Dear Prudence chats live with readers at Washingtonpost.com.

Advice on manners and morals.
March 1 2010 3:17 PM

Callous Co-Workers Count My Calories

Prudie counsels an American whose European colleagues monitor her diet—and other advice seekers.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat with readers about their romantic, family, financial, and workplace problems. A transcript of this week's chat is below. (Read Prudie's Slate columns here.)

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. Let's get started.

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Geneva, Switzerland: I am a recent college graduate working abroad for a small nonprofit. Most of my coworkers are European women in their 20s or early 30s, and we generally get along pretty well. We eat lunch together every day, and I eat substantially more than they do, since they are all on very strict diets. I don't watch my calories, and I don't think I need to—I am 5'5" and 120 lbs, and I get plenty of exercise by riding my bike to work every day and going hiking on the weekends.

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Weight is a very sensitive issue in the office. Every time somebody brings in a snack for the office (like zucchini bread—yum!), the other women instantly start complaining about their diets and having those horrid conversations about how fat they are. I, on the other hand, always happily accept these treats, along with the two men in the office. This wasn't a problem until one woman said, "Look at the cow, she just keeps grazing all day!" Now the whole office comments on my eating, and everyone chalks it up to me being an ignorant American, as though I can't control my food intake! They have also recently started making comments while I eat about how my overconsumption contributes to poverty and famine. It has gotten so uncomfortable that I have tried to eat less, but then I am hungry (and cranky) all afternoon. I have asked them to stop making these comments, but they persist and say that healthy eating is too important to let it slide. I think my eating habits are perfectly healthy, and I don't understand why they care. What should I do?

Emily Yoffe: It sounds as if your office is acting out some geopolitical struggles over the zucchini bread. It would be one thing if the American amongst them was obese, spoke in tongues, and kept a loaded shotgun on her desk—then they could satisfy themselves about their European superiority. But here you are, having the audacity to sate your appetite while remaining thin! You could shrug off an occasional snipe about your ability to have a slice of cake, but a daily badgering about your intake is intolerable. What's next, they blame droughts in Africa on the fact that you shower daily and flush the toilet? Stop being intimidated about your eating. The next time one of them insults you, you need to say firmly, "Gerta, I'm afraid my personal eating habits are irrelevant to our work. Things have escalated to the point where I am being insulted daily, and this is not conducive to a harmonious work atmosphere." Repeat to Veronique, et al. (Alternately, you could joke that their complaints sound like something they should take up with The Hague.) If the harassment persists, you need to address your complaint to the boss.

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Asheville, NC: After recently graduating college, I was able to land a job that I really like. I'm the only female in an office of 12 men who are all great. The problem is that after about a month of working there, it seems like everyone relaxed enough around me to start dipping tobacco in front of me. I don't care for the most part because it's none of my business what everyone does in their own office, but when my boss comes into my office, or is showing me something on the computer, he stands behind me with a cup full of tobacco spit in his hand. I don't know how to tell him that I find his spitting in front of me revolting and the smell of tobacco nauseating. What can I say to keep my lunch and my great new job?

Emily Yoffe: I would love to see "Geneva" bring some chewing tobacco into her office and start spitting it into a cup. She could tell the ladies this is the American way of avoiding snacks.

As for your situation, I guess your co-workers think there's nothing like a cup of warm spit to make you feel welcome. You're right, if people have private spittoons, that's their business. But if you feel like tossing every time your boss regurgitates, you have to say something. After a juicy session, go into his office and explain that you are unfortunately very sensitive to the smell of tobacco, and would he mind parking the tobacco products outside your office. I bet he'll oblige.

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Tahoe, California: I am a 31-year-old single mother of a 2-year-old daughter. She is my heart and soul. I am currently a member of several online dating Web sites where it is stated that I have a child (but there are no pictures). My problem is that I'm always worried that the men who contact me are secret pedophiles who are simply feigning interest in me in order to get close to my child. For the record, I have never been abused myself. I think part, if not most, of it has to do with the fact that there are so many stories on the news, in the papers, and online about this sort of thing. It literally seems like it's everywhere. And even when I meet men through friends or, say, by chance at the grocery store, this thought is always in the back of my head. I find it very difficult to trust, but part of me wonders if this is the way a good mother should be. I'm lonely and miss companionship, but I can't seem to get past this thought. I would really appreciate your take on this matter.

Emily Yoffe: As wonderful as parenthood is, one of its burdens is that it's hard to completely turn off the running voice in your head that is always scanning the horizon for danger. While there are pedophiles running around, they are a tiny percentage of the population. It's good that you're aware of your daughter's safety, but the best thing you can do to assure no one you're dating has malevolent designs on her is to keep your social life and your parenting separate. This is something you should do even if pedophilia was not a worry for you. No 2-year-old should be subject to seeing a string of potential beaus. Your daughter should only be introduced to someone you're dating once you've established that this is becoming a serious relationship. That doesn't give you a guarantee, but it should give you an excellent sense that you're with a good guy. So get a great babysitter, and have fun.

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New York, NY: Prior to my flight departure on a recent business trip, I visited the airport business class lounge for my airline. With time to spare, I sat down in the lounge's computer area to catch up on news. I glanced over to the gentlemen seated not far from me, only to find that he was doing a Google search on "little girls" and checking on the image tab. A couple of minutes later, he was browsing through images for his next Google search of "breastfeeding." As his ticket was on the desk, I happened to see his seat number and flight number, and he was on my flight. Did I—do I—have any obligation to report his behavior and if so, to whom?

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