Personal Space Invaders

Personal Space Invaders

Personal Space Invaders

Advice on manners and morals.
June 18 1999 3:00 AM

Personal Space Invaders

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

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Dear Prudie,

As a child of the '60s and '70s, I am more touchy-feely than Oprah. To most of my friends in my own age group, this is considered normal. (And I guess even to most of my friends in other age groups.) However, I am aware that one of my better friends is just too reserved for this invasion of his personal space. Despite resolving not to make him feel like he's being assaulted, I often forget myself when we are together and realize too late that I'm either sitting too close or talking too close or worse, being a hug-Nazi.

He tolerates this, though it clearly makes him nervous. He is tremendously enjoyable company, and I am accustomed to viewing affectionate gestures as rewarding someone for this. Could you offer me some helpful suggestions for being, well, more prudent?

--Affectionately,

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Recidivist Hugger

Dear Re,

Prudie sees from your e-mail address that you are female (unless, of course, you've hopped on someone else's machine) and believes that touching friends is mostly a feminine trait. In any case, this is what the situation looks like from here: You have the habit of getting close and touching people; you are aware that in some instances this is regarded as an invasion of someone's personal space; you and the reluctant touchee are good friends; you would like to bag your habit of "rewarding" him with physical contact, but sometimes you just can't help yourself.

The key, it seems to Prudie, is that you are close friends, and that he tolerates it--though uncomfortably--while you want to accommodate his comfort zone. Why don't you annex humor and honesty to this dilemma and deal with it openly? Say to your chum something like: "I have this lunatic habit of touching my friends, and I also tend to get too close. I know this is not comfortable for you, so the next time you feel crowded, just say, 'Down girl, down.' " Well, you get the drift. The two of you should decide on a code phrase that suits you, and in time, Prudie predicts, there will be no discomfort at all--on either side.

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--Prudie, spaciously

Dear Prudie,

You display a wide range of knowledge, so let me run something by you I have not seen you deal with before: have you any ideas about making some serious money--fast? I hope you can help. I'm in a bind.

--BPL in Tennessee

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Dear B,

Your question is actually the bailiwick of Prudie's aunt, the first Prudence, the one who started this column. Alas, no kind of economics is within this Prudie's purview. Just from reading the financial section, however (as close as Prudie gets to monetary information), one suggestion for you might be to get on Michael Eisner's bad side. Those people seem to do really well.

--Prudie, killingly

Dear Prudence,

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Thirty years ago in college I had a brief fling with a young man who has remained a dear and close friend. We never repeated our physical intimacy. Now he has finally (!) married, and his wife, fascinated by his long-term friendship with a girl from college, persistently asks if I ever slept with him. I have tried every trick in the book to keep from answering her truthfully, from "Why in the world would you need to know that?" to "It was the '60s ... how can I possibly remember?!" But she won't give up. How can I answer her without answering her? How can I get her to drop the subject? I'd like us all to remain friends. Her husband refuses to satisfy her curiosity as well. I don't want to come right out and say, "It's none of your business what happened between your husband and me when we were 18," and I guess I am looking for a nice way to say MYOB.

--Perplexed in Pendleton

Dear Perp,

You tried the nice way of saying MYOB (which is Ann Landers' wonderful shorthand for "mind your own business"), and it didn't work. I refer to your quip about it being the '60s, and how could you be expected to remember anything? Prudie's first thought was to suggest that you tell the proverbial "little white lie" to make the subject go away. Then she decided that white lies, or turquoise, for that matter, should not be encouraged ... that there must be a better way than dishonesty, no matter how admirable one's intent. For this reason, Prudie asked an attorney who is also a Harvard Divinity School graduate to be a Prudie.

His position was that lying is unethical, therefore it is important to consider how not to answer rather than compromising one's integrity. If the wife's concern is that a sexual relationship might be going on (that is, a present-tense concern) or is merely curious about the past, this is a question she must ask her husband--the person directly involved. The proper communication is with the relevant person--her spouse. If this rather thick woman persists in her questioning, you might say: "I never answer questions about the personal lives of my close friends. Please do not ask me to violate my friendships by pursuing this line of inquiry. This is a boundary I care about." Such an approach protects the confidentiality you share with your old friend and directs the wife to the appropriate source (her husband) allowing you to know you have behaved in a morally ethical manner.

Prudie--who did not attend divinity school, but the school of hard knocks--would like to point out that most people who are not candidates for Dutch elm disease would figure out that there might, indeed, have been a little experimentation of the sexual sort and quit already with the interrogation. This, however, is an altogether different problem. Good luck to you, and my compliments for wishing to do the right thing.

--Prudie, privately

Dear Prudence,

Though it is not on a par with Kosovo and Chinese spying, I nevertheless have been reading about Hugh Hefner, the geezer in pajamas who founded Playboy around the time my father was a young man. As I understand it, he is currently occupied, very publicly, and supposedly romantically, with three women whose names are like Handy, Dandy, and Randy ... or something like that. How would you categorize this behavior, and what do you think it's about?

--Really Confused

Dear Real,

Pathetic and Viagra.

And Prudie thinks the opportunists, I mean, young women, are named Randy, Brande, and Mandy ... or something like that.

--Prudie, disdainfully