Advice on manners and morals.
Jan. 10 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,

The papers are filled with stories about the death of Michael Kennedy. The stories list other family occurrences that show the Kennedys as a hard-luck family. It is, for example, listed as a Kennedy tragedy that other people tend to die in cars driven by Kennedys. If a Kennedy is walking by and a busload of people die in a crash, it would make the list of tragedies longer. Is this an example of good PR?

--Ellsworth M. ButlerBoonton, N.J.

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Dear Mr. Butler,

I agree that the word "tragedy" is used without discrimination in reference to the Kennedy family. The death of Joseph Kennedy Jr. in World War II and the assassinations of Jack and Robert were tragedies. As far as I can see, most of the subsequent "problems" were the result of their own recklessness or worse. Since they are so prominent and have been blessed with so much wealth and public adulation, they have a responsibility to be role models of sensible behavior. It is unfortunate that they do not see it that way.

--Prudence, sadly

Dear Prudence,

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I have met a woman whom I am attracted to. She is attracted to me and we would like to see more of each other. The problem is we are both married. The attraction is more than plutonic, it is also physical. What would you recommend?

--Troubled in Las Vegas

Dear Troubled in Las Vegas,

Your letter is indeed ambiguous. You say that the attraction between this woman and you is "more than plutonic, it is also physical." In my old dictionary, "plutonic" means "of Pluto, infernal." I will assume that you mean "platonic." But then I don't know whether you mean that the attraction is physical or that the consummated relationship is physical and sexual.

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I will assume that you would like to have sexual relations but have not done so. My advice is not to do it unless you are prepared to leave--i.e., divorce--your present wife. One reason is that your wife will probably learn of it, and when she does there will be the devil to pay. A second reason is that even if she doesn't find out, you will know, and you will probably go around with a burden of guilt that will sour your life and your relations with both women. But there is a third, most important, reason. The relationship you are longing for is wrong. The one of the Ten Commandments that everyone knows is "Thou shalt not commit adultery." It may be often violated, but hardly anyone in our culture denies that it is a commandment. If our behavior is to be governed only by cost-benefit calculations, and not by moral standards, we are in pretty bad shape.

Whether you should leave your present wife I cannot tell without knowing much more than you have revealed. I urge you to be very cautious about it. It is easy to be attracted to a new woman, whose faults you do not know, who does not know your faults, and who has never asked you to take out the garbage or mow the lawn. But you have to think of what the new woman will be like after she has become the old woman. Also, you haven't said whether you and your wife have any children. Their interests deserve a lot of weight.

--Prudence, Mosaically

Dear Prudence,

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I have a long-distance boyfriend of three months. I've only seen him three times and I'm beginning to dislike him. However, he constantly phones me and sent me a $75 Christmas present. Should I send him a Christmas present or would this encourage him even more?

I want to break up with him.

--Desperately

Dear Desperately,

There must be something more here than meets the eye. On the facts presented, you have no problem. Don't send him a gift. Send his gift back.

--Prudence, simply

Dear Prudence,

I received a small Christmas gift from a workmate. I thanked her when she handed me the gift. My wife thinks that a thank-you note is appropriate, but I think that the verbal thank you satisfies my obligation. What do you think?

--Sincerely,Bunsworth

Dear Bunsworth,

You made an "oral" expression of gratitude, which was, of course, also "verbal." That is enough unless the gift was extraordinary. If the gift was an item of houseware, like a microwave, your wife should write a thank-you note.

--Prudence, sufficiently

Dear Prudence,

I have read a few of your comments, and you do indeed sound like a thoroughly courteous and sensible person. I just have an idea I should like to broadcast via you: In public libraries one finds the children's section, the adult reading section, and the young adult's section (read: teen-agers). Isn't this a kind and gentle way of referring to people in the teen years? I thought it would gently help those young people to begin to accept the idea that they are growing up and should soon become grown-ups, or adults. That's all.

--Louine King

P.S. I hate the idea that the word "adult" so often refers to pornographic things. There goes another perfectly good word, unless we can recapture it with dignity! Thanks for your (electronic) ear.

Dear Louine,

I thank you for your comment. Indeed, it is important that teen-agers should recognize that they are becoming adults, and that they are not in some playground where they have full capabilities and no responsibilities. In the Jewish tradition, as I understand it, boys become adults at the age of 13 and go through rites intended to impress that upon them. The signs you observe in the library are a small step toward making teen-agers aware of their status.

The use of the word "adult" to rate some movies and, I suppose, other forms of entertainment, is, I agree, often inappropriate. I think we should have two categories--"adult" and "immature."

--Prudence, agedly