Slate's 'Dear Prudence': Terrible Christmas gifts, unbalanced exes, New Years Eve dramas, thank you note etiquette

Emily Yoffe
Slate Advice Columnist
Monday, December 28, 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, Dec. 28 to take your questions on manners, morals and more.

A transcript follows.

You may also read previous Live Q&As with Prudie.

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.


Emily Yoffe: I hope everyone had a great Christmas. And if there are any New Year's dilemmas I look forward to hearing them.


Portsmouth, NH: After losing my wife to cancer, I dated a woman for four and a half years before recently breaking up. Neither one of us was getting what we needed and the breakup was amicable at first. I then started dating my ex's neighbor and she has gone psycho on my. She is telling everyone how awful I am and assassinating my character. Oh yea, my ex is 55 and in the financial services business, active on boards and in the community. She is now actively trying to maintain a relationship with my two sons, aged 20 and 22, including giving elaborate gifts (a car) for Christmas.

I have been only wishing her well in her future relationships but am concerned about her mental state around my kids. Any thoughts?

Emily Yoffe: Yes, your ex is acting unbalanced. But after almost five years with someone you run the risk of her losing it when you let her know that what you weren't getting out of the relationship with her you are getting from the woman on the other side of the driveway. Imagine if she'd broken up with you, and then every morning when you went to get the paper you ran into her coming out of your neighbor's house. I'm not excusing her, but you have committed a grave romantic zoning violation. But she's also violating your family by trying to buy off your kids. You've got to explain to them that she's in a bad way because of the break up, and they simply can't accept gifts from her. Then let her know, if necessary through a lawyer, that she has to take back the car, and the character assassination has to stop.


Annapolis, Md.: Dear Prudence,

We received a very large and expensive painting from my husband's parents for Christmas. While we appreciate their generosity, the painting does not fit in with the decorating style we want in our home. We don't want to cause hurt feelings, but we also don't want to hang this painting. It's much too large to put up only when they come by. And considering they paid so much, I'd feel bad doing that anyway. Help!

Emily Yoffe: There was a movie called The Nightmare Before Christmas, but apparently the real nightmare comes after Christmas. There are certain things you don't give as gifts, such as pets, or objects that take over the decoration of someone's home. Since the gift is from the in-laws, there's no way to quietly sell it, so you two simply have to have a discussion and explain while the painting is magnificent, it just doesn't fit your decor. Slather on how much you appreciate it, and you're only bringing this up with them because such a special gift deserves the right home.


Philadelphia, PA: Cousin invited me months ago to spend NY Eve in VA with her, her hubby and sister. Sounded relaxing. Just been told that her kids and grandkids (5 of them, ages 9 to 1) are coming too. Not relaxing. Kids are loud, unruly, no boundaries, etc. They will be there 4 days, I can spend only one due to work schedule. I want out! How to tactfully withdraw?

Emily Yoffe: Aren't New Year's celebrations supposed to be a little unruly? Couldn't you put up with the rumpus of your

extended family for one day? If you can't, then just say that you've had a killer of a year and are facing another, and you realize you'll be lousy company for a big, family celebration. Explain you just need a quiet day before you get back to work. Then get out your calendar and invite your cousin up to see you.


To Portsmouth NH: In addition to what Emily wrote, please watch that you are not assassinating her character as well--characterizing her as "psycho" is not likely to help matters.

Your kids are adults. If they want a relationship with her, that's their prerogative.

Emily Yoffe: Fair points. However, even though the kids aren't minors, I think it's a huge mistake for one of them to accept a CAR from the ex-girlfriend of their father.


Washington, DC: Prudie,

Thanks for having this chat. I wanted to get your thoughts on something:

Every year my family meets up with each other and with extended relatives out of state. We stay at my grandparents' house and attend my aunt and uncles' parties together, with my dad driving.

The problem used to be that my dad drank to excess. I always felt like I was going to die on the ride home. It isn't as much of a problem anymore, but he does eat a ton of food, and he falls asleep while he's driving on the ride home.

All of us (the kids) are mid-20s or older. He has this macho stupid thing about making sure he's the one driving. This has made the holidays the most anxiety inducing time of year for me. Every Christmas I feel like I'm going to die.

Luckily, I am getting married soon. I plan to rent a car from now on. The problem is, my fiancée is not happy about the financial burden of renting a car, and thinks we should just "make it work."

How do I get across to everyone that this is an extremely messed up situation?

Emily Yoffe: It's people like your father -- as they plow into families driving home from their celebrations -- who make the holidays tragic for innocent people. Your father has to be stopped, and this has to be done family-wide. There's no "making it work" with a drunk narcoleptic behind the wheel. If your father is not safe on the road, his behavior needs to be discussed with his doctor, and possibly reported to the department of motor vehicles (any other advice, readers, for getting a menace off the road?). As for the holidays, the keys need to be taken away from your father. The only way he should get home is in the passenger seat.


Nowheresville: Prudie, I'm going to be spending new years with several people I like and one person I don't. She's going to go on and on about wedding plans and all the Christmas presents she received and blah, blah, blah until my ears bleed. Normally I'd have a short and civil conversation and then move on, but we'll be at a restaurant, and I'm afraid I'll be trapped. I just want to not be rude and spoil the evening; any tips?

Emily Yoffe: Make sure you're seated at the other end of the table. If she starts monopolizing the conversation, say something like, "I love lavender as a wedding color. I bet everything will look gorgeous. So, I wanted to hear what everyone thought about TSA's new rule that no one can stand up the last hour of a flight because of that Christmas bomber." If she keeps coming back to her wedding and gifts, respond politely, then shift the conversation to something else. Resolve that for 2010, you'll spend minimum time with this bore.


Bristol, CT: Is it just me or do people no longer feel it is necessary to send a card, call or personally thank you for gifts to their children? I am seriously considering stopping sending presents to my Great Nieces as I never get a card, call or smoke signal for birthday or Xmas presents sent for my nephew and nieces children. Absent minded is one thing, a sense of entitlement is something else again in this economy.

Emily Yoffe: It's not just you. If the children are too young to acknowledge the gifts themselves, contact the parents and say you were concerned about whether the gifts had arrived. If they say they have (and I assume you're talking about Christmases past, since they still have plenty of time to thank you for gifts for this one) explain that it hurts to go to the trouble of picking out something you hope the kids will enjoy, then never hear anything back. Say you love celebrating the kids' special days, but the lack of acknowledgment means that you're going to have to stop, and you hope it doesn't come to that.


Single, Salary: I have been offered my dream job, which would move me closer to my elderly parents, but which may involve a pay cut of 10K. My married sister, hearing that I might have to decline it, stated that I "should decide what is important" to me. I bit my lip before I retorted that I was dependent on a single salary, without the cushion of a spouse's income, but I'm seething about this. I am happily single, and see no reason to marry, but her blithe dismissal of my concern about finances burns me up. Should I continue to seethe, or just drop it?

Emily Yoffe: You know your sister, so you know if her comment was meant as the insult you're taking it to be. Given the particulars you've laid out: dream job; closer to parents; big pay cut -- it is a matter of deciding what is most important to you. I'm also wondering if you couldn't discuss the salary with your dream company. If they want you, they should know that they're asking for a huge financial sacrifice. I know that it's common for women to just accept a salary offer, while men often think of the offer as a negotiating starting point. But back to your sister -- if what she said made you seethe, talk to her about it. Say her remark made you feel she was dismissing your financial concerns, which are very real to you because while you're happy to be single, it means you don't have the cushion of another salary.


Christmas etiquette? : Prudie -

Am I SUPPOSED to send thank you cards for gifts I get for Christmas? My aunts and uncles give me gifts, but I give them gifts too...none of us send thank you cards...

What are the rules there? I feel like a thank you card for a Christmas gift is awkward and brings a level of formality that isn't necessary...

Emily Yoffe: If you were all together and exchanged gifts, no, you don't owe further thanks. But if gifts were mailed to you, yes, you need to call, write, or email and say the gift arrived and that you love it. It's not formality, it's information and courtesy.


Washington, DC: As someone who is the "ex" in Portsmouth's situation, I can identify a little bit with his ex. When my nearly 4 year relationship ended recently, it was also amicable and I was so grateful for that. Then a few weeks later, he told me that he was moving onto a new relationship with my good friend.

Upon hearing this news, a stream of obscenities came out of my mouth at him. I can't remember what exactly I said, but I know I said some really hurtful things to him--about him and about her. I also then called her right after and let her have it to her voicemail. I made some really nasty comments. I wish I could have handled myself differently in retrospect but I didn't know how else to deal with it at the time. Also, I have never felt so much anger and rage and hurt in my entire life. So, I gave myself a pass. Luckily, I do not live close to them anymore but I can only imagine what it would be like if my friend had also been my neighbor and every time looked out my window I saw his car parked at her house.

It's been almost 2 months and I am nowhere near being over this but I have made some good progress. I consider myself to be a pretty rational human being, too. Just put yourself in her shoes for a minute. I am in her shoes, and it's a really awful place to be.

Emily Yoffe: Anyone can understand your reaction. That's why I pointed out that this guy had made an awful move. It's a gross violation to end one relationship and take up with the ex's good friend or neighbor (and presumably the second relationship got a head start while the first was extant). It shows your mental health that you now regret losing it with your ex and your ex friend, but I agree, they deserved an earful. But you aren't now on a campaign to destroy your ex's reputation or financially seduce his kids. That's the difference.


Gifts: If we'd like someone to stop sending us gifts, should we stop sending thank you notes?

Emily Yoffe: If only it were that easy. The senders of dreadful gifts probably can't be stopped through lack of gratitude.


Salary Update: The salary is a government salary, and varies according to the area of the country. My salary here is considerably higher than the highest salary I can receive for the new job, even including the promotion to a higher grade. The costs of living in both places are equal.

As to my sister, she is loving, but seems to forget that not everyone lives in her world of four houses.

Emily Yoffe: Well, if the salary can't be negotiated then her advice for you to decide what's most important to you is on point. Maybe she's somewhat insensitive because of her cushy financial situation; maybe you're somewhat overly sensitive whenever financial matters come up with her.


Exhausted: Husband just got out of hospital following serious sudden illness. We agreed during his hospitalization that I would only notify those people with a legitimate need to know (close relatives and co-workers), and wait till afterwards to inform everyone else. Fortunately, husband is out of the hospital and doing much better.

Now that he's home I've been contacting other people re his illness, chiefly by email, and am catching flak left and right from everyone whom I didn't inform while he was in the hospital. I'm being called selfish and inconsiderate, among the more repeatable things, and my sanity has even been questioned.

If all these people had known while my husband was in the hospital, it would have been tiring for him, and possibly not even good for his health, to have had so much more company and phone calls. And I, who was already physically and emotionally exhausted coping with his ordeal, was in no mood to have to entertain company in his hospital room, nor to have to field additional interrogatory phone calls there or at home (as it was, I got wakened out of a sound sleep at home by a call from someone who'd heard about my husband's hospitalization through the grapevine and became most irate when I refused to supply the details she demanded to know).

Prudie, please ask your readers to respect folks who are ill and/or hospitalized and their families year-round, but especially at hectic times like over the holidays. Thanks.

Emily Yoffe: It's wonderful that you have so many dedicated, caring friends -- it's just too bad that many of them sound crazy. Perhaps they don't understand this serious illness was not actually their drama. Anyone who abuses you for doing what made most sense to you in a crisis is not a true friend. I hope your husband does not have any more crises, but for people who find themselves in this situation, it can help to have a family member act as gatekeeper -- to send emails or field phone call, and let well-wishers know how the patient is doing, and keep fending off visits until a better time.


Atlanta, GA: Prudie, What do you say about a customer who returns a blender one day after they purchase it. It smelled like alcohol and was sticky. I asked what they had been making and he said they had a margarita party the night before. I asked if there was a problem with it, and would he like another one, and he said no, he just wanted to return it.

The company I work for accepts returns with a receipt regardless of the reason for return, but it seems to me that there should be some kind of karmic intervention for people who use a blender and then return it the next day. My employer has to write the blender off for a complete loss now.

Emily Yoffe: The intervention should come from your employer. It's one thing to take back an unused purchase, or a defective one. It's another to take back a perfectly good item that has been used and now has to be trashed. What I say about such a customers is that they're crude jerks. Some people really are disgusting. I once bought my husband a coffeemaker for his birthday, and when we opening it up, it already had a cup of moldy coffee in it!


Greensboro, NC: I'm a graduate assistant who, admittedly doesn't pull in a lot of cash. However, for my second wedding anniversary with my husband (tomorrow!), I purchased tickets to an event that he is very excited to attend(and a small cotton gift). Because our anniversary is so close to the holidays, I combined this anniversary gift, and his Christmas gift, (although he did receive two smaller gifts from me). Unfortunately, he has no plans on doing anything special for our anniversary. I understand that because of our financial situation, that expensive gifts are out of the question, but I feel very hurt because I put a lot of thought and time into this gesture. I am very easy to impress, and something simple like cooking dinner or writing a heartfelt letter would make me very happy. I've tried to kindly, but directly let him know how his lack of effort upsets me, but to no avail. While he is normally a very kind and thoughtful man, special occasions like these seem to hold no special meaning for him. Should I just resign myself to a golden anniversary gift of, "Really? That was today?" or is it worth further discussion?

Emily Yoffe: By the time you get to your golden anniversary, I hope you each will have come to some understanding about gifts. If your husband is, as you say, otherwise kind and thoughtful, and he knows special occasions mean something to you, it is hurtful if he simply blows them off without even a bouquet of dying subway flowers (my husband's specialty). Since you've addressed this directly, and he won't budge, don't let it ruin the occasion. Enjoy the evening out and don't bring up his lack of reciprocation (and how do you know he's not planning on surprising you with something?). If he truly doesn't do anything, then after the event explain that celebrating means a lot to you, you don't want to give it up, but you feel a little foolish having it be so one-sided. Say that the two of you need some kind of agreement -- perhaps you'll scale down your effort and expectations, but you hope that he understands even some gesture on his part would mean a lot.


Holiday gift question: Hi Prudie, What is your take on returning/exchanging/throwing away holiday gifts? My family members love receiving gifts and are fairly particular and demanding about it, but they do not put a lot of thought or effort into the gifts they purchase for others. The gifts I received were clearly bought because they were on sale. Some items were not anything anyone who's known me for 10 minutes would select; others were cheap and broken at first use. It's not as if I can suggest good gifts for myself, as my suggestions, when asked for, are always ignored. Also, when these same folks ask me whether I like what they've given, how do you suggest I respond?

Emily Yoffe: Even something that was bought with care and attention and is just not right can be exchanged. But there's absolutely no reason to hang onto junk that was dispensed just because it was obligatory. As for what you say, since you indicated your family members really don't care if their gift hit the mark, you can say, "It's a delightful present," which can be true if you took delight in returning it, or throwing it in the trash.


Olney, MD: This is the first year my child wrote her notes by herself (she's 6). Previously she just scrawled her name on notes I wrote. I do hope the recipients all have a sense of humor, as I considered but decided against correcting her rather eccentric word spacing and creative spelling.

Emily Yoffe: They will bless you and treasure your daughter's effort.


Silver Spring, Md.: What should I reasonably expect from someone I've helped out financially? Long story short - addicted husband with secret life (apt and numerous girlfriends) leaves my friend with cervical cancer (guess why), 3 kids and $300 in bank. I've spent several hundred dollars for food, gas, cat food, etc. and lots of hours helping out. After about 8 months (husband would not regularly send money, wouldn't have wages garnished) my friend started criticizing me, my education, my choices and not thanking me for the things I'd pay for or food I'd buy (did it have e. coli?) Should I expect some gratitude and no attitude, or do I just take it? FYI, I've been a punching bag for a good part of my adult life from family and strangers (I'm obese). I thought when you did something for someone, a simple "Thank you" was the appropriate response - am I wrong?

Emily Yoffe: Let's start with you. You say you've been a lifetime punching bag for others. So instead of focusing on your friend's lack of gratitude, you need to look at your attitude about yourself. Since you've identified your problem, think about getting some counseling to help you keep from constantly playing out the part of martyr in your relationships. Your friend's behavior indicates she and her bum of a husband were probably a good match. But there are three kids involved. Perhaps you could focus your efforts on them, and keep your contact with your friend to a minimum.


Brooklyn, NY: I wrote to you about six months ago about an old friend from high school who is married with children who contacted me and we started exchanging emails. You said that there was likely improper intentions. I'd just like to report that we're still emailing regularly, and I've even met her for lunch a couple of times when in town - all with her husband's knowledge. And nothing improper or untoward whatsoever has gone on since. But I have reestablished a connection and have a good strong friendship. I'm not writing this to say you were wrong, because I know you're reaction was appropriate. But I just wanted to let you know it's possible good things like this can happen, and not everything ends up becoming unsavory.

Emily Yoffe: Wonderful! I love a savory ending.

And best wishes to all for renewed friendships and happiness in 2010.


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