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.)
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Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, I look forward to your questions.
Q. Office Thief: I work in a small office of about a dozen people. We often work late hours, and I usually leave a couple of sets of gym clothing in my desk. Last Friday I wanted to take some of my used clothing home after a busy week and noticed that all my (used) underwear was missing. I know I did not misplace three sets, and lots of people have been working on a big project all week. How do I bring up the subject of the theft? There are several people who have access to my desk and a couple of people who I suspect. What do I do?
A: Obviously, this calls for a kind of Agatha Christie tribunal in which you gather all the suspects around the conference table and lay out your evidence: “Dick, at a meeting you were about to sneeze and when you reached for a handkerchief, instead you pulled my thong out of your pocket. You want to explain? Gary, I found a copy of a Victoria’s Secret catalog in your wastebasket. It was sticky. Want to tell everyone why?”
Yes, you likely have a pervert in your midst, so you’re going to be looking at every guy in the office with a queasy feeling. But I’m afraid this is one of those things that you just have to handle in a preventative manner. Unless you catch the thief red-handed, you cannot confront someone about this without evidence. You could go to HR so that at the least there’s a notation about this. But I assume they are unlikely to send a memo asking that employees not steal each other’s dirty underwear. I think this is one of those things best handled privately by either storing your gym clothes in a secure place, or taking them home with you at the end of each day.
Q. Surname Child Likely to Be Teased About: My son is 4 and will start kindergarten next year. He has his father’s last name. I kept my own last name. The problem is that the last name is one that is really open to teasing because of the way it is pronounced. My husband says he was never teased, nor were his younger siblings. Do I have faith in that? Or are kids meaner now? I can’t go in pronouncing my son’s name differently at school (can I)? It’s really stressing me out!
A: If your husband has happily gone through life as Hussein Uranus, you have to take him at his word that it had no effect on his childhood. And no, you cannot bring your son to school and say Uranus is pronounced you-ray-NUSS if that’s not how your husband says it. The most important thing you want to convey is that you don’t give a second thought to your son’s name, except to acknowledge it’s beautiful. People are not meaner now than when your husband was a kid. If anything, there is more recognition about teasing. So please stop worrying about this because your son will only pick up your anxiety and wonder why your voice quavers every time you say his name.
Q. Unwanted Clothing Advice From Boss: I’ve been working at a small market research company for about three months. A week ago, my (male) boss called me into his office to talk about a client. At the end of the meeting, he said there was something else he wanted to speak to me about—specifically, dressing “professionally.” Prudie, you should see the way everyone dresses at our office! It’s extremely informal here. There is no dress code in the employee handbook. When my boss gave me this lecture, he was dressed in jeans and a polo. Among other women in the office, skinny jeans, leggings, Uggs, and flip-flops are the norm. If anything, I dress up my jeans with a blazer, heels, nice boots, and I throw in the occasional dress, nice pair of pants, or skirt during the week. The only other difference between many of the other women in the office and myself is that I am somewhat overweight and most of them are not. He told me that I need to “cover up” in the work environment. I don’t drape myself in giant sweaters or wear enormous mou-mous, but I am plenty covered up and I adhere to the norms set by other employees, including him. We don’t have an HR department because we are a small office, but I’m pretty upset by the conversation. I’m angered by the implication that slender women can get away with dressing however they want, while as an overweight woman I’m somehow being penalized for my similar, but still appropriate, sartorial choices. How should I handle this? Is it worth finding another job over?
A: One encouraging thing about your letter is your assumption that if you’re not happy, you can find another job. For the past several years, all the people I’ve heard from stuck in unpleasant workplaces have noted that they need their job and don’t think there’s another one out there. So I’m taking this as a sign of economic robustness. If jeans and flip-flops are the norm in your office, including when meeting with clients, then no wonder you are left baffled by his critique of your attire. But instead of seething and sending out your résumé (leaving a job after three months is not ideal), go back to your boss and have another discussion. Do it on one of the days you’ve dressed up and say you realize you need more clarity about his critique of your wardrobe. Say that since the office is so dressed down, you feel it would be helpful for everyone if a general dress code was spelled out. Do not mention your weight. Do not say the skinny girls apparently can get away with anything. Just emphasize that of course you want to look as professional as possible, and you think everyone would benefit by knowing how to do that. Then privately with one or two trusted friends, invite them over to look at your office attire. Get some objective opinions about what works and what doesn’t and what pieces you need to make the best impression.
Q. Part-Time Lover: I am a single woman in my early 40s who has been dating a wonderful man for the past three years. He loves me very much and I am very happy in our relationship except for one major thing, among a few other smaller things. He is several years older than me and I am recently finding our sex drives to be mismatched. I am worried that this difference will become greater as he ages. While I find myself fulfilled in many ways within this relationship, and he is happy in it too, I am sexually frustrated and there is not much he can do about it. How do I broach the topic of having my sexual needs met elsewhere on occasion, without hurting his feelings?
A: It is hard to say, “I love you, our relationship is so fulfilling on many levels, but sexually it’s a little limp. So I’d like to see more virile people on the side just for the purpose of addressing my physical needs.” Before you do that, you’ve got to have a sensitive talk about your sexual issues. If his libido is flagging, he should check things out with his doctor. You two might also find that performance enhancing drugs boost his confidence and desire. But if he’s permanently just not that into you, then you really do have to figure out what you want out of the relationship—or even if you want out of the relationship. It’s possible that in response to the idea of your getting pleasure elsewhere he could say, “What a relief! That takes the pressure off me, and you’ll be less frustrated.” He may have an opposite reaction. There’s no way to bring to up without running the risk of shaking up your relationship or hurting his feelings. But if you’ll eventually bolt anyway, then you’ve got to talk this out.
Q. Re: Unwanted clothing advice: Is it possible that this person has more skin showing than she realizes? One problem with jeans in the office is the dreaded crack. Or does this employee have more cleavage showing than the others? It may not have been the weight that made her singled out.
A: Good points. That’s why I think she needs a wardrobe review with a kind but honest friend.
Q. Job Search—Conflict of Interests: A former colleague and I are both searching for a new job within the same field and geographic location. I found a perfect fit for me, applied for it and used this colleague as a reference (with her permission). The application system automatically sends each reference an email requesting a referral. About a week after I applied, I received a request for a reference for the same position for this former colleague. It’s possible she found the job opening on her own and it’s possible she found it via my application. I don’t know how to reply to the request. I do have small misgivings (regarding her professional abilities) about referring her, but were it not for this situation I would refer her. I’m afraid to approach HR because it could color their opinion of me and I don’t want to sabotage her but I also don’t want to hurt my chances by giving her a glowing referral. What should I do?
A: You applied for a job, your former colleague agreed to be a reference, and now you’re supposed to be a reference for her for the same job! You need to find someone else who thinks highly of your work, and get that person as a reference. Once you do, you can inform HR at the potential employer that since your own reference has applied for the job, there is now a conflict of interest, so you are putting down another name. With your former colleague off your application, you can then tell her that you both need to find people to vouch for you who aren’t in competition for the same position.
Q. Re: Funny last name: I grew up with parents with two different last names because my dad’s is funny. I had my dad’s last name until my parent’s hyphenated it when I was in middle school. The three things I wish my parents had done/taught me sooner are as follows. 1) Warned me; I had to learn from some other kids that my last name was weird and it left me unprepared to deal with it. 2) Hyphenated my name sooner; it won’t stop the teasing but it will give him something to talk about. It will also give him the chance to acknowledge that he knows his last name is funny, which takes a lot of the fun out of teasing. 3) Taught me to joke about it; once I got over the embarrassment and learned to be the first to make jokes about it, people stopped teasing me and actually started to like me as it gave me a chance to be funny and laid back.
A: Thank you so much for this. If the parents don’t want to hyphenate, I don’t think they should. But it’s great life advice to disarm the teasers with your own sense of lightness and humor. If you can say, “Yes, I’m a Uranus. And I’m going to add your clever entry into the Uranus joke book.”
Q. Get Involved or Not: My wife and I live near a college town in the north of the country. One of the nieces goes to college here and as the rest of the family lives in the deep South we see her quite often. We like her and she seems to appreciate our more liberal way of life after growing up in a conservative evangelical environment. A few months ago our niece came out to us and told us she’s a lesbian. We were supportive and found her girlfriend to be a very lovely person. The problem is my wife’s sister, her mother, doesn’t know. She hasn’t told her yet. Probably because she expects a negative reaction as her mother in the past often has expressed hostility toward gays. My question is: Should we get involved or stay out of it? My wife thinks she owes it to her sister not to keep this secret from her. I on the other hand feel like it is not our job to reveal this, but the nieces. What do you think ? Who is right here?
A: Your niece is a young adult, and when (or whether) to tell her parents about her sexual orientation is her decision. However, having told you, you should continue to be sources of support for her. Not just as regards her sexuality, but for any college student it’s a comfort to be able to go off campus and get a home-cooked meal and relax with family. I hope your niece does tell her parents and that it goes far better than she expects. If not, she’s spending more of her time near you and your wife than her parents, so fortunately you two can be there to help her through this.
Q. Re: Surname, from letter writer: Thank you. Am putting it to rest mentally now, once and for all. Much much appreciated. You’re the best, Prudie!
A: That was easy! Take heart from the stories of others with “funny” last names.
Q. When a Man Moves On From Models: Before me, my boyfriend exclusively dated professional models. I really love the way I look, but I also recognize I am not traditional model material. A lot of his friends are surprised the first time they meet me. Several have made comments to him (out of my supposed earshot, or even when I’m standing there) about me not being his “type.” It stings a little, but my boyfriend always calls them on their rudeness. My best friends think it’s a “red flag” that he only dated models before me and that he is friends with so many people who would comment on the difference between his exes and me. I have never talked about his ex-girlfriends’ looks with him, because they’ve never really bothered me. It seems like a surefire recipe for making me look needy. What do you think?
A: I love your confidence, although I don’t love his friends. Yes, your beau may have been, in the words of Sex and the City a “serial modelizer,” but maybe he got tired of women who could only eat a cracker and a strawberry for dinner, and by necessity were consumed with their looks. Another advantage to this is that he doesn’t have to wonder what it would be like to date a model. He knows and has chosen to move on to someone great-looking who doesn’t spend her life in front of the camera. But what’s with the friends? I agree it would sound needy to say, “I’m feeling insecure because I’m not a model.” But when his friends say something within your earshot, you should feel free to say, “I guess Derrick needed a heads up that I’m not Gisele Bundchen.” (It’s good to hear he does put them in their place for their rudeness.) I think you should just carry on confidently, and that means telling your best friend his past dating choices don’t bother you.
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