Slate: Advice from 'Dear Prudence': I'm Glad My Sister and I Don't Talk; How Do I Answer Well-Meaning Questions About My Job Search?; and Boundary Issues Galore

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A husband who wants to vacation without his travel-stressed wife seeks guidance from Slate's advice columnist, Prudence. Video by Slate

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Emily Yoffe
Slate Advice Columnist
Monday, April 13, 2009; 1:00 PM

Need help getting along with partners, relatives, coworkers... and people in general? Ask Prudence! Emily Yoffe -- a.k.a. Slate's advice columnist Dear Prudence, was online Monday, April 13 to take your questions on manners, morals and more.

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Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon!

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Houston, Texas: My comment is regarding your advice to "Utterly Confused." While the "nosy girl" the writer is complaining about does seem (from what he says) to be rude and annoying, it bothers me that your response puts all the blame on her shoulders and doesn't even address the underage drinking, "minor drug use" and selling of narcotics -- all things that were mentioned in the question. Reporting someone to the RD for dress code violation or loud music -- annoying. Reporting someone to the RD for SELLING (not just possession) drugs -- I'd say that's a pretty legit thing to do. No, it's actually the RIGHT thing to do.

Emily Yoffe: This is in response to last week's column in Slate in which a sophomore in a dorm reported that another girl in the dorm had appointed herself the unofficial dorm monitor, reporting people every time they committed an infraction. The letter writer said that people in the dorm sometimes did drink, take some drugs, and play loud music. She also said the hall monitor had heard someone in the dorm was selling drugs and she called the police and the kid was busted and expelled. The monitor is (surprise) extremely unpopular and has continued to constantly look for violations and taken to shouting abusive comments through her open door and posting attacks on other people on Facebook. The letter writer said she didn't smoke or drink but she was worried about doing something that would get her reported by this girl. I said she should talk to the resident adviser about how the girl is creating a poisonous atmosphere in the dorm.

Well, 100 percent of the people who responded to my answer said I had created a poisonous atmosphere in the column. It sounded like I was in favor of turning dorms into open air drug markets and dens of debauchery. I am not in favor of taking drugs, and my previous remarks on drinking have gotten me condemned for my Prohibition-like attitudes. Also, I HATE loud music. I should have mentioned all these things and, yes, I agree with my critics that a student is entitled to a quiet drug-free place in which to live and study. However, for space reasons I cut the fact that the monitor likes to go through garbage cans searching for beer bottles, etc. The drug-dealer is gone (and I think it would have been better to report him to school authorities before calling the police) but she's still on a frenzy looking for violations. It doesn't sound as if she's unable to go in her room and study because she lives in Animal House. It sounds as if she is compelled to be in everyone else's business -- and if you live in a college dorm that's bound to provide a lot of other people's business to get into. I agree with my critics; I should have said more about the fact that people should not be breaking the law and making life unpleasant for others in a group living situation. However, if the letter writer, who doesn't drink or smoke, is worried about this girl, then there is something wrong. The hall monitor sounds miserable and possibly unbalanced, and I still believe she needs the attention of an adult to help her figure out how to get along better.

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DC: My sister and I have not spoken to one another in nearly two years. There was no big blowout, no final strike argument. We just stopped talking. And it's been GREAT. She's a pathological liar who gets psychotic when she's not the center of attention. She completely lost her mind when I (the elder sibling) had the temerity to get married first and have children before she did. We never got along even as kids, and having her out of my life makes me feel so free.

My parents are aware of her issues -- I'm the executor of their estate, their emergency contact, etc., because they don't want her horrible judgment or her awful religious cult to have any impact on their lives.

But at the same time they know she's insane, and have even said their lives would be better if they could cut her out too, they keep nudging me to get back in touch!

When I ask why, they have no answer. So what do you think? And how can I end this topic forever? I truly only think about my sister when they bring her up.

Emily Yoffe: No matter what, it is natural for parents to want to get their children to get along -- even if they know one of those children is impossible and destructive. They probably worry about what will happen to your sister after they are gone, and if anyone from the family will be in her life. However, your sister is clearly a disturbed woman and the rightness of your decision to cut off contact has been proven by the improvement in your life. Tell your parents you understand their concerns, but this two-year experiment has been a total success and you're going to continue enjoying the sounds of silence.

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California: I get grief from my mother whenever my I use vacation time to do something other than visit her, and she's a champion minute-counter of my time ("You spent five days with your dad at Christmas, but only four with me at Thanksgiving"). It doesn't help that my new husband and I live on the West Coast, but our parents are in Georgia, Montana, and Minnesota.

Recently, my best friend invited my husband and I to spend a week with her in Brazil, where her family is from. It's an amazing opportunity (when else could we get free lodging in South America?), but thinking about mentioning it to my mom puts my stomach in knots.

With limited vacation time and funds, how should we be balancing family visits with personal time? Does getting married and acquiring in-laws mean giving up your own vacations? How should I address these issues with Mom so it stops being an issue every three months? I'm tired of feeling like a bad daughter.

Emily Yoffe: You deal with it by telling her that you and your husband are taking an exciting trip to visit friends in Brazil -- and acting as if this is wonderful news. Don't give her so much notice that she has months of nagging you ahead, but don't tell her the eve of your departure, either. It's up to you to mark off new boundaries in your relationship. She will resist, but eventually she'll find that even when she nags and guilt-trips it doesn't result in more trips from you, but fewer. Start learning to say, "I'd like to see you more, too, Mom. But this time I'm going to Brazil, so let's talk about something else."

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Washington, D.C.: Dear Prudence,

My boss is a complete micro-manager and control-freak. In an attempt to control everything, he recently asked me to check in during the day or to check my voice mail when I would be out of the office for a full-day meeting for work. I do not have a work-paid cell phone, so he was asking me to call him on my personal cell phone, which I pay for, to ask him if there is anything he needs of me. I sent him a response telling him a specific person was capable of handling anything that should come up, but he responded asking me to still please check in. I didn't -- and he hasn't yet said anything about it, but how can I explain to him that I am unwilling to check in when I am out of the office, but still working, for a single day? He will most likely be unhappy with my refusal, but unless he pays the minutes, why should I?

Emily Yoffe: Isn't this a case of picking your battles? It's not unreasonable to check in once during the day while you're out of the office. As for using your own minutes -- aren't you on some kind of plan? And unless you're paying roaming charges from Bangkok, a call to the office has to be a nominal expense. Yes, you're in a tough situation having a control-freak boss, and you need some strategies for dealing with constant nit-picking, but becoming passive-aggressive is only going to make you more miserable in the long run.

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Seattle: Dear Prudence,

Five months ago, I started dating a friend of the family (his sister is so close to my mom that she was present at my birth, and she often refers to me as 'family,' invites me to Christmas dinner, etc.). We haven't told our families because they're unlikely to approve as he is 15 years older than me; I'm 26, he's 41. We are exclusive, and he's now a big part of my life. I'm beginning to feel like there may be a certain point where the omission of not telling our families (that we're close with) is too big, but I don't know where that point is, exactly. Is it none of their business or should we clear the air? should we wait until we have dated longer (like a year? Or wait until we want to move in together, etc.?)?

Secret Girlfriend

Emily Yoffe: Fifteen years is a big gap, but it's hardly the Grand Canyon of age differences. It sounds as if the time to mention this is now because you are starting to feel funny about not doing so. Since neither of you think anything is wrong, acting as if it is certainly leaves the impression you agree with the people who will disapprove. But you're both adults, so it's one thing to let your families know important news about your lives, but it's another to act as if you're asking your permission. You're not asking permission -- you're just letting them know about your happiness.

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South Orange, N.J.: In our world, we have a circle of relatively new friends I'll call "Ys" -- we met most of the Ys within the last year or two. All know I'm unemployed, and have offered the usual support ("if I hear anything or know anyone...").

When they ask how my hunt is or how I'm doing, I'm torn about how much detail to give for an answer. I don't run the detail of "sent out 45 resumes, responded to 18 ads each of the last days," but I do give a "highlights" -- "second round interview at one company, three other first rounds didn't progress, seems like there are more ads this month than last."

My wife favors more of the "doing well, seen some action" response, which sounds both pitiful and not sharing enough to me.

What are your ideas for us unemployed?

Emily Yoffe: Unless the Ys are in the industry you are looking in and you think having a more in-depth discussion with them will improve your job hunt, there's no reason to give a more detailed answer to "How's the job search going?" It's a similar question to "How are you?". Usually you just give a brief, anodyne response in social settings. But with close friends, who truly want to know how the job search is, or how you are, you give more details.

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Back to the basics: Really basic question here. I'm not a phone person. I prefer texting or emailing. However, I've noticed that when I date men, my reluctance to talk on the phone negatively affects our attempts to get to know each other. With that in mind, I've decided I need to at least give it a shot. I'm fine with the brief five minute "how was your day" call, but I'm thinking to give this a fair chance, I probably have to start doing longer phone calls. What is normal? Or is there no normal, and I can continue in my anti-phone ways? I'm in my 30's, so I grew up talking on the phone, and thus have no excuse for my texting ways. Thanks!

Emily Yoffe: From what I see and hear I think the world is beginning to divide into two groups of people. Those who love to shout into the cell phone that there was too much mayo on the turkey sandwich they had for lunch, and those who prefer to text this crucial information. I just read an article that young people are refusing to even listen to their voice mail anymore because it's so cumbersome, and they get annoyed with anyone who won't just leave a text. So you are not alone in your aversion to the drifting nature of the live phone conversation -- and I'm surprised your beaux are still stuck on this technology. If they want to talk, however, of course you should make the effort. But even in today's world of instant communication, nothing beats using the phone, or a text, to make a date to actually get together in person as the best way to get to know someone.

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Washington, D.C.: A little over a year ago, I left my husband because of his verbal/emotional abuse. We have a child, and in the years preceding the separation, I had worked full time (as had he) and I had also obtained a post-graduate degree at night. He and I share completely equal custody (despite his verbal/emotional abuse to me, I think he's been a good father -- so far). Because I have been unwilling to get into the nitty-gritty of our split with co-workers, mutual friends, and some family members, some people have assumed that I left him because I was done with the post-grad degree, making a good salary and no longer needed his help (I left him a little less than a year after I was done with the post-grad degree).

I am so frustrated at times (the most recent was a digging comment by my 86-year-old grandmother) that I just want to tell everyone WHY I left him -- but at the same time, I don't think that's right, nor do I think it's productive. Those who need to know (my mom, brother, and a few close friends) do know. Any recommendations for how to handle the rest of the peanut gallery?

Emily Yoffe: The people who need to know, know. No one wants a dig from Grandma, but isn't she close enough to be told that your ex was an abuser? It's too bad she made a dig, but surely it makes no sense to her that you would walk out of what looks like a good marriage for no discernible reason. As for the rest, you can say something like, "I appreciate your concern, but as painful as this has been, it is for the best." If they keep pressing, firmly reply, "I just don't want to discuss such a private matter. Thanks."

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Out of the office: NOOOO -- you need to establish boundaries. His insistence is ridiculous and it basically gives him carte blanche.

It's entirely reasonable not to check in/respond for one day. You can let people know you are out of the office via greeting on your voicemail and an auto response to e-mail. If he really needs to get ahold of you, he can call you on your cell.

Our society has gone crazy expecting instant access to people. There is almost nothing that can't wait 24 hours.

Emily Yoffe: I agree with you about the mania of 24-hour access. But the letter writer has an overbearing boss, so it's important to pick your fights. As you say, it's not unreasonable to check in once during the day, so do that. That puts you in a better position to distinguish between reasonable and unreasonable requests. Refusing to check in just gives the boss ammunition to say you ignore reasonable requests and you're unavailable at crucial times.

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Arlington, Va.: To the person with the micro-managing boss: it's actually quite normal to check into the office at least once a day when you'll be out of the office. That's just normal in my office. How long does it take to check messages? A minute or two at the most? This really isn't a battle that you want to fight. If your boss is asking you to do it, do it.

Emily Yoffe: Agreed. This may be a battle between control-freakdom, and passive-aggression.

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Dupont Circle: "Well, you should feel lucky you even have a job." What's the best way to respond to this statement?

Yes, of course I am happy to have a job. I don't sit in my cubicle with a smile plastered on my face and skip home, though. I'm grateful to have work, cautious about spending money, wise to be saving more. I witnessed layoffs at my job two months ago, and it scared me to death, and I feel sad for those who lost their jobs and guilty that I'm not very busy at work.

A year ago, replying to the question "so how was your day" and relaying a story about something that happened at work would have passed for mere conversation. Today, if the story is even slightly tinted with something negative or critical, you're assumed to be ungrateful and fed that line. (I should clarify that people who are employed are saying this -- I try to be sensitive to friends who were laid off and might not want to discuss work life.)

Replying "yes, of course I am" doesn't hold much weight in the conversation.

Thank you.

Emily Yoffe: "You're lucky to have a job" has become the "Have a nice day" of the 00s. I'm also hearing this a lot said as a tag line by people after they finish complaining about something at work. Yes, all of us with jobs are lucky. But this doesn't mean we've stopped being human and therefore will never complain again. If the "You're lucky" is a way of dismissing a real work difficulty, then you can say, "Yes, I am -- but this is a real problem." If it's in response to something that's pretty trivial, you can say, "Yes, I am -- but that doesn't mean I still don't like to complain."

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For Washington, D.C. with abusive ex: How's about, "I don't want to get into the whys of my leaving the marriage. No matter what, he is the father of my daughter and as such deserves to not be gossiped about."

Emily Yoffe: If I heard that I have to admit I'd start asking other people if they know what the gossip would be about. Either you tell people you are ending an abusive marriage, or you don't get into it at all. Leaving enticing hints about what really went on is not going to help close off the discussion.

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Text don't phone: I am old in technological terms (38) but definitely prefer texting or online chatting to phoning under many circumstances. I would not worry about it at all -- just keep in mind that people who really prefer to do everything verbally may have a harder time communicating with us text-firsters.

Emily Yoffe: Doesn't everyone today have to be bi-technological? You have to be comfortable talking on the phone and texting. But I've read that texts are swamping calls. It's definitely more efficient -- which may mean it's not great for getting-to-know-you.

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South Orange, N.J.: Re your video Cat question, and an answer of tiring the cat out so it sleeps...

Normally, you're the cat's meow, but this time you're setting up a cat-astrophe.

We have four cats, and a dog, and a three-year-old. Frankly, we'd never allow them to run our lives like you suggested. Plus, many cats grow bored with lasers and fishing poles and end up ignoring them.

They can mew all they want. After a few days (at most two weeks), they'll get used to the new arrangement. Plus this sets a good tone for any children in the future: The kids have their own bed for a reason!

Emily Yoffe: This refers to a video today in SlateV in which a woman in a new relationship wants her boyfriend's cat, Sherman, off the bed. Just as the world may be divided into callers and texters, it's also divided into those who love sleeping with their pet (supply your own jokes), and those who can't stand it. The problem here is not training the cat to stay out of the bedroom. The problem is that the boyfriend wants to sleep with Sherman. As a pet-sleeper myself, it's a mistake for a new human love to try to toss a purring security blanket.

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Out of the office: If they feel the boss is consistently overbearing, bad, intrusive, etc. and that the calling in is just one example, then they should look for another job and as you said, find ways to manage the big deal problems of this one in the mean time. I hate to say it, but in this economy the worst thing one can do is risk getting fired and/or making the relationship go from annoying to unlivable. I think you're right and fighting every fight is a bad, bad idea even if the boss is a pain.

P.S. I may be biased because at this point every single couple in my entire extended family save one has experienced at least one lay off this year, and for most everyone finding a new job has been harder than it ever has been in the past.

Emily Yoffe: Isn't this point at which someone needs to say to the letter writer with the overbearing boss, "But you're lucky to have a job"!

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re: California (vacation time): What's sadder: that the letter writer's own mother makes her feel like a "bad daughter" even when she's constantly trying to please her ... or that the LW seems to think that "getting married and acquiring in-laws" would naturally mean nothing less than "giving up your own vacations?"

We need billboards in all corners of the U.S. that mimic the "Got Milk?" ad campaigns: "Boundaries. Get some."

Emily Yoffe: That seems to be a theme today, and you're right. As long as you try to appease a mother who throws a fit or guilt-trips whenever you visit any other relative, or, horrors!, take a real vacation, you are only abetting her behavior. She's not going to change voluntarily, but you can. And if you change your responses to her, she might learn to tone it down in response.

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Arlington, Va.: Dear Prudence,

My boyfriend of nine months is debating moving back to the West Coast this fall for work and to be closer to his family. A future, that for many reasons, would not include me. Would you end the relationship now rather than be strung along for the next few months or wait it out, fully expecting that he will in fact make the move. For what it's worth -- I really adore him and would/will miss him terribly.

Emily Yoffe: It sounds as if there is a serious communication problem here. You two need to figure out together what you want and where your relationship stands. But if he's telling you he's thinking of moving back to the West Coast, and by the way, that will mean the relationship is kaput, but if he stays, well, maybe he'll continue to see you -- you're in a rather one-sided relationship.

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Washington, D.C.: Hey Prudie,

Love your column, the best part of Slate! I have a fairly non-problem sounding problem, but I need your advice. My fiance and I are getting married this summer, and are lucky enough to really get along wonderfully with each other families. The problem? My future mother-in-law is so doting that she is constantly showering us with gifts. For instance: at a recent shower, she brought 8 presents. I realize this sounds kind, but it makes others feel uncomfortable (like my mom), me feel smothered and it's something I'd like to prevent in the future. Thoughts?

Emily Yoffe: Thanks. This one should really be fielded by your fiance -- it's his mother. And you're right, just as anyone with a job should feel lucky, anyone with a generous mother-in-law should feel lucky. But I understand that her behavior is making you uncomfortable. Your fiance should tell her that while you both appreciate her excitement and generosity, you're getting overwhelmed by it. Maybe he could gently discuss with her that to celebrate your marriage, you two would prefer her buying you an X -- one big thing that you really need for the home. But, again, do this gently -- dictating how other people spend there money is fraught with peril.

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Washington D.C.'s Boss: Hey, get back to work! Now!

Emily Yoffe: Okay!

Thanks everyone for your interesting letters. Talk to you next week.

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Emily Yoffe is also Slate's Human Guinea Pig, a contributor to the XX Factor blog, and the author of What the Dog Did: Tales From a Formerly Reluctant Dog Owner.

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