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

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Jan. 4 2010 2:44 PM

Dress Me Up, Dress Me Down

Prudie counsels a woman whose sister's snide remarks are driving family members away—and other advice seekers.

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. Hope you all have hats, gloves, and scarves on today.

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Baltimore: How rude can you be to someone who is rude? My older sister is one of those who thinks it's funny and helpful when she points out someone's lack of style. She has alienated all family members who worry about their style. I do not, but when she picks on me, it is in front of my kids. My kids are in their early and late teens and have watched this behavior for years. They know she means well, too, although she certainly can't accept any criticism. Is there a response that I can give my sister that will show my kids that their mother is 1) not cruel but 2) fed up with the snarky remarks?

Emily Yoffe: How does your sister mean well? She sounds like she enjoys insulting other family members. Since your kids are old enough to understand the dynamics here, have a discussion with them in which you say it's possible to love people but also dislike parts of their personality. Then when she comments on your hair or shoes or accessories, you can say something like, "Hey, it's Stacy London! Thanks for the advice, but I'd prefer just to catch up with you and not feel like I'm on an episode of What Not to Wear."

D.C. Metro: I have a family member who sends a gift of some animal to the Heifer fund as a Christmas present to us every year. Every year I get more and more offended, as this is not a "gift" to anyone except themselves, as they get a tax deduction. My kids understand about giving to charity, but I cannot explain how this is a "gift" to us. I would like to tell this person to please stop sending these donations as "gifts" and only a card is fine.

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Emily Yoffe: What a good lesson for the kids! A family member makes a contribution in your family's name to a wonderful cause, and you want your children to understand this isn't really a gift but a tax deduction, and you want to demand a refund from the giver. Unless you have some moral objection to helping the poorest people in the world obtain farm animals, be a good example to your kids and tell them this is a generously spirited gift and have them help you write a thank-you note.

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Northern Va.: One of my best friends and his kids just left after a long visit—single dad, 11-year-old boy, and 4 year-old girl. My husband and I have a 4-year-old boy.

Our friend's ex is a horrible parent who allows a lot of dreadful behavior, and the stepfather is no help.

We only get to see our friend when he brings his kids (he lives in Florida). But honestly, we simply can't do this again. The kids are horrible. They scream, break things, refuse the food they are offered, complain, interrupt, contradict, and lie. Our son's behavior after one of their visits is problematic for a few days.

Finally, our friend really feels that it is not appropriate for my husband or me to say anything. We don't think we have a right to discipline the kids, but we think we should at least be allowed to say, "Hey, that was rude, and I don't like it" when a kid spits out his juice because it has pulp in it.

Any ideas for us for approaching our friend?

Emily Yoffe: How tragic for these children, and how unsurprising that they spend all their time acting out when they are being raised in chaos. You should have a straightforward talk with your friend pointing out the delightful qualities of his kids (go ahead and lie), and then saying you are also concerned about them. Say you know they have a tough road with his ex but that you worry that life will be very hard for them if they don't learn the basics of how to behave and that you think they need some outside help—as any child would under the circumstances. You can also say you welcome a visit in the future but that when they're there, you will expect them to behave according to the rules of the house, which you will be happy to point out to them in a gentle way. And that's not a matter of, "Hey, kid, you're rude!" but, "Tommy, in our house there's no jumping on the couches or touching the art in the living room." Your friend may not want to hear this, but you're going to give up on the friendship if you can't be honest.

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College Park, Md.: I need some help so that I can better help my wife. We have a 6-month-old daughter. My wife has never really bonded with her. She returned to work after three months and has added pumping twice during work into an already stressful job. The biggest problem seems to be lack of sleep. For the most part, out daughter has been sleeping from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. for the past two months. Yet, my wife can not sleep because she is worried our daughter will wake up. If she does wake up, I have always been the one to go to her nursery room, changer her diaper, and then bring her to my wife to nurse. Today, like many other days, my wife broke down and cried. She claims that she hates her life and is never happy. I have asked her what would make her happy. She does not know. I have asked her to go talk to a professional about post partum depression. She says that would make her more stressed and depressed.

I am getting fearful of leaving our daughter with my wife as she has told me she has come close to hitting her or shaking her several times.

I do what I can to ease the burden on my wife. I do all the cooking, dishes, washing of bottles and pump parts, and cleaning. I also do half of the picking up from day care and taking to day care. My wife works some evening shifts and weekend shifts, so I get lots of one-on-one time with my daughter, which I greatly enjoy. Please help.

Emily Yoffe: Your wife sounds as if she's suffering from postpartum depression and you need to act immediately. You should call her gynecologist and have a talk with her or him explaining that you are alarmed about your wife's condition, especially the fact that she herself is worried about harming the baby. Your wife needs to go in NOW for a complete evaluation—medication could be a lifesaver here. Also contact Postpartum.net and get information so that you can understand your wife's situation better. Do this today—your wife is in crisis, but fortunately good help is available. Brooke Shields also suffered from this and wrote a book about her recovery; reading it might help your wife feel less alone.

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Chicago: We have a close friend who is prone to embarrassing malapropisms that surpass even the best Norm Crosby bit. These are not innocent and simple mispronunciations—but ugly mangling of words including misuse and lack of understanding of the meaning of some words. I know that many words have multiple pronunciations and meanings, but this is beyond brutal. Some of them are funny, some are faux pas that make you wince and want to help. We used to try to help by repeating the word correctly in conversation after she had mangled it. No success. We have tried the direct approach—like a teacher—but this was rebuffed. We never did any of this in public but in private, away from others. And we picked our spots—only bringing up the worst cases. But she takes offense and continues mispronouncing words and inserting them in conversation where they don't belong. Recently, my wife used the word adept, and now our friend mispronounces it and uses it like apt. It is like she has her own language. My wife has stopped trying to correct her. Her husband is no help and does the same thing on a smaller scale. I refuse to throw in the towel as I can't understand why anyone would not want to expand their vocabulary—correctly. I would want to know if I was saying tenor for tenure and FOIL-AGE for any of the many accepted versions of foliage. We are 57 and of sound mind. She does not have a hearing problem.

Emily Yoffe: Your friend probably has some sort of language processing disorder (there was speculation that the George Bush's malapropisms, "I know you want to put food on your family," etc., might have come from such a disorder), and all the schoolmarmish corrections in the world won't "cure" her. It's good you mention Norm Crosby, because he built an entire career on amusingly mangling language. I don't know why you consider being with your friend "brutal." It sounds as if you usually understand what she means, and when you don't, you can ask for more context. Trying to keep a straight face seems like the biggest problem you face in socializing with her. So just be compassionate and let it go, and when you get in the car, you can laugh at her best neologisms.

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Chicago, IL: Regarding the donor who gives the gift to the Heifer fund each year—the cause is great, but the letter writer has a point: The donor has chosen his/her own charity to which to make the donation. My daughter—who loves animals—would love to have a gift made in her name to the ASPCA, or to the Humane Society, or to a local (to us) animal shelter.

Perhaps this year's thank-you cards to the donor can include a request that such donations made in the kids' names should be made to the kids' choice of (responsible) charitable organizations? This would truly personalize (to the kids) the gifts made by the donor.

Emily Yoffe: If someone is making a donation to the Heifer fund for a vegan, that might be a problem. And I agree the donation gift is best targeted to the recipient's interests, but the Heifer fund and others of its ilk do fabulous work, and it's hard to imagine who wouldn't agree with the idea of helping the world's poor become self-sufficient. So the recipient should show her kids the Heifer Web site and say, "Aunt Deborah donated to this group in our name, and look at the good things the money will do." In this case, it seems like a good thing to look a gift cow in the mouth.

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New York: I'm a graduate student who has recently moved to a new city. Often on the weekends, I find myself with a group of friends at bars. Several times, I've had a very pleasant conversation with a stranger at the bar, only to have him ask for my phone number and/or a date at the end of the chat. I'd love to go out with these men as I'm new to the city and enjoy making new friends and seeing new things. Here's the problem—I'm not looking for a long-term relationship, even though I'm single. I feel bad accepting their offers of dinner or a drink if I know that nothing romantic is going to come of it. (Even if I split the check with them, I don't want them to feel as though they've wasted their time.) Is there a tactful way to let them know that I'd love to go to dinner, but I'm not interested in dating?

Emily Yoffe: You don't say why you aren't interested in a long term relationship—is it because you are involved with someone else, or because you don't want romance to distract from your studies? If it's the former, that's something you need to make clear before you go out with someone of the opposite sex. But if it's the latter, well, the person you meet at a bar who asks you out for drinks may not be envisioning walking down the aisle with you, either. There are no false pretenses in getting to know people in a new city, so go ahead for that drink or dinner, then as you talk about your lives, you can make it clear you're looking for friendship, not romance. But, again, why rule out romance entirely?

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Clarksville, Md.: You are simply wrong about the supposed "gift" of a charity donation. The donation to a charity is between the person who donates (which is the person who can receive the tax deduction) and the charity. The third party, in the case the supposed "gift" recipient, has not received any type of gift. Such a gift is offensive. It is simply not a gift. This has nothing to do with the value of the charity which receives the donation and everything to do with the definition of what a gift is.

Emily Yoffe: Clarksville, I hope everyone on your list knows you'd rather get a puce scarf from the sale rack than a donation to a worthy cause in your name.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: My loving if not crazy in-laws call my husband incessantly. If we do not pick up the phone at home, then they leave long, saddened messages and continue to call until we pick up or turn our phones off. They have very little to do as they are both retired. Because I want to respect them, how do I lovingly suggest that they cut the phone cord?

Emily Yoffe: This is for your husband to do. He needs to explain that he's happy to talk to them on some specific schedule—be it every other day or once or twice a week, and that unless there's an emergency, the two of you just don't have time for long, daily chats. Their son can express his concern that they seem bored and at loose ends and suggest that they look into taking classes or doing volunteer work so their days are more fulfilling. Beyond that, if they continue to call, continue to ignore them. If you don't reward their behavior, you have a better chance of stopping it.

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Washington, DC: I have finally lost it and don't know where else to turn for advice. I am a 31-year-old single female. The problem is that I do not have breasts. It's not that they are small, but the problem is much worse—they look like a man's flat chest. I have been to doctors, and they have told me that everything is fine, and my breasts just didn't develop. So I have become accustomed to wearing padded bras.

My problem is with men. When I date them and the time comes for them to see me without clothes, they literally freak when they see me and I never hear from them again. Same thing happens when I get the nerve to tell them about it before anything physical happens. I never hear from them again. I cannot afford to get implants. How can I go on and approach these men in a different way so that I can actually have a physical relationship with someone?

Emily Yoffe: I'm no doctor, but it doesn't seem to me that "everything is fine" if a woman never develops any breasts at all. I think you need to find some new doctors—perhaps an endocrinologist?—who can try to unravel why you missed this developmental step. Then, if there is no medical treatment for this, don't give up on the possibility of plastic surgery. Perhaps breast implants for you could be covered by insurance because this is not cosmetic, but due to a medical problem. No, I don't think everyone should have to conform their body to some ridiculous standard, but with all the available medical fixes, there's no reason for you to have to go through life feeling terrible about something that could be fairly easily fixed.

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Salem, Ore.: At times when I've worked retail and office jobs, customers or co-workers have told me how red my face is. All I know is that it's heat-related, and I have no money for a diagnosis. I found a tinted cream to cover the redness somewhat. With a co-worker situation, I feel comfortable giving replies I can't in a retail case. I see these remarks as rude and would like to tell people so but can't. Sometimes I ignore them; sometimes I look at them without saying anything. If they ask about a sunburn, I simply say no. What do they expect me to say, "Really?! I "had no idea!" It's like telling someone, "You're fat!" or "You're bald!" What would you tell people?

Emily Yoffe: I wish there could be a blanket New Year's resolution that gets people to resist the temptation to point out unusual physical aspects of others. The amount of mail I get on this is astounding. If you're dealing with a customer, not saying anything is a good strategy, or could you simply say, "Yes, I know" and refuse to say anything else.
And I am sorry to get yet another letter from someone with a medical condition that makes life unpleasant but who says seeing a doctor is just too expensive. A chronically red face is something that may be quite treatable. I suggest you contact your nearest medical school, explain your financial condition, and see if you can get discount treatment. You shouldn't have to suffer with an undiagnosed condition.

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Burlington, Vt.: My partner's family is totally wonderful in a lot of ways. However they have a custom that I find pretty intrusive and unhygienic. They all kiss each other on the lips! I was introduced to this when meeting his uncle, and he put his arm around my neck, and drew me in for a big, wet one. Now when we go to family gatherings, I obsess about how I'm going to avoid kissing a dozen people on the lips. My partner seems to think this isn't a big deal. I try to avoid it by turning my head quickly so the kiss lands on my cheek, but that doesn't always work. Is there any way I can avoid this custom without awkwardly announcing that I don't like it?

Emily Yoffe: Blech!! You could try to explain you're just not a kissy person, but by the time you open your mouth to say this, Uncle Harry could already have his tongue in it. So why not try a defensive maneuver by announcing at the door, "I think I'm coming down with something, so no one should kiss me!" If anyone then moves in for the kill, you could put your hand out and say, "I don't want to give you my germs!" They can ponder over that years that whenever you visit, you are always on the verge of a cold.

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Postpartum: I recently helped a friend through this, so perhaps anecdotal stuff might help a little. First, congrats on being there for your wife. A thought—your wife might react better to discussion of it being medical, a hormonal imbalance that can be addressed. To me, it is obviously postpartum depression as the symptoms are the same with my friend. The docs who helped her were wonderful and sympathetic—far from being an added stress, for my friend it was like having a weight lifted off. Half a year on, she's a different person from the one who told her husband, "I don't think I'm safe with the baby."

Emily Yoffe: As distressing as this situation is, it is so amenable to help that you're right, in a few months, the mother may feel like a totally different person. Good idea for the husband to emphasize his wife is going through a medical crisis, and he should take the initiative in getting her help immediately.

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To Ms. Malaprop:: My ex-husband used to have some dreadful pronunciation issues (pacific for specific, escarole for escrow, acrossed for across—you get the idea) and used the word abruption once, saying that he did not want to "be the blunt [he meant brunt] of my abruption" (meaning an argument). Correcting does little, and she probably sees it as your lording a better vocabulary over her. Be patient and kind and continue re-repeating the word in correct context or with correct pronunciation—it is much kinder than pointing out the mistake. It used to make me wince during a conversation with others that my ex used to make these faux pas, but I realized it had more to do with me than with him!

Emily Yoffe: How could you stay mad at someone who begged not to be the "blunt of your abruption"? Also, maybe the subprime mortgage crisis wouldn't have happened if people had at least put escarole in the escrow account instead of nothing.

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Tyler, Texas: I hate having houseguests and staying in other people's homes. This has become problematic since having our children (4 and 2). They are the only grandchildren on both sides, and everybody wants to visit or wants us to come see them. They are all extremely offended if we want to stay in a hotel, but neither family is really equipped for a family of four to stay with them for several days. We are also not really equipped to have extra people in our house for frequent "long weekends." Both sets of grandparents live far away, so when they come, they want to make it worth the trip and usually stay a while. I did the math—in 2009, I spent five full weeks either as a guest or having guests in my home. That is not visiting; that is roommates. The kids love their grandparents, and I truly do not want to limit their time with them—only the amount of time I spend sharing a bathroom with them. Any advice on how to get them out of my house without cutting them off?

Emily Yoffe: Is it possible when you visit for you to stay in a motel and let the kids, or one kid at a time, have a sleepover with the grandparents? Or could you compromise and have the grandparents stay with you for the weekend, but then move into a motel during the work week? These are your parents and your husband's parents. Instead of quietly steaming, you should be able to say to them that you love them and want the kids to have the maximum time possible with them, but sharing close living quarters is just miserable for you, and you want to figure out a way to get together that makes everyone happy.

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New York City: Just wanted to offer a comment to balance out the Scrooges! The first Christmas after the crash—when we were all high populists—I made a donation to Heifer in my mother's name. When she received the card, she called me up and cried on the phone (and not because she was missing another kitten sweater).

Heifer was not one of her usual charities, and it hasn't become one—by adulthood we all generally have picked out those to which we will commit our finite resources. But now my mother doesn't have to worry about how to fit a new charity into her finances; she knows that I'll do it for her.

That's why it's a GIFT and not just a (measly) tax write off.

Emily Yoffe: You mean there are people like your mother who were moved by a lovely, meaningful gesture and didn't ream you out because you didn't get her the Santa swizzle sticks? Amazing.

Thank you for this note, which starts the new year out on the right note!

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