Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Deathbed etiquette: My father is dying. I am geographically closest to my parents, and therefore their closest support. My siblings are a few hours away with jobs, families, etc. My father wishes for death on a daily basis. This could continue for months, given his condition. I struggle every day with whether I should call my brother and sisters away from their busy lives to help, even though this is not the end. When is it OK to do so? I know they love our father and wish to be with him during his last moments, but his last moments could be months away. Help, please.
A: Right now is OK! You’re struggling every day, your siblings are just a few hours away, and your father is close to and wishing for death. Ask for help! They may not be able to be as present as you are, but find out how much time they are able to spare and accept whatever help they’re willing to give. Supporting a dying family member doesn’t mean just showing up in their final moments for a heartfelt goodbye. Even knowing that one of them can come down for a few hours next weekend might go a long way toward relieving some of your stress. You have every reason to ask for some emotional and logistical support right now, and I think you should call your siblings today.
Q. Small office wedding: I’ve been working in a fairly small office (less than 15 people, including me) for about two and a half years. We all get along very well, but I’ve only spent time outside of the office with “Catherine” and “Lydia,” who are much closer to my age than the rest of the staff. I got engaged last fall and am in the process of planning my wedding for this summer. I was planning to only invite Catherine and Lydia (and their plus ones), but I’ve heard multiple comments that the woman who had my position before me invited the whole office to her wedding. Her wedding was in India (and only Catherine and Lydia made the trip), whereas mine will be local, which would presumably enable everyone to come.
Space wise, I could probably invite everyone in my office, but that’s a lot of people. I’ve also been debating just inviting my supervisor in addition to Catherine and Lydia, since we’re close, but then I question whether I really want my boss at my party. Plus, if I invite her, I have a lot less justification for not inviting everyone. Please help!
A: You definitely don’t have to invite your whole office! Don’t spend a lot of time talking about your wedding—the planning, the expense, the catering, your overbearing in-laws, etc.—in the office so that it never becomes a topic of popular discussion. (This is good advice for everyone, regardless of how many co-workers you plan to invite.) Send the invitations to Catherine and Lydia at home rather than at the office. If you think it would help, you could take them aside and mention that you’re not inviting most of your co-workers, just your close friends, so you’d appreciate their not mentioning it too much at work.
Q. Co-worker deliberately mispronounces everyone’s names: I have a co-worker who constantly and consistently mispronounces fellow co-workers’ names. Think “Alexa” instead of “Alex,” or “Ya-vonne” instead of “Ee-vonne.” It’s always little variations of the name or spelling, which can be exceptionally wrong or so slight that you wonder if you heard it wrong. He does this even after he’s been corrected by the person in question multiple times. It’s like he does it on purpose. When I press him about this, he’ll come back with something asinine, like, “Well, I used to work with a girl with that name and she pronounced it differently,” or, “It’s difficult for me to pronounce with my accent.” He’s British. My husband, who is also British, has zero trouble with anyone’s names.
I think it’s rude, callous, and dismissive. It’s also definitely a microaggression toward others in our very multicultural office who have diverse names. I’ve been direct and honest that this is a problem, but he always seems to brush it off. Our company is small and has no HR department. What should I do?
A: How maddening, frustrating, and unnecessary. Since this is such a plausibly deniable habit, and since you don’t want to unwittingly embarrass the targets of his mangled pronunciation by getting more upset about it than they do, I think your best approach is to continue to offer corrections when you’re a part of the conversation (“It’s Alexa”/“You mean Yvonne”) in as polite and neutral a tone as possible, and to leave it at that. If anyone else has other suggestions, I’d love to hear them!
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Q. Do I have anything to lose?: Six years ago, when I was home from college, I met a friend of a friend and we hit it off. Despite the fact that I was attending school several hours away, we ended up developing a serious relationship pretty quickly. He had graduated two years earlier and was working full time and applying to graduate programs. We were together for a year and a half, but the distance and the different points that we were at in our lives led us to a rough breakup.
Every few months since then, we’ll exchange a few texts that are never particularly personal but seem to indicate that our mutual feelings still exist. Often, one of us will send the other an emotionally loaded song accompanied by some deceptively casual text such as, “Should be grading papers, but can’t stop listening to this.” After several years of this, I wonder if I’m missing an opportunity by not just saying how I feel. We can both be agonizingly shy, and I don’t think he would ever be the first one to admit that he’s still interested (if that were the case). Is it worth it to be vulnerable and say something and, if so, what do I say?
A: I’m not sure what the missed opportunity would be here given your present circumstances. You both presumably live far apart from one another, so if you ever were to try again, you’d still be constrained by the original circumstances that led to your breakup.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t try to test the waters to see if anything’s changed, just that you probably shouldn’t lead with “Want to try again?” after merely texting about music once every few months for the last few years. Next time you send him a text, don’t just fling him a song link and a vague description of what you’re doing—ask what he’s been up to lately, tell him something important that’s going on in your life. You could even catch up over the phone! If there’s still a spark there, if he responds enthusiastically and you think you’ve both changed enough such that dating long distance would no longer result in a rough breakup, then you can think about asking him if he still has feelings for you too.
Q. Re: Deathbed etiquette: I work in a sort of death adjacent profession, and I really want to encourage this person to reach out to hospice and respite care. They can offer support to the letter writer, or give them a break (which they should feel entitled to take, as care work is incredibly difficult). I also recommend they call their siblings, tell them the truth, let them figure out their own preferences for deathbed visits, and straight up ask for help.
A: This is great, thank you. If you’re not already working with hospice care, now’s a great time to get in touch. And it makes a lot of sense to start talking about how you want to handle the end with your siblings now, especially because sometimes you can experience “false starts” when it comes to death.
Q. How do I tell my parents about my tattoos?: I’ve had tattoos since I was 18, but in places that are typically hidden by clothing. My parents have always expressed a firmly anti-tattoo stance. Tattoos are against their religion, and part of my father’s job involves laser tattoo removal, so his only experience with them is when people are getting rid of them. Many years ago, they asked me if I had any tattoos. I lied and said I did not. I am now a 35-year-old woman and I have recently started getting tattoos in more visible places. I have been able to avoid this conversation due to winter clothing, but spring weather will eventually get here.
How should I address this? I have no idea how they will react. Probably not well, though. I could really use some script ideas as to how to tell them.
A: I think you know exactly how your parents will react. They won’t like it! That will be fine. You will still have tattoos and will not need to do anything to manage their feelings about it. You don’t have to sit them down for a serious talk, you don’t have to confess to having lied about the subject years ago. You can either tell them about a tattoo you’ve recently gotten or simply dress for the spring weather without attempting to cover up. If your parents express surprise or anguish, that’s fine, you can say something supportive without capitulating: “I’m sorry this is hard for you! I know you don’t like tattoos, but I love mine.” Odds are good that eventually your parents will come around—or at the very least stop feeling like you’ve driven a knife through their hearts by getting some designs inked onto your skin. But even if it takes a while, you don’t have to match their emotional intensity. They can’t argue or disapprove your tattoos off, so don’t spend too much time worrying about how they’re dealing with the Big Reveal.
Q. I think I’ve screwed up: I have a boyfriend who I’ve lived with for a year and been with for three. We have reached a crossroads. We live in a large town and are looking to move to a slightly smaller city, but he doesn’t seem to think I want to. I tend to be an easy-to-please partner, and I really feel that a lot of my relationship needs are met, but he doesn’t believe me.
Can you give me some tips to become a more outspoken person? I feel like I’ve screwed up. My partner says I’ve acquiesced far too many times, but really, I am a just-happy-to-be-here kind of person! How do I say, “I’m happy to do X,” and reassure my partner that I really mean it?
A: I’m not sure! I’m a little confused—you and your boyfriend are planning on moving to a smaller city, but he doesn’t believe you really want to because you have a history of going along with whatever his plans are? Is he planning on moving without you unless you can convince him you really want to go? I wish we had more detail—can you give us any examples of the sort of thing your boyfriend wants from you? Is he holding off on the move until you can convince him of something?
Q. Love the friend, hate the dirt: I have been pet sitting for a good friend for several years now when she is out of town. I love her pets, and the extra money is always welcome. In the past year or so, I have become more particular about housekeeping in my own home. I find that I am grossed out by things in her home that did not used to bother me: unswept floors, mildew in the shower, pet hair on the sofa and beds, etc. Her house is neat enough, but grubby around the edges. She has also stopped making the bed up with fresh sheets, I guess because she assumes I will do so.
Part of me wants to just tell her I am getting out of the pet sitting business, because I don’t want to damage our friendship by offending her. Can I have this conversation without making her feel like I am calling her a slob? After all, her house is the same as it always was, it’s my tolerance that has changed.
A: It’s fine to ask your friend to go back to putting fresh sheets on the bed, and even to ask her to treat the mildew in the shower before you come over. That might not be the most upbeat conversation you two have ever had, but it’s not friendship-damaging to address, especially if you do so kindly and politely. It’s also fine to stop dog sitting for your friend if you ultimately decide you’d rather do anything but have that conversation with her. You could also, depending on the animal, offer to pet sit at your place, so you still get to make money and sleep in your own clean bed. But you’re not bound to continue to stay at her house without making basic requests just because when you were younger you didn’t mind the mess as much. None of us are required to stay silent about things we let slide when we were younger!
Q. Re: Small office wedding: I had a similar situation and didn’t expect people from my office to even want to come. Then I found out that they all expected to be invited. Your office is small enough that you should probably invite everyone. That’s just the culture in small offices, I think. Congrats!
A: It’s small, certainly, but even for a relatively inexpensive wedding, adding another 15 guests—most of whom you’re not super close with—is a financial and logistical burden. The letter writer can, of course, but it doesn’t sound like their co-workers are actively angling for invites or that things will be super uncomfortable at work if they don’t invite everyone. I think the best option, given the letter writer’s current preferences, is simply to not talk much about their wedding at work and keep a distinction between their personal and professional life. If they think people are likely to be offended and can absorb the extra costs easily, then they can consider inviting the whole office, but they don’t have to.
Q. Delayed thank-yous: My partner and I got married last summer. After the wedding, my siblings and parents and I went through several sudden, unanticipated traumas. Not all of these traumas are public knowledge, even among close friends and extended family. Through it all, I’ve been incredibly anxious to send thank-you notes, but I haven’t had the heart to do the task. Now I’m so embarrassed, and don’t know what to do. Should we acknowledge that we’ve been having a hard time in our notes? Are we still within some window where they somehow aren’t really late, and we don’t have to apologize? My partner has offered to write the notes, but they had fewer family and friends at the wedding and also have terrible handwriting.
A: I have good news: You are still within the not-late window! Not according to the strictest of sticklers, of course, but it is relatively common knowledge that couples have a full year to send thank-you notes for their wedding. (God, this is, like, the one old-school etiquette thing I actually know, and I’m exceedingly grateful to get the chance to finally deploy it.)
You don’t have to share intimate emotional information to explain why these notes are coming out toward the tail end of your newlywed year, although I do think you should take up your partner’s offer to help, despite their terrible handwriting. They can at least write the notes for their family members, or help you stuff and stamp envelopes, so you’re not doing this all by yourself. I hope this next year brings more good news than bad for the both of you.
Q. Re: I think I’ve screwed up: “I’m happy to do X” isn’t the same as “I’m looking forward to X, and here’s how I’m planning for and thinking about it.” Your partner sounds like he’s worried because he’s having to make all of the decisions, and thus deciding what your life path looks like. If you want to be in your relationship, take an active role in it.
A: It’s true that “I’m happy with whatever” is a more appropriate response to “What do you want for dinner?” than it is to “Should we move to Austin?” (And sometimes it can be a frustrating response to “What do you want for dinner?”) Someone else suggested that the letter writer could demonstrate their genuine enthusiasm by looking up events in their target city, talking about what she thinks she’ll enjoy once they move there, and helping coordinate some of the details of the move. “If it’s close enough, she could even suggest some outings now before they move to explore the new city.”
Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! See you all next week.
From the Archives
“I’ve been good friends with a co-worker for many years. He’s had some difficulty with boundaries and has slept with several of my married friends when they were going through rough patches in their marriages. He justifies it by saying their husbands weren’t treating them well enough. He’s also not shy about criticizing my husband, who’s supposedly his friend.”
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