Advice on manners and morals.
Nov. 14 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,

I am heartsick about my sister. Well, actually, about her boyfriend. She's been seeing someone exclusively for more than a year. It's exclusive on her part, but everybody knows he is cheating on her. That is not the only problem. He belittles her in public and is quite a cheapskate. I have gently tried to tell her she is too good for this lout, but she will have none of it.

I feel helpless, and I worry for her. I am the older sister, if you hadn't guessed. Is there anything to be done?

--Banging My Head Against a Wall in Portland

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Dear Bang,

Prudie is reminded of the delicious Dorothy Parker remark "She has put all her eggs in one bastard."

How sad for you to be a bystander while your sister is having a romantic near-death experience. Alas, the kind of bystander you are is helpless because people in these relationships have blinders on and defenses in place. Prudie, too, abhors these transcendentally horny louses, but outside observers don't get a vote.

Your sister, alas, does not regard Lover Boy as a problem. Yet. But have hope. The day will come when your sib will see things clearly for herself, and her loving sister will be there to help her pick up the pieces. Since you have gone on record about what you think of this boulevardier, say no more. It would be the vocal equivalent of throwing good money after bad.

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--Prudie, sympathetically

Dear Prudence,

My company has sales teams, and my problem has to do with my traveling partner. We are in the air a lot, and in hotels and restaurants. I am mortified much of the time because "Elaine" is always dropping things into her purse. On airplanes she helps herself to the little liquor bottles (she doesn't drink) and those plastic salt and pepper things. In restaurants she cleans out the bread basket and transfers everything to her purse.

I know when she is seen doing this people think we are a pair of nuts (and assume she's doing it for both of us), and I also worry that this is stealing. Can you help me come to terms with this situation? Thank you.

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--No Sticky Fingers From Chicago

Dear No Stick,

Prudie is sympathetic to your traveling partner because, well, Prudie herself is partial to those little brown sugar packets in restaurant sugar bowls. While never having had the inclination to transfer an entire bread basket to her handbag, Prudie has on occasion taken a particularly good tasting piece of bread for later--provided there is a paper napkin for wrapping. If one was to filch a cloth napkin, that would be stealing.

Your friend's appropriation of food put on the table, you should know, is not dishonest. The two of you have essentially paid for everything served to you. Granted, most twosomes would not polish off the entire contents of a bread basket, but it is the diners'. The same is true for the airplane offerings.

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If it will help you feel better about things, encourage "Elaine" to ask the server for a take-home container for whatever she wishes to transport out of the dining room. Prudie finds most restaurants more than happy to oblige. If, however, your associate thinks she is engaging in petty larceny and gets her jollies from purloined rolls, indulge her, knowing that it is a harmless habit.

--Prudie, portably

Dear Prudence,

I'm a happy-go-lucky, 75-year-old retiree who, alas, gets incredibly annoyed when strangers--typically on the phone--call me by my first name. I'm a liberal Democrat and am not old-fashioned, but such pseudo "friendliness" turns me off.

It also makes dealing with business people difficult. Example: Just the other day I called a salesman regarding refinancing the house and left my name and number. When he called back he said, "Hi John, this is Mr. Blank."

I told him I'd prefer to be called Mr. Jones. He got annoyed and told me he has close-knit relationships with his clients. He then continued to call me John throughout his explanation of what refinancing involved.

When he finished I told him, again, I did not wish to be called John. He became flustered, said goodbye, and hung up. I've not heard from him since. I ask you, am I out of step with the world? Is it OK for young secretaries to assume we're on a first-name basis? Quite frankly, I consider such an approach an invasion of my privacy. I also consider it a put-down. What sayest thou?

--Wondering in Tucson, Ariz.

Dear Mr. Won,

Prudie is in your camp. People who presume to use a first name in a business call seem thoughtless. They register on the Prudometer right next to those who invite you to "Have a nice day."

Using the first name of someone who is unknown to you is presumptuous, disrespectful, and improper. Your "Mr. Blank," who tried to make a case, yet, for why it was OK to call you John, sounds like a horse's patootie. That he didn't follow up on the financial transaction is no loss. Surely you will find someone with equal skills who will call you "Mr."

Prudie, on occasion, has asked service people on the other end of the line who launch into a first-name address, "Do we know each other?" This is usually sufficient for them to swing into a "Mrs." mode. Only a clod would persist.

What is behind this pseudo familiarity/equality, Prudie thinks, is California casualness and a touchy-feely cultural shift that have replaced formality and civility. Rest assured that you are not out of step--or if you are, that Prudie is right there with you.

--Prudie, respectfully

Dear Prudence,

I have moved back to my hometown and renewed acquaintances with old high-school girlfriends. As time goes on we are becoming closer and spending more time together. The problem is this: Most of them smoke, and I do not. When we go out to dinner we always sit in the smoking section. When I visit their homes, they smoke constantly. When they come to my home, they are forever going out to the balcony to smoke. I know that breathing this smoke is harmful to me. Normally I avoid smoke, yet I pretend it doesn't bother me with these friends.

The question is, should I consider my own health and the fact that when I am with them I am inhaling probably a pack of cigarettes? Should I stop seeing them? I don't really want this, but what else to do? Yes, I could ask them not to smoke, but since there are five of them who do smoke, it seems like the majority rules.

--L.G., St. Petersburg, Fla.

Dear L.,

Your old high-school girlfriends are causing you to regress to ... high school. You are feeling that you've got to go along with everybody else to "fit in." Prudie is mindful of the fact that a gemütlich bunch of girlfriends is wonderful, but this crowd is hazardous to your health, the deleterious effects of secondhand smoke having been accepted by most people.

It is interesting that this clique is composed entirely of smokers. There is a slim possibility that your chums, out of affection for you, will not smoke in your presence and would give up the smoking section in restaurants. Failing that, bear in mind that the concept of majority rule applies to elections and community decisions, not health risks. Prudie is reminded of a Russian expression: Once your head is cut off, there is no use crying about your hair. If you become ill--or worse--a group of girlfriends will be meaningless. Please put your lungs before your social life, otherwise Prudie will worry.

--Prudie, deep-breathingly