Dear Prudence on family members who call way too often.

Dear Prudence on family members who call way too often.

Dear Prudence on family members who call way too often.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
March 23 2009 3:54 PM

Dial It Down

Dear Prudence on family members who call way too often, and other readers' quandaries.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com every Monday at 1 p.m. to chat with readers about their romantic, family, financial, and workplace problems. She's taking next week off but will be back live on April 6. (Read her Slate columns here.) An unedited transcript of this week's chat follows.

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. Let's get started!

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Washington, D.C.: I'm in my early 30s, and at the age where people always ask if you have kids, want kids, or plan to have kids. This is not something I want to launch into with people I don't know well (and even people I do), so how can I deflect comments/questions such as these without seeming rude?

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Emily Yoffe: People often recommend, "Why do you ask?" as a good conversation stopper. But that really doesn't end the conversation, it just leaves the other person sputtering for a response. I like, "You'll be the first to know."

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Alexandria, Va.: My aunt panics if she can't get in touch with me. If I don't answer my phones (home and cell), she immediately assumes that I'm in some kind of trouble and calls my mother to find out if she knows where I am and if I'm OK. For example: one time, I TOLD her I was going to a happy hour with some coworkers, and probably wouldn't be able to hear my phone. In the 90 minutes I was there, she called six times, left two messages, and called my mother (who also left two messages). I could give you many more examples. Oh, and I'm in my late 20s and married.

I get that she does this because she cares, but it's driving me mad. Is there any polite way to tell her that sometimes people can't answer their phones and that "inaccessible for a few hours" does not mean "dead in a ditch somewhere"?

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Emily Yoffe: It's one thing to have a mother who's batty about your safety. Comedian Amy Borkowsky has built a career on the hilarious lengths her mother will go to make sure she's all right. But why do you even take your aunt's calls? The woman clearly needs treatment for whatever ails her, but you need her to stop ailing you. Tell her that you two are going cold turkey and you're not going to answer her calls anymore. Surely she'll find someone else to worry about.

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Washington, D.C.: I thought my mother raised a gentleman. I hold doors, let others off elevators first, and always remember my p's and q's. And because I think 21st century gentlemen are more enlightened than 19th and early 20th century gentlemen, I perform social niceties without gender in mind. Unfortunately, I recently went out on a date with a woman that became irritated because I apparently did not walk on the proper side of her on the sidewalk (Admittedly, walking too fast is a bad habit of mine, but this concerned positioning). She said it was basic etiquette for a man to walk on the outside of his date, on the side closest to the street. I have never heard of this convention. I assume the convention relates to the days of unpaved streets when passing horses and wagons might splash water and muck (and worse!) on pedestrians. I did a bit of research and could only find one etiquette book that mentions this sidewalk rule. Am I just another clueless pseudo-gentleman or is she hopelessly old fashioned?

-Thinks he may have mucked it up

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Emily Yoffe: It's good you didn't point out to her that it's equally impolite to get irritated and unpleasant on a date over an issue that only a tiny number of people would even be aware is a faux pas. Yes, your research is correct about the origin of that convention, but your date is being a stickler over something that no one pays any attention to anymore. I hope she had some other redeeming qualities.

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Rotterdam, Netherlands: I have a very good friend that I met in college 10 years ago. He has always been obese. At one point, he seemed to be losing weight successfully, but now that he works an office job, his weight has ballooned by at least a hundred pounds. I have also known his wife for 10 years. When I first met her, she was a size 6. She has gained at least 10 dress sizes in that time. They are both in complete denial about this, saying they would rather be fat and happy than skinny and miserable, but at the rate they're going, he especially is not going to be around much longer. He is already suffering from hypertension and sleep apnea and he's barely 30! I only see them a few times a year, when I visit my hometown, but when I do, they always want to go to a restaurant, where they order things like 16-ounce steaks with fries and 4-cheese dip with fried pita bread. From what they tell me, this is how they eat every day. They don't even have bread or milk at home! I can't really invite them for a home-cooked meal since I'm only visiting when I'm there. Do you have any suggestions on how to behave around these two people who seem determined to eat themselves to death?

Emily Yoffe: Since they've told you they want to be fat and happy, you obviously have already had a conversation with them about your alarm over their weight. If the numbers on the scale doesn't concern them, your semi-annual lectures are going to have no effect. If you enjoy their company, just have a good time when you're out with them. And no one wants to share a meal with someone who is pointing out that the steak is going to kill them.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Prudence,

I'm not sure how to deal with an awkward situation. A good college friend got engaged this fall. She sent me an email asking to confirm my address for the invitation, to which I promptly replied. Now I see (via Facebook), and hear from friends that she sent out "Save the Dates" more than a month ago. I never received one.

Now, I respect her right to invite whoever the heck she wants, and we're admittedly not as close as we once were (different coasts, electronic communication). But based on some others who she invited who were in our group of friends but not as close, I think there may have been a mistake.

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How do I handle this? I don't want to put her on the spot, but don't want to miss out on celebrating her big day if she wanted me there... Help!

Emily Yoffe: Didn't I just read that someone has just written a book on Facebook etiquette? We need one. This is a case in which you could deputize someone to ask for you. Have a friend you know has been invited say to the bride, "I was talking to 'Kate' the other day and she said she got an email from you asking for her address, but she never got an invitation. She didn't seem upset, but she's wondering if she's still invited." That at least should solve this mystery.

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Professional Services for Free: Dear Prudie,

I'm a professional editor. My family, friends, and colleagues frequently ask me to edit their documents—resumes, papers, important emails, etc.—in my spare time. Ordinarily, I don't mind helping out, especially if the document is short.

However, I have one friend who has, over the past year, asked me to edit more than 250 pages of his dissertation. I've helped much more than I feel inclined to, giving up more than 50 hours ($2,500 if I freelanced it) of my time. I'm bored of the topic of the dissertation and not interested in spending my free time editing his work any longer.

I need help formulating a clear and polite response next time he asks for assistance. I've occasionally said that I'm too busy to help, but I need to be more clear that I don't welcome future requests related to the dissertation. This man is a friend whom I otherwise really like and don't want to offend; at the same time, he is clearly willing to exploit this connection and I need to set boundaries.

Thanks so much.

Emily Yoffe: All professionals should be able to enjoy their relationships with people without being exploited. That means doctors shouldn't be expected to give free appendectomies, and computer experts shouldn't be expected to come and get the porn spam out of your computer, etc. To friends and family just say that you edit for a living and don't want to do it for free in your free time—unless you are in the mood to help with something short. As for your "friend", you can tell him that while he may not be done with his dissertation, you are.

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Kookooville: So my mom calls me a lot. Like, 3-4 times a day on the weekends. She picks the most inconvenient times to call—when I'm feeding the kids or giving them baths or taking a nap. So we've started not answering calls when it's not convenient for us. (Her calls aren't the only ones we don't answer—anyone who calls at those times don't get picked up.) So after she called 9 (!) times yesterday, and asked why we didn't pick up—were we out shopping, were we outside enjoying the weather—I told her that we don't pick up unless we're in a position to talk. So now she says "well, I guess I won't call you anymore" AND she called my dad & step-mom, brother, two sisters, aunt, and cousin to say "oh, she doesn't want me to call her anymore." Seriously, how do I deal with this? I'm fine talking to her once or twice over the weekend, but 6 one-minute-long conversations ("What are you up to today?" "Laundry") don't really get me excited.

Emily Yoffe: She said, "Well, I won't call you anymore"—what a victory! That was easy, wasn't it? (Not that I believe her.) Now, when you have the time to call her and talk, do so, and when you've run out of time say, "Mom, great talking to you, I've got to go." If she throws a snit or won't talk to you, then you can do something else with your time.

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Denver, Col.: Hello! My husband has a really annoying habit that is about to send me over the edge. Let's call it an 'adjustment' problem. He 'adjusts' himself at least 20 times an hour (it feels like) and it drives me insane and grosses me out. I've mentioned it, fussed about it, tried to ignore it, etc. Any suggestions on how to handle it? Thanks!

Emily Yoffe: He couldn't have been doing this while you were dating or else surely you wouldn't be married. Does he do this at work? (If so, how is he still employed?) This has become a compulsion and there is something more wrong in his head than his pants. Perhaps he would agree to see a doctor with you to discuss what is going on and how to stop it—surely he's motivated enough to get you to stop mentioning it to him. Explain your concerned because this habit could have severely unpleasant consequences.

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Washington, D.C.: I am a woman in my mid-twenties, and was raised to take care of myself and not rely on a man to do it. As such, when on a date, I don't expect doors to be held for me, or chairs pulled out, or car doors opened (I actually find those last two kind of obnoxious). I also find it really insulting if a man refuses to walk through a door that I am holding open for him. The problem is, my stepfather does expect that my boyfriends do these things, and consequently, he dislikes most of my boyfriends. How do I convince him that I am not helpless, I don't want my chair pulled out for me, and I would really just prefer that whoever gets to the door first hold it open?

Emily Yoffe: If you are happy with the guys you date and neither one of you are interested in car door or chair etiquette, just ignore your stepfather's criticism.

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Baltimore, Md.: I am a 50+ year old woman, and many of my friends are of similar age. Many of us regularly have to pluck long wiry hairs growing from our chins. There is one woman in our circle of friends who just lets them grow. Is there any polite way to suggest she should do something about this?

Emily Yoffe: Equality in facial hair is one of the unsung benefits of aging. Maybe this is why nature designed our eyes to start going at the same time—so we won't stand in front of the bathroom mirror and scream at the realization we've become bearded ladies. Say to your friend, "I need to have an awkward discussion with you. Marge, you may not be aware of it, but you've got some facial hairs you need to take care of because they are really marring your good looks."

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Incessant calls from parents: I used to think that my mom was calling me all the time, and that she always called at a bad time.

Now, I try to make sure that I call her at least once a week, and if I can't get to the phone when she calls, I don't fret.

It makes her not feel like she's the only one calling, and it made me realise that she just wants to talk. To me. Gee, how bad can that be?

I know, it was just a change in my behavior. But the truth is, it isn't that hard to just pick up the phone and call her once a week or so. And now, I don't feel guilty if I don't pick up the phone sometimes.

Emily Yoffe: Excellent advice, both on what to do and on attitude.

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Santa Cruz, Calif.: Hi. Re which side of a date do you walk on, I'm pretty sure the current etiquette is for the man always to walk on the woman's left. This is because in these times the "danger" is much more likely to come from an approaching human (e.g., a purse snatcher) than from a rearing horse. Since most foot traffic walks on the right side of the sidewalk in each direction (like car traffic) this approach puts the man between the woman and strangers.

Emily Yoffe: This is an argument for dropping the whole idea that sex chromosomes should dictate position on the sidewalk.

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Washington, D.C.: Dear Prudence, I have a friend who bails out of plans at the last minute. In her mind, all plans are tentative until she shows up (which makes dinner reservations and being seated at restaurants slightly problematic). Is there a polite way to say "stop canceling at the last minute, or I am going to stop inviting you?"

Emily Yoffe: It's nice of you to restrain the impulse to call her a self-centered, inconsiderate flake. You can say something like,"I love spending time with you, and I know we're all busy, but it's frustrating to make plans with you and then have you not show up. If I can't rely on you to follow through, I'm not going to keep asking you." And surely you have found you don't actually love spending time with her because that usually means sitting at a restaurant by yourself staring at your watch.

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College Point, N.Y.: How do I get my girlfriend to get back with me? It was all my fault because I was seeing someone else and she left me when she found out, but now I want her back. She is the one for me. What can I do to get her back

Emily Yoffe: You can tell her you realize how much you hurt her over your foolishness and that you would like another chance. If she doesn't want to give you one, leave her alone. And absorb this painful lesson about cheating.

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Washington, D.C.: I have visited the infertility clinic 3x/month for the last four months. During each appointment, I have to interact with 3-4 people who each always ask me how I am. Truthfully, I am not handling the crushing disappointment of not being able to get pregnant very well. I realize their questions are their way of being polite and my normal answer, outside of the doctor's office, is a simple 'fine'. However, inside the doctor's office, I just refuse to say that I am fine. I am nowhere near fine. And frankly, considering why people come to their office, they should suspect that a large majority of their patients are not going to have a very nice answer to this question.

Is there an answer I can give that is generic enough that I'm not pouring my heart out to a stranger's throwaway question, yet isn't positive?

Emily Yoffe: This is truly a case where they are just being polite. You would probably be equally annoyed if you regularly went to a clinic and the people you interacted with never even bothered to ask how you are. "As well as can be expected, thanks," should do it.

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Herndon, Va.: Do you have a polite, yet snarky answer to the question, "Can I borrow some money?"

My coworkers constantly ask me for large sums of money ($600+). How do I get them to stop asking?

Emily Yoffe: What kind of office is this—a loan shark? No need to be snarky. A simple, "Sorry, I can't help you," should do.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm getting married in October and I think my mom wants nothing to do with it. I'm been with my fiance for over seven years so the idea of us getting married was not a complete shock to her. She has never said she doesn't want to be involved, but every time I mention something about it she changes the subject. I'm even planning a spa day for the girls the morning of the wedding and she said she just wants to "show up" to the wedding and not be a part of the activities we have planned for guests. It's a small group and a destination wedding. My question is... how do I handle her? I never thought in a million years my mother would be the one to bring the stress at my wedding. Do I keep her out or try and get her involved? We are paying for the entire wedding too and haven't asked my parents for anything.

Emily Yoffe: Since you are not financially entangled with your mother over your wedding (Good for you!) this really is an issue about your relationship with her. Just be honest and say you've been hurt that she seems so disinterested in your wedding. Ask her what's wrong. Maybe she resents that she hasn't been asked to be part of the planning. Maybe she can't afford the trip to the destination. Maybe she's never liked your fiance. Be direct but non-confrontational and tell her it will mean a lot to have her there and happy for you.

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Anonymous: Emily, I wrote last week about my estranged father wanting to be at the birth of my next child. I ended up responding to him, telling him my feelings about the situation, etc, and he responded to me with a very scathing email. Because of it, and the patterns he's displayed in the past, I've decided to cut off all communication. Someone asked me what positives he brought to my life and I couldn't think of any. I guess I just need reassurance that cutting out a poisonous person, even if they appear at times to be not so poisonous, is an ok thing to do.

Emily Yoffe: It is a very difficult decision to end contact with a close family member. But sometimes that is simply the only way not to be drawn back into endless dramatics with someone who only causes pain. That was a very good question you were asked; and if someone brings nothing positive to your life, then you need that person out of your life. You don't have decide now that you will never, ever have contact again. Just see what it feels like to stop it for now.

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Fairfax, Va.: Hi Prudence,

I am a very fair-skinned, dark-haired woman in my 30's who suffers an ongoing bout with Rosacea. I know it is unsightly to be as red as a shrieking fishwife, and I do take medications on my skin and orally. How do I respond to "your face is red" or "sunburn?" without going into gory detail about it not being contagious, etc.?

Thank you

Emily Yoffe: It depends on whether you want to get into this with people. More important than the information you convey is the way you convey it. If you're comfortable explaining you have rosacea you can just say in a relaxed way, "No, not a sunburn. I have rosacea, it's an inherited condition and fortunately, I'm getting treatment for it."

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Nashville, Tenn.: I wish I had a mother to call and who could call me. How I miss that!!!

Emily Yoffe: Good point. Yet that doesn't mean that we should accept behavior from people we love we are happy to have here with us that is driving us batty.

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Alexandria: How about a comment for those people who keep wanting to know why I don't have a boyfriend? It's been 3 years and while I've dated and I am often busy every weekend with volunteering, clubs, activities and the like, no one has been serious. I'm beyond exhausted from the "when you least expect it he will come" (I stopped expecting each date to be THE ONE a long time ago), "well why don't you have a boyfriend" (if I knew the answer, I might not be single), "maybe if you dyed hair blond/got a tattoo/went to bars for one night stands" (do these people know me?)....

Emily Yoffe: If your friends are suggesting you dye your hair, get a tattoo, and have one night stands as a way of meeting guys, then you may not need a boyfriend, but you do need new friends!

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Emily Yoffe: Thanks everyone. I'll be back in two weeks.