Dear Prudence is Slate’s advice column. Submit questions here. (It’s anonymous!)
I’m a Black gay man in a historically white, traditionally masculine field that requires a lot of fieldwork. I moved for work to a small town in a conservative part of my state. I was raised in a strong Democrat household and myself am even further left—but none of my friends, neighbors, or coworkers in this part of the country know this or know I’m gay. I act, talk, and dress masculine in public, but if you’ll forgive the Seinfeld quote, I’d drape myself in velvet if it was socially acceptable, and identify with men like Lil Nas X and Billy Porter.
One of my coworkers is a man, let’s call him “Forest,” who is not too popular at work. He has bi flag stickers on his gear, wears his hair long, and keeps to himself. We work together, just the two of us often, and we connect. He’s the only person I’ve been able to be myself around since I moved for work, and though we haven’t gotten physical, the attraction was there, and we had started getting beers after work sometimes.
Now here’s the mess-up. At the main office, some of my coworkers were making homophobic jokes, and I’m ashamed to say I went along with it. Forest was there, and he didn’t join or laugh and was distant later. When I asked what was going on, he brought up the jokes in the breakroom and said I acted cowardly. I pointed out that he hadn’t said anything either and can’t know how hard it is to fit in as the only Black person at this job. Forest asked me why I want to fit in with people like that. I didn’t have a good answer (and I still don’t), so I reacted poorly. For what it’s worth, I’ve heard him speak up now and then when my coworkers are on their BS and that just makes it worse.
Now when we’re paired, he only talks to me about work. I texted him to suggest we play some pool, but he declined real civilly. I think I just lost a friend and maybe I lost the chance at something more. Is there anything I can do to make this right?
— Closeted in Colorado
This is tough, and as someone who often thinks of what I wish I would have said hours or days after the moment has passed, I can sort of understand how you froze up in response to the break room comments. That doesn’t mean you’re a terrible person. But it does mean you didn’t behave the way Forest would want a friend or romantic partner to, and he’s allowed to feel that way. You also got defensive instead of apologizing when he confronted you about it. Again, it’s no surprise that this—or the fact that you basically said you want to fit in with bigots—didn’t endear you to him or make him find you attractive.
If you’ve thought about it and you really wish you would have handled it differently, or if you’ve come to the conclusion that you’d rather be more like him and be brave enough to speak up in the moment when people are being hateful, you should tell him. And pair it with a sincere apology. That might be what he needs to open back up to you. But if you really still think going along to get along is the best way, that probably means you aren’t someone he’s going to like or respect, and you should appreciate that he’s civil to you and give him his space.
The coworker in the office next to mine must have horrible sinus issues because he snorts loudly quite often throughout the day, like he is trying to clear his sinus passages. Particularly in the morning, it can be two to four times in a minute. The sound makes me sick to my stomach. A few months ago, I brought him some tissues and said, “Sounds like you’re having some sinus issues.” He did not get the hint. Is this something I can talk to him about, or do I just need to figure out a way to get over it? I use headphones when I can, but I don’t have the type of position where it would be feasible for me to wear headphones most of the day.
— Grossed Out
Dear Grossed Out,
This is one reason I think remote work is great. Being in close proximity to other humans and all the noises and smells that come from their bodies is always going to lead to uncomfortable situations like this—situations that are really nobody’s fault and don’t have great solutions. It’s just part of sharing space with others. I don’t think you, or even your H.R. department, can justify asking your neighbor to stop the snorts and sniffles. It’s clearly a health issue that I’m sure he didn’t choose. Not to mention, he probably does it unconsciously, so even if he made an effort to stop, he’d start up again without realizing it.
My best (and admittedly, unsatisfying) advice would be to use earplugs that still allow you to hear if someone knocks on your door but that dull the sinus sounds so they’re less jarring. And maybe invest in a white noise machine. You might also mention to whoever you report to that you’re sympathetic to your neighbor’s sniffle issues but they’re very distracting and irritating, so you’d love to move to another office if one happens to open up.
Is there anything to be gained by telling someone married to an aggressively useless human being (my cousin), that they need to work with what they’ve got? A decade ago, my best friend married my cousin, despite my absolute loathing for him. Since then, my cousin’s sole virtue continues to be his consistency. He’s a lazy, unpleasant, and borderline criminal person (and by borderline, I mean that his mom and my friend have always been able to buy or beg him out of trouble). He has always been that way.
Yet my friend is always just so annoyed and aggrieved that he’s—yet again—flaked on taking care of their kid to go paintballing, so she’s lost a day at work. Or cheated on her. Or disappeared for a week. As if this wasn’t completely predictable, and what he does every time. I genuinely don’t think he’s ever NOT let her down, even on his wedding day he turned up late in a t-shirt.
I know I sound horrible, but this is who she married. It is who she has always been married to. At no point did he pull a bait and switch. At the start I was sympathetic, but now I just don’t see how she can still be surprised at who he is. It feels like fake-outrage and “hemming” my way through another complaint about him is, in some way, not helping. As if I’m propping up the illusion that he could be better. At the same time, I don’t suppose brutal honesty would be welcome—it rarely is. And part of this is because she keeps trying to drag me into it because he’s my cousin or joking “how could you let me marry him?! You should have stood up at the wedding.” I can refuse to engage with that—I was nothing if not clear about little I liked my cousin—but it does get tiring.
She’s been my best friend since we were children, and she’s great when she’s not focused on her problems with him. I love her to bits, or who she used to be maybe, but if she’s not going to leave my cousin, the only peace she’s going to get is if she accepts he’s never going to be of any use.
— Just Tired Of It
Dear Tired Of It,
“You know I care about you and I hate that you have to deal with my cousin’s behavior. But we both know he’s always been this way and isn’t going to change, so it’s becoming frustrating for me to hear so much about all the ways he disappoints you. If you ever want to talk about leaving or if you feel unsafe or need help I’m here for you, but I don’t think I’m the right person for you to talk to about your everyday complaints about him.”
More Advice From How to Do It
I asked my boyfriend why he stopped performing oral sex me a couple months ago. I do it for him every time we have sex. His response at first was because he couldn’t breathe well. Then, when I pressed, he came back and said my belly gets in the way. I personally don’t believe that is possible—I’m not that big of a woman, and his face is nowhere near what belly I do have.
After he thought about it for a while, he felt like crap for his choice of words and he apologized to me. I’m still very bothered by this and hurt after two weeks. I know he loves me and would never want to hurt me, but this really stung bad. Am I being silly? What do you think is really going on here?