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

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

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

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
May 11 2009 2:28 PM

Nice To Meet You. Please Don't Touch Me.

Dear Prudence counsels a career woman whose religion forbids her from shaking hands with men—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.

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. Let's get going.

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Arlington, Va.: Prudie, I need your advice. I have figured out, for a while now, that I get my self-esteem based off of the amount of male contact I have. The more men I have interludes with, the better I feel about myself. If I am having a day where I feel rejected by men, I go off in search of any sexual contact I can get. I need to know how to stop this. One thing to add to the equation is that I am fat. So, being rejected is common. How do I believe I am okay in who I am, and that male attention isn't the answer? Thanks.

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Emily Yoffe: If someone wrote, "Alcohol is how I boost my self-esteem. The more I drink, the better I feel about myself", you'd see the obvious flaw in the self-analysis. You feel bad about yourself, so random sex blots out your feelings for a little while, then makes you feel worse, so you need another encounter. I always think that the best booster to self-esteem is not reciting a bunch of aphorisms about self-worth, but actually going out in the world and doing something that makes you feel valued, whether that is putting more into your work, deciding to get that master's degree, becoming involved in a volunteer organization, pursuing your love of painting, etc. Also, consider cognitive therapy—that will give you tools to direct your behavior elsewhere other than meaningless (and possibly dangerous) sex, when your mood starts to slump.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Hi, Prudence.

Due to religious reasons, I don't shake hands or have physical contact (hug, etc.) men who aren't related to me. I plan on entering the work force soon and would like to know if there's a respectful way to inform a guy that shaking my hand is not okay. I don't want to be rude. In the past, when meeting colleagues or friends, if they don't know this about me, and outstretch their hand, I just say, "Hey, I'm sorry I can't shake your hand. It's nothing personal, okay? Hope you're not offended" or something like that. If they ask why, I'm happy to elaborate but I don't volunteer that information unless they ask. Is this okay? I don't want to negatively influence any future job interviews, etc. Your advice would be much appreciated.

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Emily Yoffe: Directness seems the best way to go here, otherwise your refusal of a normal business greeting is just inexplicable. Explain that your religion (and say what it is) precludes contact between men and women who are not married, so you're unable to shake hands. Smile in a welcoming manner when you explain this. At your job interviews the comfortable, confident way you explain this will show them that this will not be an issue in the office or when meeting clients.

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Lothian, Md.: My dentist acts like a used car salesman. He is always trying to push me into tooth whitening and braces. His attitude is that the only reason I would refuse is lack of money. His hygienists even demand that I give reasons for refusing these treatments. How can I convince him to stop this behavior?

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Emily Yoffe: Say that you've considered their pitch and you are not interested in cosmetic improvement of your smile. Add that if the infomercials don't stop, unfortunately you are going to need to find a dentist who understands that some patients are happy with their teeth—crooked and yellow though they may be—the way they are.

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D.C.: My husband wants to give our unborn son a family name—the name shared by my husband, his father, and his grandfather. I'm not into it. I find the "Junior, III, IV" thing kind of creepy already, and probably wouldn't be into it no matter what the name. That being said, my biggest objection (which I haven't told my husband) is that I really, really dislike his name, and I can't imagine bestowing it on a child. What should I do? I can't imagine telling my husband this reason, as it would only hurt his feelings. But since his request outwardly isn't that unusual, I feel I should have a really good reason for objecting.

For what it's worth, we're not talking something truly unusual or bully-baiting, like Hezekiah. It's more something along the lines of "Arnold." A fine, if stodgy and square, name that I just happen to not like.

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Emily Yoffe: I assume at your wedding you didn't say, "I 'Melanie' take you 'Arnold'—although I really wish your name was Kevin." Just keep the "I hate your first name" out of the discussion, and out of your mind so you don't blurt this gem out in your sleep. It's perfectly fine for you to say you respect the family tradition and that your husband embraces it, but that you have always felt it seemed like it could be a kind of burden to carry so many names and expectations around with you. Explain you'd prefer to give your son a new name. Possibly your husband would compromise with Kevin Arnold. You could also use Arnold IV and come up with a nickname that everyone agrees to and is more to your liking.

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Herndon, Va.: How much is too much cleaning ahead of relative visits? My girlfriend hides the toothbrushes in her bedroom so that guests won't see them. Is this too much, or I am mistaken?

Emily Yoffe: It's a good idea to put away intimate items—birth control devices, the French maid's outfit, etc. Also cleaning out the medicine cabinet from prying eyes is useful. But it's a little odd to try to leave the impression that the two of you don't have bodily functions—or you don't regularly clean your teeth. This may not be about cleaning, however, but about the fear that anything you leave out will get a psychological x-ray from the relatives.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Dear Prudie,

Years ago we drove up behind a funeral procession on a divided four-lane highway. When we realized we were passing a funeral party we dropped back, fell in line, and paced them—for MILES!

When a large number of non-funeral vehicles, including commercial trucks, etc. accumulated behind the party and it became clear they were not turning off any time soon, people began passing, very slowly, to continue on their way. Then some guys in the funeral party took offense at this perceived slight and blocked both lanes to keep anyone else from passing the procession which went on for several more miles.

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What would have been the proper procedure for this circumstance? Please rule on funerals on the interstate, too.

—Confused in Georgia

Emily Yoffe: It is respectful to let a funeral party pass so that everyone can get to the cemetery at the same time. However, surely the people in the party do not expect everyone who happens to be on the highway at that moment to join the processional. They should have formed a single lane so other traffic could pass. It sounds fine that people slowly tried to make their way around them. Chalk up the rudeness of the people in the procession to being overcome with grief.

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NY: Previously I was having an emotional relationship with a married man and although we didn't have any kind of contact, the fire and the passion to want him was there. After hating ourselves and the many arguments, we decided never to speak again. I am happy now and feel free, as though a great weight was lifted and I hope that he is happy with his wife and I wish him well. I am not proud of what I have done and will not repeat my mistakes. However, now I'm with someone who is amazing and dependable, I love him and want to be with him and him only.

Everything works with him and I can see myself settling down with him. The thing that scares me is that I do not feel a deep burning fire and wanting like I did when I was in my "previous" relationship. Was the fire there just out of wanting something I can't have? Like the forbidden fruit?

Emily Yoffe: It's impossible to know whether you were drawn to the forbidden nature of this man, and that's what gave the relationship its passion, or whether you two would have felt it had he been free. I can almost guarantee that had he been free, and you'd married, that fire and passion would have been banked eventually. It sounds as if you not only have something wonderful with your new guy, but you are content, even if it lacks the frisson you felt before. If you give that up to try to experience something so elusive, you will surely regret it.

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St. Louis, Mo.: Dear Prudence, what does one do when one hates one's job so thoroughly? Last week I was told that "some people" think I spend too much time on the Internet (sort of like now), never mind that my work gets done in a timely and efficient manner. So spending less time on the interwebs, I've realized it was the only thing that got me through the day. Without that outlet, I get no intellectual stimulation through my job. This was not always the case, due to the economy (I know, I know) the company I work for has downsized, which in turn caused a reorganization. Though they called it a lateral move, it was definitely a demotion for me. Now I find it harder and harder to even pretend that I'm happy. How do I shake this off? I know I should just be grateful I have a job that still pays good and is somewhat secure, but I HATE it so much.

Emily Yoffe: You are going to surf your way out of a job if your behavior and attitude doesn't change. If you find the situation you're in impossible, then start looking for another job. In the meantime, since you say you get your work done in a timely and efficient manner, explain to your superiors that with the downsizing, you are hoping there are opportunities for you to expand your duties. Try to think of ways you can be more useful if they don't offer any. Obviously you do have the good judgment to choose to surf the Washington Post and Slate.

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Maryland: I recently eloped and sent out wedding announcements. A lot of the congratulatory responses so far have included near the beginning of the conversation a question asking "Were your parents upset that you left them out?" or "How did your parents feel"? The questions have a critical feeling to them. Other comments have been made to me that I'll regret not having had a wedding. A few people have asked if I sent the announcements expecting gifts.

For the record, our parents were okay that we eloped. I do not regret it, and do not expect gifts. Announcements just seemed the nicest way to tell our friends about it.

Do you have any great comebacks or advice for how I should respond to these critical questions and comments? I just wish everyone would leave it at "congratulations."

Emily Yoffe: You've been giving good answers. "No, our parents weren't upset." "We don't want gifts—we just wanted everyone to know our good news." "We had a great time eloping, so I don't think I'll regret it." By the way, I eloped 15 years ago and have never regretted it. But if, oh, 10 or 20 years down the road you do think, "Gee, I'd like to put on that wedding now that I never had then" DON'T!

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Re: Gaithersburg: I once worked with someone who could not touch men outside of her family. When a hand was offered to her, she would look them in the eye and say warmly and simply "I can't shake hands for religious reasons, but it's a pleasure to meet/see you." I always thought it was graceful and to the point.

Emily Yoffe: Perfect! It shows it can be done in gracious way that makes the other person comfortable.

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Jacksonville, Fla.: Our 40-inch flat screen was broken two weeks ago by a friend's child playing Wii. The strap was not on tightly and it flew and hit the TV. It was beyond repair and we had to get another TV. How do I handle this with my friend? She wants to give us money for the TV. Thanks.

Emily Yoffe: Sounds like it was your Wii which wasn't properly set up, so it was just an unfortunate—if expensive—accident. Your friend is generous to offer to help pay, so decide on some percentage you both feel comfortable with.

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Central Virginia: I need some advice on how to handle a conversation I overheard at my doctor's office. After my doctor left the examining room, I heard someone in the hallway remark that she was late. She replied that she was late getting back from lunch and her first patient after lunch (me) took a lot of time. She then made fun of me, listing my symptoms in a whiny, mocking voice. I waited almost 20 minutes for her and she spent less than 15 minutes with me discussing a new, rather serious ailment, for which I had been hospitalized. I am very hurt and confused. I have been going to this doctor for several years and I have always tried not to be one of those "difficult" patients. Should I speak to her about this, or find a new doctor?

Emily Yoffe: You might have to do both. If you feel you never want to see her again, then start looking for another doctor. But in any case, you need to get your doctor on the phone and tell her just what you said here. Try to keep your cool and say that she can surely understand how deeply disturbing this was, and that you also felt you were given perfunctory treatment during the examination. You can say you understand the doctor/patient relationship IS a relationship and perhaps this one is broken. If you have up until now been satisfied, then do give her a chance to apologize. I have known people who, after the doctor made a mistake, have stayed with the doctor and gotten very, very attentive subsequent care.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Hi Prudence,

My sister-in-law, a hard-working college freshman finding her way through the academic and social bumps of her first year away from home, lives on campus close to my husband's and my neighborhood. Problem: she's always short on money, and is always asking me, my husband and my family members: $100 here, $25 there. She always promises to pay it back, and seems genuine in her intentions at the moment, but never comes through. It's not like giving her $100 will scuttle us—but the bigger issue I see is condoning the bad habit of forgetting to pay up. We're not her parents, she's far from home, and we do want to support her however we can. Should I raise the issue of the "borrowed" money to make a point about honoring obligations, however small, or should I let this issue go since the amounts of money are relatively small and she's got plenty on her plate as a busy student?

Emily Yoffe: If she's having some bumps, then a dinner at your house, and a chance to do laundry there is a comforting thing for a lonely college freshman. However, you are not a payday lending operation, so the advances need to stop. Tell her you'd love to see her, but you can't give her any more money, and she needs to discuss finances with her parents.

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Maui, Hawaii: Hi Prudence,

I have a dilemma I am hoping you can help me with. I have been good friends with a co-worker "John" for five years. We lunch, go to movies, and go to parties and events together after work with or without my fiancé and he's often invited to our place. He will be a crucial part of our wedding. Although my fiancé has known him only through me and only the last 1.5 years, he likes him too. My dilemma is John recently gave me a gift. With it includes a note saying how happy he is for me, how the gift reminds him of me, that he will honor his role in the wedding, and how after all these years he's still in love with me. I am shocked as I had no idea and do not reciprocate beyond friendship. I now don't know how to respond or what to do with the gift. I value his friendship and would like to continue our friendship but do not want to make him uncomfortable doing something that may cause him pain.

Friend In Need

Emily Yoffe: "John" is not as good a friend as you thought because while he may be happy he finally got to say it, he shouldn't have dropped this bomb on your wedding plans. It must have been clear to him over the course of your romance that you are in love with your fiancé, and not John. Perhaps he's seen too many movies with Dermot Mulroney, or Matthew McConaughey in which the right guy finally gets the girl. Just tell him you had no idea about his feelings, and you hope that he finds someone wonderful so that he can experience for himself what you've found with your fiancé. For the time being, it sounds as if it would be best to cut out the activities just between the two of you.

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Re: Maryland: Yes, Please DON'T re-wedding. In 10 or 15 years throw on your best threads and have a kick a-- anniversary party.

Emily Yoffe: Good idea on the anniversary party in case you ever feel deprived of a "real" wedding (which, again, 15 years later I don't).

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NY: Thank you Prudence, I think I just needed the reassurance. Yes, I'm sure the man in my life now is right for me and the past is exactly what it is. Many thanks again.

Emily Yoffe: (This is from the woman who had a passionate emotional affair with a married man.) Wonderful—proceed happily. And think how many people in the world long to find the kind of relationship you have now.

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Arnold IV: If you know from the outset that you're going to call the kid by a different name, name him that, not a name he'll never use. Trust me on this.

Emily Yoffe: It's helpful to hear from a IV that you'd rather just have been named Kevin from the get-go.

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Boston: Oh how I envy you and Maryland! Unfortunately, my mother would be crushed if I eloped and so I am stuck planning a wedding (a task for which I am grossly unqualified). I am currently hung up on the issue of alcohol. I understand that a cash bar is a big etiquette faux pas, but we simply can't afford an open bar. I would like to do a champagne toast, and then simply not have a bar at all. However, my fiancé worries that some people (his friends) will want to drink, and insists that they wouldn't mind paying for this pleasure. Do you have any suggestions for compromise that won't kill our (modest) budget or bore our friends?

Emily Yoffe: Yes, you can too elope—you just decide that's what you want to do. However, if you're not going to, say no to the cash bar. You need to have the wedding you can afford. If that means a smaller wedding and the drink you offer is just Two Buck Chuck instead of a full bar, so be it.

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Washington, D.C.: Nah, come on. Too hard on "John" and not enough on friend-in-need. Really? Done all this stuff with him but clueless about feelings? That's what Socrates calls "blame-worthy ignorance." Should never have let it come to this point. Any sympathy for my opinion on this one?

Emily Yoffe: Sorry, not from me. The letter writer says for her it was always a wonderful friendship and nothing more. "John" never let on. I think he was the one being deceitful, and should either have spoken up long ago, or kept his feelings to himself now.

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Vienna, Va.: Always remove your toothbrush when guests are coming over, I have a friend who has no problem using another persons toothbrush if they feel like freshing up.

Emily Yoffe: Egads!
And on that note, hide your toothbrushes and have a great week.