Category Archives: Dear Imprudence

Dear Imprudence: Speaking of Holiday Tensions…

Dear Imprudence’s recent reader livechat featured a question that made me go ‘oooh, ouch, been there,’ from a reader writing on behalf of a daughter hounded by family members, specifically her grandmother, about her weight.

Q. Grandmother’s Obsession With Weight: My daughter is a recent grad of a top 3 in the country school. She’s kind, pretty, has friends and is employed, going back to grad school. She’s a former college athlete but since school, has put on a huge amount of weight. While it’s a less than ideal situation, she’s seeking help for it. The issue is Grandmother. She’s old-school, from a certain area of the country that values looks and femininity trumps all, especially weight. She’s not at all slim herself, her kids have had eating disorders and her husband has been grossly obese for as long as I’ve known them. She’s terrible to my daughter and what she doesn’t say outright, she implies. My husband’s attempted many times to talk to her, but to no avail. We try to avoid seeing them, but during the holidays, it’ll be difficult. She always has the last word. Is there a polite way to shut her down? Sincerely, not a Belle.

I note two things about this article:

One, the grandmother is definitely behaving inappropriately and I think it’s good that the letter writer is asking for advice on how to handle the situation. I suspect the letter resonated with a lot of readers because this tends to be a time of year when these kinds of things start coming up a lot and having a little library of sharp reports to draw upon can be useful for navigating unpleasant social situations.

Two, the letter writer has got some fat hatred to deal with. Despite being disparaging about how the grandmother views weight, suggesting that grandmother’s ideas aren’t shared, the letter writer makes sure to mention that grandfather is ‘grossly obese,’ and that gaining weight after stopping high energy college athletics is ‘a less than ideal situation1.’ The letter writer notes that the grandmother is ‘not at all slim,’ evidence that she, of course, would have no room to talk, and the letter leads right there with that damning one-two punch that gets thrown at fat people: well, you’re fat, but at least you’re ‘pretty’ and ‘kind.’ And ‘have friends’ despite the fact that you’re fat! Gosh, it’s almost like fat people are human beings.

Here’s what Prudence said in response:

A: Your daughter is an adult so she’s the one who needs to handle this situation. You can have a talk with your daughter and say that you dread hearing her grandmother’s nasty remarks and you want her to be ready to parry them. “Thank you” is an all-purpose non sequitur. Your daughter can also be more direct: “It’s good to see you Grandma. You’ve expressed your feelings about my weight many times, so I know how you feel. I’d like to enjoy the holiday, so I’d appreciate it if we don’t discuss this anymore.” If grandmother won’t stop, your daughter just needs to say, “Good to talk to you. Excuse me, I’m going to see Uncle Ed.”

Prudence covered the first topic with some pretty solid advice. But she didn’t touch the second. Was it a good move?

I think there’s a solid argument to be made for covering the question ostensibly being asked in the letter and focusing on the issue of making the daughter feel more comfortable at family gatherings while choosing to elide the letter writer’s own embedded bigotry, with the goal of not alienating the letter writer and making sure the advice gets where it needs to go. On the other hand, though, what is the daughter internalising at home around the letter writer, and how are comments made by the letter writer contributing to the distress she experiences as a result of family pressure about her weight?

But I’m not sure the logic here is that complex; I honestly suspect those snide comments slid right past Prudence when she was drafting her response, because they’re a reflection of attitudes that are so common, so widespread, so ubiquitous, that they don’t even attract attention unless you’re specifically looking for them. They just pop right past.

Yes, that’s me, looking for something to get offended about. No, really, I think that these kind of dogwhistles and codewords are evidence of the uphill struggle we have when it comes to fighting social attitudes. This is a situation where the letter writer could have used some advice too, and didn’t get it.

  1. Newsflash: What happens when you stop engaging in athletics? You tend to put on some weight as your body adjusts.

Dear Imprudence: The Advice Column of the Year Goes To…

It’s been a busy year in advice columns. Normally,  I don’t like writing retrospective columns in November, let alone being so bold as to name the advice column of the year this early. Who knows what could come in the next month, right? But I am 100% certain that this advice column cannot be beat by anything anyone else writes in the next month.

It contains a mixture of all the things I look for in a good advice column:

  • Brevity. Advice should be crisp, simple, and to the point. Columnists who can cut to the chase win a lot of points, in my book. Yes, some situations are complicated, but when you’re talking about letters edited to fit in a newspaper and the responses, it should be short and simple. Sometimes, concepts are clear and don’t need to be explained.
  • Crispness. I like columnists who add dry wit and snark to their columns. It makes their work more fun to read and it  makes it more memorable. If I read some blah-y, preachy advice, I usually start tuning out, and I don’t really remember what it said. When the columnist says something funny or snarkalicious, it sticks in my mind.
  • Bluntness. Sometimes, advice needs to be blunt. A question is so ridiculous, so invasive, that the only dignified response is one of disbelief, expressed through bluntness. Bluntness is not just a reminder to the reader that what they are asking is eyebrow-worthy. It’s also a reminder to people that they are, in fact, allowed to be blunt in certain social settings.

There’s one advice columnist who tends to embody these things. In fact, she’s known for it: Miss Manners. Miss Manners is penned by Judith Martin, and has been since the start, unlike other advice columnists, where the face behind the pen name has turned over not once but even multiple times. Miss Manners is always crisp and fresh and one of the things I love about her is that she belies pretty much every stereotype about her. People might expect older women who are experts in etiquette to be conservative and stuffy, and she’s not. She’s highly progressive and wicked funny. In fact, one of the driving thrusts of her columns is the idea that if you’re being offensive, people have a right to stop associating with you, which is kind of a cornerstone of my own philosophy.

Given these facts, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I adore Miss Manners on general principle, and that she would probably be shortlisted for advice column of the year. I’ve been reading Miss Manners since I was a wee thing and I think she gives generally sound advice; in fact, usually I agree with what she says and only rarely have I differed from Miss Manners. In part that’s because she focuses on etiquette rather than entangled personal situations like Ask Amy or Dear Abby. But it’s also because she has a way of cutting to the chase in a situation, divining what’s really going on, and setting things straight.

Miss Manners taught me that while it’s never acceptable to be rude, a firm ‘I beg your pardon’ can be just as effective as snapping at someone for saying something I find abominable. She also taught me that if I find behaviour unacceptable, I’m allowed to say so; she taught me to value my own opinion rather than going on what other people tell me, and she reminded me that I have autonomy, as a person, to make my own decisions and to formulate my own thoughts on matters. Since marginalised people are often informed that they don’t matter and that their lived experiences are not as important as what other people think, this was an important thing for me to learn at a young age.

In October, a Miss Manners reader wrote in with the following question:

Dear Miss Manners—What is the proper way to ask someone why they have prosthetic limbs?

Miss Manners responded in true form:

Gentle Reader—As that person’s new doctor, you can ask outright. If Miss Manners is mistaken and you are not that person’s doctor, you have no business asking.

The first time I read this, I said ‘this is my platonic ideal of an advice column,’ and I stand by that. Everything about the framing of this response is superb:  Start with the ‘innocent assumption’ and move on to ‘but if I am mistaken in this assumption, you, gentle reader, are clearly an ass.’ It’s delicious and it’s a sharp reminder to readers of her column that, hey, you shouldn’t ask people for information about their disabilities unless you have a professionally relevant reason for needing that information. Furthermore, it goes the other way, too; as a disabled reader, I know that my desire for privacy and respect is perfectly reasonable and that I am allowed to say, as Miss Manners taught me, ‘I beg your pardon?’ when someone asks an invasive question of this nature.

I am immensely pleased to announce that this column takes the advice column of the year award, hands down, and that Miss Manners’ position as Supreme Advice Columnist of the Universe remains secure.

Dear Imprudence — Strictly Speaking of Protocol

I think we can make this short and sweet, so let’s jump right in, shall we?

Miss Manners fields a Veterans’ Day Special from Every Military Person, Everywhere!

We members of the military would be honored if you could address military funeral etiquette for Veterans Day.

Naturally, I jest, but I do take minor exception to members of a group claiming to speak on behalf of an entire group. So, thank you, letter-writer, or representative group of military doodz.

Moving on.

For those do not know: It is not necessary for you to stand to receive the U.S. flag. We expect that you are in distress with the loss of your family member.

We are saluting our fellow service member for the last time after we give you the flag. We do not expect you to return our salute.

I’ll cut to the quick here. I hate it when military people talk down to civilians as if they can not possibly understand simple things, like funeral service protocol. But, I’ll give the benefit of the doubt here, because even as a veteran myself, sometimes I get a little confused on who expects me to salute when, etc.

Thanks for clearing that point up, if not in a slightly condescending manner.

We may be silent when you thank us. We are being silent as our fellow service member is now forever silent. Do not think we are rude for our silence; it is out of respect to our fellow service member.

We are not at the graveside of a fellow service member for you to thank us. It is a duty to serve this country that we have accepted. Just as your loved one did at sometime during their lifetime.

That’s great. Thank you for trudging yourselves out there. Hope it wasn’t too inconvenient. I happen to know that funeral detail comes with some pretty good perks and recognition along with the hard work. I imagine it is too much for this letter writer to imagine that along with being bereaved, this loved one probably gave quite a bit in service to the country as well. Just because ou didn’t put on a uniform doesn’t mean that sacrifices weren’t made, that life goals and dreams weren’t put on hold, and hours, days, months, or longer weren’t spent waiting for calls that wouldn’t come until that last one finally did. The loved one of a deceased service member deserves a little recognition and respect for the job they did in support of that service member, and most people on a funeral detail know this and can be respectful of this without sending out such a presumptuous letter.

I think that Miss Manners handled it perfectly:

GENTLE READER — Indeed, Miss Manners is grateful to be of help in this small way. She only adds that she is sure that your understanding of the emotional state of the bereaved means that you would not take amiss any such spontaneous, although unnecessary, gestures of gratitude.

Dear Imprudence: I’ll Keep My Body Hair, Thanks

Body hair has come up on Dear Imprudence before, so I thought this recent Ask Amy column might be relevant to the interests of some readers, in addition to being an example of an advice column that does not actually suck!

A reader wrote in to ask:

Dear Amy: I am a girl in my junior year of high school, and the volleyball coach won’t let me compete until I shave my underarms and legs (our uniforms are sleeveless tops and shorts).

I don’t want to be forced into something that I feel is completely unnecessary. Leg and underarm hair is a completely natural part of becoming a woman.

Is this discrimination? Is there anything I can do (besides shave)? I really want to play volleyball! — Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

Ok, first of all, this high school athlete rocks. I like that she’s standing up for herself, and refused to accept the mandate to shave her body hair or else. She’s comfortable with her body hair, she doesn’t have a problem with her hair in her uniform, and she sees no reason to shave. She’s also specifically identified concerns about discrimination, wondering what she can do to retain bodily autonomy (because being told to shave your body hair is most definitely a violation of autonomy) and still play the sport she loves. Right on, Hair Today!

Amy seems to agree:

Dear Gone: I’m going to assume that your coach does not make the male players at your school adhere to the same shaving practices.

I shared your letter with Lenora Lapidus, director of the Women’s Rights Project for the American Civil Liberties Union, who responded, “This is clearly gender discrimination, based on stereotypes of how girls and women should look.” Lapidus would like to remind your coach that Title IX prohibits discrimination in any institution receiving federal funds.

Title IX is the federal statute that pushed open the door for girls to compete in sports on an equal footing with boys.

Lapidus suggests that you start by talking to the coach. “Try to work it out at school. It seems like something they should come around about because this is fairly clear-cut.”

If your coach continues to insist on this shaving rule, take your concern to the principal.

Bam. That opening line is choice, in addition to cutting to the critical point here, which is that, yeah, I’m willing to bet that if the coach also handles the men’s teams, shaving probably isn’t required (unless the coach supervises the swim team, where shaving for all genders is usually recommended for competition). If you’re going to enforce unequal ‘appearance rules,’ which is basically what asking an athlete to shave is unless there’s a compelling reason to do so (leg and armpit hair, to my knowledge, do not impair volleyball performance…any volleyball players want to speak up here?), well, you’d better get ready for someone to point out that the policy is discriminatory.

If talking to the coach won’t work, which seems probable from reading between the lines, I’d say Hair Today might want to consider going to a mentor on the teaching staff, if possible, before escalating to the principal. Sometimes a friendly word from another teacher can accomplish the needed goal without getting administration involved and causing tensions in the future. But, yes, if that doesn’t work, the principal should absolutely back her.

If the principal doesn’t help? Well, I imagine there are a whole lot of hairy feminists and feminist athletes who would be more than happy to lend their assistance to allowing No Hair to compete in sports with the level of body hair she’s comfortable with.

Dear Imprudence: Inappropriate Discipline

Content note: This Dear Imprudence discusses the use of hitting to ‘discipline’ children.

Dear Prudie’s Monday livechat featured a doozy of a question:

Q. Discipline: My wife and I have been married for eight years, and we have three wonderful children, two girls and a boy. While we agree on most everything, the one thing that really causes trouble is our son, specifically how to discipline him. He is 6 years old and has mild CP and also very high functioning autism. Now my wife thinks that because of his “special needs” he should not only treated differently, but also disciplined differently. I say that consistency is the key and that the Bible says to “spare the rod, and spoil the child.” Who’s right?

Let me make this answer simple, Prudence:

Neither of you is right, Discipline. There is absolutely no reason to hit children, ever.

There you go! That was easy. Sadly, it’s not what Emily Yoffe said.

A: I hope your son’s special needs will be a special gift to your entire family and help you rethink your approach to discipline. I absolutely agree on the need for consistency, especially with a child dealing with autism. But all your children should have consistent, compassionate care, not consistent smacks to the backside. (And the Bible says lots of things I’m sure you don’t take literally.) Lack of corporal punishment does not mean you allow your children to run wild; it means showing them there are better ways to get people to behave. Please talk to the professionals helping you with your son about the most effective ways to discipline him. I’ve recommended the work of Haim Ginott before, but please read one of his books. Even if you don’t use all of his methods, he will help you see the world through the eyes of your children.

Let’s break this down, starting with the first sentence, which made me gag violently. I could really do without classifying disabled children as ‘special,’ period, and especially not as ‘special gifts.’ Disabled children are not ‘gifts.’ They are human beings. It doesn’t surprise me to see Prudence using this kind of language. After all, it’s very widespread and commonly believed, but it irks me nonetheless. She’s widely read, she has a big platform, and she has the power to influence her readers and make them rethink the way they approach disability, simply by not engaging in disability tropes and pushing back on commonly believed narratives. Especially in this case, where it seems pretty clear to me that the use of quotes in the original letter is intended in a snide, spiteful way.

Prudence’s next section, condemning the use of corporal punishment, is pretty solid. I’m well aware that my blunt approach would probably be less than ideal if the goal is actually to convince people to stop hitting their children and calling it ‘discipline,’ it just happens to be one of the things in the world that makes me incendiarily angry and I really don’t know how to push back on it in any way other than incoherent rage. I did like that she specifically used the word ‘compassionate’ in her commentary.

Finally, a recommendation of a book by a (to my knowledge) nondisabled child psychologist. I know Ginott’s books are very popular, but I find it interesting that Prudence would say the letter writer can ‘see the world through the eyes of your children’ by reading a book written by an adult who doesn’t share lived experiences with one of Discipline’s children. Why not recommend works by people with autism and cerebral palsy? And why rely on adults to tell you how children think, feel, and view the world where there are plenty of children around you can interact with directly?

Commenting note: FWD unilaterally condemns the use of corporal punishment on humans of all ages. Any comments defending it/suggesting it is ok in ‘certain circumstances’ will not be approved, so do us a favour and don’t submit them.

Dear Imprudence: Food Allergies and Inconsiderate Hosts

A recent Ask Amy column featured a letter from a reader with a problem I suspect at least some FWD readers (and contributors) can sympathise with: Handling food allergies when you’re invited to a friend’s for dinner.

Dear Amy: My neighbor recently hosted a very nice dinner party with food and entertainment. I attended and had a great time. The problem is that the host noticed I was skipping several of the dishes and asked why.

I explained that I have severe food allergies so I took only those foods I can safely eat. I had plenty to eat, and it was delicious.

The hostess became very upset with me because I did not advise her in advance of my allergies.

I felt that rather than have her change her menu it made more sense to simply skip those dishes not suitable for me. Was I wrong? I was trying to be polite. — Baffled Guest

I definitely respect this strategy; sometimes, when you try to tell a host about an issue beforehand, you get heaving sighs and an expression that clearly says ‘oh, dear, I wish I hadn’t invited you.’ And then, your host will assure you that all the food is safe to eat, oh, except for the thing you’re allergic to in the stuffing, but you can just pick it out, right? This person has apparently adopted the ‘checking to see what I can eat and going from there’ approach to handling food allergies, quite possibly after one too many dramas. And evidently, a pleasant time was had by the guest, so what’s the problem here?

As for the hostess, well…yes, by all means, get upset at someone who was trying not to make a fuss. That will definitely encourage the person to want to return the invitation, and to want to bring up said food allergies with other dinner invitations in the future. For sure. Nothing like being lectured to make you feel supergreat!

Here’s what Amy said:

Dear Baffled: You were not impolite. Your hostess, however, wasn’t quite polite.

Generally, depending on the type of party, it is fine to let a host know in advance, “I have some food allergies, but I can usually work around them, so I don’t want you to worry about catering to it.” The host can then decide what, if anything, to try to do about it.

Regardless of the dynamic, it is a real party spoiler when a host lectures a guest after the guest has had a gracious good time.

What Amy missed here was that it’s not that the host ‘wasn’t quite polite.’ It’s that the burden here is still being placed on the person with allergies, not the person doing the entertaining. Maybe I was raised in an odd household, but my father always taught me that Guests Rule, and that I should go to every length to make them comfortable and happy in our home, a habit I keep up in my own home. If a guest specifically has to ask for something, I am doing something wrong.

Which is why, when I invite people over for dinner, I always ask if there are any special food concerns (dietary, religious, or otherwise), and specifically ask if there are any dishes my guests simply don’t like. It only takes a second, and if I’m confused, I simply ask for clarification. It’s really not that difficult. And it lets my guests know that their comfort and enjoyment is paramount in my mind. If I encounter a restriction I’m not familiar with, I take it as an exciting challenge; it means I can hit the recipe books and get experimenting!

Menu planning takes work, and thinking about the needs of your guests should be part of that work. And a hostess who lectures guest is someone who clearly fails at hospitality.

Dear Imprudence: Don’t Talk About Us, Talk With Us

A recent Dear Abby had a question from an employer with a disabled staffer who wants the staffer to feel comfortable at work:

Dear Abby: I run a successful restaurant business. One of my key employees, “Zayne,” has Tourette’s syndrome. He has been a loyal and valuable waiter for many years.

When customers ask what is wrong with him because he makes noises or hits himself, how should I respond? Most of our regular customers understand his condition and ignore it. However, we do get the occasional socially inept customer who gawks or asks rude questions.

I would defend and protect Zayne. He knows people ask about him, and if they question him, he tells them about his condition. What’s the best way to respond politely to people who don’t have a clue? —Zayne’s Boss in the Pacific Northwest

Abby nailed it in her response:

Dear Boss: If you are asked about Zayne, tell the questioner, “That’s Zayne. He has been a valued employee here for many years. If you want an answer to your question, ask him.”

I liked her response for several reasons. The first was that it’s extremely common for people to talk about (and speculate about) people with disabilities instead of just approaching them directly. It would be nice if we lived in a world where people didn’t feel it was entirely appropriate to ask questions about someone with a disability, but at the very least, if people feel compelled to ask those questions anyway, they should be asking the disabled person, not someone else. And they should be prepared for a response that isn’t necessarily polite, either. If people say ‘oh but I’m too shy to ask directly’ then one might reasonably ask why they think the question needs to be asked at all.

I also like that although she didn’t explicitly spell it out, the framing of her response very much put the kibosh on the ‘defend and protect’ idea put forward in the letter. We don’t need to be ‘defended and protected.’ We need to live in a world where we aren’t objects of curiosity and speculation. Since we don’t live in that world, asking people to interact directly with us instead of around us is a good first step.

‘Defending’ us doesn’t address the social attitudes behind disability speculation. It reduces the problem to a personal one, rather than a larger structural issue; the problem isn’t that one person with disabilities attracts curiosity, it is that members of society as a whole think it’s appropriate to query the people who work with/around a disabled person about that person’s disabilities and that these same people won’t interact directly with the person they are asking about.

The critical thing she left out: She could have suggested that Zayne’s Boss ask Zane how he would prefer to have these situations dealt with.

Dear Imprudence: Help, My Friend Is A Bigot!

‘Friend or Foe’ is perhaps one of the most deliciously odd advice columns I read; the basic premise is that people having sticky questions with interpersonal relationships write in for advice. As the name of the column implies, it tends to be pretty blunt with the advice and the dividing people into one of two categories. Recently, a column ran from a reader asking what to do about terminating a friendship with a bigoted ‘friend’ (note: The column discusses suicide, depression, and mental health):

Dear Friend or Foe,

My friend “Rhonda” has always been a bit of a bigot, sneering in an offhand way at Muslims, Christians, Jews, gays, Americans, French people, Spanish people, doctors—really, nobody gets off. At the beginning of our 10-year friendship, this bothered me a lot. But I learned to ignore it, as the comments were infrequent and because she has many other fine qualities. Recently, we were talking about a public figure who struggled with depression and eventually killed himself. And Rhonda said how “stupid” the man had been to trust his doctors and the medication they gave him and questioned how such a “genius” could do such a thing. It really bothered me.

I’ve had my own problems with depression—I grew up in an abusive, violent home—but with the help of a great therapist and medication my life is turning around. I told Rhonda how hurtful her words were and how they reinforced the stigma associated with mental health care. “We’re not talking about you,” said Rhonda. “[The public figure] was a genius and should have known better.” I felt like slapping her. She started crying and accused me of not wanting to be her friend anymore. After protesting for a while, I said, “You’re right, I think it’s best if we don’t speak.” We haven’t spoken since.

Frankly, I’m relieved, as well as happy to be free of Rhonda’s “opinions.” Rhonda was also domineering and critical about what I wore and ate and what music I listened to. However, I do feel a modicum of guilt. Other friends have suggested I was too harsh. Rhonda is professionally successful, but her personal life has turned messy. She recently separated from her husband and began an affair with a married student. Plus, the economy has hurt her business. Was I too harsh in cutting her off?

Sincerely,
Apparently Not a Genius

I confess, this letter kind of puzzled me. Generally speaking, when people toss off hateful and bigoted comments around me, I don’t make a point of befriending them, let alone staying friends for 10 years. As many ‘fine qualities’ as someone has, it’s hard to overlook them if the person is constantly trashing on entire groups of people. Or even not so constantly. My tolerance threshold for that sort of thing is very, very low. The inclusion of random personal details at the end of a letter is a nice touch, too; like, how is it really relevant that Rhonda separated from her husband?

What’s interesting about this letter is that the turning point for the letter writer was when the bigotry started to directly reference the letter writer’s life and experiences, and I think that’s a pattern you’ll see generally in the world. People are reluctant to take action to cut bigots out of their lives ‘really, she’s ok except for the whole hating Black people thing,’ as long as the bigotry doesn’t personally hurt them. Then, suddenly, it’s a problem. In this case, after years of not piping up when the friend said nasty things about people, the letter writer decided that, perhaps, it was time to fight back when a bigoted comment about mental illness was made.

Was the letter writer too harsh in cutting the friend off? Friend or Foe says no:

Dear ANAG,

Whether or not Rhonda is having a hard time, you answer your own question by admitting that you feel relieved to be done with her. The basis of friendship is companionship. If you don’t enjoy spending time with the woman—and find her bossy and obnoxious—there’s no good reason why you should try to make up. Whether or not her comments are offensive and deserving of excommunication is another matter. You don’t cite specific comments she’s made about the various named religious and ethnic groups—I admit I’m curious as the bent of her anti-French smear (“you know those frogs and their love of wine and cheese”?)—but the fact that you’ve even noticed a pattern here sets off certain alarms.

As for the cited dig at docs, it sounds as if you’re oversensitive on the topic—if for good reason. I’m glad to hear that you’ve had such a positive experience in therapy and with pharmaceuticals. But it sounds as if Rhonda might have a complicated history here as well. Why else would she be blaming a stranger’s suicide on his doctors, as opposed to his depression? In any case, given the mess she’s currently making of her personal life, this might be the time for her to find out more about the mental-health profession for herself. I’d leave it to someone else to make the referral, however.

Sincerely,
Friend or Foe

I agree that the letter writer wasn’t too harsh, but for different reasons. Personally, I think there’s nothing ‘harsh’ about telling bigots they don’t have a place in my life, and I’m perfectly happy to tell them exactly why, too. The only question I’d have for the letter writer is why the bigotry didn’t matter until suddenly it was personal. I don’t think anyone is obliged to stay friends with people who are ‘nice, but bigoted,’ or ‘nice, but kinda judgmental and bossy.’

Given how we’re all trained to make nicey nicey with people, it’s not surprising that the letter writer felt guilt and wrote in to ask for reassurance, but didn’t really get it here. Sure, it was suggested that the writer shouldn’t feel too badly about not wanting the companionship of someone uncompanionable, but why not just go ahead and say ‘yes, it’s ok to stop being friends with someone on the grounds of bigotry?’

And what’s with the ‘oversensitive’ comment and armchair psychology. Really, Friend or Foe? Just had to throw that in there? A ‘messy’ personal life is evidence of a Dark Past, and there are absolutely no contributing social attitudes behind the comments made about depression, ‘intelligence,’ and the medical profession?

Dear Imprudence: Creating Space, Retaining Support

A recent Ask Amy column featured a letter from a college student with a common problem; parents who want to exert a high level of control. Here in the US, school’s been in session for a little over a month now, and the winter is coming on, and I suspect that the number of students struggling with the adjustment to college will be increasing, judging from my own experiences in college. The newness has worn off, it’s getting dark and cold, and, well:

Dear Amy: I love my parents, but even though I got straight A’s in high school without their assistance and have never gotten in trouble, they constantly nag me about homework and grades.

I thought this would end when I went to college, but I was wrong.

When I admitted I save my homework for Sunday afternoon, my mom chastised me.

She gets upset that I shield my personal life from her, but when I do share, she finds something to criticize, nag and/or make snide comments about.

When I ask my mom to stop, she either gets defensive or tells me it’s her job as my mother.

I am still recovering from depression, so I need more support and acceptance from my parents and less passive-aggressive criticism and nagging.

Any suggestions?

— Frustrated Freshman

There are a couple of interesting things going on here, and I wanted to tease out one in particular because I was just talking about it with Anna: Policing of study habits. Many people seem to believe that there is a specific ‘right’ way to study and that if you don’t study that way, you’re doing it wrong. Staying up all night to study is wrong, even if your sleep schedule is actually better suited to studying at night. Studying with music on is wrong. Moving while studying is wrong. There’s a whole long list of things touted as ‘good study habits,’ like ‘don’t leave your work until the end of the weekend.’

To me, what makes a good study habit is what works for a given student. By all performance metrics generally recognised and accepted, this student is doing well. Studying at the end of the weekend hasn’t precluded making good marks and going well in school. Clearly, it’s a system that works for this student.

For this student, there’s an added dimension of depression and the need and desire for support. When talking about your personal life or your approach to school results in judgmental comments and nagging, you tend to shut down, which means that you can’t access that support. Nagging this student about study habits sets up two things: The student is being told ‘school, you’re doing it wrong’ and is being told that support isn’t available, even if it’s wanted, from family members. That has an extremely isolating effect.

What does Amy have to say?

Dear Frustrated: I hope you are working with someone at your college’s counseling center. Because of your depression, you should receive ongoing support.

A counselor at school will be familiar with the issue of hovering parents and will help you establish a healthy and mature distance from them.

Your mother’s behavior has consequences. You should continue to reassure her but not offer details about your life which she is likely to criticize.

Because your parents are having such a hard time letting go, you will need to establish the distance necessary to grow. If your mother starts to nag and criticize, you should say, “Mom, I don’t like this, and it’s not helpful, so I’m going to have to check in with you later.”

Do your best academically, and also join organizations that will bring you in contact with other students outside the classroom.

And don’t drink. Alcohol is woefully omnipresent on most campuses, and using it will aggravate your depression.

Ah, ok, a lecture.

This student seems to have it pretty together. Depression is recognised as an issue and it seems likely that the student, you know. Knows there is a college counseling centre, although it’s worth pondering how accessible that centre is. How easy is it to make an appointment? Is it possible to discreetly get information? Many students don’t seek mental health counseling because they are afraid of the associated stigma, or because they can’t figure out how to work the appointment system, or any number of things.

The advice with the script to the mother is pretty sound; after all, the student did write in for advice about dealing with parents. But the added lecturing seems a bit unnecessary to me; the student isn’t asking for advice on dealing with depression, but specifically for advice on navigating a relationship with parents. That’s a separate, although related, issue. The question here wasn’t ‘how can I deal with depression in college’ but ‘how do I set boundaries with my mother while also asking her for the support I need?’ And the student specifically mentions wanting more support from the parents, not just in general; this is a letter about a family relationship and how to make it work.

Readers who have dealt with dynamics like this, how did you deal with it? What advice would you give the student on addressing the dynamics of the relationship?

Dear Imprudence: Interfering in My Friend’s Marriage is My DUTY!

In a recent Carolyn Hax column, a reader wrote in with the following:

Dear Carolyn:

A friend of mine is getting married to a woman who has multiple sclerosis. His family is very upset by this fact (along with a few other issues they have with his bride-to-be). Should something like having a chronic illness even be a consideration when choosing the person to spend the rest of your life with? I wonder if my friend is setting himself up for a very difficult road ahead.

D.C.

Ah, yes, the old concern trolling ‘for the friend’s own good,’ turning to an advice columnist for backup; this letter seems to pretty unambiguously suggest that the family is justified in being ‘upset’ by the friend’s choice of life partner. It’s sort of surprising the letter writer is even consulting Hax, since the opinions in this letter feel very clearly formed, unless this is some sort of devious plan involving casually leaving the paper open to this letter and the expected approving response to say ‘see!’ to the friend.

Unfortunately, these kinds of attitudes are distressingly common. People who marry people with disabilities are told that they are ‘brave’ for marrying their partners and staying with them, and they’re provided with plenty of outs for escaping the relationship; when things get tough, they’re encouraged to abandon their partners ‘because no one would blame you,’ and all problems in the relationship get reduced to the disabilities. And, of course, people preparing to marry people with disabilities are told that they should ‘reconsider’ and ‘think seriously about’ the relationship. The spectre of caregiving is raised to terrify people into thinking ‘oh, right, I don’t actually love this person! Thanks for saving me!’

And Hax’ response illustrated why I love Carolyn Hax:

Of course he is.

And of course a chronic illness should be a serious consideration — your friend would be doing this woman no favors if he didn’t take her prognosis heavily into account — but for many people it’s not a make-or-break consideration.

The way you pose your question, I’m not sure whether the “difficult road” you anticipate is the multiple sclerosis or the disapproving family. Either way, you’re right. However, there are plenty of people who think the toughest road would be the one traveled without the person they love.

Now, it’s not as if illness spins jerks into gold; if your friend’s family has legitimate concerns about the fiancee’s character, then I do hope they’ll spell this out for him.

But if your friend feels, eyes open, that his fiancee is the one he wants at his side, and if his family’s objection is to her illness (with the “few other issues” thrown out there as a fig leaf), then all I can say is, shame on them. Even though I utterly loathe that expression.

People are very fond of judging each other’s marriages. It honestly seems to be a bit of a national pasttime, whether people are judging people for the ceremony, or who is getting married, or changing names (or not changing names), or whether there are children involved, or any number of things. It seems to be generally socially acceptable to meddle in someone’s marriage planning and to make pronouncements about how a marriage is ‘doomed from the start.’ And these comments often come from family. When disabilities are involved, those comments tend to ramp up, and there can be an undertone of extreme ugliness that can be very revealing about social attitudes and the beliefs people feel it’s appropriate to air.

Here, the family has decided they don’t like the fiance, maybe because she has MS, maybe because of something else. The point is that the letterwriter seems to think the MS is sufficient reason to call off the marriage; how could the letterwriter’s friend be expected to marry a woman with MS? They’re in for a ‘hard road’! Everyone knows that people with chronic illnesses shouldn’t get married (and of course that they never marry each other).  The letterwriter seems to be hitting Carolyn Hax up to justify ableist beliefs; to me, it seems clear that the ‘hard road’ referenced isn’t dealing with the family, but, rather, being married to a disabled woman, and Hax didn’t let D.C. off the hook.

I know that at least some of our readers (and contributors) are married or in relationships and encounter these kinds of attitudes about their relationships; how do you counter them? Do you counter them?