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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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: Happy short week, everyone! Let’s (briefly) chat.
Q. Loving, God-fearing neighbors try to be my grandkids’ religious influence: I am guardian for my four grandchildren, as their father was killed in a car accident last year. They live with me and next to my very kind and often helpful neighbors who like to have the children over to visit (they are really cute, sweet kids), which is fine most of the time. The neighbors are younger than we are and have taught the children to Rollerblade and play piano, and they generally have a grand time together. However, they are extremely religious, and while I don’t mind them reading Bible stories or singing kids’ hymns, they are starting to cross lines, such as telling the 5-year-old that Santa isn’t real (she still believed this last Christmas) and God doesn’t like Halloween because it is devil-worshipping. They also discourage the oldest one from dancing, telling her she’s “too old”—she’s 10. The kids visit one to two times a week, and it’s nice to have these wholesome folks take a real interest in them, but I don’t know how to tell them that the beliefs they hold, while fine for them, should not be discussed with the children. We don’t have a particular religion we practice—I was Catholic growing up but no longer observe—and I prefer the children not feel pressured this way. I don’t want the 5-year-old to feel bad because she wants to be a puppy on Halloween or the oldest to be told she isn’t behaving in a perfectly normal tween fashion. How can I express my concern without offending these folks and possibly ending our long-standing neighborly relationship?
A: “I really appreciate the interest you’ve taken in the children, and they always love getting to play at your house. I’d like to ask you to refrain from talking to the kids about your religious beliefs, especially when it comes to normal childhood milestones like dancing to music or going trick-or-treating. I respect your religious views, and I’d like you to respect mine and how I’m raising my children.” If their response to being asked not to indoctrinate your children is anything other than “Oh gosh, I’m so sorry, of course,” that’s regrettable but is not because what you asked was rude or out of line. If they bristle, and you think the long-standing positive relationship outweighs their occasional saying something like “Halloween is for the devil,” then you can feel free to tell the children something like, “The Howells are lovely people, but I don’t share their beliefs—I think Halloween/dancing/Santa Claus is a lot of fun. What do you think?”
Q. Wedding invites for co-workers: I work in a small hair salon and am wondering if it’s rude to only invite some co-workers and not others. I want to invite everyone, but that would add a potential 30-plus to the guest list.
A: It is not rude to invite only some of your co-workers to your wedding. It is not rude to control your own wedding guest list! It’s your wedding, and you are paying for everything; you have the social freedom to invite anyone you like. It’s not like fourth grade on Valentine’s Day where you have to bring cards for the entire class. It’s understood that time and money limit guest lists, and your co-workers will understand.
Q. Friend’s new girlfriend: I have a good friend who I have had feelings for for a long time. I know he doesn’t feel the same and have accepted it and been supportive of him finding new love. I have been casually dating, but the feelings remain. Every time he introduces me to a new girl, he is seeing she hates me and throws a fit about how she knows something is going on between us behind her back and he dumps her thinking she is jealous and he doesn’t have time for it.
I am out of state this summer, and recently he met a wonderful girl and told me she is the one. It’s likely I won’t meet her till school starts up in the fall, and I want him to be happy, but the feelings for him remain. What is the best way to deal with this? Avoid meeting her so she doesn’t catch on that I have feelings for him? How do I hide my feelings for him when I think they will be so obvious to her? Help.
A: This is a friendship with some pretty significant inherent limitations! There should be no rush to meet his girlfriend, and there’s no reason why you should be looking to increase the time you spend with either of them. If you’re interested in conquering these feelings for your friend and moving on emotionally so you can actually be emotionally available for a romantic relationship of your own, I think you should be looking to limit the time you spend with him (and whomever he happens to be dating at the time) for the foreseeable future. That doesn’t mean you have to throw him out of your life, but this current pattern—you’re into him, he’s not into you, but you are (directly or indirectly) throwing a repeated wrench into his dating relationships—doesn’t sound fun for either of you. Keep your distance, be polite and friendly when and if you meet her, and focus on your other friendships for a while. The current arrangement can’t be much fun for you.
Q. Future father-in-law: I’m getting married in September to wonderful, kind man. The only problem is that I can’t stand my future father in-law. He is 80 and widowed, and my husband is his only child. Right now, he is physically and mentally able to live on his own. However, neither of them seems to have a plan for what will happen as he ages and, beyond his (thankfully) paid-off hoarder house, the dad has few resources. The idea of my father in-law ever living with us is horrifying. He has no respect for boundaries or personal space and literally tells the same hourlong story over and over. At the same time, I don’t want to ever make my husband sacrifice his family and sense of obligation for me. Right now, I’m just hoping that it never comes to that, but that seems like a bad premise to enter into a marriage with.
A: Talk about this with your future husband! The time to bring this up is right now, before you two get married. The fact that your soon-to-be father-in-law is going to get older is not a surprise, and nothing good will come from putting this conversation off. Talk to your fiancé about what both are and aren’t prepared to do. You can visit with a financial planner, research assisted living in your father-in-law’s hometown, and/or set aside some money to help with at-home care in the future. There are plenty of options besides waiting for some health crisis to strike and then taking him in under emotional duress. The time you spend strategizing with your partner now will enable you to make clear-eyed decisions in the future.
Q. Health scare: I’m having a health scare. It’s lots of excruciating waiting and tests. I’m trying to not let this rule my life and understand things do march on, but I’d like some more consideration from my live-in boyfriend. He is pretty much business-as-usual, including spending all night playing rec-league sports the evening before I had a series of invasive and scary tests.
He gets angry when I insinuate he doesn’t care, but he doesn’t understand why choosing to play softball all night before a major scary thing for me and leaving me home to deal with all the chores and the dog isn’t even baseline supportive. I know I need to plainly state what I want, but I’m more hurt that it didn’t even occur to him to proactively cancel some optional things to be more present while I go through this. Am I being unfair?
A: Good Lord, no. This isn’t one of those situations where two people simply have different communication styles or different preferences about where to get dinner—this is one of those defining-moment, fundamental-test-of-character times, and your boyfriend is absolutely blowing it. Someone who loves and cares for you is not going to say, “Good luck with that battery of medical tests in the morning, babe! Also, good luck with the sink full of dirty dishes and the unwalked dog tonight; I’ve got some pretty urgent softball to attend to.” This is worth having a pretty major fight over, and it’s worth reconsidering what you think of your boyfriend’s character if he doesn’t realize how seriously he’s failing you right now.
Q. Facebook event invitations: I am in my early 30s and grew up with Facebook. I do use it to keep in touch with friends and message them. However, I am noticing a trend over the last two to three years: the event invite via Facebook. I interpret this to mean they didn’t want to bother calling or texting or emailing me to invite me. It just seems lazy to me. Do you think I am overreacting? Is there a way to get people to call me to invite me? For our baby’s first birthday party this April I sent invitations in the mail. Am I too old-fashioned?
A: Sending invitations in the mail (especially for a first birthday party) are definitely old-school, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with being old-school—as long as you realize that not everyone else is going to follow the same custom. Facebook invitations are pretty standard-issue these days, especially for less formal events like barbecues and Friday night movie screenings. It doesn’t strike me as being a great deal lazier than texting; it’s more like a particular efficient mass-mailing system. If you like, you can always call the host in question to confirm, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect that other people are going to stop using Facebook to set the guest lists for a backyard party or informal after-work drinks.
Q. How to train my boss: I’ve worked at a small nonprofit for more than a decade under the same boss, “Bob.” Bob’s an effective administrator but has issues speaking to people. He reprimands employees with phrases like “You’re not listening” if someone isn’t looking directly at him (for example, if the person is checking his notes but clearly still paying attention) or “You’re not too observant, are you?” He’s even snapped, “No, you’re not!” after an employee said he was sorry. Unfortunately, this has caused several employees—mostly younger ones—to quit. They find such speech demeaning; I agree. I’ve tried to address this with him, but he dismisses it as “oversensitivity.” The turnover has come to the attention of our board of directors, and they’ve asked me to speak privately at next month’s meeting. How do I address this fairly and compassionately? Is there some kind of training you could recommend? I want to suggest a positive solution while acknowledging the unacceptable behavior. My fear is they’re looking to terminate Bob. I’m technically next in line for his position (which I DON’T want), and that complicates things. Also, he does a great job in other capacities, and it’d be a loss to the organization to lose him. Help!
A: I think you’ve done your level best to help Bob! How fitting that it seems like he’s the one who can’t listen to direct feedback about how his management style is interfering with employee retention. If you genuinely believe his value to the company outweighs this bad habit and that retraining rather than letting him go should be the next move, then take the opportunity to say so when you’re asked to speak privately with the board (assuming that’s actually what they want to talk with you about). That said, keeping his job is ultimately up to Bob. If the board decides that his harsh management style and high turnover rates are a serious enough issue to contemplate firing him, and he continues to respond to any suggestions as “oversensitivity,” then letting him go might end up being the most positive possible solution. The fact that you’re not interested in replacing him is a separate issue. You don’t have to accept any promotions you’re offered, if in fact they do offer you his job, so don’t let fear of being forced into a position you don’t want dictate your actions now. Make your recommendation to the board, and let Bob decide whether or not he’s willing to change his management style in order to keep his job.
Q. Is it ever OK to ask about someone’s orientation?: Generally, it would never cross my mind to ask a question about somebody’s sexuality, but there was a kid who lived across the street, “Danny,” who would hang out with my kids a lot, and I was pretty sure for years that he’s gay. This would be none of my business, except that while his parents seemed quite nice (I didn’t know them well due to a language barrier) they also spent tons of time at church, so I worried that things might not go well if/when he came out, and I had mentally reserved a spot on my couch for him just in case things went south. Then they moved away. A while later my oldest told me that Danny’s cousin had told him that Danny was indeed gay. But by then we’d lost touch with the family, so I just hoped everything went well. Then I ran into Danny and his mom at the grocery store and was happy to see them laughing together, so I stopped worrying.
But I have two younger kids, so I’m going to have contact with a lot of random neighborhood kids for the next 10 years. What do I do if something like this comes up again? It bothered me to think of Danny maybe feeling scared and alone. Or worse. While I wouldn’t ever have tortured him by sitting him down and trying to pry into all his innermost feelings, I would have wanted briefly be able to tell him that he had my support if he needed it. Once, when a bunch of kids was in my van I heard one call another one gay, and coincidentally Danny was there, too. I pulled over to give a speech about how gay is never, ever an insult. So I guess that was a positive message for him, but was that enough? And to be clear, by kids I mean teenagers; I would never talk to somebody else’s young child about anything remotely sexual. Thoughts?
A: You’re right to want to strike a balance between making yourself known as a safe adult to come out to while not collaring teenagers and asking them if they’re gay before they’re ready to talk about it. I think you did a great job responding to a homophobic insult in an age-appropriate way and making it clear that you were supportive of gay people. I don’t think your obligation to Danny (or any other possibly gay) neighborhood kid extends any further than that.
Mallory Ortberg: Thanks for the truncated chat, everyone! Have a great rest of the week, and see you all back here next Monday.