Advice on manners and morals.
Sept. 12 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 Miss Prudence,

I am recently married, and like most Southern girls, I have looked forward to being addressed as "Mrs." for some time. Imagine my surprise when I found that my mail, instead of being addressed to "Mrs. John Smith," is now being addressed to "Mrs. Amanda Smith." Since I always thought that form of address was reserved for divorced women, I'm a bit put out to have my new marriage so abruptly terminated, at least as it relates to correspondence.

I'm assuming this is some misguided attempt to preserve my individuality, but if that were my goal I would have kept my maiden name. Am I completely misinformed? If not, how can I correct the problem?

--Proudly, Mrs. John Smith (nee Hightower)

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Dear Proud,

Prudie couldn't agree with you more--and she is on the other side of the Mason-Dixon line. Prudie also finds the appellation "Ms." ridiculous and crosses it out whenever possible, believing that single women are "Miss" and married ones are "Mrs." (The nice thing about divorce is that then you get to choose between the two forms of address.)

As for correcting the problem, when a response is called for, cross out the offending form of your name and write in what you would prefer. Some mailings, often from charities, offer the choice of Miss, Mrs., or Ms. And of course your printed envelopes can say "Mrs. John Smith."

As for mailings from entities such as Publishers Clearing House that frequently send material to dogs and toddlers, there is no recourse.

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--Prudie, salutatorally

Dear Prudence,

I have a little problem with my current Significant Other. We are both nearing 30, are educated, have good jobs, are reasonably attractive and intelligent. Each day together (it's been about 8 months now) has been wonderful and a many-splendored thing.

The problem? I find my partner's politics reprehensible--in fact, stupid and barbaric. I haven't strenuously objected to my love's praise for people such as Tom DeLay and (I'm serious here) G. Gordon Liddy because of the terrific time we're having and the incredible sex we share. But I'm at the breaking point. It is hard to foresee a future with a person whose philosophy is akin to that of a cryptofascist clown. How do I break the news and let both of us keep our dignity, even if (s)he is a troglodyte?

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--Evolved in Santa Fe

Dear Ev,

Prudie can tell you are conflicted ... but not very. Just tell the cryptofascist clown troglodyte, I mean, your Significant Other, au revoir. Prudie agrees that your deep disagreement about character evaluation is bound, in the long run, to sink your love boat. Sex may come and sex may go, but Tom DeLay is liable to be around forever.

Simply state your regret and wish him/her much happiness in the future. And perhaps the Young Democratic Club in Santa Fe might be worth a visit.

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--Prudie, politically

Dear Prudie,

A while back you had a letter about the bald black man being confused with another black man. He was more than annoyed and thought it was the old "all black people look alike." Well, I have a close friend, Pat, who is bald and wears a full beard and horn rim glasses. He tells me he is forever being mistaken for other bald, bearded men who wear glasses. Pat even once mistook such a man in a photograph for himself!

Pat is a psychologist, and we had a very interesting conversation about this topic. He tells me that our brains store only a few visual traits about people with whom we are casually acquainted. Pat is "the bald, bearded, spectacle wearing guy." Sally is "the redheaded, long nosed, thin girl," etc. My wife changed her hairstyle from curly to straight and reported that while attending her annual professional association convention, she was shocked at the number of people who didn't recognize her. People who lose a lot of weight tell similar stories.

This tendency explains the oft-noted phenomenon that whites think all blacks, Asians, etc., look alike. The problem is that they don't know enough people in those racial groups, so their brains will use race as the most distinctive characteristic about that person. They know so many white people that they classify them by other traits--such as shape of the face, hair color, body shape. Once they make the acquaintance of enough blacks or Asians, their brains will discontinue using race as an identifying visual characteristic.

--Rick Lee

Dear Rick,

It was good of you (and Pat) to share an enlightened explanation for a widespread situation. It no doubt will smooth the ruffled feathers of many a person who's been mistaken for someone else--even a generic someone else. To support your point, Prudie is told that Dr. C. Everett Koop and Robert Bork say they are each taken for the other.

--Prudie, gratefully

It is trout season at Prudie's. Here are a couple of responses to Prudie's having quoted Thoreau.

Dear Prudie,

In a recent column you quoted Thoreau: "Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk." I've heard this particular one before but was too embarrassed to admit that I didn't get it. Exactly what is this "circumstantial evidence" supposed to indicate?

--Hoping for an Explanation

Dear Hope,

Basically, it is an encouragement to pay attention to circumstantial evidence. In this case, the evidence is strong that the trout didn't get there by accident--someone put it there--milk not being a natural habitat for fish. Though, perhaps, a deed is unobserved, its execution can sometimes be safely inferred from the facts.

--Prudie, empirically

Dear Prudie,

Regarding "the trout in the milk" quote, bravo and bravissimo! Well done, indeed. I'll beat my different drum in your honor tonight!

--Tim B.

Dear Tim,

How kind and Thoreauly charming of you.

--Prudie, appreciatively