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Danny is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Mask etiquette: My city, like many others, has mandated the use of cloth masks inside all public buildings, and social distancing during the pandemic. I’ve noticed on my infrequent trips to the grocery store that many other shoppers will pull down their masks once inside the store, leaving them around their necks or just covering their chin. Many of these same people are not keeping sufficient distance from strangers. I’ve seen several friends and family members posting these same concerns on social media, so I know I’m not being hypercritical in noticing this.
Under normal circumstances I’d just roll my eyes and carry on, but since this virus is so contagious, it baffles me that people can’t follow two simple rules to protect themselves and everyone around them. Is there a polite way to ask a stranger to put their mask back on and keep their distance? Is it even worth asking?
A: Proper mask-wearing habits are important, yes; it’s also important to bear in mind that you’re talking about possibly millions of people depending on the size of your city, going from likely “never thinking about masks except in a Halloween context” to trying to acquire and wear them on every trip outside the house, in all kinds of weather, in under a month, often without any help or meaningful guidance from either local government or the federal government. That’s a steep learning curve, and it wasn’t that long ago that the message was “Don’t wear masks at all—save them for health care professionals,” so there’s been a rapid turnaround on recommendations too. That doesn’t mean you need to cheerfully ignore it if someone’s standing in your personal space or resort to pie-in-the-sky, Pollyanna-style “Well, we’re all trying our best, so I won’t say anything” thinking. But I would urge you not to dwell on every single person you see, because going that way lies madness and frustration. If someone is standing too close to you, you can absolutely—and politely—say, “Please step back. You’re too close,” or “Please put your mask back on.”
If you’re truly interested in learning more about why large-scale health adoptions in the middle of a crisis prove challenging, there’s a great deal to read about the subject. Yes, some people are careless; yes, some people are skeptical and even contemptuous of safeguards that protect something as nebulous as “public health.” Some people have the best of intentions and then simply forget because effective mask wearing isn’t exactly intuitive, and it takes a while to develop the necessary muscle memory. People habitually touch their own faces frequently and without thinking, and it’s difficult to consciously retrain oneself out of that habit. Masks can also make breathing difficult or uncomfortable. All of these are reasons that someone might temporarily, absent-mindedly, or even consciously abandon a protective measure that’s still new to them. Education, practice, steady and freely available access to resources and support are key in moving a population from “almost no masks” to “everyone wearing masks properly and either cleaning or replacing them appropriately the vast majority of the time.”
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Q. Video obsession: Since we have been isolated together, I have noticed that my husband seems to be obsessed with watching videos on his phone. On the weekends, he will watch for eight or nine hours, and during the week maybe five to six hours (he would likely watch more if he were not working). They are just quick little snippets. I cannot have a conversation with him because he is listening to the sound. When we try to watch things together, he puts one earphone in his ear and says he’s “still listening,” but he’s not and he snaps at me when I try to speak to him. He loudly reacts to things he is seeing. We have little to no communication because he’s obsessed with these videos. I have spoken with him on many occasions, but he says it’s no big deal and ignores my request. What can I do?
A: In the long run, I imagine this is a pretty serious issue that will affect the future of your marriage; if your husband thinks that being emotionally and logistically unavailable to you for five to 10 hours every day because he’s glued to funny YouTube videos is “no big deal” and refuses to have a real conversation with you about it, then he’s not leaving you with a lot of options. But in the short term, while you two are mostly confined to close quarters, I think saving your energy for that future battle is the best thing you can do. To whatever extent you can, schedule calls with friends, find books you want to read, choose movies or old and beloved TV shows you’ve been meaning to watch, and take this as an opportunity to cultivate pleasant solitude.
That doesn’t mean you can’t ever try to revisit this conversation with him or ask for him to put the phone away for 20 minutes during dinner, but I think you should look at your internal energy reserves as a precious, nonrenewable resource as long as you two are sheltering in place. Since these conversations mostly result in your husband doing exactly what he was doing before, they’re an unnecessary drain on you at present, and I’d encourage you to have as few of them as possible. Obviously this is a short-term emotional survival strategy, not a plan for a loving, mutually respectful marriage, but I think short-term emotional survival needs to be your highest priority right now, since I don’t believe it’s going to be your husband’s.
Q. Calling off the calls? My partner of nine months, “Lisa,” is extremely close with her extended family—much closer than I am with mine. Lisa’s family has been doing huge family calls via Zoom for the past six weeks, ever since our area instituted shelter-in-place orders. Lisa and I live together. I’ve joined these calls nearly every week, and I find them exhausting. I feel like I’m performing cheerfulness and positivity—I don’t have much in common with Lisa’s family, and I can’t find much to be positive about in the midst of a pandemic. Meanwhile, my friend group has also been having Zoom calls, which Lisa has been joining about once a week. I want to scale back my involvement in Lisa’s family’s calls. But I don’t really have any excuse beyond “I just don’t enjoy them.” I don’t have anywhere to be or anything else to do; we’re all stuck inside for the foreseeable future. We live in a small studio, so I’d still be exposed to the calls. And I want Lisa to continue joining my friends’ group calls, because it’s important to me that my friends get to know her—I see a future with her.
Is it unreasonable to ask Lisa if I can stop joining her family Zooms yet still have her join my friend Zooms? What do I do during the family Zoom while I’m still in the room? What about when her family asks about me, which they do whenever I don’t join? I’ve started dreading these every week, and I don’t want to tell her that I just don’t like her family that much.
A: Let’s put a pin in the whole “I don’t like my girlfriend’s family very much, but she’s extremely devoted to them” thing for now; that may become a bigger deal down the road, but right now you two are still less than a year into this relationship and just trying to get through sheltering in place without losing your composure. It’s absolutely fine to say, “I’m finding these weekly calls with your family to be a little much for me, and I’d like to attend a bit more sporadically.” I do think Lisa would be hurt if you never said “Hello” or joined the occasional call, but if you wanted to sit in just once a month or duck out for a walk after the first 10 minutes, that’s a perfectly reasonable compromise to offer her. I’m assuming that going on a walk during that time is possible and safe for you. If it’s impossible, and you have to remain in the room, I’d recommend noise-canceling headphones (or regular headphones and some relaxing music) and establishing that you need some “alone time,” even if it feels a little artificial; Lisa can say something like “Mark is taking a little time to decompress and be by himself”—as “by himself” as it’s possible to be in a studio—”but sends his love” on your behalf. Or you can even say it on your own behalf before waving goodbye and retreating to the other side of the room. Ideally, everyone will understand that times are tough and a lot of people are struggling to maintain an internal sense of order.
Wanting Lisa to keep joining you for every weekly call with your friends is a little trickier, I think, under the circumstances. You should extend to her the same flexibility and freedom you’re claiming for yourself. Maybe she likes your friends but doesn’t want to talk to them every week; maybe she finds those calls a little draining or hard to follow along because she’s relatively new to the group. And presumably she wants you to be part of her family conversations for the exact same reason you want her to commit to speaking every week to her friends, because she sees a future with you and wants the people in her life to get to know you better. I do think that in the long run it may be difficult to commit to a future with Lisa if you’re unable to find at least occasional points of connection with her family. There is real room for compromise here, if you’re willing to give as much as you take.
Q. I love my partner, but the sex is just … OK: I am a 25-year-old lesbian, and I have been dating my current partner for about a year. I love her so much and feel like she is the “one”—she is endlessly kind and makes me laugh, she’s beautiful, I love her family, and I could see myself spending the rest of my life with her. But there’s just something about our sex life that feels incomplete. I enjoy sex with her, but it doesn’t “wow” me. It feels good, but not great. I want to have sex with her, but not that often. In past relationships, the sex was never a problem, but I never felt such a strong emotional bond before. I truly feel so supported and loved with her. I haven’t brought up the sex issue because it would make her too self-conscious—and I’m not so sure it’s an issue. She already has insecurities about her body (which is beautiful) and I don’t want to make those worse. I know that I have a good thing, so why am I caught up about this one little “but … ”? Is it OK for sex to be good but not great? Should I talk to her or let it be?
A: It can absolutely be OK when the sex in a given relationship is “good but not great.” But it doesn’t sound like it’s OK with you. You say things feel “incomplete,” that you don’t want to have sex with her very often, that you’ve had stronger sexual connections with past partners, and that you’re often distracted from the rest of your relationship, which is otherwise great, by your unsatisfying sex life. That seems to me like a problem that’s worth taking very seriously! I don’t know if the issue is one of personal chemistry, about the type of sex you’re having, that there’s something not lining up between your personal fantasies and what’s happening in real life, that you want her to initiate more often or do something differently in bed, that you want to consider having sex with other people (either individually or together), or something else entirely. So it’s worth asking yourself what you’d like to change in your sex life with your partner before bringing the subject up with her. You can bring her something more solid and concrete than just “our sex life is only OK,” I think; the vaguer your dissatisfaction is, the harder it will be for the two of you to do anything meaningful about it.
But when it comes to your broader question, which I take to be something like “Is it OK to be bothered by an unexciting sex life even when my partner is good, kind, and loving?” the answer is very much “Yes.” You can make room for your girlfriend’s insecurities and fears (it’s safe to assume that almost no one loves to hear their partner say “our sex life is only OK”) without assuming she’s so vulnerable that she’s unable to have a difficult conversation about intimacy. Any potentially long-term relationship needs to be able to weather these kinds of conversations! It is normal, and reasonable, and totally OK to want to talk about your sex life with your partner, even if you know it will be hard at first.
Q. Gift-giving spoilsport: I work in tech and am so lucky to be employed right now, but I’m still really nervous about money and the future. Unfortunately, my co-workers’ collective love language is gift-giving and it’s driving me crazy. For any personal celebratory event (weddings, babies, birthdays, etc.), someone in my department inevitably requests we “go in” for a collective gift. Now that the coronavirus has pushed us to working remotely, it has expanded to “thinking of you” gifts. This has included gifts for our boss and our boss’s boss. Today someone even suggested we send a thank-you gift for a gift we were sent! (HR mailed us little snack packages as a morale booster this month). The cycle will never end at this rate! I even had to put a new category in my monthly budget to plan for these unexpected expenses. Even though it’s not an excessive amount of money each time, it’s adding up. How can I politely decline without looking like a scrooge? A lot of my co-workers are very prickly about these sorts of things and will definitely take it personally.
A: Oh, that’s so maddening, and I’m so sorry. Gifts in the workplace should be few and far between, in my opinion, and they should definitely never flow up the chain of command. Alison Green has written extensively about gift-giving etiquette at work and why it’s so inappropriate for employees to be pressured into paying gifts for their superiors, if you want to dive a little deeper into possible scripts and solutions.
It might help to declare a personal policy of chipping in for birthdays and work milestones only. Something like “I’ve budgeted for birthdays, retirements, and weddings, but I’m not able to participate in this ‘thinking of you’ gift round.” There’s something very chilling about the idea of being expected to send a gift to HR for sending granola bars to everyone in acknowledgement of a pandemic and subsequent mass layoffs. I think referring to “your budget” in a cheerful, matter-of-fact tone is probably your best bet. If you were in the office under slightly more normal circumstances, I’d encourage you to speak with your boss about it, since this is really something that management ought to be providing direction and clear boundaries for. But given that many of your co-workers are “prickly” about nonparticipation, I think you might want to wait to have a bigger conversation about this until the future looks a little less uncertain.
Q. Genders and dragons: I run a tabletop game for a couple of friends. Lately we’ve been playing remotely due to the stay-at-home orders. I used this as an opportunity to invite another friend of mine. I got him caught up with the story but didn’t get him very familiar with the other players. One of the core players is trans, which I didn’t mention, and he misgendered her character a couple of times. The other players corrected him, and he apologized then used her correct pronouns for the rest of the game. I’m worried about the feelings of my trans friend. I feel terrible that she was misgendered, but she didn’t express any discomfort at the time or afterward. If she was hurt, I can easily disinvite the new guy from any future games. Is it my place to ask her how she feels about it? I don’t want to automatically assume that her feelings were hurt, but I feel responsible for the comfort of my players and the actions of the people I invite.
A: I think you may be slightly overthinking this. Misgendering is never fun, but your other teammates corrected the new guy when he used the wrong pronouns, he apologized, and everyone was able to move on. Once he’d gotten past a few initial slip-ups, he was able to gender her correctly, and it sounds like the rest of the game proceeded smoothly. You might, I suppose, have a bigger-picture conversation as a team about how you want to go about possibly inviting future members, not merely because they might misgender someone, but because the group presumably wants some input into who joins. I don’t think you need to revisit a situation that’s already been resolved (particularly because it can give the impression that you think your trans friend is hyper-sensitive), but if you think it’s important, I’d just recommend keeping it fairly brief and low-key: “I just wanted to check in after last week’s game. It seemed like everything went pretty smoothly once Hector learned your pronouns, but is there anything you’d like me to do differently in the future as the host/DM?”
Q. A bridal shower gift and a wedding gift? A childhood friend recently got married on the West Coast. We are from the East Coast, but she has since moved cross-country and has friends spread across the U.S. Because not everyone could make her wedding, she held a bridal shower in our home state before the wedding. I attended and gave her a moderately expensive gift there. I then spent approximately $1,000 to fly cross-country and stay in a hotel for her wedding. I am in grad school and generally try to be very frugal, but I was happy to attend the wedding. It was lovely. However, I did not think it was necessary to bring a gift. Another old friend told me that she thought it was rude that I didn’t bring one. I am in my mid-20s and have not attended many weddings as an adult, so the etiquette is new to me. Was it rude? Should I send something now? And how much is reasonable to spend on the gift?
A: I simply cannot countenance the idea that it’s “rude” to buy someone a “moderately expensive” gift for their shower and spend over $1,000 to attend their wedding. If this is rudeness, I can’t imagine how expensive politeness must be. Your “old friend” is in the wrong here. I can only hope that your recently married friend is grateful for the significant amount of time and money you invested in celebrating her wedding on two separate occasions. You’ve done a great deal to celebrate her, and you don’t need to worry that you were somehow secretly miserly by not also getting her a toaster. Obviously if the wedding had been local and it had simply been a matter of driving to a nearby botanical garden, I’d have different advice for you (but you’d still be in luck, as it’s perfectly acceptable to send a gift shortly after the wedding). But you spent a cool grand and then some on this woman! You’ve more than done your duty. Rest easy.
Q. Re: Calling off the calls? Even this dedicated introvert thinks it’s the least the letter writer can do to sit in their partner’s family Zoom calls for an hour a week if they plan a long-term commitment to her. (I mean, there are going to be Sunday dinners with the in-laws for the rest of their lives.) But failing that, they can’t just say, “I’m going for a walk now,” or, God forbid, sit around the apartment with noise-cancelling headphones on in full view of the camera. Chat for the first 10 or 20 minutes, then be sorry you can’t stay on longer but there’s some work to catch up on.
A: Oh, gosh, I definitely don’t recommend that the letter writer remain on screen if they’re sitting out part of a call— I hope it was clear when I said “retreat across the room” that I meant they should step out of view of the camera. Even in a relatively small studio, there must be somewhere for them to sit that’s not within view of a single laptop. And while I do agree that in the long run they’re not simply going to be able to say, “Hey, I want to spend the rest of our lives together, but I don’t really like your tightknit family and I plan on skipping all get-togethers and Sunday dinners.” But only attending one or two calls a month doesn’t strike me as unreasonable, especially because video-based get-togethers can often be draining and alienating in a way that in-person meetings aren’t.
Q. Re: My husband won’t pick up his toenail clippings, so I put them in his coffee (April 30): I’m writing in response to the letter from your column about the person whose husband picks their toenails while watching TV. I do the same thing, and it really grosses my boyfriend out. (For the first few sentences, I thought the letter might be about me.) I’ve worked to reduce the amount, but this and other forms of body picking are very soothing to me. I also obviously can’t say that this is the case for the husband in the letter, but it’s also borderline a compulsion for me. (I have mild OCD and ADD.) Something that works for us as a compromise (I think? Really hoping not to start waking up to toenails in my coffee) is that I avoid it when I can and also collect up the little pieces in a pile when I do it so that it’s easy for me to clean them up at the end of the show. I also vacuum around the couch twice a week for pieces I missed. Maybe if the letter writer approaches the husband with a little more empathy, the focus can shift from the actual act to the cleaning up afterward, and this might help?
A: I can appreciate the call for empathy whenever it comes to issues of personal hygiene, because disgust can quickly feel overwhelming and isolating, and I certainly don’t want to encourage any letter-writer to treat a possible mental-health symptom dismissively or without compassion. But I do think the real difference between your situation and the one described in the original letter is not the act of nail-clipping or compulsive grooming itself, but what happens afterwards. The husband in question simply walks away from his pile of nail clippings and lets his wife clean it up for him. She’s not asking him to stop clipping his nails, but to clean up after himself. You’re obviously and profoundly conscientious about cleaning up after yourself, so the difference here is significant, I think. But it is an excellent reminder that often, when it comes to compulsive or anxiolytic grooming, there are deep threads of worry, fear, and self-recrimination to treat with care and compassion.
Q. Re: May 6 Dear Prudence podcast: Just a note from your friendly neighborhood infectious disease epidemiologist: You mentioned that you were trying to clarify terms related to COVID-19 social distancing precautions and used the term shelter-in-place. You are right that the initial stay-at-home order issued in the Bay Area used that phraseology, as did orders in some other states including Delaware and Mississippi. This was likely because the term is somewhat familiar to the general public and officials wanted to emphasize the urgency of the orders. But you’ve probably also noticed that the Bay Area switched to referring to a “stay-at-home order” and the vast majority of states and locales have talked about “stay-at-home orders” as well. That’s because “shelter in place” has very specific public safety meanings, referring to staying inside, in one’s immediate location, away from windows (say, in the case of chemical or radiological emergencies) or where the door can be barricaded (say, in active shooter situations) until being given the all-clear. This is quite different to the types of long-term stay-at-home policies in place for COVID-19. It might seem silly to quibble about this terminology, but since you asked: Stay-at-home order is often the more apt public health phrase to use.
A: It’s not silly at all! Thank you so much for this; I’ll do my best to refer to those orders as “stay-at-home orders” whenever appropriate.
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks so much for your help, everyone. Take care of yourselves, and I’ll see you next week.
From How to Do It
Q. I think I know why my husband can’t finish during sex anymore: My husband and I have been married for five years and have a 3-year-old. When we first met and started dating, the sex was fantastic and continued to be that way after the wedding until our son was born. Ever since then, it’s become harder and harder for my husband to climax, to the point where sex seems like a long, exhausting process, and not in a good way. I’ve tried everything from new positions to new toys to old standbys and back again. He is always very giving, and I am always able to finish, but then I have another 30 to 45 minutes of work ahead of me, and it always ends in him getting close, then getting further away, and then eventually giving up. He has issues with anxiety, and I think the idea of having another kid (which we’ve always talked about and said we would do) is maybe killing his buzz in the moment. The idea that he will not be able to finish could be a self-fulfilling anxiety prophecy at this point as well. My question is, knowing all this, how can I help? I’m starting to feel self-conscious and unattractive in addition to exhausted during the increasingly rare occasions that we do have sex. Read what Stoya and Rich Juzwiak had to say.
Danny M. Lavery’s new book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, is out now.