Advice on manners and morals.
Jan. 17 1998 3:30 AM

ASK PRUDENCE

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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.

Dear Prudence,

I just had lunch at a local Internet cafe. I brought my own laptop and wireless modem, the better to read Slate in its full framed glory. I was (slowly) downloading full images while everyone else was using Lynx. I did order a cheese sandwich, and nobody gave me any dirty looks, but even so, I felt a little guilty about not spending any money for my online experience. Is it rude to bring your own digital device to an Internet cafe? What about bringing food but paying for a terminal?

--Sincerely,Somewhere in Seattle

P.S. To be specific, I'm at www.speakeasy.org, and I just finished my tasty sandwich.

Dear Somewhere in Seattle,

Prudence had never heard of an Internet cafe until she received your letter. Apparently such things do not exist east of the Rockies or north of 25 years of age. I have, however, consulted the Web site to which you refer, and now have a clue as to the subject of your query.

As I understand it, the cafe provides computers and modems for the use of its patrons for a fee and also sells food. Your question is whether it is improper for you to bring your own laptop and wireless modem, thus bypassing the fee, and to buy only a cheese sandwich.

The management of the cafe has established the rules for the use of their facility. Since they have let you in and have not kicked you out, it appears that you have not violated any of those rules. You are not being rude. But if there are many people like you, and especially if you are occupying space that might be occupied by a paying customer, the management will change the rules. They will establish a cover charge or require a minimum food purchase for the use of a table. The situation will be like that in a cabaret, where you cannot sit down at a table and watch the show without paying something.

In the meantime, until the rules are changed, it would be wise of you to leave a tip or spend more on food. Otherwise you will not get a good table or will have crumbs brushed into your laptop, even though, strictly speaking, you are abiding by the rules.

--Prudence, easterly

Dear Prudence,

This question is about the etiquette of having a love affair with a macroeconomist. He's 15 years older than me and a former colleague. I have an iron-clad rule about colleagues and sex (i.e., don't do it), but now that I've changed jobs he's made his personal interest in me pretty clear; and I like him a lot. In view of this quite relevant fact--and the global scarcity of men who, like him, are tall, funny, and smarter than me--the age thing doesn't bother me. BUT. The problem is: I don't know if he's still married to the mother of his two college-age kids, and I don't know how to ask. I know this sounds dumb. But our earlier professional friendliness did not extend to swapping details of our private lives, although he does mention the kids. Is this some kind of guy code for "wife"??

So, can you suggest a polite way to raise this, preferably using some kind of Southeast Asia currency-crisis metaphor to get the point across? (He's up to his neck in all that stuff out there right now.)

--Hesitating in Paris

Dear Hesitating in Paris,

Prudence is pleased that you are not put off by the fact that this man is a macroeconomist and 15 years older than you. There can be lots of life left in an old macroeconomist.

Now, how to find out if he is married:

You might say to him, "I understand that the IMF is committed to standing by Thailand to the end, no matter what happens. Do you think such a commitment is wise? How about such commitments between individuals, even between husbands and wives?"

You might try: "I suppose you are hoping that Congress will do something about the marriage penalty in the income tax this year. Would it make much difference to you?"

How about: "The OECD tax-free store is having a sale on Chanel No. 5. Should I buy some for your wife?"

Of course, you could just ask him.

--Prudence, delightedly

Dear Prudence,

Is it proper etiquette to e-mail thank-you notes? It seems OK to send invitations by e-mail (for dinners or parties), and I announced my engagement this way to many people (easier than calling them all on the phone). But whenever I e-mail a thank-you note (for dinner parties or gifts), I always end up sending a snail-mail note as well--out of guilt. I doubt that I will send thank-you notes for wedding gifts this way, but I am curious to know what others think, especially Emily Post.

--Pamela L. in Seattle

Dear Pamela,

I don't know what Emily Post thinks. She doesn't have an e-mail address. I believe thank-you notes to persons you know and care about should be individually handwritten and sent by snail mail. That is a way to show the depth of your gratitude and affection. Even on occasions where use of a printed acknowledgment is appropriate, as in acknowledging the receipt of letters of condolence upon bereavement, the printed card should be signed by hand with a personal word added.

If you want to send Bill Clinton a letter thanking him for the fine state of the U.S. economy, you can send that by e-mail. (For more information, see the White House Web site.)

--Prudence, traditionally

Dear Prudence,

I sincerely hope you will not find cause to "go back to [your] needlepoint" anytime soon [see the Jan. 1, 1998, "Dear Prudence"]. I realize that this feeling is quite selfish, as it ignores any potential need for needlepoint items you might have, but all I can offer is the assurance that it is an honest sentiment: Having been born a century too late, this admirer of yours is pleased to see that not everyone has adopted the social graces of Beavis and Butt-Head or, for that matter, of the average politician.

May your needlepoint suffer from years and years of utter neglect!

--Felix Kasza

Dear Mr. Kasza,

Thanks, I'll let the needlepoint rest for a while longer.

--Prudence, gratefully

Dear Prudence,

Maybe you can help. My friend has loved the same person for over 20 years. While he has been and done so many things to end the relationship forever, she is so loving and forgiving. Now, the big one has happened. He took her car ... and has not been seen for four days now. He moved here from another state and his surroundings are new, but we as family have tried to bring him into the fold. Now he's gone. My friend's heart is broken and I can't help. I think he was using her all the time. What can I do? I'm VERY worried about my friend's mentation.

--Help

Dear Help,

You ask what you can do. You can play only a secondary role. Only she can salvage her life. If she is determined to do that, you can help her; otherwise, you can't.

She has to recognize that the man is gone--as gone as if a truck had hit him. Even if he returns, he is gone from her and can no longer be a part of her life. She also has to recognize that she has behaved very unwisely. As you say, she was "too" in love--she had invested too much of herself in an asset that has turned out to be a bad risk and eventually a major loss.

Now she has to find new interests. Not knowing her, I cannot tell what they might be--reading, music, appreciation of nature, volunteer activity, church, or whatever is closest to her. She has to want these as a new life, not as stopgaps while she waits for him to return. These new interests will be more valuable to her if she can share them with someone. That is where you may come in. It would be better still if she could share those interests with someone she loves. That cannot be ordered up. But love is more likely to come if she is an interested and interesting person.

I strongly recommend that she read a little book by Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning. It shows what the will to appreciate and restore life can do in the most adverse of circumstances.

--Prudence, optimistically

Herbert Stein, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under Presidents Nixon and Ford. He died in September 1999.

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