Daniel 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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Q. Arrogant aunt: My sister taught my son an incorrect spelling of a word. She said that it was always spelled that way until recently and that it was only changed because people were too dumb to spell it right. I found evidence to the contrary, but that didn’t seem to faze her. (The word is dilemma, which she insists is actually spelled dilemNa.) I don’t want my son spelling words wrong, but more importantly I don’t want him to pick up his aunt’s attitude that “I’m right, and everyone who says otherwise is wrong,” which unfortunately he seems to be doing. Do I need to keep him away from her?
A: Your sister is stone-cold wrong; the word dilemma has never been spelled with an “n.” It’s a Berenstain Bears–style Mandela effect. However, I think you should probably limit the number of family estrangements you initiate over linguistic prescriptivism, even as unpleasant as prescriptivism tends to be. Consider this an opportunity to teach your son about analyzing other people’s world views and making decisions for himself—is there truly something morally superior in spelling a word with an “n” versus an “m”? Or is his aunt simply attempting to assert some sense of order and authority due to her own inability to deal with ambiguity?
Just because your sister seems to have a hard time letting things go, coupled with a need to be right 100 percent of the time, doesn’t mean you should try to match her. Tell your son that sometimes reasonable people disagree, and even if you think she’s incorrect, it doesn’t mean you have to cut off contact or “prove” to her that she’s wrong. Show your son a gentler, less-controlling way of seeing the world, and I think he’ll find it more attractive than your sister’s—no need to “keep him away” from her way of seeing things if you can provide a superior alternative.
Q. How to retreat from the company retreat?: I work for a small company (12 people in our office) that is pretty tight-knit. Of my co-workers, there are three women in their early to mid-20s (myself included in this group), and the rest of the office comprises men age 40 to 60. It’s an interesting office dynamic, but we all mostly get along well. However, I feel boundaries are being pushed after I recently found out about an upcoming company retreat where all of us are expected to spend the night at my boss’s vacation house about two hours away from the city we work in. We’ve been told that a big focus of the trip will be “team bonding” with mention of drinking games. I was also told to bring my swimsuit because there will be a hot tub. Am I off-base, or is this inappropriate for a company event? If we were staying in a resort where we each got our own room, that would be one thing, but staying in one house and presumably sharing rooms makes me uncomfortable, as does the prospect of drinking with co-workers being a focus. The age/gender disparity of the office makes the situation more uncomfortable, and I would feel that my professional relationship with my co-workers, particularly the older men, could be compromised if I have to see them in swimsuits and share bathrooms. It seems like a recipe for a disaster, or at least a lot of awkwardness, and neither I nor my husband are totally comfortable with it. However, as it goes with small companies, it will be painfully obvious if I don’t go, and I’ll need to come up with an excuse. I feel that I’m being put in a position to either go and be uncomfortable or not go and reap some degree of professional consequences for not being a “team player.” We are small enough to not have a formal HR department. What should I do here?
A: This may differ from office to office and person to person, but the idea of having to participate in drinking games and a hot tub session with any of the people I’ve ever worked with makes me want to break out into hives, so I don’t think you’re alone in finding this off-putting. If you’re close with your boss, you might consider bringing up your concerns with him—“I’m looking forward to the retreat, but I don’t feel comfortable at the idea of spending time in a hot tub with the people I work with every day, especially since I’ve been told ‘drinking games’ will be part of the schedule, and I don’t want others to feel uncomfortable either. Is there any way we can focus on other team-building activities that don’t require us to share a hot tub? If anyone wants to use it after-hours, of course, I don’t mind, but I’m uncomfortable at the prospect of having that on the list of official activities.”
If you don’t think your boss would handle that feedback well, then I think you should plan ahead to minimize your own discomfort (without drawing attention to yourself if you’re afraid you’ll be treated differently for not participating). If you don’t want to drink or get in a hot tub with your co-workers (a perfectly reasonable stance!), come up with a script ahead of time for graceful nonparticipation: “Thanks, I’m not drinking today,” “I’m coming down with a cold so I won’t join you in the hot tub,” etc. It’s unfortunate that you have to come up with any reason other than “I don’t want to take shots and get in a hot tub with my co-workers,” but you do what you have to.
Q. Election trouble: I’m a liberal black woman who has been in a relationship with a conservative white man for more than a year. The day after the election, I cried all day and was unable to dress myself or leave my apartment. Because of Trump’s racist rhetoric, I’m scared for the safety of people of color in particular—and I’m hurt that millions of voters decided that racism wasn’t a dealbreaker. Right before going to visit his mother, my boyfriend told me that his mother, father, and stepmother all voted for Trump. During the visit, I was so hurt and angry I could barely speak to her, especially when she called the protests “stupid.”
Given this background, I don’t want to attend Thanksgiving with his father and stepmother this year, as is expected. Is it rude of me to bow out? I don’t feel comfortable enough with them to fight them on politics.
A: There are matters of political difference where I think it is important to look for compromise and common ground. This is not one of them. (Peaceful protests, by the way, are an essential component of democratic life; they may not be the only, or even the best, means of disseminating information and inciting change, but that does not mean they are not worthwhile.) It is not rude of you to spend Thanksgiving with your own family and friends, or even just by yourself, this year. It would not be rude of you to reconsider your relationship with this man, if you feel that he is not as concerned for your safety and well-being as he is for his family’s comfort. Take care of yourself.
(For readers of this column in general: It is always OK to spend the holidays by yourself, if the prospect of fighting with your in-laws or family members seems both inevitable and impossible. There are worse things in the world than missing a single Thanksgiving or Christmas to stay at home with a good book or a good friend. “The holidays” can take on a mystical, sacred cast for some people, as if missing them once in awhile were some unforgivable violation of the social compact. They’re not. They’re just holidays. Give yourself permission to bow out if things are looking dire.)
Q. Friends or fetishes: Every few days I see an older white gentleman at my gym who is always accompanied by a much younger (I assume college-aged) guy of a particular ethnicity. It’s a different person each time, but they’re all of the same ethnic background, and sometimes there are two guys with him. Whenever their conversation is within earshot, it’s clear to me that the younger party is not very proficient in English. I assume whatever is going on—if anything beyond mere companionship—is between consenting adults and is none of my business, but it does feel weird to me, particularly with the lack of English proficiency and the significant age gap. Am I wrong to take note of this man and his rotating selection of younger men? I can’t help but be a little creeped out.
A: His behavior does not seem to merit comments from strangers. If you two were friends, and you wanted to have a conversation about fetishism, it might be an excellent opportunity to discuss the intersections of desire and tokenism and respect, but you don’t know him at all, and you haven’t heard him say anything inappropriate or disrespectful. I don’t think you should say anything to him.
Q. Re: How to retreat from the company retreat?: Mallory, you missed the point of this letter. She doesn’t want to go at all. So telling her to say she is looking forward to it isn’t going to help her at all.
A: I understand not wanting to go, but I don’t want to encourage her to do something that might jeopardize her position—this may not be an optional company retreat. If she thinks she can get out of it without running into pushback, I think she should, but it may be a mandatory exercise, and if that’s the case, I want her to have some effective strategies for minimizing her discomfort. It doesn’t sound like the atmosphere at work is generally troubling, so I’m reluctant to encourage her to look for a new job on the strength of a single uncomfortable-sounding retreat (although if this company has a habit of encouraging hot tub–centered team-building exercises, I’d certainly advise her to start applying elsewhere).
Q. Re: How to retreat from the company retreat?: I think the LW should find a good excuse for not attending—something family-related with her husband. It’s not just the hot tub and drinking games she mentioned; it’s sharing rooms and bathrooms. This is totally inappropriate and a recipe for disaster. Even without the LW saying it, it was clear they DON’T have that HR department or I think this whole idea would have been nixed in the first place.
A: Absolutely. I think my advice should be arranged in three tiers: The best option would be telling her boss she thinks it’s a bad idea to share bathrooms and living spaces, drink with her colleagues while staying in the same house, and share a hot tub, and that she’s not going to attend. The next best would be coming up with a plausible excuse for not going. If that’s not possible, and her boss is insisting on attendance, I think she should have a strategy in place for minimizing uncomfortable interactions. If this seems like an unusual exception to her work dynamic that results more from cluelessness than from a desire to manipulate younger female colleagues, there might be an opportunity to help her boss create a more welcoming work environment; if it’s in keeping with a general power imbalance between the older men and the younger women at work, she might want to push back and/or look for a job somewhere else.
Q. No longer cares about marriage: My girlfriend of 4.5 years broke up with me rather suddenly in July. I wanted to get married; she didn’t feel ready and said she felt pressured. (If it helps, we are both in our 40s and divorced.) I’m having trouble getting over it, though I’m exercising, seeing friends, etc. We still text each other nearly daily and have occasionally met up as friends. I felt worse in the period where we were not talking right after the breakup. I find myself wanting to re-establish a romantic relationship. I would rather be with her and not married than without her. I don’t think she is open to it because our breakup was a very mean fight, so I’m not sure if it makes sense to bring it up. What should I do?
A: I think you should stop texting her. It doesn’t sound like there is any hope for reconciliation, so your primary focus should be on grieving the loss of your relationship and moving on, and I don’t think you can do so while remaining in constant contact with her. It’s very telling that you feel worse now, talking to her regularly, than you did when you two weren’t speaking. Tell her: “I can’t move on from our relationship while we’re still talking, so I’m not going to be able to maintain a friendship with you as long as I’m still getting over our breakup. I wish you all the best, but I can’t be your friend right now. Please respect my wishes and let me move on.”
If you’re worried she won’t honor your request, block her number and ask a friend or two to hold you accountable when it comes to contacting her. If—and this is such a remote contingency that I’m reluctant to bring it up for fear of giving you false hope—you two are ever going to re-establish a romantic connection, it can’t be as things are now. She dumped you cruelly because you wanted to get married. Even if you decide it’s worth foregoing marriage in order to be with you, you still need to address the power imbalance in your relationship, and you can’t do that by wanting less. If you two are ever going to reunite, it has to be on different terms, and it shouldn’t be simply because you can’t say “no” when she texts you.
Q. Re: How to retreat from the company retreat?: There are so many red flags here. The mere fact that all of the women in the office are under 40 and all of the men are over 40 is suspicious. If none of the women showed up, do you really think the middle-aged men will sit around in the hot tub together? Every company retreat I’ve ever been on followed these rules: If it was staff only, it was held during regular business hours. If it was overnight, it was held at a hotel or resort of some type; spouses were invited (although the company might not have paid for their food etc.); and most of the team-building and other business activities were held during regular business hours. In both cases, if alcohol was involved, staff could purchase (or bring) their own, but it was never provided by the company. In my experience these have been standard practices since at least the 1990s. I would NOT go and start looking for a new job.
A: I’ve gotten enough letters to the same effect that I think I should take your collective advice and amend my original response: Don’t go. This isn’t just a little off; it’s very off, and you should either claim a previously scheduled engagement or tell your boss why you won’t attend.
Q. Recess: I have a son in kindergarten, and for the last two weeks, he has told me that his class didn’t go to recess. The reasons have varied: the children were being disruptive during class, the teacher didn’t finish the lesson in time, they went to the computer lab instead, etc. I am very concerned about this. Children that age need a break during the day to run around and get out all that excess energy. They’ve already cut PE to once a week and now they don’t have recess anymore? Is this a big enough issue for me to bring it up to the teacher (possibly the principal?), or should I let it go and take my son to the park after school?
A: I don’t see why you can’t bring it up with the teacher. Say, “My son tells me that the class hasn’t had recess over the last two weeks, and I’m concerned about it. Can you tell me the reasoning behind this decision?” Maybe he’s misunderstood something, maybe it’s a temporary response to a scheduling issue, maybe it’s a decision you disagree with and will want to discuss with other parents. You have every right to ask questions about your son’s schedule.
Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! Remember that bailing on THE HOLIDAYS is not always the first or best option, but it is always an option. No one will die if you don’t eat turkey with him or her on a particular Thursday.