Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Manager asking me to translate adult films: I’m an ex-military guy using the GI Bill to attend college. I’m looking to enter the tech field and landed a great internship at a well-known tech company. During introductions, I let people know that prior to entering college, I worked in military intelligence and had learned an East Asian language as part of my job. This attracted the interest of a senior project manager in my office who is also an ex-military linguist, but who had learned a different East Asian language. We struck up a conversation, and he revealed that he was working on a “side project” that could use my language skills. Being eager to impress, I readily volunteered, and he asked me to come over to his place that evening. However, when I arrived, I was mortified to learn that his “side project” was adding English subtitles to animated porn films for some website he runs! Not wanting to lose the internship, I awkwardly translated a few lines for him, then made up some excuse to leave. Now I have an email from him asking when I am free again to help! I worry if I say no, I’ll risk upsetting somebody who could potentially sabotage my career, but I also don’t want to spend my evenings translating tentacle porn and God knows what else for this weirdo! If I were a woman, I think this would be sexual harassment, but what the hell is this if you’re a guy?
A: This isn’t good news, exactly, but I hope it may prove to be helpful news—you don’t have to be a woman to be sexually harassed at work. Regardless of your gender, what this “is” is wildly unprofessional and totally inappropriate, not to mention a display of bad judgment. I suspect, too, that he asked the intern to help him with this because he felt like he could abuse your precarious employment status in order to get what he wanted out of you. You say that he’s a senior project manager, but not, it sounds like, your direct supervisor. Tell him you’re not going to work on his project again—say this in writing so you have documentation—and you’re not comfortable being asked to help him write subtitles for pornographic films off the clock (what a sentence to have to write). If for any reason he did attempt to retaliate, you’d have such a strong case against him that I don’t doubt for a minute the company would be on your side.
Q. Are wedding gifts optional?: My sister married a couple years ago, and I noticed, to my surprise (and horror), that many guests did not bring gifts. More recently, two of my good friends got married and, again, I’d say less than half the guests brought gifts. Both of these weddings provided free food, drinks, and entertainment for hours on end. I cannot imagine showing up to an event where I can eat and drink and celebrate to my heart’s content—for free!—and not bringing so much as a card. My sister registered for a honeymoon fund, and my friends skipped the registration altogether in hopes that no one would feel pressured to spend a certain amount of money. Did either of these decisions lead guests astray? I’m genuinely curious. Is it rude not to register for gifts?
Or maybe wedding gifts are just a thing of the past? Knowing firsthand all the stress, anxiety, time, money, and effort that goes into planning a party for all your friends and family to enjoy, I think all guests should at least bring a card or letter for the couple. If a gift is a financial strain, they can at least offer some sweet words of advice/love/encouragement. Am I right?
A: I’m happy to discuss this as a general topic, but when it comes to your specific issue—Should I be angry about the weddings of my sister and close friends?—the answer is: No, you have not been harmed in any way and should let this go.
Bear in mind that many guests may have ordered something delivered to the couple’s house; it’s very common to order something large off of the registry and have it sent directly rather than lugging it to the ceremony oneself. There is also the expense of attending weddings. Remember that some of the guests may be on limited budgets. They may have already attended numerous weddings that same year, but don’t want to miss out on a friend’s special day just because they can’t afford a fondue pot.
I agree that it’s lovely to bring a card wishing the couple well, and I don’t believe that wedding gifts are a thing of the past. It’s also certainly not rude to decide not to register for gifts. And under no circumstances is it rude, if you don’t want or need any, to tell guests not to bring gifts.
But I don’t think that you should spend any more time and energy worrying about whether other people brought cards or gifts to someone else’s wedding. They showed up to celebrate, the people you love got married, and everyone is doing just fine.
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Q. The power to help: I was recently promoted, and my former co-worker, “B,” is now my direct report. Last year, B confided in me that she has MS for which she gets weekly injections. These injections sometimes cause side effects like fevers, nausea, etc., which have led to some absenteeism on her part. She didn’t inform our old manager of this condition and now the absenteeism is my concern. I don’t feel it’s appropriate for me, as her manager, to act like I know about her health, as she still hasn’t informed our company. I also don’t want her reviews to be further docked. Is there anything wrong with telling her one on one that sharing her health condition would lead to reasonable accommodations? I also don’t want to force her to disclose, but her review last year wasn’t good, and she needs this job.
A: I’d welcome feedback from anyone with a more thorough understanding of medical privacy in the workplace on this one! My inclination is to say, leave the speculation about how her health may be affecting her periodic absences out of the conversation, but do talk to her about upcoming reviews and ask if there’s anything she needs in order to address this absenteeism that she’s apparently been docked for in the past. If she doesn’t volunteer any information, then don’t push for a disclosure or hint that you think the company would be able to help if she’d only go into detail about her MS treatments.
Q. Saddled into surrogacy: I was the surrogate for my twin sister after she was in a car accident that left her unable to have children. I was already married with three sons when she and her husband approached me. My husband and I agreed. I delivered my niece without any problems five years ago. I am currently pregnant with a little girl now. I was planning on having my tubes tied after this. When I told my sister and her husband this, they grew very upset. Apparently, they were counting on me to carry one more pregnancy for them. My twin even told me it wasn’t fair that I “get” four children and she “only gets the one.” It felt like a knife to the heart. I was completely blindsided. I haven’t even told my husband, because he will react with rage. I don’t know how to interact around my sister anymore. I have never had a child without her there holding my hand: She was there for my boys and there when I pushed her daughter into this world. Our mother died when we were teens. We’ve celebrated most of our major life milestones together. I feel completely alone. How do I deal with this?
A: I’m so sorry for what your sister said to you. After all you’ve been through together, for your sister to act as if you have committed yourself to acting as her surrogate indefinitely, without so much as a conversation, must feel dehumanizing and deeply painful. I know your sister has been through a lot, but for her to act as if you have an obligation to carry her children on command is wrong and invasive. You’re not preventing her from having children, and you’ve already given her a great gift. I hope that you can find a way to tell your husband when you feel ready, and to make it clear that you need for him to listen to and support you, not to fly into an unproductive rage. It may also help to see a counselor, at least in the short term, as you deal with your grief and frustration.
If you need to take a step back from your relationship with your sister, then you absolutely should. Say, “I know you’ve been through a lot, but what you said to me was deeply painful. I’ve had five pregnancies and am not willing to go through it a sixth time. I’m not doing this to hurt you or because I don’t care about you. It meant the world to me to be able to carry your niece for you, but that takes a physical and emotional toll, and if you want to have more children, you will have to find another way to do it. I miss you, and I wish I had your support right now because I’ve always loved being close, but this is too painful to let slide right now.”
Q. Re: Are wedding gifts optional?: Many etiquette sources actually discourage bringing gifts to the wedding event itself, to save the couple the hassle of having to figure out how to get it all home. Shipping something to the couple’s home is a totally reasonable solution.
A: Right! Someone’s got to wrangle all of those silver tureens and whatnot into a van and drive them back to the couple’s home, making sure that none of the cards fall off and nothing breaks in transit; there are a number of reasons why someone wouldn’t bring their gift to the reception.
Q. Moored by money: I have a good job, own my own house and car, and have fairly good health. This is all my family sees. In truth, my job is low-paying, the house is small, and my car is a decade old. My siblings are very charismatic but unstable. Money runs through their hands like water. Two have filed for bankruptcy. The other has been in and out of jail for petty crime since she was 20. My parents constantly get asked for money by their other children and grandchildren. My parents live on a fixed budget, and it causes them great stress when they have to say no. Several years ago, I tried to help them, only for the extra money to go straight into the dumpster with my siblings. I was scraping by myself, so I stopped. I just kept repeating, “I can’t afford to.” It caused a lot of heartache. I instead spent more time going over to my parents and taking care of tasks they needed done or buying them groceries.
Now one of my brothers has moved in with my parents, along with a few grandchildren. My brother will be getting his next big break “any day now”—until then, he does nothing but eat and produce laundry for our infirm mother. The kids are worse. They complain about the groceries I buy or that I require them to do chores before I give them money. They do not have jobs or GEDs. Every time I go over, I get digs over being the rich, stingy aunt, along with jokes calling me Scrooge. My brother lies and alters the past, and, worse, my parents will agree with him until I point out the truth. My parents do nothing but praise him and scold me for not doing more. After I leave my parents, I sometimes turn off the road and start crying.
I am in my mid-30s and I feel like a child again, starving for scraps of affection while my siblings merely have to show up for a feast. If I stop going to help my parents, the house will fall apart around their ears. I am stuck. Can you see a way out?
A: I think you are less stuck than you think you are. I know your parents are on a fixed income and that you’re worried about the state of their home, but it doesn’t sound like they’re in immediate danger as a result of their living conditions. I think you should do less for them and more for yourself. No one’s life will be in danger if you stop playing Cinderella. I don’t say that to suggest you’ve been acting martyrish or that your pain isn’t real, but I do think that the only way you’re going to get out of this painful cycle is if you stop driving over to their house with groceries and a hopeful heart.
I’m glad that you were able to break part of the cycle a few years ago by refusing to give money. That bodes well for your ability to stop doing chores now. Instead of repeating “I can’t afford it,” start saying, “I’m not available,” and spend some time on your own home, your own relationships, your own feelings. I wish I could tell you that your parents would start prioritizing you if you just try a little harder, but I think you’re going to be your only advocate in this family. That doesn’t mean you have to cut them out of your life, but I think they’ll find a way to survive if you stop coming by and rescuing them from their (nonemergency) problems.
Q. Re: The power to help: Is your company large enough to fall under the Family and Medical Leave Act, and if so have you explained her FMLA rights to her? Leave taken under FMLA is protected from discipline or performance scrutiny and also protects the employee’s job. If you haven’t consulted your company’s department for information about medical leave, that’s an important place to start.
A: That’s very helpful! The letter writer could also remind all of their reports about their FMLA rights and other protections they may be entitled to instead of singling this one employee out.
Q. Be-little-ing boyfriend: I have been dating “Dan” for four years. I am three inches taller than him, and I like to wear heels. It has always been an in-joke when we go out that people think he is rich because he has a hot blonde in heels on his arm. Six months ago, Dan got sick and was laid off at work. He is better now and has a new job, but the medicine he takes made him gain weight and he is making less money than he did before. I am very thankful, because we thought the disease was initially more serious than it turned out to be. Dan is still attractive to me. He has always been witty, and his sense of humor is what made me fall in love with him, but now it has gotten very prickly. Dan puts himself down all the time and jokes about me leaving him or trading him in for a better model. Nothing I can do or say reassures him. I have tried to be more affectionate and to initiate sex, but it does not seem to help.
Last week, we were going to a business function at my company where I was to be a featured speaker. I couldn’t find one of my high heels. Dan told me to just wear flats and I said no, I needed to wear them. Then Dan said that I liked to wear heels so I could look down at people—just like that, out of the blue. It hurt, and I told him so. Dan just walked out of the bedroom. We went to the event and came home not speaking to each other. Since then, Dan has made more cutting comments. He will not go to a counselor. I don’t know what I can do here. It is like I went to bed one night with the love of my life and woke up next to a stranger. Please help?
A: I’m so sorry that Dan had to deal with a serious illness and unemployment at the same time, and I’m very glad to hear that he’s working again and on the mend. But while I’m sympathetic to his suffering, there’s no justification for his taking his frustration out on you. Making you—literally!—smaller won’t ever make him feel better about himself.
This is one of those shape-up-or-ship-out moments in a relationship. You don’t deserve to be constantly cut down when all you’ve done is try to support and encourage him. “I love you, but I’m not going to stay in a relationship where you take out your bitterness on me. Saying things like I wear high heels in order to look down on other people is cruel and untrue, and I think the best part of you knows that. If you want to talk to me about feeling anxious or insecure, I will happily support and encourage you. If you want to make constant jabs about how I’m going to leave you and then tear down the things I enjoy, something as banal as wearing high heels, then you’re going to drive me away. You will never feel better about yourself by hurting me, and I don’t want to be in a relationship with someone who does that.” If he’s able to acknowledge what he’s been doing, sincerely apologize, and work on his insecurities with a counselor, then you might be able to get the love of your life back. If he dismisses or denies the truth, or if he suggests in any way that you two might be happier if you didn’t wear high heels or look good or have an enjoyable life of your own—then run.
Q. Update—Caught on camera: My husband and I went ahead and told our neighbors about our niece’s stealing and drinking after I submitted the letter. We learned they were taking a brief overnight trip and planning to leave her watching the 3-year-old. I couldn’t live with myself if something happened to that child.
Unfortunately, things did blow up with my sister-in-law. She lied to the neighbors and denied everything, despite the fact we had video. She accused my husband and me of trying to ruin her daughter’s life and left some nasty voicemails. Then, my niece and her friend stole the keys to her dad’s truck and ended up slamming into two separate cars parked on their street. No one was hurt. I don’t know if the girls were drunk or not, but the police ended up getting involved. Hopefully this will be a wake-up call for everyone.
A: I’m so sorry that things ended up playing out in a maximally dramatic fashion, but I’m glad that the girls weren’t hurt in the crash and that you were able to restrain yourself from responding in kind to your sister-in-law’s over-the-top reaction.
Q. Re: Neglecting our host: In regard to the Southern family who visits their New York relatives three to four times a year, I may disagree with you. Given the high price of real estate in NYC, it’s possible the brother only has a small place, and having four visitors four times a year is an imposition. Is this family actually invited, or did they invite themselves? Are they good house guests? Do they clean up after themselves, offer to buy groceries, or take their hosts out to dinner? Or do they just mooch? New York is an expensive place to visit, and this family is savings thousands by not having to get a hotel. A little appreciation in return might be warranted.
A: Those are good questions! Leaving aside the question of whether the letter writer can afford to include their brother’s family for this particular Broadway show, I think it’s an excellent opportunity for self-reflection and to ask if this repeated hosting arrangement works for the hosts as well as it does for them, and if they’re doing their part to be excellent guests.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! See you next week.
Vintage Dear Prudence
“I found myself extremely upset after reading a friend’s Facebook post recently, in which he admitted to taking a belt to his 2-year-old daughter in the hopes that it’ll teach her to sleep through the night. I find this behavior completely abhorrent. At 2 years old, a child barely knows right from wrong, and if you admit to striking your daughter with an object once, who says you won’t do it again? I’ve since deleted this friend from my Facebook and told my husband (who is also his friend) that I’m refusing to socialize with him.
I have two dilemmas now as a result: The first is that my mom is urging me to report him to his local authorities for child abuse. How do I even do this, and am I obligated to? My husband doesn’t want me to because he doesn’t think the authorities will do anything about it, and this guy thinks that what he did was completely acceptable. (He and my husband talked and had to agree to disagree—he told my husband he used a cloth belt and not a leather one, and that’s why it’s OK.) My second dilemma is that this guy is the best friend of my husband’s best friend, and when gatherings are planned, this guy is always invited. I worry that if I’m forced into a social situation with this man, I’m going to tell him exactly what I think, and it won’t be pretty. I also don’t want to make it awkward for my husband and his other friend, and I don’t want to be a witch about things, but this is an absolute zero tolerance for me. How can I move forward in the same social circle if he’s still invited to everything and clearly believes he’s right with what he did?”
And find even more letters in the Dear Prudie archive.