Mallory Ortberg, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at email@example.com.)
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Q. Miss Samoa: My co-worker “Susan” and I were discussing the Miss Universe show in the lunchroom. Another co-worker “Alana,” who is Samoan, walked in looking a little more dressed up than usual. Susan said, “Here comes Miss Samoa” in a lighthearted way and asked her where she got her beautiful new dress from. I also commented that she was looking nice that day and the three of us had a friendly chat for the rest of the meal. It was a completely uneventful and pleasant conversation. Alana continued to talk to both Susan and me normally after that lunch. A few days later Susan and I got a call from HR for a meeting. Alana made a formal complaint that we were racist in calling her “Miss Samoa.” We’re in the process of being formally investigated, and Alana has been on stress leave since then. Susan and I are sickened by the allegation—Susan came here as a refugee when she was a child; and I am a German immigrant. Neither of us feel an ounce of racism toward Alana, and we are bewildered by this situation. Susan in particular is incredibly upset and has stopped making conversations with people at lunchtime in case someone makes another complaint against her. Obviously we feel we did nothing wrong; but give us a frank, third-person perspective. Did we say something inappropriate? We were told by HR to not contact Alana as she is too upset to talk to us, so we can’t even explain ourselves to her.
A: Yeah, you two said something inappropriate. You said “Here comes Miss Samoa” when your Samoan co-worker entered the room. It was inappropriate and racist. It doesn’t matter how “lightheartedly” Susan said, “Here comes Miss Samoa”; it was a racist and inappropriate thing to say, regardless of tone. She could have said it beautifully, or balefully, or with deep gravitas, or in pre-Reformation Vulcan, and it still would have been racist and inappropriate. That’s why you’re being formally reprimanded. Obviously the conversation was neither uneventful or pleasant for Alana, and that’s why she went to HR. The degree to which you immigrated from Germany, or your co-worker experienced hardship as a child, does not magically immunize you from saying something racist. There is no explanation sufficient for calling a co-worker “Miss Samoa”—the fact that you had previously been discussing the Miss Universe pageant is not the exculpatory evidence you clearly think it is. It’s never appropriate to point out a co-worker’s outfit by announcing their country of origin, no matter what pageant one had been previously discussing. It’s absurd to claim that you are “sickened” by hearing someone call out a racist remark without pausing to imagine what it must have felt like for your co-worker to hear that same racist remark directed against her. You made your co-worker uncomfortable by announcing her entrance into the room with a pointed remark about her ethnicity; she escalated the issue, and you should comply with the investigation, apologize when prompted, and in the future refrain from making announcements of your co-worker’s place of origin when they enter a room.
Q. MIL doesn’t like my appearance: I’ve got a predicament that seems silly in the light of most MIL stories. My husband and I have been married two years, and over the course of our relationship, my mother-in-law has consistently made small remarks about my appearance. These include: right before our wedding reception, “Aren’t you going to put some color on your lips?!,” and more recently, “Let me book you an appointment with my hairdresser so you look pretty for church.” And “I just never know what to buy you—you’re so plain!” When I brought it up to my husband, he said that MIL doesn’t mean anything by these comments. But still, it’s a little unnerving to hear them every time we visit. I’ve never responded to these comments because they always catch me off guard. Any suggestions to what I could say to point out that she’s being rude (and a bit hurtful)? Or should I just ignore it?
A: I’m in something of a fiery mood this morning, and I don’t think that you have to put up with a campaign of passive-aggressive, unkind remarks about your appearance from your mother-in-law for the rest of your marriage just because some other people might have it worse. (By the way, I remain permanently unconvinced by your husband’s kind, who seek to excuse bad behavior by claiming that other people don’t mean the things they say. Our society is rather predicated on the assumption that most people, most of the time, say exactly what they mean, and your mother-in-law is no exception. She is not criticizing your appearance on a regular basis by mistake.)
You can always offer a kind-but-clear parry: “No, I like the way they look now” and “No, thank you, I’m happy with how I look at church,” but my favorite go-to for calling out a stealth insult is simply (with a wide-eyed look of confusion and a bland tone of voice): “What an unkind thing to say to me, Susan. What on earth made you say it?”
Q. Giving the kids back to sister: My sister is only 23 but has had many challenges in life. She has a history of bad choices (three failed marriages and many bad romances) and has been in and out of rehab, usually court-ordered, for drug and alcohol abuse several times. She has also spent a significant amount of time in jail, roughly four years if you add all of her sentences up. In the midst of all this, she has had three children with three different men. None of the men were ever involved in the children’s lives. Each time she gave birth, the state stepped in and made the baby a ward of the state. Luckily the state considered me a stable person and made me the children’s guardian. I have been the only parent any of them have known, with the oldest being 6 and the youngest 2. Now my sister wants her children back. She has been sober for two months, and thinks she can handle motherhood. While I don’t want to discourage her, I am doubtful of this. The state is doubtful too and wants me, among other things, to write a statement of whether or not I think my sister is ready for the responsibilities of parenting. I am torn because this is the first interest my sister has shown in her children, and I do want to encourage that. But I also don’t think she can handle parenthood. If I write honestly what I think and she finds out, it will devastate her. Some of our relations believe children should be with their birth mother no matter what, so they are urging me to do what I can to give the kids back to my sister. I would always be there for my sister and the children, but I don’t know if that is enough. What do you think?
A: I think you should be honest. Include in your statement that your sister is newly sober, wants to be a mother to her children, and that you are hopeful but cautious about her ability to take on new responsibilities. You can suggest a slow, supervised move toward reunification without either cutting your sister off from any hope of being able to raise her children, or exaggerating your belief in her newfound sobriety and reliability. Say that you hope she will be able to continue to stay sober and suggest supervised visits, with a goal toward family reunification if your sister is able to remain a constant, healthy presence in her children’s lives.
Q. My dad, the “lost” son: Our dad was the product of a brief, but legal, marriage. Dad’s mom, we’ll call her Alice, was from Yankee old colonial stock. Alice could not handle the culture shock of her new in-laws, and left the marriage. Her New England family only took her back on one condition: “Abandon your son”—our dear old Dad! So she left him to be raised by his aunts. Alice kept in touch for years but was not close—her second husband (and new children) forbade contact. Now she has passed. The new children disinvited Dad to the memorial service. He did nothing wrong—they just don’t want him acknowledged as their relative. They pointedly left him out of Mom’s obit as a surviving child. I want now to attend the funeral in Dad’s place and pay respects to her on his behalf. Bad idea?
A: It’s certainly a tempting idea, but I’m afraid I can’t find much good in it. What kind of respects could you pay a woman you never met, a woman who chose the emotional and financial support of her parents over her own child—your father? I suspect you might be less interested in paying any respects than you are in shaking up this respectable old New England funeral. It’s an impulse I both understand and sympathize with (it’d be awfully hard to resist strolling in and watching the looks on their prim, shocked faces), but one I think you would be better off resisting. Don’t go looking to fight your father’s battles by crashing your estranged grandmother’s funeral. If he doesn’t want to attend, that’s his choice, and you should be thinking about ways to support him during this presumably painful and confusing time, rather than provoking the people who hurt him.
Q. Not in high school: I am a college graduate who recently moved home. I was living with roommates in another state, I had a job, but was struggling to get a foothold in my field. My parents have never been happy that I was so far away even though I called them regularly and drove down to see them at least once every three months. They had invited me to move back home so I could concentrate on my job search. I did talk to my parents about ground rules: no guys sleeping over, contributing to the house by taking care of chores, and texting them if I am going to be late, etc. We were all in agreement. At least I was. I reconnected with several friends from high school and ended up sleeping over at my old crush’s apartment. We didn’t have sex, just ended up talking till the sun came up. He made me breakfast. Honestly, it was the happiest I had been in months. Then I came home and I might as well have been 15 again. My parents were furious and read me the riot act. I texted my mother the night before that I would be late. They demanded to know where I had been and who I had been with. My father tried to take my phone to read my messages! I refused and then I got the “my rules, my house, my money” speech. I can’t tell you how manipulated and tricked I feel. I don’t have the money to move out because they promised to take care of me while I job-searched. I can hardly ask to move in with friends I have only recently seen again. I am 22, and I didn’t think that moving back in with my parents meant I was signing away my right to my privacy, sexuality, and social life. I need some advice. I am halfway ready to pack up my car, cross state lines, and beg for my old job back. But if I do that, I might burn some bridges behind me.
A: I’m afraid I have to side a little bit with both sides here. You must admit you did not honor the spirit of your agreement—you texted your parents only to say you would be “late,” which did not make it clear that you would not be coming home at all until the next day. That doesn’t give them the right to look through your phone, but their worry was understandable (there’s a difference between knowing your adult-ish child lives elsewhere and may occasionally spend the night with friends or a partner and waiting up all night for your child to come home).
You want to be treated like an adult, so be an adult about this and take responsibility for your part. Tell them you’re sorry you didn’t let them know you would be spending the night with a friend and that you should have given them fair warning that you weren’t coming home. Let them know that, in the future, if you make plans to sleep elsewhere, you’ll do your best to contact them at a reasonable time so that they won’t stay up late worrying. You have not signed away your right to sexuality or a social life, so do not exaggerate the harm done to you. Your parents overreacted in a moment of panic and tried once to look at your phone; you have not been coerced into some sort of forced-celibacy contract. If living at home with your parents makes you feel surveilled and childish, then start stashing away all the money you’re saving on not paying rent, look diligently for a job (in your hometown or elsewhere), and make plans to move out and become self-sufficient. In the meantime, be polite and honest about your plans if you leave for the night. Burning bridges is not called for.
Q. Too soon to be financially supporting partner?: I recently met a great guy from another country, and after a series of visits, he came to (sort of, he is on a tourist visa) live with me in the U.S. About four months into our relationship, his credit card stopped working and he confessed to being completely broke after one of his clients stiffed him. Since that time I have been 100 percent supporting him financially. Other than food and shelter, he has never asked me for anything. Still, I don’t think this situation is good for either his or my self-esteem. He has a couple of clients and is doing some design work, but payment seems always at some point in the future, and he isn’t great about demanding pay for work done. This is all complicated by the fact that his freelance clients are in Europe, and he is here in the U.S. with me. We are not married (way too early I feel), so he does not have the right to look for work here, and as I mentioned, he is on a tourist visa and must leave the country every 90 days for a period of time. I (also a freelancer) could go live in Europe with him, but that would not seem to make anything easier. I am very much hoping this is just a passing phase, but it seems much too early in our relationship for me to be footing all the bills. In my head, I guess I am willing to put up with this for another six months or so, but I do love him and he loves me. We have had discussions and he feels bad, and I don’t want him to feel worse. He says if the situation were reversed he wouldn’t think twice about supporting me. He also says that work is coming in and things will turnaround soon. What would you do?
A: Tell him you’re willing to support him financially for another six months, but that you’re not comfortable taking him on as a dependent indefinitely, especially since your relationship is so new. It’s a perfectly reasonable thing to offer, and if he rises to the occasion, you might find yourself even happier with the new terms of your more mutually self-sufficient relationship. You’re not cutting him off without warning, and you’re not signing up for an indefinite period of patronage. If he truly thinks things are turning around soon, he will presumably be able to agree to your six-months deadline. Whether or not he would support you financially were the tables turned is irrelevant, and I dislike very much the implication he offers that you are obligated to match what he would do, hypothetically, in your situation. Resist the worry about making him “feel worse”; your job isn’t to make him feel anything about his employment status. Your job is to be honest, to advocate for yourself, to set your own boundaries, and to respect his, nothing more.
Q. I know what you did last summer?: I was recently married and someone sent me a gift of fishhooks. At least, I think. A few days ago, I received a package directly from a Chinese company containing only a plastic box full of different sizes of fishhooks. No receipt or note included and the return address is for the Chinese company (in Chinese characters). At first, I assumed it was simply a mailing error (as I have received strange things by mistake before), but a few friends have joked that it might be an ill wish or a threat. Now I’m a little freaked out. I have had bad breakups with lovers and friends before, as I think most people have, but all were years and years ago at this point, and I can’t fathom why someone would contact me in this way now, after all of this time. What do you think I should do?
A: I don’t think you have been anonymously sent a gift of fishhooks by an old, embittered lover; I think your original theory of a simple mailing error was the correct one, and you should let yourself relax. The fact that the return address is in Chinese characters and is not accompanied by a note of any kind further bolsters your theory (as does Occam’s razor). Your friends’ jokes were just that—jokes.
Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everybody! Do be reminded that it’s possible to say something racist in every single tone imaginable; tone generally being secondary to content when it comes to determining meaning. Until next week!