Prudence, drawing on her rich experience of life, will answer questions submitted by readers. She will respond to questions about manners, personal relations, politics, economics, and other subjects. Questions should be sent to Prudence@slate.com. They should not exceed 200 words in length. Please indicate how you wish your letter to be signed, preferably including your location.
Are there any ticklish questions of etiquette attached to wearing a wire and recording conversations with one's supposed friends and colleagues for the benefit of, say, a special prosecutor?
Incidentally, at a time when it is suggested that the president is living out his own Wag the Dog difficulties--only it's interns thankfully and not Girl Guides--is it a good idea for Clinton to stage a small war with Albania?
--Yours,Wired, Tapped, and Internally AmusedSydney, Australia
Dear Wired, Tapped, and Amused,
Whether it's a ticklish question depends on where one wears the wire. He'd better not attack Albania. Too many people think it is the capital of New York state.
--Prudence, debugged, tapped-out, and appalled
I have a problem that often leaves me frustrated and angry at myself: I am very bad at small talk. It's amazing to me how people can slip in and out of frivolous talk (though I know it serves a socially useful purpose) with seeming ease. No matter how hard I try, I feel that I say the wrong thing or something inappropriate. What concerns me most, however, is that I'll soon be entering the work world, and the ability to make light conversation is paramount in business relationships. Do you have any suggestions?
You are making too much of this. What everyone wants in a conversationalist is not a good talker but a good listener. You could be Oscar Wilde, and no one would go home from a party saying, "Gee, Oscar was witty tonight." Many would go home saying, "I was sure witty tonight."
Cultivate listening, laughing at the right points, and occasionally saying: "Right on!" or "How true!" In business it is not the glib talker who gets the most respect. It is the person who can sit quietly through a meeting and then cogently synthesize the issues.
Don't worry about what other people are thinking about you. Mostly they are not thinking about you at all. Don't worry about saying the wrong thing. Most people don't know what the right thing is. If what you say is bizarre enough, people will think that you are very deep.
Years ago, whenever we bought something using cash in a retail store, the clerk would return our change by first placing the coins safely in the palm of our hand, followed by any bills. The receipt, of course, would have already been tucked inside, or stapled to, the bag. This way, we could easily grip the coins while putting the extra bills away into our wallets, and then drop the coins into our pockets or coin purses.
These days, it seems the standard procedure is to hand out the bills first, followed by the receipt, and then the coins, perched precariously on top. We are then left standing there to sort out this unwieldy stack. When and why did this practice start, and who could we contact to try to get it changed?
--Purchasing in Pittsburgh
Dear Purchasing in Pittsburgh,
You indeed have a problem. It is not universal, however. Prudence has just been through a cafeteria line where the cashier gave change in coins first and then in bills. But the practice of which you complain is very common, especially in supermarkets. The reason for it is to speed up the checkout process. If the cashier is to give you coins first, he must either make two passes at you, first with the coins and then with the bills, or he must hold the coins in his hand while he fishes the bills out of the cash register. In the latter case the risk that he will drop the coins is increased. By doing it his way the risk that you will drop the coins is increased. That is what we mean by "the service economy." The customer performs the service.
There are several ways to cope with this problem:
a) You can come with an assortment of coins and pay with the exact change.
b) You can deposit the coins in the bottle near the cash register, where they will be collected to help the needy.
c) You can pay with a credit card, irritating the hell out of everyone in line behind you.
d) You can stuff the wad of coins, bills, and receipts in your pocket or purse to be sorted out at home later. (That is Prudence's method.)
If you want to get the practice changed, I have two suggestions for you: You can write to Ralph Nader; I am sure that he would be glad to attack this evil inflicted on consumers by the capitalist exploiters. Or, you can write to Bill Clinton; he might include a legal prohibition of the practice in the 1998 Americans with Trivial Irritations Act.
I have a silly little problem that I want to share with you. The problem is that I am an Asian male who has never kissed a girl (other than my mom and my sisters) in my whole life, since it is not a norm in the country I come from. So now that I am in America, how should I go about overcoming my shyness and nervousness about the possibility of having to kiss a girl, or even having to ask for a kiss?
--Confused and Pondering
Dear Confused and Pondering,
Try it, you'll like it. You ask what you should do if you ever "have" to kiss a girl. If that situation arises, you will have no problem. Perhaps you will "have" to kiss her because she has kissed you. In that case your spontaneous, unpondered reaction will be to kiss her back. Your problem will not be hesitancy about kissing but addiction to it.
I have the hots for a pretty waitress at a restaurant where I eat. She is so beautiful, and I would love to ask her out, but I am shy, and she is always working when I see her. I want to know how to approach her and pop the question--would she be willing to go out with me?--without looking like a fool and without disturbing her at work. If you have any ideas, they would be greatly appreciated.
--Uncertain and Unsure
Dear Uncertain and Unsure,
The only correction for shyness is to summon up your courage and do it. If your attraction to her is very strong it will overcome your shyness. Women are seldom offended by an expression of a man's interest in them if it is expressed in a respectful manner. You should, however, drop the word "hots" from your thinking about her.