Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Mallory Ortberg: Good morning, everyone! Pluck the dew from your eyes, it’s time to stare reality square in the face.
Q. Creepy dentist?: I’m a 23-year-old college grad looking forward to graduate school this fall. I’m writing because I’m puzzled by my mom’s behavior, and worry I’m being uncharitable. I’ve always had wonky teeth, and my mom took me to visit a new dentist—an appointment for which she was present. Things were grand until the dentist kissed me, through his mask, on the forehead mid-exam. This was done openly and obviously, and I was too shocked (and silenced by the hand in my mouth) to say anything. My mom witnessed this and said nothing. I was willing to consider it an unconscious slip-up when, near the end of the visit, he again kissed my forehead, this time without a mask. I was more stunned than before; again, my mom and a technician were present. When we walked the front desk and car, I was humiliated, but my mom seemed to find it funny and let me know—smiling—that I “turned pink.” (It was not from any appreciation on my part, I can assure you.)
The more I think about it, the more weirded out I become by the whole thing, while my mom continues to treat it as a joke. I’ve let her know how troubling I find it, to which she becomes defensive, as she says she didn’t know how else to react. She also claims that she thinks the dentist is gay, and therefore his actions are harmless. (I find that entire line of thought objectionable. I have no interest in making guesses about anyone’s orientation. I’m freaked out because the middle-age professional who should know better kissed me, twice.)
Am I making a big deal out of nothing? I’ve considered writing to the dentist’s office to say that while I appreciated the kindness of his staff, he should probably consider how he is relating to female patients. My mom objects to this, as she wants to visit his office to take advantage of a special (reduced price on dental cleaning and an X-ray) and fears that if I complain it will ruin the chance of savings for her.
A: You are not making a big deal out of nothing. It is a perfectly reasonable request to make of a professional that they not kiss their patients in the middle of a dental exam, regardless of their orientation. Your mother’s response was, and remains, completely inappropriate and wrong. The fact that she wants cheap X-rays (as who among us does not) is wholly irrelevant. You should absolutely send a complaint to his office, leaving out the bit about the kindness of his staff or the “probably” when it comes to not kissing female patients. You should also look for another dentist for yourself.
It’s true that sometimes when something shocking happens in the moment, people are apt to freeze up or react in odd ways. That doesn’t mean your mother’s response was good, or that she shouldn’t spend time thinking about how she can act now. The best response to her attempts to excuse or minimize her behavior is this: “I didn’t experience it as a joke. I don’t want to be kissed by a dentist while I’m getting my teeth cleaned, regardless of whether he’s gay or straight. That’s a perfectly reasonable expectation, and he should be able to abide by that. I’m going to file a complaint with his office, and while I’d appreciate your support, I don’t need it in order to take action.”
Q. Decorum vs. duty: I don’t know how to answer when interviewers ask why I left my last job. I smile politely and tell them it was because of scheduling conflicts with school and my other part-time positions, but the truth is I left because my boss and his boss made sexist comments to me about everything from other female co-workers to my own life choices, intruded on my personal space, and handled an extremely delicate issue of sexual harassment involving someone who worked under me badly and inadequately. There were no employee advocates or HR, and I felt trapped in a situation where I could not report my immediate superior to his superior, because they held similar views.
I feel like I am carrying around a huge secret, and I am not the only woman in my field who does so. I know that hiring committees might not be the best place to bring up these issues, but if not then, when? I almost feel an obligation to discuss these things with the people in my field so that they change. In an interview situation, I want to find out if the position I’m applying for has systems in place to deal with these same sorts of issues. I also don’t want to pretend like I left a position because it just wasn’t the right fit for my schedule. I want future employers to know that I left because I worked in an environment that was out of control, not because I am incapable of scheduling commitments or took on too many responsibilities.
I think it’s also important to note that I am an employee of a town, and so are most people in my profession. It is a very different work environment than the corporate world. The institutions are so small that hiring committees could easily look up who I was talking about based on my résumé. Everything is in the public domain.
A: My initial instinct here is to play it safe and wait until you have an offer well in hand before discussing the harassment you experienced at your last job. I’m not so sure that’s the right instinct, but it seems to me that the most important thing is to make sure you have stable employment first. I want to kick this one out to the commentariat: Does anyone with similar experience have any recommendations on how to balance honesty with self-preservation during the hiring process?
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Q. Am I the “Wrong One”?: My boyfriend and I have been dating for three years and living together for one and a half years. I have this bad habit of comparing myself to a girl my boyfriend used to date. He and I dated briefly and then two years after, he dated this girl. It wasn’t serious, and she moved on to someone else. A year after that, he started dating me again, and we have been together ever since.
The trouble is I knew this girl and keep thinking in my mind that he should have ended up with her. They have a lot in common, whereas he and I are almost opposites. This is in terms of hobbies, mostly. I have so much hate in my heart for her, which I know is unfair and wrong to place on myself and another person(s). This anger tends to come out in my relationship at times, too.
How can I get over this? Please help. I’m tired of feeling this way. I enjoy my time with my boyfriend, and we are very committed to each other—I love him very much and hate that I am doing and feeling these things.
A: I know I’m supposed to say something along the lines of, “If your boyfriend wanted to be with someone who enjoyed all of his hobbies, he probably would be; having a lot of shared interests is not the same thing as being compatible on a deeper level,” but I don’t want to underplay your anxiety. I think the ex-girlfriend is a bit of a red herring—it wasn’t serious, he doesn’t seem to be pining after her—but if you’re anxious that you and your boyfriend don’t have enough in common to make this relationship last, then I think that’s worth paying attention to, especially if that anxiety is making you angry at your boyfriend and causing you to obsess over this woman.
Spend some time in therapy focusing on the nature of this fixation. Why don’t you trust that your boyfriend wants to be with you rather than her? Why do you think of her specifically as being well-suited to him? What about her threatens you? Is there anything you have doubts about in your relationship but feel more comfortable outsourcing said doubts to him, rather than acknowledging them in yourself? When you get angry at your boyfriend because you secretly fear he’s in love with a long-ago ex, what do you think you’re going to achieve by getting angry with him? I don’t think you can get rid of these feelings overnight, but by spending some time neutrally evaluating them, you might be able to interrupt some of those dangerous mental loops and keep yourself from obsessing over a woman who has never done anything to you.
Q. Re: Decorum vs. duty: Don’t mention sexual harassment, hostile work environment, or anything negative about your former employer in a job interview—you never know whom or what the interviewer knows about your former employer, particularly in industries where people know each other such as you describe. You don’t want to be blackballed. The time to mention the truth is after you secure in your new job and know you can trust the people to whom you are speaking.
A: There are a number of responses coming in along these same lines, and all with the same concern—that you might hurt your own chances of getting hired. A few others have suggested that after being hired, you might ask broadly about what policies and procedures your new employer has in place to ensure a safe, stable working environment. Certainly you should keep that thought in mind as you’re interviewing! And afterward, of course, if you want to privately discuss your experience at your last job with friends or people who might consider working there, I think you should go ahead and do so.
Q. Family history: When I was younger, my mother was a very volatile woman. Most of my earliest memories are being screamed at or called names. Her abuse was rarely physical, but there were occasions where she threw objects at me or threatened dangerous actions behind the wheel of a vehicle (e.g. causing an accident). During this time, I saw myself as a fundamentally bad person who was responsible for her emotions and her distress. I was also made to fill this role by my father. I’m much older now, and live far away, but I still deal with the ripple effects of her actions. I’m lucky to have a great partner and a wonderful therapist.
Over the past year, my mother has toned down her language and criticism of me after several very frank conversations between us. I have also experienced several professional successes recently, and my mother has used these events to attempt to re-establish more frequent contact.
I feel quite guilty ignoring some of her requests for connection. However, I still feel fundamentally distrustful of her, and worry about when the next outburst or cruel remark might be coming. An uncharitable part of me believes this new behavior is an act because I’m more successful now, and my achievements earn her attention on social media. My question is, should I “reward” her with more contact for changing her behavior? If so, how do I reconcile the woman I knew for so many years with the woman who wants to act like a friend and mother now?
A: I think you should consider your relationship with your mother in terms of what you want, rather than in terms of what she “deserves” as any kind of reward for ceasing to abuse you (or for abusing you in milder tones) as an adult. Merely decreasing the level of her abuse, while an important and necessary step for her, is not the same thing as fully coming to terms with the level of harm she’s done to you and making meaningful amends. I think you are right to want to keep her at an arm’s length and not to trust that her recent change in behavior is motivated by a sincere desire to improve so much as a sudden interest in taking credit for some of your success.
The fact that you’ve been able to have very frank conversations is a good thing. It does not mean that you owe her immediate forgiveness, or any sort of emotional trust or closeness that she has not earned. I’m glad you have a good therapist, and I think together you and your therapist can devise some helpful strategies in dealing with the unnecessary guilt you sometimes experience when you don’t give your mother all the closeness that she wants from you whenever she asks for it. That doesn’t mean you can’t hope for further reconciliation in the future if that’s what you want, but it can be on your terms and on your timetable. You are not wrong to want to trust but verify. It’s not overly suspicious, or cold, or unforgiving, for you to remember the wrongs your mother has committed in the past, even as she presently makes an attempt to move in a better direction.
Q. Re: Creepy dentist: Report this to your state board of healing arts or dental board ASAP. This is definitely not normal behavior and needs to be reported at once. No telling what he has done to other female patients while under anesthesia! And find another dentist—without your mother’s help. If she is willing to be complicit in this unprofessional behavior, that says a lot about her.
A: This is helpful, thank you. File the complaint both directly with his office and with the relevant professional board.
Q. Is second-best good enough? My partner died almost three years ago. I’m not over it and I have come to realize I may never be. My family and friends are wonderful, but I sometimes feel envious and lonely when I see them effortlessly making new friends and romantic connections. I don’t want to stay so alone and yet the thought of reaching out to people outside my circle leaves me cold.
My best friend recently gently indicated he’d be open to starting a sexual/romantic relationship with me. He’s someone I care about very deeply, and trust completely. He’s also someone I know I’m sexually compatible with; we had a brief relationship before I met my partner. I think a relationship with him would be warm, respectful, supportive, sexually exciting, and companionable, and that being with him would make me happier.
The problem is that I don’t feel the same depth of feeling for him as I did for my partner, and don’t think I ever could (and I think he feels similarly about me). My question is, is it “settling” to be with someone I have no expectation of falling in love with? Am I taking advantage of his kindness and getting us both stuck with second-best when maybe we should (or at least he should) be looking for something more?
A: I’m not inclined to consider this settling. You two seem compatible and fairly realistic about the things you are and aren’t prepared to offer one another, and you think dating (and/or sleeping together) would make you happier and that you’d be able to treat one another well.
You’re not talking about getting married tomorrow. You may not be in love with this man, but you clearly care for him deeply and think very highly of him. I think you should trust that—absent some qualifying information you haven’t shared here—your friend knows his own mind and has decided a relationship with you is worth the potential risks and pitfalls, and that he did not offer himself up to be taken advantage of. If you think you could be kind to him, and he to you, and that the two of you would enjoy adding a more romantic/sexual element to your friendship, then you should at the very least consider it. If the day comes that one or both of you decides you want something else, then you can cross that bridge when you come to it.
Q. Re: Decorum vs. duty: I’ve been in a similar situation to the writer, and I have worked for career services in the past, so hopefully this helps. It is entirely up to you about being honest about your previous job, but generally we (career services) always cautioned on saying negative things about previous jobs, even if it’s true. Some employers look at this as red flags of someone who is more likely to complain, or more likely to leave if the going gets a little bumpy.
This is particularly impossible given your situation where it’s public domain and likely a smaller world. That being said: You can be tacitly honest. This is a bit easier when you are currently working and not unemployed, but you can say that you left that job and took your current one because the management style was a better fit, or because the hours left you some flexibility during a particularly difficult school time that is now over and will not affect you in the future.
And for what it’s worth, I followed tacit honesty with my interviewers. When they asked if I had any questions, I asked specifically of their process in dealing with X, because that is generally a huge problem with my career and I have had many bad experiences with this at other jobs in the past. Their process let me know this was the right job to take. You can ask about their company setup, if they have HR, employee advocates, et cetera, particularly as you seem to be overseeing people. It does help you come off as wanting to know more about the company to best serve the people you manage if you phrase it correctly and less about you actually stating this was a problem at your last job. (Although dollars to doughnuts, they’ll put two and two together.)
A: I do like the idea of asking about process rather than describing recent specific experiences. This could help the letter writer suss out whether or not a prospective new workplace actually has any strategies in place for dealing with issues like sexual harassment and hopefully avoid a repeat of her last experience.
Q. Re: Family photos: I am writing as a professionally trained archivist. Your advice to hire an “organizer” is sound; the advice to digitize everything is not. Not every image is worth keeping, and digitizing them all just makes more chaos. This person should contact their local historical society or archival institution and ask about how to get help from a professional archivist (who is a trained archival “organizer“) about selecting the most informative and valuable photographs before digitizing anything. Family members may wish to keep the photos, or copies of them, but historical societies or archives may also see them as valuable documentary evidence of lives and times now long gone. Archives—including this treasure trove of photos—are essential to understanding our collective past.
A: Thanks for this! Yes, cull the pile down first, then digitize things second.
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