Dear Prudence

No Laughing Matter

My boss made fun of my hearing loss.

Boss makes fun of hearing loss.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Dear Prudence,
I work in a small department of a large company. My boss is childish and can be invasive. Last week, she texted me before work asking me to pick up a gallon of ice cream. I told her I did not have any money. She responded by teasing me about spending my tax return already—she had overheard me talking about having to use my refund to buy a new car since mine gave out. Then she heard I traveled to a friend’s wedding over the weekend and commented that I have my priorities mixed up and should have helped with the ice cream. She also made fun of my hearing loss a few weeks ago: She tapped on my window while I was cleaning and pretended to use sign language, then laughed. She’s known for acting like this, and HR does nothing about it. Suggestions?
—Childish Boss

Your best bet (in addition to looking for a new job) is to minimize the amount of personal information your boss knows about you as well as calmly but firmly asking her to stop when she gets too invasive. Instead of saying, “I don’t have the money for that” when she asks you to get ice cream, say, “I won’t be able to do that”—or, if you want to appear enterprising, “I won’t be able to get that before work today, but if there’s money in the budget, I can take the company card and pick some up before my afternoon meetings.” Or, if you want to discourage her from texting you in your off hours (assuming you don’t have a company culture where texting before and after work is considered normal and part of the job), don’t respond at all until you get into the office: “I make it a rule not to check my work messages before I get in unless it’s something urgent.” When it comes to something as cringeworthy and obviously unkind and unprofessional as pretending to sign to you, I think it’s still worth mentioning to HR, even if they don’t seem especially concerned. (And, of course, saying to her, “Please don’t do that.”) Good luck on the job search.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“It’s so awful that bosses can just text you now.” Mallory Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe discuss this letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,
My roommate is driving me insane. He is a slob who leaves dirty clothes and dishes everywhere. He is also always bumming money off of me. I don’t work frequently because of my health, and when I am sick he still expects me to be his maid! Every time I ask him to do the smallest task, he drags his feet and whines about not having the time to do it. When I tell him I’m tired of seeing him leave a mess everywhere, he responds by saying I’m not his mother! I am so close to telling him, “No, I’m not your mother, but I damn sure feel like I am!”

Here’s the kicker: He’s my older brother. We both still live at home with our parents. I do so out of necessity; he does so because he’s a mooch who wants to be a kid forever. He thinks giving our parents 50 bucks a week exempts him from chores. Meanwhile, our parents, who work long hours, still find the time to clean and do laundry at night and on weekends while he gallivants off to spend all his money and have a good time. My parents are enabling him to never move out, get married, or get a real job. I am sick of feeling like I am mothering my nearly 30-year-old brother and then being told off as though it’s my fault he doesn’t clean up after himself. My blood pressure cannot take this much longer. Please help me deal with my jerk of a brother!
—Adult Toddler

It’s difficult to come up with a long-term strategy for peaceable coexistence with your brother if moving out isn’t a viable option for either of you (out of necessity on your part and disinterest on his). I don’t think there’s much you can do in the way of convincing him to amend his behavior, given how long-standing said behavior is and how far your parents go to enable it, so I think the most productive option for you moving forward is to develop a life as independent as possible from your brother’s while you continue to live together. The most obvious change you can start with, of course, is to stop giving him money; that might go a long way toward reducing your frustration. It sounds like he knows how to get under your skin by wheedling at or nagging you; if he attempts to deploy those strategies once you stop letting him use you like an ATM, dispassionately refuse to engage: “Sorry, that’s not going to work for me,” followed by a quick exit from the conversation. If he expects you to “be his maid,” politely refuse. You may not be able to get him to pick up after himself, but you can certainly stop picking up after him. Remind yourself, when the sight of his old bath towels or soup bowls threatens to send your blood pressure through the roof: “That’s not my problem. That doesn’t have anything to do with me, and I don’t have to do anything about it.” It isn’t pleasant to live in a cluttered atmosphere when you prefer things neat, I know, but it’s a better alternative than trying to cajole him into picking up after himself or doing it for him (and hopefully you two don’t have to share a bedroom, so you can at least keep your own room just as you like it).

Your brother may very well never move out of your parents’ house or get a full-time job. He may continue to receive things you believe he doesn’t deserve and hasn’t earned. I’m afraid there’s not much you can do about this. But I think the less you have to do with his choices—not giving him money, not doing him little favors, not getting drawn into arguments with him, not attempting to convince your parents to stop doing his laundry—the less on edge you’ll feel about him. Grant him a smaller role in your life, and you might find he becomes less of a thorn in your side and more a pebble in your shoe.

Dear Prudence,
I am pregnant with my second child. We named our daughter after my husband’s sister who died from leukemia when he was a child. Now that we’re having a boy, I want to honor my father, who died when I was 17. My mother has taken this as a slight against her. When my father died, my mother immediately moved on and was remarried within the year. I reacted badly (I dumped paint on her boyfriend’s car when he moved in with us), and I wasn’t able to find some perspective until I was out of college.

My parents were not happy in their marriage. My mother and I reconnected when my daughter was born, and the last few times we flew out to see her and my stepfather, the visits were painless. Now I don’t even want to return her calls. She called me “thoughtless” and “ungrateful” for not thinking of her family and her feelings. She even went so far as to call my uncle and grandfather (who also recently died) “better men” than my father. My husband suggested we change our son’s middle name from my maiden name to my uncle’s or grandfather’s name as a peace offering. I don’t think I have it in me to offer my mother anything.
—Not Your Name

It’s difficult, the degree to which members of one’s family, especially parents, can feel possessive about one’s decisions about one’s own children. You should refuse to get drawn into this with your mother, especially when she calls you thoughtless or ungrateful for wanting to name your son after your father: “Mom, I know you and Dad didn’t have a happy marriage, but he’s also my father, and this name is important to me. It doesn’t mean I don’t love you or that I don’t care about your side of the family, and I hope you can see that.” If your mother can find a way to let this go, then so much the better; if she keeps haranguing you on the subject, feel free to dodge her calls until she can have a conversation about something else.

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Dear Prudence,
I am the youngest of my siblings and the last to start a family. I always tried to be there for my nieces and nephews and bought gifts or gave them cash for their birthdays, Christmas, Easter, important milestones, and even when they lost their teeth. Now they are all grown, with the exception of one niece, and I only buy gifts for her. I am now married and have two children of my own. While one of my siblings is very generous toward my children, the other two are not. When they do give my children a gift, it’s at a fraction of the value of the gifts I gave theirs. On other occasions, they give nothing to my children. I am trying hard not to be petty and keep a ledger of what I gave, but it is becoming very hard for me to ignore this disparity.

I could understand my siblings giving less or nothing if their financial circumstances dictated it, but they are both comfortable. I have come to the realization that they are cheap. I have had many discussions with my wife about this and what we should do. Should I confront my siblings and tell them how I feel about their miserliness toward my children in relation to my generosity to theirs? Should I say nothing at all? Should I just tell my siblings that we will no longer give gifts to their children nor expect them to reciprocate with ours? I feel that in light of all the generosity that I have shown over the years, to have it rewarded with stinginess on their part is just a slap in the face.
—Dealing With Cheapskates

I don’t think that last option will get you very far. Because you’re currently only giving gifts to a single niece, threatening to withhold future gifts from the grown nieces and nephews you’ve already stopped buying gifts for won’t be much of a pressure tactic. Nor do I think confronting your siblings is likely to end well. It may be that they’re simply stingy. It also may be that after 18-plus years of raising their own children and sending them off to college, they’re not quite as comfortably off as you were when you were buying gifts for their kids. Or they may not value gift giving in quite the way that you do. Whatever the case, your generosity, while very kind, did not create in them an obligation to match you dollar for dollar when you eventually had children. I don’t think this is quite the slap in the face you believe it to be. If they otherwise treat you and your children with affection and attention then it’s worth trying to let go of some of your expectations.

Dear Prudence,
Recently my sister underwent genetic testing. While learning more about her heritage, she noticed a woman who was listed under “possible genetic relations.” She reached out to this woman, “Jane,” who confirmed that yes, she is our first cousin once removed, the product of a brief affair of my great-uncle’s more than 40 years ago. Jane knows enough about the circumstances of her conception to know who her biological father is, and that he is unaware of her existence. Jane has two loving parents and isn’t looking for a replacement family; rather, she wants to learn more about her history and connect with her biological brother. My great-uncle, his wife of 60 years, and their children are all still living. My sister and I are less close with that side of the family, largely due to distance, but we now find ourselves in possession of a huge family secret.

My sister brought me into the conversation after realizing that she couldn’t navigate this secret alone. Jane and I happen to live in the same small city! I live 800 miles away from the nearest family member, and the prospect of having a new cousin just down the road is tantalizing. Regardless of my desire to build a relationship with Jane, I am taking some time to consider the potential fallout. Jane is very levelheaded about the whole thing and said that we should take as long as we need. Right now I am considering calling my great-uncle and being direct with only him, but I’m still not sure whether that’s the right approach. Am I asking myself the right questions? Am I being considerate enough of all parties involved? What would you do in this situation?
—Twenty-Three and Me, and Me

I’m glad you and your sister are taking your time and attempting to proceed thoughtfully with a fairly significant family bombshell. That said, if Jane is interested in connecting with her biological brother, then that’s at least some of your question settled for you. It’s likely a matter of when, not if, she gets in touch with someone from your great-uncle’s side of the family. If you think it would be helpful for you to give your great-uncle some advance notice, and I’m inclined to think that it might, then you should tell him what you’ve learned. This will likely come as a shock to him, but you can’t unlearn what you know, and it’s not necessary for you to keep a 40-year-old secret for him. That said, you don’t have to do that immediately or even anytime soon. Why don’t you and Jane try getting coffee together first? You two can also talk through with your sister any potential consequences of establishing contact with your great-uncle and how best to minimize any panic or anxiety when you’re breaking the news. It’s a difficult situation to navigate, to be sure, but you didn’t create it, and it’s not solely your responsibility to make sure everyone involved feels great about it. You can and should strive to be thoughtful, nonsensationalist, and compassionate, but some of this is going to be outside of your control. You do have a right to get to know Jane on your own behalf as a newly discovered relative, and I think you should focus on that for now. I hope this new family connection brings you joy!

Dear Prudence,
I’m a woman in my late 20s and I’ve noticed a pattern in myself that I don’t really like. I try to be loving and supportive of the people close to me. I am in many ways my friends’ agony aunt. People often come to me with their problems, and I’m OK with this to a point, but there always seems to come a time when I get frustrated and exhausted by my friend’s problem of the moment and just want to talk about something, anything else. These aren’t petty complaints but serious problems in my friends’ lives, and I feel bad, but I just don’t want to hear about it anymore!

A very close friend of mine became mysteriously ill last year; she was in a great deal of pain and her doctors didn’t take her seriously. It took months for her to receive a diagnosis, and I listened to her talk every day (and most nights) about the pain she was in. By the time she was finally able to start treatment, I wanted to jump out a window rather than have another conversation about the specifics of her pain while I nod and say, “I’m sorry” and “That sucks” alternately. This happens more than I’d like in my friendships. It’s like my emotional wells run dry and I start feeling bitter annoyance with my friends and their problems and never want to hear about their bad job/deadbeat ex/bad health ever again. Can I improve myself so that I don’t feel this way? I did once tell a friend that I couldn’t hear about her mental health problems because it was making my own symptoms worse, but that feels inappropriate for anything less than getting triggered like that. Something like “Hey, can we change the topic?” would not fly without my needing to explain. I don’t want my loved ones to think I’m not here for them, but maybe I’m not here for them because I’m thinking this way. I have been told before that I attract needy people but I don’t think that’s true.
—Out of Empathy

I think there are two problems here. One is that you need to find ways to establish real, meaningful emotional limits in your friendships in order to prevent burnout and resentment. The other is that you need to not beat yourself up for behaving in a supportive fashion while inwardly experiencing frustration. That doesn’t mean you’re secretly an unloving friend or that you don’t care about your friends’ problems. It simply means that, like everyone, you have a finite amount of emotional resources. There’s nothing fraudulent or insincere about acting supportively while internally experiencing impatience.

Those moments of fatigue are not signs that you’re doing something wrong; they’re signs that you need to go and do something else. Even if you can’t cut the conversation off in the moment, you can arrange to do something you enjoy independently later, or go out of your way to see a friend who makes you feel energized and enthusiastic, or figure out whether you want to limit the ways in which others feel “free” to come to you with your problems.

More Dear Prudence

I am dating ‘CeCe.’ She is a great girl and we have a blast together, but she is a food thief. She will never order any real food, only an appetizer, and then demand to ‘share’ mine. We actually had a fight in a restaurant over a slice of cheesecake. What do I do here?”