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.)
Emily Yoffe Writes: Good afternoon, everyone. Let's get to it.
Q. Interfering Mother: My 24-year-old son recently had a bad breakup with his girlfriend of almost three years. She seemed like a lovely girl, and our family welcomed her to all our holiday gatherings, family barbecues, etc., and really thought she was "the one." Her feelings for my son changed, and her breakup method was very cold and technical—e-mails, phone conversations, etc. My son was devastated and has been mourning this loss. I am, of course, helpless to comfort him and fearful that this experience will make him bitter and hard. I have e-mailed this girl and asked her to contact me, not to convince her to take my son back, but to say goodbye and to ask her what happened so that I can help him through this. She has never responded, and I am very, very hurt. I thought we had had a warm relationship and that she would at least contact me. Am I wrong to feel so bad about this? Was it too interfering to write her in the first place?
A: Your formerly possibly future daughter-in-law may have behaved coldly to your son (you only know his side), but when one person wants out of a relationship and the other wants it to continue, the latter person gets his or her feelings smashed. This is painful to go through and to watch, but it's an experience that's generally put in that bulging file called "Life." You are the mother of a 24-year-old, and as much as you would like to kiss his boo-boo, you should not have contacted his ex to do a departure interview with her. Sure, you are hurt, too, that she has been so abrupt and dismissive. Again, file this under "Life." So, yes, Mom you crossed a line in contacting the girlfriend. What did you want to hear? "I'm in love with someone else?" "Your son and I aren't sexually compatible?" "I realized he's a Momma's boy and I don't want to be part of this family?" You are not helpless to comfort your son. If he wants to talk about this with you, you can be a sounding board for his pain. And you can also reassure him that while it won't seem that way now, he will heal, and when he does, you know there will be someone wonderful out there for him. And when she comes along, you will do your best to mind your own business.
Q. Nail Clipping at Work: I work in a midsize office where sound travels pretty well. There are three gentlemen who frequently clip their fingernails in their cubicles throughout the week. We (the rest of the office) can typically hear clipping from somewhere in the office once a day, collectively leaving us to wince at every snap of a fingernail. Us nonoffice-clippers believe that this practice should be considered a personal grooming habit, such as flossing teeth, and should be reserved for the home, where the rest of us don't have to see or hear it. No one has said anything yet to our co-worker clippers, but my patience is wearing thin—should I discreetly say something to them?
A: You've got me worried that your bigger problem is that your office might be overrun with werewolves. Perhaps I suffer from retarded fingernail growth, but I'm baffled by the idea that there are three men in your office who find it necessary to clip their nails multiple times a week. Since they're hidden in their cubicles, how are you all so sure they're engaged in nail clipping? Do you count the ten pings? Maybe they're secretly conducting bocce-ball tournaments. I am on the record as being against doing grooming rituals in public that belong in the bathroom. And certainly nail clipping should be done in private. But since these male manicure fanatics are not clipping in the coffee lounge and sending their debris into the creamer, it sounds as if the best thing to do is ignore the sounds—which collectively can't add up to more than a few minutes a week. Just be grateful that so far they've restrained themselves from doing pedicures.
Q. In-Laws: I have a grudge against my in-laws and can't seem to get over it. They ruined my wedding. I had specifically requested my husband make sure he was on time for the ceremony, since there was another wedding right after ours. Sure enough, my husband's family decided at the last minute they needed to do other things, so we ended up arriving an hour later, only to have a rushed ceremony with my sister-in-law's kids running around and screaming, which I hated. Her 6-year-old even threw a tantrum and urinated right on the train of my dress! I was completely mortified. This went on at the reception, as well, with my SIL doing absolutely nothing to control her children. (No, the kid did not urinate again, but she did throw up twice right on the dance floor.) At first I was concerned, thinking the kid was sick, but my MIL told me this is normal behavior for the kid. This was some months ago, and still I can't stand the thought of ever seeing them again. So far I have managed to not visit them, but they are now asking why I won't go visit. I realize I will eventually have to see them again, but how do I manage to keep my anger from boiling over?
A: Before we get to the matter of your wedding, your description of your niece's behavior is a 100-decibel klaxon announcing that this child needs immediate assessment and intervention. If you can, try to put your understandable fury aside and recognize you have married into a deeply strange, possibly disturbed family. The question for you is how you manage your interactions with them from now on, not how you extract a well-deserved apology—because I'm inferring that isn't going to happen. And where is your husband in all this? Is he shrugging it off and saying, "Hey, that's how we are?" Or does he recognize how rude and bizarre his family is and want to reassure you he doesn't want to recapitulate his own upbringing in your marriage? The most important thing here is your marriage. If that's solid, the two of you can figure out how to contain your interactions with his family. But now that you are part of this family, try to persuade your husband to gently talk to his sister about his serious concerns about his niece.
Q. Mother Politics: I am a writer and "stay home" mom of two young children. For the past two years, I have been involved in a playgroup. It started off as fun but has now turned into a nightmare for me. I am expected to report my weekly schedule and I'm asked to make our meetings a "priority," sometimes over my family functions and work. I know that I need to leave the group, but it's very difficult. It will be hard for my eldest child, who has become friends with the other children. Also, I live in a smallish suburb, so I am sure I will see them often in the future. How do I get out of this without leaving hard feelings? I never imagined motherhood would be so political. It's just like middle school.
A: Extracting yourself will be good experience you can draw on if you have to advise your children about how to get out of a clique they don't feel comfortable in. You should tell your fellow members that you're leaving the group. You can say you'd love to be able to have your kids drop by on an ad hoc basis, but that the group requirements are conflicting with your work and family schedules, so you can't continue as a permanent member. Surely, there are other mothers who find the group overbearing. And even if you leave the group, you're free to plan get-togethers for your children with the friends they've made. If you don't get defensive or accusatory, even if the other parents want to talk about you, you won't be giving them much material to work with. And as your kids get more involved in school and other activities, the importance of The Group will quickly fade away.
Q. Should I Have Helped a Disabled Person? A few weeks ago, I was washing my hands in the ladies' room when a woman with a physical handicap came in. Out of the corner of my eye I saw that she was struggling to get the stall door open, and I froze. I didn't want to insult her by helping her—she was able to get it open, but it required more work—and I didn't want to seem unkind if she was open to help. What should I have done?
A: I think when you see someone struggling with a door for whatever reason—disability, hands full with packages, pushing a stroller—the polite thing to do is ask, "Can I give you a hand?" Occasionally you will be rebuffed, but more often you will get a thanks. And if you're rebuffed, don't take it personally; just accept your help wasn't needed.
Q. Name Change: I'm a big fan of your writing and finally have a question for you. I have wanted to change my first name for three years now, after a major life event (illness, recovery, and self discovery). I've had close friends call me by my desired name, and it has gone fairly smoothly. My family has mocked me endlessly for it, so I have just let that go. All in all, it is a very awkward process, but I am looking to make it legal. I am on the verge of marrying the man that I love, and my hope is that I could smoothly change my first and last name simultaneously. Is there a way to go about doing this at one fell swoop? Do you have any social advice for name changes?
A: When you're changing your last name, it sounds like a perfect time to legally change your first name, too. One way to get the word out will be your wedding announcements—just use your new first name on them. Since your friends are already on board, they can help spread the word. Your family is behaving badly by mocking you, but don't rise to their bait. Just keep saying, "I've decided I want a new name that suits me better. I'm sure you can understand that doesn't mean I enjoy being called names. Please respect my choice." My brother-in-law always hated his first name, and he came home from freshman year of college and gave his family the startling news that he was now going by a new first name. That was many decades ago, and by now no one thinks of him as anything but the name he chose for himself.
Q. Embarrassing Posture: I have an aunt who constantly sits with her legs akimbo while in mixed company. Although she always wears pants, it is so embarrassing that I frequently have to look away. She is in her 60s, overweight, not married, and has a short temper. What to do?
A: It's going to be hard to get away with tossing a tarpaulin over your aunt. So at family gatherings, either look her in the eye or position yourself so that she's out of sight.
Q. Finding the Ring: I just got engaged last week to a wonderful guy. We are both excited, but the big moment was sort of strange because I knew it was coming. You see, I accidentally found the ring while cleaning a few weeks back. I didn't look at it and resisted the urge to sneak a peek when I was alone in the house. However, after putting a few pieces together, I was more or less certain when he was going to propose. It was still an amazing moment, but I am not sure if I should tell him. He worked so hard to make it a big surprise, and it was ... just at the wrong time! I just don't want him to be hurt.
A: You say you found the ring "while cleaning," which I assume means the apartment you share, or at least you spend enough time at each other's place to do cleaning. So even though the exact moment of the proposal may be a surprise, it can't be a total surprise that you two are in love and have discussed spending your future together. You resisted peeking at the ring, so that was a true surprise. I believe in marital honesty, but that doesn't extend to revealing you knew the big reveal was coming.
Q. Re: Helping a Disabled Person: I once offered help to a disabled person who was having trouble getting a door open. The person was offended and reported me to H.R. I had to go to sensitivity training.
A: Hoo boy. How much better a world this would be if your disabled co-worker had been able to say, "Thanks, but I can take care of the door myself." Then you would know not to offer that help to that person. Sometimes the stories I hear about sensitivity training sound more like re-education camps. I can totally understand a disabled person who is capable of handling doors, etc., being annoyed at constantly being offered help. But unless you were truly obnoxious, I fail to understand the good of teaching the universal lesson I assume you learned, that you should never offer a quiet assist.
Q. Would it be less embarrassing … if your aunt were in her 30s, a healthy weight, and married with an even temper? I'm really irritated by the "embarrassing posture" question, I think the chatter should mind his/her own business.
A: Good catch on the nasty characterization of the aunt. And good solution to the "problem."
Q. Vacation Guilt From In-Laws: My husband and I live far (more than a day's drive) away from all of our family and the bulk of our close friends. Most of our loved ones understand that we can't always attend every holiday/baby shower/birthday celebration/graduation that happens and that occasionally we'd like to use our vacation time and money to do something alone. My in-laws, however, can't seem to comprehend that our resources are limited. They invite us to every little event, expect us to go, and continue to nag for months if we do not attend. What can we do to either change their expectations or to minimize the guilt trips?
A: Don't make so many trips and don't feel guilty. Tell your in-laws that because of your distance and limited vacation time, you will be there for the big-ticket items (Christmas, weddings, etc), but you just can't make every shower or birthday. Then, when you talk to them and they start nagging, say, "Doris, Artie, we've already discussed this, so let's change the topic." If they won't, you say, "I've got to go. Talk to you soon."
Q. Roommates/Friendship: I'm a 23-year-old female, and I was at a party this weekend with my 26-year-old best friend/roommate. She can be kind of zany sometimes, and for some reason when I came up to her on the dance floor, she poured an entire glass of whiskey all over my head! I was obviously mortified, upset, confused, and angry; I left the party immediately in tears. She wasn't drunk, and I know she just meant it as a funny joke. Needless to say, I didn't find it especially funny. I spent the night toweling off at another close friend's house because I just couldn't stand to deal with her. My problem is that I'm really upset about the fact that she hasn't made any effort to apologize, explain, or offer to pay for dry-cleaning of my soaked clothes or the blowout that I had just gotten that day at the salon. I know she doesn't think it was a big deal, and I'm sure if I ask her, she won't think it necessary to pay for anything. I hate confrontation, but I know that I can't just let this go! Do you have any advice on how I can talk to her and feel reciprocated?
A: I'm wondering if your roommate is the grown-up version of the girl who pees on her aunt's wedding dress. There is zany, then there is deranged. Are you sure your roommate doesn't have a smoldering mental problem? In any case, it would be crazy on your part to let someone dump a drink on your head and not call her on it. You have to tell her what she did to you was deeply disturbing, and your living arrangements and friendship are in jeopardy if she ever does something like that again.
Q. Akimbo: Arms may be held akimbo, but not legs. Legs are splayed.
A: Good catch. And akimbo or splayed, ignore auntie's sitting arrangements.
Q. For Helping: I totally agree that the person Helping tried to help is a massive jerk. But as a person with a disability myself, I'd like to suggest one thing: Next time, do us the favor of asking, "May I get that for you?" That way the person can tell you what he wants. A jerk might still not like that, but most people appreciate being able to choose between getting help (that they may have wanted to ask for but felt weird about) and refusing help (if they're exasperated with getting "May I help yous" every time they turn around). And, for the love of beans, please, be OK with "No." Politely telling someone "No thanks, I've got it" and receiving a murderous glower in response is sadly frequent.
A: I'm so glad to hear this good advice from someone on the receiving end. And yes, yes, yes, when helpers are told "No, thanks," leave with a pleasant expression!
Q. Running for the Train: Either I've been reading too many WP chats or I think you may have run past my group at the train station on Friday. I figured it was a bad time to yell "I love your column," but I do and I hope you caught the train!
A: I was running to catch the 5 o'clock train, having missed the 4 o'clock because of a traffic jam. I would have appreciated your shout out then, and thanks so much for it now!
Emily Yoffe Writes: Thanks everyone. No chat on Labor Day, but I'll be back next Tuesday at 1 p.m. instead.