Mallory Ortberg, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at email@example.com.)
Readers! Ask me your questions on the voice mail of the Dear Prudence podcast. Just leave a message at 401-371-DEAR (3327), and you may hear your question answered on a future episode of the show.
Mallory Ortberg: Hello, you cool, clear-eyed seekers of wisdom and truth. Is that the sound of good, solid judgment I hear? Let’s chat.
Q. Third wheel: I am a graduate student who is currently involved with a married couple. I am bisexual and far removed from my home court. Before I met “Sue” and “Dave,” my last long-term relationships didn’t end well. Dave and Sue were fun, stable, and made me feel safe. When my roommate bailed on me and my rent shot up, they invited me to room with them. For a better part of a year, it was a dream come true.
Except now Sue is pregnant, and I am getting weird vibes from them both. Sue is either randomly closing me out (she doesn’t want me at her church baby shower) or trying to pull me in (making comments about “our baby”). I have learned not to be alone in a room with Dave because as soon as Sue comes in, all the air goes out. Dave is infuriatingly noncommittal about what exactly my status with them is going to be. If I ask, “What’s going to change between us when the baby comes?” He says, “Nothing. We still want you here.”
I am torn between not wanting to rock the boat and wanting it to capsize so I can swim to shore. I don’t want kids now. I have been saving money but not nearly enough to get a studio by myself. Every time I bring it up, Dave and Sue protest and say they want me to stay. Most of my social circle right now comes from them, and if things get ugly, I might be left completely alone.
How do I get myself out of this? I do love both Dave and Sue but not enough to derail my life or my goals. I want to stay friends, and I want life to be good to them, but I feel if I breathe wrong I will break everything.
A: Get out. Get out now. Get out now. This couple is producing red flags at such an accelerated clip that they could double as a red-flag factory.
Start looking for an alternate living situation immediately. If you can’t afford a studio by yourself, find someone you can split the rent with, whether through your graduate student housing, the recommendation of other friends, or an app that screens and verifies potential roommates.
This is not a safe situation for you, and part of you is already aware that Dave and Sue do not have your best interests at heart if you’re able to admit that you’d be left “completely alone” if things “got ugly.” If you were in a relationship with reasonable people, you’d say something like, “Even if we broke up, although it would be difficult, I know they’d still want me to be happy and healthy.”
You don’t want a child, and Dave and Sue are about to have one. You don’t want to be treated like a dirty little secret, but already you feel uncomfortable spending time alone with Dave because of the unhealthy, triangulated dynamics between the three of you. Dave’s claiming that “nothing is going to change” after the baby is born, but things are already changing, and not for the better. Adding a baby to a problematic situation has never solved anything, and things are only going to get worse for you after the baby comes. You don’t have to “wait” for the boat to capsize—you can, and should, grab a life jacket, jump overboard, and start swimming for shore.
Q. End the social media madness: I was wondering if you can give me some advice on how to deal with social media at work and a general feeling of social media overload.
Like most people, I receive many messages every day, most notably via WhatsApp, Messenger, and plain old email. When people send WhatsApp messages, they seem to expect rapid response times, more so than with Messenger or email. I receive a lot of these messages during my workday. As this disrupts my concentration, I have begun to put my phone in flight mode when I arrive at work. I have noticed that people can get frustrated when you don’t respond within a couple of hours.
I am just so exhausted from all of this. I already have loads of emails to deal with at work, and it reduces my concentration. So, I open my email three or four times a day and close it again when I am done responding. When I explain this, my friends and family seem to find this way of communicating is outdated and annoying, because they have to wait a while before I respond. And this is not the way of the world anymore. To be fair to them, it’s not the first thing that I take care of when I come home after a long workday. It just feels like a chore that has to be handled every day.
It’s not like I dislike communicating with people. I just like to talk to them, face to face, instead of exchanging all these short, usually meaningless messages. And with all these different apps, I sometimes forget to respond to messages and feel guilty afterward. I miss the old days when you had to pay per text and people were using this option sparingly (I am in my early 30s).
A: Something that is patently true but sometimes difficult to realize is that social media services are completely optional in adult life. You probably have to have a phone number and an email address if you want to function in society, but WhatsApp and Messenger and similar apps are completely optional. If they do not produce a robust sense of joy and well-being within you, if you are an otherwise responsive human being who regularly leaves the house and spends time with your friends, you can delete them from your phone and from your life. (I’m also going to make an official ruling and say that no one should send a follow-up about a nonemergency text sent during the workday for 12 hours. This is completely arbitrary and based solely on what seems right to me at present, but I do expect the entire world to comply immediately.)
Your friends and family are being unreasonable! Lots of people are not immediately reachable during the workday, which is a blessing; I prefer that surgeons and bus drivers and health inspectors give their entire focus to the tasks at hand and not to checking their social media accounts. It seems like every messaging app you’re using feels like a burden to you and provides your friends and family with another excuse to hound you when you’re trying to work. Give yourself permission to pare down to text and email, and don’t apologize for not writing back when you’re at work.
Q. Just want to be fair: I’m a 38-year-old single man. I’ve never had trouble getting first dates, but I’ve had some tough luck with long-term relationships. My first ended amicably enough, the second decidedly not. Both left me feeling utterly alone and heartbroken. I’m not unduly fragile, and I know both of those women are fundamentally good people who deserve happiness, as do I. It’s just that I’ve learned the hard way to guard my emotions carefully.
Lately, I’ve been seeing a lovely woman 11 years younger than myself. She’s energetic, empathetic, and kind, and just as a bonus she’s stop-you-in-your-tracks beautiful. I find myself falling rather hard. She’s also very much still trying to figure out herself and her place in the world.
How do I treat this woman and myself fairly? I gather she’s in a transitional phase in life, and I’m so afraid to fall in love at the risk of being burned again. I also realize that if I can’t risk emotional vulnerability then I’m likely to end up alone.
A: I don’t think you need any advice beyond the bog-standard “Be honest, take it slow, have fun” advice that governs all new relationships.
This woman is 27, not 19; she might be going through a transitional stage in her life, but she’s also a fully fledged adult who is (hopefully) capable of stating her own needs and setting her own boundaries. If you need to take things slowly, tell her! Figure out a balance between “fools rush in” and “I am a relational glacier,” and do your best to stay in the middle.
People break up all the time for all sorts of reasons. It may happen to you and this wonderful woman, no matter how careful you are in the beginning. Take the risk, and good luck.
Q. Overly rewarded for basic human kindness: The other day I happened to see an elderly female neighbor fall. She lives behind us, and I saw her tumble. I raced out, helped notify her husband, and helped him help her up; she was OK. The next day he came by with a thank-you card and $50 in gift cards. My issue is the real guilt I feel for accepting them because I feel like I didn’t do anything worthy of a reward, and I don’t feel that returning the gift cards will help anything. I feel like any person seeing another in peril would help as best he or she could.
A: Donate the gift cards either to someone you know who could use them or to a local food pantry or homeless shelter (call first to see if it can accept them). Bear in mind that you are doing this woman another kindness by allowing her to express her gratitude. Giving you the thank-you note and gift cards may make her feel less helpless and out of control, and your gracious response will go a long way toward making her feel better about herself.
Q. Newly separated but ready to date: After almost 20 years of marriage, my wife and I are getting ready to be separated. The separation is, thankfully, amicable and mutual. We both hold no ill will toward each other. We have no children, either. Those things have made this process strangely straightforward.
My question is about dating, or “getting back out there,” so to speak. My wife and I both agree that we have been roommates for a few years now. I have been lonely for a while (as has she), and I definitely am ready to dip my toe in the dating waters. I’m not proposing to do so the moment we’re officially or legally separated, but I don’t want to wait months and months either.
Is there some sort of socially acceptable time period? I don’t want funny looks from friends and acquaintances, nor do I want to weird out any potential dates. And above all, I don’t want to hurt my wife’s feelings either. Are there any guidelines for this sort of thing?
A: As a rule, most people generally prefer dating someone who is not still living with someone he (or she) is still referring to as his “wife.” (Not everyone! Different strokes, etc).
It’s very conscientious of you to want to be respectful of your soon-to-be ex, of course, but her feelings about your dating life should not be what guides your choices in the future. Once you two are legally separated and living independently, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t start dipping said toe into said waters. You don’t have to tell your friends right away that you’ve started going on a few first dates, but if any of them do raise an eyebrow, you can simply say, “Our marriage has been over for a long time, and I’m ready to move on.”
Q. Hair: In the genetic spin, I look exactly like my Japanese mother while having very red hair like my Irish American father. It was a huge problem growing up in Japan (I dyed my hair black for most of middle and high school). I am currently going to school to get my Ph.D. in the States but in an area without a high Asian population, so I get a lot of double-takes and unwanted touching. Random strangers will ask me how I dye my hair and not believe me if I tell them it is natural. Worse, they will try to touch my hair or encourage their children to. I had multiple instances of getting sticky candy stuck in my ponytail or braid because of some overeager kids. Growing up mixed race in Japan means I am very uncomfortable with confrontation or conflict.
My roommate is amazing and takes it upon herself to be my guard dog. She will push hands away and lecture parents went she sees I am being crowded. I need a script to deal with these people so I don’t freeze up when my roommate is not around. Can you help me?
A: “Don’t touch me,” with or without a “Please” appended, is always an excellent choice, especially if you’re not looking to get into a discussion or an argument with the type of person who thinks it’s appropriate to walk up to a complete stranger and touch her hair. It’s perfectly polite yet direct and clear. If there are any readers who’ve found useful scripts in discouraging would-be petters, please share what’s worked for you!
Q. Tipping etiquette: Earlier this year I began getting massages about twice a month from an excellent massage therapist. I booked a 40-minute massage and left a 20 percent tip. I felt that all was going well until a month ago.
I went into the massage session with extra-tense shoulders, and my therapist worked on them for a full hour. I left a larger tip to reflect the extra work that she did. Since then, she has twice kept me well past my 40-minute bookings. I do appreciate the longer massages, but a big part of the reason I chose the 40-minute massage is that I can afford it in my monthly budget with a 20 percent tip.
Should I talk to my therapist? The studio is structured such that clients only talk to “secretaries” about payment. Should I talk to the secretary after my appointment? I get the feeling that my therapist is willing to do more to make me feel better even if I don’t pay her to. How do I ethically and appropriately handle this?
A: First of all, congratulations on being able to afford twice-monthly massages and for being a generous tipper. I imagine a lot of massage therapists wish they had clients like you!
I think your next move should be to confirm, at the start of your next appointment, that you have booked the 40-minute massage and both of you have the correct length scheduled. If she continues to try to offer an extra 20 minutes every time and you’re not comfortable with that because you can’t afford to pay more, feel free to invent a follow-up appointment you can’t reschedule or postpone. If she insists—congratulations! You have found the most generous massage therapist in the world, and you are very lucky.
Q. Re: Hair: I’m also a natural redhead who gets lots of unwanted attention and hair-touching. My procedure is to say, “Thanks!” if someone compliments me and keep moving—I don’t give strangers the chance to touch me because I’m always out of there quickly or inventing appointments I’m late for. If someone asks to touch it I usually say, “Sorry, no. I just washed/ styled it.”
A: An elegant approach! Since the letter writer is especially loath to enter into an argument and fears appearing rude, I think this will be particularly useful.
Q. Queer Club Secret Handshake?: I’m a recently realized genderqueer person, falling more toward the side of a trans girl. Over the past six to 12 months, I’ve started dressing the part as I get more comfortable, and that means that I’ve been more easily recognizable as a queer person, or at least it’s easier for people to guess, since appearance isn’t always proof positive. A handful of times, another person—who, if I had to guess, I would presume is a fellow queer individual—has approached me unexpectedly to offer a compliment or other kind word. In the past I’d have thought nothing of it beyond a kind word from a stranger, but with the hope to meet new queer friends on my mind, these moments have made me wonder if there’s some secret code or policy that some queer folks subscribe to when it comes to acknowledging or reaching out to others they suspect are members of the club, and I’m experiencing it for the first time as a New QueerTM.
A: It is definitely A Thing, and I’m delighted that your experience with the Secret Queer Compliment Club has been such a positive one.
There’s loads to go into when it comes to queer visibility, some of it great (random compliments!) some of it lousy (femme invisibility! Bisexual erasure! et al), but I’m so glad to hear that you’ve been met with warmth and support as your presentation has shifted. Whenever I get a short haircut, I notice that the number of brief, pleased head-nods I get from butches/studs/bois/genderqueer folk/etc I pass on the street skyrockets; it’s an imperfect but often lovely form of queer recognition in a world where that’s not always easy or safe.