testing is in order.

Dear Prudie, I am a 24-year-old woman who recently started a new job as part of a small team. At my workplace, food (cookies, etc.) is frequently left out at meetings. Since I'm already a bit curvier than I'd like to be and the easy access to unhealthy foods wasn't helping matters, I decided to start a more health-conscious diet--one where unhealthy foods are limited instead of forbidden. My new lifestyle has been going great, but I've been having problems with a coworker who seems to be bent on narrating the caloric content of everything that I eat. He'll loudly decline dried fruit and nuts left in the office because they're too high in calories, and anytime I reach for a cookie he loudly explains why he himself is abstaining. Worst of all, on one occasion he inquired whether my ethnicity made me prone to weight problems! I have no idea whether he is himself dieting or whether he's just trying to "help me out," but his remarks honestly make me want to wolf down a whole box of donuts out of spite. How do I politely tell an otherwise nice and friendly guy to butt out? -Food for Thought

You ask to talk to you in one of your offices if you have a door to shut, or find a place that does. Then you explain that you are uncomfortable with him narrating the calorie content of food and remarking on your weight. Say he may not even know he's doing it, or he may have the best of intentions, but you hope he understands that you don't want to hear it any more. Be professional and friendly and wrap up this brief conversation by thanking him for his understanding.  Let's hope he realizes that making the office an uncomfortable place for the new hire is not a path he wants to go down any farther. 

Good afternoon, Prudie. Seven years ago my husband and I got married, and things went very sour at the wedding between my mother and my in-laws. My mom claims that FIL told her she couldn't speak at the wedding reception because it wasn't appropriate, or something to that effect. My father died when I was 14, so it was very important to her that she get to say something nice on my father's behalf. The entire event was ruined for her and she's been holding a grudge ever since. There's currently no physical interaction between them, but we're thinking about moving my mom in to the basement to spend more time together and improve our finances. However, the in-laws visit on a regular basis. There's no way we can have everyone in the same house without WWIII raining down. Is it my job to reveal to the in-laws that my mother doesn't want to be around them and that they will no longer be able to stay at our home but will instead have to go to a hotel when they come to visit? I know I should have tried to organize a truce years ago, but I'm in a quandary about what to do now, so many years after they fact. MIL and FIL truly have no idea--they still send my mother birthday and Christmas cards, which she despises. Help!

Your father-in-law behaved terribly seven years ago, but I'm afraid this statute of limitations has expired. Sure, you could tell your in-laws about the mean-spirited slight and ask your father-in-law to apologize. But I'm afraid it will make your mother sound rather bonkers if you have to further explain that the wound is as fresh today as on the wedding day, that your mother has never gotten over it, and that the mere sight of them makes her want to explode.  I think you have to set some new ground rules with your mother long before you finalize her moving in. Say to her there's no excuse for what your father-in-law did, but it was a stupid thing done a long time ago and since then they've demonstrated they have only good wishes for her. Say that you're done keeping them apart. If she wants to live with you, that means she behaves graciously when your in-laws visit, which they do on a regular basis. You can explain that once things improve, you will consider letting them know about the original injury, but you feel given the time that's passed, it's just best to move on. Tell her if she can't let this go, then your living together has to be a no go.

Dear Prudence, My boyfriend and I have been together for over two years. Around 10 months ago we moved in together. Things have been pretty normal except one thing. Let me tell you first, that I grew up in a house where we did not speak of bathroom behavior. As a result of that, I am quite uncomfortable talking about going number two. I am as secretive as I can be when I have to do my duty. Now that "Ron" and I are living together, I have to divulge certain information on a need to know basis. More specifically, if I have diarrhea. These times I have had to explain, "You may not want to go in there for a while." The weird thing is, 15 minutes or so after telling him such, Ron initiates sex. I find it gross and confusing. He knows how uncomfortable I feel as it is. This has happened four times so far. He denies a pattern or that it's unusual. Am I the one being weird about this?

If he has a kink about this, just think how thrilled he must be to discover that you have a very sensitive stomach. Given your family background, it's understandable that you'd like your boyfriend to be in a different zipcode when you move your bowels. But moving on past your own family's hang-ups is going to be good for you in the long run, especially if you suffer from long runs. I agree that it does sounds like more than a coincidence that your boyfriend wants to have sex every time you limp out of the bathroom pale and spent. Sure it sounds weird, but if you look up fetishes, if this is one of his, it will end up sounding pretty mild. You've asked, but he refuses to acknowledge that he has fecal attraction. (I can't take credit for this phrase -- I found it while trying to quickly Google this kink.)  I suggest two things -- if you frequently get diarrhea for unexplained reasons, you need to see a doctor. And if you are recovering from a violent evacuation and are really not in the mood, just tell Ron now is not the time for sexual healing.

He probably means he has the old-fashioned kind: an affidavit of some kind from the mother.

Thanks -- that's a good point. I also read a Kate Atkinson novel in which a father in this situation who's a private detective cleverly arranges to get a DNA sample (a hair) from a child to see if he can establish paternity without first contacting the mother.

To the person who is pleased to see "good" stepmothers for a change: Actually, there are a lot of us out there who love our stepkids and would do anything for them--and we do it all against the backdrop of stereotypes like wanting our partners to pay us all the attention and generally being evil. Think before you generalize.

Yes, of course. But this column is not overrun with anyone behaving well, and conflict between stepparents and stepchildren is sadly a common theme. I don't see anything wrong noting what you say yourself: that many stepparents are doing yeoman's duty on behalf of their stepchildren.

Long story short: a few months ago I found out that a friend (not a close friend, bordering on acquaintance) cheated on her husband with a random guy. I'd call it a one-night stand but it was pre-planned, so... Fast forward, I find out this same friend cheated on her husband, again, multiple times, with her cousin's husband. Cousin doesn't know, cheater's husband doesn't know. The cousin is an acquaintance of mine with three young kids; cheater has two kids. I just keep my mouth shut, right?

Right. Everyone involved is only tangentially in your orbit. Keep it that way.

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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