Dear Prudence

Help! My In-Laws Have Disgusting Habits at the Dinner Table.

Read what Prudie had to say in Part 1 of this week’s live chat.

A woman sucking on her index finger.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.

Jenée Desmond-Harris: Hi, everyone! Happy Monday. I’m Jenée Desmond-Harris, your new Prudie, and I’m ready to chat about how hard life can be. Let me know what’s on your mind …

Q. Fed up in Philadelphia: I love my in-laws very much, but they have hygiene habits that nauseate me. They put their hands in their mouths and pick food from their teeth, look at the remains and then swallow the food back up again. They lick each finger and then touch all of the surfaces in my home, grab communal food with their infected hands, and often “wash” their hands without soap. When my nephew had cake all over him, my father-in-law said, “Clean up! Lick your fingers.” I almost threw up as the kid snorted food off his hands. My father-in-law picks his nose with regularity and my mother in-law blows her nose and places her wet tissue on my dining room table.

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My pleas for safe hygiene are met with looks of irritation and flat-out refusal. I am treated like a snooty elitist who is trying to enforce table manners. I am extremely ill with autoimmune problems but they imply that I make a fuss for attention or control. My husband says his parents won’t change, so “why bother saying anything?”

A: Sigh. Those pandemic cleanliness habits really haven’t lasted the way we hoped they might, have they?

I am so sorry you have to deal with this. It all sounds disgusting and I cringed as I read it. Sadly, people have wildly different ways of doing things when it comes to hygiene and manners, and it’s really tough to get adults (especially those who, like your in-laws, have no shame and don’t care about acting rude or being bad guests) to adopt new practices. Your husband is probably correct there.

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So, I think you should pick your battles by dividing these behaviors into two categories: 1) things that are gross to witness but don’t put your health at risk, and 2) things that put your health at risk by exposing you to germs that, because of your condition, could make you really sick.

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When it comes to category No. 1 (tooth picking, finger licking, etc.), you might just have to figure out a way to deal. Look the other way, leave the room for a bit after a meal when the routine starts up, take deep breaths, repeat the mantra “These people are filthy but I’ll survive,” etc.

And when it comes to category No. 2 (grabbing communal food with dirty hands, etc.), you can make some actual rules, like insisting that everyone wash their hands or use hand sanitizer before meals. It would be really nice if your husband could enforce these rules, but it doesn’t sound like he will. If the in-laws absolutely refuse, you can set out individual portions when you’re hosting at your home, or eat before you go and pass on food at theirs. All of this might cause a fuss, but the fuss will be worth it. Your health is the most important thing here.

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I would hate to see a family divided over table manners, but if the looks of irritation and accusations against you are part of a pattern of these people treating you poorly and being rude to you, maybe you should start to think about being around them and their saliva much less often.

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How to Get Advice From Prudie:

• Send questions for publication here. (Questions may be edited.)

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Q: Vacation blues: I’m on vacation with my BFF of many years and I’m not having a very good time. Due to COVID, it’s been well over a year since I’ve seen him and I was really looking forward to spending time with him again. The thing is, I’m starting to think that we’ve grown in different directions. We’re both in our 60s now, and for many years, we enjoyed the same things—think adult bookstores and bathhouses—and that’s mostly what he wants to do on vacation. But I feel like I’ve outgrown that stuff. I told him I didn’t want this vacation to center around those places this time and he promised me it wouldn’t, but that’s pretty much what the first two days were all about; we stayed out until 6 a.m. and slept most of the day. For the past two days, we’ve been in places where that kind of activity is not available, so we’ve managed to do a couple of touristy things, but most of the time it’s been him sleeping late and taking naps while I sit in a dark motel room. I’m feeling like a hostage because we are traveling in his car, so I can’t take off on my own.

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There are three days remaining of vacation. I’m thinking of telling him I’m renting a car so that we can each come and go as we please (we’re going back to the city with the bookstores and bathhouses). And I’m sure he’ll be offended in some way. This has been going on for the past several vacations and I’ve managed to accept it, but this year it’s really bothering me. It breaks my heart to think we’ve grown so far apart. Maybe I just need to get this off my chest, or maybe you have some words of wisdom.

A: You can absolutely adore someone, be very close to them, and not be vacation-compatible with them. I feel like most of us are probably vacation-compatible with about four people in the world. Being on the same page about what to do all day every day is a lot to ask.

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So, no more trips after this, OK? But that doesn’t mean you’ve grown apart, it doesn’t require a big confrontation, and it’s not sad. It just means you like to do different things when you go out of town. From here on out, talk on the phone, text each other, and visit each other at your own homes, but don’t plan any big trips together. I think if you’re not exploring a new city, he’ll feel less urgency to chase down every possible exciting experience. And it will be easier for you to control the agenda if you’re hosting him on your own turf.

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For now, sure, invite him to see the sights with you, and if he’s laser-focused on the bathhouse, get your own car. But don’t make it a big thing, and definitely don’t think your friendship is over.

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Q. Didn’t see the signs: I’m an alcohol and substance abuse counselor and I deal with death more than I care to. I can usually separate the work from my home. However, a very good friend and former co-worker overdosed and died last week. Her death has hit me hard. How do I stop blaming myself for not seeing the signs, and how do I stop being mad at her?

A: I’m so sorry you’re dealing with this. This was your good friend and it’s very OK and normal that her death has hit you hard. If you’d written in and said, “I know her death was my fault and I hate her for what she did,” I’d be really worried. But I can tell by the way you phrased your question that while you’re having these thoughts, there is also a healthy part of you that knows you’re not to blame and that you’re actually sad, not mad. That’s a good thing. Plus, it’s only been one week. I think you should give yourself permission to wallow in all the awful thoughts and feelings until, over time, they’re less intense. And of course, seek out help if you end up feeling stuck. In the meantime, you’re suffering enough—don’t beat yourself up for the way you’re doing it.

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Q. Sins of the father: My parents’ social media habits are giving me severe secondhand embarrassment. I’m a queer Black woman in my mid-20s. I have a Facebook account pretty much only because I work in media and need to keep up with what my clients and potential clients are doing; I post very little aside from sharing business events and industry-relevant news. My parents (who are white and adopted me at a young age) requested to be my friends, and I accepted, because I originally didn’t think it was a big deal.

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But my parents post incredibly racist, homophobic, and xenophobic content, visible for the whole world to see. They’re huge Trump supporters, as well as COVID hoaxers and anti-maskers. They provided me with a good education and otherwise decent upbringing, but after moving away, it still took a lot of emotional work to undo the kind of trauma of being the Black child of parents like that, and no matter what I say to them, they have never changed their toxic views. Aside from the immense frustration and trauma it brings me personally, I’m also afraid their posts will reflect badly on me if clients or potential clients click through my friends list. I know I can’t reason with my parents. Can I just remove them from my Facebook and hope they don’t notice?

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A: I know I’m reading a lot into this, but hear me out: Is it possible that what you’re actually upset about is the kind of people your parents are, but because that’s so hard and sad to think about, you’ve made your professional reputation the subject of your question? For some people—and, I would argue, people who don’t care that much about what happens to others—having political differences with loved ones is no more serious than cheering for rival sports teams. But for people like you (and me), a person’s political views go right to the core of who they are, the amount of compassion they have, and how they use the little bit of power they have to shape the world and determine how vulnerable people are treated. So it’s personal! And I can only imagine how hard it is that your parents have shown you they’re not who you hoped they were. To deal with that, I encourage you to continue doing the emotional work you’ve described, and seek out others who are in similar situations. Maybe start with support groups for transracial adoptees. And obviously, mute Mom and Dad on Facebook.

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I’m not at all worried about what your clients will think; nobody I know has ever investigated a professional contact’s family tree. And even if they did, anyone who blames a Black woman for the views of white parents she didn’t choose is probably not someone you would want to work with anyway.

[Editor’s note: You can also read Torie Bosch’s response to this letter.]

Q. Re: Vacation blues: Most people who vacation with friends bake in opportunities for individual activities, too. In this case, the breakdown that comes to mind is you sightsee mornings while he sleeps in, you both spend the afternoons together and have dinner, then he heads out for the evening while you go to bed for the night. Vacationing together doesn’t mean you have to be together 24/7.

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A: That’s a good idea. I do feel like they’d be better off if they each vacationed with people who had overlapping interests beyond the need to eat food every night. But if this works, sure.

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Classic Prudie

Q. How soon is too soon? A couple of years ago, I attended an out-of-state conference with a married, male co-worker. During conversation, we discovered that we had a lot in common, such as where we went to school, political orientation, and favorite books and movies. One night, we ended up as the last two of our group in the hotel bar before it closed, and I asked him if he would like to grab a few beers and continue our conversation upstairs in my room. He said, “Oh, I couldn’t do that. I’m married. I can’t disrespect my wife by being in a woman’s hotel room.” That was the only time I have ever given an opening like that to a straight guy who declined. He graciously allowed me to laugh it off, and we have managed to remain appropriately friendly ever since.

Fast forward two years. His wife has died tragically young after a short battle with cancer. Without putting too fine a point on it, I want to marry and have babies with this man who was unwilling to risk even the appearance of impropriety by visiting another woman’s hotel room. Integrity and faithfulness like that are worth more than diamonds. And he is handsome, smart, and kind. So, how do I approach him before any other predatory female does? And how soon is too soon?

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