Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat with readers about their romantic, family, financial, and workplace problems. An edited transcript of this week's chat is below. (Read Prudie's Slate columns here.)
Q. Interracial Relationships: My long-term boyfriend recently informed me that, because I'm white and he's Indian and Muslim, I could never be a good parent to children (that don't yet exist) that are half his. Basically, he didn't want to continue our relationship because he believes that Indian/Muslim children should have two Indian/Muslim parents, not one white parent and one Indian/Muslim parent (although if we had children, obviously half of their genes would come from me). When I tried to counter his arguments, he called me racist and said that I would never understand. I had to break up with him, but I'm still so enraged—I would be a great mom to any children, and I seriously think he's wrong. I think he's afraid to talk to his parents about our relationship (they have relatively firm religious beliefs, whereas he is nonreligious but values Muslim cultural traditions), so he decided that ending things was the best plan. How should I have reacted, and how do I react now, since he still wants to be friends? (Note: This isn't about religion. He is quite firmly against organized religion, so he would never ask me to take up any religious beliefs, and offering to do that wouldn't help the situation, as it would fly in the face of his beliefs about organized religion.)
A: I'm afraid that when someone says he finds you unsuitable as a potential mother to his children, he wins that argument by default. You are understandably enraged at the end of this relationship. But over the long run, you will be happier that you didn't try to force someone to merge his DNA with yours just to show you how wrong he was. For some people, when it comes time to make marriage and reproduction decisions, their spouse's ethnic or religious background doesn't matter. Other people find it does. Of course it's painful that your boyfriend has now informed you he's in this latter camp after several years together. But since you want to become a mother, you have to move on and find someone else you can spend your life with. And for your own emotional health, that may mean taking a pass on his offer of "friendship."
Q. Workplace etiquette: I'm an intern at a large, prestigious company where I hope I may someday become an employee. While here, my evaluations and official feedback on the work I've done have been absolute raves. However, when our interactions are not on paper, most of the employees here treat me with very little respect. In the elevator I hardly receive sideways glances; many have not bothered to learn how to say or spell my name correctly; passing conversations are often very cold; and in general, the way they treat each other day to day (and sometimes the other interns) is a far cry from how I'm treated. I'm fine with fetching coffee, but where is the limit on how badly an intern can reasonably be treated? I realize I'm lowest on the totem pole, but does the mere fact that I'm an intern make me ineligible for common decency in the workplace? Should I speak up at the risk of jeopardizing my future chances of employment at this company?
A: It's a tough lesson to learn that who you are is very, very important to you, but it is not always that important to other people. Accept that unless other employees have made an effort to memorize the interns' names, or deal with you directly, they don't know who the interns are. It's not personal, it's business. But I do think you should speak up. When you have a chance for a passing interaction with an employee, hold out your hand, look that person in the eye, smile, and say, "Hi, I'm Kiyoko. I'm an intern in the marketing department. Nice to meet you." That will go over better than, "Excuse me, in case you hadn't realized, my name is Kiyoko. That's K-I-Y-O-K-O. I have been here three weeks and you haven't even bothered to learn my name or make me feel welcome."
Q. Surprise Motherhood Shower???: My sister-in-law is in the process of adopting a young child from foster care. It has been a long process, and she has shouldered the majority of the process and has mentioned the lack of emotional support and enthusiasm. She is feeling that her journey is not as valued as a pregnancy would be among family and friends. In fact she is often questioned about having biological children rather than choosing adoption. I can hear the excitement and disappointment of this experience in her voice whenever we talk. She has already said that she will have a welcome-home party for her child once the adoption is finalized. I want to celebrate a special day for HER becoming a mother, though! Her child has not been placed in her home yet, but she has been approved/matched with her. Would a "Surprise Mommy Shower" be appropriate? A day to celebrate becoming a mom and pamper her? Also a day to gift her with items a young child would need/enjoy even during the transition of waiting for the adoption to be complete? It would be an intimate gathering of 15, mainly family and a couple of close friends. I do worry about planning this surprise because I have a couple of friends whose adoption processes did not work out for them. At the same time, though, I do not want this part of her life to be honored as an afterthought or have her feel she is treated differently because she did not go through pregnancy; a mom is a mom. Your thoughts would be greatly appreciated.
A: A shower is always appropriate for a new mother, so please go ahead. Your sister-in-law in particular sounds as if she needs support and validation. But skip the idea of making this a surprise. Your sister-in-law is probably going to want as few surprises in her life as possible. She should know that people are excited about her wonderful decision, and if she's in on the fact that this event is coming up, she can help supply a list of the things she needs. But don't make the shower your end game. Continue to celebrate her becoming a mother by dedicating yourself to being an involved aunt to the newest member of your family.
Q. Social Network Divorce: I have a pair of longtime friends who have made the decision to divorce. They married very young and after only a few months of dating. "Angela" came to my house and talked to me about how unhappy she had been and that she wanted to divorce her husband, "Tony." I have been supportive but as neutral as possible with both of them, since they are both my friends. They made the decision to move out of their house and move into the same apartment complex as each other for the sake of their daughter. It all sounds great. In reality, Tony is heartbroken and hiding that as best he can. Angela, who is almost always on Facebook, whether from work or home, has been making comments constantly about how unbelievably happy she is now. She is also flirting with guys and has told her husband (the divorce decision just took place one month ago) that she is on a dating site and some guy was moving too quickly, so she stopped it. Am I nuts, or is this just crazy? I know that people often divulge too much information on these sites, but does she really not see what she is doing to Tony? Also, how do I bite my tongue on this? I hate seeing her post these comments every day and hurt her still-husband in the process. I know I should stay out of it, but she is making it very hard to keep my mouth shut.
A: How is it that before Facebook people didn't go around wearing sandwich boards announcing their most intimate thoughts and activities? Facebook surely didn't invent this obviously overwhelming human need for constant self-exposure. Since you are Angela's Facebook friend and are reading her daily social diary, why should you shut up? Isn't the point of these things to have other people comment? I suggest, however, that you take your comments private. Say to Angela that you're glad she's so happy, but since she and Tony hare going to be yoked together forever raising their daughter, and since they have a daughter whose privacy they will want to protect, she might want to consider how much of her social life she posts on Facebook. Tell her these bulletins may end up being a record of a period in her life that in the long run she'd wished she'd kept more private.
Q. Bethesda, Md.: I'm married, but stupidly developed deep feelings for someone else. Have not acted upon this but suspect it's mutual. I know I need to find a way to distance myself from my "friend," but right now I see him every day (because of work), and limiting that would be very confusing for him. I know I owe more to my husband, but my "friend" has been through a lot recently (which is what caused the bond), and I don't want to hurt him additionally. I plan to try to phase out our closeness, but my question is: What do I tell him if/when he asks why?
A: If you're truly friends, then you should be honest, to a point. You can say you hope you have been a source of solace for your friend during this difficult period. But now that the crisis is passing, you need to get back to your previous equilibrium, especially since you see each other at work every day. Say you realize you only have so much to give emotionally, and while you value his friendship, you realized you are becoming uncomfortable with how much time you two are spending together. You don't have to be cool to him after that, but you can show that you're shifting away from this emotional intimacy. Whatever you do, don't let the conclusion to this conversation be a trip under the sheets.
Q. Facebook Divorce: You should also remind your friend that since they have only just decided to divorce, the actual divorce process could be long and difficult. Anything she posts can—and will—be used against her in the proceedings. Depending on what/how much she posts, it could even be justifiable to grant custody of their daughter to her husband. Just because FB wasn't around when she was 15 doesn't mean she should act like she's 15 again.
A: Good point. Facebook has become the gift that won't shut up for divorce lawyers.
Q. Bridezilla: So, I know it's insane, but one of my friends is mad at me for getting engaged during the time between her engagement and her wedding. She dropped hints for a while that she was worried about it, but I never thought that someone could really be so selfish. I am also a bridesmaid. I'm worried that she's simply gone off the deep end and that rational conversations are out of the question, but what should I do? I don't want to drop out of her wedding, but what else can I do when she's treating me as a hostile?
A: Excuse me, but this is your friend's bridal season. That means everyone else has to put their personal lives on ice—no engagements, no conceptions, and especially no births that would interfere with the party planning.
Yes, it's insane. You may think it's too late for rational conversation, but try to have one anyway. Get together in person and say to her she seems upset and angry at you. If she says you are trying to diminish the glory of her day by having the audacity to have a life, then you can say you are really sorry to hear this. Add that you value her friendship, and hope she can see that it's hurtful to you that she views your happy news as a threat. If she doesn't back off, or she escalates this lunacy, then offer to withdraw as a bridesmaid.
Q. Honeymoon Registries: Friends are getting married and only provided a honeymoon registry for guests. However, the cash amounts suggested on the registry are all above our price range—$100-plus. Can we just give something else?
A: Hey, you must be friends with the bride who doesn't think anyone else should get engaged or have a life until she's off on the honeymoon, counting up the cash from the registry! I assume what you mean is that the only gift registry provided by the couple was a cash-only chance to pay for the honeymoon—in increments starting at $100 a pop. I'm kind of shocked they didn't offer other opportunities, say, a week being their bootblack, or sweeping their chimney, maybe scrubbing their toilets for a year. Just because your friends are rude and crude doesn't mean you have to go along with them. You can get them anything you like as a gift—or nothing.
Q. Desperate to do something useful: Is it appropriate for a member of the extended family to write the thank-you notes after a funeral to acknowledge flowers, food, and other kindnesses? The more immediate family members are grief-stricken and unable to face the task.
The person who died was a young child, if that makes any difference. My name might not be familiar to the recipients. If it's OK to write the notes, should I indicate my relationship somehow?
A: Thank you for stepping up to help this suffering family. What a heartbreak. Go ahead and write the notes—as long as the parents have given you permission. You can say something like, "I'm Joe and Sarah's aunt Evelyn. I am writing on their behalf to thank you for your generous support during this terrible, painful time ..."
Q. Nosy Neighbor: I am a young professional who works 12-hour days and is rarely home. I live in an apartment above another lady named "Nancy." Every time I come home, Nancy reminds me that she has cancer and asks me not to do simple things like vacuum and do laundry. It is getting to the point where I can't walk around without her banging on the ceiling! I feel terrible for Nancy, yet I pay rent and feel like I cannot live in my apartment. I have no pets, no visitors, and am only home and moving around for a short period each day. I even make sure that all laundry is completed before 9 p.m. What can I say the next time she rings my doorbell to ask me to stop doing something and still be polite?
A: Sit down with Nancy and say that you are so sorry she is going through painful treatments, and you understand her need for quiet, but you want to figure out a way you can both accommodate each other. Explain you're out of the apartment most of the day, but when you get home, you simply have household needs you have to attend to. Suggest she get a sound machine or noise canceling headphones she can wear while you vacuum—print out some information on these so she knows what you're referring to. If that doesn't do it, then you have to talk to the management. Perhaps Nancy will pay for some sound baffling. Perhaps they will have to tell her that you are entitled to go about your normal business without being harassed about it.
Q. Washington, D.C.: A further note to interns: There are a lot of you. A LOT of you. More of you appear every year. You're there for a few weeks—yes, 10 is a few—and then you're gone. It would take serious mental effort to learn all of your names and strengths and weaknesses. Anyone who does so is a saint and should be applauded, but you cannot expect this from everyone. Seriously, this is basic human behavior: You don't necessarily invest a ton of effort in someone who's in your life temporarily.
A: Excellent point. Some people are also mentioning "Kiyoko" feels she's treated differently from the other interns. Perhaps this is the case, but more likely she has seen some other interns called by name or taken out to lunch by their supervisors and feels dissed. Whatever's going on, she's there for a short time, and she should work at doing the best she can and making a good impression and not on collecting a list of slights.
Q. Former Friends: In a couple of months, I'll be transferring to a smaller department. There will be six of us. I used to be very close to one of the members, but we had a major falling out (for personal reasons) several years ago, and we grew apart. I'm fine working with her, because I think of her as an acquaintance in the professional sense. The awkwardness is not in seeing her again; it's the rest of the group. Everyone remembers us being friends. I have received several e-mails, and they keep on saying things like, "Oh it's great that you're coming here, and you're already good friends with 'so and so.' " My new boss thinks we're good friends as well. How do I clarify matters? Should I even bother?
A: Think about how that clarification will go and you'll realize there's nothing to clarify. ("Susie and I were friends, then it turns out she was interested in the guy I was dating. She didn't tell me, but when I was out of town she ...") It is true you know this other person very well, so all you need to say is that you look forward to working with her and getting to know everyone in the group. And let's hope "Susie" is as adult about this situation as you intend to be.
Q. Parents and In-Laws: My in-laws, who live about three hours away, are visiting me and my husband for a night. They and my parents, who live very near us, are not "friends"—they haven't spent much time together, and they are very different types of people. My husband wants there to be no get-togethers with them while his parents are in town. I don't not want to mention to my parents that his parents will be here. I did that once, and it created a lot of drama because my parents were hurt by the "lie by omission." My parents, and his parents, are very nice people, and this is an awkward situation. I'm really not sure what to do. My husband wants me to keep my mouth shut. I don't feel comfortable doing that. I feel that there should be a way to mention it without leading to my parents looking for an invitation. Help!
A: Your parents and your in-laws are "different types of people," yet they managed to each produce a type of person who met each other and decided to spend their lives together. So since their children are married to each other, and they may have grandchildren in common someday, you should give these four adults another chance to get to know one another better. You mention that all four of them are "very nice people." Give them credit for being able to get through brunch at your house or dinner at a restaurant in a pleasant fashion. Stop playing family traffic cop, and show them that you want all of them to be considered members of the same family.
Q. Work Gifts: My boss generally takes charge of collecting for bridal and baby showers, going-away presents, etc., in our office and always feels that $20 is the appropriate amount to ask for. I think it's a little stiff, but I've always gone along in the past just to avoid conflict. I've recently taken on some drains in my income (grad-school tuition, mostly) and can't afford to pony up $20 for a baby shower gift. What should I do? I think it's a little presumptuous to assume that everyone can afford $20. (We're not in a highly-paid profession.)
A: If the office believes in going away gifts, that should be an expense borne by the company. As for personal celebrations, no one in the office should feel coerced to pony up, which makes it especially noxious that the boss is going around with the tambourine. When she comes around for cash, just tell her nondefensively that because of your own budgetary constraints, you're going to have to participate at a lower level, or not at all.
Q. In-Laws in Town for the Night: It would be nice to organize a get-together, but the original poster stated her in-laws were in town for one night. I think that makes a difference. If her folks are in town, she and her husband probably get plenty of one-on-one time with them, and I can see how they'd want a chance to do the same with his folks without sharing their visit with her parents. If I were her, I'd mention it in passing to her parents, and if they press to get together, she can just say, "This is a short visit, and we have plans, but hopefully we can do something next time."
A: Very good point. Of course her parents don't have to come along if the other parents are in town. But it sounds like there's some strange effort to keep both sets of parents from ever getting to know one another, and that seems counter-productive.
Host Emily Yoffe writes: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.