Dear Prudence

Help! I Told a Joke So Bad It Cost Me All My Friends.

Read what Prudie had to say in Part 2 of this week’s live chat.

White man covering his mouth in an oops way.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by GlobalStock/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.

Q. A joke I made lost me all my friends: Over my freshman year I’ve been lucky enough to make friends with a group of five other people. We’ve done everything together, and since I live across the country from my family, these people have been a godsend. Two weeks ago I made a joke that was not well-received. I apologized immediately and thought my friends (all five were there) accepted my apology. The joke was told to me by my grandpa, and it’s the kind of joke that’s common where I’m from, so although I knew it was a bit out there, it never occurred to me how badly it would be taken. Basically my friends now think I’m a horrible person who actually believes the things in the joke. I really upset one friend in particular, and they all took her side.

I am devastated and humiliated. I’ve tried apologizing. I am so, so sorry for what I did. I worry I’ve done other things to upset them that they didn’t mention, but no one will answer my texts, so I can’t find out. I see my friends together, and it breaks my heart. I miss them so much. I’m struggling to finish classes because I’m depressed. I don’t know what to tell my family. I’m haunted by how quickly my friends stopped talking to me, and then I wonder if I’ve been offensive to them before. This is all fresh and raw. What do I do? How do I win back my friends?

A: I wish I knew what you had said! My instinct here, based on how you describe your friends’ response and the euphemistic language around your grandfather and the commonplace nature of the sentiments the joke attempts to legitimize, is that what you said was pretty shocking/cruel/out of line (which is why you didn’t include any details) and that the friend who was particularly hurt may have been (in)directly targeted by it. I’m glad that you apologized to your friends, but even though they may have genuinely accepted your contrition, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re all going to want to return to your former closeness. An apology isn’t the same thing as winning your friends back, as much as we might wish it, and part of what’s painful about this moment is accepting that your friends want time and space apart. If you try to demand they go back to the way things were, you’ll risk alienating them forever.

I hope you do tell your family what you’re going through if you feel like they can offer you meaningful support, although I’m curious, if the rest of your family shares your grandfather’s apparently common views, how helpful they’ll actually be when it comes to meaningful reflection. If your family’s response is to dismiss your friends out of hand and reinforce whatever animating force lies behind the joke, that may in fact end up being counterproductive. While your friends aren’t available to offer you feedback, you may want to do a little soul-searching and ask whether you’ve told milder versions of that joke in the past and ask yourself how you want to act differently in the future. If your college campus has affordable counseling sessions, I’d recommend signing up for a visit so you can talk to someone confidentially about this.

Again, without more details I can’t say whether I think your friends were too hard on you or are behaving appropriately; however, you can’t have known any of them for a full year yet, and it can be easier to lose nascent friendships than ones of long standing. The real work to be done here, I think, lies in this passage: “The joke was told to me by my grandpa, and it’s the kind of joke that’s common where I’m from, so although I knew it was a bit out there, it never occurred to me how badly it would be taken. Basically my friends now think I’m a horrible person who actually believes the things in the joke.” If you didn’t want your friends to think you actually believed whatever the joke was about, why did you say it? What made you think they would assume you were saying something you didn’t mean? My guess is the reason you didn’t include the subject of the joke here is because when you actually write it down and you’re not surrounded by people who are willing to pretend “none of us really mean it, it’s just a joke,” it looks rather shabby.

I think you should continue to give your friends space. Maybe in another few weeks you can send a follow-up message about your continued reflection, your sincere regret for saying what you said, and the ways in which you’ll behave differently in the future, making sure to end with something like, “I hope we can try again sometime, because I really care about our friendship; but if you don’t want to, I’ll respect that decision and won’t ask you again.” I can’t promise you that you can get these original friends back, but I hope you can avoid repeating this situation with any other friends you want to keep in the future.

Q. Heartbroken: I could really use some advice, and I don’t have anyone to talk to about this. This past weekend, my husband began drinking (he doesn’t drink often), but he was in a weird mood and wanted to be left alone. I went inside and went to bed. My husband got in the jacuzzi outside and started blasting music. I didn’t want the neighbors to complain, so I went outside to ask him to turn it down. He couldn’t hear me, so he reached for his cellphone—and of course dropped it in the water. I went back inside, knowing all hell was going to break loose. He came into the house after a while and started slamming doors, and then he got in the shower. I could hear him in the shower punching the glass. By this point, he’s very drunk—and I’m not even sure how he got to this point—but all of a sudden he pulled his gun out of his nightstand and took the safety off and moved the gun toward his head. I leapt across the bed and was begging him and pleading with him to put the gun down, to give it to me, saying that he was going to hurt himself or me.

I finally got it out of his hands and was able to hide it from him, as well as another gun and the keys to the safe where the third gun is. He began looking for the keys and the other gun and was very upset that he couldn’t find them. He kept saying “Just let me end it” over and over again. My heart was breaking, and I was just sobbing and crying. Then he began punching himself in the head, repeatedly. I was behind him on the bed, trying to hold his arms, trying to keep him from punching himself, and the whole time he’s saying “Just let me end it.” I didn’t know what to do. I kept praying that he would fall asleep from the alcohol. Finally I got him to lie down, and he went to sleep.

The next day he was beside himself with despair and anguish, horrified at his actions and what he put me through. He made an appointment to see a psychiatrist, and he’s since started medication (that he doesn’t really want to take). But now it’s like he’s upset with me—he won’t talk to me about any of it and has pushed me away, barely speaking to me. I don’t understand why he’s mad at me, like this is somehow my fault. How on earth can he blame me for this? I feel so crushed and unsure how to proceed. My heart just aches. This isn’t the man I know—this was a side of him I’ve never seen before. How do we move forward from this?

A: I am so, so sorry. First things first: This goes way beyond just being “in a weird mood,” and your goal right now should absolutely not be to “move forward.” Your husband very nearly killed you and himself this week. You are in very real, very immediate danger, and you need to talk to the other people in your life about this. Your husband is now on medication (it’s unclear what medication this is, what the side effects may be, or if drinking while on this medication is particularly dangerous), but he is refusing to discuss his recently terrifying, profoundly violent, unstable behavior. That is not a sign that he can be trusted to act with either his or your safety in mind. That his horror at his own actions has not translated into meaningfully changing his behavior—not to mention the fact that he’s emotionally punishing you for his own night of violent terror, and it sounds like the guns are still in the house too—tells me that he’s not prepared to take responsibility for what he did. I think you are still in danger if you stay in that house with him, and right now your safety is my primary concern. Please tell someone else right now what happened this weekend. Find a friend or a relative you can stay with tonight. Do not go back home as long as the guns are still in the house. I know that you love your husband and that you want to help him, but you cannot help him by putting yourself in danger, and right now he cannot be trusted. Please consider calling someone at the National Domestic Violence Hotline and getting more information about what kind of help is available to you. I understand it may seem odd at first to call what he did this weekend abusive, since so much of his violence was directed toward himself, and it’s clear from your letter that you love him very much and want him to get help. But he destroyed part of your bathroom and threatened you with a gun. You say you knew “all hell was going to break loose” after he broke his cellphone, which tells me that he’s gotten violent or threatened to over other accidents or inconveniences in the past.

I don’t know why your husband is pushing you away right now, and I can imagine that the most pressing issue right now is trying to understand why so that you can help him, because you want to believe there’s a reason he’s abusing you beyond, simply, the thought that he wanted to terrorize and threaten you. But there is no reason good enough that would justify his behavior that night or since. I’m not saying that you need to stop loving your husband or file for divorce tomorrow. I understand you want him to get help and get better; I hope he does. But right now the most important thing is that you don’t spend another night in the same house with this man and three guns.

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Q. Mother: My father-in-law is a well-known womanizer. My husband had four stepmothers before he turned 20. My father-in-law has one saving grace in that he cared for his stepchildren as his own (one stepdaughter and her son currently live with him). He is a very charming man. My parents just had a divorce after being married for 30 years. Long story short, my newly single mother hooked up with my father-in-law over Christmas at my house! It creeped me out, and I warned my mother that my father-in-law has never been faithful in his life. She told me she knew what she was doing. They began to publicly date this spring, and the relationship crashed and burned as I predicted. My mother caught him cheating.

She is still furious and refuses to attend any family event (including her grandchildren’s activities!) where she might see him. Everyone comes to my home, since it is the largest and most comfortable. It is mostly my in-laws (stepsisters and their kids, my cousins, etc.), since my brother and father both moved out of state. My husband and I both work and have three kids; it is hard to find time to just see my mother besides a quick lunch. My father-in-law has personally apologized to me for the “trouble” he caused, while my mother sulks. She complains about “that man” being in my home and how I should be on her side. I love my mother, I am sorry she is hurting, but literally every one of us told her my father-in-law was a hound dog. The man had five failed marriages before he hit 50! What do I do with my mother?

A: I can understand your frustration with your mother, but I wouldn’t be quite so quick to laugh off your father-in-law’s actions. If it’s inappropriate for her to sleep with your father-in-law, it’s surely just as inappropriate for him to sleep with your mother, and the fact that he treats all of his romantic and sexual partners badly all of the time doesn’t exactly mean it should be laughed off. He slept with your newly single, emotionally vulnerable mother during a family holiday and then cheated on her a few months later. The fact that he cheated on all his other wives doesn’t make it fine. You say that you tried to warn her in advance, but my guess is that he didn’t lead with “Hey, I cheat on everybody I date.” He may very well have given her a plausible justification or charming deflection. Of course, that doesn’t mean that your mother isn’t responsible for her own behavior, and you did of course warn her about his dating history. I just don’t want you to think of her as an idiot for thinking he wanted to be with her or as totally unreasonable for feeling hurt now.

If you have to prioritize one of them over the other, I think you should ask him to work around her schedule, at least for the immediate future. That won’t always be possible, of course, and I think it’s fine for you to set certain limits and say to your mom, “I love you and I agree that he’s a dog, but I also told you not to date him and I can’t always rearrange things to your benefit to make sure you don’t have to see your ex. I’m sorry, but this is how it has to be.”

Q. A trivial question about dinner parties: My friends and I have an informal dinner party rotation: Every few weeks we meet up at one of our houses to eat together. The host cooks, and we rotate hosting so that the work is spread out evenly. My question is about one of my friends. All the times that we’ve eaten at her house, I’ve noticed that the dishes are not clean. I’m not a particularly neat or tidy person myself, but I’m talking about lipstick and fingerprints on the glasses, grease on the dishes, bits of dried food in the forks, and similar. I suspect that I am not the only person who has noticed, since on occasion I’ve heard other guests make comments like “Oh, are these the clean dishes?” when we’re helping to set the table.

I’m wondering, should I take the friend in question aside and point out this dish situation to her? If I was serving people on dirty plates, I would want to know, but I’m not confident that she would feel the same. We’re all around the same age and stage of life, but I know she feels some insecurity already about her cooking/hosting skills, and I don’t want to make her feel worse! My husband says I should just brightly say something like “Oops, looks like there’s a bit of a smudge here—going to give it a wash!” but I feel like going to the kitchen and washing my place setting in front of everyone might be more embarrassing than just taking her aside and letting her know. Alternatively, perhaps I should simply eat off of the dirty plates and be grateful for my friend’s hospitality. What do you think?

A: You’re overthinking this a little! There’s no need to hint or stand upon undue ceremony with friends. “_____, these cups and plates aren’t clean. Would it be easier for us to wash them while you finish stirring the gravy, or do you want someone to take over food prep instead?”

Q. Disappointing Mom for her birthday and Mother’s Day: For my mother’s 60th birthday and Mother’s Day (same weekend), my parents and younger sister came to visit me and stay at my place. We had decorations, flowers, and a custom-made cake ready when they arrived—a joint effort among me, my sister, and my husband. My husband and I treated the entire group to a very enjoyable (and expensive) dinner one of the nights. My sister paid for pedicures the next day, and my father treated everyone to a late lunch and a musical later that night. My sister and I made Mother’s Day breakfast on Sunday at my place before the three of them departed. It was a lovely weekend, and imagine my surprise when I received a long email from my father telling me how disappointed he was that we didn’t ALSO get my mother a gift (implying that she was disappointed by the weekend). He told us to not bother doing anything, experience or gift, for his upcoming birthday or Father’s Day. I am embarrassed and upset, and I don’t know whether to say anything to him and/or my mother (apologize? be offended that our best efforts weren’t enough?).

A: I wonder if your mother knew that your father sent the email. I don’t know if she has a history of asking him to be the bad cop and relate her disappointment to you kids, or if this is a one-off, but I think you should get in touch with your mother directly. Tell her that you were really surprised to hear from your father, and that you’d had a wonderful time hosting her and thought it was mutually understood that her gifts this year were primarily experiences rather than tangible objects. You can also ask, “If you’d rather open a gift, please let me know, because I’d be happy to adjust how I plan presents for you,” if you think next time around she’d rather be able to ooh and aah over a sweater or a watch and have something to take home with her rather than go out to a few nice meals in a row. It may help to ask your mother for clarity on whether or not she knows anything about your father’s email before deciding how to respond to him.

Without totally closing off the possibility that he’s nursing a real (or at least real-to-him) sense of hurt, I think your father’s way of communicating his desires to you is pretty childish, and I’d call him rather than respond over email, so it’s a little harder for him to sign off in a huff. “I was surprised to see that you were so upset after Mother’s Day weekend that you don’t want us to get you anything for your birthday. I thought we’d all enjoyed ourselves, and we were happy to spend time and money planning a lovely dinner, customizing a cake, ordering flowers, and hosting everyone for the weekend. Can you tell me a little bit more about what you were thinking? Your email really surprised me. Of course, if you don’t want anything for Father’s Day, we won’t force you to celebrate, but I’d like to know more about your expectations and hopes for family celebrations, since ours seem to be very different.”

Q. Re: Heartbroken: She has to tell the cops what happened so they can flag her husband and ensure he won’t pass a background check to buy another gun. She has to do everything possible to block his access to firearms.

A: I think that’s right. I think right now is a very dangerous time for this letter writer, especially if she tries to live with him (even only temporarily), and that it’s not just appropriate but necessary to file a police report.

Q. If I’m sober, should I still split the cost of alcohol? I have been sober for almost two years now, and it rocks. It’s hard and weird in some ways, but I love my life now. The problem is alcohol-focused events, specifically bachelorette parties. I have been invited to, and will be attending, two bachelorette parties this summer, both hosted by the bride’s siblings whom I do not personally know. For each event, the cost of lodging, food, and alcohol were all rolled together and split equally. My question is, do I roll with this? The first time it happened, I let it ride and sent in my share thinking it was a one-time issue. Then it happened again. Do I have to eat the cost? Is there any good way to ask to change the math? As an “I don’t mean to be a bother” kind of person, it is out of my comfort zone to ask for any exception. But as a pragmatist, alcohol is expensive. What do you think?

A: I’m of two minds here! On the one hand, if you’re not drinking, it’s rough to see how much of the bill is dedicated to someone else’s cocktails. On the other hand, part of the bachelorette party ethos is about supporting the bride and creating a memorable, convivial atmosphere that’s a lot more relaxed and uninhibited than the wedding itself, so part of what you’re doing in contributing financially is adding to that atmosphere, not just tallying precisely what you yourself eat and drink. On the other hand, if the amount they’re asking you to chip in for the liquor budget is significantly out of your price range, I don’t think it’s the same as saying, “Well, I barely had any of the appetizers, so I’m only going to put in $20” at the end of a group meal. I think you should let the hosts know in both cases that you’re sober, primarily so they’re aware that no one should be trying to push drinks on you. For the party you’ve already sent the money in for, unless you’re in dire need of it, I think you should let it go. But for the second party, by all means let her know they don’t need to include you in their liquor-buying calculations, and that you’ll just be chipping in for food and accommodations.

Q. Re: Heartbroken: Getting herself out of the house isn’t safe enough. Moving out when someone does something like this actually increases the risk the woman will be killed. The most dangerous moment in an abusive relationship is the moment she leaves. She needs to get rid of the guns. Taking away the keys isn’t good enough. Trigger locks aren’t good enough. She needs to get the guns out of that house and somewhere safe. Give them to someone who can be trusted to hold them, sell them, or better yet, bring them to the police and tell the cops what just happened. But get those guns out of his reach.

A: This is another important point—thank you for addressing this. OP, I know this must seem like an overwhelming series of tasks, especially because right now all you want is to move forward and put this behind you. But you know this man is capable of hurting you and himself with these guns, and I want you to live and be safe. Please call the police, tell your friends and family you need help, get rid of the guns before he comes home, and get out of there.

Q. Friend’s kid: “Todd” is my husband’s best friend whose wife just left him and their 4-year-old son to be with another man. Todd has his mother “Kay” watch his son while we fill in the gaps when we can. They both work. I stay at home with our infant and toddler. Kay treats me like the hired help. There is never a thank-you or hello; she drops her grandson off with me at a moment’s notice and often is hours late. I have spoken to my husband and Todd to no avail and tried to let it wash off my back until the last incident. Kay dropped off her grandson and three loads of laundry and instructed me to wash and fold them “since I am not doing anything else.” I had my baby crying in my arms, and I tried to argue that I was watching the children and wouldn’t have time. Kay looked at me and then at my messy living room and sneered at me: You aren’t doing that “good of a job—just get it done.” I didn’t, and when Todd came to pick up his son, I exploded on him. I told him exactly what his mother said to me and I didn’t want her in my home ever again. Todd could bring his boy over, but I would never open the door to his mother again. Todd has done this, but it’s very difficult for him. My husband keeps wanting me to relent; Kay has always been a “crazy old bat,” and I shouldn’t let her get to me. I put up with Kay for months. I love Todd and his son, but I am not going to be treated this way anymore.

A: This is your call to make, as the provider of free child care. You’re not even refusing to offer child care; you’re just saying that since Todd’s mother can’t drop his son without demanding additional housekeeping and offering you insults, Todd needs to make sure you don’t have to interact with her. That is a reasonable request, and you have the right to stick to it. This arrangement may be difficult for him (and I agree that he’s in a painful situation, having to suddenly adapt to life as a single parent), but it’s also working and involves free day care. If your husband is so concerned about helping his friend, why doesn’t he volunteer to share pickup duties a few days a week?

Q. Sibling tattoos: My sister and brother are both heavily tattooed. I am not. Also, I have kids, and they don’t. My sister recently wrote me in the middle of the night to see if I would be interested in getting a sibling tattoo with both her and my brother. I am not. I don’t want a tattoo, I don’t want my kids to see me as a tattooed lady, and I can think of a million other ways to show my sibling love. My sister, however, will not let it go and continues to bug me about it. Am I being an inflexible curmudgeon?

A: It is fine to be inflexible about your own skin! I mean, I don’t think your kids would think vastly differently of you if you had a single tattoo, and it’d be a little weird if you tried to bring your kids into the conversation as an explanation. But yes, you can absolutely just say, “I really don’t want to get a tattoo. I love you both, and I’d be happy to come with the two of you when you get yours, but it’s my body and I don’t want to put a tattoo on it. Trying to argue with me about it isn’t going to make me want one—it’s just going to make me feel like you’re not listening to me.”

Q. Re: If I’m sober, should I still split the cost of alcohol? If you were part of a regular (not special event) gathering in which splitting the cost routinely included the cost of alcohol, I’d say you should definitely work something out. But this is a special occasion in which the cost of the alcohol is a much smaller percentage of the overall costs, and figuring out how to adjust the bill might be more hassle than it’s worth and lead to more complications (e.g., “I’m a vegetarian, and the rest of you ordered expensive steak or seafood”). Unless the cost of the alcohol presents a difficult financial burden, just roll with it and order a few great meals.

A: That’s fair! If it’s not too far out of your budget (à la the other letter writer this week who’s suddenly been hit with twice the cost of her plane ticket in order to cover fancy wine tastings, etc.), then I think it’s fair to assume that part of a group weekend means that everyone’s going to be spending a bit more than what they themselves are strictly using or directly benefiting from. But like all principles, this one has limits, and if the LW’s share of the liquor budget is more than they can afford, then I think it’s possible to draw a line.

Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thank you so much, everyone. See you all next week.

If you missed Part 1 of this week’s chat, click here to read it.

Discuss this column with Dear Prudence on his Facebook page!

From Care and Feeding

Q. Ugh, is my child a tattletale?How do I get my 4-year-old to stop tattling? I don’t know if it’s tattling exactly, but I feel like at the end of the day I get a full report of who followed the rules at day care (my child) and who did not (everybody else). I hear about who pulled hair, who was in timeout, who said something mean. I’ve tried saying, “Oh they’re still learning,” for a while. Lately I’ve been trying something like, “What’s something nice Jonnifred did today?” I don’t want my kid to feel like they can’t tell me the bad things that happen to them, but I also don’t want them so focused on other kids’ bad behavior. Is this a phase or should I be doing more?