Dear Prudence

Let Me Tell You Something

Prudie advises a letter writer accused of mansplaining for offering to help.

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 prudence@slate.com.)

Readers! Ask me your questions on the voicemail of the Dear Prudence podcast. Just leave a message at 401-371-DEAR (3327), and you may hear your question answered on a future episode of the show.

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Mallory Ortberg: Morning, everyone. Let’s chat!

Q. Accidental mansplaining: I work with several master’s and Ph.D. students, almost all of whom are women, during the course of my research at a large state university. My work with these students sometimes involves introducing them to new data sets or software, but it is mostly a peer relationship, as I am not a professor and these are advanced and talented students. The other day, I was pointing out a new data set to a female student and asked if she wanted me to walk her through it. (It took me a couple of hours to get my head around it.) She told me I was mansplaining and that she knew what she was doing. This was brand new, very complex data that we just received. She (nor anyone else) knew we had the data yet or had ever worked with it. I thought maybe it was my tone of voice, but I don’t think I was speaking in a condescending way. I was genuinely excited to get everyone started. I thought mansplaining was explaining things to women that they already know. I don’t want her to think I’m being a jerk (she’s genuinely one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met), but I also don’t want to never offer to help again. Am I missing something here?

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A: If you were attempting to show a colleague a new process that you were familiar with and she wasn’t, then you have nothing to apologize for. Simply being male while offering to explain something does not mansplaining make. You did not, in fact, explain anything at all; you merely asked if you could walk her through the system, and she declined rather rudely. If she wants to struggle through the new system without help and waste her own time trying to figure things out by herself, that’s her prerogative, but you have nothing to apologize for, and there is nothing you need to amend about your approach of offering assistance when you are disposed to give it in the future.

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Q. We still have to share a bathroom: I recently relocated for my job and moved in with three male roommates (I am a woman). We are all in our mid-20s and single. None of us knew one another before we moved in together. I have bonded with one roommate in particular, because we have similar interests and often want to do the same things on the weekends. We go to movies together, cook meals together when the other roommates are out of town, and text regularly throughout the workday. At first, I was absolutely obstinate about not getting involved with any of my roommates, but this feels like it is headed toward tricky territory. I enjoy his company and find myself disappointed when I get home and he isn’t there. Should I shut this feeling down, if not only for the sake of my other roommates, but because of my lease, which doesn’t end for another six months? Do I establish distance or go for it?

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A: I was at a party Sunday night where one of the guests was in the process of breaking up with her roommate-turned-boyfriend-turned ex, so I want to at least acknowledge the possibility that if you do go for it, and things don’t work out, your home could become a very uncomfortable place even if only for a few months. Come to think of it, everyone I know who’s ever gotten involved with a roommate has sooner or later had to move out in a hurry. I realize my anecdotal evidence is hardly exhaustive, but there are so many ways this could go wrong, and pretty much just the one way things could go right. If your lease is up in six months, and finding another apartment wouldn’t be a significant financial or logistical burden, I vote for waiting until you don’t share a bathroom with this guy before asking if he wants to go out sometime.

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Q. Familial obligation: My father has kidney failure and is on dialysis. My brother has the same disease and is also on dialysis, though is close to having a transplant arranged. My brother recently told me that my dad intends to ask me to take care of him after he gets a transplant, whenever that may happen. While we were very poor when I was in high school (my dad gambled for a living), he came into money about two years ago from my late aunt’s estate and has provided me with immense financial assistance since then. My dad has alienated himself with his aggressive and sometimes delusional behavior from his brother and his large extended family.

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As for myself, I endured years of severe, regular verbal abuse from him. I was regularly told that I was badly raised (by my mom), ungrateful, useless, among other things, for hours at a time often late into the night. While I am now in a much better place emotionally, physically, and geographically (in another state), the thought of spending three months with him away from my home, my friends, my boyfriend, and my cats is causing me serious anxiety. My father is unapologetic about his past treatment of me, either saying it was my fault because I stayed and “took it” or else is convinced that my mother, whom he also abused, brainwashed me against him. What do I do?

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A: Your brother has given you advance warning of what your father may ask of you, which gives you time to prepare your response when or if the request ever comes. You do not, it sounds like, wish to become your father’s full-time caretaker in the event that he receives a transplant, and I am here to tell you that you do not have to become your father’s full-time caretaker, even if he has given you money in the past. You are not obligated to become his nurse simply because he is ill, especially when he has the resources to hire professional caregivers instead. If you are financially dependent on him, start saving and finding alternate sources of income so that you are not relying upon an aggressive, abusive person’s generosity. While you may not wish to cut your father out of your life entirely, especially now that he is ill, consider how much time you can reasonably spend talking to him regularly and how it affects you. If you are not already in therapy, consider starting now with the express goal of figuring out how to set and maintain boundaries with your father. Prepare yourself to decline his request, and enlist the support of your boyfriend and friends in staying firm when saying “no” to your father.

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Q. Neighbor uses my house for deliveries: My neighbor has packages delivered to my house. She has never asked permission to use my address or alerted me to deliveries. The packages just show up here. Her apartment can be tricky to locate, and I guess she’s had some trouble with deliveries from time to time, and she does a lot of online shopping. I have repeatedly asked her to quit using my address and suggested that she have packages sent to her work or use a drop-box service. The stream of packages has slowed but not stopped. There was another delivery today. And apparently it’s not just packages now, because the other day I came home to find a confused deliveryman on the sidewalk trying to locate my house for a food order with her name on it. I don’t want to get into a big conflict with a neighbor, but I am tired of her using my address. I end up walking her stuff over to her apartment. Would I be a complete jerk to start returning packages to the sender? Any other suggestions?

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A: If the packages aren’t a total burden, it would be awfully kind of you to let her use your porch for her deliveries assuming you don’t have to do anything other than let her know when a package arrives and let her grab it off your doorstep every once in a while. But you aren’t obligated to be awfully kind, you are merely obligated to be polite (and it sounds like you have been!), so if you’re not interested in acting as her shipping department feel free to say, “I’m still getting a lot of packages meant for you but addressed to me, so from now on, I’m going to mark them as ‘return to sender,’ so you should start making alternate arrangements for your deliveries.”

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Q. Should I thank my vet for killing my dog?: We had to put our 15-year-old dog to sleep last week. She deteriorated quickly, but we knew it was coming. Still, the experience was difficult and the timing definitely could’ve been better (right before Christmas AND on a weekday where I still had to go to work afterward). Still, the vet I go to was amazing and compassionate and she cared for my dog for most of her life. Would it be creepy or weird to send a card or flowers or something to the office out of appreciation? I did thank her in-person right after it happened, but I still find myself wanting to be more explicit. I know euthanizing animals is probably a thankless task.

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A: It would be the furthest thing from creepy. Having a pet put to sleep is acutely sad even under the most ideal circumstances, and your vet made the experience less painful and bewildering than it might otherwise have been. I’m sure she’d appreciate hearing that she was able to help both you and your dog during a difficult time. Send the card.

Q. Christmas letter: My ex is one of those who sends out Christmas update letters in all the Christmas cards. We split up about eight years ago when the kids were small, but now that they are older, he has them write their part of the letter. He still sends cards to my family members so I got to read one this year. There were huge gaps in events that happened to the kids (like a new baby cousin on my side, a weeklong vacation out West), and I found out from the kids that he forbids them from writing about anything in the year that happened when they were with me (though we share 50–50 custody).

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Should I call him out on it? I feel like it’s not healthy for the kids to have to mentally split up their year in this letter. And also, he’s sending them to my family, effectively cutting me out of the picture. Do I let it go? FWIW—I am not sending Christmas letters, ever.

A: I think this is worth letting go. As long as your ex doesn’t make a habit of asking your children to pretend their life with you doesn’t exist, if he wants them to contribute a few sentences about the things they did with him over the last year for a Christmas card, you shouldn’t worry about it. It would be generous of him to include you in his yearly update, but it’s not mandatory. The cards will all be in a bin in a few weeks (if they’re not already).

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Click here to read Part 2 of this week’s chat.

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