Dear Prudence answers readers' questions live at Washingtonpost.com.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
April 27 2009 4:32 PM

We Aren't Family

Dear Prudence counsels a woman who's unsure how to define "extended family" and other advice seekers.

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. (Read Prudie's Slate columns here.) An unedited transcript of this week's chat follows.

Washington, D.C.: More of an etiquette question, but something that's been bugging me lately. I hope you can help! Some mornings, when I'm walking into my favorite bakery to grab a cup of coffee, a man will be approaching the bakery at the same time. If the guy gets there first and holds the door open for me, what do I do next (besides saying thank you!)? Should I let him have the spot in front of my in line since he technically got to the bakery door first? Or since he held the door open and allowed me to go first, does that mean I'm free to go straight to the line ahead of him?

Emily Yoffe: As as an acknowledgment of his politeness you can certainly indicate he's free to step ahead of you in line. If he indicates you should go first, don't hold everyone up with an "After you" "No, after you" routine. But by stopping at the door and indicating you should enter first, he is effectively sending you to the line ahead of him, so if you don't do anything but say thank you, you haven't committed a faux pas.

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Boulder, Colo.: How far does family extend? My future father-in-law says that my future sister-in-law's boyfriend's parents ought to be invited to our wedding because they may one day be family. I disagree but would like to keep the peace as he's already hinted that they will hold this against me. Will this set a bad president for the future? Would they be family? Does it come off as begging for a gift? They live close to the site so I think they would feel obligated to come. What should I do?

Emily Yoffe: It's up to you and your fiance to decide how many people and how wide a circle to invite. When it takes an entire phrase to describe your connection to someone, that generally indicates you aren't family -- or certainly not any definition of close family. If you don't even know the future sister-in-law's boyfriend's parents, or only know them glancingly, you are not obligated to invite them. Your bigger problem is that your future father-in-law, who will be family, likes to use threats to get his way.

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Price, Utah: I feel that your answer to the woman who has trouble with her boyfriend's daughters was very harsh. No matter who is in the household, they should be responsible for picking up after themselves, even smaller children. Why is expecting them to do that wrong? The father asked her to move in with him and as such, should not expect her to turn into a slave for these control-freak teens!

Emily Yoffe: This is about a question in last week's Slate column in which I came down hard on a woman who had just moved in with her boyfriend and was fed up with his teenager daughters. They were messy and rude and the father would regularly rescind her "groundings" of them. I agree that I didn't say enough about how pathetic this father sounded. He never should have asked his girlfriend to move in. Neither of the adults sound as if they at all understand how to deal with the girls' natural resentment of the situation. The father is enabling everyone's bad behavior -- and he is the one who suggested things would calm down once the girls went to college. What a jerk! However, if step girlfriend thinks the way to get two teenage girls to behave is to start sending the girls to their room, she'd be better off finding new lodgings.

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Washington, D.C.: Dear Prudence,

My father-in-law continues to make subtle digs at me, within my home, each and every time that I invite him to join us for family gatherings. He enters the house, finds a seat and doesn't lift a finger, yet puts me down for not having dinner ready (though he is frequently late, thus I have shifted cooking schedules after serving cold dishes, plenty of times!) and is crude with his language. He's not married -- no surprise there! I bite my tongue, but it's making me dread hosting any longer, though no other family members seem to step up to the plate.

What should I do?

Emily Yoffe: He's not doing this because you refused to invite your future sister-in-law's boyfriend's parents to the wedding is he? Number one, it would be nice if your husband stepped up and talked privately to your father about being less hostile when he was invited for dinner. But as you are observing, many families fall into patterns in which one unbearable member is allowed to get away with it because that's just how "X" always behaves. You can certainly invite him less -- why slave at the stove for someone so rude and ungrateful. You can also let him know that you understand that he often runs late, but in the future you're going to start eating without him. Otherwise basically ignore him, pretend you didn't hear, or answer with extreme politeness. If he makes digs at the food say, "I'm so sorry dinner wasn't to your liking, Fred." It will all be less annoying if you cut way back on the invitations.

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Ashland, Va.: Elevator etiquette question -- when I worked in the south, it was common, indeed expected, for men to let women exit an elevator first. I recently began working in D.C. Now when I move to the side to let a woman get off the elevator, I am given an odd-looking look or the person chooses not to go first. Is "woman first" now a sexist action that is no longer done?

Emily Yoffe: When I moved from D.C. to Texas in the 1980s I ended up writing a piece about the elaborate elevator etiquette I encountered there for the first time (I didn't know that I was supposed to tunnel my way out of the back of the elevator when the door opened if everyone else on it was male). Remember JFK's line about D.C. "It's a place of Southern efficiency and Northern charm"? As you've discovered, gender takes no precedence in D.C. elevators

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Rochester, Minn.: My husband and I want to host a party at a restaurant to celebrate our 25th anniversary. I would like to limit it to adults (eliminating most nieces and nephews). At the last celebration, the kids were bored and spent their time emptying salt/pepper shakers and making designs from the contents. For some reason, the relatives don't understand that if their children's names are not on the invite, they aren't invited. How do I get this message across without causing a ruckus?