Dear Prudence

Am I a “Karen”?

I frequently ask to speak to managers and write strongly worded letters.

White woman's hand pointing to an icon of a person wearing a mask.
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Dear Prudence,

I come from a state where people are generally kind and not very confrontational. I’ve also lived in cities where people are far more gruff and are very boisterous when they think someone is trying to take advantage of them. Because of this, I’ve developed a much thicker skin than most people back home. I’ve been confronting people not wearing their masks correctly in stores (masks are mandatory in my city). It stresses me out so much and has me wondering if I’m being a “Karen.” I ask to speak to managers and write strongly worded letters somewhat frequently. It got to the point recently where I realized I act like the world owes me. I’ve never yelled at a manager over store policy, but I’ve always tried to “get stuff” when things haven’t gone my way. I don’t want to be like this, but I can’t shake the very negative feelings I’ve developed when I feel like I’ve been taken advantage of. I saw so many other people letting people know when they made the smallest mistake. Sometimes people seemed genuinely sorry for what they did or were a bit oblivious. Sometimes they got really hostile. Should I always be trying to make sure that people correct their mistakes, or should I let small things go? Is it a Karen move to always ask people to correct their mistakes?

—Always Disgusted in Tunbridge Wells

Let’s agree that someone who always asks others to correct their mistakes, regardless of the relative importance of the mistake or how well they know each other, is generally considered difficult, draining, and best avoided. However strictly right you may be in each moment, treating everyone as an obstacle to be overcome in your quest to never get anything less than 100 percent of what you are owed is, well, also draining and probably best avoided. What do you get out of writing strongly worded letters to various companies, aside from the occasional buy-one-get-one-free coupon and a corporate-sounding apology? What did you used to spend your time and energy on before you took up this crusade against insufficiently dazzling customer service? Does bargaining with managers actually get rid of that “negative feeling” you develop when you worry someone else has taken advantage of you? If this was working, that would be one thing. But you seem to continually feel aggrieved, no matter how assertively you speak to people who accidentally cut the line, or forgot to scan your coupon, or didn’t offer you a free refill. And it suggests that this hypervigilance, this Angriest Dog in the World act, is exacerbating your sense of being mistreated instead of soothing it.

I think the real work ahead of you lies in asking what other options are available to you in moments when you feel overwhelmed by negativity and the sense that someone else is “getting away” with something they shouldn’t. What might happen if you just … let them get away with it? You say you’ve seen “so many other people letting people know when they made the smallest mistake”—did those people seem happier, generally speaking? Did you get a sense, as you watched them monitor each line and boundary, that they were relaxed, peaceful, and someone whose internal experience you hoped to emulate? When you look back at all the stuff you’ve gotten because you didn’t let anyone else get away with anything over the past few years, ask yourself the question: Was it worth it?

Help! I Constantly Think About Abandoning My Disabled Spouse.

Danny M. Lavery is joined by Charlie Markbreiter on this week’s episode of the Dear Prudence podcast.

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Dear Prudence,

My two sisters and I are at a loss. Our third sister, “Ophelia,” suffers from bipolar disorder, and every few years she goes off her medication, stops seeing her therapist and taking care of herself, and subsequently has a breakdown. A few weeks ago, she had another suicide attempt and is now in the local psychiatric facility. We aren’t angry with her for getting the help she needs—we’re glad she’s getting it. But ever since our parents moved away, we end up being responsible for taking care of her cats. Normally, if it’s just a week or so, we can muscle through it without too much trouble. But I just found that with her new treatment she might be gone for another three to six weeks. That’s an awfully long time for us to care for her pets and for the poor things to be cooped up mostly alone without any real attention between the quick visits the rest of us can manage between our full-time jobs and other obligations.

My sisters and I agreed we would talk to our parents about paying to board the animals while Ophelia is away. When I called them, my father was extremely dismissive and suggested that it was our duty to take care of her pets—along with other tasks like canceling appointments, mailing out bill payments, and otherwise managing her finances—and put our lives on hold, during what is already a stressful time for all of us, while she’s hospitalized. Is there anything we can do for these poor cats while still being able to exert some autonomy over the situation? We don’t want to put them in a shelter or give them up, but we are all very frustrated for being in this position in the first place.

—Cat Responsibility

This is a frustrating situation without an easy solution. I think your best bet, in between boarding (which can be an expensive proposition) and just visiting the cats for 20 minutes a day yourselves, is to look for one or two reliable cat sitters you can establish a long-term relationship with and can call as needed. You don’t have to brief them on the details of Ophelia’s mental health history, although you can explain that sometimes you’ll need to act on your sister’s behalf on relatively short notice while she’s unavailable. I’d consider your parents a dead end here and encourage you not to waste any more time and energy trying to persuade them to do more when they’re both out-of-state and unwilling to do so. You might also consider canvassing some of her friends (assuming they’re close friends who are familiar with her situation) to either chip in or join the rotation of cat sitters.

Once Ophelia is safely out of crisis mode, it might help you and your sisters to go over future options, so you can come up with a contingency plan together. That doesn’t mean you should show up on her doorstep on her first day home, but it’s possible to bring this up patiently, nonjudgmentally, and safely, without either seeking to make Ophelia feel guilty for her suicidal thoughts or attempting to tiptoe around reality for fear she’s so fragile she’ll break if you even say the word hospital. If you find it’s not possible to talk with her about it, try your best to make a plan with your other sisters. Depending on Ophelia’s financial situation, she may be able to establish a cat-sitting fund, move her bills to auto pay, add you as an authorized user on her accounts, and so on. The more automated this plan is, the less you might feel like your life is on hold the next time your sister is hospitalized (although I also hope there won’t be a next time, but it’s better to be overprepared in this instance). You can also look for opportunities to triage; just because you’re in crisis doesn’t mean that everything is of equal importance and has to get done right away. Knowing what you’ll do—as well as deciding what you’re willing to let go, so you can also focus on taking care of yourself—will hopefully go a long way toward boosting your sense of autonomy.

Dear Prudence,

I’m a lesbian who made friends with a gay man about a year ago when we took an art class together. Other than the class, which met weekly, our social circles don’t overlap. We became friends quickly because we live in a relatively small, relatively straight town. But my new friend has started oversharing about his sex life way, way too much. I’ve heard details I never wanted to hear about his partners and their activities. He’ll throw in sexual jokes and innuendos at nearly every opportunity, even during non-sex-related conversations. He works in a very buttoned-up industry and often tells me he’s glad he can be his full self around me. I’m happy he feels comfortable—but I am so uncomfortable! I’m honestly kind of a prude, and I feel weird that he assumed our shared queerness meant I’m up for the frequency and intensity of sexual talk that he clearly feels comfortable with. I’ve tried to show a little alarm and disgust at some of his cruder stuff, but he’s just ramped up the less-crude stuff. What should I do?

—We’re Here, We’re Queer, We’re Squeamish

Tell him it bothers you and to knock it off. He might read whatever your slight demonstrations of alarm are as an attempt to bust his chops as part of the routine or even the sort of “eww, I don’t want to have the kind of sex you have” jokes that gay men and lesbians sometimes exchange with one another. So if you’ve never told him that you’re uncomfortable with this much detail, he’s not going to suddenly guess correctly now when you start indirectly communicating “a little disgust.” Any attempts to drop hints or communicate horror will be unnecessarily confusing and probably painful to your friend. Just open your mouth and use your words.

Catch up on this week’s Prudie.

Now available in your podcast player: the audiobook edition of Danny M. Lavery’s latest book, Something That May Shock and Discredit YouGet it from Slate

More Advice From Care and Feeding

Recently, I ran into another mother picking up her first-grade son from the after-school program he attends with my 10-year-old daughter, Jane. Her son (let’s call him Joe) seems to have some difficulty fitting in with other kids. The boy’s mom stopped me and thanked me for having such a kind daughter who was nice to her son when very few other kids had been, and always made him feel included. I was really proud of Jane when I heard that—I was a bullied kid and I’m glad to know that she has taken my lessons to heart about being kind.

However, a few days later Jane asked if she could talk to me in private and confessed that she was having some problems with Joe. Apparently in the after-school program he has been telling everyone that Jane is his “girlfriend” and basically won’t leave her side the whole time she is there, even sitting next to her and staring at her while she is working on her homework. She said that she knows it’s important to be kind and make people feel included, but he’s sort of driving her insane, and she doesn’t like him calling her his girlfriend. She said she had asked him directly to give her some space, told him that she doesn’t like being touched when he tries to hold her hand, and has asked the teachers to help her, all to no avail.

I want to raise a daughter who has a sense of her own worth and is willing to confront men behaving badly. I also feel a lot of sympathy for Joe, who sees a popular and (I may be biased) cute girl who is nice to him and has grabbed on for all he’s worth. How do I advise her in this situation? And is it worth me calling the after-school program and asking them to do better about enforcing my daughter’s boundaries?