Advice on manners and morals.
Aug. 15 1998 3:30 AM

Drawing upon her rich experience of life, Prudence (Prudie to her friends) responds to questions about manners, personal relations, politics, and other subjects. Please send your questions for publication to prudence@slate.com. Queries should not exceed 200 words in length. Please indicate how you wish your letter to be signed, preferably including your location.

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Dear Prudie,

My wife and I, Manhattan residents sans country house, spent this past weekend with friends at their restored Pennsylvania farmhouse. On Monday morning I wanted to thank them, but when my fingers went instinctively to the e-mail "Send" button, I wondered if e-mail was socially correct for such purposes.

What are Prudie's thoughts on the evolution of e-mail and the social graces--assuming there is any connection?

--Polite but Puzzled

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Dear Po,

Prudie supposes if you're Brooke Astor, e-mail might not cut it, but the handwritten bread and butter note is starting to seem like the whalebone corset, given the modern possibilities. Because snail mail is not always reliable, many people with social graces have substituted the fax, ensuring both timeliness and actual arrival. Since e-mail is even quicker and just as dependable as faxing, by all means feel at ease being electronically grateful. It is, after all, the thought that counts. (Prudie is assuming your hosts are wired.)

A good test for you to figure out your comfort level about this matter is to imagine how you would respond to receiving a thank-you note on the Net.

--Prudie, currently

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Dear Prudence,

I am fortunate enough to have two mothers-in-law: one who gave birth to my wonderful husband and one who is married to his father. I get along famously with both of them, and they get along famously with each other ... I thought.

Recently, my stepmother-in-law has taken to saying some unkind words about my mother-in-law. On two occasions these were said just to me, and on one occasion they were said in front of others. Both times I quickly changed the subject but felt as though I had been punched in the stomach.

I feel the need to express my intolerance of this type of behavior, but it is imperative that it be done in the nicest way possible. How do you suggest I approach the topic? I want to be understood perfectly but also don't want to cause problems with my stepmother-in-law.

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--Please sign meTrying To Be Graceful

Dear Try,

You are admirable in trying to head off wives Nos. 1 and 2 from morphing into the Israel and PLO of the family. Why don't you try something like this: "I know you and (insert name) have a very nice friendship, and I can't figure out where your new, unfriendly remarks are coming from. Perhaps I am misunderstanding you. It has always meant so much to (insert husband/father's name) that the social relationship was cordial. It would be a shame to change the balance and make (husband/father) unhappy."

With this approach you will not be attacking her, you will be offering her a benign directional signal, and she will get the message. If she does not take the hint, then you and Prudie will dope out a way to up the ante.

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--Prudie, disarmingly

Dear Prudence,

May I offer a comment on Impatiently Waiting's situation (her Steady Freddie of four years says he's "not ready" for marriage)? If so, it's this: Ultimatums and head games are a terrible way to start a marriage. What you need instead is a heart-to-heart, not about the marriage potential in your relationship but about where each of you is going individually and what each wishes to achieve. This kind of conversation will give you more information about your place in his heart.

At the same time, you need to ascertain why you want to marry Fred. Are you looking for security? Children? Or maybe you just think it's time to get married? Then assess whether the reasons are specific to Fred and worthy of your own lifelong commitment. If your desire is to spend forever with Fred, tell him so--bluntly--with no allusion to marriage. If he seems even a tad lukewarm to the idea, run for the hills. But if he passionately agrees, start in on forever and shut up about a wedding. More than likely it will pop up before you know it.

--Been There

Dear Been,

What wise words for our friend in romantic turmoil! It was good of you to take the time to be a Prudie. I suspect you would agree that it is easier to ride a horse in the direction in which it is going.

--Prudie, philosophically

Dear Prudie,

I am writing on my husband's e-mail password. When he left the hospital (he was treated for depression and a sleep disorder) he got an e-mail address for a woman he met there. It was a secret affair for three weeks until I found out. Then he said they were "just friends." He said he could talk to her on subjects he can't talk to me about--intellectual things--claiming that I can't give him what he desires on a cerebral level. Was I jealous? Hell yes, and hurt!

I should tell you that a few years ago he had an impotence problem and couldn't manage on a physical level, so I got into cybersex. I considered it enhanced masturbation and think it saved our marriage. And we had counseling.

So ... I agreed to let him have his "intellectual friend." Now he wants to meet her for coffee, "just to have a chat." I expressed to him that having an e-mail girlfriend is fine with me, but going out for coffee without me is a major problem. I checked his mailbox and found he had deleted many messages to her. He is also being secretive and in denial that this situation is unfair. My partners are anonymous, and so am I. She is not anonymous--and an ex-therapist, yet. I don't have a degree, but I know it is wrong when a man goes outside his marriage to fill a need, whether it be intellectual or sexual. I am feeling helpless. And now he claims I am ugly when I'm jealous. Can I get off this roller coaster from hell?

--Hurt in San Francisco

Dear Hurt,

At least he didn't say you were cute when you were angry. Prudie is going to lay it on the line. Your relationship sounds like a dog's breakfast. It is full of all kinds of things that are not very appetizing.

Since you say you've had counseling, we can skip that option. Cyberflings, yours and his, are just symptoms of a marriage that is not working. The writing is on the screen: The elements that make a decent marriage are no longer there. Prudie understands that you guys are between a rock and a hard drive but recommends that you sign off with as little rancor as you can manage.

--Prudie, electronically