The Chat Room

We Aren’t Family

Dear Prudence counsels a woman who’s unsure how to define “extended family” and other advice seekers.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on every Monday at 1 p.m. to chat with readers about their romantic, family, financial, and workplace problems. (Read Prudie’s Slate columns here.) An unedited transcript of this week’s chat follows.

Washington, D.C.: More of an etiquette question, but something that’s been bugging me lately. I hope you can help! Some mornings, when I’m walking into my favorite bakery to grab a cup of coffee, a man will be approaching the bakery at the same time. If the guy gets there first and holds the door open for me, what do I do next (besides saying thank you!)? Should I let him have the spot in front of my in line since he technically got to the bakery door first? Or since he held the door open and allowed me to go first, does that mean I’m free to go straight to the line ahead of him?

Emily Yoffe: As as an acknowledgment of his politeness you can certainly indicate he’s free to step ahead of you in line. If he indicates you should go first, don’t hold everyone up with an “After you” “No, after you” routine. But by stopping at the door and indicating you should enter first, he is effectively sending you to the line ahead of him, so if you don’t do anything but say thank you, you haven’t committed a faux pas.


Boulder, Colo.: How far does family extend? My future father-in-law says that my future sister-in-law’s boyfriend’s parents ought to be invited to our wedding because they may one day be family. I disagree but would like to keep the peace as he’s already hinted that they will hold this against me. Will this set a bad president for the future? Would they be family? Does it come off as begging for a gift? They live close to the site so I think they would feel obligated to come. What should I do?

Emily Yoffe: It’s up to you and your fiance to decide how many people and how wide a circle to invite. When it takes an entire phrase to describe your connection to someone, that generally indicates you aren’t family – or certainly not any definition of close family. If you don’t even know the future sister-in-law’s boyfriend’s parents, or only know them glancingly, you are not obligated to invite them. Your bigger problem is that your future father-in-law, who will be family, likes to use threats to get his way.

Dear Prudence Video: Handicapped and Harassed


Price, Utah: I feel that your answer to the woman who has trouble with her boyfriend’s daughters was very harsh. No matter who is in the household, they should be responsible for picking up after themselves, even smaller children. Why is expecting them to do that wrong? The father asked her to move in with him and as such, should not expect her to turn into a slave for these control-freak teens!

Emily Yoffe: This is about a question in last week’s Slate column in which I came down hard on a woman who had just moved in with her boyfriend and was fed up with his teenager daughters. They were messy and rude and the father would regularly rescind her “groundings” of them. I agree that I didn’t say enough about how pathetic this father sounded. He never should have asked his girlfriend to move in. Neither of the adults sound as if they at all understand how to deal with the girls’ natural resentment of the situation. The father is enabling everyone’s bad behavior – and he is the one who suggested things would calm down once the girls went to college. What a jerk! However, if step girlfriend thinks the way to get two teenage girls to behave is to start sending the girls to their room, she’d be better off finding new lodgings.


Washington, D.C.: Dear Prudence,

My father-in-law continues to make subtle digs at me, within my home, each and every time that I invite him to join us for family gatherings. He enters the house, finds a seat and doesn’t lift a finger, yet puts me down for not having dinner ready (though he is frequently late, thus I have shifted cooking schedules after serving cold dishes, plenty of times!) and is crude with his language. He’s not married – no surprise there! I bite my tongue, but it’s making me dread hosting any longer, though no other family members seem to step up to the plate.

What should I do?

Emily Yoffe: He’s not doing this because you refused to invite your future sister-in-law’s boyfriend’s parents to the wedding is he? Number one, it would be nice if your husband stepped up and talked privately to your father about being less hostile when he was invited for dinner. But as you are observing, many families fall into patterns in which one unbearable member is allowed to get away with it because that’s just how “X” always behaves. You can certainly invite him less – why slave at the stove for someone so rude and ungrateful. You can also let him know that you understand that he often runs late, but in the future you’re going to start eating without him. Otherwise basically ignore him, pretend you didn’t hear, or answer with extreme politeness. If he makes digs at the food say, “I’m so sorry dinner wasn’t to your liking, Fred.” It will all be less annoying if you cut way back on the invitations.


Ashland, Va.: Elevator etiquette question – when I worked in the south, it was common, indeed expected, for men to let women exit an elevator first. I recently began working in D.C. Now when I move to the side to let a woman get off the elevator, I am given an odd-looking look or the person chooses not to go first. Is “woman first” now a sexist action that is no longer done?

Emily Yoffe: When I moved from D.C. to Texas in the 1980s I ended up writing a piece about the elaborate elevator etiquette I encountered there for the first time (I didn’t know that I was supposed to tunnel my way out of the back of the elevator when the door opened if everyone else on it was male). Remember JFK’s line about D.C. “It’s a place of Southern efficiency and Northern charm”? As you’ve discovered, gender takes no precedence in D.C. elevators


Rochester, Minn.: My husband and I want to host a party at a restaurant to celebrate our 25th anniversary. I would like to limit it to adults (eliminating most nieces and nephews). At the last celebration, the kids were bored and spent their time emptying salt/pepper shakers and making designs from the contents. For some reason, the relatives don’t understand that if their children’s names are not on the invite, they aren’t invited. How do I get this message across without causing a ruckus?

Emily Yoffe: Surely when these people are invited to a dinner party in a friend’s home they don’t treat it as a play date. When the rsvps come in and people tell you they’ll be also bringing Jason and Caitlin, tell them you’re sorry but you’ve got limited seating and this event is adults only. If they don’t want to come, that’s fewer mouths to feed.


Rosamond, Calif.: Dear, Prudence: I feel as though I’m using you as a diary. I just found out my boyfriend of five years recently cheated on me. The reason I was told is because she got pregnant. (Something I wanted, but waited, because he wasn’t ready for children, hah!) We just bought a house and had been engaged for two years, lived together for three. He’s adopted and insists on dealing with this woman and his new biological connection. What do I do? I still want him, which is beyond me because I know I shouldn’t. I also feel that he shouldn’t throw away what we have.

Emily Yoffe: I assume you don’t want to be the au pair for his new family. You have been dealt a terrible blow, but at least you aren’t married to this guy and don’t have children with him. Of course you’re having a hard time ending a five-year relationship. But he’s just shown you what an unreliable rat he is. You might need a lawyer to help you untangle your real estate situation, but there doesn’t seem to be much emotional profit in staying together just for home equity reasons.


Washington, D.C.: Dear Prudie,

Thank you so much for taking my question. My boyfriend is about to buy a house and I plan to rent out my condo so we can live together. My question is how do I bring this impending co-habitation to my very, ultra conservative Christian family? I’d like to not even tell them that I’m moving until it’s over and done with but since we live fairly close to each other they are bound to notice. Of course getting married first is out of the question because Virginia won’t let us and of course because they don’t yet know about my unchristian proclivities… I’m really tempted to frame it as a roommate type situation just to save myself the annoying preaching and heartbreak that is bound to ensue. Help!

Emily Yoffe: I understand you don’t want to tell your family you’re gay, but that doesn’t mean you can’t tell me! There are two ways to go about this. One is to decide that you’re tired of pretending about who you are just to keep from shaking the foundations of their beliefs, and tell them you’re gay and you’re going to live openly and you hope they will love and accept both of you. The other is to decide it’s none of their business and just not discuss it with them. I opt for openness, but you know these people and I don’t.


Reno, Nev.: A close friend is getting married to man who I really dislike and think is wrong for her. The start of their relationship was marked by tons of red flags – he’s 12 years older, gets very angry and controlling, and seems to have won her over with lots of expensive gifts and trips. Despite this, she’s moving ahead and marrying him anyway. I have made my concerns completely clear because I cared about her, but this has left a huge gulf between us. Now, though, I just want to salvage the friendship and I realize the time for criticism has passed. I plan on attending the wedding. Any tips on overcoming how to remain friends despite all of this conflict?

Emily Yoffe: This is what can happen to a friendship when you speak your mind about your friend’s bad choices. If the friend likes her bad choice, it could put a dagger into the friendship. I don’t see the age difference as a red flag, but anger and controlling certainly is, and you were right to speak up. The problem is you still think the guy is a jerk, so you’re not prepared to say you were wrong. You could send her an email and say you are happy to be attending her upcoming nuptials and that you wish her all happiness in her new life. Then ask if she’s free for a meal during this busy time for you two to catch up. But be prepared that your closeness can’t be reestablished.


Macon, Ga.: I work in a high-end boutique and pride myself on superior customer service. Unfortunately there is one type of customer I haven’t figured out how to deal with: the cell phone talker. These customers come in on their phone, ignore me when I greet them, and sometimes even “shh” me when trying to help them. How can I tell them to get off the phone without being rude? Or do I just ignore it and assume the “customer is always right” policy?

Emily Yoffe: If you’re providing superior service, telling your customers to get off the phone so you can provide it is actually not superior service. Of course it’s rude to ignore social niceties in favor of cell phone conversations, but if a customer waves you on, just smile and be waved off. When the conversation ends, then you can approach and ask if you can offer help.


New York Elevators: In New York, there’s a modified rule. Women first, unless the women-first rule would be extremely inconvenient, in which case whoever is closest to the door gets out first.

Emily Yoffe: But these “rules” have gotten so lax that not everyone even knows they exist anymore. It does help if there’s not a free for all to squeeze out the door – so women first can make things easier. But I agree flexibility is necessary.


Erie, Pa.: I am currently in the process of divorcing my husband after 7 years of an abusive marriage. Since my ex and I have children together, I would still like to keep things moderately friendly with his family. My predicament is this: I am Facebook friends with all of my in-laws. Is there a polite way to de-friend them so I can have a life not monitored by the ex’s family?

Emily Yoffe: Here’s what I don’t understand about Facebook. Since it’s so public a medium, why would you post things on it you wouldn’t be willing to let all the people you’ve friended see? Are you going to post about the people you’re dating, etc? (Why?) In any case, it’s your page and if it makes you feel squeamish to have ex-in laws on it, just defriend them. I don’t think matrimonial law has dealt with custody of Facebook friends yet.


College Station, Texas: Dear Prudence: I’m a graduate student, and most of my friends are students in the same program. For the most part, we all get along or at least stay out of each other’s hair. The problem is, this year a young woman came into the program who is extremely lacking in social skills. She often interrupts entire conversations, even in the middle of class, to offer unrelated comments which she somehow thinks are more insightful than those made by others. Recently, she angered our most patient (with her) peer by saying in front of others that he had taken a very long time to make a point that could have easily been summed up in less time.

She has started to realize that people avoid her, but she seems to think it’s the departmental snobiness and not her behavior that’s the problem. We are honestly trying to like her, but it’s getting harder as the year draws to a close. Given that a career in academia entails networking and communicating with people, should we say something so that she will stop sabotaging herself (and to make life easier for everybody)?

–The Now-Evasive Grad

Emily Yoffe: This sounds like an issue that goes way beyond simply telling her to stop self-sabotage. She evidently has some kind of social disability, possibly Asperger’s, and she should be getting serious help to help her understand social clues better. Having an academic supervisor talk this over with her and give her some leads would be a better way to go. Maybe a couple of you can bring this up with the supervisor and suggest he or she intervene for this girl’s benefit.


Boston: I have to admit I hate when guys standing closer to the elevator door make me shimmy past them to get out first. You are in my WAY and it will be easier and faster for both of us if you just get OFF. Thanks. That felt great.

Emily Yoffe: Perhaps they are enjoying the shimmying. It’s not often that etiquette brings such thrills.


Newton, Mass.: But what does Rochester, Minn. do when some relatives, the ones who simply RSVPed, “Thanks, we’ll be there!” show up with their kids in tow? And how do Rochester’s obedient relatives feel – the ones who got the babysitter? I’ve had this experience (both in the hostess role and the “good guest” role) on more than one occasion.

Emily Yoffe: Rochester might want to take an extra step and send an email “reminder” about the event to the relatives and mention it it she just wants to clarify that unfortunately there is limited seating at the restaurant so she hopes everyone understands this is an adults-only event. Then when rude people show up with the kids, there’s not much you can do but try to accommodate them. Surely that doesn’t make the people who didn’t act like jerks feel, “Hey, I should have acted like a jerk and brought my kids, too!”


DC: Elevator Exit: I was taught men exit elevators first, especially in parking garages. This was in case someone was lurking near the elevator waiting to cause trouble.

Emily Yoffe: Now I am wondering how people manage to get in and out of the office several times a day with all these tie ups at the elevator door. It’s starting to sound like the stateroom scene in “A Night at the Opera.” In general, it’s women to the lifeboats and out of the elevators first. In parking garages, sure, the men can take the first blow.


I’m NOT too young for you!: Dear Prudie,

There’s a very nice man who has made it clear both that he’s interested (to the extent that others have commented to me on it) AND that he knows he’s “too old” for me and will therefore not act on his interest. He’s only about 5 years older than me, and we’re both well over 30.

What’s a reasonably polite way to communicate that we are actually close in age? I tried low-key flirting and he grinned, then gathered himself up and left.

Emily Yoffe: Are you sure he’s in his thirties? He sounds like he’s about 13. Obviously, a five year age difference is unimportant, so maybe he’s actually not that interested. Alternatively, he could be pathologically shy. You sound bolder, so just go up to him and ask him if he’d like to get together for coffee or a drink.


re: Facebook, to defriend or not?: You can defriend. They don’t get notified. If you want to keep them on, though, you can change your privacy settings so they basically don’t see anything. Or only certain things. Have a teenager or college-aged student show you.

Emily Yoffe: Good advice. Another reminder of why it’s worth it to have children.


Want more sex: I’m having trouble getting used to the idea of having sex only with one person. My girlfriend is wonderful – both in and out of bed – but I find my eye wandering and wanting more variety. I know, we’re supposed to surpress these things and get with the monogamy program, but I’m having real trouble with this concept. I’m old enough to think that these desires aren’t going to change – do most people just surpress them or am I doing something wrong?

Emily Yoffe: Well, if there were a perfect way to suppress, divorce wouldn’t have been invented. What you are feeling is totally normal, and there is no magic secret to not desiring other women. But it’s like anything else where you decide to control your impulses for your greater benefit: studying for the test instead of going out drinking; saying no to the second portion so you can fit in your pants; keeping your pants zipped because what you have with your girlfriend is worth more than the temporary thrill of chasing someone new. As with giving up anything, it should become easier the longer you do it.


Washington, D.C.: I have recently cut out a friend from my life. She’s hyper-sensitive, dramatic, oblivious, and hypocritical. To be fair, she’s also funny, smart, and compassionate. I’ve just decided the positive no longer outweighs the negative, and I am not interested in maintaining our friendship.

She is not completely out of the social fabric of my life, however, as we have several mutual friends. One of those friends has been asking me why “Jane” and I are no longer speaking, and is trying to reconcile us. I have no interest in reconciliation, and no desire to put my friend in the middle of this. How can I politely tell her to back off?

Emily Yoffe: If you and Jane were close, have you done her the favor of telling her that while you care very much for her, you’ve found the friendship to be draining and think you should see less of each other? Or have you just disappeared from her life? If Jane knows why you are no longer close, then it’s easy to tell the other friend that you and Jane have talked about your relationship and that you’re comfortable where things are now and no reconciliation is necessary.


New Haven, Conn.: My half sister (my mom’s daughter) organized a birthday party for my 70 year old father, which was very nice. The problem is that she organized it for a Friday afternoon, knowing full well that I work – and have worked for the past 20 years – M-F, 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. She said she couldn’t move it because her work schedule (she’s a part-time nurse) was carved in stone. For the record, it wasn’t on or even near Dad’s actual birthday. I told my mom I couldn’t make it and why (I had broken my ankle earlier in the year and couldn’t take more time off) but I never replied to my sister’s email informing me of the party.

Now that it is over, do I just let it go? Or do I speak with her about it? I am the youngest and often I am not consulted about family plans, even though I’m nearly 40 years old.

Emily Yoffe: That was a lousy thing of your half-sister to do. You should have taken the opportunity of the invitation to explain to her that you would have been happy to talk to her about a time to celebrate your father’s birthday that would have included all of you. Since this is still burning you up, if you can muster all your self-control,express in the calmest possible way to her that it was painful for you not be able to attend your father’s birthday celebration. Getting it off your chest will probably be better than quietly seething. Then why don’t you take your father out (on his actual birthday!) so that you can enjoy his company.


Minneapolis: elevator exit: Here’s one more angle: I was taught that if a man was near the elevator door, he exited first, but then paused to hold the elevator door lest it close on the lady while she exited.

Emily Yoffe: However you all decide to do it, get out of the elevator in time to enjoy a beautiful spring day!

Talk to you next week.