Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Danny Lavery: Afternoon, everyone. This is my penultimate live chat, so there’s just today and next Monday to get this Prudence to answer a question in real time—get it while the going’s good. Let’s chat!
Q. Angry roommate: I took over an apartment lease after I broke up with my boyfriend. It was a friend of a friend of a friend. “Kim” and I don’t have much in common, but we are both quiet and clean, so it is better than most. On Friday, Kim told me she was “going out” and didn’t have any luggage. She wasn’t home by Saturday afternoon, so I started to get concerned. I called and texted her but no response. I didn’t want to call the police, but during college, several young women went missing and were later found dead. One lived on my floor. The first 48 hours are the most critical in missing people cases. I went online and went through Kim’s social media and found her parents and older sister. I was able to Google their addresses and found the home telephone of both. I called the older sister since it seemed the lesser of two evils and left a message. On Sunday, I got woken up at 6 a.m. from an unknown number. It was Kim’s mom and she was nearly hysterical. She wanted to know if Kim was home. She wasn’t.
Kim was home by midmorning. She had gone over for a booty call that turned into a weekend visit and forgot to charge her phone. She had to explain it to her family. She was incandescently furious at me—she said my behavior was sick and borderline stalker, that she didn’t have to check in with me, and I wasn’t her warden. I protested that she had left with just her purse. Kim screamed at me that she had clothes in her car. At this point, I started shouting back: I was sorry I was worried she might be dead in a ditch or in the hospital, but Kim could have avoided this entire mess by just telling me she would be gone for the weekend or just plugging in her phone. We aren’t speaking and the atmosphere of the apartment is suffocating. Did I step over a line here?
A: A few, I’m afraid. It doesn’t sound like you and Kim had ever had a conversation about when to check in with each other about overnight trips, so there was no shared expectation that you two would keep even informal tabs on each other when you left the house; she doesn’t seem to have been in the habit of telling you when to expect her back; and your relationship as roommates has historically been distant-but-cordial. Going out of your way to look for your roommate’s relatives (especially when you have no idea what her relationship with her family is like) after Kim spent the weekend away was a serious overreaction, and I’m not surprised she lost her composure when you attempted to justify your decision to locate and inform her family just because she’d left the apartment without an overnight bag. You say, “Kim could have avoided this entire mess by just telling me she would be gone for the weekend,” but that suggests that Kim should have reasonably expected that her roommate would call her mother within 48 hours if she didn’t text daily updates. Kim clearly didn’t think that was reasonable, and for the record, neither do I.
That’s not to say that your concern for Kim wasn’t real, but the “first 48 hours in a missing person’s case” refers to a categorically missing person—someone who’s missed work or class unexpectedly, who’s stopped responding to close friends and family members. By your own admission, you and Kim aren’t close and don’t often share your plans with each other; I think your steadily mounting discomfort and fears about your old college classmate were what pushed you to escalate, not a specific knowledge of Kim’s schedule or a growing consensus among Kim’s loved ones that she had fallen off the map and was in potential danger. Your knowledge of Kim was not equal to your feelings of concern, and when you realized you were growing worried, you ought to have taken the former more readily into account—you might have contacted that “friend of a friend” before looking up her sister’s phone number, for example.
I think you should apologize and give Kim some space. You don’t have to apologize for being worried, but for the conclusions you leapt to unaided as a result of that worry, and for overstepping your bounds by involving Kim’s family for doing something as mundane as spending an extra night at a date’s house without informing her roommate first.
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Q. My parents won’t approve: Over a year ago, I was in a long-term relationship with a man we’ll call “Anthony.” My family, particularly my parents, loved Anthony as if he were already a part of the family. He was everything they had ever wanted in a potential son-in-law: charismatic, considerate, self-employed, and financially stable, even well-off. The problem is that I didn’t feel nearly as passionate about him as they did; in fact, their admiration of him played a huge role in my decision to maintain the relationship. This was a mistake on my part, since Anthony eventually proposed—in front of them, no less. I agreed to it for that reason, but later on had a serious discussion with him. I admitted that I didn’t see myself with him in the long run. He took it a lot better than my family—my parents were heartbroken, acting as if I told them he had passed away. Afterward, they maintained a sort of relationship by exchanging pleasantries on Facebook and Instagram—something I had nothing to do with, although they never hesitated to tell me what he was up to and that he was single.
Fast-forward to now, I’ve begun a relationship with a man who I’ve fallen deeply for. He and I are very happy, and the time has come for my family to meet him. But there’s no doubt in my mind that my family won’t be nearly as receptive of him as they were with Anthony. For starters, they’re still hoping for a reconciliation. Secondly, my new boyfriend, “David,” would not traditionally check off every box on their list of preferences. I’m concerned that they’ll treat David like an outsider and compare him to Anthony. I figure I can’t force them to like David, but what can I do to make sure they at least get along?
A: The biggest factor, which I think you already know, is figuring out how to maintain your own sense of composure, self-assuredness, and serenity regardless of your parents’ response, since in the past you’ve made decisions about your romantic life in order to please them and to your own detriment. You’re already prepared to offer an introduction, and in fact, you can simply share with them a digested version of what you’ve told me here: You’ve met someone who makes you very happy, his name is David, and you’d like them to meet him. If at any point they seem inclined to bring up Anthony or to suggest you ought to reconsider, you can tell them you’re not looking for input or advice. If they’re unable to resist putting their oar in, you can draw the conversation to a close and reaffirm your desire to introduce them when and if they’re interested in meeting him, rather than in having a family council about who you should be dating instead. You’re right that you can’t (and shouldn’t) try to force them to like David, but you can reasonably expect that their role in your relationship should be open-minded about meeting him and respecting your right to date someone you’re interested in.
Q. Lonely: I live in a city where I only have two friends, who were friends with each other before we met. I’ve always had a hard time making friends as it is, but especially as an adult (it was so much easier when I was in school!) and during a pandemic. My two friends have a group of six or seven other friends that hang out together often. I don’t know these people, but based on social media, it seems like we’d have a lot in common! I have asked my friends, multiple times, to introduce me to their other friends, but they always say they will and then never do. Hinting, asking directly—nothing has worked. I have no idea why they won’t introduce me to anyone else they know in the area. I think I’m pretty nice, I have a lot of interests, I’m not exactly attractive but I don’t smell or anything.
I really—really!—need some other friends, and this seems like the easiest way in, but they won’t budge. At the same time, I don’t want to push too hard, because I don’t want to lose the friends I do have. What gives?
A: That’s a good question! I wish I knew. I’m afraid that at this point, since you’ve tried multiple times with both friends to no avail, that pushing for more details would unfortunately count as “pushing too hard,” so we’re simply going to have to chalk this one up to one of the unknowable secrets of the universe. Maybe your friends have every intention of getting around to it but can’t muster up a sense of urgency, maybe there’s a reason that has nothing to do with you—whatever the case, I think it’s clear that this is no longer likely to be the easiest way to build new friendships, and you’re going to have to look elsewhere. I’m sorry, because it must feel frustrating to wonder if there’s something you’ve done to put your friends off, but I just don’t think there’s another way to convince them to open up after so many failed attempts. Trying to find new friends through shared interests does seem like the best next move here; whatever those interests may be, I hope you discover a ton of people in your city who share your enthusiasm for bouldering/Warhammer/Preston Sturges movies as much as you do, and who want to get coffee afterward and strike up a new friendship.
Q. Sister in the dark about her parentage: I have a half-sister who has no idea that the man she calls her father is not her blood father. I only know my father’s side of the story, and when I tried to reach out to her mother, my request to hear her side went unanswered. It has been 10 years since my initial attempt, as I did not want to harass her or be pushy. But I feel that if I do not attempt to contact my half-sister now, if or when she does find out, she may feel as though we did not care. She turns 18 this year, and to my knowledge, she is still unaware even after her parents were supposed to tell her years ago. I would like to reach out to her, but I want her mom to be able to have the conversation with her in the hopes that their relationship is not completely ruined by her mother’s omission. Should I reach out to my sister? If so, how should I let her know that she needs to ask her mom some very important questions?
A: This is tricky! I’ll confess I don’t have a strong sense of your best move right off the bat, so I’m hoping I’ll be able to fumble toward a principle by thinking it through. I don’t know what your father’s side of the story is, so I realize there are a number of possible outcomes—I think there’s value in weighing them all carefully before you make a decision. You say you want to make sure that this girl’s relationship with her mother “is not completely ruined” if she ever finds out about her conception, but I’m not so sure that’s a guaranteed outcome. She may very well continue to think of the man who raised her as her father, and may not find language like “blood father” especially compelling. It’s possible that even if you were the one who broke the news to her, she might not be particularly interested in getting to know your family, or in thinking of your father as hers, too. That said, since it’s been 10 years and you know she’ll be of legal age soon, I think a follow-up message to her mother expressing a renewed interest in speaking to your half-sister (without asking for her express permission) might be best, as it gives her time to consider how she’d like to handle her relationship with her daughter first.
Beyond that, you’ll have to weigh the possible downsides of getting in touch against your own interests. How will you feel if you share the news with your half-sister and she doesn’t respond well? If she gets angry or defensive, or doesn’t reply at all? You seem to have handled a nonresponse from her mother 10 years ago very well, so I have confidence in your ability to weather any response now appropriately and without digging in your heels. It’s just a question of acknowledging the sensitivity of your revelation, the possibility that it may complicate your relationship with your own parents as well as with this other group of people, and being prepared for a wide swath of possible reactions.
Q. Work-appropriate leg hair: Is it appropriate to show my hairy legs at work? I’m a queer cis woman who prefers not to shave my legs, but also prefers dresses and skirts to pants. This is fine in winter, when I’m wearing tights anyway, but I don’t know what to do during warmer months. Traditionally I’ve just shaved during the summers, but I don’t enjoy it and would prefer not to. I work in a professional but fairly liberal office, but I feel like it’s out of line not to shave. In the past, when I’ve just had stubble, I’ve gotten looks but no comments. Is body hair the reason men or people who wear masculine clothes don’t wear shorts in the office? I’m at a loss here.
A: If your colleagues wear dresses/skirts without tights in the summer, then you should feel free to wear dresses/skirts without tights in the summer, as it’s clearly consistent with whatever dress code, either official or unspoken, governs your office. I don’t want to wade too far out into the waters of speculation, and there are plenty of offices and industries where men do wear shorts in the summer, but shorts do, for whatever reason, have fewer formal/professional associations than skirts, some of which may be connected to gendered associations about body hair. I might imagine that “men” and “people who wear masculine clothes” have a variety of disparate experiences about office wear, so beyond that I’m not sure how useful it might be to treat those groups as a single category. Alison Green of Ask a Manager offered a similar ruling back in 2016, so go forth with the blessing of not one but two advice columnists.
Q. How do I get along with my adult sister? I have many siblings. I love all of them, but I have a very difficult time getting along with one of my older sisters. She is a grown woman in her mid-50s but lacks maturity. Her habits annoy me to no end. In emails and texts, she sounds like a 12-year-old girl. Her language, overuse of emojis, and lack of intelligence grate on my nerves. I have never mentioned this to her, and honestly, I feel guilty for having these feelings. I am an educated woman with a family of my own and just wish we could hold an intelligent conversation. I fear it will never be possible with her. We hardly speak anymore and we don’t live near each other, but we will see each other at our family reunion this year. Not only does she lack decorum, but she is also very closed-minded and racist. To make matters worse, she has historically shown how much she feels that she and her children are better than everyone else, even at times being downright nasty about it. To be clear, her children, who are adults now, do not share these traits with her.
How do I get along with her? Not just at the reunion, but going forward. I dread anytime I have to talk with her and I feel awful about it.
A: One of these things is not like the others, as the saying goes! I agree that you’ve been right to refrain from trying to manage your sister’s emoji use or telling her “I think you text like a child,” but if she’s “very closed-minded and racist,” I don’t think your goal should be anything like trying to “get along with her.” You should object to her racism. That’s far more important than her “annoying habits” like including extra exclamation points or forgoing capital letters when she emails you. Don’t try to get along with someone racist, even if that someone is your sister.
Q. Don’t care about pronouns: I identify as nonbinary. I don’t particularly feel like a man or a woman. I know other nonbinary people who specifically want to be referred to as they/them. I don’t care, honestly. Call me whatever pronouns you choose. A friend pointed out to me that people were going to likely use she/her, since that’s how I “present,” but I never really thought about it. I’ve never exactly conformed to either “male” or “female” gender “norms.” I’m just me. And I understand that to some people, their gender identity and pronouns are important, but to me, it’s not particularly important.
Is it OK to just know that I’m nonbinary for myself and not really think or worry about how I present to others or their opinion about what nonbinary is or means?
Q. Re: Angry roommate: You are 100 percent in the wrong, you totally owe her an apology. She is a grown woman and it’s her own business. I have family boundary issues myself; if a roommate had done this to me, I would never have forgiven them. I think you know this deep down; your “concern” for her sounds fake. You need therapy to uncover why you have the instinct to sabotage others in such a mean way.
A: I won’t go so far as to say that the letter writer’s concern must have been contrived; I think it’s entirely possible that they really were upset. But it’s crucial to acknowledge the difference between “feeling concerned” and what actually happened; it is not reasonable to seek out the relatives of a roommate one barely knows and doesn’t normally receive updates from after said roommates spends two nights away from home without checking in. The letter writer would have certainly had grounds to say, upon her return, that they’d been worried and to ask to establish a policy of sending a brief check-in text when possible if either party plans on spending more than one night away from the apartment, but their roommate would then herself have grounds to say whether she’s interested in such a policy herself.
Q. Re: Angry roommate: No, sorry Prudie, but this is just basic “women looking after another” behavior (I say women because I do think it is something drilled into women who live together to always check in with roommates). The roommate left with only her purse, didn’t return texts, and was gone for a few days. The letter writer didn’t call the police; she just reached out to family to say she was worried. I’d expect the same from anyone. How was the letter writer supposed to know the roommate was on an extended booty call? If she had been lying in a ditch somewhere and the letter writer had saved her life, would the roommate feel she’d overreacted then?
A: This is clearly not behavior that has been “drilled into” Kim, and I don’t think any woman who seeks to live with another woman must therefore sign up to have her relatives called if she spends two nights with a date without clearing it with her roommate first. Kim may very well have other friends she does check in with, rather than her mostly distant roommate. While it’s perfectly fine for the letter writer to want to establish some sort of mutually-agreed-upon rule for overnight trips, it does not necessarily follow that it was appropriate to look up Kim’s relatives just because she was gone for roughly 36 hours (Friday afternoon to Sunday morning) without checking in. Kim has every right to set whatever limits/rules/restrictions she wants about taking trips or doing something by herself, and she does not have to automatically agree to be surveilled by her roommate simply because she is a woman.
Q. Not sleeping with the enemy: I’m engaged to be married soon, and, while my fiancé was away on holiday recently, I reconnected with a (heterosexual) friend of the opposite gender and ended up staying overnight unexpectedly. As his shared house does not have a communal living area and his bedroom is quite small, I ended up sleeping in his spacious double bed with him in it. It was strictly platonic, but my fiancé and I are from a relatively conservative background and my fiancé would not be OK with me seeing this friend again alone if I were to tell him. Is co-sleeping with someone in a context that most people might assume to have romantic undercurrents cheating?
Now available in your podcast player: the audiobook edition of Danny M. Lavery’s latest book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You. Get it from Slate.