Dear Prudence

Water Cooler Counsel

Prudie advises a letter writer who wants to help a young, struggling co-worker make an informed choice about a pregancy.

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

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Q. To advise or not to advise: I have a co-worker who just found out she’s pregnant. She’s only 21, already has a 3-year-old, and recently started taking online classes toward a bachelor’s degree. She can’t afford another child, and she seems to be at the end of her rope. Is there a way for me to bring up the subject of abortion in a way that’s gentle, nonjudgmental, and informative?

A: If she were someone you simply knew socially, then I think there would be ways to talk to her about the number of possibilities available to her, and to offer support in accessing them or talking through what she wants. But since this is someone you work with, I think it’s better not to say anything like, “Have you considered having an abortion?” A better choice would be to suggest she make an appointment at Planned Parenthood or another reputable health clinic (as opposed to a “crisis pregnancy center“) where she can access information and resources from non-judgmental professionals.

Q. Addressing SAD during interview process: I have seasonal affective disorder and can get mildly depressed during the winter months. It’s not severe and usually doesn’t even require antidepressants if I can maintain a healthy lifestyle. The one thing that truly has an impact on my overall mood and productivity is lighting. Natural lighting is a must for me, and I use a light box as needed.

I’m currently in the middle of an interview process and hoping for a job offer. I’ve been in the office space and noticed that some cubicles are near windows—having one of these would enhance my work and productivity. If I do receive an offer, do I bring this up during the negotiation process? I do not want the company to be concerned about my mental health or my productivity, or to come across as needy or picky.

A: I’d welcome suggestions from anyone more familiar with the intricacies of workplace accessibility, but my best guess is that—if you do receive an offer—this would be something to bring up during your onboarding process with HR. It’s a fairly low-key request, and if for some reason they can’t offer you a desk by a window, you could still inform them you’ll be keeping your light box with you at work. It’s not an unreasonable request, and I don’t think you’ll be in danger of coming across as needy.

Q. Cutting off grandma: As a child, I was sexually abused by my stepfather for a period of seven years. There are several members of my family who feel guilty about this, like they should have known. In reality, most of them couldn’t have known—except my grandma, who walked in once while it was happening. Her reaction? She turned around, left the room, and never said a word about it. Aside from that, she has always been narcissistic and expects everyone to cater to her, so even if she hadn’t committed this egregious breach of trust, I still wouldn’t like her.

I’ve been living abroad for the last three years, and it has been a great opportunity to distance myself from her. My time abroad will be coming to an end soon, and I know that I will have to deal with her at family gatherings. I told my mom the reason why I don’t want to have anything to do with her mom anymore, and she says she is supportive, but I know that when I get back, she will likely want to include us in the same events.

The thought of traveling and having to spend time with my grandma is not something I am excited about. Grandma is old now and not in the greatest of health, so there may not be many more holidays and birthdays in her future. How do I get through the admittedly few family events that are left?

A: I’m so sorry that you were failed by your own family members in so many ways, and I’m so glad to hear that you’ve been able to get some distance and focus on taking care of yourself.

The fact that your grandmother is now old does not mean that you are required to grin and bear it indefinitely. There is no guarantee that she will die soon. Sometimes people carry on, old and sick, for longer than anyone might have anticipated. Just because everyone else in your family is used to catering to her does not mean you have to participate.

Since your mother has offered you her support, I think you can tell her what you want that support to look like—namely, that she respect your decision not to see your grandmother and that she not try to force you to spend time with her. What you are asking for is perfectly reasonable and achievable, and if your mother prioritizes keeping silent and “going along to get along” over your very real reaction to trauma and abandonment, then she is making the wrong decision. If she can’t support you in this, I hope you give yourself the freedom to spend time with people who do.

Q. Awkward medical problems, ahoy: In the last year I developed a bowel-related medical problem that is mainly managed with a doctor-approved diet and is exacerbated by stress. During a flare-up, I need quick access to a bathroom and my use of the amenities therein is uhhh, not very silent. I’m a woman in my 20s, and I find this very embarrassing, and it freaks me out in social situations.

I previously had my own place, but now that I am at grad school I live in an expensive city with roommates. My stress levels are up, and my body has started to react. Is there anything I can say or do to make this less awkward in our thin-walled apartment? People are big on keeping it silent for study, and we don’t have so much as a bathroom fan. I am mortified. I’m following my doctor’s instructions but find myself terrified that things will flare up at a social function, or as I meet new classmates and start dating in my new city. It makes me anxious, which makes the problem worse. Can you suggest any ways to mitigate this?

A: I’m so sorry! You are, at the very least, in good company; lots of people who suffer from Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome experience similar anxieties about using the bathroom in a shared space. A brief bit of online research turned up this guide, and I imagine looking for online support from fellow sufferers would result in a host of relevant and practical advice.

When it comes to your roommates, hopefully at the very least you can share your diagnosis with them, so you’re not constantly anxious that they’re speculating about you. If there are any readers with relevant experience and advice for this letter writer, please chime in! I’d love to pass your wisdom along.

Q. Re: To advise or not to advise: Not! Do not walk up to your co-worker and suggest she go to Planned Parenthood (or anywhere for that matter). Unsolicited advice is the literal worst with something as sensitive as reproduction.

You can, however, be friendly and concerned. Ask if she’s OK. Let her know you care about her. If she chooses to open up and seek your input, then and only then do you offer gentle suggestions. She’s young and pregnant but please don’t presume she’s an idiot and doesn’t know her options.

A: Lots of answers coming in along these exact same lines! The overarching theme seems to be to stick to being friendly, supportive, and professional, and not to presume that your co-worker can’t find help for her problems on her own.

I think it’s worth changing my answer in light of common consensus, and think the letter writer shouldn’t mention any other options unless and until their co-worker brings it up. Even then, I think it would be best to simply say, “I’m here for you, and I hope you’re able to get the help you need,” rather than getting further involved with how she chooses to handle her own pregnancy.

Q. Ignore or address?: My sister and her husband have been having some marital problems. My sister and I are fairly close but we generally don’t talk about these kinds of things, but she has made some hints and comments that have made me aware there’s some trouble. Recently, at a party, they both had too much to drink and got into a giant, ugly, public argument where they aired a lot of dirty laundry in front of me and my friends. They left (in a cab) still fighting, and I haven’t spoken to my sister since.

I’m not mad at her; I just feel really awkward, and I’m not sure if I should acknowledge what happened or ignore it. I was planning to follow her lead, but I haven’t heard from her and don’t want her to confuse my silence with anger or my ignoring it for not caring. But I don’t want to be a busybody either! What do you think?

A: It is not the act of a busybody to say, “Is everything OK? I’m worried about you after that fight you two had last week. Do you want to talk about it? Is there anything I can do to help?” She may or may not open up to you, but it’s not prying to acknowledge reality or to ask how someone is doing.

Q. Office tantrum: I work in a small office (fewer than 20 employees), staffed entirely by women. This is usually a good thing, and we get along well and support one another. There is one employee, “June,” who has been with the company for three to four years, and who recently announced she is leaving to pursue an opportunity with another company. We congratulated her individually on her new opportunity, signed a group card each reiterating a similar message, and had a catered farewell lunch in her honor. After the lunch, another employee found June crying in her office. Apparently, June was upset that we hadn’t given her a parting gift in recognition of her time with the company. Now two employees are asking everyone to contribute toward a gift for June because of how upset she was.

I have been at the company for 10 years, and to my knowledge, it is not standard practice for us to give gifts to departing employees unless they are retiring—which June is not. I don’t feel inclined to contribute toward a gift for a grown woman who threw a tantrum because she wasn’t offered a present. But if I don’t, I look like a “bad guy” to my colleagues who I have to continue to work with. Can I draw a line in the sand and opt out of a collective gift? Or am I better off keeping the peace and contributing?

A: If it’s a relatively inexpensive gift, and the amount you’ve been asked to contribute wouldn’t unduly strain your own budget, you might find it worth chipping in five or 10 bucks to keep the peace, if only because you’re concerned about what tensions might arise if you don’t. But if it’s more than you can afford, or if it feels important to you not to acknowledge your soon-to-be-former co-worker’s outburst, then you certainly have every right to decline to participate.

Q. Honey: I’m a 24-year-old female who works for a woman in her 50s. She’s been a great mentor, shown me the ropes, and introduced me to her contacts in the industry. She has given me great advice on how to build a career. The issue is, she would call me “hon,” frequently. I told her I found this inappropriate and patronizing. She seemed really embarrassed and apologized profusely. Since then, she’s been friendly and professional, but the rapport we had is gone.

What can I do to get it back? She was my biggest cheerleader—now I just have a boss.

A: There’s nothing wrong with “just” having a friendly and professional boss. There’s also nothing wrong with asking to be addressed by your name at work, rather than a cutesy nickname that highlights your youth and relative inexperience. I think the best way forward—since it sounds like your boss is simply embarrassed, rather than going out of her way to treat you coldly or to punish you for speaking up—is to continue to be friendly and professional in return.

Q. Knowing when you have a problem: How do you know whether you have an unhealthy relationship with a substance? I stopped drinking a while ago because—after a lot of arguments, ruined relationships, and minor injuries—I realized it was hurting me more than it was worth. Now I’m beginning to be concerned about my use of marijuana.

With the exception of a little trouble with campus police back in college, smoking weed hasn’t done nearly as much damage to my life as my drinking did: I’m not blacking out or passing out, I’m not incapacitated by hangovers, it’s not affecting my job performance, and if I say something stupid while I’m high it’s more likely to be “Hey man, what if dogs all wore suits?” than screaming insults at a close friend. In the absence of clear signs that it’s a problem, I’m tempted to say it’s OK for me to be using marijuana, but I’m concerned about my history with other substances, and lately I’ve been noticing that I get really anxious when I’m stuck in a situation that doesn’t allow me to get high.

How do I figure out if I have a problem with weed? I’ve tried to discuss it with friends, but they have mostly either said, “It’s just weed, don’t worry about it,” which doesn’t feel right, or “If you have a problem with one substance, you can’t use any others safely,” which doesn’t quite sit right with me either.

A: I think the best guiding principle in this situation is what you think about it. If weed feels like a problem for you, then it is, and whether other people think it shouldn’t be, or want to upgrade you to full-blown addict, isn’t particularly important.

There are numerous ways to figure out your own relationship to marijuana. You might seek the advice of a counselor, you might want to start keeping a journal about how you feel when you get high and when you don’t or can’t, you might want to try scaling back your use and see whether that relieves some of your anxiety, or you might want to try going a certain period of time without it entirely. There are a number of options available to you, and I don’t know which will prove the most useful, but you don’t need anyone else’s permission in order to consider this a problem, and you don’t need to consider yourself an addict in order to try to make a change or seek help. (“Seek help” is sometimes used to mean “get sober through rehab or a recovery program,” but in your case, can mean a whole host of other options.) Good luck!

Q. Re: Addressing SAD during an interview: I disagree that this is a low-key request. Cubicle assignment can be very competitive. Contentious and desirable cubes, especially window cubes, are often assigned based on seniority. I agree this should come up during onboarding and think the letter writer should raise the issue of SAD and their use of a light box while inquiring about policy of cubicle assignment. But be aware that this may come across in exactly the way writer does not want.

A: It’s certainly true that seating arrangements can get extremely contentious at work! But I think expressing a preference for a window seat, and offering a backup solution of bringing in a light box if that’s not possible, is not in and of itself a request that would flag the letter writer as “difficult.”

Q. Congrats, you’re a lesbian?: A good family friend, “Amy,” recently came out as a lesbian. I found out through Amy’s sister (my best friend), who assured me that Amy was fine with my knowing. Is there a correct way to let Amy know that I know, and that I am happy for her? Do I need to reach out, or can I just wait for Amy to say something the next time we see each other? And what is the best interjection/phrase for wishing someone well and with continued love for them when they are coming out?

A: Since you’ve already been informed that Amy is happy for you to know that she’s come out, I don’t think it’s overstepping any bounds for you to get in touch with her and let her know you’re happy for her. Something along the lines of, “I heard you came out, and I just wanted to tell you that I’m excited for you, and I hope you’re doing well!” is totally appropriate.

Q. Re: Awkward medical problems, ahoy: Congratulations on getting your digestive issues addressed in your 20s! I waited until this year (now in my mid-30s) and I wish I’d given myself the gift of taking care of this sooner. Please know that there are a lot more people out there suffering from similar issues than you may be aware of, a lot of whom have simply developed strategies to hide their issues (e.g., living alone instead of having roommates).

I suggest just being open about it. You don’t have to share the gory details of your BMs with everyone you meet, but it’s really helpful to be able to talk about the challenges surrounding your diet and to start letting go of the stress that stems from being embarrassed about your digestive health. If your school has counseling resources, consider a few sessions to discuss cognitive methods for managing stress, which can help reduce stress-related flare-ups. I’ve found that people are a lot more sympathetic and understanding and helpful than I at first assumed they would be. Take care of yourself!

A: This is great, and specific, and helpful. Thank you for sharing what’s worked for you, and for the reminder that, as embarrassing as things may seem right now, lots of people suffer from similar conditions, and you’re not alone.

Mallory Ortberg: Thanks for chatting, everyone! See you next week.

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

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