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 voicemail of the new 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. Reluctant godparent: I’m nonreligious but very tolerant of other people’s beliefs (i.e. I don’t go around expounding on my atheism and mostly keep it to myself). Recently, I was asked by a good friend to serve as a godparent to his child. We have never discussed our personal beliefs, but I know him to be a relatively devout Catholic (goes to church every Sunday). For this reason, I felt the godparent role wasn’t something to take on casually as a mark of friendship. I would genuinely be responsible for that child’s religious education, if the worst were ever to happen. So I explained I’m not Catholic and didn’t think I was the right person, but expressed how much I want to be a fun and supportive “uncle.” My friend seemed cool about this. However, I’ve now been disinvited from the christening and wasn’t asked to go to their Memorial Day BBQ (an annual thing I usually bring a dish to). My partner thinks I should reach out and clarify, even apologize if I came off as rude or unaccepting of Catholicism. Prudie, I think my friend is more to blame than me! I feel very hurt and excluded. My partner says it doesn’t matter who’s right but what’s the mature thing to do, and he’s usually right. But honestly, an apology at this point wouldn’t be sincere. What’s your take?
A: I’m not sure why you think an apology from your friend “at this point” would be incapable of sincerity. I think it could quite possibly be meaningful and heartfelt! More to the point, I think the two of you have missed the opportunity to have a helpful, clarifying conversation at several points along the way. I understand your reluctance to broadcast your own atheism, but it might have been helpful to both of you if you’d asked what your friend’s expectations of a godparent were. Yes, continuing the child’s religious education is a part of the traditional responsibilities, but what your friend had in mind might have been more along the lines of the “fun uncle” stuff you prefer. It would have been worth clarifying, even if your answer had ultimately been the same.
That said, what’s done is done, and declining godparent duties does not mean “I hate your baby and don’t want to attend a christening or eat barbecue with you,” and your friend’s response has been less-than-stellar. It makes perfect sense that you feel hurt and excluded, and I think you should tell your friend exactly that. Tell him that you miss your friendship, that you’re genuinely flattered he would consider you as a potential godparent but aren’t able to take on the attendant religious duties, and you’re hurt that he’s dropped you from his invite list. If he’s able to offer a genuine apology and you two can find a way forward together, then that’s great. Whatever the outcome, I don’t think reaching out to him first is a sign of weakness or an admission of fault. It just means that you care about him.
Q. Husband is a homebody: My husband and I are retired and finally saw our last chick out of the nest. I want to spread my wings and travel—and all he wants to do is sit around at home! Even visiting our daughter and grandchildren out of state, all he does is complain—the bed is too lumpy, the food tastes funny, even our grandchildren are too loud! He promised me and promised me, we would see the world once we retired. I don’t want to if all he is going to do is complain. He acts like a crotchety old man of 90 instead of someone barely 60. I plan and pack and take care of all the details even on overnight trips and he still complains. My friend invited us to stay a month with her family in Italy this August, and I dread the idea of dragging my husband along. Talking to him is like talking to a brick wall, but he gets very upset if I suggest I go by myself. I don’t think anything would make him happy except never leaving our hometown again even if I am miserable. What can I do?
A: Go without him. Let him get very upset about it if he wants to. It sounds like, whether you go or stay, he likes to get upset about everything. If he’s determined to stay miserable despite your best efforts, then the only thing you can change is whether or not you want to stick around and watch his misery. If it were me, I’d take the trip—solo.
Q. Thank-you note delinquents: My husband and I did a terrible thing: We never sent out thank-you notes after our wedding! We got married a year and a half ago, my mom’s friends threw a lovely bridal shower for me two years ago, and then we just … never sent out thank-you notes. Actually, we wrote about three-quarters of them in a timely manner but didn’t send them out as we were writing them because we worried it would be awkward for one of our parents’ neighbors to receive a thank-you note one week and another neighbor to receive their thank-you note a few weeks later. Then we got straight-up lazy and just did not finish them. Months and months have now passed, and I feel profound guilt over this. We had a gorgeous wedding, and our families and friends were extremely generous to us. My parents, who paid for the wedding, have been under the assumption that we actually did send out thank-you notes. But recently a couple of relatives have asked them if we ever received their gifts because they had heard nothing back. My husband also feels bad but worries that writing and sending out thank-you notes now will call attention to just how late they are and could be embarrassing for my parents if their friends remark, “Oh, we just got your daughter and son-in-law’s thank-you note!” But I think it’s more important to demonstrate our gratitude. What do you think? Is it too late? Could a self-effacing apology—“Oops, we are the worst at doing things on time!”—help the situation?
A: Send the notes! Late is better than never, and calling yourself “the worst” is less an apology and more a deflection designed to escape any criticism by conspicuous self-flagellation, and conspicuous self-flagellation does not fall under the subheading of Great Manners. Just send them out now (at least they’re mostly all written), and if you do want to apologize, especially to any of the relatives who were worried you never received their gifts, just stick to “I’m so sorry these are late. We loved your gift, and it meant so much to us that you were able to attend the wedding and help us celebrate our new life together.”
Q. Stepsister not real sister: My husband and I married when my stepdaughter “Lydia” was 12 and my girls were 9 and 7. I have always counted Lydia as one of my girls, and her sisters thought she hung the moon. Her mother moved away across the state when Lydia was 17. Lydia chose to follow her and attend a nearby college rather than go where we live. Lydia is now a college graduate, engaged, and pregnant. My husband and I threw her an engagement party; her sisters flew down to attend it. At the party, someone asked Lydia if she had any brothers or sisters. In full earshot of my youngest and me, Lydia said, No, she was an only child and never had the luck to have a sibling.
I can’t tell how much that hurt my daughter. She told her sister, and both of them left the party early. I wanted to bring it up to Lydia, but my daughters forbade it. They said they didn’t want to cause a scene and it wouldn’t change how Lydia felt. We haven’t seen as much of Lydia as we liked to since she went off to school, except for the odd holiday, but even my husband was shocked by this. He wants to talk to her about it, but I don’t know. The entire situation leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Everyone got invitations to the wedding, but my daughters told me to count them out. For everything, even the baby. They don’t want to play auntie if Lydia doesn’t even consider them to be sisters. I have no clue what to do. I am afraid anything I say or do will make it worse. Can you help me?
A: This is a terribly sad situation, but I think the best thing you can do for your daughters—all of them—is to gently encourage them to talk to one another. They’re all young adults now and will need to figure out what type of relationship they’re going to have with one another without parental management. Of course you want your children to be close, and of course it’s difficult to step back from active parenting, especially when two of your daughters are so obviously hurt, but this is their relationship to navigate. Even if you think it’s a mistake for them not to speak about it, I think it’s a mistake that they get to choose to make. Your role should be in the background. Encourage them to speak to Lydia, but don’t make that decision for them, and don’t try to run messages between your children. It will be difficult and painful, but it’s a necessary part of becoming adults.
Q. Queer right now: I am in college trying to figure out myself and my life. I identify as queer because it feels the most honest to me right now. I have dated men and two women. My last girlfriend kept saying I was confused and pushed me to say I was gay. We ended up breaking up over it. Is there something wrong with me? Everyone else seems to have everything figured out and I don’t.
A: There is not something wrong with you! (Or, if there is, it’s completely unrelated to your sexuality. Maybe you routinely park your car diagonally over the white lines and take up two spaces in the school parking lot, I don’t know your life.) College is a classic time for figuring yourself out, and I promise you that a lot of the people who seem to have it together right now are going to take some surprising hard lefts in a couple of years. Which is also fine, and they will figure themselves out eventually too. “Figuring yourself out” is not something that happens only once and then stops.
What your girlfriend was saying to you when she was trying to push you to call yourself gay was, “I’m afraid of ambiguity, and need my partners to avoid even the slightest suggestion of anything approaching bisexuality.” Which tells you nothing more than that she was a bad girlfriend. Sometimes people say “Be yourself” as if that is a really easy thing to do, as if all of us wake up every day with a really clear and consistent understanding of ourselves and our own desires, and that’s just not always the case. Sometimes you are going to surprise yourself! Queer is a great word, and it sounds like it’s working for you right now, so I think you should continue to use it for as long as it feels right.
Q. Re: Late thank-you notes: Your heart is in the right place here—and here’s an idea to make it right without it seeming weird. Peg a note to your anniversary “Dear Uncle Ted, As Joan and I were celebrating our 2nd anniversary we have such warm memories of how you made the day special for us. Thank you so much too for the lovely ___ . We apologize wholeheartedly for taking so long to acknowledge it. Your presence at our wedding and in our lives is ____ .” Keep it simple and heartfelt. And make sure you send them out! It’s all fine.
A: That’s a great template—thanks!
Q. Theater etiquette: I moved to the NYC area three years ago, and since then, I have immensely enjoyed the Broadway theater scene. I enter online and in-person ticket lotteries every day—my husband and I don’t have a large budget for entertainment, but I’ve gotten pretty lucky and seen some blockbuster shows. My question for you is theater etiquette. I’ve noticed more and more that people are willing to get out their phones and start texting, or have conversations with the people around them. When those people are close to me, I have no problem asking them to put away their phone or to save conversation for intermission (which I think is reasonable). Am I being too harsh? Is this just the world we live in now? As I said, I have to enter lotteries to see these shows, so I get pretty up in arms when people aren’t considerate of the others around them. Your opinion is greatly appreciated.
A: You are not being too harsh by asking people not to actively play Candy Crush on their phones or hold loud personal conversations while a play is going on, no. This is why most plays begin with a sort of harried-looking person coming out onstage and alternately begging, cajoling, or adopting a stern schoolmarmish-type persona in order to convince audience members to turn our phones off. It is one of many problems facing the world we now live in! This does not make our world better or worse than previous worlds; it’s just the particular form the eternal specter of public rudeness has presently taken. In the Elizabethan era audience members used to have to worry about getting trash dumped on them from people sitting higher up and catching the plague. Carry on with your policy of asking people to put their phones away during a show; you are an agent of justice and truth, and I salute you.
Q. Do bad work places get better?: I don’t know if I should take a new job! This is kind of a lucky situation to be in, but I was offered a job to teach (with awesome kids!) and make significantly more money than I do now. I wanted to leave because while I love my current job, I’ve always hated the office. People were really catty and toxic, and often made it really hard for me to do my job well with their bad judgment and office politics. I also have had too many days where I just dread seeing people at the office. But I’m starting to have second thoughts. I’ve given this old job five years, and it seems like people are honestly trying to change. Do you think I should give my old work place a chance? Can dysfunctional workplaces fix themselves in the span of a week, or do you think this is just people having a good attitude about summer but not actually addressing the structural issues? P.S. At my current place they always say, “We’re a family,” which doesn’t seem great?
A: I don’t have specific advice about whether or not you should take this particular job, but I do have a few relevant thoughts. People can absolutely change, BUT:
- Most people don’t change five years’ worth of bad behavior in one week.
- Entire offices’ worth of people don’t generally change for the better all at the same time.
- Just because someone else is trying to change (good for them!) doesn’t mean you have to stick around and help them.
- More money is more money.
- Generally when someone says, “We’re a family” about their workplace, what they mean is, “Don’t expect us to treat you like a professional with a reasonable work-life balance and appropriate sense of boundaries. Expect us to treat you like a scapegoat younger cousin who always ends up doing everyone else’s dishes at holiday dinners.”
- It sounds like part of you feels obligated to stick around because you’ve already worked here for five years and you think you owe it to help your co-workers if they’re trying to change; this is the sunk cost fallacy and it’s not going to do you any favors.
Come to think of it, now that I’ve written all this out, I do have specific advice for you. You should take this new job! It pays more, it would get you away from this dysfunctional office, and the kids you’d be working with are awesome—it sounds like a great opportunity, and I think you should take it.
Mallory Ortberg: May all of you treasure your living human friends more dearly than kitchen appliances you hope to someday own. See you next week.