Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is online 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. Pretend to Ignore My Janitor Brother?: I’m a 24-year-old woman working my first job as a biomedical engineer in a big firm. My older brother is a janitor in our building. I have lunch with him once a week, and we’ve been seen together during the bigger office events, so everyone knows. This was never an issue until the senior manager of another unit said “Yes, I’ve heard of you, you’re the janitor’s sister” when I introduced myself. Since then, he’s not the first “stranger” who seemed to know about me first and foremost for that. It’s not said with explicit malice, but it makes me uncomfortable and several colleagues have urged me to distance myself from my brother at work to appear more “professional” (I hear “make people forget that your family is white trash” and it angers me). Is it professionally strategic to pretend he’s just another stranger at work? Or is this just novelty (I’ve been here four months) making people gossip, and should I just keep doing what I do and prove I’m “professional” by delivering results?
A: Why shouldn’t everyone know that your brother provides essential services to your company? I agree that “Oh, you’re the janitor’s sister” is an awkward and loaded remark, but not necessarily malicious. More likely, it’s a condescending acknowledgement of what you recognize is a novel situation. To these kinds of statements you can say, “Indeed I am. Dave’s the one who told me what a great place this is to work.” As for people who ask you to distance yourself from your brother, I understand your desire to distance yourself from them. But instead, I think you should say with a smile, “Without my brother, this office would cease to function. I’m proud of him.” You’ve only been at the company a brief time. Your focus, of course, is doing a great job as an engineer. But you also have the important opportunity of showing your colleagues what it means to be a gracious and mature human being
Q. Not Interested Means Not Interested: I am a recent female college graduate who was lucky enough to get hired at a fantastic job with great pay right out of college. Everything is going great except for one thing: One of my co-workers who is close in age to me has a romantic interest in me. I am straight. I told her this when she first asked me out, but she will not let it go, and keeps hinting that I should at least “give it a try.” She’s even gone so far as to play a well-known song about kissing a girl. When I called her out for this, she said it was all a joke. She is starting to say that I am a homophobe, which I am not. Our boss is a guy, and I really don’t feel comfortable going to him with this (he’s the same age as my dad), and our workplace is too small to have an HR department. What should I do? I don’t want to leave, but I’m getting tired of her attention.
A: This has nothing to do with sexual orientation, but it does have everything to do with sexual harassment. The genders don’t matter here. What matters is that a co-worker is making your work life miserable with her constant sexual demands. You must tell her clearly and explicitly that this must stop. (If the laws in your state allow one-party recording, you might consider having your phone in your pocket recording this conversation.) Then write yourself an email detailing what has happened and how you have dealt with it. If your co-worker does not immediately desist, then no matter how uncomfortable you are, you have to bring this to your boss’s attention. Practice in front of a mirror what you say. You want to keep it crisp and professional and let him know this harassment has been continual despite your clear efforts to end it. Let’s hope he then does the right thing and puts your colleague on strict notice.
Q. Two Roads Diverged in a Yellowed Wood: I’m about to graduate with my master’s degree this spring and I’m at a loss of what to do next. I’ve been (informally) offered a more permanent job where I’m currently a graduate assistant. I love the work I do and I know the money/benefits would be a great start in this field. But the job has nothing to do with my degree in English Literature. I’ve wanted to get my Ph.D. and become a professor since I was in high school but the cost and time burden with no real promise of a guaranteed position at an institution has me favoring the job offer. Any advice?
A: Take the job. Everything about it sounds good, and it will give you the chance to take a break from being a student and see how you like working in academia. You have a lifetime goal of being an English professor. However, considering what is happening on campus—the shrinking of humanities departments and the replacement of professors with adjuncts—your goal may be like that of someone who in the 19th century hoped to own a fleet of buggies. After a couple of years in the workforce, you’ll have a better idea what you want professionally and what your realistic opportunities might be.
Q. Ungrateful Brother?: My brother, his wife, and 2-year-old son moved in with my husband and me last year for three months (rent free) while they transitioned from living overseas. It was a tough time for everyone as they were adjusting to life in the United States and we got exhausted from cooking and cleaning for them while being kept up at night by a crying child. They confronted me last week claiming that they had a terrible experience and accused me of lacking empathy. We are very hurt by their ingratitude. What is the best way to handle this situation?
A: It would be fun to say, “My sincere apologies for your bad time mooching at our home for three months. I appreciate that because of my full-time job, my cooking and cleaning was not up to your standards, and you’re only giving us a one-star rating. This low quality was exacerbated by my being unable to sleep because of the nightly crying. In order not to subject you to such subpar accommodations, I will make sure not to have your family stay at our place ever again.” However, this ingrate has already confronted you and you reacted in real time. Maybe you want to continue the conversation and clear the air. Could it be you snapped (understandably) during their stay and now regret it? Or do you want to point out that you felt as if they thought you were running a hotel? But my general reaction is to file away what ingrates they are and not let it get to you. Thank goodness they’re not living with you anymore, and you don’t want to have a falling out that would estrange you from your nephew. Just make a private resolution that if they are ever are in extremis again, that they will need to find more agreeable accommodations.
Q. Re: Pretend to Ignore My Janitor Brother?: We recently had our long-term buildings/facilities manager put in his resignation. By all accounts he always went above and beyond in all aspects of his job. When asked why he was resigning, he noted that several younger engineers in our office had been treating the support staff poorly. He was eventually convinced to stay after all the senior management and engineers expressed to him our displeasure with this attitude and made sure all the junior engineers were acquainted with how important the support staff is. I hope she chooses to own the relationship and not buckle under peer pressure. Everyone deserves respect.
A: Thanks for this important message about seeing and valuing the contributions made by all the people in an organization.
Q. High School Girl Drama: My 14-year-old daughter is involved with a group of girls that have been friends since second grade. She had a falling out with one girl over a position in a sport they—and several in their group—both play. They don’t speak anymore. This girl invited my daughter to her birthday party and my she was going to attend. However, another “friend” informed her that the hostess hates her now and only invited her to be polite, whereas my daughter thought it was a peace-making gesture. She wavered about going and ultimately did not go because things are so cool between her and the hostess. Now her other friends are angry with her and nobody is speaking to her. I thought all this would blow over but it’s not going away. She wants to change schools.
A: How I wish your daughter had gone. Being polite is a peace-making gesture, and if your daughter had shown up, and everyone had gotten along, even despite some underlying tension, that might have turned things around. Instead some drama-stirrers stirred things up, your daughter got her back up, and now here you are. I think your daughter should be the one to make a gesture to the hostess. Go with her to buy a birthday present—one that’s neither chintzy nor extravagant. Then help your daughter compose a note to accompany the gift explaining she appreciated being invited to the party, she wishes she had gone, and she is hoping that they can start talking again. Then see what happens. In the meantime, you can help your daughter set up an appointment with the school counselor to talk about things. If this person is any good, the counselor should have some practical advice on helping your daughter through this rocky time. Even if her long-time friends are snubbing her, surely the school is big enough that your daughter can reach out to other kids. Yes, it’s too late now for her to be in the school play, but in the fall she can join some other activities (the yearbook, school paper, Spanish club, etc.). Changing schools is the nuclear option, and it sounds like there’s still plenty of room for negotiation.
Q. Hubby Gaining Weight: I have an incredibly loving and supportive husband. He’s wonderful in every way. We have been married for 13 years that has blessed us with three children. We were both slim and trim when we met. He had put a few pounds on each year, but now it seems like they are just piling on. He now needs a new wardrobe. How do I suggest in the kindest of ways to join a gym and diet instead of buying new clothes to fit the new girth? He is not obese, but his build is similar to his father’s, who is ginormous. I feel terrible to make the suggestion, especially since I have been able to maintain my weight. He works hard, is a great husband and father, and deserves life’s indulgences, if that’s what he wants.
A: As you know, no one can make someone else lose weight. Your husband needs new clothes, so please don’t try to prevent him from being able to button his jacket and zip his pants; that’s a basic necessity. I think you should think of the issue not as one of wanting him lose weight, but addressing a concerning trend. This is not time for hints. You can tell him you will love him no matter what size he is, but you are worried that what has been a weight gain of a few pounds a year has recently become much more significant. You mention his ginormous father, so your husband is likely fighting biology. But that doesn’t mean he has to just keep piling on the pounds. He needs professional help to give him a plan to help him plateau. He himself should want to find a way to maintain where he is so that a year from now he’s not sending his new wardrobe to the Salvation Army because he can no longer zip and button it. Tell him you’ll help look for a doctor, nutritionist, etc. because you want to support him being happy and healthy.
Q. Re: Pretend to Ignore My Janitor Brother?: I used to watch how my fellow computer programmers treated the secretaries. One or two were rude and contemptuous. That told me who they really were.
Q. Re: Ungrateful Brother: I feel like we have only half the story here. What if the writer was an ungracious host, made the brother and his family constantly feel unwelcome, was difficult and unsympathetic with the toddler, etc.? What if she insisted on cooking and cleaning either to be the martyr or because she thinks no one else can possibly do things right? I’d bet a whole lot of money that if the brother were on this chat he’d have a very different story to tell.
A: The letter writer says tensions were high, and she may have been an unpleasant hostess. But I don’t see the purpose, now that they’re out of the house, of the brother and his wife unloading on how badly they feel they were treated for the three months they got free housing and food.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week!