Advice on manners and morals.
Feb. 20 1999 3:30 AM

Please send your questions for publication to prudence@slate.com.

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Dear Prudie,

Your reply to " Extreme Privacy, Please"regarding his distress over his accent was insufficient, in that you more or less dismissed his concern. His concern is real: In too much of today's America it does not pay to be perceived as a foreigner--and the single biggest giveaway is an accent.

What should our young friend do? For one thing, recognize that he came to the United States past puberty--when a young man's voice changes, so do his chances for assuming a "native" accent. But all is not lost! Our friend should buy a set of blank videotapes and set his VCR for one or more of the Sunday talk shows. Why? Because all the Sunday shows offer transcripts (typically from Burrelle's of Livingston, N.J.), so he can have a tape of the show as well as the exact transcript of what each person is saying.

Our young friend should select a particular accent he wishes to emulate. (I think Tim Russert of Meet the Press has notably round, melodious tones.) Then read the transcript and repeat the statement into a tape recorder. Repeat again and again until the recording sounds exactly like Tim Russert in tone, inflection, and cadence.

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Does this work? Yes. I learned the technique from a friend in Tokyo who is routinely mistaken for a native speaker (on the telephone). It is how I learned to speak Japanese fluently at the age of 35.

Sign me,

--Cheering Him On

Dear Cheer,

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What a fascinating and generous letter. Prudie must confess that your advice is a tad more constructive than her own. And you have made other people happy, as well. For one, the charming Mr. Wagner who owns Burrelle's and also the astute Mr. Russert of the round, melodious tones.

We must only hope that our Pakistani friend does not get to sound too much like the aforementioned Mr. Russert--or any of the other Sabbath gasbags, to use the phrase that the wonderful Frank Rich has popularized. We must also hope that he does not weight his conversation to talk of impeachment and partisan politics.

--Prudie, thankfully

Dear Prudence,

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With current events being what they are, I've been in several social situations where politics was the topic of conversation. Since I am a very principled (and yes, opinionated) person, I eagerly take part. Knowing that politics and religion can lead to arguments, I try not to be the instigator. It seems that lately, however, many people with whom I get into these conversations are not well informed. They don't usually understand legal and ethical principles, and they don't know much about history. Most of the time they're only going along with popular opinion and haven't thought out their ideas. The flaws in their reasoning are easily exposed, and I find that no matter how gently I state my case, I make compelling arguments that frustrate and intimidate my talking partners. My question is, what should I do?

--Bruce Terry, Stamford, Conn.

Dear Bru,

It must be murder to be smarter than the people you find yourself with. Prudie suggests you find more informed friends, join a study group, or forswear serious conversations where you will not have to sit on your principles and opinions and your superior knowledge of history. When all else fails, you can always launch into Gwyneth and Adam and Gwyneth and Brad and Gwyneth and Ben.

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--Prudie, conversationally

Dear Prudie,

I am interested in a former co-worker who left to go back to school but who still lives in the same city as me. The chemistry between us is palpable, and we truly enjoy many things together in what is currently a platonic friendship. After she left I was in a dilemma, wanting to cross the divide between friendship and a relationship.

Not wanting to get my hopes up, or embarrass her with untoward advances, I found myself--after she had already quit her job--standing in front of her cubicle. I noticed that her computer was still connected and that her e-mail program was open. No one was around so I sat down and started reading the titles of her e-mail. Needless to say, it wasn't too long before I found an e-mail she had sent to a mysterious mf50 (not the real handle) in her hometown. The message was one line, and it hit me in the solar plexus: "Just wanted to say I love you."

Was I wrong to read her e-mail? Is this bad manners? (I found out, later, going back to her computer, that "mf50" was actually her grandmother.) Should I pursue the relationship?

-- J. Pollard

Dear J,

Yes, you were wrong to read her e-mail. It is really no different, in the integrity department, than opening someone's letter. And, yes, it's bad manners. And, oh hell, pursue the relationship, or at least give it a try. Prudie feels slightly ambivalent about the cloak-and-dagger underpinnings involved. You might be "rewarded" with a lovely romance. But on the other hand, if it hadn't been her grandmother, Prudie knows you would have backed off. Complicated, this, but romance ranks high in Prudie's book, so go for it and snoop no more.

--Prudie, tolerantly

Dear Prudie,

I recently interviewed for a position as Software Development Manager at a company that produces shrink-wrapped packages for the corporate market. This is a small but growing organization, and the CEO was voted "Young Entrepreneur of the Year." My experience in the job interviews with the CEO and the Exec. VP was the most obnoxious I have had in 36 years in the business. They came on as if I was a suspect in a major crime rather than an experienced professional interviewing for a key position. The specifics included squeezing my hand in a viselike grip during the handshake and asking questions such as, "Why do you want to work here?" and saying with a serious demeanor, "Tell us about yourself." My response to all this was quietly but pointedly to let them know that I considered their manner to be amateurish at best and downright insulting at worst. I did not get an offer. Thank God for small favors. However, I am wondering if this is the new style of the Gen X Wunderkind, or might it have been an isolated case? What happened to social skills, or maybe I am too old at 65 to understand that it has all been "deconstructed" with the rest of Western Civilization.

-- Call Me a Crank

Dear Call,

Prudie would not label your experience a battle in the generational war, but a skirmish, perhaps. "Tell me about yourself" in a job interview is regrettable and somewhat imprecise, but might have played better with someone in their age group. As for your age, you are on the shady side of the actuarial table for new employment. Perhaps a company with a different outlook might fill the bill. Young Turks are not always looking for a graybeard. Prudie just knows you are feeling like everything's gone to hell in a handbasket but hopes you will philosophically come to terms with things the way they are.

--Prudie, solicitously