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Danny is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. I accidentally overheard my boss’s bedroom talk: I was on a Zoom call with my boss and two other colleagues last week. When my boss thought he was muted, he began an extremely intimate, X-rated conversation with his girlfriend using voice-to-text on his phone. It lasted for almost a full minute before he realized he wasn’t actually on mute. He seemed mortified, but we all pretended we hadn’t heard anything and just continued on with the meeting. Then, the next day, he emailed all three of us with a meme that was inappropriate. He was clearly trying to defuse the tension but it just ramped it up! THEN, after all this, he started a Gchat apology thread. Now it’s just horrendously awkward. I want to just forget anything ever happened, but when he constantly brings it up, I can’t move on. The last thing I want to do is have a conversation about this with my boss, but that’s looking more and more necessary. What should I do?
A: That is nightmarish! And as embarrassing as the original incident must have been, it sounds 10 times worse to try to get through a workday wondering when your boss is going to bring it up again, and in what format, and whether he’ll be joking or tripling up on apologies he’s already made.
Since he’s already displayed repeated bad judgment on this issue, I think your next move should be to speak to HR, if your company’s large enough to have an HR department, or to bring it up with your boss’s boss if you don’t. You have plenty of written evidence that he’s brought this up several times when the rest of you have tried to simply forget about it and move on, and the company should have a vested interest in getting him to stop, since it’s grounds for a future sexual harassment case. To that end, you may also want to speak to a lawyer about your options if going over your boss’s head doesn’t get results or if you fear retaliation. But I think it’s better to involve HR or upper management at this point—you deserve institutional support and he needs real guidance and consequences for having put his employees in such excruciatingly uncomfortable positions over and over again.
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Q. I don’t want to be a Karen, but … : I live in a small, rural town that is overwhelmingly white and quite conservative (except for the faculty and staff at the local university, which includes me). The city recently passed a mask mandate since our governor refuses to. I care deeply about racial justice and so I would generally never call the police on someone … but this feels different since not wearing a mask endangers people. Is it a Karen move to call the police on someone not complying with a mask mandate? To be clear, I still wouldn’t call the police if the person violating the mandate were Black because of the increased risk of police violence (but all the complaining about mask-wearing has come from white community members).
A: The more important question is: “Would calling the police on someone not complying with a mask mandate make anyone safer?” Incarcerated populations are at greater risk and have far fewer options for treatment and risk management than non-incarcerated populations do. I think the answer to that question is a fairly straightforward “No.” That doesn’t mean it’s safe for people not to wear masks in public, but it does establish the limited utility of a police response.
The next question might be something like: “What does it look like for me as an individual, and for us as a community, to address real risk and endangerment without calling the police?” How might you use your position at the university to provide information and PPE to the general public? Who are some of the most at-risk members of your community, and how can you help them? Can you carry spare masks with you when you’re out in public and offer them to people who might need them, then come up with a strategy for moving on and focusing your energy elsewhere if someone refuses? What are some organizations or groups who’ve developed similar strategies you admire, and how can you learn from/get in touch with them? There are a number of ways to support mask-wearing that don’t focus solely on the most stubborn of outliers, and I think the best use of your time and energy right now is to choose the battles where you think you can do the most good.
Q. Last dregs of family ties: I was cut off from my family nearly 30 years ago because I rejected the church I grew up in. It’s not been easy, but I’ve mostly come to terms with it. We will never be close. (I would NEVER go back to that fundamentalist, doomsday-prophesying, misogynistic, controlling group.) They know this; I know this.
A few years back I made a commitment to try to be the bigger person, and for a while I was able to rekindle a semblance of a relationship with one sibling who sporadically reaches out, but I’m just … tired of it. I feel like I have to do so much emotional lifting. I’ve gotten over the hump of being traumatized over individual interactions, but now I don’t even want to bother responding to the occasional text. Why should I bother? I have lots of extended family from my father’s side that I’m connected to, so I’m not lacking in all familial ties—just the people I grew up and share childhood memories with. Putting aside the ideological differences, the past abuse, and the pain, I feel like I’m finished. But it feels weird that, in the end, ennui would end up being the final nail in the coffin.
They don’t need me and I get all of my emotional support from others—is that a good-enough reason to just ghost? Because that is what I’d do. I’ve already had the heart-to-hearts and the tearful confrontations. I am ready to move on. I wouldn’t declare my feelings, I’d just fade away—again. Is that terrible?
A: It may hurt your family’s feelings, but it doesn’t sound like avoiding hurt feelings is your primary goal here. (Sometimes hurt feelings are a necessary evil; sometimes they can even lead to meaningful reflection and change.) If you’re prepared to accept that as a necessary byproduct of ghosting, then you may be ready to cut that final tie. You can also explore the possibility of saying something—not necessarily having a heart-to-heart, but a brief explanation about why maintaining this connection has proved too difficult for you before cutting off contact. You don’t have to, of course, but it might feel like a bit of a relief to know your sibling knows what you’re doing, even if it’s only from a brief text. It’s perfectly understandable why you don’t feel up to regular “Hey, how’s it going?” conversations with someone who’s still in contact with your controlling, religiously abusive family of origin. You’ve explained your reasons for pulling away more than once and been met with denial, self-pity, and hostility—you don’t have to do it again if what you want is simply to end the relationship.
Q. Noisy boy: My boyfriend is an absolutely wonderful person—here comes the but—BUT I am struggling with the fact that he makes piglike sounds when he eats. This has caused me to rethink how and when we spend time together—mostly avoiding anything around meals. My question is: How do I handle this? I do love him very much.
A: Not by trying to avoid meals with him, I think. It’s never fun to contemplate telling someone you care about that they have an unpleasant or off-putting habit, but presumably you’d want to know if you had a similarly annoying habit that you hadn’t yet recognized. Eating noisily is a pretty fixable habit, not some inherent quality he can’t possibly change. He can start eating more slowly and keeping his mouth closed when he chews—but he has to know that it’s a problem first. Just say something! Don’t wait until he’s in the middle of doing it, because it’s a little embarrassing to have such a conversation as it’s happening. Be polite and don’t overload him: “You may not have noticed this, but you have a habit of chewing loudly and making noise when you eat, and that’s pretty distracting.” If you want to reassure him either before or afterward, you can, but you don’t have to apologize for asking him to chew more quietly. Just say something, and don’t overthink it.
Q. My husband forgot my birthday: I have been married to my husband for 13 years. We’ve been together a total of 22 years and have five kids. In that time, he hasn’t done much for me on birthdays, Mother’s Day, or anniversaries, though I always do something special for him on such occasions. We sometimes go out to dinner to celebrate but nothing big and extravagant. This Mother’s Day he gave me a card. For my recent birthday he did nothing. His work moves us a lot and I had to quit my last job to move for him. I have been fighting depression from not being able to find work. So now I am hurt. I feel unappreciated and unloved. He says I am picky, but I would have taken anything. Now we are separating because he won’t even apologize. Is this the right move?
A: I can’t promise you that this is the right move (or even that there’s only one right move available to you), but it certainly sounds like there’s more than just a few birthdays at stake. Does he have a habit of making you feel appreciated the rest of the year, or is his non-observance of holidays indicative of a larger pattern where he takes you for granted and dismisses your feelings? Did he know you’d been fighting depression during this period of unemployment? Does he often apologize when he thinks he’s been in the wrong, or does he generally pretend nothing happened after an argument? Has this period of separation made you feel more alone? Has it reminded you of all the things you love about him—or has it highlighted the one-sidedness of your relationship? Most importantly: What would you need from your husband in order to give your marriage another try, and do you think he’s willing to give it to you?
Q. Twin, not guardian: My twin sister married very young and has three kids. I have a demanding career that involves long hours and tons of travel. Houseplants are too much trouble for me. I am also not a patient or maternal person, even though I love my nephews. Recently, my sister and her husband approached me about being their boys’ legal guardian if anything happened to them. I have no idea why, when both when our parents are alive and our older brother is married. My brother-in-law has several siblings who are married with kids. I told them I was flattered but that I don’t think I’m the right candidate. My twin got angry with me and took my refusal as a personal rejection of her kids. I must “not love them enough.” I apologized and explained my reasons: I would have to quit my profession to take care of the boys, and it would be a huge mess. My sister just hissed at me, “You are supposed to be my twin!”
She isn’t talking to me now. My family feels I should have seen this coming—my sister wanted to “honor” me and I should have just accepted it since it most likely will not happen. This is annoying. I feel like I am getting punished for being logical about a legal responsibility. I actually gave thought and care to the possibility of my nephews being orphaned. What do I do here? I love my sister, but being her twin is a fact, not a rationale for being a good guardian! The longest I have spent in the U.S. was a month, last year, recovering from surgery.
A: I suppose it’s possible that saying “It would be a huge mess” might have activated your sister’s protectiveness around her kids, but that’s really a cosmetic issue—you carefully considered whether you’d be the best first candidate for taking in your sister’s children in the unlikely event of her (and her husband’s) death and decided that the answer was no. Saying “sure” to something just because you think it probably won’t happen is a recipe for trouble; I can’t agree with your other relatives that you should have agreed just to make her happy. Maybe after she’s had a few more weeks to cool off, you can try again with something like this: “I hope you know how much I love my nephews, because I do love them. I love you too. If anything happened to you and your husband, I would be there for them. I said no to being your first option as a possible guardian because, as a single person who travels often, I couldn’t offer the kids the same stability and financial support that our parents, siblings, and in-laws could. But I’d do everything I could for them.”
Q. My husband’s female best friend he previously had sex with: I warned my husband before we got together years ago that I wasn’t comfortable with any partner of mine having a friend whom he’s slept with. He said OK. Well, we tried having an open relationship and he decided to sleep with his best friend, whom, he told me, he’d previously had a thing for. It’s all been called off because I wasn’t comfortable with any of it. He was OK with that but now he won’t quit talking to her despite me telling him that I’m uncomfortable with their friendship and that we had this conversation before we got together. He’s cut their friendship back some but I’m still not comfortable with it. I’m deeply hurt and he just brushes it off and makes me feel like my feelings on it are unimportant. And he said that if he has to choose, he’s going to choose her; we have had some problems recently, mainly pertaining to all of this. What should I do? How should I handle this? Am I just overreacting, or am I right to feel hurt and upset by this?
A: I’m not sure how it could be overreacting if you feel hurt when your husband says, unprompted, “I’ve always had a thing for my best friend, and now that we’ve slept together, I’m prepared to choose her over you.” That’s hurtful! You entered this relationship with a pretty clear personal boundary about friendship and sex; that boundary has now been violated and your husband intends to continue disregarding it because of his best friend. What does it mean to you to stay in a marriage where your husband’s made it clear that you’re not his first priority? Do you see meaningful possible compromise, or do you see a fundamental incompatibility?
You can handle this however you like. You’re not obligated to leave your husband if you don’t want to. Asking a partner never even to talk to anyone they’ve ever slept with is a pretty tall order, and it may be worth spending some time asking yourself whether that’s a hard-and-fast rule you want to commit to in future relationships. But it’s also a pretty tall order to say to your wife, “Not only am I maintaining a close friendship with a former lover and an ongoing crush, I plan on choosing her over you if it ever comes to that—now what should we have for dinner tonight?” However you decide to handle this, whether you pursue couples counseling or individual therapy, whether you want a trial separation or anything else, you should take your own feelings seriously instead of trying to convince your husband to take them seriously when he’s unwilling to do so.
Q. Not-so-kid-friendly vacation: We just finished a big family vacation with my husband’s large family. We try to get together every two to three years for a vacation. We live out-of-state and don’t get to see them outside of the holiday season each year, so these vacations are a big deal. My in-laws did not take their big family on vacations until my husband was in college, so my father-in-law has a bucket list of places he’s always dreamed of going. At the end of this vacation my father-in-law announced the next two family vacations two and four years from now: Chicago and Hawaii. He made this decision without consulting any other family members.
Three of us have kids, and in two years there will be three 2-year-olds in the group, including my own daughter. My husband and I have talked excessively, and privately, about how poorly thought-through these vacations sound with so many toddlers (and maybe more babies?) in the family—not to mention expensive! We will try to keep an open mind about going, and in two years from now a lot can change, but how can we tell my father-in-law that the vacation plans he’s always wanted to take the family on sound terrible with kids? I feel both of these vacations would be amazing without kids. An adults-only Hawaii vacation? Sign me up! But I don’t want to pay for my kid to go on an expensive Hawaiian or big-city vacation she won’t remember. Plus, we might have more kids soon, so trying to juggle a baby and toddler sounds like a nonvacation to me. My husband is willing to try to talk to his dad, but what do we say?
A: Mostly just what you’ve told me: that you’ve loved being able to travel together, that you understand the importance of these vacations, and that you may not be able to join family in Hawaii due to the cost of travel and child care for multiple toddlers. That doesn’t mean you don’t love your husband’s family or that you don’t value the time you get to spend together. It just means you might not be able to afford the next big vacation. It’s not as if you’re delivering news of a terminal diagnosis; you’d just be stating the obvious. Your husband doesn’t have to say, “It’s selfish and foolish of you to have even considered the idea of traveling to Hawaii, and we won’t stand for it.” He can just say you might not be able to go! Then, if the time comes (and if such travel is even possible) and you can’t afford it, just don’t go. Tell them you hope they have a great time and that you can’t wait to see them when they get back.
Q. Re: I accidentally overheard my boss’s bedroom talk: Don’t go to HR! The guy is embarrassed and not handling his embarrassment well. If HR will start an investigation, it will become a very big deal. Just tell the guy you’d prefer to pretend it never happened and go about your lives.
A: I’ve gotten a few letters to the same effect, so I think it’s worth running them here, even though I’m not quite convinced. For starters, it’s already a “big deal” if your boss is contacting you across multiple platforms and during work hours to keep talking about it. And it’s his responsibility as the letter writer’s boss to make sure he stays reasonably professional with his employees, even if he’s embarrassed. But if the letter writer ordinarily has a good relationship and thinks there’s reason to hope he’ll knock it off if they say, “I know it was a mistake, but I’d rather we just move on and stop talking about it than hear another apology or joking reference,” that might be the best next move.
Q. Re: I accidentally overheard my boss’s bedroom talk: The letter writer’s boss has a sex life: shocker! Good for him and get over it! Telling the writer to go to HR seems like an overreaction here. Since the boss opened up an apology chat to folks, that seems like a great opportunity to say directly to him that thanks, the letter writer doesn’t want to talk about it anymore, and move on. Clearly what happened initially was unintentional and an accident the boss was mortified by and is trying to deal with. In these pandemic times, good jobs can be tough to come by, and going to HR or his boss could endanger his job. I would absolutely say go to HR if he were repeatedly being inappropriate, but it doesn’t sound like he wasn’t trying to and clearly is embarrassed. If someone has an issue with something he’s done or said, a direct conversation with him about that first is the right thing to do, and if he doesn’t modify the behavior or retaliates, THEN go to his boss or supervisor. But please have some grace that he’s a person just like everyone else who is adjusting to constant video calls and the new normal.
A: The problem quite obviously is not that the boss has a sex life but that he’s made his employees uncomfortable by bringing it up on multiple occasions, sometimes apologetically and sometimes jokingly. That puts his employees in an uncomfortable position. But I’m getting enough letters saying to hold off on HR until the letter writer has tried just telling him that they want to move on that I’m prepared to revise my answer and to say that the direct request is the letter writer’s first option. It is true that adjusting to video calls and working from home is a pretty drastic change and that it’s trickier to distinguish between public and private time when you’re muted on a conference call in your living room versus sitting in a conference room at your office. But I do think it was the boss’s responsibility, after realizing he’d made a mistake, to respond better than he did: He should have made at most a single sincere apology, then committed to not doing it again and doing his employees the favor of not trying to exorcise his own embarrassment by reminding them of what happened.
Q. Re: I accidentally overheard my boss’s bedroom talk: Do NOT go to HR. This could start a spiral of things that can and should be avoided. The guy is stuck in an embarrassment spiral. Tell him: “I understand you’re embarrassed. Let’s not ever discuss this again and try to forget it.” I think he will. No sense in making this into a thing. Have some compassion for the poor guy—this is probably the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to him.
A: I think I’m convinced that saying something directly is the better first option now. While I still think he should have checked his embarrassment spiral sooner, I think he’s likely to respond well to “Please just stop talking about it.” The letter writer can always go to HR later if he continues to press the issue, although I still don’t think he should have put his employees in the position of having to make this call for him. And while I may have compassion for him as an individual, I don’t want to encourage employees to feel responsible for their boss’s embarrassment either, because they depend on him for their continued employment, and it’s just too much pressure for someone with less professional power to take responsibility for their boss’s emotions and comfort on top of everything else. All of which is to say to the letter writer: Speak to him first, give him the chance to do the right thing, but don’t feel like it’s your job to make sure he stays out of trouble if he continues to bring it up after you’ve asked him to stop.
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks for the help, everyone—I really appreciate it.
From How to Do It
Q. Is my wife, a feminist, testing me when she asks to be dominated in bed? I am having a hard time reconciling my wife’s feminism with her desire to be dominated and submissive. My wife is a very attractive woman who doesn’t suffer chauvinism or objectification. Her strength of character, and fearlessness to confront an unequal power structure, is one of the characteristics that I love about her. As she has been able to advance professionally, she has become even more confident, which only increases my desire for her.
I have been finding myself confused, however, because while she will not tolerate being objectified by anyone in public and is very adamant about her agency, in private she wants me to be quite aggressive and seems willing to be very submissive. I find myself acting with great skepticism during sex, as though she’s testing me and that if I actually do become more physical, that I will have failed this test and ruin our relationship, which has lasted for 18 years so far. This results in sex that is fine, but I feel could be so much better for both of us if I’m confident I am giving her the kind of sexual experience she actually wants and not just tolerates.
While I know that submissive desires are normal and common sexual behavior, I am wondering if it is common for such adamant feminism to coincide or run parallel with a clear and strong submissive desire? Is this perhaps a specific category that I need to look into? Read what Rich Juzwiak had to say.
Danny M. Lavery’s new book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, is out now.