Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat with readers about their romantic, family, financial, and workplace problems. An edited transcript of this week’s chat is below. (Read Prudie’s Slate columns here.)
Emily Yoffe: Welcome to the pre-holiday chat: What if everyone is simply looking forward with joy to being with their families. What will we discuss?
Q. Joyless Holidays: My husband’s family is one of those utterly joyless, humorless, starched WASPy families. The holiday season brings out the absolute worst in them, since everything and everyone must adhere to the myth of total harmony and effortless perfection. We are all to be all smiles all the time, and nothing that even hints of controversy, such as preferring an iPad to a Kindle, must be discussed. Needless to say, the only way I can get through a dinner with the in-laws is to just get quietly drunk and pray for the end. My husband says this is the only solution, and he does exactly the same thing. But I have another idea. I would like to host ALL the holiday fesitivies at our house, where we are decidedly more animated. I realize this means that all the work, all the cleanup, and all the expenses will fall on me, but I am prepared to make that sacrifice. If my husband issued the invitations firmly, he would not be challenged. No conflicts, after all! We’re all perfectly happy, la la la! In the alternative, I think I should be able to plead a devastating migraine and excuse myself from going to his mother’s house. This should work for at least four or five years. What do you think?
A: OK, I guess everyone is not looking forward with joy to their family events. Your husband’s family may be starchy and dull, but I’m made uncomfortable by the fact that you somehow think being of a certain background results in definitive, and unpleasant, behavioral traits. If a discussion takes place—”I say iPad!” “I say Kindle!” —does your mother-in-law ring a bell and bring everyone to silent order? Even if she does, why can’t someone say, “Mom, we’re just talking about iPads, it’s fine.” And why will changing the venue to your home suddenly make everyone loose and joyful? Sure, go ahead and offer to host, but try to do so with a sense of welcome and graciousness, instead of resigned resentment.
Dear Prudence: Holiday Ingrate
Q. Horrible Roommate: I am in a sticky situation. I own my own house and live there and in order to pay all of my bills, I have had roommates. The latest addition to my house has turned out to be a nightmare. First he went missing, and turned up in jail for violating a restraining order against his ex. At first I freaked out and wanted to kick him out, but after talking to his dad and him and hearing their side of the story, I decided to let him stay. After all, it seemed like he was down on his luck and I didn’t want to kick him while he was down. Well, due to his habit of throwing any and every bit of leftover food down the garbage disposal and into the dishwasher, my plumbing is now screwed up and nothing will drain properly. He also burnt food onto the eyes on the stove (which is a more petty offense, I realize) and has several other unacceptable household habits. I confronted him about it, and he acted like I was being ridiculous and stopped speaking to me (but generally correcting the behavior). Now, there is a ridiculous amount of tension in the house and he is refusing to help with any of the common things like taking the garbage to the road or buying toilet paper and dish detergent. I asked him via e-mail (so it would be documented) to move out by the first of February and made it strictly business (a friend is moving in and paying more, etc.), and didn’t mention any of the roommate faux pas he’s committed. Well, he didn’t react well and has started stuffing food down the garbage disposal again. Due to all of his behavior and history, I am in fear for my belongings. Can I tell him he has to move out sooner? Do I have that right? He didn’t sign a lease. Or should I make some sort of peace offering?
A: Your peace offering could be that you won’t yourself call the police and get a restraining order if he moves out immediately. Do you need to collect more evidence than you have that this guy is dangerously unbalanced? Stop worrying about your disposal and start worrying that he might try to dispose of you. Tell him the living situation hasn’t worked out and he has to move out, now. Where he goes is not your concern. Since his father is somehow involved in his life, you might want to contact dad and say the son has to move out now, or you will be contacting the authorities.
Q. Gift-Giving to Charities: My father-in-law and I are on totally opposite ends of the political spectrum. Each year he gives money to a charity of his choice as a gift to us. Although we appreciate the thought, the charity he chooses is one we find abhorrent to our beliefs. Besides that, we checked into the charity and find that it has an “F” rating because it uses most of the donations for overhead and CEO salaries. Do I tell dear ol’ dad that his money might not be used wisely, and name our favorite charities, or do I keep my mouth shut and let him send it to whomever he chooses? Is that truly a “gift” or simply a tax deduction for him? My husband joked that when we send our gift to dad this year, we should make a donation to one of our favorite charities or one his dad would gasp at (ACLU, or Greenpeace, perhaps)?
A: He’s not giving you a gift, he’s giving a gift to himself. A donation to a charity can be a lovely thing, but the donor should make sure it’s a good charity and one that is near to the heart of the recipients. It’s best if you just shrug off dad’s nongift, but since his charity of choice is a total rip-off, you might want to print out the information about it and let him know he’s simply transferring his money to an overpaid CEO. However, since you don’t believe in the cause, it should be good news to you that the charity is so ineffective.
Q. Adopted Sister-in-Law: My in-laws are great, but they obviously favor my husband’s ex-girlfriend from more than 10 years ago to me. They have basically adopted her and she and her kids are ever-present for family gatherings. I am confident that my husband absolutely has no feelings for her, but how do I get over my jealousy? I’m actually very close to my mother-in-law, and she is kind and generous to us, but I know that she prefers the ex to me. They have actually grown closer since we were married so it’s not as if I came in knowing it would be like this. Also, it bothers my husband even more than it bothers me.
A: Part of the pain of break-ups is that it can mean breaking up with an entire family. It’s one thing to continue to exchange Christmas cards with the family of your ex; I did that with the lovely mother of an former boyfriend until her death. It’s another for your mother to decide she’ll never let go of the ex. (I’m not talking here about former spouses with whom there are children, which vastly complicates things.) It’s absolutely bizarre that your mother-in-law has “adopted” your husband’s ex over his objections. Your husband needs to have a serious talk with your mother explaining that she is entitled to have a separate relationship with his ex, but now that he is remarried, it is too awkward to have her attending holidays with all of you. He needs to say that it is very important that his mother limit her visits with his ex to non-holiday times, which should be reserved for family and friends with whom relationships are not so “complicated.”
Q. Allergic to the In-Laws: My in-laws are a wonderful, close-knit family, and I enjoy spending time with them. Unfortunately, there is something in their house that I am allergic to, and by the end of just a two-day stay I feel absolutely miserable, even with medication, and feel the effects long after the visit has ended. The sleeping arrangements leave my husband and me in the basement, which I feel may be a large part of the problem. I have approached the subject just once with my mother-in-law, and saw I was quickly going down the road of some of your other advice-seekers, and dropped the conversation. My husband has suggested that I just sleep upstairs in a bedroom with some single S.I.L.s during the upcoming, extended holiday stay. And while they would have no problems with this arrangement I don’t want to offend my M.I.L., who would definitely be more than curious about the situation, or get any rumors started about my marriage (which is wonderful). My nose appreciates the help.
A: Can you two spring for a motel? If not, then sure, try sleeping dormitory-style upstairs. Your husband should be the one to explain to his parents that there’s something in the basement that sets off your allergy attacks. If this sets off endless discussions about the state of your marriage or your hypochondria, just consider that you’re doing a service by providing hours of entertaining conversation for those who are not bothered by mold.
Q. Christmas on a Limited Budget: The holiday season is here and with it comes the awkward gift-giving. I am unemployed so my Christmas gift-giving is pretty much zilch, other than a few creative ideas I have for close family. I find myself in the awkward position of receiving a gift from someone that I cannot reciprocate back. I know during the holidays that people don’t give to get gifts, yet I feel terrible receiving an expensive gift card when I’m passing out cookies. Although I’m grateful, I feel like I can’t provide proper gifts, making me feel ashamed and embarrassed. I’ve even said please, no gifts. How can I encourage people to leave me out of the Christmas giving and not offend anyone? Happy Holidays!
A: Everyone who is giving you a gift knows your employment situation. They probably see this as an opportunity to ease your situation a little bit and would be appalled to think you feel pressure to reciprocate dollar for dollar. Cookies are a lovely gift. Do not feel ashamed: Be glad there are people who care so much and are trying to help.
Q. Corporate Career or Art Career?: I am in my mid-20s. I have been accepted in an extremely competitive theatre arts program in the U.K., 3,000 miles from my hometown, and had plans to start my MFA this coming fall. While it will cost me a lot, in both time and expense, I feel that it is a great opportunity and am excited to begin my future education. However, I had my yearly performance review with my boss last Friday and he has told me that he sees great potential for me within our company and wants to put me on the fast-track to management. We are not talking about managing a TCBY here. In a couple of years, I would be making about triple what I am currently making now. My dilemma is this: Do I stay, start a business career, and make more money, or do I go to grad school to pursue my artistic dreams but have no guarantee of being able to get a job in that field after graduation? I don’t want to throw away a good opportunity, but it looks like I’m going to have to do so either way. My husband has said that he supports my decision either way and will follow me if I leave the States, which is awesome.
A: First of all, there is nothing wrong with managing a yogurt store . Lots of thriving careers have started that way. Second, I’m probably the wrong person to ask since every day I am grateful that my teenage daughter expresses no desire for a career in the performing arts. Of course, there’s always the chance you could be the next Helen Mirren, and I’m wrong to tell you to stick with your job. More likely, you will spend tons of money on your MFA and then work at a yogurt shop while you’re hoping for your big break. I think a career in business can be full of excitement and creativity. If you can see it that way, then stay. But if you will spend every minute wishing you were in England being a star, then go.
Q. Gaithersburg: OK, so my new husband’s parents are extremely generous. They bought us a fridge as a housewarming gift! They’ve given us furniture from their house and from storage! But … how generous is too generous? While the one desk from the house was generous, the extra desk, two tables, and five lamps they brought along with it … too much. Now they’re visiting over the holidays and e-mailed “What can we bring for you?” How can we tell them that their generosity is extremely welcome, but we need them to dial it back a bit? I mean, we don’t want them to stop being generous … but we also don’t want a bunch of crap we feel like we have to keep or risk hurting their feelings. Thoughts?
A. Generosity is one thing; mistaking your home for the Salvation Army is another. There is something passive-aggressive about assuming a welcome housewarming gift is to furnish your offspring’s new marital home with your cast-offs. Forget about hurting their feelings and just be honest that all you want is their company , and that you simply don’t have any room for more of their furniture. If they show up with a truck, direct them to the real Salvation Army.
Q. Thank-You Notes: A relative has told me instead of a written thank-you note, she would prefer a phone call. I would prefer to stick with the written note, for a variety of reasons I won’t bore you with now. May I in good conscience ignore her preference and continue thanking her in the way I find most appropriate?
A: I’m assuming she wants a phone call because a note doesn’t lend itself to psychodrama. It’s ridiculous and rude for your relative to dictate the means by which you thank her. Ignore her demand and write a lovely note.
Q. No RSVP: Am I just uptight or do many people not bother to RSVP to invitations these days? I entertain several times a year and there are always several people who do not bother to RSVP, and they may or may not show up. These people are friends, but I wonder what kind of friends they are when they do not even bother to acknowledge an invitation. Am I being too harsh in removing them from my future guest lists?
A: Didn’t you know that now part of your job as a hostess is to track your guests as if you’re a big game hunter? Think of the nerve of you trying to extract a response from them so you know whether you should spend your time and money on food and drink for them! It’s deplorable that people won’t discharge the simple courtesy of simply letting you know whether they intend to come. The perfect response to such people is to strike them from your list so you don’t further burden them with offers of your hospitality.
Q. Office Etiquette: One of my work colleagues has a habit of standing behind my chair to look over my shoulder at the monitor when I am using my computer, and he also walks around my desk to stand next to my chair if I am not using my computer. All of my other colleagues either sit in the chair in front of my desk or stand in front of my desk when they need to confer with me. There is not enough room in my office to move my desk to prevent his intrusive behavior. Is there a way to politely let him know that I do not like for someone to hover over me when I am seated at my desk?
A: You say, “Jack, why don’t you take a seat so we can talk more easily?” If he says, “I’m fine here,” you say, “Actually, I’m uncomfortable with you standing over me. Please, take a seat.” Also feel free to shut down whatever’s on your screen if he’s hovering.
Q. Allergic to Christmas Gifts and Dinner: I have been with my husband for more than years! However, my mother-in-law gives me the same present every year, a gift basket from a popular bath store. The problem: I am allergic to bath soaps and lotions with perfumes in them. She also then orders a baked ham for Christmas dinner, knowing full well that I am allergic to pork. According to her, she orders the ham because it’s “tradition” and she gives me the bath products because she “doesn’t know what else to get.” I write her a thank-you note every year and then give away the gift basket. Honestly, I’d rather she get me nothing at all. And I’ve offered to bring a roast chicken to Christmas dinner, but she insists it’s not necessary. How do I convey my wishes to her without sounding like a Scrooge?
A: As always, when there’s a problem with the mother-in-law it would be so helpful if the child of the mother would intervene and have ba conversation. It would be great if your husband could at least say, “Mom, could we have turkey some years because, as you know, Elise is allergic to pork.” The gift basket of soaps is stupid and slightly insulting, but it is an excellent regift. There’s also nothing wrong with serving a ham to everyone else, while making another accommodation for you. However, this is one meal a year and even if you can’t eat the pork, and she doesn’t provide another main course, surely there are enough side dishes to more than compensate. Just skip the ham if that’s what she’s serving and ask for more Brussels sprouts.
Q. Incorrectly named!: What’s the rule in telling a parent that they have named their child wrong?! I can understand that new parents would be desperate to ensure that their precious one’s name is as unique as their child, thus hunting for names from other languages (online!). Our new friends have picked a name which has a certain meaning from a foreign language. When they introduced their child, I asked the meaning (it’s acceptable in our culture) and stood there amazed, as they pronounced the name wrong. Prudie, I speak several languages, and the name they have picked is from a language I’m fluent in. I feel I should not tell them as their child is almost 3 years old, and I’m sure they have other friends who speak this language, and no one has corrected them so far! Is it any of my business to take them aside and tell them they should pronounce with a long vowel?
A: And do you pull people aside who pronounce their name an-DRAY-a and tell them it should be AN-dre-a? Do you tell FinkleSTINE it should be FinkleSTEEN? These parents are not pronouncing their child’s name wrong, they are pronouncing it the way they choose, so forget giving a lecture in linguistics.
Q. Er, Emily, please refer the second poster to a local real estate attorney. She isn’t entitled to tell the tenant to “move out now,”and he’s done nothing to indicate law enforcement need be contacted. If he doesn’t move when the termination notice is up, she’ll need to file an eviction action (and she should worry more about whether she gave him proper termination notice in terms of sending via e-mail; depends on jurisdiction).
A: Thanks for this information. I’m always being corrected by lawyers when I wade into an issue with legal implications. It’s amazing that if you have a scary, kitchen-destroying nut living in your home who has not signed a rental agreement you can’t kick that person out.
Q.RE: Corporate Career or Art Career?: Thanks for the advice. Actually, I’m not the acting type; the degree that I would be getting would be in Shakespeare Theory, so my plan was to get a job in secondary education teaching Shakespeare to undergrads. I’ll definitely have to think about it some more, but it’s nice to know that there are people out there who won’t judge me for “selling out” if I do end up going the corporate route.
A: How about if ,with all your big corporate earnings , you get a season subscription to your local Shakespeare theater. Or you fly to London once a year to take in as many plays as possible. Trading in a thriving career to take on a lot of debt in the hopes that you can teach Shakespeare to uninterested teenagers sounds like a recipe for feeling all your tomorrows creep in this petty pace from day to day.
Q. Be Careful What You Wish For: I used to go to one of those joyless holidays, then one year I tried to liven it up, which some regulars liked because the same old was so deadly dull. Now all eyes are on me to provide ethnic entertainment.
A: Good point. Inviting the whole deadly dull crew over to your house just so you can talk with your hands and make a few pointed remarks in the comfort of your own home may be a bad exchange.
Q.RE: Crazy Boarder: S/he probably CAN’T legally evict the boarder w/out 30 days notice, and an order of eviction. Whether there’s a written lease or not, they have a landlord-tenant relationship that is governed by state and local law. And I doubt you can get a restraining order for disposal abuse.
A: Again, I didn’t even take the LSATs so I’ve stepped in it legally. I agree disposal abuse is probably a minor offense. But having a very weird guy who is not allowed to contact his wife and children living in my home would make me very nervous. She should start proceedings immediately.
Q:Nightmare Roommate Again:I figured that I would have to take some sort of legal action as I know other people who have been landlords before. It does suck and I feel like I don’t have many options.
A: Get started. You’ve got to get this guy out!
Q. Andrea: I LOLed at your response about mispronouncing a name. My daughter AN-dre-a is frequently called an-DRAY-a as well as on-Dray-a. She answers to them all cheerfully! And my last name ends in Stine, but I frequently get called Steen, which I also answer to cheerfully!
A :What do you mean, you both cheerfully respond to well-meaning people who make mistakes? More people like you and this chat is out of business!
Q.Family Members Assuming They Can Sleep Over: My husband’s siblings and their spouses and children live two hours away. My family is much further away and never comes without advance planning. One of my husband’s siblings always just assumes that they and their spouse and kids can stay at our house. Generally, I don’t mind guests, but these people are messy, never lift a finger, and their teens are not as well-mannered as my own or the others in the family. I’m stuck doing all the laundry, shopping, etc. that comes with these people. I’m sick of it. I’ve told my husband I don’t want them staying overnight anymore. His position is that since they are not wealthy and can’t afford a hotel, we must put up with them, and he will do the extra laundry … but he never actually does it. What should I say?
A: You and your husband have a united front and next time these relatives say, “Oh, we’ll be coming next weekend…” you both say, “So sorry, that doesn’t work for us. We’d love to see you sometime, but we need several weeks notice.” Then stick with that. When (IF) you do let them come, do not cook and clean for them. Give them a sheet that lists local restaurants and grocery stores and tell them they are free to purchase their own breakfast fixings. Then when they go, survey the mess and say to your husband, “Honey, I’ll give you hand with the clean up.”
Q. Dad: My girlfriend wants to meet my parents, but I’m embarrassed for her to meet my father. My dad is a nice guy, but he tells long, boring stories that never end, he speaks in a booming, loud voice (he is hard of hearing) and as terrible as this sounds, he isn’t on the same intellectual level as her family (my girlfriend’s parents are both lawyers). Worst of all are my dad’s eating habits: He chews and talks with his mouth open. Sometimes I bug him about this, but he never takes me seriously. I feel really guilty having these feelings because I love my dad. But I still can’t shake my embarrassment. What do I do?
A: You love him and he’s your father. That doesn’t mean you have to be blind to his faults. You can warn your girlfriend that he’s a quirky guy and can sometimes be a little hard to take, but he’s a sweetheart and you hope she will enjoy his company. If you want to keep your father under wraps because you feel your girlfriend is a snob, then maybe you need to think more about this relationship. Or maybe you aren’t giving your girlfriend enough credit for having a generous heart. This time of year many people are feeling particularly acutely the loss of loved ones. Be glad you still have your dad, and do your best to honor him.
Thanks so much everyone. I hope you all have a rollicking, non-starchy holiday full of well-chosen gifts, relatives who chew with their mouths closed, and contentment. Thank you for a year of fascinating dilemmas and comments. I will be off next week, but I look forward to picking up with you on Jan. 3, 2011. Happy New Year!