Dear Prudence

I Googled My Date and Came Up With Zilch. That’s Weird, Right?

Prudie’s column for July 4.

Collage of hands on a laptop keyboard, with a search displaying "0 results" in the background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Fabian Irsara on Unsplash.

Dear Prudence,
I recently went out with someone I met via dating app who seemed amazing, but some cursory internet research—a simple Google search—yielded nothing. This person claimed to have professional affiliations that should have shown up if the name they gave was, in fact, their name. I gingerly asked what was up, and the person immediately reacted poorly, saying that my research made them uncomfortable, was a huge red flag, and ended things. For context, this conversation happened after the third date and getting intimate. This person made me feel unreasonable, but I think that it’s because they had something to hide. What say you?
—Googling or Gaslighting

I don’t think you had sufficient reason to tell your date that you Googled them and expected an explanation for their lack of an online footprint. I understand the impulse to do some preliminary research on someone you met online, especially for safety reasons. But you didn’t find something that gave you pause; you just wanted to know why they weren’t online more, and I can understand why that made them uncomfortable and uninterested in a fourth date. There are a number of non-nefarious reasons a person might be mostly offline, not to mention a number of reasons involving personal safety—many of which are sufficiently private that someone would not want to disclose them. But I think it’s over the line to tell someone you’ve been researching them, even if that research only took a few strokes of the keyboard and three minutes of your time. A better way to channel that impulse would have been to ask if they use social media and get their permission to friend-request them. That’s not at all uncommon after a few dates and would have given them an opportunity to start the conversation.

At this point, you may never know whether you dodged a bullet, and I don’t think you should spend too much time worrying about it. (I’m inclined to think this person is just private, not making up professional credentials that can be easily disproved, but it may be that you two are just incompatible and this was the easiest way to discover that incompatibility.) In the future, find a more diplomatic way to ask about someone’s background. It’s a fine line to walk between paying attention to your safety instincts and not asking slightly intrusive questions. You don’t have to stop Googling dates, but it shouldn’t be your first go-to.

Dear Prudence,
I’ve lived most of my life in the U.S., but I was born in the U.K., and my parents are British. They use a lot of regional slang, including using the word fag as a synonym for cigarette. It makes me deeply uncomfortable. They know I’m gay, but there’s an unspoken agreement that we never mention it, ever. It’s jarring to hear this in everyday conversation, and I’m wondering if there’s a script I can use to make them stop without bursting into tears. For context, I’m college-age and staying with them for the summer. My dad is the sort of guy who is very proud of having liberal beliefs and thinks homophobia ended in the ’80s. He gets very angry and defensive if you try to mention that anything he is doing might be slightly less than P.C. My mother starts crying if I mention being gay, as if I have done it in order to spite her and her dreams of grandchildren.
—Instant Fear Reaction

The problem is not that your parents use U.K. slang but that they alternate between denying your sexuality and falling into hysterics about it. It’s a little unclear from your letter whether your parents are in the U.K. (where it might be difficult for them to abandon a still-common term) or in the United States (where they might have an easier time of it). But either way, the most important thing to do is not to try to control whether they say it, but to honestly communicate how you want to be able to talk about yourself with them. You can tell them: “I understand that for you this word means a cigarette, but I want you to know a little bit more about what coming out has felt like for me. It’s been hard, and scary, and it’s difficult to hear you say the word fag a dozen times a day when you can’t even acknowledge that I’m gay without crying. Whether you intend it to or not, it hurts me to hear it. I know I can’t tell you what to say, but I hope you’ll give a little thought to how this feels for me, and keep me in mind when you use that word.”

In the long run, it’ll be helpful for you to figure out what you need—including finding another place to live after graduation—in order to be safe and emotionally healthy, whether or not your parents ever get better. I hope that they’ll come around, but I want you to be able to find some distance in the meantime.

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Dear Prudence,
You once advised a letter writer that she did not have to disclose her two previous abortions to her husband if she did not want to. I think I want to. My husband and I have been married for a few years and have a small child. He asked me point-blank once, and I said no. But I’ve had two, a decade ago when I lived in another country. It was cheap and easy and safe, and I feel so grateful to have had the option. The only people who know are two close friends who supported me at the time and the guys involved. Last year I was even in a car full of girlfriends, and two of them shared that they’d also had abortions. I froze and didn’t speak up. (One friend is a loudmouth, and I have heard her blab other people’s secrets.)

I am actively involved in reproductive rights activism, and I’m terrified and pissed off about what’s going on in this country. My husband supports me and sees how troubled I am about it. I know I made the right decision back then, but as time goes on, part of me wants to tell him. But I’m worried that he will be alarmed, ask uncomfortable questions, or judge me. I once had an ex-boyfriend who said he was pro-choice, but if his own girlfriend shared a past abortion, that would be a problem. I kept quiet! Should I just talk to a therapist about this? I see someone primarily for anger issues, so this might surprise them, but surely I’m allowed to dictate the agenda.
—Abortion Feeling Harder to Keep Inside

Yes, you absolutely should tell your therapist what you’re hoping to talk about in any given session. But that doesn’t mean you can only tell your therapist. I suspect people think “talking to a therapist” is an alternative to talking to their friends and families, but it’s often a helpful first step to figure out how to talk to others in your life. I understand your concerns about not wanting to talk about your own abortions in various contexts—friends, ex-boyfriends, people who aren’t respectful toward anyone who’s had an abortion, the list goes on. You might relay these fears to your therapist and talk through a plan for sharing information with your husband while also making it clear that you’re not ready to disclose a lot of details. You have reason to believe he’ll respond with affection and support, but I also wouldn’t be shocked if he tried to make it at least a bit about himself, if only at first.

One thing to discuss with your therapist is why you want to tell your husband now so that you can offer him direction and clarity about what you need from him. For example: “I’m telling you this because I’ve been getting more upset lately about the state of reproductive rights in this country. I want you to know my history with abortion so you have a clearer sense of why this is important to me,” etc. What would a best-case scenario response look like, and what would be the worst? What limits feel important to you to set? How much context do you want to give your husband, and what kind of support would you like to ask from him? You’ve kept quiet on several other occasions out of fear that you’d be judged or gossiped about, so it stands to reason that you’d feel trepidation now at the prospect of talking about your abortions, because there’s a real emotional risk. But planning this out with a therapist, clarifying your goals, and trusting your husband to respond better than that long-ago ex are all the right steps to take, and I think you’ll feel more deeply known and more deeply supported once you get to the other side of this.

Dear Prudence,
A friend came out as nonbinary one year ago. They use they/them pronouns and changed their name. My problem is that even after a year, I have not internalized their new gender pronouns. I make sure to use the right pronouns and name, but I have to carefully remember every time—it doesn’t come naturally. So far, I have not messed up in front of them, but I have messed up when mentioning them to another person. I know some binary transgender people, and after an adjustment period, it became effortless to use the correct pronouns. I want to earnestly know my nonbinary friend’s gender the same way, but my brain isn’t making the switch. I know it’s only a matter of time before I slip up and misgender my friend to their face, and I dread it. What can I do to get my brain to get with the program?
—Out-of-Date Brainware

You can do a few things. The first is you can prepare yourself for a slip in front of your friend. Stay calm, say, “Sorry, they,” and continue with the rest of your sentence. Treat it like a morally neutral factual error, like if you’d briefly mixed up your address and said you lived on Fourth Street when you actually lived on Seventh. Don’t make a production of how terrible you feel in the moment—just correct yourself and move on. It happens all the time, and it happens to everyone. I don’t say that so you can “relax” and think of unintentional misgendering as inevitable, but merely so that you don’t worry that you’ll be the first person to do it or an unforgivable outlier if you screw up.

As for the desire to “earnestly” know your friend’s pronouns: It’s perfectly understandable to look forward to the day when using pronouns for your friend comes easily, but I hope you don’t think that in the meantime there’s something less than supportive about effort. Effort is great! It’s useful! It works, especially when you’re trying to use pronouns you’ve never used for this person. It might help to set aside a little time once or twice a week to mentally rehearse introducing or referring to your friend. Don’t let the belief that only natural-seeming support is meaningful keep you from practicing so your brain can continue to adjust.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“If you’re going to do it, you ought to be prepared to hide it, like furtively plucking a chin hair while you’re stopped in traffic.”

Daniel Mallory Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe discuss this letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,
I’m faculty at a university. A significant number of my male colleagues have been accused of sexual harassment by students, and based on my own observations of my colleagues’ behavior, I find many of these accusations likely. My university is addressing this problem (sort of, and  slowly). In the meantime, my responsibilities include advising students on which classes to take. I don’t want to spread gossip or get myself fired, but I also don’t want to send my advisees into situations that I know—but they don’t know—are not conducive to their learning, to put it mildly. What can I do here, as we wait for the wheels of history to turn slowly?
—Dodgy Professors

Without including any protected details about any ongoing investigations, you are free to (and sort of duty-bound to) offer your own assessment of your advisees’ potential professors. This could be anything from “I don’t think this class would be conducive to your growth as a student” to “I don’t admire the way he treats his students. I’d recommend Professor Jones’ course instead.” Part of your responsibility as an adviser is to use your own judgment to protect your students’ interests, so sharing some form of that judgment is part of your job. You’ll want to speak carefully so you’re not claiming to know more than you do and not giving away confidential information but making it clear that you are sharing your perspective on the instructor in question. If you’re unclear about what’s off-limits in a conversation with your students, you could always speak to your Title IX officer for clarification. But wherever possible, it’s worthwhile to steer your students toward instructors you think will act with their best interests at heart.

Dear Prudence,
I am a happily aromantic woman in my 30s, but I always feel awkward responding to questions about my love life from friends, distant family, and co-workers. If I just say I’m not dating, I hate comments like “Oh, you’ll find someone someday!” Nodding along to that makes me feel like I’m lying. But most people aren’t familiar with the term aromantic, and mentioning it often leads to a longer discussion comparing aromantic and asexual identification. Which then gets into the weird territory of people essentially asking if I like having sex. Should I just get over my distaste and let people think I’m pining away for my “missing half?” Or should I feel a responsibility to educate people about my little-known identification?
—Not Waiting for Love

I think there is a middle ground in between the two. While I can’t promise that you’ll never feel awkward responding to dating questions, I don’t think escaping awkwardness when discussing one’s personal life is possible for anyone. The real dilemma is figuring out what sort of awkwardness you prefer and how to exist peacefully in a slightly uncomfortable moment. It will pass! All slightly uncomfortable moments do. If someone says, “Oh, you’ll find someone,” you can reply, “I hope not. I’m not looking to find someone, and I’m very happy not dating.” That’s truthful and doesn’t invite questions about various terms you may not care to define when you’re just trying to get through after-work drinks with a few acquaintances. And making yourself responsible for public education about asexual or aromantic issues will likely not increase your enjoyment of life. But if you ever do find yourself using the word aromantic and someone follows up by asking if you like having sex, you should feel free to say, “That’s a very personal question. I’m not going to answer it.”

Classic Prudie

I am a senior military officer in a smaller branch and have been married almost 30 years. Our children are grown; my wife is utterly miserable. She hates my calling, its protocol and social requirements, my colleagues, and my constant travel. When I return she blasts me with torrents of abuse, screams at me for trivialities, and then threatens me with divorce—but we remain married. We’ve talked separation but we have moved so much she has nowhere to go. She says she will only divorce me if she can have “the same lifestyle she has now” but that’s just impossible given the work perks I get as a flag officer. Failing that she says if I file for divorce she will “destroy” my reputation and force me to retire in disgrace. (While I’ve led an honorable life, she could throw enough mud to take me out of the running for promotion, and I am competitive for higher rank.) If I lose my wife my career will be destroyed; if I retire for my wife I believe the misery will just continue. What should I do? My personal life is a lonely disaster. We have no real friends left, not wanting to expose our failings. We sleep in separate rooms, scarcely speak privately, and smile only for the cameras. Our active official life masks the truth but not the misery.