It’s Advice Week! In On Second Thought, we’ll revisit questions from the archives and dig into how much has changed since Slate began giving advice in 1997—and how much hasn’t. Read all stories here.
For today’s edition, we dug through Slate’s archives and unearthed questions sent to Prudie from the 1990s. We’ve asked today’s columnists to weigh in with modern-day sensibilities.
Granted, I am not young, but I am not a fuddy-duddy either. Are you reacting to all the blue nail polish, body piercings, spiky hair, and nose rings? Sometimes the young salespeople are so strange looking it is distracting. Am I nuts and just out of it?
Fussy or Normal
Prudie—not young but not a fuddy-duddy, either—couldn’t agree with you more. Often feeling like a lobotomized dowager, Prudie blanches when she sees some of the young people, frequently wondering how it is possible that they think they look appealing. There is hope, though. When they grow a little older and get serious about becoming employed, the green hair and atavistic piercings disappear. Alas, we seem to be stuck with the odd-colored nail polish–purple, blue, and green being Prudie’s unfavorites.
From: Dear Prudence (Sept. 5, 1998).
Advice From the Future:
What a letter to kick us off!
My dear Fuss: Today, you and Prudie would indeed be called fuddy-duddies by the majority of generations. While I hope that in the intervening decades, you’ve come to embrace colorful hair, piercings, and tattoos a bit more than at the time of your letter, I understand if you’re still resistant to them. There are still many folks who struggle with these modes of expression being so common and, in some cases, so visually “loud.”
It’s not for me to police your likes and preferences when out and about in society. But what I find inspiring about the way we more freely adorn ourselves today relates precisely to Prudie’s reply, in which she wonders how it is that today’s young people think they look appealing. The adults I know who dye, ink, and pierce themselves do not do it to “look appealing” (to others, it is implied); they do it because it pleases themselves. We are amidst a cultural awakening, still gaining force, in which we are getting smarter about valuing ourselves regardless of the opinions of others. We are pushing back at dress codes that police women’s bodies rather than men’s behavior. We are removing appearance codes from the office and judging employees instead on the quality of their work. We are not perfect by any means, but we are a lot more inclusive of the many ways to be in the world than we were 30 years ago. Were you writing to me today, Fuss, I would encourage you to focus on that fact. Green hair is a small price to pay for a society that is moving toward making space for everyone.—Allison
I am having an ongoing ordeal over whether my 12-year-old daughter should refer to her stepfather as “Dad,” “Stepdad,” or by his first name. I’ve been remarried for six years to my present husband, and he insists that my daughter should refer to him as either “Dad” or “Mr. Giles” when addressing him. My daughter calls my husband by his first name, which infuriates him because he believes it is disrespectful. My daughter insists he doesn’t deserve to be called “Dad” and now only makes reference to “him” when mentioning her stepfather to friends or relatives. Please advise about what would be the most appropriate way to handle the situation.
“Mr. Giles” sounds like a real beaut. The form of address, you understand, is merely the battleground for the simmering war between them. Your daughter won’t call him “Dad,” which he wants; and he won’t permit a first-name address (which is perfectly acceptable), which is what she wants. And for whatever it’s worth, Prudie has never heard of anyone saying, “Stepdad, please pass the salt,” so forget that one. Someone, maybe a family counselor, needs to deal with the alienation the youngster feels and the hostility harbored by your husband. If you can find a way to deal with and improve their relationship, what she calls him will become a moot point. Reading between the lines, it may be that the child’s biological father and your husband’s own offspring-situation are part of the equation.
From: Dear Prudence (Dec. 3, 1999).
Advice From the Future:
Prudie got this one right. The fact that this man would prefer “Mr. Giles” to “Charles” tells me everything I need to know about what kind of relationship this man is trying to forge with the young woman—and affection and closeness are clearly not on the menu.
When I was a tween in the ‘90s, the only adults that were called by their first names were the stepparents (so this guy sounds off-base even amongst his contemporaries); but today, it seems like first names are incredibly common ways to address most adults, including one’s friends’ parents, which would never have flown in my day. My kids are still young enough that I’m addressed as So-and-So’s Mom more often than anything else, but even as they grow, I’m unsure whether “Mrs. Price” is going to get much usage compared to “Allison.” It feels strange to me, but certainly nothing I’d wage a battle over—especially with a new stepkid.
I agree with Prudie and advise you, letter writer, that your husband’s relationship with your daughter needs to be the focus of his attention, rather than how he’s addressed. If he’s not willing to put the work in to develop at least an amiable friendship with his stepdaughter, then you have some serious decisions to make.—Allison
I can’t believe that I’m writing to you, but I can’t get this out of my mind. My very nice sister-in-law invited us to her son’s high-school graduation dinner at a nice restaurant immediately after the ceremony. We agreed to go to both events, graduation and dinner.
My question is this. We had to leave early because of the babysitter, so we got up, kissed the new graduate, said goodbye to everyone and thanked our sister-in-law. A relative–not the host–said, “Leaving before the bill arrives?” If he knew the guests were supposed to pay for dinner, we didn’t. Embarrassed, I gave my father-in-law money to give to the hostess to cover our meals.
Was I wrong to assume the dinner was given by my sister-in-law? What’s the etiquette about being invited to a restaurant to celebrate a big event? I paid this time, but what to do next time? (And yes, we gave him a very, very nice graduation present.)
—Definitely Not a Freeloader in New York
Prudie is appalled, and suspects your very nice sister-in-law was raised by wolves. At the very least, if the host can’t manage such a party, guests should be informed beforehand that the celebratory dinner is the gustatory equivalent of BYOB.
As for the next time, feel free to ask if the party is a Dutch treat. If it is, and you’re not feeling Dutch, decline with thanks.
From: Dear Prudence (Oct. 10, 1998).
Advice From the Future:
Well, this one aged about as well as the green hair conundrum, in my opinion. Listen, I still have to Google, “Are you supposed to tip a ____” every time a trades professional is at my house, so I definitely missed the day of school where they taught us all the unwritten rules of society. And although my social circle includes all manner of well-employed, well-compensated individuals, we still go Dutch in most outings. I can count on one hand the number of times someone of my generation paid for an entire group experience.
Nevertheless, throwing a party still has its own set of expectations, and that’s what I think this letter boils down to, were it to be written today: Is this a group dinner, or is this a party? I’d expect to chip in for the former, but not for the latter.
Prudie is right that you can feel free to ask about expectations ahead of time (or enlist a trusted third party to find out for you if asking outright would be disastrous). But here’s another option, Def, for the next time you’re in this situation: When you get up to leave, thank the organizers and say, “Let me know what we owe and I’ll Venmo you.” You’ll know immediately by the reply (“Can do!” or “Don’t be silly!”) what kind of affair you’ve been at.—Allison
My friend is 35 and is now carrying the child of the man she has been with for about a year. They don’t live together, they rarely go out on dates, and when they see each other it normally means one spending the night at the other’s place. There are times when they don’t hear from each other for several days. There is nothing here that resembles commitment. The father still has not decided what his role is going to be, if any.
In short, he’s being a real jerk and it makes me damned angry to see my friend suffering and stressing out because of this caveman, given her delicate condition. What should I do?
—Concerned Friend in NYC
Mind your own business. No offense. Prudie believes that third parties in domestic affairs such as you describe are like, well, third wheels. If it will calm you any, it sounds as if this pair is practicing emotional S&M.
Prudie thinks there’s a slim chance that you are your own friend, if you get my drift. If this is the case, you should 1) tell Mr. Future Dad what is expected and, if it is not forthcoming, 2) wipe the slate clean and begin to make the best life you can as a single mom.
From: Dear Prudence (May 9, 1998).
Advice From the Future:
On the one hand, Prudie is right to advise you to stay out of others’ bedrooms, at least when it comes to judging them against your own definition of what a good relationship “should” look like.
That said, the entirety of this letter hinges on how the expectant mother feels. If she truly is distraught because her boyfriend looks ready to split, then the best thing you can do, letter writer, is to tell her she can do this on her own (if that is indeed her choice) but make it clear she will not be on her own, because you will be there as her village. That means helping her shop for the best cribs, taking the baby for a couple of hours so she can nap, coming over to vacuum when it’s all too much, adjusting your friendship routine so that it fits around her new normal, and so much more. For bonus points, encourage your mutual friends to follow suit.
Single parents are more common these days than they were 30 years ago, I think, and fortunately, we’re on a path toward more professional options and social systems that can make that lifestyle more possible. But we are by NO means there yet (I’ll spare readers my soapbox). The thing is, parenting cannot and should not be a solo affair. No one can do this 100 percent by themselves and still come out sane on the other end. But it is not only romantic partners who can pitch in on the cause. Speaking as a single mom, the friends and family who make an effort to be present in my children’s lives, and helpful in mine, are worth their weight in gold. There is no better way you can love her than to simply, consistently, show up for her.—Allison
More Prudie From the 90s
I work in an office of some 20 people. While I have cordial but hardly warm relations with several co-workers, the only person I genuinely like is a woman who was hired about eight months ago. We have become quite friendly, verging on affectionate. I sense a mutual attraction (and I know she is available). We’re both in our mid-30s. Since I both like her and find her desirable, I am considering pursuing a relationship. However, my track record isn’t great…