Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of this week’s chat is below. ( Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at email@example.com.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. I’m so cool now that it’s a temperate 95 degrees out there.
Q. Gossips: At my high school, girls tend to gossip about each other. Unfortunately, this rumor spreading has become out of control in my friendship group—whenever my best friend leaves the room, three of my close friends start complaining about her and saying mean things about her. She confided in them when her sister had cancer, but they made fun of her crying when she left school early. I am fine with them not liking her, but when she is around, all of them laugh with her and she thinks of me and them as her best friends. Should I tell her these girls aren’t who she thinks they are, or just stop talking to them myself and ignore the way they talk about her? Does it have to be a choice between my BFF and my social circle?
A: Maybe the producers of the movie Mean Girls had a scene in which the meanies all howled with laughter when one of their “friends” left school in tears because her sister was being treated for cancer. Then they thought, “Nah, that’s just too nasty and implausible.” High school is hard enough as it is, what with AP classes, skin break-outs, and applying to college. It’s too bad you’re also forced into having a moral crisis over how to maintain friendships with some vicious people.
I hear from many adults who regret their terrible behavior in high school—or are sorry they didn’t stand up to others behaving horrendously—and wonder whether they should apologize now to their victims. (The ones who don’t regret their behavior continue to torment in cubicle-land.) You can avoid this dilemma by voicing your objections to this crew. I know this is very hard to do, and I don’t want you to get ostracized. But surely there are more decent kids you can hang out with if it becomes necessary. For now, when your BFF leaves the room and the maliciousness starts, you can simply say, “Natalie’s my friend, and I’m really uncomfortable with this conversation.” If they continue, you can say, “I’ve got to go.” I know that’s asking a lot, and runs the risk of you being the girl they laugh at when you leave the room (well, any girl who leaves the room runs that risk). Maybe they’ll hear what you say and start thinking about it. Likely, they won’t. But doing the right thing now will mean you won’t have to look back on these years and wish you’d been a stronger, kinder person.
Dear Prudence: TMI Divorce Drama
Q. Blowing in the Wind: I realize that marriage/partnership means that you take the bad with the good and learn to put up with each others’, well, bodily idiosyncrasies. But my husband farts constantly, and they’re pretty pungent. Our bedroom reeks of it, and they slip out with clock-like regularity (although certain foodstuffs are noticeably worse in their effect). They even wake me up in the middle of the night. I have a lot of sympathy with him, and sure, everyone farts, but I’m also keen to mop up this problem if possible. I’ve bought him some “gas-ease” style pills, but he says they make him bloated. I’ve also tried altering his diet a bit to no avail. He knows it’s a mild issue—I giggle sometimes, or scowl, or gently mock him—but for me, it’s becoming a bit more of a problem than he knows. I’d hope that we’ve got at least another 50 years of marriage to go, and it’s something I wouldn’t mind finding a solution for in the early ears. What’s a girl to do?
A: Since you’re contemplating 50 years of this, you may want to start buying air freshener in bulk. Your husband is lucky you feel his pungency is a “mild” issue, but having your sleep regularly disturbed by his gaseous announcements might eventually cause you to explode. I dealt with the issue of openly farting in private in a video letter and advised the girlfriend to shrug it off. I was rebuked by people with irritable bowel syndrome and other maladies. Everyone farts, but not like a metronome. “Constantly” is the keyword here and your husband needs a work up by a gastroenterologist. He may be lactose intolerant or have some medical condition. Just think how great it will be if a proper diagnosis clears the air.
Q. Snappy Answers to Cancer Questions/Comments?: I am in my mid-40s and I’m currently fighting cancer and it shows: I’m bald, skinnier than I have been in years, and I have an I.V. that is very visible. On a regular basis, this means I get questions and comments that I have no idea how to respond to, including: From friends: “I’m so sorry.” (This is usually after hearing about the type of cancer I have, which is usually fatal.) “Are you dying?” “Can I have your cookbooks when you die?” (I wish I were making that up.) “You look so much better now that you have lost weight” (!). From People I have never met before: I get people who touch or rub my head or hug me as they tell me it’s OK. Normally I wouldn’t mind this, but the cancer I have means that I have to be careful because my immune system is compromised. Also people who don’t know me come up and tell me their experiences with cancer and chemo (usually awful stories involving bodily fluids, sigh). Is there something I can say to all these people to acknowledge that I appreciate their interest, but they really need to be a bit more gentle with my body and energy?
A: I’m so sorry for your diagnosis. And your letter is a great manifesto on behalf of all people going through medical treatment. What is there to say to someone who asks for your cookbooks except, “Please leave.” So readers who have been there—what have you found are the best ways to deal with the rude and the well-meaning but intrusive?
Q. Not as Generous as You Think: I went to a wedding a few months ago, where the bride and groom had said they didn’t want any gifts—just our presence. Since I’d travelled quite a ways to get there, I took them up on their offer. However, I just got a thank you note in the mail, thanking me for the incredibly generous gift I’d gotten them (a mountain bike!) with a note about how much the groom is looking forward to going biking with me, and how much it meant to them that this gift came from me. I’m 100 percent sure that nobody gifted this in my name, but somehow the card I left (with no gift) got associated with the bike. How do I say that I was a cheapskate and didn’t get them anything!?
A: You call them immediately and say you’re the cheapskate you took them up on their offer of no gift, so someone who got them a mountain bike is missing a lovely thank you note. Do this right away so I don’t have to deal with the letter from the angry person who purchased a mountain bike as a wedding gift for a couple of ingrates.
Q. Etiquette Following Family Member’s Death: A while ago my friend visited the U.S. and stayed in my home. While she was here she received an urgent call from Japan saying her father’s medical condition suddenly deteriorated and he was on his deathbed. During the following hours she made numerous lengthy long distance calls to her travel agent to arrange a flight back as well as various family members to ascertain what was going on. She managed to board a flight the next day to say goodbye to her father. After she left I received a huge telephone bill, $200 of which were hers. I did not contact her about this because of the timing. It has been over a month now and she’s made no mention of how she is going to pay me back. My question is, is it now appropriate to ask her to pay me back? Or should I just wait for her to say something about it?
A: Someone who suddenly has to travel halfway around the world to get home in time to bid farewell to her dying father may simply never recall that she probably racked up a substantial phone bill while making the arrangements. Sure, it hurts to be stuck with a $200 tab, but you’re writing to me because something is holding you back from presenting her with the bill. I hate to say it, but if you can swallow this, do so—think of it as a generous gift to a friend in crisis. I’m assuming this bill is not making the difference between your being able to make your rent or being on the street. Because being in an absolutely dire financial situation is the only way I can see that you can bring this up. And as I try to formulate a way to mention it (“I’m so sorry for your loss. Speaking of losses, you owe me $200”) I just feel stumped.
Q. Do I Have To Repay This Loan?: My father borrowed $20,000 from his sister in 2003 towards his struggling business. The business did eventually fail, and he passed away in an accident in 2004. My brother and I were still in school at that point so my mom had a hard time keeping us afloat. I have since finished my education and am working full time, and my brother is about to start working soon, too. My aunt came by last week and asked us to repay the money dad borrowed from her. She said she didn’t want to ask us when we were struggling financially, but now that all three of us were working she figured it would be easier to start paying her back. But, Prudie, my mom’s still paying off her mortgage, my brother is earning a graduate salary, and I am saving up for a wedding and a deposit for a house with my boyfriend. All of us could do with the money. My aunt said she won’t ask for any interest and she’ll take $1,000 off the total as a pre-wedding “gift.” I personally do not think we should pay her back—it was dad who borrowed the money and he died almost penniless. How can we convey our feelings without damaging our family relationship?
A: Now we’re talking real money. It’s funny how the $1,000 off the top makes her request seem more insensitive. Your letter makes clear that no one should loan money to friends or family unless they are prepared to never see the funds again. I’m afraid you’ve got a legal situation here. While money is clearly tight, you need to contact a lawyer who can advise you what your obligations are. It seems very unrealistic for your aunt to expect to see $19,000, and all of you may owe her nothing. But perhaps there’s a way to settle this so that relations aren’t permanently damaged.
Q. Cancer Patient: My wife has a congenital visual disorder that causes malformation of parts of the eyes. As such, it comes with droopy lids, oft-times odd shaped eyes, and limited visual acuity. People often say the strangest (and often rude) things to her, so we understand the fact that it seems that many people have lost the natural filter between brain and mouth. If someone starts a conversation that you are uncomfortable with (including rather unpalatable stories about cancer, treatment, and disturbing bodily functions), then I’ve found it best to interrupt (politely!) and say, “I appreciate the sentiments, but I’m uncomfortable discussing my situation right now,” and change the topic. You can often get people to discuss current events or local news easily. As for touching, when someone reaches out towards you, put up your hand in front of theirs and just say, “Please don’t.” You don’t need to explain, it just politely asks them not to touch you.
A: Good advice. Thanks.
Q. Wedding Decision: My 25-year-old daughter accepted an invite to a big wedding in February. The wedding is in September. Just recently her cousin declared her intention to marry on the same day. The cousin’s marriage is a bit more hasty. Should she go to the big wedding to which she has already accepted an invitation? The big one is very formal, with many events planned over several days. The other wedding is much less formal, but we are a small family and her absence will be sorely missed and may cause hard feelings. The weddings are in different states. Thanks for any insights you might have.
A: Brava to the cousin for not making getting married a year-long march to the altar at a cost equivalent to the bail-out of Greece. However, months ago your daughter accepted the invitation, so she is committed. She needs to write a note to her cousin explaining she very much wishes she could join her on this happy day, but she has a long-standing, previous obligation. She should say that after the honeymoon she’d love to get together with the couple for dinner to celebrate. If there are hard feelings because your daughter is not canceling on her friend, then your family will just have to stew in their own rudeness.
Q. Re: Gossip: Please, please, please say something to these mean girls! I was part of the “mean girls” group at my high school (now 10 years ago). I wasn’t mean, but I was an “innocent” bystander when they made fun of other girls, and I still feel guilty about not having spoken up. Do it because it’s the right thing. P.S.—I know your high school reputation feels like the end of the world, but it’s not. I now have kind, wonderful friends who are cool as hell but don’t treat people like crap. It gets better.
A: To the high school girl—listen to this voice from the future. It does get better, especially if you are not really a mean girl yourself. Even if there are some bumpy times disentangling from a nasty group of friends, it’s great experience in building your ability to do the right thing.
Q. Surprised Now, Instead of Later: My wonderful hubby has planned a surprise party for me. Unfortunately, I found out … several times over! So far, three paper invitations have been returned by mail, his sister left hers out, and open, on her dining room table when we visited, AND his mom had it written on her calendar! When the first two invites came back, I pretended not to see them, putting them back with some junk mail and convincing him to get the mail. Since then, he’s had our daughter sort the mail before I may see it, under the guise that he ordered a gift for me that will come by mail. Once home from our vacation, our daughter sorted the mail, but missed the third returned invite. I did the same trick, putting it into the next day’s mail and “forgetting” to get it, but I’m starting to feel guilty for knowing. Prudie, I’ve been “told” at least four times now! I let my sister know what I’ve found out, and she told me to play dumb and act as surprised as I can, knowing how much work he’s put into this. I’ve been advised to never let him know that I knew! I threw him a surprise party for his 30th birthday, so I know how much goes into a party like this. I know how I felt when all the work I’d put in didn’t go as planned, but is it right for me to play along even after the party is over?
A: Would it have felt better after you threw the surprise party for your husband to find out he had known all along? Or would you have preferred if he’d told you and both agreed to go ahead and at least let the guests have their fun? I worry that since you sister knows that at some point this will all come out. You know your husband—would he be hurt by your counter-deception, or appreciate that you didn’t blow his cover? Since this party is all about benign deceit, I’m inclined to say you should indulge in some of your own and be prepared to make your most convincing shocked expression when everybody jumps out at you.
Q. Jobless Friends: I have two very close friends who lost their jobs during the recession … and are openly and happily riding their 99 weeks of unemployment with an “I have X number of weeks left before I need to find a job” attitude. I am somewhat embarrassed to say that I am becoming very bitter and resentful to them. I know that this is my issue, but I work more than full time and commute over an hour each way to provide for myself and my special-needs son. I would LOVE to be at home with him for 99 weeks and be reimbursed for it, but even if I lost my job today, I would be scouring CareerBuilder within hours. Can you give me some advice on how to curb my inner witch? She is itching to make an appearance at our next get together!
A: Maybe your friends are geniuses and at the end of their almost two years of subsidy the economy will have improved so much they will walk into a great new job. If they truly plan on not looking as long as they’re getting an unemployment check, then they will more than likely be among the millions of long-term unemployed desperately searching for anything. The longer one is out of work, the harder it is to find a job, so they are just being foolish. Don’t waste your time wishing you were collecting temporary benefits. Don’t let their short-sightedness make you bitter. When you hear them talking as if they’ve landed in a money pot, just quietly be assured that unless they take action, soon they’ll be scraping the bottom.
Q. For Snappy Answers to Cancer: Has the writer considered joining a cancer support group? The group may have ideas on good responses to these questions, since they may get the same kinds of questions/comments. Also, this might be a good forum for sharing the inane, or idiotic, or just plain stupefying (I’m dying of cancer and the first thing you think about is getting my cookbooks?) comments and questions and getting sympathy and laughter.
A: Again, good advice, thanks.
Q. Mean Girls: 99% of your so-called BFFs in high school won’t even be on your FB feed three years from now. Do the right thing and speak up. I was the bullied odd-girl-out in junior high. One girl stood up to the rest of the clique and told them to leave me alone. I cannot tell you how much it meant to me that someone would do that. It didn’t stop the girls, but it did make me understand that I didn’t deserve this and needed new friends. I don’t want to think about what might have happened had I not had that little sliver of hope.
A: Another good point about the difference a lone, humane classmate can make. And how wonderful to be the person who was able to stand up!
Q. Thank Yous: So a couple who had a big wedding where they publicly discussed how they were “recouping” the per person costs through gifts (tacky!) did not ever send a thank you for the expensive gift I gave them. Fast forward 1.25 years, and they’re pregnant. I’m disinclined to purchase a gift for the baby, as the gift-mongering attitude at the wedding was gross on its own, and compounded by the lack of thank yous. Is this OK?
A: For all the people who didn’t get around to the thank you notes, or who think thank you notes are a form of extortion by gift-givers, listen up. The people you didn’t thank are going to help you out by not burdening you with any more gifts for your milestone events.
Q. Meddling Busybodies: I am 19 years old and engaged to an absolutely wonderful 24-year-old man. We were friends for a year before we dated, and dated for a year before getting engaged. We also plan on having children within a couple of years of getting married. Both of us had life experience beyond our age and we feel we are mature enough to make a big decision like this on our own. The only thing that makes us sad is that so many of our friends and even my fiance’s mom is against it. Prudie, I know the divorce rates for people my age, but I know I will be with my fiance for life. I feel upset that few people are sharing our happiness, and many instead are lecturing about how we should wait as well as predicting our union will end before I hit my mid 20s. Please help me: How do I deal with this negative situation, Prudie?
A: You demonstrate your maturity by saying, “I do know the statistics, and I understand your concern. But we are two people, not a national average, and we are confident about our choice and hope you will be happy for us.” Then having said your piece, decline to engage in further discussion about your engagement. But since you’ve written to me and I’m a meddling busybody, let me add that when older people hear a teenager say, “I know I will be with my fiance for life,” it’s hard not to feel that she’s so very young.
Q. Who’s To Pay?: My roommate was having a party at our house, so I invited a few friends as well. Unfortunately some people drank too much, including one of the friends I invited. This friend ended up breaking an expensive candle holder that my roommate received as an engagement gift from her grandmother. My roommate has been trying to get this friend to reimburse her, but he’s been making excuses and avoiding her. It’s now obvious he has no intentions of paying. She has now asked me to replace the candle holder. She thinks it’s now my responsibility as I invited him. I think it’s his responsibility and it’s not my fault if he’s acting like a weasel. Who’s in the right here?
A: Your friend was not only drunk, now he’s acting like a jerk. Since he is a friend of yours, you could tell him he needs to make good to the best of his ability on what he broke. But the bigger jerk here is turning out to be your roommate. Things happen, stuff breaks. She may have a great future as a tort lawyer if she’s determined to find someone to pay, but it’s outrageous that she’s decided it’s you. You can tell her that you’ve spoken to your friend on her behalf, but that’s all you can do.
Q. Unemployment: You know, your friends may be “riding their 99 weeks,” but the fact is that they are living much closer to the bone than before. I was unemployed for six months and waited to start unemployment. When I did start, my unemployment checks were for about 25 percent of my normal salary. Fortunately, my wife was still working and we very cautiously dipped into our savings and managed to only spend about two months’ worth of emergency savings for the six months I was unemployed, but it was still very uncomfortable to me to be unemployed for the first time in my 24-year work history. I went from a six-figure paycheck to $400 twice per month. So, even if they are riding the unemployment train, they aren’t doing so on champagne and caviar. So just remind yourself that you still have your full salary while they are coasting on a much smaller salary.
A: And other letter writers mentioned the unemployed friends may just be putting on a good face so as not to be downers and describe their actual fear. Unless the unemployed friends really are saying they’re loving their paid vacation and are not going to look for at least a year, give them the benefit of the doubt.
Q. The Neighbor’s Dead Cat: Why not send the old guy an anonymous letter that his cat was killed and put all minds at rest?
A: This is about last week’s column about the woman who accidentally killed the neighbor’s cat. I agree an anonymous note is a good idea.
Emily Yoffe: And thanks everyone for your good questions and ideas. Talk to you next week.
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