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. Let’s chat, shall we?
Q. Broken computer politics: A few weeks ago, my husband and I were visiting with several friends for a vacation. One morning, our friend’s son used my husband’s computer to watch a video—no problem, since he’s a little older and more responsible using electronics. However, he mistakenly forgot to put the laptop away once he was finished and left it open in a place easily accessible to the younger children. Within a few minutes, our other friend’s daughter had spilled juice all over the keyboard, thus destroying a quite expensive laptop. We had to go out and buy a replacement. While we have a rainy-day fund to cover the cost, it means we have to cut out our summer family vacation this year.
Because of the high cost, my husband feels that his friends should offer to chip in, namely the parents of the boy who used the computer and the parents of the girl who spilled juice on the laptop. I’m in slight agreement, although I think only the juice-spiller’s parents should chip in. So far, no one has offered any help. We’re both a bit dismayed, since if it were our children who were in some way responsible for such an incident, we would most definitely offer to help pay for a replacement. While my husband would like to ask for help, I feel it’s a bit tacky.
What’s the proper etiquette for such a situation? Are we wrong to expect offers of help? Is it a social faux pas to ask for compensation?
A: I’m willing to let others chime in here! I think an important question is whether your husband agreed to let the older boy use his laptop unsupervised and didn’t himself make sure it was safely put away afterward or the boy borrowed the laptop without asking and left it out. If it’s the former, I think the fault primarily rests with your husband (although it would have been appropriate for the other parents to at least offer to defray the cost). If it’s the latter, I think you have more latitude to ask the other parents to chip in. But either way, asking is not inherently tacky: “If you’re able, we’d really appreciate some help replacing the laptop [your wonderful child] spilled juice on.” If they decline, that’s disappointing, but you haven’t lost anything else; if they say yes, so much the better.
Q. Divulging my past: My childhood was very chaotic. Neither of my parents were really there, as I was hustled from relative to relative whenever my parents fell off the wagon or went to jail. When I was barely 12, my 24-year-old cousin began sexually abusing me. I got pregnant at 14 and 16 and was forced to give up my babies. My aunt and uncle knew about my abuse and blamed me for it; they forced me to confess my “sins” to our entire congregation. I ended up running away and getting married at 18 to a man I met online. He was 45. I divorced him at 22, got my GED, went to community college, and now work as a manager at a grocery store.
I have no contact with anyone in my past, and I haven’t told anyone I know now about what happened to me. I am 28 and finally starting to actually date for the first time in my life, and it is very difficult for me. Questions like “Where are you from?” and “Do you have any kids?” just trip me up. I usually only get to a fourth or fifth date with someone before I hit that wall and it ends permanently. What do I tell people? I know I need to be honest if I want a real relationship, but talking about my past makes me feel like I am taking a cheese grater to my skin.
A: The prospect of sharing this sort of emotional intimacy with someone on a fourth or a fifth date sounds absolutely overwhelming, and I completely understand why you feel like your skin’s about to come off when you get asked questions along that line. What you’ve been through is profoundly traumatic, and there’s absolutely no reason for you to share the details of your early life with someone you’ve only been seeing for a few weeks if you don’t feel comfortable.
I know childhood story swapping is a fairly common getting-to-know-you activity, but you can steer the conversation in more contemporary directions. When you’re asked “Where are you from?” you can redirect with something like, “Oh, I’m from [other state], but I’ve been in [current state] for four years now and I love [attribute about current state]. I’d really like to visit [other, better state] sometime soon. Do you travel much?” When it comes to being asked whether you have children, I think you have a lot of flexibility. You can absolutely say, “No.” You don’t have any contact with the children you were forced to give up, and there’s no reason anyone you’ve only been on a few dates with should expect to be told something so intimate that will have no bearing on their interactions with you. If you start seeing someone seriously, and eventually decide you want to share some more of the details of your abusive upbringing, you absolutely can, but it’s not information you owe anyone else, and anyone worth dating will understand why you didn’t feel ready to share from the jump.
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Q. Book club too open?: I am a member in a long-running, active, and absolutely lovely (for the most part!) monthly book club. To date, the only rule for membership has been that you are a lady and are an adult. For the most part, we get ladies who are lovely! They are typically educated, interested, and interesting. The problem is that one lady—I’ll call her “Agatha”—is not.
Agatha is abrasive. She is critical of any book she hasn’t selected (but not in a constructive way, more of a complaining, whiny way). She is selfish—picture one lovely lady opening up about a personal tragedy in her immediate family, only to have Agatha try to steal the show with a vaguely related anecdote about a distant friend. Agatha also took it upon herself to invite a new lady to join us, and while I’m trying to be optimistic, I am anxious that Agatha’s friend will be similar to her, and I don’t want more of that energy.
Overall, Agatha’s just not a positive influence on the group. I’d love to kick her out of the book club. I know I’m not the only one who thinks this way. However, I also know that at least one of the members (the one who invited Agatha to join us to begin with) really enjoys her. We’re all in a small town, and I don’t really think it’s feasible to form a new book club. Any suggestions? If you need to call me out on being a control freak given the nature of this message, maybe I need to hear that, too.
A: This seems to be a universal problem with book clubs. Or any social group, really! “We all get along so well, and seem to understand one another intuitively—except for this one member.” I don’t think you sound like a control freak for disliking Agatha, or even for feeling anxious at the prospect of her bringing another friend who’s just like her along to the group. If you only meet once a month, and you enjoy the company of everyone else, I think your best option is to continue disliking Agatha while liking the rest of the group. If she says something particularly odious or rude, you can politely say something—you’re not obligated to let her steamroll everyone—but I don’t think you have the license to take a vote on someone else’s membership.
Q. Peek/peak your interest: When is it appropriate to correct someone’s spelling? I recently began emailing with a professional about an upcoming purchase. (I’m the client.) This person has sent me multiple emails that include the phrases “peak your interest,” and “peek your interest.” As a word lover, this is driving me nuts. Should I reply, “Nothing is piquing my interest yet, but I’ll be sure to keep you updated”? In this person’s line of work, the piquing of a client’s interest is important, so I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice this typo. Should I just ignore it?
A: It’s a bit clunky, perhaps, to repeat the original phrase with the correct spelling, but it’s not overbearing or impolite. If they amend their spelling in the future, great! If not, that’s about as far as you should take it. The important thing is that you still know what they mean when they say “peak your interest”—there’s no miscommunication or misunderstanding arising from this fairly common misspelling—and since you’re only emailing about a one-off purchase, you probably won’t have to worry about this for too much longer.
Q. How to be a fairy gaymother: I have a newish and much younger friend (early 20s) who I strongly suspect isn’t straight, but he’s from a family and religious background that would discourage exploration of queerness. Another friend has a similar read of the situation. The young fellow is at school out of state now, and we’re in touch with him mostly by text. Is there any particular way we can support him, besides being here and queer and friends? (I’m a long-married uncloseted bi woman in my 30s; the other friend is an out gay guy.) If we’re correct, we want him to realize before he gets engaged to a nice religious girl.
A: There’s a limit to how much you can either support or influence your younger friend’s (potential) coming out from your present remove. If he’s at college out of state, he’s already at a further remove from his family, and likely to be exposed to a number of different kinds of people and ideas. He doesn’t appear to even be seeing anyone right now, so I don’t think you should spend too much time worrying about his trapping himself in a lavender marriage to a nice religious girl. Being out and friendly with him will be example enough.
Q. Facebook friends with a dead guy: Back in January, my uncle died after a long battle with brain cancer. He was very active on Facebook, and he was, in fact, one of the only relatives with whom I connected via social media. Here’s the thing: Even though he died months ago, occasionally Facebook will suggest that I should invite him to various groups or events that I take part in. I’ve muted and unfollowed the profile, but he still appears. Frankly, it’s kind of weird.
What’s the proper protocol for unfriending a dead relative? Alternatively, how do I suggest to my deceased uncle’s still-living husband that he request Facebook “memorialize” the account? This would, according to Facebook, keep it from popping up as a suggestion.
A: My instinct is that it may still be too soon to ask your uncle’s widower to memorialize his Facebook account, unless you two are especially close and you think he’s up to having a conversation about his husband’s social media. If that’s the case, you might offer to do so on his behalf, in order to take some of the burden of dealing with all the strange little bureaucratic details that pop up after someone dies away from him. In the meantime, you can, I think, unfriend your uncle’s account if it’s distressing you a great deal to see him mentioned whenever you try to host an event.
Q. How do you tell someone you have herpes?: I have had herpes for quite some time now, but I still have not figured out the best way and time to tell someone I have it. There is such stigma around it that it is hard to tell someone in a way that does not make them want to run away screaming. I know that if I act like it is something horrible, they will think it is, too! It’s also hard to know when to mention it. Can you give me some advice or strategies?
A: “When to mention it” can be anytime, as long as it’s before you engage in any sexual activities that could risk transmission. You might prefer to screen people out by being immediately upfront about it, or you might wait until you’ve gotten to know someone after a few dates. It’s an incredibly common virus, and lots of people have it without knowing. Don’t apologize when you bring it up, and lead with information about what you do to prevent transmission, so potential partners know you’re on top of things.
Q. Re: Broken computer politics: Since only one child ruined the computer, I think only that child’s parents should be asked to pay for a new one. The boy should have been more careful and I think this merits a talking to by his parents, but were there not any other children around when he left it out, nothing would have happened.
A: That’s a fair distinction. Someone else mentioned that if the friends have a homeowners or renters’ insurance policy, the laptop could be covered under their property damage liability; they may be able to submit a claim for a replacement.
Q. Sister won’t stop discussing my divorce: My sister “Lana” is getting married to “Matthew” in July. Although we are not close, I was excited when they first got engaged. My marriage ended because my husband repeatedly assaulted me physically and sexually. Lana taunts me about being divorced. My parents and I have asked her to stop numerous times. Now that she is engaged, Lana takes every opportunity to mention my own wedding and subsequent divorce. Matthew has even begun bringing up my wedding.
I don’t want to skip my sister’s wedding, but I don’t want to spend thousands of dollars to attend a destination wedding where the bride is deliberately cruel to me. Lana seems to have little self-control around this subject. Still, my parents are putting intense pressure on me to attend her wedding. What should I do?
A: Do not attend the wedding if your sister continues to mock you about divorcing your abusive husband (and has even started roping her own fiancé into the action). If your parents continue to try to pressure you, the best response is simply this: “I’ve asked Lana not to joke about my abusive husband, but she’s decided she doesn’t want to stop. This is sad and painful for me, and it’s not something I can simply overlook, so I won’t be able to attend her wedding.”
Q. Re: Facebook friends with a dead guy: I think if you unfriend the dead uncle, you’ll start getting Facebook friend suggestions. Recognize this as a peculiar quirk of 21st-century life, and ignore it. After several years (my case now), it starts being funny.
A: Oh gosh, what a specifically modern difficulty. Since the letter writer mentioned finding the whole thing “weird” rather than deeply upsetting, I think letting it go for now, until the page is eventually memorialized, is the best idea.
Q. Update: Everyone’s bi: I wrote to you asking for advice about whether I should tell two guy friends who had both come out to me as bi about each other’s news—I followed your advice and kept quiet. This week, they finally came out to each other and have ended up going out for a date! They both said they really appreciate that I kept the news quiet and let them come to this in their own time. I thought you’d appreciate knowing that your advice went down well, and also hearing the rom-com-esque ending to this saga! Thanks, Prudie.
A: Stop. This is entirely too much. No pressure, obviously, given that they’ve only been on one date thus far, but I’m pinning all my hopes on these two making it.
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