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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, I look forward to your questions.
Q. Unethical Fake Job Reference: Joanne, my BFF and co-worker, and Melanie, a former co-worker, both recently applied for the same exciting, awesome job. When the diligent, talented Melanie left our company, I offered to be a reference for her. Joanne told me how intense the application process was—her parents were divorcing at the same time, so she was frazzled—so I expected a call from the hiring company. It never came. Neither Joanne nor Melanie got the job. Recently Joanne confessed that while in my office one day, she intercepted a call from the hiring company; the rep wanted to talk about Melanie’s employability. Joanne told the rep that Melanie was intelligent but also lazy and entitled. She didn’t think the reference was bad enough to tarnish Melanie’s or my reputation permanently and begged for my forgiveness. Joanne is normally a sweet person, and I don’t think she would have done this if she hadn’t been so stressed. My question is, what do I do now? I don’t want to see Joanne hurt.
A: You’ve got to step up and try to restore Melanie’s reputation. Maybe being frazzled has permanently fritzed Joanne’s brain because you are not the person she needs to seek forgiveness from. She’s a long way from dealing with what she did if she thinks describing a former employee as “lazy and entitled” didn’t crush her chances for a job. I hope she’s not seriously excusing her behavior by bringing up her parents’ divorce or the “intense” application process. What she did was inexcusable and possibly actionable. You should tell her that her obligation is to contact the company and come clean. It’s likely she’ll say she can’t (being frazzled and all). But even if she says she will, I’d be dubious and I think you should follow up on what you’ve learned. Call the company, ask to speak to human resources, and say you’ve been told an unfortunate piece of information about a false referral for a recent job applicant. You can say you’d prefer not to give the name of your friend, but do give the details of what you were told. Add that Melanie was a superb employee, which is something they should know. If Joanne isn’t capable of trying to right this serious wrong, then you have some devastating information about the character of your best friend.*
*Update: I read over the fact that Joanne was impersonating the letter writer, so in fact Joanne does owe her a huge apology, as well as one to Melanie. Then the letter writer needs to explain to the other company that she just discovered when they called her for a reference for Melanie, another employee intercepted the call. She should explain that she would have given a glowing recommendation for Melanie. I also think Melanie deserves to be alerted to what happened. There are consequences for trying to ruin someone’s career.
Dear Prudence: Trashy Sister
Q. My Boyfriend’s Surprise Baby: I have been dating a co-worker for several months. He told me he loved me in December, and I returned his sentiment. Last night I received an email from him; he sent it to all the people in our office. He told us he would be on paternity leave for the next month and attached a picture of his three-month-old daughter. From what I can tell, we started dating when his baby-mama was six months pregnant. I feel blindsided by his email and have no idea how to respond.
A: You could send an email saying: “Congratulations! She’s adorable!” Feel free to skip the gift. When he returns, limit your contact to the minimum required. Consider yourself lucky you aren’t married to, or pregnant by, this creep. And if he runs for president someday, make sure to tell the reporters covering him your interesting story.
Q. Brother’s Bridezilla Problem: My brother’s fiance is a nightmare of a bride. It doesn’t help that she has a wedding budget roughly equivalent to the GDP of a country. My brother thinks it’s the “stress” of wedding planning that has her acting out. She wants her bridesmaids to have matching skin tones, she expects us to undergo spray tans. She invites hordes of people to her dress fittings and gets offended if people don’t attend. She offered to pay for a gym membership for my mom. I feel strongly that my brother shouldn’t marry this woman—no one should! But obviously that’s not my business. How can I support a marriage, and attend a wedding, I don’t believe should take place?
A: You have some kind of nerve thinking you’re entitled to ruin this wedding—and the photos!—by showing up with your pasty face. You understand you can’t stop this marriage. But you don’t have to take being bullied. Have a talk with your brother—try to keep your tone neutral—asking him to ask his bride to reconsider the way she’s treating everyone. Explain you are not going to change your skin tone for her and your mother is not going to change her body. Say that you understand she’s stressed (she may even be frazzled, which apparently gives people carte blanche to exuberantly hurt people), but that he needs to tell her she’s damaging what will be a very long relationship with your family. Whether or not he’s brave enough to do this, the rest of you are not her subjects and don’t have to spray yourselves or lift weights according to her demands. From now on do the minimum—basically showing up at the wedding. If she starts ordering you around or bawling you out, stay calm and say, “Courtney, I know the wedding is the biggest day in your life, but everyone else already has a life, and I’m afraid I don’t have time for your dress fittings, and I’m not interested in changing the color of my skin.”
Q. Stepdaughter’s Lie Unforgivable?: Two years ago my teenaged stepdaughter hit her half-brother (my son) so hard she left a sizable bruise. She then gave herself a black eye and called the police. I almost lost custody of my son and was immersed in various legal battles for months. When the truth came out, my stepdaughter had to see a counselor and was punished with hours of community service. Since then she’s completely shaped up and is now loving towards her younger half-siblings. But I struggle to fully forgive her, and I will still not let her be alone with my children. I know my reticence to embrace the “new her” hurts her feelings and, to a certain extent, disappoints my husband. I have been to counseling too, but whenever I see her, I remember the fear at the prospect of losing my baby. And I remember the size of the bruise she left on him. Do you think I am being unreasonable? Too harsh?
A: You need to all go to counseling together. It’s so encouraging to hear that this teenager realized the awfulness of her actions and is remaking herself. But it’s understandable that while your child’s bruises may have healed, what you went through has left permanent scars. All this should be hashed out with a neutral party. It would help you to be able to express your difficulty in trusting her, and also to hear a direct apology from her. This might allow you to work your way toward forgiveness, and restoring trust between you. A therapist can help you figure out graduated steps toward doing this. Talking this out all together will also help relieve the terrible burden on your husband, who is now torn between his two families, and the guilt he must feel about everyone.
Q. Ex-wife, Polygamous Boyfriend: I never thought I would reach the day where my ex-wife told me that her fiance, our kids’ stepfather-to-be, is a polygamist with two other wives. He has 11 children and wants to have more with my ex-wife. She plans to move into an apartment in his multiple-family home. I knew we lived in the same area as a number of polygamists but never liked that men could take multiple wives but women had to remain monogamous. I also don’t agree with many aspects of this man’s religion. I have told my wife that I do not want our kids living in a polygamist home. I would rather she not expose them to that lifestyle, but without taking her to court, which I seriously want to avoid, I don’t know how to accomplish that. My ex-wife is angry with me and wants me to visit the “compound” with her to see what the family is really like. How should I proceed without alienating my ex-wife and kids? Is my judgment reasonable?
A : What this guy is doing is illegal. I know the court system is the place of last resort, but I don’t see how you can do anything but try to get full custody of your children. The mere fact your ex wants to raise your children on a polygamist compound speaks to her unfitness. Clearly expressing your doubts about this “lifestyle” is not having any effect on your angry ex. You need to step up and protect your kids.
Q. Biting Dog: My beloved dog has matured and turned into a serious biter. I’ve explored all my options and the best thing to do is euthanize him. He’s seriously hurt the folks he bit and is not predictable enough to train out of it. I’m resigned to what I must do. Giving him up would only mean transferring the problem to someone else. What do I say to the people who are judging me negatively for this heartbreaking choice? None of them ever says “I’ll take him.”
A: Go ahead and ask, “Do you want him?” As you’ve noted, they don’t. You don’t have to send an announcement or make a lot of excuses. Right now everyone who comes into contact with your dog is in jeopardy. And if he hurts anyone else, not only would you be consumed with guilt, but also legal fees because you know your dog is out of control. Sadly, your dog is mis-wired and is a very unhappy creature. You are taking the proper, humane step.
Q. Creepy Co-Worker: I am a lady in my 30s, married, and love my job. I have a co-worker who is a young guy just out of college. He is socially awkward and really gives me the creeps. One day, I walked by his desk and he was looking at my personal social networking profile. Through this, he found my personal email and started IM’ing me constantly. I had to block him. He emails me or drops by my desk frequently to see if I want to have lunch—I tell him no every time. He lurks around me, stands really close, and seems to monitor my activities. I have seen him get very angry. Now he wants to move his desk into the small room I am in, and I am having a panic attack thinking about having to see/interact with him daily. Help! When I expressed to my boss that I really need to be alone in a quiet place to concentrate, he just replied that (creepy guy) is a quiet person. Do I tell my boss this kid makes me so uncomfortable?
A: He’s not a quiet kid, he’s a stalker. You need to go back in the boss and lay out exactly what has been going on. Say you are now in a state of anxiety every time this kid comes near you and his behavior is disturbing and completely inappropriate for the workplace. If no action is taken, then you need to go up the ladder. Or if your boss is the top rung, then you need to contact a lawyer to lay out your options. No one should have to put up with this at a place of work.
Q. For the Dog Owner: I’d like to give the owner of the biting dog some positive reinforcement. Thank you for recognizing the necessary steps for the dog. This happened to a friend of mine, and she did not admit that the dog had a serious problem. It was only after her dog bit her brother’s face (necessitating an emergency helicopter trip to a better hospital for plastic surgery) that she agreed to put him down. You’re doing the absolute right thing, and should not be judged harshly for it.
A: That’s the kind of horrific event that happens when dog owners don’t take responsibility. I was attacked on the street by a neighbor’s dog, and if I hadn’t been wearing jeans, I’d now be missing a thigh. The neighbors had to acknowledge their dog was basically psychotic and had attacked other people, but they just loved their sweet widdle baby so much.
Q. Tattling: I happen to be working at home today at the dining room table where I can see the neighbors’ house. They are out of town and have hired a pet sitter. I know the pet sitter should stay 20 minutes, but she has stayed barely over 10 minutes. Should I mention it to our neighbors or just let it go. It seems so petty to complain about those 10 minutes, but you really count on people to take care of and spend time with your lonely pets when you are away from home.
A: It’s not petty. How does anyone know the pet sitter is actually doing the job she’s hired to do unless you have a puppy cam? I’d want to know if my dog walker was stiffing me and ignoring my lonely little Lily.
Q. Who’s the Sorriest?: Last week, when a car almost hit my friend and me when we were crossing in front of a parking garage, I yelled a few choice swear words at the driver. I shouldn’t have lost my temper, but the woman driving the car almost hit me! Later I went to dinner with my girlfriend and met her best friend for the first time. It was the driver from that morning. She recognized me, but I didn’t recognize her. My girlfriend took her best friend’s side, even though her friend almost hit me with a car. Am I in the wrong? Who owes whom an apology?
A: Today’s the day of the rotten best friend. I give a pass to people who get a little feisty when distracted drivers almost take their lives. Is the woman behind the wheel really expecting an apology because you swore at her for almost hitting you? She would have been well advised, when it became clear you didn’t recognize her, to keep her mouth shut and say a little prayer that she had not just killed you earlier in the day. Your girlfriend may have been blindsided by this unfortunate revelation but what doesn’t she get about “almost hit by a car”? She’s way out of line if she thinks you should apologize for reacting badly to barely avoiding being plowed down.
Q. 20-Year-Old Drinking: I have a 20 year old son who is a junior at university. He is a good student who works part time as a teaching assistant for a beginning computer class. We switched phones recently since the screen on his phone was only working intermittently. (I don’t need text messaging.) Anyway, on his phone I saw a text message he sent to a friend talking about something he did not remember saying when he was drunk. I don’t have other evidence of him drinking but I am not naive about college student drinking. I am mostly concerned about him being drunk and not remembering. Do you have any advice about if I should talk to him and what I should say if I do talk to him?
A: College students drink. But what’s disturbing is the culture that teaches them binge drinking is the only way to imbibe. I think you should talk to him, but in a low-key way. Say you understand most people drink on campus, but your concern is about drinking until you’re no longer responsible for your own behavior. You could show him last week’s chat with the letter from a woman who, following a drunken one-night stand, started rethinking what happened and concluded she was raped. A young man who is doing things he is not aware of doing could end up on the wrong side of such an accusation. Tell him that if he stays close to sober, he will be able to see the truth of the fact that people who lose control of their faculties get themselves in all kinds of trouble, and that’s a lesson better learned from observation than experience.
Q. Re: Puppy Cam: We did in fact have a puppy cam (actually it was a nanny cam, but paid for itself as a puppy cam too) and found the pet sitter we had been using for several years was only taking our sweet older dog for a two-minute pee break twice a day (when she was supposed to be walking him around the block)! When we got home from a weeklong trip he could barely walk, as he had been lying on his bed the entire time. Makes me cry just thinking about it. Tell them!
A: Let’s hope that dog walker has not moved on to nursing homes.
Q. Tattling On Pet Sitter: I think the neighbor should tell only if her friends asked her to keep an eye out and are the type to ask for the pet sitter’s side of the story. I’ve been a pet sitter and at times, once in a while one of my visits would get cut a little short because of a problem with the bus, but then I went back after work and spent more (extra) time with the pet. I would hate to have gotten fired because some neighbor snooped on me and their friends took the neighbor’s word for it without asking the whole story.
A: Telling the neighbor should not result in immediate firing but in a conversation.
Q. Sales Commission Etiquette: A family friend works at a department store. Recently I went shopping in her department and could not find her. A younger sales woman helped me, and I decided to buy a lot of clothes. Right as I reached the cashier, my family friend returned from her lunch break. She told the younger employee that I was a friend she would finish the sale, thereby earning a commission on it. The younger sales woman looked to me, and I agreed that I would let my family friend ring me up. At the time I didn’t think much of it—I love helping friends earn commissions—but my younger sister, who also works in retail, said I should have let the person who helped me earn the commission. Did I do wrong?
A: I love columns with trends—more rotten friends! Your friend wasn’t there, someone else helped you, and your friend had some nerve taking over the commission. If you’d really wanted your friend to get it, you should have looked around elsewhere, then come back to let her help you. But since she wasn’t there, the woman who did the work deserved the money and your friend knows it.
Q. Dad Loved His Second Family More: My half-siblings, teenagers, have made efforts to get to know me since I moved to the city where they live with our dad and their mom. I’m hesitant, because I sometimes resent them. My dad never liked me or my brother. He wasn’t abusive; just disappointed and aloof. I was 8 when he left and 10 when he remarried. I was shocked when he had more kids; I always assumed he disliked them. When it became apparent how much he adored his new kids, I realized it was me he hadn’t liked. Twice as a teenager I tried to talk with him about our estranged relationship; then I began seeing a counselor and finished with him. My dad and my stepmom do not seem to want a relationship with me, but my half-siblings call me as often as they can. I’m warming to their persistence, but being around them, seeing how well they’ve been loved by their dad, makes me ache for what I’ve convinced myself I was better off without. I’m not sure how to manage a relationship with them.
A: Be honest. Tell them you appreciate their interest in you and desire to make a connection, but explain why it is so painful. Don’t trash your father, just explain after the divorce he left your life and you didn’t have a father growing up. Say it’s lovely to see he’s so devoted to all of them, but you hope they understand reconnecting with his new family is difficult for you. Let me also make a pitch for your rethinking your father’s behavior. I don’t think he rejected you and your brother because he didn’t like you, and upon having a new family he realized, “Ah, now I how some decent kids, not those drippy failures from first time around. ” What really happened is that he is a deeply flawed person who didn’t know how to love his first family after blowing it up. Probably his second wife also preferred to limit contact. That’s no excuse for his behavior, but it’s not about you, it’s about him.
Q. Polygamy: While it’s not the life for me, surely this man’s ex-wife has the right to choose the life she wants to live. Though it’s illegal, that doesn’t make it morally wrong. If they could agree to a joint custody deal, then maybe the kids would be exposed to both parents’ ways of life and could choose for themselves how they want to live. That is, of course, as long as there is no abuse in the polygamist home.
A: I’m going to take one of those judgmental flyers and say bringing your kids to live in a polygamist community is wrong. Totally, utterly wrong. And however much the dad understandably wants to stay out of court, his bigger obligation is to keep his kids out of this compound.
Q. Re: Bridezilla: Can you explain why some men go for this type? I know so many women who are smart, passionate, sweet, kind, and generous, yet they’re single. Sometimes they’re passed over for gems such as this one. I don’t get it.
A: I would love to hear from a groom who went through this and find out why he didn’t cancel the wedding.
Q. Very Late Letter of Condolence: A cousin’s husband died last October, and I have never called or written. I had a lot going on and really didn’t know what to say, but that’s no excuse. We shared a lot of memorable times at family events in the past, and I liked him very much and appreciated their “love prevails in the end” story. I’ve let it go so long that I feel paralyzed, and ashamed of myself for my lack of support. Please, tell me how to start. Thank you.
A: You’ve already started with this note to me, so now go and put in down on paper. Please don’t make the note about you, however (“I was so frazzled, then I didn’t know what to say, then I got embarrassed…”). Briefly apologize for your silence then say you have thought about her and “Bob” every day since his death. Recount some anecdotes about him. Say how their love story is one that always made you know that some people are destined for each other. Then reiterate your apology and say you will be calling shortly to see how she’s doing and try to arrange a get-together. If she’s cool to you, accept it, then try again.
Q. Remarkable Feats in Social Awkwardness: A college friend recently posted a picture of my college ex-boyfriend and her cuddling in bed on my Facebook wall. I guess they’re dating. She now posts comments like, “Rick just told me the funniest story about the time you went to Canada!” She’ll also post references to inside jokes that my ex-boyfriend and I had together. Normally the people in my life are better at self-editing than she seems to be. I feel awkward telling her to knock it off because a) I feel like she should know to do that herself and b) I don’t want to seem overly sensitive. It’s not overreacting to send her a “cease and desist” message via FB, is it?
A: It’s time to put her in that special Facebook corral for “Obnoxious people who are dating my ex” or whatever setting prevents her from posting on your wall. I think her behavior also is a good prompt for a phone call. You can tell her you’re delighted they are happy, but you feel it is a violation of your privacy for her to post publicly information about your romance with him—that’s just not the kind of thing for mass consumption. If she won’t knock it off, then she’s not your friend and you should remove her from that category.
Q. Social Networking Sites: “One day, I walked by his desk and he was looking at my personal social networking profile. Through this, he found my personal email and started IM’ing me constantly.” To everybody, if you don’t want strangers to know your person email address, either do not put it on a social networking site or change your security settings so friends (and only friends) can see it.
A: Good point. But that security lapse doesn’t make this guy any less of a creep.
Q. Vegan Maid of Honor: My fiance and I are getting married in about two months. We are diligent about staying in budget and planned a modest ceremony with cake and a champagne toast to follow. Each of us only have one attendant and there will be about 75 guests. Recently, my maid-of-honor adopted a vegan diet. I totally respect and am supportive of this decision and when she visits I plan a vegan meal. My wedding cake, however, is not vegan. I contacted the bakery to see if they have vegan cakes or cupcakes that we could order to make sure she has something to eat, but they do not make vegan baked goods. How much further do I have to go to accommodate her at my wedding?
A: There are worse deprivations people have had to endure than skipping dessert. You don’t owe her a sweet, just alert her that there are eggs and butter in the cake and let her struggle with temptation. And thank you for not asking her to change either her diet or her skin color.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Have a good week, free of rotten friends!