Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is online 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 email@example.com.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. I look forward to your questions.
Q. Marathon Gift Unwrapping: My in-laws are kind, delightful people, and I enjoy spending time with them, except on Christmas. Their family tradition is for everyone to take turns unwrapping gifts. Last year, we unwrapped gifts for almost two hours, stopped for lunch, and then unwrapped gifts for another hour after lunch. Each person receives a modest number of gifts, so it’s not quantity that is causing the problem. The recipient is expected to carefully unpackage and read product instructions before moving along to the next gift, and, when there are no instructions or awkward packaging, the recipient will wax poetic for 10 minutes about how the sweater reminds them of their deceased grandmother’s beloved cocker spaniel, etc. My husband agrees it is out of hand, but we don’t know how to politely speed things along. Any advice, or do we just need to keep quiet?
A: This year you two should insist going first. Then give each other Fitbits, put them on, explain how you both are so excited about getting into better shape that you’re going to use them right now—then sprint out the door and don’t return until the excruciating performance-art project “Endless Unwrapping” is done. Your husband needs to have a talk with his parents and say the gift exchange needs to be speeded along, that an hour is more than sufficient (insanely so) for this, and he’ll be in charge of keeping things moving. If your in-laws insist on this torturous ritual, it’s perfectly fine for you two to say you’ve got to stretch your legs, then don’t make a return appearance until it’s time for lunch.
Q. Thanks for an Unusual Gift: My father-in-law recently gave my husband and me a pricy Christmas gift: Our funerals and burials are completely prepaid. The gift was so unusual and so unexpected that we gave awkward thanks. The problem is this: He’s set us up to have our funerals in our home state, not where we currently live. It isn’t what we want, so how do we handle this?
A: I hope your father-in-law’s message behind this present is not: Please use this gift in the coming year, so I don’t ever have to get you any Christmas presents again. Indeed this is an unusual gift, and I hope you and your husband are both in good health, because people in your circle, including you, seem to have spent a lot of time thinking about your final resting place. This is not only awkward, it is bizarre and presumptuous. Let’s hope your father-in-law gets to use his own prepaid plot many, many years before you two get to partake of his generosity. But where one finally ends up is a decision for adults to make, so your husband needs to talk to his father and explain this isn’t what you two had in mind. Given the expense of this gift, if you can sell or return the plot, you would want your father-in-law to be reimbursed directly. And let’s hope that the natural order of things takes place in its natural order, and that your father-in-law is not around when it’s time for the final shovel of dirt over the two of you.
Q. Red—Not Brown!—Nosed Reindeer: I graduated from college this past May, and two weeks later, I was fortunate to start my first full-time job at a great company with awesome co-workers and bosses—just about everyone on my five-person team has been my manager at some point during the past eight months. I’m not sure what typical office protocol is in terms of holiday gifts, especially when I haven’t had one permanent “boss” since I’ve been here. I was thinking of giving a token gift—something small, with a personalized note—to each person. Any suggestions for what to give? My friends at other companies aren’t giving gifts to their bosses, so I’m not sure if this will mark me as a brown-noser.
A: Every company has its own gift culture—in some offices there is a Secret Santa tradition; in some offices employees get a corporate-issued gift. (Note: I am against forcing people to participate in gift exchanges with co-workers. I get too many letters from people counting their pennies who dread this annual office extortion.) But subordinates should not be expected to give gifts to bosses. What you can do is provide some kind of token for everyone—bring in a platter of homemade brownies, or wrap some candy canes with ribbons. That will mark you as a thoughtful person who enjoys the holidays and one who is not incurring an unnecessary return gift obligation.
Q. Re: Unwrapping Marathon: You don’t need to ridicule the family that likes the long way ’round on Christmas morning. The folks that don’t like it have the option of finding a polite way to shorten their personal time involvement, but there is nothing inherently wrong, or even weird, about the extended approach. We’ve done it that way in our family (one side, anyway) for years, and I always love it.
A: And are you sure that most of your family members aren’t thinking, “I wish I’d been given cyanide pills as a gift because if the unwrapping goes on one more minute, I would take them”? You love it. Maybe everyone else does. But what’s the polite way to vote with your feet at a seemingly obligatory family ritual? The letter writer describes three hours of gift opening, including reading of instructions and disquisitions on sweaters. That sounds excruciating.
Q. Re: To the Reindeer: I agree with Prudie—do not get your bosses a gift. Every manager I’ve ever worked with or for has hated getting gifts from subordinates because it can create a feeling of obligation, or can give the illusion of favoritism. Just don’t. I agree with Prudie that your best bet, if you want to recognize all your colleagues, is to bring something small and homemade in for your team; just be sure to bring enough for the whole class. And if, in the future, you find yourself having a deeper friendship with a colleague, exchange gifts with that person outside of work. Your job will be more harmonious for it.
A: Thanks for the confirmation.
Q. Sober Boyfriend Wants to Drink: My boyfriend of five years has been sober since before we met. He abused alcohol and was a heroin addict. Two nights ago he told me he wanted to stop being sober. I want to be supportive of him, but this news is concerning! What do I do?
A: You can say, “That is your choice. It sounds like a tragic one. If you make that choice, you understand we cannot be together.” I’m guessing he’s not telling you about something he plans to do, but about something he already is doing.
Q. Angry Boyfriend: I am living with my boyfriend of seven months and my three boys. Life is amazing and I have never been happier. But my boyfriend tends to have a short temper and yells a lot. Its on the verge of being verbal abuse I think. This does not happen a lot, and I am not afraid of getting hurt—I know he wouldn’t do that. How can I approach this with him or should I just not worry since it does not happen often?
A: Now that’s a ringing endorsement—“I know he won’t hurt me.” If you’re making that assertion, it means you don’t know. You have three children, so you don’t know this man well enough to have started living with him. Adults are free to make whatever arrangement they think would suit them at the moment, even if they’re unsuitable. But when you have children, that calculus is completely changed; your primary obligation is your sons. I have a hard time imagining there are any circumstances under which a boyfriend of only seven months is a suitable live-in presence. One with an out-of-control temper is absolutely not suitable. Your relationship is so tenuous that you aren’t even comfortable approaching him to talk about his abusive behavior. You two should go back to separate domiciles. Then you can rethink what it means to have such a volatile person in your life and the lives of your children.
Q. Re: Unwrapping Marathon: My family does this. The trick to it is to have your spouse or someone else in on it get you a new book or electronic toy and rig it so that you unwrap that first. That way you have a distraction for the rest of the unwrapathon, and unlike playing on your phone, it’s not rude since it’s a new Christmas present.
A: Good idea!
Q. Avoiding Family Holidays: My career has led me to go to school and get a good job far away from family. My parents and my sister, brother-in-law, and nephew still live in the same area so every holiday I fly to see them. Last Christmas, my father declared that holidays were only for people who had children and that anyone who doesn’t have children is worthless and has no reason to live. Everyone but myself at the table agreed. I was the only person at that table that doesn’t have a child and needless to say I was hurt. After the festivities were done, I took my father aside to politely express my hurt to him. He starting yelling at me that I was just jealous of my sibling and that he stands by his judgment. I’m glad my sibling is happy but I never want to be her and I love my life. Before that holiday, I thought I had a supportive family that was proud of me. Now I find myself not wanting to fly back for any of the holidays. How should I handle my family’s requests that I visit?
A: You could say something like, “After last year’s discussion, I’m afraid I simply can’t guarantee that if I fly out to see you my plane will be hit by a drone, explode, and then my worthless life will blessedly be over.” I’m glad you spoke up to your father because sometimes people say idiotic things then when called out on it, explain, “I didn’t mean you, honey!” But apparently he meant you. You say to your family that you remain shaken by the dreadful things said about your life. You don’t feel you’re being overly sensitive when you object to being told you have no reason to live. If they want to revise their stand, then you will be happy to listen, and then you will consider if you have reason to come for the holiday.
Q. Christmas Birthday: My birthday is on Christmas, and every year, I struggle with the feeling of being selfish for expecting to have some part of Christmas Day to celebrate my birthday. This year, there are two families to visit, about three hours away from each other, and we will be spending a lot of time in the car to appease both families demands that my partner and I be with them at Christmas. In this rush, I doubt there will be any time to celebrate a birthday, and I feel selfish even mentioning that I would want to. What do I do?
A: It’s time for a mid-January birthday. If you are old enough to have a partner, however, presumably you don’t also have a big family birthday celebration complete with cone hats and noisemakers. But everyone is entitled to being feted by their nearest and dearest, so tell your partner you want to delay your birthday dinner until after the holidays. What a nice treat it will be in dark January to have that special dinner out to mark your milestone.
Q. The Invitation That Wasn’t?: We have known “Joe and Mary” for years and their daughter is a few years older than our children. My husband and I recently received the following … something … from Joe and Mary: “Joe and Mary X along with Jim and Suzie Y would like to announce the wedding of their daughter and son Katie X and George Y on Dec. 1, 2014. The couple is registered at Target. They would also appreciate cash gifts to put toward large purchases for their new home.” It arrived days before the wedding. No time or location for the wedding. No other correspondence or invitation. Since it wasn’t a “save-the-date” card or an invitation, the only thing it could be would be an announcement combined with a gift solicitation. Is this normal? If so, what is the appropriate response?
A: Oh, yes, it’s “normal,” but the fact that people make explicit gift grabs does not make it right. You’re right this is not a notification of the happy news after the event with a new address (and possibly new name) that people sometimes send out, and which is fine. This is an explicit money solicitation. What you do is respond to this news with a card—just a card—wishing the young couple all the best.
Check out Dear Prudence's book recommendations in the Slate Store.