The overeducated store clerk's dilemma.

The overeducated store clerk's dilemma.

The overeducated store clerk's dilemma.

Advice on manners and morals.
Jan. 1 2009 7:38 AM

His Future Is in the Bag

I have a degree but work as a grocery clerk. How do I explain my predicament?

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Dear Prudence,
I am a recent university graduate and am underemployed. After finding my field devastated by the economic collapse and jobs scarce, I started working as a clerk in a grocery store. The company is family-owned and offers excellent health benefits and a generous starting salary. I enjoy the work and have become friends with my co-workers, many of whom have made this their career. My problem is, when co-workers or customers find out about my diploma, I am inevitably asked what I am doing bagging groceries. This is a constant query as I frequently see former classmates and the occasional professor at my station. How do I explain that this job isn't for me without coming off as arrogant? I don't think I am better than my new friends at work, but I worked hard for my degree and am sometimes embarrassed not to be using it. How do I explain this without coming off as an elitist jerk?

—Underemployed

Dear Underemployed,
You're employed! For a recent college graduate, that's quite an accomplishment, especially if you were hoping to find a job in, say, the automotive industry, or finance, or journalism, or real estate, etc. The fact that you are grateful for the work and enjoy your colleagues must surely come through. And you say your co-workers know that this is just a temporary stop for you before you find something else, so they have probably been pleasantly surprised by you. So just answer people honestly, "Of course I'm still looking in my field, but until things turn around, I'm lucky that I found such a pleasant place to work so I can support myself." When you see classmates or professors, do remind them to let you know if they hear of any opportunities. And don't think of this time as wasted. (Here from the Forbes 400 list is someone who turned a job as a grocery clerk into a multibillion-dollar fortune.) You are learning many things that will be valuable to you when you move on in your career: being a reliable employee, getting along with your co-workers, and knowing what it feels like to stand on your feet all day so you can pay your bills.

—Prudie

Dear Prudie,
My mother was given up for adoption, and at 5 months old two wonderful people adopted her and gave her a very loving environment. She is now in her early 50s and has no desire to find her birth parents. I have two kids of my own and would like very much to find out our medical history for their sake. My adopted grandmother has the adoption papers, but when I have asked about them, she has never offered any information as to who the biological mother is. My mother knows the birth city and her original birth name, but that's all the information I have. I want my mom to find out who the biological mother is so I can find her and possibly learn about her family's medical history. I believe we would benefit from the findings, and if something were to ever happen to my mother (heaven forbid), I would not have the authority to open the file. How do I handle this?

—Looking for DNA

Dear Looking,
These wonderful people who adopted your mother are your grandparents, period. As you've mentioned, they are all the parents your mother has known or wants to know, and that should be good enough for you. For health purposes, your children have information about two biological generations—that's generally all doctors asks for in standard exams. If you're concerned about rare genetic diseases, like Huntington's, for example, only about 5 percent of people who actually know they have a probability of contracting it choose to be tested. As for the rest of the illnesses that stalk mankind—cancer, heart disease, diabetes—any doctor will tell you to feed your kids healthy food, make sure they get plenty of exercise, and get them regular checkups. It sounds as if you actually want this information not so much for medical purposes but to know your "real" family. You know your real family, so be grateful you have such a loving one.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
I've been dating my girlfriend for more than a year and half now and love her very much. We've recently moved in together and have been talking about getting married. This all seemed to come crashing down just a few days ago when I arrived home after work to find that she had gotten on my computer and sifted through my messages. She had become obsessed with a female friend of mine whom I used to date and am still fairly close to. The woman and I still talk maybe once a month and meet for coffee three or four times a year. My girlfriend found, in the course of her searching, that we had planned to meet for coffee a few weeks ago and that I had not told her about it. I see in hindsight I was wrong to keep this from her. However, I knew that she would obsess over the fact that I was seeing this former girlfriend.  She went through e-mail, my Facebook account, and my cell phone to find out the last time we had talked. I feel very hurt that she doesn't seem to trust me at all and my privacy was violated so severely. I can't seem to get past it. What do I do?

—Bewildered and Scared

Dear Bewildered,
I think the best approach would be to offer to plant a listening device on yourself and hook your car and office up to a Girlfriend Cam, so she can stop snooping and just be free to monitor your every action. I know people are never supposed to snoop—but I have given passes to people whose trust has been violated in the past and now have grounds to feel it's happening again. However, there is no reason for your girlfriend to be suspicious about you. You should have the kind of open relationship in which you can say you're meeting your ex for coffee, but you understandably elided that information because you know your girlfriend is irrational about this. Now you've come home to find you've been more thoroughly monitored than Gov. Rod Blagojevich. And it doesn't even sound as if she's apologetic about this violation. She actually seems triumphant at getting "the goods" on what she already knew—that you stay in touch with your former girlfriend. You could try to work this out with her and establish guidelines about privacy and trust. But I'm afraid all this may be headed toward your realization that, unlike with your previous girlfriend, once you've broken up with this one, it won't even be possible to stay friends.

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—Prudie

Dear Prudence:
I'm a musician who works periodically doing wedding ceremonies and receptions. The problem with this job is that friends love to line up events and try to get my services for free. One close friend, instead of asking me to be in the wedding, said that performing would "pay for my supper." I told her I couldn't make it. A few months ago, I agreed to play at a relative's ceremony and give her a "family discount"—which means my fee is a stipend. Now she wants me to also play for her cocktail party and asked if all my work could be a gift because wedding costs are getting high. This relative has a low tolerance for being offended, so it's difficult to find a succinct and nonoffensive way to turn her down. Any advice?

—Just Wants To Be a Guest

Dear Just,
Maybe your relative has such a low tolerance for being offended because she has such a high tolerance for giving offense. You know your mistake was agreeing to perform in the first place. In the future, tell friends and family that working during their social events means you can never enjoy the celebrations of those you care about most, and refer them to colleagues. Or if you're willing to do it, charge your full fee and don't budge. You're stuck having to play for this reception for a pittance, but she can't force you to entertain at the cocktail party or forgo your payment altogether. Tell her that you're sorry but you can't play at her cocktail party, and you're already giving her a steep discount but you need to be paid for your time because this is what you do for a living. Don't let her manipulate you into backing down, but do be prepared to be at the end of the line of her creditors.

—Prudie

Photograph of Prudie by Teresa Castracane.