Prudie is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat, which was guest-helmed by Nicole Cliffe.
Nicole Cliffe: Good day, all! I thought I was out, but they pulled me back in. I am here until Dec. 9, when Danny will return. I see we have some great problems already in the queue today, and I’m excited to get my hands on them.
Q. My co-worker’s most recent name “change”: I work at a small nonprofit with a great, accepting culture. We have several employees who identify at various places along the gender and sexuality spectrums, and it’s never been an issue. One of my co-workers previously changed the name by which they (preferred pronoun) identify to a more masculine version of their name, which everyone was glad to begin using. That was last year. Earlier this month, they requested people begin calling them by a name that we very quickly realized was their “fandom” name for My Little Pony: Think along the lines of “Starfire” and “Sunbeam.” While we work in a pretty accepting organization, a lot of us have struggled with this since it’s not really professional, nor do we feel it’s appropriate in the workplace. We have clients whom we frequently share and we do not feel comfortable saying things like “Let me run this by Starfire.” However, some co-workers have suggested that we respect it as this is how they want to identify. What should we do?
A: I think your manager’s opinion is the one that is going to carry the day here. If your manager has not shut this down, I suggest you get used to saying “Starfire.” I think we’ve all met people whose parents graced their birth certificates with “Galadriel” or “Zephyr Teachout,” and I suspect your clients will assume your colleague has hippie parents and not go immediately to a My Little Pony place. And if they do? Well, there are worse things in this world. As a co-worker (I think you would have told me if they were in your reporting chain), your job is to roll with it.
Would this fly at a white-shoe law firm? It would not. But it sounds like a small crunchy nonprofit is a pretty good fit for the Starfires among us.
Q. My mother is convinced I’m in constant danger: I am the 28-year-old only child of a very loving, very overprotective mother. She kept me close to home as a child; now I’m living two hours away and going to grad school, and she is obsessed with keeping me “safe.” She insists that I call or text her to check in every night after I get home, usually around 9, to make sure I got home safe. If I tell her I’ll be calling later than that, she wants to know why, which is a problem if I’m going somewhere, like a bar, that I know she won’t approve of. If I tell her I’m going out somewhere, she will go online and work out which bus route I’m taking so that she can keep track of where I will be and when. A few weeks ago, I let slip that I went to the movies with a girl I met on Tinder (I’m a lesbian) and she freaked out: “You met someone on the internet? Did you tell anyone else where you were going? Would anyone have noticed if you didn’t come home? Why didn’t you tell me?”
I love my mother, but I feel like this constant surveillance is preventing me from living an independent adult life. I’ve tried to talk to her about it, but she always comes back with “I’m just trying to keep you safe!” and starts citing statistics about how many murder victims meet their end because no one knew where they were going. (Before you ask, she does not listen to true crime podcasts; I have no idea where she’s getting this.) How do I manage my mother’s anxieties while disentangling myself from her apron strings? (My dad, for the record, is much more laissez-faire: He’s content if we talk on the phone once a week.)
A: Your mother needs to go on an information diet, today. You do not have to defend yourself or get sucked into these carousel-like disagreements if you do not want to. This is not your fault, she’s obviously been preparing you from childhood to be instantly accountable for your whereabouts and doings, but you absolutely do have the power to end it.
Your job is not to “manage [your] mother’s anxieties” as you begin disentangling yourself from this situation. She is an adult. If she were not your mother, it would be easier to see this bus route nonsense as stalking behavior. The first step is going to be telling her, in advance, that grad school is extremely demanding and you’re too busy to do these nightly check-ins. Suggest one night a week to call and “catch up.” If she spends that time flipping out about your very reasonable boundaries, you can say you’re not interested in talking about that, make one attempt to change the topic, and then say, “Well, I should get going, love you!” and hang up. Your job is to be consistent. That’s all you have to do.
Things that could happen:
1. She could call the cops when you do not call her or answer her calls.
2. She could show up on your doorstep.
3. She could send you a person-size box and pop out of it.
4. She could send you a guilt-size box filled with all your childhood possessions and a note about how, since you don’t care about her feelings, it seems silly to hang onto them.
Consistency. Each time: “That doesn’t work for me.”
Keep me posted. I know you can do this.
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Q. Caught out: I was out for work drinks with my new colleagues at a local pub/nightclub. We were dancing upstairs right in front of a closed-circuit TV screen that shows the downstairs area. I was dancing with my back to this screen and my colleague goes, “Oh, look, there are people kissing on the CCTV.” I turned around to look and saw two people pulling out of an embrace and noticed the guy was one of my closest friends’ boyfriends, and the girl he was supposedly kissing was not her. He walked upstairs a minute later and immediately came over to me, I had said little more than “I saw you downstairs on the CCTV” before he started telling me not to meddle and ruin things. I said that while I had not seen it myself, my colleagues who didn’t know him at all (and just thought it was funny to watch strangers get caught kissing) had seen him and had no motive to lie, and I had not seen anything myself other than them coming out of an embrace. He said nothing happened and they were down there with his cousin, but he was also super hostile at the suggestion he did anything, which seems to confirm things to me.
Prudie, should I tell my friend? To complicate things further, he and his girlfriend have only just started living together in a shared house three weeks ago with two other friends. We also all went to college and I slept with him two years ago, so I fear if I do say something he will try to paint me as jealous and she’ll want to believe him over me to protect her life and cut me off. I just recently had a large falling out with my closest friend and this girl has become one of my closest friends since. I really don’t want to lose her but I also don’t want to betray her. Help!
A: These situations are always the worst. I would tell her the truth as well as the fact he told you “not to meddle and ruin things.” Maybe she’ll call you a jealous bitch and you’ll never hear from her again. Maybe she’ll call you a jealous bitch and in six months she’ll show up on your doorstep like a damp kitten, having caught him with yet another woman. Or maybe she’ll believe you.
I know from past experience that I would feel more guilt from not taking action than from taking action. And that I would want to know if my close friend saw my husband making out with a rando at a club. I think you would want to know as well.
Q. The cat cancer: I work in a small office. Recently, “Jean” has been out a lot to take her grandmother, who raised her, to chemo treatments and other cancer-related appointments. It’s been taking a toll on Jean, but she’s been staying on top of work and we’ve all tried to be supportive. “Liz,” another co-worker, has a cat that has been diagnosed with feline cancer, and she’s been frequently interrupting Jean’s work to commiserate about what to Liz is the same situation and multiple times a day comes to Jean’s desk to cry about her cat. Jean is generally reserved and has tried to smile and get through these conversations, which are pretty public, while the rest of us cringe. This has gone on for weeks. Finally, “Tom,” who sits next to Jean, snapped at Liz: “Her grandmother is dying! Shut up about your fucking cat!” And now Liz won’t talk to anyone except to curtly answer work questions, and Jean just looks exhausted. Please help us sort through how to deal with this.
A: Sometimes, having a Tom is a good thing. In this case, he did allow you to somersault over the quiet, kind, but firm conversation I would have suggested you take Liz aside to deliver. I cannot believe it took “weeks” for someone to intervene, however ungraciously.
I would make a point of asking after Liz’s cat (the cat is not, to my knowledge, a grandmother, but is still a loved member of Liz’s household) when the two of you are in private. It’s not going to make Jean feel any better if Liz is miserable and curt in the long run.
But let’s focus on helping Jean. Could she or her grandmother use a meal train at this point? Is there anything concrete you or your non-Liz colleagues do to make her life easier right now? Does she want to talk about the situation or does she desperately want her work time to be an oasis from what she’s undergoing away from work? Take her out to lunch and wait until your food arrives to say, “Things have been so hard for you recently—I’m so sorry” and you’ll learn a lot from “Yes, but I’m bearing up” or “[litany of recent stressors].”
Follow her lead.
Q. Re: My co-worker’s most recent name “change”: Where is the line of wanting to be called something? If the co-worker were into a BDSM scene and not My Little Pony, could he insist on being called “Pigboy” or something of the sort? If he were really into Muppets, could his business cards say “Kermit the Frog”?
A: This was a rather famous point of contention over on Ask a Manager when an employee insisted her colleagues all refer to her dom as “Her Master.” It … did not go well.
Q. What do I do? I have a good buddy whom I hang out with every week or so. He’s cool and we get along. We are both straight guys in the same field, and we are roughly the same age with similar interests. The issue? He’s always talking about his “incredibly large” penis (his words, in quotes). Somehow, every time we chat or meet, at least once a meeting or chat, he will find a way to mention his penis and talk about how it’s “pretty big.” It’s annoying. We are both in our mid-30s. I don’t get it. He makes it a point to mention it repeatedly, all the time. I even told him one day that having a big penis is not an accomplishment like getting into Harvard or winning an Emmy. He laughed and said that he should be given awards for his manhood, and that I’m just “jealous”: “Most men don’t measure up to me, so you shouldn’t feel bad.” Prudence, how do I get my buddy to stop all the penis talk? It’s at the point where I don’t even like chatting with him because I find him insufferable. If I stop hanging out with him, he’ll say it’s because I’m jealous.
A: Stop hanging out with him. Who on earth cares whether this weirdo Milton Berle character thinks you’re jealous? I’m sure you have a lovely penis.
Q. Doing the right thing? The other day I was driving to a midday meeting when I saw a man in a wheelchair in the middle of a four-lane road. This was in Los Angeles, and cars were passing him on either side. He was shuffling his feet but basically not moving in any direction. It seemed like a really dangerous situation, so I parked my car and ran out to help him get to the sidewalk. But when I approached him he started yelling at me to get away from him. I stepped behind him to push his chair, but he yelled at me that he didn’t want a stranger behind his back. I tried to reason with him and said I was worried and just wanted to get him out of the street, but he just kept screaming, calling me a crackhead, telling me to get away from him, and saying if I really wanted to help I’d buy him a burrito. I just didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to call the police to help. (I know enough to know that could put him in danger, and I feel like I should mention that I’m a young white woman, and he was an older black man.) Should I have ignored his protestations and wheeled him out of the busy street? Is it ever appropriate to push someone’s wheelchair against their wishes, even if you feel they’re in danger? I ended up leaving him there and going on my way, but I felt I did the wrong thing. The good news is later that day I saw that he was safely on the sidewalk, which is a huge relief. But I can’t stop thinking about what I should have done differently.
A: It is not appropriate to push someone’s wheelchair without explicit permission, ever. Much less following explicit demands for you to cease and desist. This is his life. It may be dangerous, but he knows more about it than you. Which, I imagine, is why you later spotted him on the sidewalk.
I truly do realize that you wanted to help, but in all likelihood you would have placed the pair of you in greater danger than he was currently in, mostly immobile, quite possibly waiting for a particular time or different companion to go across the road with him.
Even if someone is having a full-fledged mental breakdown, you are decidedly unequipped to handle it, particularly in the middle of four lanes of traffic.
Q. Re: My mother is convinced I’m in constant danger: I had this mother. I actually still have this mother, but I’ve been able to scale it way back.
The thing that helped me was therapy. My therapist helped me realize that I’m not actually helping my mom by doing all the checking in, but reinforcing that her anxiety was rational and normal.
That helped me set the boundaries that Nicole recommended (because it’s not mean to do so!): I was willing to check in twice a week, but that’s it. I made it very clear on the front end that I would not respond to extra “where are you,” “are you home yet,” etc. That was important to keep her from calling the police, although I was also worried she would do so. (She did not, though she would sometimes deputize another family member to text me to see if I’d respond.)
Ultimately, I have a worse relationship with my mom than many of my peers do, and a lot of it is because of her anxiety and desire to control me. But I have a much better relationship than I did when I was resentfully checking in several times a day!
A: I’m so delighted with how strong you’ve managed to be in this situation. That’s such a good point about how this is not helping the overbearing mother and just feeding the problem. And that this is unlikely to give you the relationship with your mother you’ve always wanted but that things will eventually be better than they are now (unendurable).
Q. My family has no idea all our money comes from porn sites: I am a freelance Web developer who was almost bankrupted by the economic collapse. A few years ago a client referred me to a friend who needed some search engine optimization. The friend operates an adult website. Adult websites make a lot of money but have trouble finding honest, competent help. One job turned into another, and working with adult websites has become a thriving business for me. My problem is that nobody knows I do this. My wife thinks that I design websites for local companies. I don’t work with sites that do anything illegal or that produce “desperation porn.” My clients are high-end, soft-core sites. I’m getting to a point where I can’t hide this anymore. I’m going to get a prestigious industry award, which means that an Internet search of my name will reveal the nature of my business. I also have had to hide profits in a secret mutual fund, because I don’t think my wife would believe that I make that much from designing websites for florists. I’ve wanted to walk away for a while, but the money has gotten us a lifestyle that we struggled to have for years. My wife doesn’t have to work anymore, our house is paid off, we have a college fund for the kids. I feel like I’m stuck between disappointing my family by turning off the money pump or having them find out that I work in the adult entertainment industry. I need advice. Read what Prudie had to say.
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