Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the 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.)
Q. Touchy-Feely Stepmom: My ex-husband remarried last year to a woman from another country. She is very kind and gets on well with my 6-year-old son, which is a huge blessing. The only thing I find awkward is her tendency for lots of tactile interaction, even with me. She’s an avid hugger and every hello and goodbye is accompanied by kisses to both cheeks, not to mention an invariable arm over my shoulder or around the waist. I went along with it initially, so as not to alienate my son’s stepmom, but now I do feel a little embarrassed, especially as she takes on more parenting duties. At my son’s soccer last week she not only sat next to me, but held my hand throughout the game, drawing strange looks from other parents. Is there a nice way to tell her to cut back on the affection (in public at least) without seeming rude, or like a hypocrite who has been playing along all this while?
A: I can understand that more eyes were on you two than on the game as people were trying to figure out whether they’d gotten it wrong about exactly whose partner Francesca is. Good for you for figuratively embracing this new person in your son’s life. But you should not feel pressured to translate that into literal contact. It’s one thing to do the cheek kiss at the door (although that’s pretty cheeky for the second wife to initiate that with the first), but you need to firmly but pleasantly let her know there will be no hand-holding, etc. You should also check in with your husband and say while you understand that Francesca comes from a culture with different standards of physical contact, since she lives here now, you want to make sure your son doesn’t feel uncomfortable and violated by her tactile expectations.
Dear Prudence: Office Bra Etiquette
Q. Germophobic: I HATE shaking hands with people. I also hate grasping door handles, touching elevator buttons, and using common-use pens, such as those you must use for electronic signatures when swiping your credit cards. Needless to say, I avoid buffets. But in the business environment, people are always holding out their hands for a shake. Then, I can’t think about anything else until I can get to a bathroom for a wash. I realize this is a little over the top, but I hate, hate, hate getting colds, and I’m convinced that avoiding common contact helps prevent them. Science supports me in this, but social science is another thing. If someone offers me a hand, what is a graceful way to say that I don’t shake hands? Or, should I say, no, I have a cold, and I don’t want to give it to you?
A: It’s true that keeping your hands clean reduces the spread of germs, but you are making this argument to justify what sounds like a significant case of germophobia. It’s true to you could decline the handshake on the grounds of your being sick—but people are going to wonder why you’re always sick, even when you seem fine. I’m going to suggest that instead of having a strategy for avoiding all inevitable contact with surfaces and flesh, you see a therapist who deals with phobias to get some help loosening the grip of this obsession.
Q. Dating Woes: I have been dating a beautiful and charming woman for the last two years. I have asked her several times to marry me, but she is hesitant because she does not want to create upheaval for her son, who is 7. Over the past few weeks she has been acting strangely—distracted, a little jumpy, cancelling our dates due to work, etc. I saw her this weekend and her behavior was a little preoccupied, but she said that was due to work projects. Her son also seemed excited to tell me about their visit to the zoo last weekend with “Steve,” but went to bed before I could ask any details. How do I bring this up with her and what does it mean for our relationship? I would like to propose again over Xmas.
A: Forget the Christmas proposal and propose an honest conversation about where your relationship is at and where you two want it to head. She has made it very clear she’s not interested in heading to the altar anytime soon, so stop being like a needy boy who keeps asking his mother for a gift she’s not going to get him. You now have to find out if she’s stringing you along or even engaging in monkey business with “Steve.”
Q. Re: Shaking hands: I’ve encountered a handful of people throughout my career (law) that don’t shake hands. They’ve simply said something like “I’m sorry, I don’t shake hands, but it’s a pleasure to meet you.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone comment on it afterward, and certainly not negatively. I don’t think that you’re wrong for suggesting that the original submitter seek out some kind of therapy to get the germ phobias under control, I just wanted to throw it out there that plenty of people decline handshakes without upsetting any social apple carts.
A: Good point. There are people who have medical condition that mean a crushing handshake could be literally crushing, and there are people who don’t shake hands with members of the opposite sex for religious reasons. But handshaking is so baked into our social rituals, that it is awkward to not have an outstretched hand grasped in return. I agree with you that a gracious explanation should mean this is only a fleeting moment of no importance. But I also think it’s worth the investment to get some help so that someone doesn’t go through life feeling every surface as teeming with peril.
Q. Christmas Card Etiquette: I send out a Christmas card/photo of our family plus a short form letter to about 70-plus friends every year. We live overseas, and I admit that I sometimes feel a little desperate for contact with friends, so I really treasure their cards in return. However, we receive so few cards in response to our efforts—and this was the case before we moved overseas as well—that I find myself feeling hurt by the people who don’t make any effort at all to even send a Facebook message or email and say, “Thanks, great to hear from you!” I’m thinking of eliminating the nonsenders from our card list to spare myself the hassle and grief, but would like to make one last heartfelt plea for communication. How can I say, “I’m lonely and a card would make my day. Please let me know you’re still alive by responding to this card!”
A: All year long people receive desperate pleas from overseas, but usually these involve strangers with large deposits in their bank accounts who would like you to give them your financial information in order to make some kind of exchange. Tearful, lonely requests are unpleasant any time of year. But during the holidays, when people are running around, shopping, traveling, and hosting, you don’t want to be that drippy, forgotten friend who everyone has to write off—though not write to. I’m sure your friends are happy to get your annual greeting, and if you want to update the people you care about and don’t get to see, then continue to do it. If you expect a quid pro quo, drop it. I noticed a few years ago that my card-sending efforts returned an ever dwindling amount of responses, so I basically packed it up. With the advent of Facebook and other methods of being informed of every vacation your friends take or even meal they eat, people have less need for the yearly accounting. If you miss your friends, then Skype or email with them regularly through the year. Don’t try to blackmail them with Christmas tears.
Q. Drunk Grandma Getting Worse: My grandmother is an alcoholic and refuses to get any help. The situation has been getting worse over the past few years. She lives in a second-story apartment alone with narrow, slick steps, and is constantly falling (both in and out of her house), mostly as a result of her drinking. I live several states away, but her slurred speech is becoming increasingly obvious on our weekly phone calls. She broke her leg earlier this year from a fall and has had a blood alcohol level double the legal limit or higher on several occasions when she was taken to the hospital. After she broke her leg, my uncle and staff at the rehabilitation center tried to stage an intervention, which she resisted. My uncle has decided to cut her off completely for the safety and mental health of himself and his family. My father, her only other child, passed away more than two decades ago and my grandma has very few surviving family members and no friends. My uncle is urging me to cut her off as well hoping that she will realize how much her drinking is costing her. I am torn. I would like her to get help and move into an assisted living community (we have tried pushing her for years to do that to no avail), but I also don’t know if me cutting her off will make the situation worse. Any advice?
A: One of the saddest lessons I’ve learned from writing this column is that some people cannot be helped. I understand your uncle’s decision. However, you can make your own. If you feel better keeping in phone contact, then do so. When she is incoherent from drink, you can say, “Grandma, I have to get off the phone. You’ve been drinking and are not making any sense.” If you catch her when she’s sober, you can repeat how worried all of you are. Say that because no one is checking in, you fear she could fall and days could go by without anyone knowing. But in the absence of her being willing to address the problem that will likely eventually take her life, there’s very little you can do.
Q. Getting in My Gym Time (General Host Etiquette): I head to the gym three times a week. I really enjoy lifting weights, but also find having that hour to myself invaluable for my own sanity. I have a high-stress job with long hours, and am newly married. The gym is currently the only time during the week that is mine and mine alone. During holidays, I’ll typically wake up before my wife so that I can get to the gym, get my workout in, and get home just in time to prepare breakfast as she is waking up. The only problem is that we will have in-laws staying with us for about a week. They are, like me, also early risers, and this means I may see them on my way out the door. This inevitably leads to conversation, and my time quickly vanishes. I value my gym time, but also value my relationships with the in-laws, and don’t want to be a bad host. Admittedly not a major issue, but what is the correct move here?
A: You are a guy who lets your wife sleep late while you go out to get in shape then you come home and make breakfast. I hope your wife acknowledges she is a lucky woman. What you do is when your in-laws arrive is show them around the kitchen then explain that in the morning you’re on a tight schedule so you’ll be running out the door to get to the gym. Say they should feel free to make themselves breakfast, or if they can wait until you return, you would be happy to be the chef. If on your way out they try to engage in more than greetings, just say, “Dan, Barbara, I’ll catch up with you after I’ve had a work out and a shower.”
Q. My Friend Interrupted My Boyfriend’s and My “Afternoon Nap” and Now Won’t Speak to Me: “Celia” and I were friends and co-workers for many years. We were very close, or so I thought. Sadly, we haven’t had any contact for three years. I have tried reaching out in multiple ways, but no response from Celia. I hadn’t a clue what I had done to make her so angry she wouldn’t speak to me, until just recently when a mutual friend enlightened me. Celia is apparently upset because three years ago at Christmastime, when she and her children unexpectedly dropped by, I was “distant and distracted.” Here’s what happened: My then boyfriend (now husband) and I were in the preliminary stages of an “afternoon nap” (if you know what I mean) when Celia rang the doorbell. Because I was expecting packages and thought UPS might be running early, I pulled myself together and answered the door. Celia informed me they “just thought they’d drop by and surprise me.” My guy came out of the bedroom and we visited for a few minutes, they invited us to lunch and we graciously declined. We walked them to the door and said what I thought were cordial goodbyes. I was too embarrassed to explain what they’d interrupted, especially in front of her then 9- and 12-year-olds, and it was not really her business anyway. Should I try to explain the situation in order to salvage the friendship, or just cut my losses and let it go?
A: It is disconcerting when you learn that someone you thought you knew well is actually a nut. Anyone who unexpectedly drops by should be prepared to be told that now is not a good time. You and your boyfriend behaved appropriately, but your erstwhile friend has nursed a three-year grudge after she disrupted your matinee. No, you don’t now tell her, “Hey, let’s clear things up. I didn’t want to explain to your children in 2010 that Rod and I were having intercourse, but I belatedly wanted to let you know.” You just accept that it’s for the best you don’t have to deal with Celia’s sense of entitlement.
Q. Glorified Roommate: I have been with my boyfriend for over four years. He is 47 and I am 42. We are financially stable, get along quite well, and enjoy each other’s company. My problem is that he does not want to have sex. Ever. I have tried to initiate but to no avail. I have tried to discuss this many times with him. He says that he is attracted to me. Claims that he only had sex maybe twice a year with his ex-wife, so that is what he is used to. I feel rejected and hurt but nothing ever changes. I have brought up counseling, and the use of medications (no problem with getting it up though). I asked about testosterone levels being checked. Nothing, nada. What do I do? I am at my wit’s end.
A: You apparently decided to move in with a guy who gets visibly aroused around you but refuses to do the deed. I don’t know what’s wrong with him, but what’s wrong with you? I agree counseling is a good idea. I suggest you start by going by yourself and figuring out why you would spend four years in a celibate relationship with a man who has no intention of ever being your sexual partner.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week, on the eve of Christmas Eve!
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