Dear Prudence

Help! I Keep Calling My Black Co-Workers by the Wrong Names.

I’m so embarrassed and I don’t know how to stop.

A black and a white nurse. The white woman looks embarrassed, while the black one looks annoyed.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Dear Prudence is Slate’s advice column. Submit questions here.

Dear Prudence,

Today, I called a Black co-worker by the name of a different Black co-worker; I am white. I work in a large hospital, we have a lot of temporary workers, and I’d only met the one whose name I knew once. The scorn of the one I called the wrong name was evident and rightfully earned, though she was polite. I have a lot of excuses (the above, plus masks, plus the end of a tiring week) and justifications (I think I have just as much trouble matching the names and faces of the white temporary workers), but I know none of that matters. Embarrassingly, my husband and children are Black. I loathe myself for doing this, and not for the first time. My question is “how do I respond if I do this again?” and “how do I stop doing this?” (I don’t have any condition like face-blindness, by the way.)

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— How Do I Stop?

Dear How Do I Stop,

I feel for you because I know it’s mortifying to be in your position. And I feel for your Black co-worker even more. It’s really a downer to experience something like this because you can’t help but take it as a reminder that the person who’s called you by the wrong name is so fixated on your race that they can’t see you as an individual with your own unique qualities. And a big, awkward apology—especially one that makes you feel like it’s your job to smooth everything over—can only make you feel worse. I guarantee the last thing she wants is a “Just making sure we’re OK …” Slack message or email. So I think your “How do I respond if I do this again?” question is a good one. I would suggest a brief, clear “I am so sorry. That mistake was unacceptable and I’m going to do better,” rather than a longer explanation, excessive self-flagellation, or a mention of how you confuse white colleagues, too. And definitely don’t ask your colleague to reassure you that it’s OK.

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But hopefully you won’t have to apologize if you don’t do it again. And I think that’s possible.

I actually answered a question similar to yours in a different advice column many years ago. That one came from a Black person who had greeted an Asian receptionist with the name of another Asian colleague. When I made some calls to help out that letter writer, I learned about the “cross race effect,” which is what is at work when you have a harder time recognizing or distinguishing between members of racial ethnic groups other than your own. I spoke to Kurt Hugenberg, a professor who had spent much of his career studying stereotyping, prejudice, and cross-race face identification. You can read the whole response here, but what it boils down to is that this is a normal thing that happens when you don’t see that many people of a certain race (even if you see three at home, that’s not a lot!), and to overcome it, you have to make a point of paying attention to what makes the people you do see unique, rather than getting stuck on what makes them similar. That’s something you can do even when people are wearing masks, because it’s not all about physical appearance. So maybe one Black temporary co-worker wears fun earrings and the other is always seen with a big cup of coffee. Maybe you have a conversation and learn that one is from the Midwest and one is from California. And then you remind yourself to notice and remember these things rather than just their ethnicity. That takes a little more mental work, but maybe it can eventually become a habit. You’ll avoid future mortifying moments and your colleagues will start to believe—with good reason because it will actually be true—that you’re actually seeing them for who they are.

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Dear Prudence,

How do you plan an event when you are unsure how many people will show up? I am an organizer for a public group on an app that is geared for meeting new friends. This often entails hosting events in public spaces where people can show just up. Most publicly accessible spaces are restaurants and businesses, so I often end up calling in a reservation ahead of time so we don’t overrun the restaurant.

The problem is that people are flaky and I feel bad taking up unnecessary space at a business. I recently called in a reservation for 8 people and set a limit on the app for 8 attendees to the event. The attendance starts out promising with 8 people definitely attending and 3 people on the waitlist. As the event gets closer, attendance numbers start dwindling. Day of, I don’t know what the final tally of people will be who actually show.

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So what’s the best way to responsibly plan these events? I don’t want to be a blight on local businesses, but I also don’t know how to keep people responsible who I may not even personally know.

— Meeting Madness

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Dear Meeting Madness,

I’m actually very passionate about this, and not just because of the issues with reservations. I hate sitting with a group at one long table, because you’re stuck talking to like three people and the conversation never flows properly. And don’t get me started on splitting the bill! All gatherings of loose groups of friends (especially when you don’t know who will show up) should take place at the kind of bar, restaurant, or food hall where you pay for your food individually and then find a seat, and there’s plenty of space to mill around. Get there early and try to stake out a small area. After that, your job is done.

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How to Get Advice From Prudie

Submit your questions anonymously here. (Questions may be edited for publication.) Join the live chat every Monday at noon (and submit your comments) here.

Dear Prudence,

My partner and I have been together for almost five years, and we’re talking about having a child soon. We’re both in our late 30s, and work and instability have prevented us from really considering it until now. My partner comes from a home that had a lot of narcissistic and emotional abuse (both narcissistic personality disorder), and physical abuse between her parents. She’s done a lot of work over the years trying to heal, grow, and find ways out of these learned patterns but it still pops up occasionally. I feel I’ve supported her in her healing journey, but now we’re at, what has come to seem, a more serious crossroad. We got into a silly argument recently that escalated very quickly and she went into a kind of trauma loop, becoming fixated on the notion that what I had said in passing was extremely hurtful (I casually said I didn’t get a meme she shared, didn’t find it that funny). This loop reminded me of past arguments and made me worried about the plans we are making to have a child. I brought this up later with an earnest desire to be able to talk about how we envision parenting given her past, and echoes of experiences that we’ve both had to navigate throughout our relationship.

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Naturally, this wasn’t taken well and I was accused of calling her a (potentially) bad mother. I’ve noticed I’ve developed my own coping strategies to deal with my partner’s outbursts, but I worry about our potential child, and how their experience navigating a parent with narcissistic tendencies might be much more damaging than my own experience of being in a relationship that has prioritized healing and growth but is still subject to the occasional calamity. Am I deluding myself or is it possible for this potential child to have the kind of happy and healthy home I grew up in?

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— Hope Beyond Narcissism

Dear Hope,

Listen to the instinct that is telling you that you would worry about your partner’s ability to be a mother. Even if you’re totally off base, she’ll pick up on it (like she already has) and that will create a horrible dynamic between the two of you and an awful environment for a child. You two should not procreate.

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Dear Prudence,

Five years ago, my father had an affair with my mother’s best friend while she was recovering from cancer. To be blunt—it was brutal. They divorced, but he went out to marry his mistress and moved her into our childhood home. My parents were married for over 30 years, and my mom had been friends with the mistress for 30. The affair wrecked every one of my family’s relationships to our father. My brothers refuse to speak to him, and he hasn’t attended any of our milestone events. I was very much daddy’s little princess growing up and very close to him. As much as his betrayals sting even now, I miss him.

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I am engaged and the thought of my father not walking me down the aisle, let alone not seeing me marry the love of my life makes me cry. He wrote me a letter after learning of my engagement where he apologized for all the damage he has done and he knows he can’t undo any of it, but he never stopped loving me or my brothers. He also included a very sizable check. My love and I are deeply in debt. The check would wipe it out and leave a lot over for the wedding. My brothers call it a bribe. My love thinks my father is sincere enough. My mother thinks I should accept this as an olive branch, that I deserve my father there on my wedding day. As hard as he hurt her, she still remembers the good times sometimes. That said, she doesn’t want his new wife there. She will keep her peace with our father for my sake, but she will not breathe the same air as that “bitch.” I can understand. I want nothing to do with my father’s new wife. I can’t forgive her or forget what she did to my mother or our family.

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My father is equally guilty but he is my father. I love my father. I miss my father. I am angry with my father. I doubt that will ever truly go away. I still want him at my wedding. Not to have him there feels like bolting that door shut. Maybe in a decade, with distance, with grandkids the hurt will fade and even heal. Maybe not. Am I stupid to hope? I have been told to take the check and leave my father hanging; to either tear it up or accept that my father will be bringing his new wife (as you don’t invite one half of a couple); to invite my father solo and don’t do all the traditional father-daughter stuff; or do it anyway. I need an outside perspective—please help!

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— Bride to Be

Dear Bride to Be,

Cash the check and thank your father for it. It didn’t come with a contract about who will be invited to the wedding, or what will be on the program. I know it feels like it did, but it didn’t.

Totally separately, decide what would give you the wedding day you want to have. If that’s having your father walk you down the aisle but not inviting his new wife, tell him that. Sure, it’s kind of unusual and would in normal circumstances be rude to deny him a guest. But he knows what he did, and he knew when he did it that it would make future family events difficult. He was selfish and made the choice that he thought would make him happiest. Now you do the same.

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Dear Prudence Uncensored

“If you have a lot of money it’s easy to write a check, but will he inconvenience and humble himself to show remorse and make his daughter happy?”

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Jenée Desmond-Harris and friends discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,

My boyfriend and his 18-year-old son live with me in a house my boyfriend and I rent from my parents. My parents have already told me that I will be receiving this house in their will. The 18-year-old has been in high school since January. My boyfriend and I had already discussed that his son would have to be working full time or going to post-secondary school and begin paying a small rental fee to continue to live with us once his schooling was done. He graduated last week at the end of May. He very rarely leaves his room or this house, except to see friends and has never held a part-time job for more than a couple weeks. He quite literally plays games in his room all day and night and does not help around the house or yard at all. In fact, most days I am cleaning up after him, doing his dishes, and I’m also still expected to cook for him and his girlfriend as well.

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My boyfriend gets upset and enraged if I even bring up the subject of us trying to maybe more than a little forcefully encourage his son to find work and let him know he cannot continue to game day and night and sponge off of us. I pay all bills and get reimbursed, never on time, by my boyfriend for his portion of the bills. I’m not allowed to ever have an opinion or conversation with my boyfriend’s son letting him know he needs to get a job, but they are both living in what I feel is my house, as I pay for more of our bills and it’s my parents’ house. I’m starting to resent both of them and feel this might be a deal breaker. Am I being too harsh? I’m never allowed to discuss this as it just starts a fight so I feel trapped like a prisoner with no voice in my own home. What do I do?

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— Voiceless in My Own Home

Dear Voiceless,

These people have to go, and your relationship has to end. Being a freeloader who plays a lot of video games is not the worst thing in the entire world, but the way your boyfriend is making you feel is. You’re “not allowed” to have certain conversations?? You feel like a prisoner?! Break up with him. Ask the two of them to leave as soon as possible, after speaking to a lawyer about what steps you’ll take if they don’t go voluntarily. Enjoy your home, and in the future only share it with people who contribute or at least respect you.

Give Prudie a Hand in “We’re Prudence”

Sometimes even Prudence needs a little help. Every Thursday in this column, we’ll post a question that has her stumped. This week’s tricky situation is below. Join the conversation about it on Twitter with Jenée @jdesmondharris on Thursday, and then look back for the final answer here on Friday.

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Dear Prudence,

What’s the etiquette when you don’t like your friend’s husband? I have a good group of girlfriends from college, and I love all their partners … minus one. He hasn’t done anything, I just don’t enjoy his company. When he’s in a bad mood, he pouts and snipes at my friend. When he’s in a good mood, he tells long, boring stories. One way or another, he wants to be the center of attention (he’s the guy who has a great voice, and so always wants to do karaoke when we’re hanging out). Our friend knows that we don’t like it when he makes a big production of sulking. But there’s also not a ton she can do about that, and he insists on coming even when he knows he’ll be a killjoy.

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So far, our strategy has been to do more and more “girls’ nights,” but that sucks because I miss the rest of the other halves. One of their partners is also nonbinary femme, so it feels weird to divide the group along gender lines—but since half of our husbands (mine included) were also in our friend group in college, saying we were doing “college friends only” would mostly just be excluding the guy we don’t like and catching another partner in the crossfire.

Any tips? Should I talk to my friend again? Should we try to manage his behavior better?

— Keep Him Home

Dear Prudence,

Do you really need to deal with childhood trauma? If repression has worked for you so far (31!), can’t you just stick with it?

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This question is brought to you by the fact my best friend and his wife are planning to start a family. So a bunch of us were sitting around over Last Hurrah drinks and telling funny stories about our childhood. I told them the one about the time I was 8 when my dad dug a hole in the scrub behind our house, woke me up in the middle of the night, took me out and made me stand in it, and said “if you don’t behave, this is where I’ll bury you.” And I was all “and every year the idiot had to go out and make the hole bigger.”

It turns out that isn’t funny, which I did pick up on as I was talking. If you think about it then it was actually kind of awful, or “abusive” as my friend’s wife put it. I felt dumber than my Dad out in the rain digging a bigger hole every year.

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Amy, who I have dated for all of two months and now knows I spent most of my life thinking that was just Dad Jokes, thinks I need therapy. I think I need to just cut off everyone I know and move. That is kind of a joke, and kind of true. I just feel like some sort of pitiable idiot right now, and I don’t want to talk to anyone who knows about this. So I don’t see how more people knowing about more of my awful childhood (because I’ve thought up at least three other things I never questioned that are clearly sort of abusive looking back, or actually abusive if it was to someone else) is going to make me feel better.

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Obviously, people need to deal with trauma that causes them pain, but I was fine when this was all a secret! Isn’t digging all this stuff up just to see more like those people that get their legs broken so they can try and get three more inches in height?

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— Bury It All

Dear Bury It All,

You’re feeling a lot of shame over what you endured as a child. It’s so intense that you are wishing (sort of jokingly, sort of not jokingly) you could move away to a place where nobody knows about it. You say you were fine when it was all a secret, but you’re not fine now! That shame and that not fine-ness should be what you talk about in therapy, even if you have decided (someone unreasonably, but that’s between you and your therapist) that the abuse itself doesn’t matter.

Classic Prudie

Last October I gave my husband an ultimatum, see the dentist or we’re over. In the 16 years we’ve known each other, he has not been to the dentist once. As a child he had a traumatic injury to his front teeth, and that the repair was not done correctly. As a result, he does not smile and show his teeth, and he talks so that his teeth can not be seen. He does have a dark/discolored top front tooth. Due to his lack of regular dental visits, I am not interested in kissing him. He has extreme halitosis and I have mentioned this to him and he gets very upset and angry with me. I’ve told a couple friends about my ultimatum, they think getting divorced because of poor oral hygiene is ridiculous. What are your thoughts?

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