Dear Prudence

The Inadvertent Spy

I can hear everything my boss says about my co-workers.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudence,
My office is next door to that of the head of my department, and we share a wall. Every time she closes the door for a private conversation, I can hear every single word she says. She is very close to another department head and they often gossip about people in our department and the heads of the company. Needless to say, hearing the gossip about my fellow co-workers makes her look two-faced (as she is very nice to them when she speaks to them, but then she talks horribly about them when the door is shut). I am now semi-anxious that one day she could start talking about me. What should I do? We don’t really have an HR department to report to and I feel like telling her I hear everything is kind of intrusive. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

—Unwillingly Hearing Everything

Dear Unwilling,
Surveillance of ordinary Americans is a hot issue, with the House of Representatives recently passing a bill that would restrict the NSA’s ability to collect phone data.  No matter where you stand on government spying, where you sit has allowed you to receive a gold mine of office intelligence. Sure, your boss’s gossip can occasionally be distracting, but you are getting an inside track on how the heads of your company think about everything and everyone. These are useful insights for you, and you would be foolish to put a stop to it. More than that, you would be insane to reveal that your shared wall is the equivalent of an NSA listening station. It’s true that one day she might start talking about you. You should hope she does, because you will get an unvarnished reading of how you’re doing. If she says, “Iolanthe is organized and reliable, but she needs to take more initiative and speak up at meetings,” that’s excellent guidance for you. You say that this stream of gossip has made you realize that your boss is duplicitous. Please tell me you’re not so innocent that you don’t know that everyone dissembles to one degree or another. Telling people exactly what you’re thinking at all times would be a good way to render yourself friendless and unemployable—and make for a very bad manager. Gossip is a way of blowing off steam. Just because your boss complains to a fellow boss about subordinates does not mean she is insincere when she is nice to those same people or praises their work. For tips on using this treasure trove of information to your advantage, read some Machiavelli or Sun Tzu. And be aware of the volume of your voice when you’re in your own office. It wouldn’t take much for your neighbor to realize that if she can hear everything you say, the reverse is surely true.


Dear Prudence,
My wife and my mother get along fine, though they’re not very close and have little in common (besides me). My mother is a talker; there’s nothing objectionable in the content, but she can yammer on for hours about trivial nonsense, which is something I’ve learned to accept. My wife is pregnant with our second child and hormonal. Next month, we are all carpooling to a wedding about four hours away. My wife has told me she plans to wear headphones for the entire drive because, in her sensitive state, my mom would drive her nuts. I sympathize with my wife, but I think the plan is terribly rude and that she just needs to suck it up. She’s given me an ultimatum: If I object to the headphones, she won’t come to the wedding. Who’s right?

—Mom Talks a Blue Streak

Dear Talks,
Letter No. 1 is an example of the benefits of listening in. This letter is an example of how hearing a stream of someone’s unvarnished thoughts can make the listener want to jump out of a speeding car. Pregnant or not, I can’t imagine listening to nonstop blathering for 40 minutes, let alone four hours—each way! There’s a simple solution. Your wife sits in the back seat with whatever devices she needs to let her tune out your mother (she can profess pregnancy-related discomfort), while you do your filial duty and let you mother gas on about her new recipe for baked ham, her observations about how many cars have vanity license plates, and her debate over whether she should wear the sandals or the close-toed heels to the wedding. After an hour or two of this, you yourself might want to throw open the car door and fling yourself out, but you have children to think about. There’s also nothing wrong with telling your mother that you never miss All Things Considered, tuning in, and getting two hours of blessed relief.


Dear Prudence, 
My boyfriend recently got back from his deployment in Afghanistan. We haven’t seen each other for nine months but still managed to communicate via text nearly every day while he was gone. He’s been back for about a week and I feel like I talk to him less now than I did when he was there. Did I wait nine months just to be dumped? Or am I being inconsiderate and not giving him time to readjust? I want to be patient, but this is causing me a lot of anxiety. I’m totally falling in love with him, but am worried I just wasted nine months for him to come back and realize I’m not good enough. Do I talk to him about it or ride out the anxiety until I get to see him?

—Stateside and Confused

Dear Stateside,
Your boyfriend just got back from war. You don’t know what he saw or experienced, but you can try to understand the gulf that separates your last nine months from his. He was putting his life on the line and living somewhere where a foot in the wrong place could have meant catastrophe. You two aren’t married, but take a look at the materials available for spouses of returning service people. This information should reassure you that what you are going through is perfectly normal: the distance, the awkwardness, the feeling that things aren’t the same. This article should give you some insights into the difficulties of the readjustment process. Check out the documentaries Where Soldiers Come From and Coming Back. You might also want to read the short-story collection Redeployment by Phil Klay. All these should enlighten you as to the struggles surrounding returning that your guy is going through. You had visions of a passionate reunion and you’re understandably anxious that this isn’t happening. So back off. Carry on with the life you were living while he was gone, while making space for spend time together. Tell him how happy you are he’s home, that you want to be available and supportive, but you also don’t want to crowd him. There are no guarantees in relationships, but the more you are able to be the independent person you were during his absence, the more likely you will find your way back to each other now that he’s home.


Dear Prudie,
I work in our small, mostly family-owned company. The other day when I was in a casual conversation with another employee who directly reports to a non-family partner, she used the phrase “Jewed him down” to describe how she negotiated with a street vendor on a trip to New York. I was too stunned to say anything and so changed the topic of conversation to work-related matters. While we have different bosses and even work out of different locations, we are currently working together on a project and need to be corresponding. I’m uncomfortable with her antiquated views. What’s the best way to let her know that those kinds of views aren’t acceptable in the workplace (to say nothing of decent society) without coming off as the bratty relative of the owners? I don’t want to give her the impression I’ve shared this or that her job’s on the line. I just want her to know that there’s no room for that phrase in the 21st century.

—Concerned Co-Worker

Dear Concerned,
I’m Jewish and I think in all likelihood she spoke not out of malice or anti-Semitism, but ignorance. It’s probably a phrase she’s heard her whole life and never thought much about. Yes, if you pressed she’d likely say it refers to Jews’ supposed reputation as good bargainers; note that she used it in praise of herself. However, you’re right that like gypped, which comes from from disparaging gypsies (itself a controversial term) as unscrupulous, it definitely should be dropped from the vocabulary. However, I think you should let this go. The moment passed, and now, as you note, there are a lots of complications. You are part of the family that owns the business; you and she are in different locations; you are starting a project together. You don’t want to begin this work relationship with her worried that you’re reporting her to your family as an anti-Semite. If she says it again, speak privately to her, but don’t make it an accusation. Instead say, “Hey, you probably didn’t know, but that’s a phrase that’s now considered offensive.”


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