Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Q. Touchy-Feely Stepmom: My ex-husband remarried last year to a woman from another country. She is very kind and gets on well with my 6-year-old son, which is a huge blessing. The only thing I find awkward is her tendency for lots of tactile interaction, even with me. She's an avid hugger and every hello and goodbye is accompanied by kisses to both cheeks, not to mention an invariable arm over my shoulder or around the waist. I went along with it initially, so as not to alienate my son's stepmom, but now I do feel a little embarrassed, especially as she takes on more parenting duties. At my son's soccer last week she not only sat next to me, but held my hand throughout the game, drawing strange looks from other parents. Is there a nice way to tell her to cut back on the affection (in public at least) without seeming rude, or like a hypocrite who has been playing along all this while?
A: I can understand that more eyes were on you two than on the game as people were trying to figure out whether they'd gotten it wrong about exactly whose partner Francesca is. Good for you for figuratively embracing this new person in your son's life. But you should not feel pressured to translate that into literal contact. It's one thing to do the cheek kiss at the door (although that's pretty cheeky for the second wife to initiate that with the first), but you need to firmly but pleasantly let her know there will be no hand-holding, etc. You should also check in with your husband and say while you understand that Francesca comes from a culture with different standards of physical contact, since she lives here now, you want to make sure your son doesn't feel uncomfortable and violated by her tactile expectations.
Dear Prudence: Office Bra Etiquette
Q. Germophobic: I HATE shaking hands with people. I also hate grasping door handles, touching elevator buttons, and using common-use pens, such as those you must use for electronic signatures when swiping your credit cards. Needless to say, I avoid buffets. But in the business environment, people are always holding out their hands for a shake. Then, I can't think about anything else until I can get to a bathroom for a wash. I realize this is a little over the top, but I hate, hate, hate getting colds, and I'm convinced that avoiding common contact helps prevent them. Science supports me in this, but social science is another thing. If someone offers me a hand, what is a graceful way to say that I don't shake hands? Or, should I say, no, I have a cold, and I don't want to give it to you?
A: It's true that keeping your hands clean reduces the spread of germs, but you are making this argument to justify what sounds like a significant case of germophobia. It's true to you could decline the handshake on the grounds of your being sick—but people are going to wonder why you're always sick, even when you seem fine. I'm going to suggest that instead of having a strategy for avoiding all inevitable contact with surfaces and flesh, you see a therapist who deals with phobias to get some help loosening the grip of this obsession.
Q. Dating Woes: I have been dating a beautiful and charming woman for the last two years. I have asked her several times to marry me, but she is hesitant because she does not want to create upheaval for her son, who is 7. Over the past few weeks she has been acting strangely—distracted, a little jumpy, cancelling our dates due to work, etc. I saw her this weekend and her behavior was a little preoccupied, but she said that was due to work projects. Her son also seemed excited to tell me about their visit to the zoo last weekend with "Steve," but went to bed before I could ask any details. How do I bring this up with her and what does it mean for our relationship? I would like to propose again over Xmas.
A: Forget the Christmas proposal and propose an honest conversation about where your relationship is at and where you two want it to head. She has made it very clear she's not interested in heading to the altar anytime soon, so stop being like a needy boy who keeps asking his mother for a gift she's not going to get him. You now have to find out if she's stringing you along or even engaging in monkey business with "Steve."
Q. Re: Shaking hands: I've encountered a handful of people throughout my career (law) that don't shake hands. They've simply said something like "I'm sorry, I don't shake hands, but it's a pleasure to meet you." I don't think I've ever heard anyone comment on it afterward, and certainly not negatively. I don't think that you're wrong for suggesting that the original submitter seek out some kind of therapy to get the germ phobias under control, I just wanted to throw it out there that plenty of people decline handshakes without upsetting any social apple carts.
A: Good point. There are people who have medical condition that mean a crushing handshake could be literally crushing, and there are people who don't shake hands with members of the opposite sex for religious reasons. But handshaking is so baked into our social rituals, that it is awkward to not have an outstretched hand grasped in return. I agree with you that a gracious explanation should mean this is only a fleeting moment of no importance. But I also think it's worth the investment to get some help so that someone doesn't go through life feeling every surface as teeming with peril.
Q. Christmas Card Etiquette: I send out a Christmas card/photo of our family plus a short form letter to about 70-plus friends every year. We live overseas, and I admit that I sometimes feel a little desperate for contact with friends, so I really treasure their cards in return. However, we receive so few cards in response to our efforts—and this was the case before we moved overseas as well—that I find myself feeling hurt by the people who don't make any effort at all to even send a Facebook message or email and say, "Thanks, great to hear from you!" I'm thinking of eliminating the nonsenders from our card list to spare myself the hassle and grief, but would like to make one last heartfelt plea for communication. How can I say, "I'm lonely and a card would make my day. Please let me know you're still alive by responding to this card!"
A: All year long people receive desperate pleas from overseas, but usually these involve strangers with large deposits in their bank accounts who would like you to give them your financial information in order to make some kind of exchange. Tearful, lonely requests are unpleasant any time of year. But during the holidays, when people are running around, shopping, traveling, and hosting, you don't want to be that drippy, forgotten friend who everyone has to write off—though not write to. I'm sure your friends are happy to get your annual greeting, and if you want to update the people you care about and don't get to see, then continue to do it. If you expect a quid pro quo, drop it. I noticed a few years ago that my card-sending efforts returned an ever dwindling amount of responses, so I basically packed it up. With the advent of Facebook and other methods of being informed of every vacation your friends take or even meal they eat, people have less need for the yearly accounting. If you miss your friends, then Skype or email with them regularly through the year. Don't try to blackmail them with Christmas tears.