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

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Aug. 24 2009 3:03 PM

R U Listening 2 Me?

Prudie counsels anyone who's ever been ignored by rude texters—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.)

Emily Yoffe: Good end-of-summer afternoon. Let's get to it!

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Wilmington, Del.: Texting: How do you have a group dinner, with conversation, when some still have their phones on and are checking texts and e-mails? It's easy when these are my progeny, but acquaintances? Dirty looks seem too parental to me and talking when you KNOW they are not paying attention is a waste of my time. Is there a graceful way of handling this?

Emily Yoffe: You could pull out your own phone and start texting people at the table. It is astounding that most of the population now thinks it socially acceptable to sit at dinner with people and ignore them in favor of more important texts from their other acquaintances about what they're having for dinner and who they're at the table ignoring. If this is strictly a social event, you can say in as lighthearted a way as possible, "Can we make this a text-free evening?" If that doesn't work, if you're speaking to someone who is busy exchanging messages, stop your conversation and say, "Oh, I see you're busy. I'll hold my thought until you're done."

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Alexandria, Va.: After being separated for a few years, my parents are now working on reconciling. However, I recently came across evidence that seems to prove my father is seeing someone else. I am much closer to my mother, and he and I have a seriously strained relationship already. Should I confront him with this evidence? How? Or should I take it straight to my mom? Or is it more appropriate to ignore it and stay out of their relationship?

Emily Yoffe: Normally, I'm in favor of staying out of your parents' marriage. For one thing, staying out of your parents' marriage enhances the quality of your own life. For another, most adult children don't know the explicit and implicit understandings their parents may have worked out. However, in this case your parents are not together but working toward a reconciliation. If this were two friends, you would probably tell the woman that there's something she should know before she takes her former back. I think you should tell your mother that you have evidence, but no proof, that your father's cheating. Tell her you come to her reluctantly not only because this is so disappointing, but because you don't want to get in the middle of their relationship. Say you don't want to do any more detective work for her, but say you wanted her to know all the information before she proceeded with her reconciliation.

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Re: Texting: I feel your pain. I've established some boundaries for this recurring problem. If it's a first or second date, I do not go out with this gentleman again. If it becomes excessive, as it did on one date, I will leave, citing that clearly he has more pressing issues to attend to. If it's friends, I just wait and say, "I'll wait until you're finished." If it's someone I don't know, I grin and bear it. If it becomes excessive, then I might suggest putting off whatever we're doing until a more convenient time.

This gives the offender the benefit of the doubt without being rude but without wasting your time.

Emily Yoffe: A good set of principles.

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Bennington, Vt.: I work for a small, family-held company as a financial manager. One of the owners, my boss's wife, is a nightmare. She is completely unprofessional in her business demeanor (door slamming when she is angry, leaves her phone on speakerphone all the time because it's "easier" for her, etc.). Last week, she grilled me three times over as many days for a mistake I made. I admitted my mistake, apologized, and hoped to get on with it. She did not just lambast me in private on the first occasion, she also called one of my co-workers in her office and berated me some more while she finished up. Over the next two days, she kept harking back to this mistake (which, by the way, caused the company no harm, money or resources—she simply did not like the way I handled an issue with a vendor). My responses to her were polite, direct, honest, and truthful with good eye contact; it seemed the more rational I became, the more irrational she became, and I feel like there is a screw loose somewhere. The MOST disturbing part of this was that she kept saying over and over in each conversation, "I am a therapist (which she is), and I have no clue why you did this!" How do I get her to stop psychoanalyzing me when she feels like it? What is the best way to shut her down without losing my job?

Gratefully, The Whipping Post

Emily Yoffe: You give me a chill because every time I recommend someone see a therapist, the specter of your boss's wife looms over this recommendation. Yes, she sounds like a lunatic who is using her power to work out her psychological issues. Your situation is further complicated by the fact that if you complain to your boss, you are getting involved in his marriage. You are handling this exactly right—keep professional, don't escalate, stick to the point. But that doesn't solve the situation because she is an unhinged person with unlimited power. When she interferes with your work, you could go to your boss and say, "I just wanted to clarify this situation with you because Mrs X has spoken to me several times about it." But he may not want to come to your rescue because whenever she's going after someone else, that means she's not going after him. I know this economy is terrible, but ultimately, what can you do except do what you're doing plus one other thing—start looking for another job.

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Los Angeles: My fiance' and I have entered the swingers lifestyle. We had a terrific time. What is the proper etiquette after a weekend of hosting a "friend"? Is it the same as a regular party? Should the guest call or send a note or e-mail, etc. and thank the host? Should the host extend an open invitation for another visit or what? Is it like regular dating where you sweat out who calls whom first? How much contact is warranted or even advised in an NSA (no strings attached) friendship?

Newbies

Emily Yoffe: Let's see, what would an appropriate thank you gift be for a lovely weekend: A pre-paid STD screen? A bottle of Viagra? A case of depilatory? I'm afraid you've got me stumped [Note to my husband—I hope YOU don't have any idea what's "proper" here, either!] This seems like a case where the people on your swingers listserv can best tell you the ins and outs of the etiquette of your hobby.

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Atlanta, Ga.: One of my closest friends lives in a town where I recently attended a wedding. We had arranged well in advance to get together while I was in town. She is notorious for not showing up and coming up with excuses at the last minute whenever something better comes along.

Sure enough, the morning we were to get together she texted me and said she had to go out of town at the last minute to get away. She was having a health scare and wouldn't have answers until that Monday.

Monday came around and I gave her a few hours after the doctor's appointment before I called. She never returned my call. Fearing the worst I called her sister who told me everything was fine.

My "friend" e-mailed two days later saying she was fine and went shopping and out to eat to celebrate.

I was shocked that she would leave me hanging in limbo like that. I'm done with her antics. Should I let it go or should I tell her why I'm cutting ties?

Emily Yoffe: Sure, go ahead and tell her her friendship has meant a lot to you over the years, but you've been increasingly feeling that following through on plans with you holds no interest for her. Say that being stood up on your last visit felt like she was delivering a message that your friendship is kaput. Say you have sadly come to agree, and wish her the best.

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New York: My sister and I used to be best friends, but she insists on staying friendly with my ex-husband. He did not treat me well, so it's sort of shocking to me that he is welcome in her home. When I tell her how this upsets me, she laughs (in a mean way). There was no prior history between them, and there are no children or other factors that would seem to warrant the closeness post-divorce. I figure she can choose her friends, but I can't be close with her if she's going to rub my face in it. I miss her, but I'm happier without the stress. Am I wrong?

Emily Yoffe: Do they have a standing Tuesday tea party? Does she make a point of letting you know that they regularly socialize? Often people expect that their exes should be excommunicated from all family relationships, even if other people have developed their own closeness over many decades with the ex. Such a stance is unfair—especially if there are children involved who are going to keep the ex in the family orbit (which I know is not true in this case). Another extenuating circumstance is the reason for the divorce. If the ex behaved abominably, then that should color the feelings the rest of the family has toward the ex.

The situation you describe sounds a little bizarre. If your sister is rubbing this relationship in your face, as you say, and dismissing your hurt, then you need to explore with sis just what's going on. Perhaps you issued a diktat that there is to be no communication between the ex and her, and that was the opening salvo. You've given up on your husband, but before you give up on your sister, get together with her and tell her you miss her. Acknowledge that you don't want to, nor can you, determine her relationships, but say you know you're not quite rational on this subject because your ex caused you so much pain. Without rancor, and keeping as rational as possible, say you want to hear her thinking on this. Tell her you want to work this out so you can resume your closeness—and that means you must be open to hearing her point of view.

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Boston: My husband and I are leaving for our vacation tomorrow. I researched the destinations, applied for our passports, booked our flights, bought the guidebooks, and circled several hotels that I said I'd be happy staying in. The only task I gave my husband was choosing one of them and making reservations. I just found out yesterday that he didn't. Everything nice in our price range is booked now; we're staying in a noisy hostel on the outskirts of town.

I'm so frustrated with him that I'm having a hard time getting excited for the vacation. We don't take time off often, and I was really looking forward to having a relaxing room. Obviously, it's too late to cancel the trip, and we can't magically produce a room that doesn't exist ... so what's the best way to deal with my anger so it doesn't ruin the trip?

Emily Yoffe: If this was a one-time lapse because he just got overwhelmed at work and it slipped his mind, then make a conscious decision not to ruin your vacation. Over the course of your marriage, you too, will make mistakes. But the phrase "the only task I gave my husband" appears to be the key here. It sounds as if you're the manager of your marriage and he's an unreliable subordinate. If this is part of a passive-aggressive pattern because he's rebelling against you, the boss, then you two have to be able to talk about the pattern you've fallen into, and figure out how to get out of it. As for your vacation, stay very, very busy during the day so that when you collapse in your room at night, it doesn't matter that it's not overlooking the Left Bank. Nightly grumbling about how he screwed up will only make both of you miserable.

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New York: Hi Prudie, thanks for taking my question. When I was 24, I started writing my first novel. I worked on it intermittently for two and a half years and finally finished it earlier this year. The good news (apart from having finished it) is that an editor is interested in the manuscript; the bad news is that I have to do a major revision first, and although she's offered guidance, I can't be assured of actually getting published until I've done the rewrite. I should be thrilled, but instead, I'm despondent. My life has changed so much in three years—I'm married now, I have a demanding day job, and am the primary breadwinner for my household. The unstructured time I used to enjoy that allowed me to start the novel in the first place is long gone, and though I've tried to just sit down after work, focus, and write, I have nothing left at the end of the day. I'm afraid that my lifelong goal of publishing a book will never be realized because life got in the way. How can I get myself over this hump?

Emily Yoffe: First of all, stop and congratulate yourself for finishing a manuscript and actually getting an editor interested in it! You have done the really hard part. Now, don't think of your task as rewriting this book. Instead decide you are going to revise a chapter. Surely you can carve out an hour in the morning, some time at lunch, or block out some sacred time on the weekends for simply redoing a chapter. Then you revise the next chapter, etc. Just make this revision a part of your life like going to the gym, walking the dog, watching Mad Men. "Life" won't get in the way if you decide revising your book is part of your new life.

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Washington, D.C.: "Oh, I see you're busy. I'll hold my thought until you're done."

Is being passive-aggressive really effective? What if the person says "Cool, thanks" or something like that? Why play games? Unless the person is clueless, they will realize you're not happy, but will likely not appreciate the passive-aggressiveness or sarcasm, don't you agree? They may feel annoyed instead of sheepish like they're supposed to.

That or just buy a cell-phone jammer.

Emily Yoffe: This is about having dinner with texters. I don't think that remark is passive-aggressive. It's recognizing the situation, explaining why you can't continue conversing with someone who is texting, and giving them an opportunity to stop. If the person says, "Cool thanks," you can eat your meal, talk to other people at the table, and vow to never break bread with the texter again. Saying instead, "You're really rude and I'm not going to talk to you if you don't stop!" is not going to make you seem like a better social partner than Twitter.

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Re: Texting: I was at a business lunch where one of the people kept checking e-mails/texting and not paying attention to an important discussion. I was sitting next to him. When he went to reach for the blackberry, I grabbed his wrist and whispered in his ear, with a smile on my face, "If you pick that F-ing thing up one more time, I'm gonna smash the sh-t out of it." Since I'm a female and don't normally use that kind of salty language, I believe the guy was so stunned it never happened again that day or in any other meetings (lunch or otherwise) since.

Emily Yoffe: Yes, the Carmela Soprano approach can work, but while you got the guy to stop, you also left him feeling forever squeamish about you. I think it would have been much better to pull him aside after the meeting and explain that having someone at the table who is paying no attention to what's going on is distracting to everyone else. You could also discuss with the boss (who probably sits at meetings texting) issuing a policy on the use of phone during meetings and lunches.

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Washington, D.C.: RE: Ruined trip. Prudence, your advice to "Boston" about how to keep from wringing her husband's neck was, as usual, spot on.

However, I can't for the life of me figure out why you took her to task so harshly. What possible excuse could the husband have for not securing a hotel reservation, or at least telling his wife that he hadn't done so? Sounds to me like he never wanted to go on the trip and chose to punish her for "making" him.

Even if the wife is controlling, as you seem to imply, he still screwed up big-time.

Emily Yoffe: I didn't mean to be taking her to task harshly. Spending your vacation in a Motel 6 just off the Beltway is punishment enough. I'm just asking if this is a one-time bad screw up or a pattern. If the former, the damage has been done and holding a grudge only makes the vacation miserable. If the latter and there's an underlying screwed up dynamic in the marriage, then that needs to be addressed after the vacation.

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For Boston: I can certainly understand your frustration with the situation, but perhaps it will help if you recognize that both of you had a part in the missed reservation.

Planning for vacation is often more fun—and easier—if you do it as a pair, even if you only get 30 minutes here and there to touch base. You might each come away from the discussion with "assigned tasks," but by discussing it together it's easier to set expectations that you both agree on. It also can generate some excitement. Further, it sets the stage for easy reconnection on what you discussed without making it look like you're checking up on the other person. "I was able to track down X, but I didn't want to finalize it until I was sure we had Y settled." (Or a million other versions of that.)

At this point, focusing on what is going right with the vacation and creating an adventurous spirit that "we're in this together" for the rest may help.

Emily Yoffe: Excellent point about working together on getting away. I used to be our family travel agent, but got sick of it and off-loaded the hotel reservations to my husband this summer. He hated it, but after nights of searching, he showed me the places he had zeroed in on. He then booked two fantastic hotels in England, and my daughter and I toasted his excellent work.

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Washington, D.C.: I have had a running debate with a friend of mine about the propriety of taking reading material into the public restroom at work. I have taken the position that no reading material should be taken into the restroom. His point is that he can take things to read as long as they are his, and not the general office newspaper. I've heard other say you can bring in reading material as long as you leave it in the restroom (or throw it away in the restroom). Who's right?

Emily Yoffe: Our literacy rate would plummet if people stopped reading in the bathroom! Manufacturers of bathroom magazine racks would go out of business! Magazines themselves might stop publishing! This key here is subtlety. It's best not to ask people if they have a copy of War and Peace you could borrow because you're heading to the head and expect to be in there a long time. Alternately, noticing that someone has the newspaper under his arm and is going to the men's room is just one of those things you pretend you don't notice. So drop the monitoring of your co-workers bathroom habits.

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Re: Texting: Telling someone you'll wait until he's done with a text or saying that he clearly has more pressing matters to deal with than the person in front of him isn't passive-aggressive. It's the truth! Obviously whatever he's doing IS more important or he wouldn't be doing it, so that's why you should wait.

Emily Yoffe: So you are the person who sits at dinner with their head bowed text-ward and ignores all the dorks who've deigned to dine with you. Unless you're on call at work and apologize profusely for having to deal with a matter that unfortunately can't wait, your behavior will probably take care of those annoying friends who expect you to converse with them while you're out—they'll stop asking you. Or maybe not. Maybe the new way of socializing is to physically be together with people, while virtually interacting with others who are more pleasing.

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McLean, Va.: Should I tell my kids (now 17, 15, and 14) that their father is my second husband? I married a college classmate rather impulsively without much fanfare when we were both juniors. We separated almost immediately after graduation and divorced, while not impulsively, certainly without much fanfare.

By the time my husband and I met years later, that part of my life already seemed to have been lived by someone else. He, of course, is aware of my marriage and divorce.

I don't consider that marriage to be a secret, it just never comes up. Certainly, my parents and sisters have filed it away in the "things not worth remembering" drawer. I'd be comfortable discussing it were it to come up in conversation, but neither my husband nor I see the point of playing out a big "reveal" with our kids. It just doesn't seem relevant to our family.

At the same time, as my kids head toward their own college years, I wonder if they could learn something, what I'm not sure, from hearing my story. What do you think?

Thank you ...

Emily Yoffe: It would be worth doing just to see the looks on their faces when they realize that Mom was young once and did something romantic, sexy, and impulsive. You're right this is not that big a deal, but by not having mentioned it years ago, you've now imbued it with more drama and secrecy than it deserves. But as your kids head off to college themselves, what happened to you is relevant (and interesting) and without presenting it as "the big reveal," you should tell your kids about your early marriage and make it clear you are comfortable discussing it and want to hear their questions.

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Restroom reading: This is why we have iPhones. The Washington Post's mobile interface is excellent.

Emily Yoffe: Great point. And a possible ad campaign for the Post!

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Emily Yoffe: Thank you all—and happy reading, wherever it takes place. Talk to you next week.