Clear and Present Danger
Prudie counsels readers grappling with holiday gift-giving etiquette—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. An edited transcript of this week's chat is below. (Read Prudie's Slate columns here.)
Emily Yoffe writes: I hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving. One holiday down, two to go!
Q. Christmas Gifts: My husband and I are traveling across the country to spend Christmas with his family. We suggested to the rest of the family that we draw names so that each adult gives and receives one thoughtful, nice gift. (Children would get as many gifts as people are willing to give.) Our suggestion was summarily rejected. The family is now hounding us to tell them what we want. In the past, we have requested donations to charity to be made in our names, only to open something we don't need or want on Christmas. Now everyone is sending out wish lists. Most are asking for money for X or gift cards for Y or Z. I just don't see the point in exchanging gift cards or cash. (Incidentally, X and the items sold at Y and Z are luxury items. This is not an issue of people discreetly asking for money for groceries and diapers.) Are we being Scrooges here? Should we just pass out gift cards on Christmas? My husband and I are truly blessed, and there's nothing we need. Is it OK to ask for cash to cover some of the cost of our plane tickets or the cost of these gift cards?
A: What a beautiful tradition—everyone sends around a list of how much money they want from each other. It might be more efficient to throw all your wallets around the tree, and each of you take from someone else's billfold the amount you designated on your "wish list." I agree with you that better yet would be to put a lid on this and have the adults agree to one gift each. But just because your husband's family won't go along, doesn't mean you have to. Politely let them know that you're going to go ahead and get gifts for the kids but are going to withdraw from the adult round-robin. Don't ask to have your expenses covered, instead explain you're lucky enough to have nothing on your wish list and you understand that from now on, Santa is going to pass you by.
Dear Prudence: Pugilistic Partners
Q. Short-Skirted Cousin: It seems we see the worst in our extended family members during the holidays. I'm concerned by my younger cousin "Elle's" appearance. Elle is in her early 20s and about 5-feet-9. She has been active in sports since grade school, which has made her legs very muscular. She has been self-conscious about this since high school, so she won't wear pants because she feels they emphasize the size of her muscles. For dinner she wore a tight, short dress and an open sweater. The hem was a good number of inches above the knee, meaning when she sat down her underwear (which I hope she was wearing) was in danger of making an appearance. She wore no tights or leggings. I really wanted to say something to my aunt and cousin but kept my mouth shut. At the moment my aunt and her family are going through familial and employment issues that have set the entire family on edge. The tension at dinner was very thick. This, I feel, may be the cause behind Elle's questionable dress and behavior. I am concerned that the way she is presenting herself may get her in a spot she will not be able to get out of. Should I talk to my aunt about my concerns for Elle?
A: Let me clarify something for you. Women who think they have bad legs know that wearing the shortest possible skirt is not an effective way to camouflage this feature. I have the strong suspicion that tall, athletic Elle is proud of her body and likes showing it off. If the tension at the table was thicker than the mashed yams, it's unlikely it was over Elle's revealing outfit. And if you look around you, you will see many young women wearing short skirts and low-cut tops who make their way unmolested through the day. It was good you held your tongue about her appearance. No matter what "Elle" wears at Christmas, continue to do so.
Q. Friend Making a Big Mistake: A close friend has spent the last six months relying on me for advice on getting out of an emotionally and physically abusive relationship (which I've witnessed). They own a home together, and I have helped her identify options to maintain ownership of the home while ending the relationship. Her boyfriend has threatened her throughout this process and started bringing home other women as he and my friend started sleeping in separate rooms. Two weeks ago his mother was in an accident, and my friend felt bad and helped him through the hard times following. Thanksgiving Day, I received a text message from my friend exclaiming her excitement over getting engaged. I couldn't even muster a reply. I love my friend, but I can't be supportive of this union. What should I do?
A: I hope your friend understood your silence was the only response you could come up with to this appalling news. At this point, you can simply continue your silence—she may now be writing you off as "unsupportive." It's up to you whether to initiate a conversation about what a mistake she is making. But if she gets in touch with you about her exciting wedding plans, then you have to speak. Simply tell her that you're worried for her physical and emotional safety when she's with this man, and you've done everything you can to help her get out of this relationship. Unless she does so, you can't be part of her life.
Q. Severely Ill Mentor—Proper Etiquette: One of my former mentors, who lives nearby, has suddenly become ill with a severe form of cancer. She is undergoing chemo, but there is a chance that it may not be successful. I want to be helpful, but I don't know the rest of her family very well and was only in occasional contact with her. What is the best way to tactfully extend an offer of help and send well wishes without getting in the way?
A: First of all, send a letter. Someone going through chemo may not have the strength to talk on the phone, but she will surely appreciate hearing your good wishes and knowing what she has meant to you. Even though you don't know her family well, contact one of them and ask if they are organizing food drop-offs or if you can help with trips to the hospital. If they haven't done so, the family might want to set up an online account at a site like Lotsa Helping Hands that allows people to volunteer for duties and lets friends and family know how the patient is doing. You might also want to contact other people you know have been helped by your mentor. Perhaps all of you could put together an album with photos and text as a tribute. You already are sensitive to not wanting to be in the way, but you don't want to be so diffident that you lose the chance to let her know she is loved.
Q. Takoma: My wife told me that I was to say something to her if she "got fat." Of course, I now find myself in the position of having to say something about her weight, as she has gotten, well, fat. And it is not because of the kids, because she lost all the weight from having kids. She just has kind of let herself go over the past few years. Here is my problem. While I know she told me to say something to her if she got big ... I am not touching the subject with a 10 foot pole. No way. Don't know what I am supposed to do here. It is obviously bothering her (she says things in passing about her clothes and things that make it clear she knows she has an issue), but I don't see how I mention it without cause all manner of household ugliness.
A: Did she also tell you to point out to her, as the years go by, if you notice she is also getting old? Getting fat is a condition that generally the person experiencing it is well aware of. Since your wife is mentioning that her clothes no longer fit, it sounds as if the secret is out. What is concerning is that she has piled on a lot of weight in a short time and is not happy about it. So the next time she brings it up, take the opportunity to say you hear that she's worried about the shape she's in and think she should talk to a doctor to find out if something medical is going on. Then, while emphasizing you love her at any size, suggest the two of you look at the way you're eating to see if you can make any changes there. And then say you'd be happy to go to the gym with her, or start walking or jogging because you both could use more regular exercise.
Q. Bad-Gift-Giving Boyfriend: I am dating an absolutely wonderful man. His one drawback—he's not the best gift-giver. His gifts are by no means cheap or not nice gifts—they just don't fit my personality at all. I have gently urged him to consult my girlfriends and sisters (instead of his friends and family) when he comes up with what he thinks is a fabulous gift, but to no avail. I have a few inklings of what he may be getting me for a gift this holiday season, and it's the complete opposite of what I would want or would ask for. He is really excited about whatever it is and I cannot crush his spirit—I appreciate his enthusiasm and the amount of time and thought that he's put into this. Do I just keep my mouth shut and be grateful that I've found a wonderful person or do I try to be less than subtle in urging him to consult my friends the next time he wants to buy me a gift?
A: Beyond your birthday and Christmas, how many times a year is your beloved screwing up the gift-giving? I wish you had given some detail about his perverse gifts—you hint you would love earrings and he gives you a chainsaw? Since you know he has already bought you an expensive, inappropriate gift, just thank him for it. Then after the holidays are over, as Valentine's Day is approaching, for example, explain that you're not into surprise gifts and you'd rather talk to each other about what to get each other. Forget giving him homework assignments with your friends—just hash it out directly with him. And there's always the solution my husband and I have arrived at: "Happy birthday! Do you want anything for a gift? No? Good!"