Click here to read a transcript of Prudie’s live weekly chat with readers at Washingtonpost.com.
I am a young management consultant who has so far earned high marks from my superiors. Recently, however, I’ve repeatedly faced a situation that I fear might become a blot in my personnel file. At a tense meeting with a client several months ago, one of the other consultants made a joke about an error he’d noticed on a spreadsheet. The room burst into laughter while I sat there expressionless, not even feigning a smile. It just wasn’t funny. A couple of weeks later, the same situation happened. This time, my supervisor asked me after the meeting why I had been so “rude” not to laugh after the client made a pun. When it happened a third time, someone remarked how I must be having a bad day. I’m not a gloomy person. I am a natural-born storyteller who can cause a small crowd of friends to bend over laughing with an off-color joke. I’ve even dabbled in stand-up. Should I just get with the program and pretend office humor tickles my funny bone, even if I’m actually laughing at the boss’s terrible haircut?
So have you heard the one about the young management consultant who walks into a meeting and—oops, sorry, I guess that’s not funny. Your sense of humor may be so exquisite that you find the attempts by colleagues and clients to bring some levity to a discussion of collateralized debt obligations or capital assessment stress tests to be a stress test for you. But you need to keep in mind that when a colleague or client makes a jocular aside, that is not the time to indicate that your true calling in life was to be a judge on Last Comic Standing. There’s this thing that people do when they all work together that your supervisor tried to clue you in on; it’s called “getting along.” So when someone makes a remark (in particular a client) that has everyone chuckling, just for the sake of group unity, you are supposed to engage your zygomaticus muscle both superiorly and posteriorly. In other words, “Smile!” You’ve already been warned that your attitude is grating on people. Unless you are able to simulate some camaraderie, despite your excellent work, you are going to hurt your career. Of course, being out of a job will allow you to wear whatever facial expression you like during the day and concentrate on your stand-up career at night.
Almost two years ago, I cheated on my husband once with a co-worker. As a result, I quit my job and never again went back into the store where I worked. Both of these actions were at the request of my husband after he found out. There were contributing situations that led me to cheat, but I understand that there’s no excuse. My husband forgave me, and our relationship improved greatly. However, I was extremely close with my (female) boss and continued to speak to her. My husband told me more than once that he did not like that I still spoke to her, because whenever he heard her name, he was reminded of a hurtful situation. About nine months ago, after ending a conversation with my friend rather abruptly because my husband came home from work, I decided that, to prevent another roadblock in my marriage, I would not speak to my friend anymore. She agreed, even though she didn’t think it was right that my husband was uncomfortable about us speaking, especially since she had severely reprimanded me for what I had done. One of the worst days of my life was the day I said goodbye to her; I wanted so badly to continue our friendship. Do you think I should ask my husband if I can speak to her again?
—Missing My Friend
Is one of the contributing situations that led to your cheating the fact that your husband is a controlling, emotional bully? Requesting that you quit your job on the spot is extreme, but insisting that you end a friendship with your female boss—who disapproved of your behavior!—is inexplicable. What’s next? He suggests that when you go out to run errands you wear a chastity belt? Not that he would force you to do it; it would just make him feel more comfortable about what you’re up to when you’re out of his line of sight. You shouldn’t ask your husband if you can resume your friendship; you should tell him that breaking off the friendship was a mistake you need to rectify. Say you understand that being reminded of your infidelity is painful to him, but “Janice” didn’t abet what happened; she objected to it. Explain that it’s time the two of you put this episode behind you and that since you’ve rebuilt the trust between you, you need life to be more normal again. If he tries to stop you, then you need to see a counselor together, because there is far more wrong in your marriage than your one-night stand.
I recently lost my baby due to unknown reasons shortly before her due date. It has been a tough time for my husband and me, plus our little boys, who were looking forward to being big brothers. We have told our immediate family and friends what happened, but we still have to explain it to everyone else. My husband and I are constantly being asked how the baby is or how we are enjoying being new parents again. It is a difficult subject to begin with, but we find ourselves trying to shield the person who unknowingly asked the question. How does one break this type of news gently and tactfully? I have to go back to work soon and want to be able to explain what happened without sending people into panic mode.
—At a Loss
Dear At a Loss,
I’m so sorry for your loss; how painful this must be. You are very kind to worry about making other people feel terrible, but you will convey through your manner that you understand they had no idea. Simply tell the truth: “Sadly, we lost our baby just before her due date.” If you’re up for it, you can add, “Unfortunately, the doctors don’t know what went wrong,” just to fend off follow-up questions. If people seem mortified that they asked, you can reassure them, “I know you didn’t know.” As for work, tell a friend—or your boss—that you’d like people at the office to be told so that you aren’t asked over and over by people who haven’t heard. Be prepared that some people will feel so uncomfortable, or be so afraid of upsetting you, that they won’t mention it and will act as if nothing has happened—as if not expressing their condolences would make you forget your loss. And some people will try to grill you about what exactly went wrong. To those nosy clods, you can say, “This was just one of those inexplicable tragedies. I hope you understand I don’t want to talk about it.”
Last week, my boyfriend and I took his teenage daughter to a major league baseball game with seats in a corporate suite. As with most suites, the food and drink were complimentary. We arrived before the game and were able to enjoy several different types of ballpark food—nachos, hamburgers, hot dogs, etc. My boyfriend’s daughter helped herself to a few things, one of which was a hot dog roll—just the roll, no hot dog. While I thought this odd, it was no big deal. About 20 minutes after that, she went back to the buffet and took two more rolls and ate them both! After the game, I mentioned to my boyfriend that I thought this was inappropriate, given that the rolls were there to accompany the hot dogs and that most of the other suite guests had not arrived yet and therefore had not had a chance to get food. He felt that as a guest in the suite, she was entitled to whatever she wanted and however much she wanted. And he said that there was no formal etiquette rule to address this. What do you think?
—Ms. Everything in Moderation
Dear Ms. Everything in Moderation,
What do I think? I think the girl enjoys carbs. I also think that if you keep this up, you will either be your boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend or you will be the hated girlfriend of your boyfriend’s daughter. Unless she was endangering herself or others, or behaving so rudely that she was causing a scene, you have no standing to comment on her behavior—especially over something so utterly trivial, and none of your business, as her choice of food. You say you are for moderation, yet you have gone over the top in trying to get an alternate ruling on the hot dog roll caper. So moderate your own meddling and judgments, and try to actually be a friend to this bread-loving teen.