Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Apr 14, 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.

My boyfriend has always been terrible at giving gifts. For our 8 year anniversary I gave him lots of hints that I wanted something special. In all the previous years he gave nothing. This year he said he got me something meaningful and stupidly I got my hopes up. On our anniversary day, he gave me his - wait for it - wisdom tooth. He had to have it extracted a few weeks earlier and kept it so he could give me a "part of himself." I'm upset beyond words. How do I teach an otherwise wonderful man how to give good gifts, without specifying exactly what I want?

There is a list of traditional gifts for anniversaries: 1st year, paper; 25th year, silver. But I missed your boyfriend's innovation: 8th year, enamel! But the thing about giving an enamel gift one grew in one's mouth is that it should guarantee that the recipient doesn't hang in there long enough to get the 9th anniversary gift of a rectal polyp.   I have long defended people who are bad at gifts or don't remember anniversaries because I'm one of them. (One of the things that binds my husband and me is that we can never remember when we got married.) But your boyfriend has me rethinking this. He's not an absent-minded, but well-meaning goofball. This gift was crude and deliberate. Maybe he got a laugh when you opened the box and reacted in horror. You say he's another one in a long line of "wonderful, but" people. I acknowledge there are far worse things than being a lousy gift-giver, and if his other qualities make up for it, so be it. But if after eight years, he wants to mark your togetherness by giving you something his dentist would otherwise dispose of in the biomedical waste bin, he better be really worth it.

I have a friend who randomly showers at my place when she comes over. I don't mean when she stays the night. But like when she's here for a couple of hours for lunch. Apparently she does this at other people's homes sometimes too. There's nothing wrong with her shower, and she's not someone who's obsessed over cleanliness. She just likes to have a random mid day wash every now and then. I know she's not doing anything wrong, and I have no reason to refuse her request other than I think it's weird. What reason should I give her to politely say no?

I would say that someone who randomly gets up from a social event and says, "I'm just going to be popping into your shower for a quick freshen up," likely does have some obsessional issues. You can have compassion for her while insisting that when she visits she sticks to chatting over sandwiches.  Just say, "Sue, I love catching up with you, but if you feel the need to break off our socializing and go shower, I'd prefer if you just go back to your place and do it there."

Dear Prudie, 25 years ago, when I was a little girl, my younger sister died after a very short battle with an aggressive form of stomach cancer. This left me an only child and my parents were always extremely protective of me. Fastforward to the present - I, my husband and our 2 children live near my parents and we're very close to them. Our daughter, "Sally" is approaching the age my sister was when she died and I think I can see this starting to get to my parents. They've always been hypochondriacs about Sally, but they are now taking it to the extreme. Every time Sally gets sick, my parents go on and on about how ill Sally is, saying that "something's just not right" and urging me to take her to the pediatrician. While Sally does tend to get more colds and tummy issues than the average kid, she's never had any major health problems, gets a yearly check-up and receives all her vaccinations. How can I stay sensitive to the unimaginable pain that my parents must have experienced while getting them to stop the constant worrying over Sally's health? Their constant fretting over every cold and tummy ache is starting to stress me out! Sincerely, Sick of it

Of course you understand, especially now that you're a mother, that while parents can eventually cope with the loss of a child, it's something no one ever fully gets over.  You understand that your parents are being drawn back in time and reexperiencing those awful days when they were realizing how sick their beloved daughter was.  While you see what is happening, they may not. So you need to bring this out in the open and help all of you deal with your parents' real, but irrational, fears. Even though your sister's death was many years ago, your parents may benefit from going to some meeting of The Compassionate Friends, a wonderful organization that helps people who have lost a child. There, they will be able to talk about fearing for the health of their granddaughter, and others will totally understand and comfort them. Also consider having a consult with you and your parents at your pediatrician's to discuss this. Your doctor can explain how vanishingly rare childhood cancers are, how healthy Sally is, and your doctor can reassure all of you that she is totally on top of this issue. Perhaps that will give your parents a sense of permission to release this fear. If that doesn't work, since you are close, physically and emotionally, go for a few family therapy sessions. Your parents have to hear that their concerns come out of a kind of magical thinking: If they are hypervigilant, nothing bad will happen again. But they need to hear that obsessing over Sally's physical health is very bad for a little girl's mental health. The three of you can develop some boundaries about discussing how Sally's feeling, for example. If they get some techniques to deflect their anxiety, or come to recognize their fears are harming their beloved granddaughter, it may allow them to calm their emotional turmoil.

Dear Prudence, I am the president of a debating society. One of our new students is very talented, but cannot afford to come to an important tournament for financial reasons. I feel background should be no impediment and would like to apply to charities to get him to come. I've already found over fifty that he might be eligible for, and it's a relatively small amount of money. I ran this idea past last year's president, who is worried it might be embarrassing. How do I raise this option with my debater with tact and sensitivity? Signed: Want to do the right thing

Thank you for recognizing that many of the extracurricular activities at which students can hone their skills and experience success may be out of reach for those of low income. It is not embarrassing to make sure everyone on your team can take full access of the opportunities your society offers. I think you should simply tell your student you need him at the tournament and want to look into getting a scholarship for him.  That shouldn't be embarrassing, it should be a relief.

Dear Prudence, I am a woman in my mid 50's and haven't dated in quite some time. The other night I attended an auction and met a man, just a few years older than myself. When he initially approached me, he had said he was getting ready to leave, however, ended up staying another three hours. We chatted almost the entire time and when the auction was over, he said he'd like to keep in touch. He is an athlete, quite accomplished in his sport/sports (world famous and a record holder in fact) and I was able to do a bit of research (snooping) on him, so I know he is who he said he is. I had mentioned that I was wanting to get back into the gym and could use a few pointers. The next morning, he sent me a text message asking if he could call and if so, may use the number he had from my original text message. He rang me up last night and we talked for quite a long time. We talked about my eating and workout habits and he said "well, I will go to the gym with you, teach you what I can, but I cannot become your trainer as I don't mix business with my social life and let's face it, I am trying to get into your pants." I think I said something like "let's see if we get to that point, because you're going to have to work pretty damned hard to get there." Have I missed something? Is this typical behavior for men these days? Have women made such demands of equality that men no longer feel the need to act like gentlemen? Should I kick this fellow to the curb or tell him I was shocked at his being so forward? Or, am I being hypersensitive? Thanks! Tamara 

I don't think that while you were out of the dating scene a generation of gentleman decided to become crude beasts because of female equality. Crude beasts have always walked among us. And if you want stories of lewd behavior, listen to the tales of attractive, newly single middle-aged men and the sexts they receive from horny, single, middle-aged women. Yes, this guy's come on may have turned you off, but I guarantee he's used it many times, likely to great effect. You say you were flummoxed by it, but you came up with an excellent zinger that surely got him more excited because the chase is on.  You're in your 50s and have been out of the dating scene for a long time. You know that the number of available men is small, and most of them will not be to your taste. If you remain intrigued by this cocky athlete, then go ahead and see him again. And stick to your vow that his getting what he wants is going to take a lot of work.

Hey, maybe her boyfriend is a fan of "Girls" and saw how happy Hannah was when Adam gave her one of his teeth on a chain. A fan of "Girls" is a keeper, by the way.

Thanks for the reminder; I had surpressed that particular plot turn. Our letter writer does not say she got the "Girls" reference, nor did her boyfriend say, when she reacted in horror, "I'm Adam, you're Hannah, get it!" (And really, it would be a stretch to see that as an endearing comparison.) So, instead of the gift being a pop culture reference, I think it was just blech. I hope the boyfriend is not gathering a bag of toenail clippings as an apology gift.

To the debating society president: As a talented student from a low-income background, I think it's great that you are taking the initiative to help out your teammate. While I don't think I would've been embarrassed in that situation, It the club has an adult sponsor, I'd recommend having them sending notice about scholarship opportunities to the whole team. It's entirely possible that there are other students on the team who could also use the assistance, but are too shy to mention it themselves.

Great point. And at my daughter's public school, she went on a couple of big, over-budget field trips, and the teacher sent a notice to all the parents soliciting funds from those who could afford the trip to underwrite those who couldn't. All the students got to go. So if the philanthropies don't come through, it could be that the other debaters could pay for their fellow students. Of course, the identity of those receiving the funds should be kept confidential.

Dear Prudence, I divorced my husband because he was unfaithful, and had been cheating on me for months with a co-worker. I have not dated since the divorce almost six years ago. A few years ago I met a man at work who is now my best friend. We are kindred spirits, can talk for hours and have a great time. He is married and I know that I am in love with him. It is not my interest or intention to take him away from his wife and children, yet I feel as if I am harming myself because he is the center of my world, and I am not looking anywhere else because he meets my emotional needs. I am often angry with him because he cannot meet all of my needs. If something happened between us I would never be able to forgive myself or him. I cannot imagine a life without him and part of me feels that I need to let him go. The thought of that is overwhelming and upsetting. Thank you sincerely, I Don't Want To Be a Homewrecker

Presumably, six years ago your husband's co-worker could have written me exactly the same letter, except her confessional would have included the fact that she and her married co-worker also had a beautiful physical union. You haven't even dated since the break up, so I assume the dissolution of your marriage was traumatic for you. As a belated recovery, you are now engaged in the same kind of emotional infidelity that ended your marriage. Listen to yourself: You would never forgive yourself if you two ended up in bed; but if you don't get there soon, you're going to be really mad that he's refusing to meet all of your needs. Please untangle this with a therapist. Then sign up for some on-line dating. At least when you meet jerks, they will make it obvious really early on.

Supposedly, ScarJo gave her (gold plated) tooth to Ryan Reynolds (or vise versa) when they were married. So giving one's teeth must actually be a thing. A gross, uncreative thing that smacks of trying too hard, but, nonetheless.

And that marriage lasted about 20 minutes. Now, I'm so regretful that I didn't have my fibroid gilded for our 20th anniversary.

I have been dating my boyfriend for almost a year. His parents are very well-off financially, and from the beginning have been incredibly kind and generous to me. They love to entertain, dine out, and drink fine (and often expensive) wine. As they only live 20 minutes away, we often go over for dinner and end up staying the night in their large, comfortable home -- it feels like a getaway for us, as we are underpaid 20-somethings with small apartments and roommates. They have never accepted money from me, which I have felt guilty about but have justified because they seem to enjoy our company. However, we returned recently from BF's brother's wedding across the country and they paid the bill for everything -- airline, hotel, meals, etc. and now I am feeling especially guilty. Is there anything I can do to "repay" them -- even if I can't afford to write them a check? This compounded with the fact that my mom is a lower-middle class single parent who is too embarrassed to entertain in her small, older home and can't afford to spoil my boyfriend the way his parents spoil me has got me feeling like I'm in a bind!

Stop feeling guilty and have a dinner party. Clear out the roommates, and invite his parents and your mother. No foie gras or truffles, just a homecooked meal made by the two of you to reciprocate the hospitality of your boyfriend's parents and let them get to know your mother better.  Please get over the notion that only the well-to-do can entertain in style, or that living frugally is embarrassing. You are right that your boyfriend's parents don't want and won't accept your money. One of their life pleasures is being successful enough so that they can enjoy good food and wine, and even pick up the tab so that their son's delightful girlfriend can attend a family event. But your having them over, even if it's for spaghetti, will say that you are both grateful and learning to be a confident hostess yourself.

My former boss at a large West Coast firm is relatively new to social media. He is a likable guy, my dad's age, with a nice family. They hosted my own family for dinner- even for Easter- on many occasions over the years, and though we've moved on, my husband and I think of them warmly. As the former manager of my old firm's popular social media accounts, I remained online friends with my old coworkers; now I'm connected to many new coworkers and friends at my new company, too. My old boss "likes" and comments on every single thing I do online. Every. Single. Thing. He's far senior to me in our field and knowing him has proved beneficial to me professionally; I don't wish to offend him or worse, hurt his feelings. But now he's friend-requested my little sister and she is skeeved out. I've noticed he does this to other former coworkers, so this isn't an e-stalking situation so much as it is a weird, overfamiliar breach of etiquette that, I guess, isn't written yet. Do I say something? If so, what? I'm freely sharing these mild, not-too-personal things, and engaging with one another is the fun of social media. Just not, maybe, engaging with every single thing, at all hours of the day and night. Oh, and several people have approached me about this- folks from my old job who wonder if he's all right, AND other friends asking who the guy squatting on my page is.

I'd say that this is e-stalking and this Dad has discovered that with one quick "friend" request he has an endless data bank of vacation photos (oh, those beach volleyball shots!), etc, where he can indulge himself while pretending he's only keeping up with young people in his field. Please tell your sister not to accept his super-creepy request; no explanation to him is needed. This is a delicate situation f0r you since he likely is a reference, and he holds sway in your field. I'm not up on the latest Facebook privacy settings, but you are a social media maven, so surely there's a corral you can put people in who you don't want to defriend but whom you want to have extremely limited access to your photos, updates, etc. Cordone him in there. Presumably he won't know what happened, but if he complains he can't see your fun pictures anymore, just explain there's a new setting for social versus work friends, and don't be bullied into allowing him full access.

As the daughter of well-off parents who have also been generous to my friends and husband, I agree with the advice given. Your BF's parents have made no indication they expect any reciprocity equal in financial terms, so be generous to them how you can - plan an outing to a park or a museum on free admission day, have a dinner party, or make some homemade baked goods. Write a thank-you note if you want after they host you for a long weekend.They sound like good people, and if they haven't sneered at your socio-economic status in a year, it's likely they never will.

I agree with everything here except there should be no qualification for "if you want," regarding the thank you note for their paying the tab for the trip. When they take you out to a restaurant and pick up the tab, you can just thank them at the time for a lovely meal.  But after they have paid for a trip, a gracious note will be appreciate by them and speak well for you. And bringing some homemade brownies when you come for dinner is a lovely idea.

I just found out my foster brother committed suicide. He came into our family, my parents and I, at the age of 9 and completely "fit" from the start. My mother was especially close to him and I'm not sure how she will handle this. She is 80 and has been declining both physically and mentally lately. Do I need to tell her this news? Is it my "duty" or can some things go untold to spare the fragile?

This is so heartbreaking, and I think situation such as this need to be handled on a case by case basis when you're dealing with a fragile old person. First of all, the default should always be toward honesty and dignity. That is, just because someone is old does not mean she has to be sheltered like a child. But you have to look at the overall circumstances. If your foster brother was someone who was in regular touch with your mother, and his absence will be baffling to her, then you have to tell. Also important is the degree of mental decline of your mother. It doesn't sound as if she is unable to understand what is going on around her. So if she's still largely competent, then again, she's going to know something is up and things are being kept from her.  Telling her will be one of the most painful things you ever have to do. But unless there is an overwhelming reason to withhold this, not telling her is not right.

I am a young female just starting out in the workplace. There is an older, married man who works in the office next to me, but for a different company. I see him most work days, and we usually exchange pleasantries. We chat everyday or so, but always about professional topics. Since he is experienced in this industry, I have felt comfortable asking for his advice. He also has a great deal of sway in local business. Anyway, this past weekend I ran into him at a networking happy hour. He obviously had a couple of drinks, though I was fairly sober. He proceeded to say a couple of inappropriate things to me, and in shock, I ignored these comments (though I am now mad that I did not standup for myself). To give you an idea, he mentioned how much he specifically likes a body part of mine, and that if he was not married, he would definitely be interested in me. Apparently he also found out my actual age from a mutual acquaintance (which is not a huge deal, but I try not to bring it up since I am fairly young for this industry), which had him practically drooling! Do I confront him about this incident? Or do I ignore it? It would be one thing if we were within the same company, but since we are not, there is no official channel, nor do I see this affecting my actual work. However, I do see him everyday, and he is always interacting with my coworkers as well. Thanks!

So many mentors; so many creeps. Fortunately, you don't work for this guy, but you do run into him daily. I think you need to speak up. It could be he was so drunk he only has a sketchy memory of what he said. But he needs to know that he behaved totally inappropriately to you. (And don't berate yourself for being too shocked in the moment to know how to respond.)   Next time you see him, tell him you need to have a conversation, then tell him that his remarks at the networking event were way out of line. Let's hope he turns red, apologizes, says he had so much to drink he doesn't even remember, but it will never happen again. Whatever he does, start a time-stamped file and record what happened at the event, what you said to him later, and what your response was. This is just a little insurance in case he decides to badmouth you. I'm hoping what does happen is that he realizes he just stepped in it, appreciates your handling this privately (for now),  and steps way back.

Lately at work, I have been bothered by a co-worker who seems to spend most of her time trying to gossip and get people in trouble. She recently asked me about my computer usage at work and while I denied anything wrong, the day after this conversation, a meeting was scheduled between me and my supervisors over computer usage. I found this humiliating and even had the company IT person check my computer to prove that I do spend my time working. This woman leaves early, takes longer breaks and brags about not doing her job, yet constantly is "telling" on coworkers for things that aren't even an issue. I want to tell her to knock it off yet I'm afraid she will do something to threaten my job. I feel like this is high school but it is making the work environment no longer enjoyable. Is there anything I could say to my HR department?

I wish someone who understands corporate life would explain to me why, given our high unemployment, every place of work seems to have a toxic incompetent who never gets fired. Since this woman apparently was the cause of your little "review," I think you need to push back. Perhaps you can find someone else who she made up accusations against, and you two can go to a mutual supervisor and express your concern about her behavior and its effect on morale. Do not be defensive, do not get ad hominen, just explain that this co-worker seems to enjoy threatening other people and making false reports, and it's disturbing everyone in the workplace.

Thanks, everyone. Have a great week!

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.

Read previous Prudie chats

Like Dear Prudence on Facebook
Recent Chats
  • Next: