Advice on manners and morals.
Jan. 2 1998 3:30 AM

ASK PRUDENCE

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,

Once I have asked the "how do I tell Alan Greenspan how much I love the way he screws me?" question, what other questions are there that deal with "love, etiquette, AND macroeconomic policy"?

--Nit-pickingly,Perry Nelson

Dear Nit-pickingly,

I'm sure a person as clever as you can find many questions that meet the standard you have read into our instructions. Here's one: "How should a capital-gains tax cut be dressed up to make it seem an act of lovingkindness to people who have no capital?"

Many people who read our instructions were not deterred by the defect you discovered and have sent us heartfelt questions on a number of subjects. Unrelenting attention to syntax can be an obstacle to communication.

--Prudence, inexactly

My dear Prudence,

This year, my wife is dragging me to the home of some friends of hers to celebrate the new year. The problem is that they are total teetotalers, and to me, a day (much less New Year's Eve) without a drink is no day at all! Would it be rude if I took a nice bottle of French wine (OK, maybe two)?? And would a corkscrew and proper glasses be pushing it????

--Jakeman

Dear Jakeman,

It would indeed be rude, unless you called first and asked whether it would be OK. It is their house, their party, and their rules. If they say no, which would be quite within the bounds of propriety, you should either restrain yourself at the party or not go to it.

--Prudence, teetotally

Dear Prudence,

I see that every editor these days is trying to copy the tone of the wonderful advice given by the sainted Mary Killen in the Spectator. Tell me, why do you think this is? It can't be because they have no brilliant ideas of their own, can it?

--Yours expectantly,Michael ElliottWashington, D.C.

Dear Prudence,

In recent years, one of my favorite newspaper columnists has become less and less interesting. "Eppie" (not her real name) used to write an advice column. Readers would write her with their questions on life, love, and (usually) microeconomics, and she would give them really great advice, e.g., "Wake up and smell the coffee, honey!"

Lately, however, her readers seem to have decided to become America's Nannies, mailing in all sorts of precatory silliness--"Eppie, tell your readers never to leave a dead fish alone in a car on a hot day with the windows rolled up!" Or, "Eppie, please, please tell your readers not to make fun of fat people, such as Tipper Gore! They're human too, you know!" And Prudence, she prints that stuff in her column! Every &@#^ day! Advice? Fahgeddaboutit, Buster! Prudence, will they ever put "Eppie" out of her misery? Do you represent the next evolutionary step in journalism? Or are you nothing more than this year's Jeffrey Zaslow ...

--Popo (not my real name)

Dear Michael and Popo,

Your letters raise related questions, and I hope you won't mind if I answer them both at once. "Dear Prudence" did not originate with an editor searching for a new idea. It was a response to the overwhelming public demand for advice. People seek answers to their real problems, and other people enjoy and profit from reading the problems submitted and the answers given. People--"real people," that is--are more interested in those problems than in the questions that pundits make up just so they will have something to write about, questions selected so that the answer requires little thought and no research.

As for my antecedents, I must confess that I have never heard of Mary Killen, "Eppie," or Jeffrey Zaslow. I trace my lineage back to Joseph, Solomon, the Delphic Oracle, Cassandra, Adam Smith, and Benjamin Franklin. (I deliberately omit that old fool of an advice giver, Polonius: Banks thrive by being both borrowers and lenders.) Thus, I consider myself part of the constants of history, not part of an evolutionary trend.

But hey, it's a free country and a free market. If no problems are submitted, there will be no answers. And if there are problems and answers but no one reads them, Prudence will go back to her needlepoint.

--Prudence, modestly

Dear Prudence (and how are John and Paul?),

My girlfriend's former boyfriend broke up with her via a note. That she was pregnant at the time makes the situation with respect to his morality quite clear: He had and has the morals of a banana slug. (That he cringes at salt shakers only bolsters this conclusion.) The question that I find interesting concerns the etiquette of breaking up. I contend that the only way one person should kiss off another is face to face. I've a number of reasons to support this view, but my fundamental reasoning is moral (as morality is the basis of so much mannerly behavior): In justice, the kissed-off, as the offended party, should have the right to confront (and possibly to throw sharp objects at) the kisser-off.

Any other way (by telephone, by note) smacks of cowardice. Further, it seems to me that my preferred mode serves a useful societal function as well, by making romantic relationships somewhat more stable since somewhat more difficult to dissolve during temporary difficulties. This last point, of course, presumes that society has an interest in stable romantic relationships; if you accept that society has an interest in marriage, and that stable romantic relationships both include and lead to marriage, you must conclude that society does indeed have such an interest. Have you any thoughts on this? A nation holds its breath (well, except for those holding others at gunpoint).

--Emily Post's Meaner Brother

Dear Brother,

Whether a face-to-face encounter is required for a breakup depends on the reason for the breakup. If A splits from B because B has been obviously offensive and fraudulent, the courtesy of a face-to-face explanation is not required. Suppose, for example, that Mr. B has given Ms. A every reason to believe that he is not married, but she learns that he is. B then deserves nothing. In the case to which you refer, the young lady deserves a face-to-face meeting, an apology, and whatever solace can be offered. Probably the general rule is that a party who is seriously aggrieved owes no consideration to the aggrievor.

I am surprised that you did not mention e-mail as a medium for breakups. Isn't there a Web site containing form e-mail letters for breakups?

They're well, thanks.

--Prudence

Dear Prudence,

I hate to start our relations by pointing out little details, but both you and "Lovelocked" missed another major point of Chivalry on the question of opening the door for your loved one. The other point is you don't leave her standing alone on the far side of the car and thus more easily jostled and/or assaulted by the nearest purse snatcher or other criminal element who can often appear quickly and quietly no matter the time of day ... just a point, m'dear.

--Saintswrd

Orlando, Fla.

Dear Saintswrd,

Thanks for your addition to the reasons for helping your beloved get into the car. Unfortunately, it is a necessary addition. Sentimental Prudence prefers to focus on the romantic side of life, but she cannot deny there is a darker side also.

--Prudence, ruefully