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.)
Readers! Ask me your questions on the voice mail 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.
Mallory Ortberg: Don’t ask “What’s with you today?” Ask “What’s with today today?”
Q. To accept an apology or not: When I was in high school, I found out a guy friend of mine (who had an unreturned crush on me for several years) was photo-editing my head onto half-naked bodies of women. There were a bunch of other boys laughing at me because they had seen the pictures. I confronted this boy, and he apologized and said it wasn’t entirely true, that the bodies weren’t half-naked, but I didn’t believe him. I felt extremely violated. Now it’s been almost 20 years later, and I had accepted his friend request years ago on Facebook because I felt like I should be polite. For years I blocked his access to my pictures and have always been super worried about things I post. A few months ago a mutual friend posted about how sad it is that so many women have been sexually harassed. This gave me the courage to “defriend” this guy because I didn’t want to worry about my pictures anymore. He noticed within hours and asked me about it. I explained how I was still affected by what he did in high school to me and I needed to take a step back. He again apologized and said the whole thing was blown out of proportion. I said I still needed time away from him. Well, months have gone by and something has inspired him to apologize again to me. The thing is that I have really felt safer and so much better since defriending him. I really don’t want to accept the apology or have contact again. Am I being petty about this? He has always made me feel uneasy, and I just don’t want to be friends with him. Should I even respond to his apology? He’ll know I saw it, but I told him to leave me alone and he’s bringing it up again. I see him in person every 10 years or so because we grew up in a small town and our parents both still live there. I don’t know what to say if anything at all. Please help.
A: You do not have to be friends with someone you’ve barely spoken to in 20 years, much less someone who used to crop your head onto pictures of partially naked women, then tried to quibble about the degree of their nudity when you told him to knock it off. Plenty of people don’t talk to old high school friends for much less. You two don’t really have a longstanding history, he makes you uncomfortable, and you don’t want to spend time with him. That’s a perfectly legitimate reason to not want to be friends with him. Ignore the message, and be distantly polite if you see him at the drugstore in 10 years. It’s not petty to pay attention to your own feelings of suspicion and unease around this guy, and you don’t have to be friends with him merely because he wants to be friends with you.
Q. How to talk to my employer about my disability: Because of a disc disability I had to reduce my work hours from full time to two days a week. This has been working out great and also gives me the opportunity to work another part-time job that provides health insurance. Now they are relocating and tell me that their philosophy will only embrace five-day-a-week workers. Prudie, in all other ways I am at the top of my field. I feel I am being discriminated against because of my disability but don’t know how to discuss it with my boss without alienating myself completely.
A: It’s a little unclear from your letter, but it sounds like the company that’s relocating is the one that is already aware of your disability and has previously been accommodating. That should hopefully bode well for any conversation you have with your boss. If you two haven’t discussed the matter previously, don’t self-edit too much out of a fear of coming across as alienating. “I had some questions about the upcoming policy change about part-time workers. The part-time schedule we’ve created together to accommodate my disc disability has been working really well for me, and I wanted to know if I could expect it to continue after the relocation.”
Hopefully your boss is receptive; if not, then we’ve reached the limit of my own expertise, and I’d encourage you to consult an employment lawyer who specializes in Americans with Disabilities Act accommodations. Your modified schedule (especially since it’s been in place for a while and your employer is aware of your disability) is likely protected as “reasonable accommodation,” but there could be plenty of legal nuances I’m simply not aware of. If anyone with greater expertise wants to chime in with suggestions for the letter writer, I’m all ears!
Q. Caps and groans: I’m a college senior, and most of my friends are graduating in a couple of weeks. I’m happy for them, but internally I feel conflicted. Due to mental health issues throughout college, I have one semester to go before I graduate later in the year. I’ve tried to convince myself that it’s not a big deal, but this is the time of year when pictures are plastered on social media and older acquaintances ask what my plans are “now that it’s over.” The more I’m reminded that I’m not graduating yet, the more inadequate and somewhat resentful I feel toward my best friends. This depression is unhealthy, and it’s harder to deal with when they ask if I’m coming to the ceremony. Do I go and support them, knowing that it might be painful? Do I skip the ceremony and risk hurting their feelings? I’d love some advice.
A: Having graduated from college is thrilling and life-changing and wonderful and worth celebrating; sitting through a graduation ceremony is a real act of endurance and going above and beyond for someone you love. Generally speaking, it’s customary for proud family members to attend (especially if they’ve helped raise and/or pay for the education of the graduate in question) but not nearly as expected for nongraduating friends to show up, too, especially if there is limited seating, so don’t feel that nonattendance would be some crucial violation of friendship etiquette.
If you know that attending commencement would be particularly meaningful to your friends, then consider whether you might be up for attending part of it, maybe just when they’re calling out names so you can woo excitedly from the back before ducking out early. Or, if your friends aren’t especially invested in the ceremony, make arrangements to meet up with them afterward and celebrate in a more intimate setting. The good news is that your own graduation is less than six months away—which doesn’t make your present situation any more comfortable, but it’s nice to know the end is in sight. Congratulations on being so close to the finish line, and please focus on taking good care of yourself and not pushing yourself too hard. As long as you make it clear that you’re excited for your friends’ accomplishments and want to help them celebrate, I don’t think attending just part of the ceremony (or skipping it entirely) will cause an irreparable rift.
Q. Re: How to talk to my employer about my disability: A part-time job can be considered a “reasonable accommodation” if it is not an “undue hardship” for the employer. The letter writer might want to consider if the employer knows about using reduced hours to work a second job, which would seem to counteract the argument about needing a reduction.
A: The second job may certainly be a potential roadblock, from the employer’s perspective at least. It’s possible the letter writer’s other job is a work-from-home arrangement; it may be that with a disc disability it’s difficult to drive or take public transportation to and from work, but the person is able to get more done from home.
Q. My temporary roommate’s cats: My original roommate, Kate, moved out in March, and one of our friends, Cathy, moved in in April until the lease is up at the end of June. Kate paid out the end of her lease before she left, so I technically don’t need a roommate to help pay the rent. I wanted one for the company and to help save some money. Cathy has three cats, and they drive me nuts. I hate the smell, the cat hair, as well as the fact that they scratch up my couch, jump on the kitchen counters, and are generally energetic. Added to that, I’m also allergic to them. She’s not home very often due to her job, her theater work, and her band, but I have a pretty standard 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. job. The challenge is that I really value Cathy as a friend, and I don’t want to lose her friendship. Anytime I ask her to take care of the cat hair or whatever mess the cats made, she feels like I’m attacking her. I feel like the cats have taken over my apartment, and the only place I’m safe from them is my bedroom. I shouldn’t feel like a prisoner in my apartment, but I do because of these cats. She says I should try to get used to them, but part of me feels like I shouldn’t have to get used to them. I don’t like the cats, but I’m not sure what I can say or do. I’d like her to take the cats back to her parents’ home, but she loves her cats so much that I think she’d feel like she’d need to move out too. I think she’d be incredibly hurt and insulted if I told her the cats needed to leave. But how else can I feel at home in my apartment?
A: You can’t avoid it. If Cathy feels hurt when you mention that you are allergic to cats or that she needs to clean up after them, then you should resign yourself to the fact that you are definitely going to hurt her feelings. Her expectation that you “get over” your allergy is unreasonable; so too is her expectation that her cats should be allowed to make a mess of your apartment and shed small avalanches of fur without her having to do anything about it. Saying “I can’t live with your cats anymore” is not a friendship-ending sentiment, and if Cathy is “incredibly hurt and insulted” by it, then she’s making bad choices (not to mention acting as a poor cat steward) and should not be accommodated. Tell her the cats cannot continue to live with you, and if she chooses to move out with them, that might be better for your friendship in the long run. If Cathy ends her friendship with you over a very clear and reasonable limit, then her friendship is, sadly, not worth having.
Q. Re: How to talk to my employer about my disability?: As an HR professional, if I had an employee who was telling me he needed disability then was working a second job, then I would retract the accommodation as well. Disability accommodations are made when someone is physically or mentally unable to work the set schedule, not so she can get a second job. Sounds like the letter writer has been working the system and is now unhappy with the consequences.
A: I’m getting a lot of letters to this effect. I don’t want to discount entirely the possibility that the letter writer has taken a second job in good faith and in some way that accommodates his or her disability. But if there’s a possibility your employer will see your side-gig as an attempt to game the system, you should proceed with caution. Double-check all of this with an employment lawyer. That’s my final word.
Q. Slow death of a marriage: I’ve been married for 21 years and have three teenagers. With menopause and an empty-nest coming soon, there’s been a huge shift in our house. My husband and I have not fed our marriage, and we live mostly like roommates—no intimacy for the past two years, and he’s been unwilling to talk or see a counselor about our lost connection. I found out he has an online dating profile, but he says he’s “lonely” and it means nothing. I love my kids and feel stuck between staying for their sake (what he wants) and separating and likely divorcing, which will upend their lives. Many books say older teens who are just forming their own selves are at risk of depression and upheaval with divorced parents. I am stuck. I feel ignored, lonely, and abandoned. I can’t fix this by myself! Sleeping next to a stranger is affecting me greatly. Am I crazy to leave and blow up our family?
A: I think there may be a middle ground between continuing to grimly endure your comatose marriage for the rest of your life and walking out the door tomorrow. If you’re facing an empty nest over the next few years, you might consider “getting the kids out of the house” your marriage’s goal and natural stopping point. In the meantime, you can (and should) start planning for what kind of life you would like to build for yourself after you’re divorced. Reconnect with old friends, cultivate hobbies you’ve either let fall by the wayside or have always wanted to try, start a separate savings account, spend less time trying to persuade your husband to open up and more time with yourself. If you start taking small but necessary steps toward establishing a life that’s independent from your ex-in-all-but-name husband, you might feel less trapped in your current situation.
Q. What’s a good response for someone green with envy?: I’m an academic from a discipline that typically has higher faculty salaries than most other departments (think business college versus arts and science). Also, since I’m at a public university, all of my salary information is accessible to every Tom, Dick, and Harriet. My question pertains to another colleague from a different department, who does not make as much salary as I do. Every time we meet or run into each other, he makes comments along the lines of, “Oh, you make more than me and my wife together” or some such comment. I can practically feel the envy dripping off of him, and it really makes me feel very uncomfortable, as it’s not my doing that there is so much differentiation in market salaries. I try to change the topic to something else, but he always circles back to the same theme. As an example, at one dinner event at his house a few months ago (this was early when I didn’t know the guy much), he and a few of his college colleagues in attendance there all took to discussing my salary and staring at me like I was a spoiled okapi in the middle of a squad of hardworking, underprivileged, and overworked farm horses. I’ve taken to avoiding the fellow ever since, but there’s a university committee I’ll have to be in with him this fall, and I am seriously dreading it (I cannot get out of the dang committee, so that’s not an option). Could you please give me a few tips on how exactly to get him to change the topic or at least get him to stop bringing it up all the dang time? I want to remain polite but distant, and I just cannot figure out how to do so when it comes to this fellow.
A: “You’ve been bringing up my salary a lot. Please stop.” Repeat as necessary.