Dear Prudence

A Hit at the Party

Prudie advises a letter writer ostracized for saying a birthday girl needed a birthday spanking.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg

Sam Breach

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.

Q. Not a pervert: At a friend’s daughter’s birthday party, I commented that the birthday girl still needed a birthday spanking. My friend kicked me out of the party, and I soon discovered that she had unfriended and blocked me on social media. Apparently she thinks that remark makes me a pervert. It was a joke, and I certainly didn’t intend to give the spanking myself. Now I’ve noticed that some other mutual friends with children have also unfriended me. How can I clear the air?

A: I’ll be honest—I had never heard of this tradition, and had to look it up to verify that it’s, apparently, kind of a thing, or was once upon a time. Probably it is for the best that this custom is diminishing in popularity! In general, even if this was something you grew up with, it’s best not to joke about spanking someone else’s kid, even if you’re close with their parents. If, like me, your friend was not familiar with “birthday spankings” (lord, what an expression!) they likely found your suggestion to be jarring, shocking, and wildly inappropriate. Even if they had been familiar with the tradition, I think it still displayed bad judgment. Anytime you find yourself justifying something you said with “I certainly didn’t intend to give the spanking myself,” it is a sign that, at least, you are not making the best possible choices. Sometimes jokes are bad! Sometimes “it was a joke” is not the rock-solid defense one might wish it to be.

Whether or not you think your friends are overreacting, I’m curious: Did you try to apologize as you were being asked to leave the party? You don’t mention having done so, and if you still haven’t, there’s no time like the present. Offer a genuine, unmitigated apology; tell your friend that this was a custom you were familiar with as a kid, that you joked about it without thinking, that you’re sorry for making her uncomfortable and for suggesting—even in jest—that someone should spank her daughter, and that you’ll never say something like that again. Hopefully your friend will take you at your word and you two can move on, but whether she responds the way you’d like her to or not, apologizing (and amending your behavior in the future) is still the right thing to do.

Q. Money between friends: I recently got a pretty good job and I live with my fiancée, who also makes a good amount of money. We’re living a pretty comfortable middle-class life. Many of my friends are still in school or not in career-type jobs. Several times it’s come up that I propose an outing or activity and they come up with something cheaper. Is it rude for me to insist for things like going out to a restaurant for brunch if they want to stay in and make food? It’s a nicer atmosphere and I think more fun not to have to do dishes afterward. Is it unfair for me to ask them to spend a little money?

A: Not as long as you make it clear you’re offering to treat your friends to these nicer outings. If you’re not offering, then yes, it’s rude and unfair for you to ask them to “spend a little money,” especially when your idea of “little” is their idea of “gas money for the rest of the month.” If you want to go to a fancy restaurant once in a while, that’s fine; take your equally financially comfortable fiancée, or one of your highly paid co-workers, or offer to pick up the check for your friends who are trying to get by on college-student funds. But don’t ask them to blow their monthly budget in order to spend time with you just because you don’t like doing dishes.

Q. Religious noise: I live in a very old building with little to no noise insulation. I work from home, and I’ve therefore invested in some serious earplugs and noise-canceling headphones to combat the little daytime nuisances, like stomping children and barking dogs and loud conversations. It has worked well until earlier last month, when a new family moved in upstairs. I have not met them yet, so I’m not entirely sure which religion they subscribe to, but I’m reasonably certain they are Muslim. At dawn every morning, I am woken up by someone shouting in prayer and singing a repetitive, nonmelodic song. This sometimes lasts for several hours. Prudie, it is maddening. It is inescapable; my earplugs can only do so much because it is so extremely loud. At 5 a.m., just about nothing is pleasing to the ear, but these singers are especially off-key. I considered joining a workspace café, but the problem with these is that they aren’t open when I need to work. I work for an international company and live in Europe, and therefore I sometimes need to work until 2 or 3 in the morning. Continuing to be woken and kept up for several hours is no longer an option, as it is beginning to affect my work. If this were just someone blasting their music, I would have no problem kindly asking them to turn it down. But since they are clearly praying, and likely belong to a religious group that is often victim to hate and discrimination and exclusion, I’m not sure how to approach this.

A: For what it’s worth, Islam’s five daily prayers generally do not last “several hours,” so whatever you’re hearing that’s stretching out over an entire morning is not necessarily uninterruptible. That said, the standard rules of neighborly politeness apply here whether your neighbors are praying or not (bear in mind that you don’t actually know what they’re doing; you only have your own assumptions). The first step in addressing your problem is to meet your neighbors. You say you haven’t done so yet, so take some time to knock on their door, introduce yourself (possibly with some flowers or cookies or some other friendly token) and welcome them to the building. Then you can also let them know that the building is old and lacks noise insulation, and ask if they could try to keep it down in the early morning, because you’ve been having trouble getting work done. Generally speaking, the call to prayer does not require shouting; you are not being intolerant by asking your new neighbors to keep it down, regardless of whether they’re singing early in the morning for religious reasons or because they’re practicing for a musical. If you act neighborly toward them and frame your requests politely, you will not be participating in hate or discrimination. You will be participating in the sometimes-friendly, sometimes-frustrating Dance of the Apartment Dweller.

Q. Re: Not a pervert: Just to back up the questioner, I’m stunned that the concept of a birthday spanking might be considered threatening. It was a stupid element of my childhood that no one considered damaging, certainly not too troublesome to even mention. Is corporal punishment too concerning for jokes now? I actually thought spanking was going through a bit of renaissance in terms of how casual people are about slapping ass in friendship—and I don’t mean overgrown bros, but well-mannered suburbanite moms.

A: I’m unaware of any possible “spanking renaissance,” but regardless, there are plenty of things that may have been considered stupid or harmless 20 years ago that just don’t fly now. (“Slapping ass in friendship” is also qualitatively different from spanking a child, even if the spanking is intended as lighthearted and celebratory.) The OP is not a monster for making a bad joke, but regardless of whether or not their friend overreacted, the appropriate thing to do when someone is offended by a joke you made about their kid is to apologize—not to die on the hill of “Well, this was normal when I was a kid.”

Q. Dating and teeth: I’m an older gay dude and I just met someone online. We had one date and he’s really nice, but his teeth are pretty bad. He’s college-educated but has a retail management job, so it may be lack of funds or not having dental insurance. I have great insurance and also spent a fair amount out of pocket to get my teeth fixed (braces, implants). Is this too superficial to be a deal-breaker?

A: It is fine if you have a superficial deal-breaker, especially if you’ve only been on one date together, but being turned off by someone’s teeth is hardly superficial. Dating someone generally means spending a fair amount of time in very close proximity to their mouth, and if you find their mouth off-putting or rank-smelling, that’s going to put a real damper on intimacy. If the idea of kissing him turns you off, don’t ask him for a second date.

Q. Faux pas in front of future in-laws: If such a thing were possible, I would actually perish of embarrassment. As has happened once or twice before in my 28 years of life, I got black-out, vomiting drunk. Complicating this scenario, I was staying at my future in-laws and I threw up all over their spare room. Not only that, but I was in so much pain I screamed loudly enough to wake them up. My fiancé took amazing care of me and his parents were, aside from a well-deserved lecture about pacing myself, lovely about it. Do I owe them some sort of restitution? I obviously apologized in person (tears of embarrassment in my eyes) and helped with all the cleaning. Should I send flowers? A card? A gift certificate? I feel so mortified and am trying to find some way to alleviate my guilt.

A: Oh, yikes. Oh, I am full-body cringing on your behalf. Yes, definitely send all three, and make the gift certificate for a house-cleaning or carpet-shampooing service. Maybe get a massage certificate for your partner while you’re at it, if you can afford it. It sounds like you’re marrying into a pretty compassionate, understanding family. This may not ever be a story you’ll laugh about, exactly, but in time, with sufficient counterexamples, you’ll all be able to think of that night as a really weird outlier.

Q. Re: Not a pervert: Birthday spanking is totally a thing, or at least it was; I even remember my (female) teachers doing it in grade school, right after singing Happy Birthday and right before cupcakes were distributed. My guess is this person made the remark in an otherwise off-putting way or has a tendency to say or do uncomfortable things. The age of the daughter may also be a relevant consideration.

A: There are a lot of possibly aggravating circumstances, absolutely, and the tone of the joke would definitely be dependent on how the OP delivered it and how old the birthday girl was. Regardless of whether the parent in question should have understood where the poster was coming from, or if they overreacted in removing them from the party, I think an apology is called for. If they continue to block the OP, then they might have to give the friendship up, even if they don’t agree with their friend’s reaction.

If nothing else, I have learned today that apparently some teachers used to spank students on their birthday in the classroom, and I will confess I am pretty gobsmacked!

Q. Paused proposal: I proposed to my boyfriend and his response was “I like the idea of being married but need to think about it.” We came back to the discussion a few days later and after some discussion I said I was actually OK with the status quo but wanted him to know how much I was interested/involved/in love with him and that proposing seemed like a good way to put all that into four words. The talk went well and life is great—but now I’m wondering if the proposal is still “out on the table” or if my admission retracted the question?

A: I do not know! The only person who knows is your boyfriend, and you should ask him. I understand you might feel reluctant to bring up the topic again, since it seems like lately the burden of initiating serious conversations has fallen solely on you, but the only way to find out what he thinks is to ask. “I wanted to check in after our talk yesterday, because I’m a little unclear if you are still considering my proposal or if you’d rather we drop that subject for now. Would you rather not talk about getting engaged? Do you want more time to think about it? What I want is to know what you want, so please don’t feel like you have to avoid the subject or pretend to be more open to it than you are in order to keep me happy. I love you regardless, and don’t feel a strong need to get engaged if you’re not comfortable.”

Q. Feelings vs. sickness: This past January, I developed a nasty case of vertigo. The type of vertigo I have includes the feeling of being perpetually car sick as well as crushing panic attacks. For the first month, I could barely walk and I couldn’t drive a car until April. It’s May and I still struggle with exhaustion, dizzy spells, and nausea. I was lucky to have two friends who took care of me devotedly. They did everything for me, for nearly three months. My problem is another (so-called) friend, who is now angry with me because I “didn’t pay enough attention to him” when I was very sick. I’m still sick! But he is adamant that I owe it to him to give him the attention he needs. I told him that I am still healing and that I can’t take care of his emotional issues when I can barely make it through a day without falling over. He has now taken to sending me text messages that alternate between how he understands that I need to take care of myself and how I am a bad friend and my behavior is unacceptable. I have no interest in maintaining a friendship with this person, but I don’t know how to get him to understand that and leave me alone. His tantrums are starting to be more annoying than being dizzy.

A: It’s one thing to want your friends to pay attention to you when you’re going through a difficult emotional time. It’s quite another to regularly tell someone over text that they’re a bad person. The latter is not a reasonable response to the former. There is likely nothing you can say to him at this point that will make him understand that he is in the wrong, or that will convince him to lay off the tirades. Block his number (and his email address, and on any other platforms he’s used to contact you), focus on continuing to care for yourself, and ignore him from now on.

Q. The right way to fight: My significant other and I have vastly different beliefs on the best ways to have disagreements. He thinks it’s best to take a break and not speak to me for a day or two so that he doesn’t say anything he’ll regret. I think it’s better to talk in the moment. Who’s right?

A: Taking a break from a disagreement is great! What your boyfriend does is not “taking a break,” but the silent treatment. Taking a break means saying, “Hey, this is getting really heated and I think we both need a little time to calm down. I’m going to go take a walk. Can we talk more when I get back?” or “Can we stop talking about this for a little while and do something else?” It doesn’t mean going full Ghost Mode for a solid 48 hours.

Mallory Ortberg: Today I learned a great many things, not least of which is the possibility that we are currently in the middle of a spanking renaissance and I had no idea. May all of your days prove equally enlightening. See you next week.

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If you missed Part 1 of this week’s chat, click here to read it.