Dear Prudence is Slate’s advice column. Submit questions here. (It’s anonymous!)
I am a librarian in a small, mostly white and middle/lower middle-class town. I am also white. Presumably because of this, and because I have a front-facing job where I’m generally friendly with everyone who comes in, several patrons have assumed it’s alright to say bigoted things in conversation with me. It’s mostly run-of-the-mill racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.
To give an example, the mother of a tween was talking to me about non-Twilight vampire books that might be appropriate for her child, and when the topic of Life and Death: Twilight Reimagined (Stephanie Meyer’s gender-swapped Twilight cash grab) came up, out of nowhere this woman told me how she wouldn’t like it or let her child read it because it would be “unnatural” for the gender roles to be switched. Ma’am, these are vampires! She then proceeded to take my confused silence as permission to start complaining about the reboot of The Wonder Years and how she thought Black people shouldn’t “take over our TV shows.”
The library’s policy is that we are allowed to engage in political discussions if the patrons bring up political topics first, but I’m struggling with how to convey a firm message of, “I am not the sympathetic audience you’re looking for!” I know that I won’t be able to influence every library patron into rethinking their stances on certain issues, but how can I shut down these conversations in a way that makes it clear I do not agree and that we don’t tolerate discrimination in the library?
Dear Lost Librarian,
To be clear, there is nothing “political” about thinking it’s weird to lose your shit over vampire books or the casting of The Wonder Years reboot, regardless of who brings it up first. I know I just recently ranted about this but it’s worth saying again: I hate that there are all these rules about when normal, compassionate people can stand up to hateful bullies and conspiracy theorists, just because people on one side of the political spectrums are more likely to be hateful bullies and conspiracy theorists. So, suddenly disagreement about whether being a hateful bully and conspiracy theorist is good or bad becomes a “political” discussion that has to be tiptoed around. Ugh.
Anyway, I don’t want you to get fired up over this or drain yourself at work by engaging in endless debates when you should be doing what you do every day to keep the library running. And we all know the minute you say “Wow, that’s kinda sexist and/or racist!” some patron will be in tears and you’ll be the bully. So keep it light and positive: “I actually think it’s great. I love for all different kinds of kids to be able to see themselves in books and television shows.” ”I’m sorry to hear you didn’t enjoy that! I thought it was awesome and especially nice for little girls/Black kids.” Or if the commentary is not about a book, “To each his own! I’m personally a huge fan of women getting to make medical decisions for themselves.” Finally, don’t be so quick to dismiss, “I don’t think I’m the right audience for this commentary” as a response. I have actually deployed that before and it really gets the point across with the extra benefit of making the person you’re talking to embarrassed as they realize you’ve been judging the hell out of them and everything they just said.
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My mother, “Gladys” (78), is the most thoughtful, kind, funny, and sweetest person in the world. We’ve had our ups and downs, but as her one-and-only daughter, I can truly say she’s always had the best intentions for me and her grandchildren. Her husband, my stepfather, suffers from what I am assuming is dementia. He doesn’t speak much at all now—although he used to be quite the talker. My problem is that holding dinners turns into four or five-hour marathon entertainment sessions. Gladys just doesn’t seem to know when we’re all tapped out, exhausted, and wanting to wrap up a holiday visit. I feel guilty for giving clues, nodding off, etc. But what’s worse is she doesn’t seem to get the message. How do I end an evening without offending her?
—Totally Tired on Turkey Day
Dear Totally Tired,
As you get up and start looking for Tupperware: “Mom, Stepdad, this has been so nice! Thank you for coming! We’re probably going to start heading to bed not too long from now but I’m not letting you leave without taking some pie. How many pieces do you want?”
There were multiple medical problems that I had throughout my childhood that my father constantly dismissed, played down, or insisted I didn’t have. Mom was not in the picture, apparently, she took off when I was young. He also insisted that I did have problems that I did not, and sometimes I was given treatments I didn’t want with no explanation other than that they would make me better. (Side note to parents of sick/disabled kids: Please tell us what the medicine is supposed to treat and the possible side effects instead of feeding us medicines we don’t understand.) Shockingly, treatments for problems I did not have did not make me better. Now that I’ve moved out and am an adult, I’ve started to work on getting treatment for the problems I actually have, and I’ve gotten visibly better and happier for it.
The problem is that my father continues to go, “I wish I’d known, I would have done (things I’m doing right now).” I have to lie to him and come up with excuses for why he couldn’t have known so he’ll stop bemoaning it. Otherwise, he’ll go on for half an hour or more and I cannot put up with that. It grates on me because I repeatedly tried to tell him that things were wrong and that the treatments didn’t help, and now he insists that if I had told him, he would have gotten me the treatments I needed, and often points to the treatments that he got me for the problems he thought that I had as proof.
I know that this behavior is a form of regret, but I wish that his regret didn’t take a form where he regularly denies his past behavior. He wasn’t a bad father overall. I’ve come to terms with his behavior, and understand that he was doing the best he knew how to do. It’s hard to get past the societal idea that kids don’t know what they’re talking about. He did realize something was wrong and made an effort. The damage is done, and there’s no use dwelling on the past. I just want him to stop regularly lying that he would have gotten me the treatment I desperately needed when he never believed what I said.
— No, You Wouldn’t Have
Dear No, You Wouldn’t Have,
“Dad, I know we were in a tough situation after mom left and I can only imagine how hard it was for you. You were not a bad father at all. But I think when it comes to my medical stuff, what would really help me would be to hear an apology from you. I know you wish you’d known more and would have done things differently if you did. I understand. You probably want to stop talking about this and I do too. Just hearing a simple ‘I’m sorry’ from you would really help me to move on. Can you do that?”
I am 28 and a former incel, and I’ve been working on my issues for over a year now. I went from a point where I had no friends, just sat in my parent’s basement and worked/played video games/bullied people online, to a point where I volunteer a lot in my community, go to local events, am part of a bunch of clubs and organizations, and have a small group of friends I hang out with regularly. I am really ashamed of the beliefs I held earlier. I don’t think I ever acted on them in person but I was definitely a toxic bully in a few different online forums. I still have a lot of self-esteem issues because I’m 260 pounds and look like a frog, but I’ve been on two first dates from dating apps, where everything is based on looks, so at least a few women find me attractive. I have also started to understand that appearance is not the sole reason for most relationships (or even the primary reason). However, due to my past, I am woefully behind in managing healthy social and romantic relationships.
I volunteer for an organization a few weekends a month where we make science and math fun for elementary school kids. After the kids leave we usually go get coffee or something together. Once we were invited to someone’s party. I don’t drink. One of the other volunteers, who’s 25, is also very shy and we’re friendly with each other but I don’t really know her too well. The party was her first time drinking and it didn’t go well for her. The night ended with her passing out after vomiting, breaking her very thick glasses which she is virtually blind without, slipping on her puke and landing on a table with her face and hair in someone’s drink, calling herself ugly, and sobbing in my chest. I was the only sober one there, but my tipsy friend and I were able to get in contact with her roommate and we drove her home.
Since that incident, my friend keeps telling me that she’s looking at me differently, and is obviously attracted to me and that I should ask her out. I am completely oblivious in social situations and I don’t know if that’s true. The only things I can think of are when she asked if she could come over to my apartment to watch a horror movie I said I liked (which she did, it was fun), and when she said something to me in private out of the blue about wanting to be a mom before she turns 40. Our organization doesn’t explicitly have a policy against volunteers dating. She’s very cute, we share a lot of interests, and I wouldn’t mind being in a relationship with her, but I feel like if I asked her out and she rejected me it would make our relationship worse, especially since we work with the same set of kids and so work together a lot.
Other people besides my friend have started to ask me if I’m going to ask her out, which makes me think that I must be missing something obvious. She knows that I used to have problematic beliefs, but I don’t know if she knows that I used to be an incel. If we are actually both attracted to each other, she would not be the person to ask me out because she is quite shy and non-confrontational. I am also shy and non-confrontational but I am prepared to ask her out. Should I ask her, though? I am prepared to take no for an answer and go back to our regular lives, but how should I deal with it if she finds me weird or strange after rejecting me?
—Do I or Don’t I
Dear Do I or Don’t I,
She’s already come over to watch a movie?! And she invited herself?? I’m 99 percent sure she likes you. You can’t lose momentum here. Your line is, “Last Tuesday was so fun. When’s our next movie night?” And then do it again.
Or if you’re feeling brave, skip that step and say this: “I’ve hesitated to say this because the kids come first and I don’t want to do anything that would make our volunteering together awkward, so if the answer is no, I will totally understand, and we can pretend this conversation never happened: I’d really like to get to know you better. Could I take you out to dinner sometime?”
I hope she says yes. I believe she’ll say yes. But either way, you’ve already won. Take a moment and congratulate yourself. You have found a woman you’re attracted to, not just because of the way she looks, but because you share interests with her. You don’t feel entitled to date her. You don’t hate her for not already being your girlfriend. You are approaching this like a healthy, mature man. Your incel days are behind you, and whether or not you end up on an official date with this particular love interest, that’s something to be very proud of.
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.
My 10-year-old daughter is a horse girl. She’s outgrown her first pony, so we just bought her a new horse. This horse was priced right, he’s the perfect size, age, and temperament, and he’s trained in what she wants to do—we seriously could not have found her a better horse. Except for one thing. He’s an almost entirely white Pinto, and his registered name is [Farm Name] White Flight. I don’t want to know what his breeder was thinking. My daughter thinks it’s beautiful. But I would be embarrassed to have my child showing on a horse with this name, and I want to officially change it, or at least call him by another name. I’ve explained the meaning of “white flight” to her, but she still thinks it’s a perfect name for a white showjumping horse and says she wants to use it to mean something good, instead of something bad. How can I convince her to rename her new baby? Would it be too mean to say either the name is changed, or the horse is sold and she can’t have another one?
—Whitest Problem Ever
My boyfriend and I have been together for almost 14 years. We are both in our mid-40s. Early on in our relationship, he confided in me that he has a thing for manicures. As we discussed it, and he became more comfortable talking about it, I learned there were a few facets to his nail preferences. For one, he wanted me to maintain longer-length nails on a regular basis. Prior to dating him, I was getting my nails done so this didn’t seem like such a big deal. However, he wanted me to maintain a longer length than I was accustomed to. I figured I would give it a try and after some time and struggles, I became used to it and haven’t given it much thought since.
The second facet of this was that he liked to get his nails done. Apparently, a couple of times a year he would go to a nail salon to get his nails done a long length and keep them on for a few days at a time. This was a very secretive thing he would do and none of his friends or family knew about it. I did not have much of a problem with it. So for the last several years we’ve been together, he would find time a few times a year to get them done for a few days at a time. I was always supportive and would do what I could to make him comfortable during his “nail adventures.” I could tell that it weighed emotionally on him because he was conflicted as to whether he should or should not be getting his nails done. “It isn’t manly” are his words. Again, I have always supported and encouraged him.
Fast forward, recently he has expressed to me that he would like to maintain having his nails done all the time. He said that he is not looking to have them done at long lengths like mine, something more conservative. But I think they will be feminine looking nonetheless. And while I personally don’t have a problem with it, I worry about what his friends and family will say or think. I also know that it will create a huge mental weight on him. But in the end, it’s what he really wants to do. He has asked me to support him. He said he wants it to be the new “norm” for him. Do you have any thoughts on this and can you offer any suggestions on how we could both deal with family and friends? I just want him to be happy, which in turn will make me happy.
Dear Boyfriend’s Nails,
Reading the phrase “nail adventures” and hearing about your support for your boyfriend really put a smile on my face. I love that he has someone in his corner as he pursues something that will make him happy. I don’t think you’re going to single-handedly take away the mental weight associated with his decision to do something that, yes, some people will notice and judge. The shame he has around this will be hard to shake. But you can set a positive, accepting tone and provide reminders (to him and the people around you) that his choice to do his nails isn’t hurting anyone and, moreover, it’s great that he’s doing what he wants.
You can help out (with his permission) by giving friends and family a little heads up before you see them, just to avoid staring or awkward questions. And the two of you can agree on what you’ll say if anyone is confused or upset by his manicure. Some ideas:
—“I hope he starts a new trend. Have you seen how bad most men’s nails look?”
—“Yep, it’s his new thing. Thank God times are changing and everyone realizes nail polish doesn’t have a gender.”
—“I only have an issue with it if he doesn’t want to do the dishes anymore to avoid messing them up.”
Dear Prudence Uncensored
“Which reminds me, Prudie, I got something to tell you offline.”
Jenée Desmond-Harris and friends discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.
My daughter is demanding I greatly diminish if not completely get rid of what she calls hoarding and clutter, and what I call my crafting supplies. I feel she is being selfish in her demands. I have already de-cluttered and given away many things. I don’t keep what I make. Creating calms me. I enjoy giving to others. Occasionally, I accept donations. I have become disabled and these things prove to be hard at times, working with pain. On the days I’m not in as much pain I look to this as an outlet. We live in a two-bedroom apartment and hope to get a house, which she now refuses to do because of my hoarding of crafts. I have compromised by the above-stated. And yet she won’t budge. She never stays in the apartment, saying she’s depressed and it causes her anxiety to be here. We fight when we broach the subject. I’m at a loss. I do feel I deserve to have what little time I have to enjoy these things. But what she says and how she behaves angers me and pulls at my heartstrings.
—At a Loss
Dear At a Loss,
Ask your daughter what it would take for her to feel comfortable buying a home with you. I suggest you both agree to measure this by the appearance of your space, not by the amount of work you’ve done. So instead of “de-cluttering and putting many things away,” maybe the standard you’ll want to use is 50 percent of the floor is visible, there are no crafting supplies in the common areas, one sewing machine only, or the dining room table gets cleaned off every evening. Then see if that’s something you can live with. One person’s comforting room full of supplies for enjoyable projects that make life worth living is another person’s intolerable, anxiety-inducing mess. If you two truly can’t find a middle ground, it’s best that you don’t live together.
My in-laws are unbelievably superstitious. My mother-in-law believes she’s psychic, my father-in-law believes her, and my husband—otherwise rational—turns we can’t know for sure! credulous around her…