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

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Nov. 23 2009 3:33 PM

Thanksgiving Misgivings

Prudie talks turkey with advice seekers about the upcoming holiday and all its pitfalls.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat with readers about their romantic, family, financial, and workplace problems. A transcript of this week's chat is below. (Read Prudie's Slate columns here.)

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. I assume many of you are elbow deep in cranberry sauce.

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Washington, DC: For the past few years, I've celebrated Thanksgiving with my boyfriend's family, which includes his ailing, elderly grandmother. But this year, his family is demanding that we pay a cover—we're each being charged $40 per person for a standard Thanksgiving dinner (not catered). Both my boyfriend and I are outraged. Don't get me wrong. I'm not a freeloader. I'd be happy to cook a dish (or eight dishes!) and bring those to dinner. But paying $40 for a Turkey dinner with family? That's ridiculous, especially since I'm a graduate student, and money is always tight.

Unfortunately, my boyfriend has agreed to suck it up and cough up the $40. He hates that he has to pay a fee, but he refuses to stand up to his family. Meanwhile, he feels like he has to go to the dinner, because he doesn't want to hurt his grandmother's feelings by skipping out on Thanksgiving.

My question is this: Should I suck it up, too, and pay this fee? And, aside from boycotting the meal, what can I do to communicate to the family that making money off of us at Thanksgiving is unacceptable?

Emily Yoffe: I guess this year you can be grateful that your boyfriend's family is not demanding you pay $80 a head for Thanksgiving. Putting in place a cover charge is not the way to engender good feelings. And unless his family is getting the meal catered, $40 a person sounds like a lot for white meat and sweet potato casserole. The obvious answer was to have everyone bring something so that no one's cost was significant. On the other hand, maybe the burden of the meal usually falls on one family member, and he or she can't handle it. In that case, there's nothing wrong with people contributing so that no one goes broke for a family event. But you don't do it by announcing a cover charge. Your boyfriend should explain that he'll pay the full freight and something to cover your meal but that your finances are too tight to pay the listed price. I hope that means you still get to put whipped cream on your pumpkin pie.

New York: Every year my husband and I host Thanksgiving, but with the economy in a bit of a crunch, we would like to cut back this year and pass on the hosting duties. How can we let family and extended family know without offending anyone?

Emily Yoffe: The answer: cover charge! Just kidding. But today is Monday, and Thanksgiving is Thursday, so isn't it a little late to say that everyone needs to heat up their own Swanson's dinner because you can't afford to feed them anymore? But family gatherings are supposed to be joyous, not ruinous, so you need to send out an SOS. The act of hosting shouldn't cost much, but feeding everyone does. So, as per the letter above, let everyone know that Thanksgiving will either be potluck this year or that you'd deeply appreciate a contribution from each family that can't supply a dish. Do it today, while there's time for everyone to still pitch in and not gripe that you ruined Thanksgiving.

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Family Time: My brother grew from a sweet and thoughtful boy to a bullying and very unhappy young man. There have been holidays in the past where I have not gone home just to avoid being the target of his wrath. He has a wonderful girlfriend now but still sometimes gets in his moods.

When he gets on a rant, I usually just walk away without comment. Is there something I can say instead that will cut off his rants and allow the rest of us to enjoy a nice meal together? I don't want to accommodate his angry behavior but would like an appropriate response that won't antagonize him. Thanks!

Emily Yoffe: It's one thing for a sweet boy to become a difficult teenager, but it is alarming that your thoughtful brother is an angry, unhappy man. I hope he has gotten a thorough physical and mental health evaluation because this is not a normal progression. There is no magic word that stops a bully from ranting. Your walking away is a good idea—that ends it. You could do him the courtesy of saying calmly, before you turn away, "Bobby, I've heard your point, and I don't want to continue the discussion." The fact that he has a wonderful girlfriend is a good sign of progress—let's hope there's a happier future for him.

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Anytown, Calif.: I desperately need advice. I have had no communication with my father for 10 years. He and my mother divorced when I was 19, and we've never spoken since then. His stated goal had always been to leave when I turned 18, and his "obligation" [was done]. So this was not a case of "I still love you; it's just that me and your mom have problems." My father made me feel worthless my entire childhood, something I am just overcoming now. I have no interest in resuming contact with him, but everyone in my family is pressuring me to do so. Telling me "he misses you." Although I have no desire, do I have an obligation, either to myself or to my father, to resume a relationship with this man who I was very, very glad to see walk out of my life those years ago?

Emily Yoffe: He made you feel horrible for 19 years, then he vanished for 10, and now he "misses" you? It would be one thing if you'd had a longing to connect with him all these years, or you felt a need to talk to him about your childhood, or you wanted to see if things could be different. You don't. It doesn't even sound as if you're curious. Tell your family you have heard their arguments, but that life without him has been better than life with him. Say you're still working through the pain he inflicted, and you don't wish to open yourself to more. Then when they bring this up again, say you've said all you have to say and the subject is closed.

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Family cover charge: I don't care if the boyfriend stands up to his family or not, but he should pay for any per-head cover charged to his girlfriend.

Emily Yoffe: Unless they serve really, really good wine for Thanksgiving, $40 seems like a lot for a home-cooked meal—particularly if people contribute side dishes. Sure, if he's able to foot the $80, he should do it. But post-holiday, this family needs to figure out something more equitable for Christmas.

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Holiday parties and coworkers: I'm sure I won't be the only person asking this. ... I work in a fairly small department. I socialize with some people in the department (lunches and occasionally outside of work). I was considering asking those I socialize with to a holiday party but don't want to possibly create ill will in the department. For holiday events with co-workers, is it better to invite all or invite none, or can it be assumed that as it is known that some of us engage socially outside of work, I can invite only those I am social with?

(For what it's worth, there are not space limitations, it's an open house, and I doubt the folks I don't socialize with would come, but I don't want to have to baby-sit people who don't know other friends; and the people I do socialize with know my other friends, too.)

Emily Yoffe: At my daughter's elementary school, there was a birthday party rule that either you invited everyone or you invited fewer than half the class. That seems like a good way to go here. If you only have a few work friends who are also social friends, then just invite them, but send the invitation to their homes and don't discuss the party at work. However, since you work in a small department, if you are going to invite a significant number of people, go ahead and invite them all, especially since it's an open house. Then don't worry about baby-sitting anyone. Be a gracious hostess and introduce them to new people they might like, then leave them to act like well-socialized adults.

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Washington, D.C.: My boyfriend and I have been together for a year, and things are great.

BUT ... I'm having trouble with something, and I know it's me not him and I need help getting over it.

His ex-girlfriend (from a few years ago) is one of the most gorgeous people I've ever seen in my life. I'm cute and in good shape, but I happened to be at the same gym as this girl, and she has the sort of body that I didn't really think was possible. And super pretty too.

They're not friends anymore, and he never mentions her at all, so I know this is dumb, but I just can't get past the thought that there's no way he'll ever stop thinking about this girl's body because I know, after having seen it, I can't stop thinking about it, either!

Emily Yoffe: He was with her; now he's with you. He had a go with Helen of Troy, but he prefers someone cute but wonderful. It turns out even if you're with someone really gorgeous, unless you're getting along, the good looks are meaningless (see: Prince Charles, Diana, and Camilla). However, your relationship can be ruined if you turn from the delightful person you are into a jealous obsessive who puts herself down. Keep going to the gym, staying in shape, and ignoring her; and keep reminding yourself that he doesn't want her, he wants you.

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Turkeys in the kitchen: I serve a full turkey dinner at Christmas to eight people, and my grocery bill, including the bird, is $250. Girlfriend should toss $10 into the hat and bring her own bottle of wine.

Emily Yoffe: I wonder if they'll say, "Sorry, no seconds for people who didn't pay the full cover!"

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San Diego, Calif.: No, no, no, do NOT ask your co-workers to your holiday party. Trust me, someday (sooner than you expect) you will regret asking them over so they can examine your medicine cabinet ...

Emily Yoffe: When you entertain, anyone can look in your medicine cabinets. Instead of the marble trick (load the medicine cabinet with them so they fall with a crash on the nosey guests), just stash your medicine and your easily accessible financial records, etc., somewhere inaccessible when company calls.

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New York, N.Y.: Just a quick etiquette question for you. ... I was in a packed movie theater last night, and I had two adolescent boys behind me. One of them had seen the movie already, and one had not. How do I know this? Well, they talked incessantly the entire time. It tapered at times, but I could still hear rude boy No. 1 explaining things to rude boy No. 2 most of the time. It was so distracting, and as it continued, infuriating. I did the requisite half-turn-around so they would see that I could hear them and found it annoying. That piped them down for a bit. Then they ramped it up for the closing 2-3 minutes! I was so pissed, it took every fiber of my being to not turn around and curse them ad nauseam. When it was over, I had to leave immediately, lest I become my mother and lecture them on the spot about how rude they were. I also sensed it would have done no good, being that they seem to be in their "I'm-such-a-cool-smartass" years. How should I have handled it?

Emily Yoffe: You're right, what would a post-movie lecture from "Mom," accomplish? When the half-turn evil eye doesn't work, you need to address the problem more directly at the time. You should have turned around and quietly said, "Gentlemen, you're ruining the movie for us and we need you to please stop talking." Beyond that, there's not much you can do, except join Netflix.

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San Francisco: I've got really rude in-laws, and they drive me crazy. Now, they are nice and well-intentioned people who raised my wonderful husband ... but, they somehow missed the memo on basic communication and manners.

Recently they were invited across the country to visit our newborn (their granddaughter), and they took the opportunity to invite their California friends (a couple) up to our house for a couple of nights without asking me. They just informed me that so-and-so were coming. They also brought their puppy.

This is just one of MANY unthoughtful gaffes they have made that drive me crazy. Well-intentioned people usually have my sympathy ... but in this case, wouldn't it take a real buffoon to not see that I have a newborn (no nannies or anything, just me) and might appreciate a phone call if a houseful of people are going to arrive?

I went over the edge the last time my husband and I were talking to MIL and she mentioned her dog can't wait to come back and see us ... AFTER it spent two weeks aggressively chasing our cat and waking the baby!

Yes, she was serious.

How do you handle clueless and insensitive behavior when you don't want to alienate the people who are doing it?

Emily Yoffe: You ask your husband to clarify some things so that when they visit it will be pleasant for all. Number one, no dog. You've got a baby and a cat, and it's too much to throw a puppy into that mix. If they say they won't travel without the pup, then suggest they find somewhere nearby to board it when they're over, or explain that unless they leave the dog at home, you can't have them. Also explain quarters are cramped and life is stressful, so when they visit, you cannot play host to any of their friends. If extra people show up, you will give them a list of nearby motels, but you can't put them up. Then they either start behaving, or they stop coming—that sounds like a win-win.

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Midwest: I'm about five weeks pregnant. My family will sense something is up the second I decline the wine at Thanksgiving dinner.  But I don't really want to tell the world unless/until I hear a heartbeat, which won't be for awhile yet. Help!

Emily Yoffe: Congratulations! If you really are having Thanksgiving with such a bunch of Sherlock Holmeses, take the wine, saying, "Not a full glass for me, thanks," and don't drink it. Casually get up from the table with the wine, and pour some in the sink when no one's looking. You can do the same thing at Christmas, unless by then you feel ready to announce your wonderful news.

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Boston: About a year ago, I started writing for my college newspaper. The editor of the paper, "Alice," is leaving for a semester to study in Europe. The problem? While we have always been friendly and gotten along great (at least professionally), I have found myself increasingly attracted to her and have often wondered about asking her out and seeing if we could possibly connect on a more romantic level. Since she is leaving for six months, as well as the fact that she is my superior, do you think I should ask her out and see what happens, or just accept that I am a victim of bad timing and bad circumstances and move on?

Emily Yoffe: The flip side of beneficial restrictions on intraoffice romances is that they may put the kibosh on the chance to find mutual romance with a person who you know shares your interests. This is a college newspaper! Your supervisor is not a faculty member, but a fellow student. If you two can't romantically connect, how are we going to create the college newspaper reporters of the future? You don't know if she feels as you do, so before she takes off, take a risk and ask her out. If she says no, take comfort that by the time she returns, you'll be over her.

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Portland, Ore.: I am a happily married thirtysomething woman. About a year ago, my mother found an old notebook of mine in my old bedroom. She read it cover to cover—it unfortunately included some unsavory thoughts about my brother. At the time, he and I did not get along, and I considered him the bane of my existence. You could imagine some of the things an unhappy, angsty teenager could come up with. When my mother informed me that she found this notebook, she also told me she shared it with my brother—horror! I would hope she would respect my privacy and his feelings more than that, but she didn't. Not knowing how to address this, I simply ignored the problem. Now, a year later, I wonder if my brother holds the things I said about him against me. Should I apologize? Should I let sleeping dogs lie?

Emily Yoffe: Mom should have been grounded for life for that one. You don't mention she's crazy, so I'm having a hard time understanding why she would want to open up such a wound. I hope you told her what a violation this was. Good for your brother that he's acted as if he never heard about this. The two of you sound a lot more mature than Mom, and maybe he realized how meaningless your long-ago teenage thoughts were. However, since you know he read it, you could pull him aside privately at Thanksgiving and say you've been troubled for a long time about your mother's actions, that you hope he understands he was reading ancient history from an unhappy adolescent, and how grateful you are that you now get along and that you hope he knows you love and admire him. Then check out your family home and remove any more incriminating evidence from Mom's clutches!

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Missoula, Mont.: My husband and I are having Thanksgiving dinner at our dearest friend's house with him and his partner. We did this last year, and it was lovely except for one weird exchange with the partner. I asked last year what we could bring, and he said bring whatever we wanted. So I made my favorite stuffing to serve as a side dish (it's a family recipe and very dear to me). Partner was extremely upset because he had already made stuffing and felt like I was trying to outdo him, or take charge, or something. He was pretty passive-aggressive about it the whole evening, making comments about how it took up too much space or was redundant. This year, I asked what to bring, and he said to bring a side or, again, "whatever I wanted." How do I avoid a scene again? Do we just show up with a bottle of wine? I feel like it's important to contribute but don't want the drama.

Emily Yoffe: He obviously should have graciously served your stuffing and said how delicious it was. However, unless you say, "Can I bring stuffing?" it seems like a bad choice for Thanksgiving. You wouldn't show up with a plate of turkey legs, either. So decide what you'd like to bring—then check it out with them. Say, "I was thinking of green beans with almonds or brownies, which would you prefer?" If even then he won't give you hint and he has a snit this year, be grateful you don't have to live with him.

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Olney, Md.: My husband and I are treating two of our daughters, their husbands, and our granddaughter to Thanksgiving dinner at a nice restaurant (third daughter is having dinner in Florida with her husband and his family). I'm happy that we can afford to do this for them, and I'm grateful for our wonderful family.

Emily Yoffe: You aren't charging everyone? You aren't making a scene? You aren't revealing your children's secrets to the table? You're just grateful to be with your loving family? What are you doing in this chat?!

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Md.: My brother-in-law has lived a mile away from us with my in-laws after a divorce several years ago. He stopped speaking to my husband and me after my husband refused to allow him to invite his EX-wife to our wedding earlier this year. We have not been included in family holidays at the in-laws' since the argument (Easter and now Thanksgiving). Essentially, my husband is told we are welcome to come by, but no direct invitation is ever issued to me, nor a dinner invite for both of us. This is unbelievably hurtful to me, as I have no family in the area. Luckily, dear friends have invited us for the holidays. There is no chance of Brother-in-Law leaving home anytime soon since he has been unemployed for more than a year. Husband continues to cut his parents' grass and visits them regularly. They claim we are welcome to come over, but visits have to be scheduled around Brother-in-Law. Any advice you can provide would be wonderful...thanks!

Emily Yoffe: There are lots of ways to interpret "welcome anytime." It could mean "Don't set foot here," or "We wish you would make the next move," or "We know we've been wrong, but no way are we going to acknowledge that."
On his next visit, your husband needs to make the next move. He should sit down and have a serious discussion with his parents and brother. He can be the big one and apologize for the hurt feelings over the ex-sister-in-law. He can say that the invitation wasn't extended since she was an ex, but he sees now how much this meant to your brother, and if he had it to do over, he would include her. But now this estrangement is making his own wife feel unwelcome in the family home, and he wants to get past this. He can suggest all of you go out for a peace-making dinner. That way, things should be back on track for Christmas.
If, however, your husband's family wants to continue to punish both of you, maybe they need to find an alternate lawn service.

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Fo, OD: Green beans with brownies—YUM!!!

Emily Yoffe: It's my specialty.

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Surviving Thanksgiving Suggestion: Since it seems like a fair number of your readers are girding their loins for some less-than-fabulous Thanksgiving dinners, I thought I'd offer up a suggestion folks can try for next year, one that makes our holiday much more bearable. Every year we host a dinner the Sunday before Thanksgiving and invite all the people we would have around our table on the big day if we didn't head off to the hinterlands to do the family thing. Everyone is asked to bring a dish, something they would love to serve for Thanksgiving but don't, either because they are still perfecting the dish or because they think their fellow diners would turn up their noses. I make the main course, which sometimes is a turkey but not always. We end up with lots of interesting food, great conversation, and enough good spirit to carry us through the week. It's the highlight of our holiday season!

Emily Yoffe: What a great idea for the holiday season, although any time of year, casual, convivial entertaining makes life more fun. However, it sounds a little dangerous to specify dishes one's family is sure to reject!

I hope you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving, full of dishes everyone loves, and gratitude for the imperfect families we have.

And become a fan of Prudie on the official Dear Prudence Facebook page.

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