Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

May 05, 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. And if you're in D.C. and want to ask me anything in person, I will have a live event Tuesday at 7:00 at 6th & I. Please come!

Dear Prudence, I am in my third trimester of my first pregnancy. My husband I picked out baby names months ago. Is it a girl or boy? We're waiting to see! The problem is, the middle name we picked for the boy's name is the same as my bosses middle name. I only know of this name because of him. It's very rare, distinctive and both my husband and I love it. Neither of us had ever heard the name until I started working for him. Should I tell him of our intentions? Do I wait until after the little one is actually named? Thank you so much!

I wonder if you're thinking this will guarantee that you'll never be let go, or you're worrying that the boss will be put out you "stole" his name.  I get a lot of name questions and most of them come down to someone needing to understand that no one owns a name (unless it's a matter of using a name to try to commit fraud). You of course are free to be enchanted by the mellifluousness of your boss's name and use it for your child. Don't say anything until after the birth, and if you do have a boy,  just be straightforward about it with the boss. Presumably an announcement about your offspring will have gone around the office,  so when you return to work and have a conversation with your boss about the little one, tell him,  "Mr. President, the baby is Aiden Hussein O'Brien. You'll never guess where we came up with the middle name!"

Hi Prudie, I've been working at a small market research company for about three months. A week ago, my (male) boss called me into his office to talk about a client. At the end of the meeting, he said there was something else he wanted to speak to me about -- specifically, dressing "professionally." Prudie, you should see the way everyone dresses at our office! It's extremely informal here. There is no dress code in the employee handbook. When my boss gave me this lecture, he was dressed in jeans and a polo. Among other women in the office, skinny jeans, leggings, Uggs, and flip-flops are the norm. If anything, I dress up my jeans with a blazer, heels, nice boots, and I throw in the occasional dress, nice pair of pants, or skirt during the week. The only other difference between many of the other women in the office and myself is that I am somewhat overweight and most of them are not. He told me that I need to "cover up" in the work environment. I don't drape myself in giant sweaters or wear enormous mou-mous, but I am plenty covered up and I adhere to the norms set by other employees, including him. We don't have an HR department because we are a small office, but I'm pretty upset by the conversation. I'm angered by the implication that slender women can get away with dressing however they want, while as an overweight woman I'm somehow being penalized for my similar, but still appropriate, sartorial choices. How should I handle this? Is it worth finding another job over?

One encouraging thing about your letter is your assumption that if you're not happy, you can find another job. For the past several years, all the people I've heard from stuck in unpleasant work places have noted that they need their job and don't think there's another one out there. So I'm taking this as a sign of economic robustness. If jeans and flip-flops are the norm in your office, including when meeting with clients, then no wonder you are left baffled by his critique of your attire.  But instead of seething and sending out your resume (leaving a job after three months is not ideal), go back to your boss and have another discussion. Do it on one of the days you've dressed up and say you realize you need more clarity about his critique of your wardrobe. Say that since the office is so dressed down, you feel it would be helpful for everyone if a general dress code was spelled out. Do not mention your weight. Do not say the skinny girls apparently can get away with anything. Just emphasize that of course you want to look as  professional as possible, and you think everyone would benefit by knowing how to do that. Then privately with one or two trusted friends, invite them over to look at your office attire. Get some objective opinions about what works and what doesn't and what pieces you need to make the best impression.

Dear Prudence, I am getting married in an small, intimate, and hopefully casual, ceremony this summer. My fiance and I didn't want to do anything big, so we picked a small venue in his hometown. We invited our parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, and a few very close friends. The issue is with one of my friends. I have never liked her husband, and they were having problems at the time of the invites, but we invited him anyway. Since then, their problems have escalated and it has come out that he has been physically violent. My other friend and I have looked up how to talk to and support a friend going through this, but she seems to be unreceptive to our help, and is failing to realize how serious this is. In light of this new information, my fiance and I absolutely don't want him at our small wedding as I am filled with anger over his actions. I will do whatever I can to support her and get her out of this doomed marriage, but the thought of having to play nice around him on our wedding day makes my skin crawl. What do I do? Will I only push her further into this bad situation if I say he's not allowed--or will it help her open her eyes? --Mixed Feelings

I agree your friend needs help, but it might well backfire to tell  her that she can come to see you get married, but as far as you're concerned her marriage is over.  Unless she separates from her husband and tells him he can't accompany her, your disinviting him will be just seen -- perhaps by both of them -- as rude interfering. Please call the National Domestic Violence hotline on behalf of your friend. They will have guidance for how you can best support her in taking the necessary steps to be safe. 

Dear Prudie, I work in a small office of about a dozen people. We often work late hours, and I usually leave a couple of sets of gym clothing in my desk. Last Friday I wanted to take some of my used clothing home after a busy week and noticed that all my (used) underwear was missing. I know I did not misplace three sets, and lots of people have been working on a big project all week. How do I bring up the subject of the theft? There are several people who have access to my desk and a couple of people who I suspect. What do I do?

Obviously, this calls for a kind of Agatha Christie tribunal in which you gather all the suspects around the conference table and lay out your evidence: "Dick, at a meeting you were about to sneeze and when you reached for a handkerchief, instead you pulled my thong out of your pocket. You want to explain? Gary, I found a copy of a Victoria's Secret catalog in your wastebasket. It was sticky. Want to tell everyone why?"

Yes, you likely have a pervert in your midst, so you're going to be looking at every guy in the office with a queasy feeling. But I'm afraid this is one of those things that you just have to handle in a preventive manner.  Unless you catch the thief red-handed, you cannot confront someone about this without evidence. You could go to HR so that at the least there's a notation about this. But I assume they  are unlikely to send a memo asking that employees not steal each other's dirty underwear.  I think this is one of those things best  handled privately by either storing your gym clothes in a secure place, or taking them home with you at the end of each day.

Is it possible that this person has more skin showing than she realizes? One problem with jeans in the office is the dreaded crack. Or does this employee have more cleavage showing than the others? It may not have been the weight that made her singled out.

Good points. That's why I think she needs a wardrobe review with a kind but honest friend.

Dear Prudence, my son is four and will start kindergarten next year. He has his father's last name. I kept my own last name. The problem is that the last name is one that is really open to teasing because of the way it is pronounced. My husband says he was never teased, nor were his younger siblings. Do I have faith in that? Or are kids meaner now? I can't go in pronouncing my son's name differently at school (can I)? It's really stressing me out!

If your husband has happily gone through life as Hussein Uranus, you have to take him at his word that it had no effect on his childhood. And no, you cannot bring your son to school and say Uranus is pronounced you-ray-NUSS if that's not how your husband says it. The most important thing you want to convey is that you don't give a second thought to your son's name, except to acknowledge it's beautiful. People are not meaner now than when your husband was a kid. If anything, there is more recognition about teasing. So please stop worrying about this because your son will only pick up your anxiety and wonder why your voice quavers every time you say his name.

Dear Prudence, I am a single woman in my early 40s, who has been dating a wonderful man for the past three years. He loves me very much and I am very happy in our relationship except for one major thing, among a few other smaller things. He is several years older than me and I am recently finding our sex drives to be mismatched. I am worried that this difference will become greater as he ages. While I find myself fulfilled in many ways within this relationship, and he is happy in it too, I am sexually frustrated and there is not much he can do about it. How do I broach the topic of having my sexual needs met elsewhere on occasion, without hurting his feelings?

It is hard to say, "I love you, our relationship is so fulfilling on many levels, but sexually it's a little limp. So I'd like to see more virile people on the side just for the purpose of  addressing my physical needs." Before you do that,  you've got to have a sensitive talk about your sexual issues. If his libido is flagging, he should check things out with his doctor. You two might also find that performance enhancing drugs boost his confidence and desire. But if he's permanently  just not that into you, then you really do have to figure out what you want out of the relationship -- or even if you want out of the relationship.  It's possible that in response to the idea of your getting pleasure elsewhere he could say,  "What a relief! That takes the pressure off me, and you'll be less frustrated." He may have an opposite reaction. There's no way to bring to up without running the risk of shaking up your relationship or hurting his feelings. But if you'll eventually bolt anyway, then you've got to talk this out.

Hi Prudie. My sister is a heroin addict. She has been in and out of jail this past year, and her young children have been in foster care since last June. The hearing to terminate her parental rights is coming up next month. My parents are heavily pressuring me to take the girls, who are aged 2, and 11 months old, and adopt them. I understand why, but I don't think I can do it. I have three young children of my own, one of whom has a mood disorder, and I feel overwhelmed with just that quite often. I feel so guilty for not being able to save my nieces earlier, and it doesn't help that people just assume that it's no big deal for me to do it. I would have to move into a bigger home, buy a new car, not to mention the work of taking care of five children under 10 basically on my own, because my husband works long hours. Is it unfair of me to say no and let strangers adopt them? I feel so torn and horrible. I don't want to lose them forever.No one else in the family can take them.

This is a tragedy, but you can't fix it. Awful as it is to lose her children, sometimes the worse thing is for a mother who cannot care for her kids to do is to try to keep them and then neglect and abuse them. Wrenching as this is, her giving up her kids is likely giving them their best chance for a healthier life. You are maxed out on what you handle -- understandably so! -- and you cannot take on the raising of two more children. But as your sister's case works through the system, please be in touch with the caseworkers so that you can try to ensure your family is able to be in touch with your niece's new parents. Anyone adopting children out of the foster care system should be open to their children knowing of their birth family and having relationships with them. Of course you can feel sorrow for what is happening, but do not let your parents browbeat you or make you feel guilt.

A few years ago I worked with developmentally disabled adults. I have remained close with several of them and am delighted that they will all be able to attend my wedding this summer. My mother-in-law to be? Not so much. Since learning about my desire to invite these friends, she has tried to convince me to do otherwise. She will not admit to not wanting developmentally disabled people at the wedding and instead hides behind excuses like, "Won't they feel out of place in such a fancy location?" My fiance supports me in challenging her prejudices directly, but my mother-in-law to be won't engage with me about them. I don't know her well, but these interactions are forming an intense dislike of her within me. Is there any way to salvage what will ultimately be a lifelong relationship?

Thank you for this addition to worst mothers-in-law! This woman should start a club with the mother-in-law who didn't want the bride's father -- who had suffered burns -- to walk her down the aisle.  You, and thankfully your fiance, see through her subterfuge. But your mother-in-law is not in charge of your guest list, and you don't want to engage in discussion of her prejudices, you want to ignore them. Close down this discussion and if she tries to bring this up,  just tell her, "Bev, we've got the guest list under control." Do not worry about the next 30 years. Maybe she will behave just fine at the wedding, and you can write this off as an unpleasant aspect of an otherwise decent person.

A few days ago would have been my FIL's 95th birthday, but he died in 2011. My MIL apparently got very sad on the approach of the birthday but she did not let us know (she told some friends). My husband did not contact his mother about it - it would not have occurred to him that the day upset her (it did not upset him, though he dimly realized it was his father's birthday). Apparently several MIL friends did call. She's upset with us. My position is how would we have known this was a hard day for her if she did not tell us. Is this typical grieving behavior? (She won't consider a grief group, unfortunately, so these bad times pop up and she has no way to handle them.)

Yes, this is typical grieving behavior. Even though your father-in-law lived a long time,  especially on special days -- birthdays, holidays, etc. -- his widow is going to acutely feel his absence. Now that you know this, you, and especially your husband, should make a note on the calendar about your late father-in-law's birthday, and be aware this is a painful time for her.  It's unfortunate that your mother-in-law was unable to be open with you two about how she was feeling, then deflected her grief into anger that you two didn't step up to make her feel better. But presumably, she herself is a very old woman and not likely to change. So you two can make an effort to be more sensitive to the loneliness of a widow at the end of her own life, and be the ones to do the reaching out.

A former colleague and I are both searching for a new job within the same field and geographic location. I found a perfect fit for me, applied for it and used this colleague as a reference (with her permission). The application system automatically sends each reference an email requesting a referral. About a week after I applied, I received a request for a reference for the same position for this former colleague. It's possible she found the job opening on her own and it's possible she found it via my application. I don't know how to reply to the request. I do have small misgivings (regarding her professional abilities) about referring her, but were it not for this situation I would refer her. I'm afraid to approach HR because it could color their opinion of me and I don't want to sabotage her but I also don't want to hurt my chanced by giving her a glowing referral. What should I do?

You applied for a job, your former colleague agreed to be a reference, and now you're supposed to be a reference for her for the same job! You need to find someone else who thinks highly of your work, and get that person as a reference. Once you do, you can inform HR at the potential employer that since your own reference has applied for the job, there is now a conflict of interest, so you are putting down another name. With your former colleague off your application, you can then tell her that you both need to find people to vouch for you who aren't in competition for the same position.

I grew up with parents with two different last names because my dad's is funny. I had my dad's last name until my parent's hyphenated it when I was in middle school. The three things I wish my parents had done/taught me sooner are as follows. 1) Warn me; I had to learn from some other kids that my last name was weird and it left me unprepared to deal with it. 2) Hyphenated my name sooner; It won't stop the teasing but it will give him something to talk about. It will also give him the chance to acknowledge that he knows his last name is funny, which takes a lot of the fun out of teasing. 3) Taught me to joke about it; Once I got over the embarrassment and learned to be the first to make jokes about it, people stopped teasing me and actually started to like me as it gave me a chance to be funny and laid back. .

Thank you so much for this. If the parents don't want to hyphenate, I don't think they should. But it's great life advice to disarm the teasers with your own sense of lightness and humor. If you can say, "Yes, I'm a Uranus. And I'm going to add your clever entry into the Uranus joke book." 

My wife and I live near a college town in the north of the country. One of the nieces goes to college here and as the rest of the family lives in the deep south we see her quite often. We like her and she seems to appreciate our more liberal way of life after growing up in a conservative evangelical enviroment. A few month ago our niece came out to us and told us she's a lesbian. We were supportive and found her girl to be a very lovely person. The problem is my wife's sister, her mother, doesn't know. She hasn't told her yet. Probably because she expects a negative reaction as her mother in the past often has expressed hostility towards gays. My question is: Should we get involved or stay out of it. My wife thinks she ows it to her sister not to keep this secret from her. I on the other hand feel like it is not our job to reveal this, but the nieces. What do you think ? Who is right here?

Your niece is a young adult, and when (or whether) to tell her parents about her sexual orientation is her decision. However, having told you, you should continue to be sources of support for her. Not just as regards her sexuality, but for any college student it's a comfort to be able to go off campus and get a homecooked meal and relax with family. I hope your niece does tell her parents and that it goes far better than she expects. If not, she's spending more of her time near you and your wife than her parents, so fortunately you two can be there to help her through this. 

Thank you. Am putting it to rest mentally now, once and for all. Much much appreciated. You're the best, Prudie!

That was easy! Take heart from the stories of others with "funny" last names.

Prudie, I understand your response but how many of these dates are we supposed to intuit? MIL is into all sorts of "event" days but my husband and I are not. We understand that the death anniversary would be hard. Their marriage anniversary. Important holidays. What else?

You've made a list, and it's rather short: birthdays, wedding anniversary, major holidays. So get out your calendars and write "FIL's birthday" and  "In-laws' wedding anniversary" on it. Thanksgiving and Christmas should already be noted. I get an undertone that your mother-in-law is a pain. Maybe she's always been a pain. Maybe she's more of a pain now that she's really old and in psychological pain. Maybe your son's family is more into passive-aggression than direct communication. But you have four or so dates that you know are meaningful to her, so now you can anticipate her neediness and plan a visit, phone call, or a dinner out.

While my wife and I were swingers in our early 20s (and enjoyed it very much!), we moved to a more conservative area 10 years ago and found ourselves completely disconnected from others in that subculture (we are now 40). About a year ago, a couple in their late 20s moved in next door. Our homes are very close together, and their bedroom is next to our driveway, where I spend a great deal of my time tinkering around. Imagine my delight when I first heard them loudly going at it. Occasionally, my wife and I can also hear them while we're in our kitchen. We feel a little guilty about this voyeurism, but it has caused our sex life to explode again. We also think we're picking up interference from their baby monitors, as we've heard them having sex and some of their discussions (including their apparent interest in swinging). The couple is very polite to us, and my wife and I have thought about getting to know them better in hopes it could lead to something more. Is this something we should pursue? If it still OK to listen in?

First the good news for young couples contemplating starting a family: Even people with baby monitors can have frequent and vigorous sex! The second piece of good news is that this aural voyerism has gotten you two to spring back to life.  It's also good that you both are a little guilty about your listening. It's better to be aware you are overhearing something private so that you don't start crossing the line and standing with a stethoscope on the side of your neighbor's house.  When I was in the baby monitor stage of life, I too, started picking up my neighbor's conversations. Unlike you, it was things like, "I'm going to Costco tomorrow. Do we need more toilet paper?"  Since you don't have a monitor, I don't know on what device you're hearing their private conversations about swinging. But do keep in mind maybe you're only hearing partial sentences and you're too hopefully filling in the rest. They may well be saying, "Do you think junior is old enough for a swing set?" and not "Have you seen the couple next door. Maybe they're swingers, too." You want to have good relations with your neighbors. So that likely means an occasional barbeque, and friendly conversation. They've already done you a big favor of reinfusing some passion into your lives, and I think you should let it go at that.  As Robert Frost observed, "Good fences make good neighbors." 

Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next 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.

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