Advice on manners and morals.

Advice on manners and morals.
Dec. 6 2007 7:25 AM

I'll Be Home for Christmas

But only if I can avoid seeing my father.

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Dear Prudence,
I am a college student who's worried about returning home for the holidays on break. My parents have been divorced for a few years. I have a much better relationship with my mother than with my father. Whenever I spend time with my father, I end up feeling worse about myself after it's over due to his constant put-downs and emotional abuse. He makes me feel like a horrible daughter if I don't spend a great deal of time with him during any holiday break. However, I do love spending time at my mother's house. The difference between the two experiences is like night and day. Shuttling between houses has always been difficult, but unfortunately this year, I'm also undergoing surgery, which will limit my mobility. Driving myself between their places (which can be up to a three-hour trip) may be physically, as well as emotionally, painful. Prudie, how do I get through this holiday season and split my time without feeling horrible about myself or like an ungrateful daughter?

—Holiday Worries

Dear Holiday,
Your father sounds as if he has a gift for emotional blackmail: He insults and abuses you, then you feel guilty when you don't want to spend more time being insulted and abused. I'm sorry you're having surgery, but it provides you with a perfect opening to establish some new guidelines with your father. Write him a letter and tell him that because of your operation, you won't get to his place during winter break this year. Then explain that while you do want to see him, you two need a new understanding of how you expect to be treated. Say that while you love him, you usually leave his place feeling terrible, because, while he may not be aware of it, you get a constant stream of criticism from him. Tell him you'd be happy to talk about this, and try to find some time to get together so you can mutually enjoy each other's company. Once you send the letter, be prepared that his response will be to let loose with a stream of insults and guilt-tripping. It's crucial you don't cave. You must stay focused and repeat your message: You should be treated with courtesy and respect, or you can't spend time with him. Get support as you do this. Perhaps your mother has enough distance from him that she can help you strategize having a better relationship. And a therapist who specializes in family issues can help you work through this and stay resolute. I hope your father will recognize he has to change how he behaves toward you, but whether or not he does, know that you have the power to change how you behave with him.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence Video: My Three Boyfriends

Dear Prudence,
I am a woman in my 30s living in Portland, Ore. My husband is black. For some reason, at dinner parties, bars, you name it, people assume we're Democrats. We are not! Comments range from "Why do Republicans exist?" to "I hate conservatives" to worse. I've lived in highly conservative areas of the country, and never seemed to encounter such annoying habits from conservatives; neither did my husband. Do people assume this because of his skin color? Why do people assume everyone within earshot agrees with them? What is the correct response?

—Not a Democrat

Dear Not,
It is maddeningly presumptuous that because you live in a certain ZIP code, everyone thinks they know precisely what you think, i.e., what you think is precisely what they think. More insulting is the conclusion that belonging to a certain racial or ethnic group is itself a statement of a set of beliefs on all political and social matters. (And we all could benefit by examining our assumptions. You point out your husband's race, but not your own or anyone else's. Is this because you assume we'll understand that since only your husband's race is an issue, everyone else is white?) How you respond depends on the circumstances and your willingness to discuss issues on any given occasion. In the most casual situations, at a bar, say, it's probably best just to shrug and let it go. But if you're at a dinner party with people you consider friends, you may want to let them see if they really believe in diversity. In response to "Why do Republicans exist?" you could say, "We exist to spice up your dinner parties." Be prepared for gasps and disbelief: You look like normal people, yet you are Republicans and you walk among us! Also be ready to change the subject to something more neutral (alas, the weather is no longer an option) if you start to feel you're doing the morning briefing at the White House press office.

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—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
I'm a youngish professor dealing with a bad apple in an otherwise great class. I'm pretty good at handling difficult personalities, but this student (male, older) was extremely rude to me in several e-mails and voice messages over an issue early in the term. I elected not to engage him or reply to his inappropriate correspondence, and he either got the message or didn't get the fight he was hoping for, and things settled down (save for a nasty note on a quiz about the same issue). He added my e-mail to a list he distributes, which means I get some benign stuff about local veteran's events, as well as some pretty awful anti-Islamic stuff. Again, I chose to ignore it, rather than get into a political debate with a student who wants to spar with a "liberal professor." Today, he asked where he could buy my book and whether I would inscribe it to him. Signing the book would make him go away, but I hate the thought of giving him anything that's personal or indicates that I like him. Is there any way I can appropriately get out of his request without telling him directly what I think of him?

—I'd Rather Sign a Monkey's Behind

Dear Rather,
Let me see if I understand this: You wrote a book, someone wants to buy it, but you'd prefer he didn't so you don't have to sign his copy. I haven't checked with Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, but I have the feeling that if Jesus Christ showed up at one of his book signings, Hitchens would autograph a copy for him. I assume you're not closing down debate with this student because he's challenging your liberal assumptions (see letter above), but because he's loutish and won't engage in civil discourse. But putting your signature on the flyleaf does not mean you like this man, and refusing to sign seems unnecessarily churlish, especially to someone who wants to buy your book.

—Prudie

Dear Prudie,
I have feelings for a guy who works on the same floor I do, but we're in different departments. I was under the impression he had feelings for me too, because of a couple small gifts he gave me and things he said. I'm unsure how to handle myself around men; I haven't dated that much, and at 30 am still a virgin. I kept waiting for him to make more of a move, but he never did. The largest move I could make was putting on lip gloss and taking the long way back to my desk so I would run into him! To make matters worse, he seems to have feelings for the woman I report to. At least he sounds like he's flirting when he talks to her. My friend, who is more aggressive when it comes to men, has told me to confront him and ask him if he ever had feelings for me. I'm torn between revealing my feelings to him and risking huge embarrassment, or holding my feelings in and living in this limbo and turmoil.

—Fed Up With Men Before Even Having One

Dear Fed Up,
Here's what you don't do: You don't march up to him and say, "Did you notice I was wearing lip gloss? Do you or do you not have feelings for me? If you do, why are you using your flirty voice with my boss after giving me gifts? And for your information, I'm really bad at this because I've practically never gone out on a date and I'm a virgin!" It's impossible for me to tell whether he's just a guy who's friendly and flirty with all the girls and has no particular interest in you, or when he gave you those little gifts and you were as responsive as a yam, he decided to move on to a livelier target. Here's what you do do: Put on that lip gloss, wear your most fetching outfit, go up to his desk one morning, and smile while you say, "Hey, if you're not busy later, do you want to grab some lunch?" Practice this many times in the mirror at home, so when you do it, you don't resemble a taxidermist's reject. And before you do it, tell yourself  that the worst that could happen is he doesn't go to lunch with you. Since every other day of your life he hasn't gone to lunch with you, remind yourself you can live with that.

—Prudie