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 voicemail 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.
Q. Gun-shy: My husband and I have been together for 16 years and thankfully we get along beautifully and are best friends. There has been one issue, though, on which we have never agreed: Should we have a gun in our house?
We do not have kids and rarely do any kids visit our home, so that is not a factor. He believes it’s the right thing to do to protect ourselves. I fear having a gun in our home could lead to a tragic accident, such as a friend entering our home and being mistaken as an intruder. I also fear that if, God forbid, I actually need to use the gun to protect myself, I would freeze up and not be able to use it, and have the tables turned on me. In response my hubby has said that we would both go get shooting lessons from professionals.
Our neighborhood isn’t the greatest, but I certainly don’t fear for my life walking the streets. But one never knows what can happen in this crazy world. Overall I fear this disagreement will eventually lead to an I-told-you-so situation on the part of one of us, and whatever would lead to that would be a terrible occurrence. Can you take a shot at giving us some advice on how to come to a consensus?
A: This is very much something you two will need to figure out as a couple, but there are a few basic principles that might serve as helpful guides. If you don’t want to commit to using a gun yourself, then you absolutely don’t have to. If that’s a line you think you need to draw, then do so. If your husband feels equally committed to getting one, then you should both learn about the necessary safety precautions when it comes to storing a firearm in the home, and have a plan in place, before making the decision to acquire one.
Whatever the two of you do—whether you buy a gun or not, whether one or both of you decides you would ever be willing to use it—you should at least be as close to the same page as possible. It can’t possibly be a good idea to keep a gun in the house if neither of you can agree about how or whether to use it, so both of you should be prepared for a lot of conversations, a lot of questions, and a lot of listening first.
Q. LGBTQ...BGHMNHGRESDFE?: Love your column and your advice; however, after this week’s column I had to Google the term cis-man (maybe I don’t get out enough), and when I read the definition, I thought, Seriously?! Isn’t there enough nomenclature out there that cis-people can be identified simply as a man or a woman? Am I wrong that it implies that there are more transgender people than those who are comfortable in the sex they were born into, so they need to identify specifically with cis?
Frankly, I don’t care how anyone identifies—your sexual preferences have nothing to do with whether I like you or not! In fact, I’d be just as happy not knowing, because I just don’t care. Am I wrong that it seems we are bending too far in the opposite direction to make up for persecution in the past, to the point where the majority of us will have to refer to ourselves as non-LGBTQ?
A: You clearly do care a great deal how people identify, which is why you took time out of your day to write to me about it. There is nothing inherently wrong with caring about something, but it’s never a good idea to begin an argument by being disingenuous about one’s commitment to a particular ideal or practice.
You begin by confusing two very different practices. The existence of the word cis does not, as you are perfectly aware, mean that you cannot identify someone as “simply a man or a woman.” It is not illegal to call someone a man or a woman; nor is it broadly considered to be impolite. No one is preventing you from referring to yourself as a woman or a man, if you like.
The existence of the word cisgender does not in any way imply that there are more transgender people than otherwise, no more than the word Bostonian implies that most people are from Boston. It’s simply a word one can use to describe people who are from Boston. It simply names a condition that has heretofore been thought of as a reflexive, natural state of being that did not require any sort of identification or examination. (Much in the same way that heterosexual people once resented being identified as being “heterosexual” or having an identifiable sexuality of any kind, rather than simply “normal.”)
You seem to envision a future in which the majority will “have to” refer to themselves as non-LGBTQ (namely, a future in which you seem to fear a majority may get treated as a minority). Who do you think will force you to do so? What upsets or unsettles you at the prospect of naming your own gender identity? Why does the fact that the word cisgender exists create so much fear and antipathy in you, and why have you confused this extreme resentment with a state of “not caring”? Be willing to spend some time with these questions that unsettle you, and be honest about the fact that you are unsettled—there is much to discover, and much to think about, on this subject. I wish you luck.
Q. Complicated best friend: I moved to my current city for graduate school four years ago and soon met the girl who became my best friend. She and I bonded initially because we are both women in science, as well as bipolar. We were there for each other more than anyone else in my life. However, we were both quite deeply out of control with our bipolar disorder and after a suicide attempt she helped me through, we both careened off into a shared manic episode and engaged in risky sexual and drug activity together. After her graduation she moved back home and we rarely see each other, but text several times a week. We are both now on medication, in therapy, and have not had episodes in almost two years. My boyfriend of two years hates her, though he has only met her once and it was in a big group setting, so he really doesn’t know her very well.
He knew me when she and I were in our manic episode. We weren’t dating, but he knows of what was going on at that time. He says terrible, hurtful things about her, and gets irrationally angry anytime I text with her. I never text her when we are together, so as not to make him feel like he’s being ignored. We’ve both turned our lives around and can uniquely help the other when things get rough, due to our shared experience. We often talk about how we never want to go back to the place we were in and we are so happy we turned things around. My boyfriend doesn’t believe that she’s changed and would prefer that I cut her out of my life and never spoke to her again.
I feel like this would be different if she didn’t live two hours away and we saw each other regularly (we only see each other maybe once every six months). Am I being insensitive to my boyfriend’s worries by not cutting her out of my life?
A: It sounds like the two of you were mutually engaged in some self-destructive behavior, not that she was a particularly bad influence on you or went out of her way to harm you. It also sounds like you’ve both been doing well for a number of years and have been good, if somewhat distant, friends to one another—so I’m not sure what your boyfriend’s objection is based on, other than a general lack of trust (or a desire to assign “blame” to someone for your previous manic episodes). If you value your friendship with her, I think you should draw a line with your boyfriend and ask him to stop running her down to you.
He doesn’t have to like her, but you’re not asking him to get dinner together just the three of you every week. You’re taking care of yourself and so is she. Neither of you is a bad person. She is not the cause of any of your manic episodes, and she is not attempting to lure you back into old habits. If your boyfriend can’t say anything nice about her, he doesn’t have to say anything at all, but there’s certainly no reason for you to cast her out of your life just because he doesn’t like her.
Q. No thanks to dancing?: I’m getting married this year. I have two left feet. I don’t want to dance with my future spouse, or a parent, or generally. I dance just enough at other people’s wedding to prove I’m not a spoilsport. Please rule that I don’t have to dance at my own wedding.
A: You do not have to dance at your own wedding.
Q. Husband vs. friend: I have a friend, “Tracy,” that my husband thought would be perfect for his brother, “Bill.” Bill and hubby have always been very close. He really tried to set them up for months until I told him to stop, everyone was sick of it. Fast-forward four months and they got together all on their own! They really are perfect for each other and are now living together, but both Tracy and Bill are very codependent.
Tracy seems to think that Bill and my husband’s relationship is somehow weird; they talk almost daily, but since Tracy and Bill got together, they don’t see each other nearly as much. Tracy feels the two of them are abnormally close and gets very offended if hubby suggests he and Bill do something together without Tracy.
She asked my thoughts on it at one point, and I told her that I find their relationship fine (they aren’t doing anything that is truly weird!), and just because I am not close with my siblings, doesn’t mean hubby can’t be close with his. I also added that I fully embraced Bill as part of my family and not only am OK with a boys’ night (silly things like wrestling matches, movies, and comedy shows), but for everyone’s mental health, have been known to insist on it.
My husband feels that Tracy is extremely insecure and imbalanced and if he tries to make plans that Tracy intrudes on, he comes up with an excuse not to go. If Bill visits with hubby when Tracy is at work, she still gets irritated! Tracy did let the conversation drop for a while but is right back at it again. I am honestly sick of the entire conversation. I don’t get why she insists on spending all of Bill’s free time with him, even at the cost of his relationship with his brother, and I am sick of trying to smooth things over with them. And honestly, Bill is a really nice guy and won’t put his foot down with her about anything. Do we lock them in a room until they agree to share Bill? Tell them to STFU? Help!
A: I think you are missing an opportunity to get enormously less involved in Tracy’s relationship with your brother-in-law. It’s up to your husband to figure out how to talk to his brother about their relationship. You can support him, help him talk through what he wants to communicate to his brother, and act as a sounding board, but that’s about the extent of your role—it’s not up to you to make sure everything goes smoothly between the two of them.
As for Tracy, if you’re sick of having this conversation with her, stop having this conversation with her. Become an incredibly boring conversational partner to Tracy! If she keeps bringing up Bill’s relationship with your husband, practice your blandest smile, and say, “I’m sorry this has been tricky for you! You should really talk to Bill about that.” Offer that up on repeat until she realizes she’s not going to get any traction with you.
Q. Concise or rude?: My husband and I are well-off, and we have a daughter in college. We pay for her tuition and rent, and we give her a generous allowance. Recently I happened to be dining at the same restaurant as her (I was seated at a different table). When I asked for my check, I requested my daughter’s as well. To my shock I discovered that she had asked for her check and given the waitress a tip at the beginning of her meal because she “didn’t want to wait for the check at the end of her meal.”
I felt this was a bit rude. I try to engage my server in light conversation rather than simply relaying my order to them. My daughter said that they were her server, not her friend. She claims that being civil and tipping well are her only obligations. She is always polite but doesn’t engage the server in conversation. She sees the entire thing as a business transaction rather than a social one. I think light conversation is the kind thing to do. Who’s right? Is my daughter a bit snobby for having this attitude?
A: It’s a little unusual to ask for the check early, but not unheard of (especially if one is planning on seeing a movie after dinner or is otherwise pressed for time), and certainly not snobbish. Light conversation is fine, but it’s not why your server is there (they’re there for the money), and as long as your daughter wasn’t whistling and shouting, “You there, bring me my receipt and my duckling and leave me be” like a medieval baron, then she wasn’t rude. Ordering food in a restaurant is a business transaction. One has a social obligation to be polite, and not to treat waitstaff like a series of food-bearing robots, but one doesn’t have to drum up unrelated chit-chat in order to be a good customer. You are of course free to be friendlier with your server if you like, but that’s completely optional.
Q. To correct or not: My best friend uses words incorrectly. In particular, she is obsessed with the word ornery and uses it to describe her kids (or my kids) all the time. Now, I thought ornery meant grouchy and stubborn. But she’ll post a photo of our kids playing, smiling, and laughing with a caption such as “These kids are so ornery!” It makes me cringe but doesn’t really upset me. I think she means something like “These kids are so funny!”
My friend, however, is very easily offended. Should I point it out when a word is misused? Should I subtly use the words correctly? Or should I just let it go?
Also, if I am wrong about the meaning of the word ornery, please let me know.
A: Your friend’s verbal tic seems harmless and mostly charming! My inclination is to suggest you let it go. However, if you want to have a lighthearted chat with her about her habit, that’s perfectly fine too; I just don’t recommend “subtly using it correctly” around her because I think that’s wasting excessive energy on indirectness on your part and unlikely to result in increased self-awareness on hers.
Q. Speak truth: My niece is 18 and has been in contact with her biological father. He told her the truth of her conception, contrary to the fairy tales my mother has been feeding her for her entire life. My little sister was the golden child who could do no wrong in my mother’s eyes. In reality, she was a willful, selfish creature who ran away, slept around, stole, and cheated on her husband. My niece is the product of her affair and she refused to name the actual father despite her husband divorcing her over the DNA test. She died from a drug overdose before confessing anything.
My mother and I raised my niece. I have supported them both since my niece was two and would even take her in while my mother was ill. I have argued with my mother in the past about lying to my niece, but it only got me the silent treatment. It was easier to go along than challenge my mother, and I was worried about the effect on my niece.
Now my niece has done some snooping on her own and found parts of the truth. She keeps asking us both for the truth: My mother lies and I stay silent. Her biological father didn’t even know my sister was married, let alone pregnant with his child, but DNA doesn’t lie.
I don’t know how to deal with her questions. My mother will hear nothing against her golden girl—despite her other child supporting her for the past decades—and I am afraid of severing what remains of our relationship. At the same time, I will admit I am severely biased. I don’t think well of my sister in the least and my niece is better than us all. I don’t want to poison her with the past.
A: I think your niece is old enough (and close enough to the truth already) that you can be honest with her, although your primary concern should be to make sure you’re telling the truth with tact and consideration. Your feelings toward both your mother and your long-dead sister sound painful and complex, and certainly justified, but you shouldn’t let them affect the version of the story you tell your niece. You can say, for example, “Your mother was married to X at the time, but your father was actually Y” without adding “your mother was a willful, selfish creature who slept around.” If she’s asking you direct questions, you should be honest—she deserves to know the truth about her family history—and if that upsets your mother, then so be it.
Q. Re: Concise or rude: When it comes to servers, the thing is, they are sort of professionally obligated to be nice to you. While it’s not harmful to strike up some light banter with a server, they are also most likely very busy and don’t have a ton of time to devote to small talk. If you go on forums where food service employees gossip, you’ll also occasionally find that they sometimes find overly chatty customers to be somewhat grating, especially if they’re pulling a busy shift. By making small talk, you may have inadvertently trapped them, as they feel that if they try to cut the conversation short, it might reflect in their tip (and there are plenty of customers that make servers jump through all sorts of hoops for even measly tips).
All of this is to say: Your daughter is in the right. As long as she is being kind and polite to her server and tipping appropriately, she’s upheld her end of the social contract with them.
A: That’s an excellent point! Your waiter isn’t engaging in light-hearted small talk with you merely because they just love conversation (although they may generally enjoy talking to people, too), they’re making conversation because they’re hoping you’ll tip better.
Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! See you all next week.