Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Good morning, everyone. Let’s chat!
Q. Painful cleaning: I’ve had the same cleaning lady, “Billie,” for a few years now. She’s always done a great job, and we’ve never had any problems before. Over the years a lot of my friends have also hired her, some on my recommendation. Yesterday, my good friend “Karla” told me that some of her codeine pills went missing after Billie came to clean. Karla had a prescription for them after some minor dental surgery two weeks ago, and she had 25 pills in the bottle. Karla always makes a big deal about being hardcore when it comes to pain, so she hadn’t even taken any of the pills yet, just Tylenol, but she says she did count them when she first got the bottle. On Friday morning, Karla was going through her prescriptions and she noticed the bottle was almost empty. There were only 10 pills left. The thing is, Karla lives alone and she’s been spending most of her time outside of work resting and recovering. I am literally the only other person who’s been over to her house since she got the surgery—except when Billie came to clean this Monday. No one else has a key (Karla has a lockbox and Billie knows the code).
I was totally horrified. I never imagined Billie would do this, but I can’t think what else could have happened. I also don’t get why Billie—or whoever—would steal more than half the pills in the bottle, instead of just one or two. The real problem is I can’t trust Billie in my house if she steals things, but I also can’t be sure she did. I could confront her about it, but she’ll probably say she didn’t do it, and we won’t know if she’s innocent or lying. Either way, Karla and I are going to have to tell all of our friends, which means Billie’s going to lose at least six clients. What can we do? I want to give Billie a chance to clear her name, but I don’t know how.
A: If Karla thinks that Billie may have stolen from her while cleaning, then she should discuss it with Billie and not with you. If you have worked with Billie for years and never had any complaints before, then I think she deserves at least the benefit of the doubt before you start telling all of her other clients that she may have a pill addiction. Moreover, nothing of value has gone missing, and Karla was not in need of those 15 pills. That’s not to say she doesn’t have a right to ask Billie about it, but the actual harm caused by the missing pills is minimal. As you do not believe Billie has stolen anything from you, you have no obligation to say anything to anyone else about it. Encourage Karla to have this discussion with Billie because she’s not going to be able to learn anything from you.
Q. Co-workers asking about outside life: I am one of, if not the lowest paid low-level grunts in a large corporate law firm. Well-meaning co-workers often ask, “Doing anything fun this weekend?” The answer is always “No,” because I am paid so little that I have no money to play with on weekends. Every time I get that question, it’s like a reminder that most other people have both the money and an answer to that question. And in the unlikely event I do have plans, it’s always personal and cannot be shared.
A few times I have responded honestly, saying something like “You know, I don’t like that question and the answer will always be the same.” My co-workers have pushed back immediately, suggesting that I am being antisocial. How do I politely tell my co-workers to stop asking me about my weekend? I have long since stopped asking about theirs.
A: There are a number of inappropriate questions co-workers can ask that require pushback, but I don’t think that “Doing anything fun this weekend?” is one of them. It falls under the umbrella of pleasantries that are customary to exchange at work, and requires no more than “Oh, nothing much” or “Getting some rest, I hope” or “I might see some friends” in response. It’s not an invasive attempt to decipher the intimate details of your private life, and it will likely come across as unprofessional and unnecessarily hostile if you tell people to stop asking you what you’re up to over the weekend, especially because it’s generally understood to be a pretty surface-level question requiring no more than a generic answer. The more pressing issue, I think, is advocating for a raise within your firm, or looking for a better-paying job elsewhere, because I think that will be the most helpful outlet for your—understandable!—frustrations in the long run.
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Q. My husband and kids hate my extended family: In a couple of weeks, my extended family will meet for our annual weekend away. More than 100 of us will be gathering to eat, drink, catch up, and celebrate our love for another. Sadly, my husband and children are firmly insisting that, for the second year in a row, they won’t be coming. All three of them are relatively introverted and find all the chatter and some of the behaviors upsetting and overwhelming. On top of that, my husband hates having his picture taken and took serious offense when one of my cousins thought it would be amusing to pursue him with a camera, which ended in an extremely unpleasant and quite violent confrontation.
Family is important to me, and I really want my children in particular to build a strong relationship with their many cousins. The rest of my family are also very offended by what they rightly see as rejection, but my husband is standing firm and also insisting that our children get to make their own choices. We’ve had many arguments over what he sees as me trying to guilt our kids into going (I think of it as trying to persuade them to do something that they’ll regret not doing in future). Am I totally out of line here? Should I just give up? Or is there some way I can reconcile them to the “horror” of “two whole days” with a large group of people who love them and only wish them well?
A: I encourage you to request the same level of compromise from your extended family as you have been asking of your husband and children. You say your relatives only wish your family well, but that isn’t exactly born out in your letter. If someone who knew I hated having my picture taken pursued me all over the place with a camera so intensely that things got physical, I would not believe they wished me well in the least. If your relatives’ response to your generally quiet and reserved family members has been to irritate, pry, and pester them, and you haven’t told them to stop and followed through with your request, then I think your husband and children’s decision to sit this year out is a good one, and you should respect it. You cannot ask your children to develop a strong relationship with their cousins if you’re not willing to stand up for them when they’re being pushed around.
Q. Loss of mother, loss of happiness: My partner and I have been together eight years, married for almost three. Throughout these years, my partner has had the love and support of both their parents, but we’ve also lived six hours away from them—which I appreciate. We live six hours from my family as well, which I also appreciate.
A few months ago, my partner’s mother passed very unexpectedly in a traumatic and gruesome death. Things haven’t been the same since, as she was the glue in the family and everyone’s rock. I’ve been trying to play the supportive spouse, but recently that’s become much harder. Their dad did everything people tell you not to do while dealing with the loss of a loved one, including selling his house and buying one three blocks away from me and my partner. Needless to say, I find this is very hard. I’m surrounded by grief and now have my father-in-law around for every meal, every cup of coffee in the morning, etc. He’s very deep into his grief, he isn’t seeing a therapist, and he takes all of that and dumps it on my partner.
I feel guilty about how I feel, but I can’t stop feeling resentful and overwhelmed. I feel like I can’t bring up my feelings to my partner, because grief and sadness are very valid things for them to be feeling. But I want some semblance of our life back. I want to have fun, and laugh, and not have my in-law mere feet away. Am I a terrible person? What should I do?
A: Oh, wow. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to learn that your father-in-law was buying a house just down the street from you. Are you seeing a therapist? I think your father-in-law and partner could benefit immensely from seeing someone, but whether they decide to or not, I think it would do you a world of good to talk through your own grief and frustrations, as well as to figure out compassionate, appropriate ways to set limits about your father-in-law’s visits. I can imagine that mentioning this in any way to your partner, in the wake of his or her mother’s sudden and traumatic death, might seem cold or unfeeling. But setting aside time to have a conversation about your father-in-law’s presence, asking how your partner feels about it, and asking whether the two of you can occasionally have meals together, just the two of you, either in or out of the house—there’s nothing terrible about that.
Q. I know I don’t have to: I live across the country from where I grew up. I left as soon as I could after high school, studying, traveling, and then grounding myself in a big city very different from my hometown. My parents were not very interested in being parents and leaned a lot on my grandparents, who probably raised me and my brother as much as they did. About 10 years ago, my grandparents moved closer to my brother and father. My father moved away from them after that, and this summer my brother moved away with his spouse. I talk regularly on the phone with my grandmother, and it’s obvious that they feel lonely and abandoned. They’re also becoming old and frail. She has been hinting for years that she wants me to move to where they live and leave my job and friends. After my brother moved away, she moved on to try and guilt me instead. I don’t want to move closer to them—at all. I hate visiting, and even though they helped raise me, we aren’t very close. I also love my life where I live now and have work that I really like. Still, it’s wrong for everyone in the family to disregard them in this way. Apart from my father and brother, they only have one other living relative—my uncle, who is an alcoholic sometime-criminal lacking interest in our family. I also don’t feel like I can ask my brother to do what I’m not willing to do myself. So, I know I don’t have to, but should I move “home”?
A: It’s possible to feel sympathy and compassion for your grandparents, and to simultaneously acknowledge that it’s not “wrong” of your father and brother to live far away, as you do. It may help to try to visualize what your life would look like if you moved back “home” on the strength of a few hints from your grandmother. You would have to look for a new job, and might possibly remain unemployed for a long time, which would damage your financial independence, as well as your peace of mind. You would have fewer friends you saw on a daily basis, and you might feel obligated to “make the most of it” by spending a great deal of time with your grandparents, trying to make them happy and cure their loneliness. You might become even more resentful of your father and brother because you decided to move closer after they moved away, and it might damage the relationship you have with them. Your grandmother would likely still complain to you about loneliness, and that would only increase your resentment further, especially because you would not have moved there out of a sincere desire to spend more time with her, but solely out of emotional obligation. I think a better option would be to continue talking with her, to listen to her feelings of loneliness without feeling like it’s your job to fix them, to schedule the occasional visit and make sure that your grandparents have plans in place for end-of-life care, and to continue to enjoy your work, your friends, and the life you’ve built for yourself.
Q. My rambling husband: I adore my husband “Jasper,” who is the sweetest man alive. He’s verbose and often rambles and gets sidetracked when telling stories. Sometimes it’s bothersome, but I knew who I was marrying, and his stories always make me laugh, so I chalk it up to no one’s perfect/this is a quirk that won’t change. Our children are nearing their teen years, when parents go from being amazing to embarrassing, and I can tell Jasper’s stories are beginning to annoy our daughters. Even worse, I’ve noticed some friends and relatives rolling their eyes when Jasper talks. Some people interrupt him and demand to know the point. Jasper knows he rambles. If you gently ask him to get to the point, he can. He hasn’t noticed others becoming annoyed with him, and I’m not sure whether to speak to the other parties or bring up what I’ve noticed with him. I love him so much and hate it that others are being, in my mind, rude to him. What’s to be done?
A: I don’t think it’s incumbent upon you to say to someone, “I’ve noticed you rolling your eyes at my husband, can I help you with that?” I’d also encourage you, in the moment, if you think you see someone losing interest, or find yourself hyperaware of how your husband is coming across, to ask yourself if there’s anything you can let go of or stop taking responsibility for. If your husband is somewhat self-aware about his rambling tendencies and can already correct himself when people ask him to, then I think he might be open to additional feedback. Ask him if he’s noticed some of the nonverbal cues that his listeners are sometimes losing interest, and if he’d want any nudge from you if you notice them before he does; if he doesn’t, I think this probably falls under the category of “ordinary human foibles” rather than a habit that seriously alienates people. (And good luck with those teenagers.)
Q. One roommate too many: I live in a nice apartment with four roommates, one of whom is my partner. One of my roommates, “Connor,” wants his girlfriend to move in in next month. Our apartment is big enough for one more, but I have serious concerns about his girlfriend “Sandy.” She’s loud, inconsiderate, occasionally hurtful and rude, and they have almost broken up multiple times. Even more than that, this wasn’t even run by everyone. Sandy was talked into it by “Kyle” (another roommate), and it’s now just become law. The apartment is split down the middle about approving this new addition, and I have no idea what to do or if I should say something. We have another year on our lease and I’m not sure how worried I should be.
A: If she hasn’t yet been added to the lease, then I think now is the time to ask to meet and discuss the issue as housemates, before she moves in. You have, I think, excellent reasons to be concerned, and there’s no reason for Connor and Kyle’s decision to “become law” as long as they’re not the only people whose names are on the lease. Insist that everyone get together and discuss their concerns about Sandy moving in before committing to a full year with her.
Q. How do I help my co-worker?: I got hired right around the same time as my co-worker, and over three years we’ve become good friends. We’re both young and moved up fairly quickly within the company. We have had great relationships with our boss, but for the past few months I’ve noticed our boss picking on my co-worker more and more—asking her to retrieve unattainable financial reports, scolding her whenever her opinions disagree with our boss, promising her a bonus for over six months without delivering, just to name a few. Our boss even announced in our last meeting that she would be hiring a VP as my co-worker’s superior, and that my co-worker would be expected to train them—all without even talking to my co-worker about it first. She’s not in a financial position to quit right now, so how can I best support her while she figures out her next move? Is it appropriate for me to say something to our boss? Do I say something to our rather unhelpful HR director? I love and care for my co-worker and just don’t know what to do in this situation.
A: This is a tricky situation, but I think your best strategy will be to encourage your co-worker to figure out what she wants to discuss with your boss, especially regarding the promised-then-withheld bonus and training her new supervisor, rather than to try to say something independently. If you’re present when the boss asks something you know to be impossible of your co-worker, I think you have grounds to say “Actually, we don’t have reports on X, so that won’t be possible; we’ll have to find that information some other way.” Or if your boss scolds your co-worker disproportionately or in an unduly harsh tone, you can also come to your co-worker’s defense and try to defuse things. But trying to speak to HR on your co-worker’s behalf wouldn’t help the situation.
Q. Re: Painful cleaning: I disagree! While the missing pain pills may not have affected Karla that much, the fact that the majority of pills went missing in a client’s home is a huge deal and major breach of trust. If I were a client of Billie’s because of my connection to the letter writer or Karla, I would want to know about this. I agree that Karla should be the only one to talk to Billie about the pills, but I also think it would be fair for the letter writer to let her friends know about the situation and allow them decide for themselves.
A: I do agree that talking to the other clients may be a possible option that the letter writer chooses in the near future, but that it should wait until after Karla speaks with Billie herself. Since Billie has not yet had a chance to defend or explain herself, it would be premature to involve others in the situation.
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