Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Personal party planner: I moved to a new city about nine months ago, and while I’ve started building a group of wonderful friends, at this point it primarily comprises roommates and co-workers because my demanding work schedule doesn’t allow time for much socializing.
I will be turning 30 in a few weeks. I have never been incredibly invested in birthday parties, and generally hate being the center of attention, but it would feel a little sad to let this milestone pass without celebration. None of my friendships are at the point where they would organize something for my birthday, but I think many of them would be glad to help me celebrate. But planning my own birthday party seems gauche and a little desperate, since I am newly forming these friendships. What’s the etiquette here?
A: There is no formal etiquette for an adult birthday party beyond general good manners—it’s not like a wedding or a baby shower, where there’s a well-established hierarchy of who does what. If you want to throw an informal dinner and ask your friends to bring wine or food, you absolutely can. If you have one or two closer friends you’d like to ask for a bit of help planning the event, you can do that too. You can’t politely ask that everyone bring gifts or pay for hosting, but there’s nothing desperate about saying, “I’m turning 30 next month and I’d love to get everyone together—do you have a minute to look over the guest list with me?”
Q. Designer dilemma: I’m a dressmaker and am “internet famous” for my work. A casual acquaintance of mine makes accessories, and I was pressured by her and her partner into collaborating. We both hired and paid a well-known model I am friends with. Rather than making what we had agreed on, my acquaintance went overboard and produced a huge, tacky, terribly constructed statement piece. It was so awful that a number of people messaged me saying the piece was horrendous, without me even having to mention how I felt.
I wasted a lot of money on the pictures depicting her work, and I will never be able to use them in my own portfolio. Now the acquaintance is telling a lot of people we are associates, and they are starting to pressure me into working with her again. What is a firm, assertive way to say no to her without telling her that people thought her work was gaudy and badly made?
A: I’m not sure you need much in the way of a script to say no to her—just say no and that you’re not available next time. Don’t fob her off or demur—just give her an out-and-out no. She’s only a casual acquaintance and you’ve only worked together once, so you don’t owe her much in the way of explanations.
At least some of the pressure you felt at the first request may have been internal, because there weren’t many professional or personal consequences that could have come your way as a result of saying no the first time, aside from the possibility of a vague acquaintance feeling disappointed. Let her be disappointed! Correct anyone who mistakenly assumes you two are associates—”We worked together once, but I don’t plan on collaborating with her again, and generally work alone”—let her know that this was a one-off and not the beginning of a new partnership, and continue with your work.
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Q. Do I have to always be flexible, workwise?: I’m a college student who works part time at a café over the summer and on school breaks. My schedule is usually very flexible, and as a result I can often fill in for co-workers if they are unable to come into work for whatever reason.
My problem, though, is that I’m afraid that they take advantage of my flexibility and regularly ask me to take their shifts. I really don’t mind filling in occasionally if someone is sick or has a family emergency, but I often feel like I’m constantly “on call” on my days off. I’ve worked eight and nine full days in a row before, and I know it may sound selfish, but sometimes I really do just want to enjoy having a few days off. I suppose I’m just asking for permission to say no to them occasionally, but I have a pathological need to please and I would feel bad knowing that I don’t necessarily have any plans that would prevent me from taking their shifts. Do I have a moral obligation to take extra work shifts to help out my co-workers?
A: You do not have a moral obligation to take these extra work shifts! I think you already know it has nothing to do with morality and everything to do with your desire to have everyone like you at all times. This isn’t a virtue and it’s not helping you. You’re not being asked, “Do you have any plans on Thursday that would preclude working an extra shift?” and that’s not the bar you should have to clear before saying yes.
Your days off don’t have to be filled with absolutely unshakeable plans in order to be important. Everyone needs time off work to fill in whatever way they like, and even if you did nothing on your days off but lie on the floor and feel the coldness of your kitchen tile against your face, it would still be important and meaningful time for you to live as a person and not just an employee.
It doesn’t “sound selfish” to say, “I enjoy having a weekend and not working nine days in a row.” It sounds reasonable, rational, and human. It may feel awkward and unnatural at first, but start saying, “No, I’m not available” (at home and in front of a mirror to start, if need be) rather than “Well, I don’t have concrete plans for that day, so I guess I owe it to you.”
Good luck! It can be difficult to start actively valuing your own time, especially when you’re not used to doing it (and especially at work), but this will pay off in the long run and help you avoid resentment and burnout.
Q. Brother’s “quirk”: My mother moved to Hawaii about 30 years ago. As she is almost 90, she stopped traveling off the island long ago. My brother “John” lives on the West Coast but has never visited her and consequently has not seen her for about 20 years. If my other brother or I ask why he won’t visit her, he starts dishing out unrelated insults.
We can’t figure out why he won’t go. He gets along very well with her, often emailing her a few times a day, sending selfies, et cetera. It would be an easy trip for him—he is very financially comfortable (and she has offered to pay anyway); he has no family, friends, or even a houseplant he can’t leave for a few days. He says that he stays home from work a few times a year so that he won’t lose vacation pay (i.e., he has more than enough) and besides, his job is secure and I’m sure he can take time off.
We are planning a small 90th birthday dinner for our mother, and when I mentioned it to John, he insulted me and then went silent (his usual reaction). He has some issues: He doesn’t seem to have friends and is a recluse, although I did see him a year ago (after a 25-year gap!) and he was normal and friendly. Of course, this will probably be the last time he could see our mother, and she really wants him to come. Can I do anything?
A: I don’t think so. You’ve apparently both asked him repeatedly, and he hasn’t responded to any of your arguments when he’s tried to make excuses. It can be awfully difficult to accept someone else’s “No” when the reasons they furnish for it seem thin and irrational, but at this point he’s said it often enough that I think you have to accept it.
At most, I think, you can say this: “Hephaestion and I just booked our tickets for Mom’s 90th birthday. If you change your mind or your schedule opens up, I hope you can make it to dinner on the 18th; I know Mom would love to see you, and I would too, but I won’t push the subject.” Then go regardless of what he does and enjoy the time you have with your mother.
Q. Re: Personal party planner: Invite your roommates and co-workers to an informal party and never mention the word birthday. It is gauche to throw yourself a birthday party and may sound, especially to co-workers, like a gift grab. Don’t go there.
A: Oh, I don’t agree! There’s no reason to keep the premise of the party a secret. If the letter writer were planning on sending out invitations and registry or hinting broadly about gifts they’d like to receive, then that would be one thing, but informal adult birthday dinners are common enough that it wouldn’t be an inherent gift grab.
The letter writer can feel free to add, “Please don’t bring any gifts, I just want to see you all,” if they’re worried people might misinterpret the occasion, but it doesn’t sound like they’re trying to put together an elaborate, over-the-top, capital-B Birthday Party—they just want to get together with their new friends and turn 30 at the same time, a goal I think is both modest and achievable.
Q. My friend postponed her wedding, but now I can’t attend: A dear friend of mine is getting married in another country later this year. Once I received the invitation, I excitedly requested time off work, bought flights, and planned a few days of sightseeing afterward. She recently messaged me, though, to tell me that the wedding’s been postponed to the following month. (I asked if everything was OK; she didn’t respond. Fair enough—she’s probably really busy!)
Most of my travel booking is nonrefundable, and my requested time off work has already gone through. I can’t afford to buy another trans-Atlantic plane ticket, and I don’t have any more time left off work. What’s the kindest way to explain to my friend that I can’t attend her rescheduled wedding? My therapist thinks I should be upfront, but I don’t think that will solve anything. It’s not like she postponed her wedding specifically to inconvenience me, and she’s probably got plenty of other people on her case about this.
A: I don’t think it’s “getting on her case” to explain why you can’t RSVP to the new wedding date, especially since this is a close friend of yours. Don’t belabor the details, as I’m sure she already feels terrible about having to postpone and inconveniencing a number of guests, but just say that you weren’t able to return or rebook any of your travel arrangements, that you’ll miss her terribly, and that you can’t wait to take her out to dinner and celebrate her marriage when she gets back.
Q. Re: Designer dilemma: I’m a lawyer who works with creative professionals all the time, so I have some experience with this. You should tell her that you were quite disappointed that she didn’t do what you had agreed to do in the last project and therefore don’t see a future in working with her. You can also tell her to stop saying that you work together, because it isn’t true. If that doesn’t put a stop to her statements, you can have a lawyer write a cease-and-desist letter to her, as this may affect your branding and reputation. In the future, you may want to get these collaborations in writing, so it is clear what each of you can and cannot do.
A: It’s worth considering a stronger or more honest approach than the one I initially suggested, especially given that your erstwhile “partner” explicitly broke your agreement and made something you never agreed upon together. This is more than just a personal nuisance—potential clients may question your judgment if they see what you two created together and think that’s representative of your work.
Q. You are more than a mom: My best friend “Mary” is successfully pregnant for the first time with a baby boy due in September. After two miscarriages, she is ecstatic, beautiful, glowing, and full of hope. We celebrate every time we see each other, and I’m so excited to be this sweet kid’s “aunt” when he arrives.
However, Mary won’t stop talking about her pregnancy. Every conversation she has with just about anyone loops back around to her being pregnant. I overheard her on the phone with a friend who was talking about getting a root canal, and she somehow managed to comment, “Oh, and at that point, the baby will be [random number] weeks!” Another good friend of ours brought this up in a one-on-one brunch, and said she’s limited how much she talks to Mary because it’s gotten borderline obnoxious. I’ve found myself subconsciously doing the same.
I feel terrible, because this is such an incredible time in her life and I’m unbelievably happy for her new little family and to meet this child—but I feel like she’s no longer my badass, funny, and awesome friend. She’s just resigned to being solely pregnant and a mom. I’m not about to tell her she shouldn’t do or say something while pregnant, but how do I tell her I’m worried she won’t know how to be herself once the baby comes and grows up?
A: It’s one thing to ask your friend if you can talk about something else after a conversation has been solely dedicated to her upcoming baby’s birth. It’s quite another to suggest she has “lost herself” and won’t retain her unique identity after becoming a mother. The former is perfectly understandable; the latter is rude, intrusive, and unjustified on the basis of what you’ve described in your letter. “My baby will be X weeks at your root canal” is, at worst, a non sequitur (that’s fairly understandable after what Mary has been through).
You can of course say something, but leave off the predictions about her identity. If there’s something non–pregnancy-related you’d like to talk about with her, then do so; if she seems inclined to want to bring it back to baby talk, you can say, “Do you mind if we discuss [X topic] for a while? I’m so excited about this baby too, but I’d love to spend a little more time talking about work or travel or books or a topic of your choice.”
Q. Post-sex spinout: After 27 years, I am finally no longer a virgin. The experience was not exactly what I expected, but overall it was a good one.
The problem is, my head has been spinning with all kinds of crazy thoughts since it happened. Did this guy really like me? Did I do things correctly? I didn’t really indicate that it was my first time. I also have this weird, nervous, and excited feeling in my stomach, and I can’t tell if it is good or bad.
Are these normal experiences for people after their first times having sex? Should I be doing something to make these feelings and thoughts go away?
A: Feelings of heightened self-scrutiny, excitement, nervousness, or anxiety over what your partner may have been thinking or feeling at the time—those are all perfectly understandable responses to having sex, especially having sex for the first time. I can’t think of any reason why you should try to get rid of them.
Ortberg: See you all next week, everyone!
Vintage Dear Prudence
I was wondering if you can give me some advice on how to deal with social media at work and a general feeling of social media overload. It’s not like I dislike communicating with people. I just like to talk to them, face to face, instead of exchanging all these short, usually meaningless messages. And with all these different apps, I sometimes forget to respond to messages and feel guilty afterward.
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