Save Your Breath


Sam Breach

Mallory Ortberg

Mallory Ortberg, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at

Readers! Ask me your questions on the voice mail of the Dear Prudence podcast. Just leave a message at 401-371-DEAR (3327), and you may hear your question answered on a future episode of the show.

Q. Still stinky: My roommate is one of those scarily competent people. She does a lot of things well and doesn’t stress things that aren’t a priority. When her breath started to smell a few months ago, I told her nicely and in private. She was annoyed but then thanked me a few hours later and said she was glad to know. The problem is that she doesn’t really seem to have done much about it. I notice now before we go out she rinses her mouth out with water (what good does she think that will do?!), but she only brushes her teeth once a day. Should I follow up with more concrete suggestions (tongue scraper, mouthwash, brushing more, maybe looking into medical causes)? Or do I just assume it’s not a priority for her?

A: You’ve already had the most difficult conversation in breaking the news to her, so there’s a lower barrier to entry if you want to revisit the topic and suggest she try using mouthwash instead of water (water! That just makes your mouth wetter, not cleaner!) to freshen up, or brushing the recommended twice-daily rather than just once. Since she’s a fairly focused person who has a tendency to drop things that don’t seem immediately important, you’d be doing her a favor by offering some concrete suggestions. Her reaction the first time was “mild annoyance followed by acceptance” rather than total humiliation, so I think you should do her a solid and follow up.

Q. Dumped by everyone: This March, I moved into a house where there were one female housemate and one couple already. Another guy moved in at the same time, and he and I became extremely good friends. I was good friends with everyone else as well. At the end of May, however, the female housemate wanted her girlfriend to move in, and she very nicely asked me if I could find alternate accommodation. I was hurt that they asked me to leave and not him, but I agreed. I still like them all, especially her girlfriend, whom I am really fond of. Simultaneously, the guy and I started dating, since I was moving out and there would be no awkwardness in the same house. He abruptly dumped me in September, saying that he wanted to date others. I was hurt but thought we would remain friends. He cut me off completely, and things he has said and done since makes me think that the friendship was simply a ruse for easy sex.

Now, no one else in that house wants to hang out with me (even though we live within walking distance). When I was dating him, they invited me to everything, and we did so many things together, even without the guy. Now I am no longer invited to anything and they refuse all my invites, but they are happy to chat with me via text or on Facebook. They came late to my Christmas party and left early. I miss them and am hurt. Only the girl who moved in my place has been kind and has made any effort to remain friends (she stayed behind at the party too, talking not just to me but to my other friends). I don’t know what to say or if I should say anything at all.

A: I don’t think it’s worth saying anything to your ex—he sounds like a garden-variety jerk, and I don’t think you’ll get much out of telling him off. As for the rest of the housemates, although it’s sad they seem to have backed off your friendship ever since you moved out, you’ve only known them about nine months, and you only became friends because you moved into their house. It may be that their feelings of friendship were more circumstantial than yours, which is demoralizing. You can certainly tell them that you miss them, that you wish you saw more of them, and that you’d like to spend more time together, but if they keep declining your invitations or leaving your parties early, I think you should look for friends who don’t keep you at arm’s length.

Q. Re: Still stinky: I have a friend who is extremely competent in all areas of life and very successful. But she’s terrified of the dentist. She hasn’t even been for a cleaning in more than seven years. It could be the roommate has a terrible fear as well and that her teeth are actually hurting her as a result—hence the rinsing with water rather than mouthwash, which could hurt sore gums.

A: That is a possibility! The letter-writer would do well to bear in mind that it’s possible—not certain, but possible—there are underlying anxieties or fears at play before approaching her roommate.

Q. Re: Still stinky: What’s scary to me is that you monitor her dental hygiene. Just stop. Please.

A: While I agree that the ideal roommate does not monitor one’s personal hygiene on a regular basis, chronic bad breath is very noticeable and can have far-reaching social and professional consequences. If you spend much time in close proximity to another person (either as a roommate, or a prospective romantic partner, or during a job interview) it’s quite noticeable. I tend to apply the golden rule in situations like this—I would want someone to tell me if my breath was consistently bad, even if the conversation felt embarrassing and uncomfortable at first—before offering advice. I think this letter-writer’s goal is to be helpful to his or her roommate, not judgmental or dismissive, and there are ways the letter-writer can do so.

Q. Angry at death: My ex-husband committed suicide just before Christmas, leaving our adult child to deal with the aftermath of his life, possessions, and business, as well as his grieving, dysfunctional family. I am doing what I can to help and support my child, but I am just so angry. My anger is making it hard to enjoy the holidays and get through work. Is it normal to be this angry in mourning? It seems like a strange response, and questioning myself is only adding to my stress.

A: I am so sorry for your loss and for the pain that you and your child are experiencing in the wake of your ex’s suicide. Yes, it’s normal to feel anger as you grieve loss, especially with a loss as recent and as sudden as yours. It’s only been a few days since he died, and you should be infinitely patient with yourself as you cycle through any number of feelings. Do not force yourself to “enjoy the holidays” right now. Give yourself total permission to not enjoy anything; you do not have to rush into a place of immediate acceptance and peace. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available not just to people struggling with suicidal thoughts; it is also there to provide resources and a listening ear for anyone who’s lost a friend or family member to suicide. You have a right to feel angry, bewildered, confused, sad, and whatever else comes up for you. This will take time, and if nothing else, I hope you give yourself permission to take care of yourself as you also take care of your child.

Q. Vegetarian wedding: I’m getting married next year, and my father has gotten very upset at one of my choices. My fiancé and I are both vegetarians for moral and environmental reasons. This is an important part of our lifestyle and our relationship, so it seemed like a no-brainer to us to have a vegetarian wedding. Catering a large event including meat seems ridiculous to us, considering that we avoid meat in our daily lives. My father thinks this is extremely rude and that we are “forcing our beliefs on our guests.” He thinks we should have a traditional meat entrée, since most of our guests will not be vegetarian. I think that everyone can survive one meatless meal. What are your thoughts?

A: I agree that everyone is capable of eating at least one meatless meal. You are not requiring your guests to become vegetarians in support of your own choices; you are asking them to eat some pasta and vegetables at a catered supper. If your father and any other guest would like to get steaks afterward, they are free to do so.

Q. Overstepping boundaries in friendship: There is a friend from school whom I’ve developed a close relationship with. We talk a lot on a messaging app and spend a significant amount of time together in school. We are both in steady, long-term relationships, and he’s engaged to be married. It occurred to me not long ago that I might be overstepping my boundaries as a friend with our late-night chats and deep conversations at school. None of these chats have a sexual vibe to them, and there is no flirting going on between us. We do sometimes talk about sex but not in a flirty way and not detailing our personal lives. In general the conversations involve trading jokes and funny memes. But I know that there is a very subtle air of sexual tension between us, as in many male-female platonic relationships. I should stress that this tension isn’t and never will be acted upon. I am wondering if this feeling of wronging his girlfriend has any basis to it. I know that if my boyfriend would have a relationship like this with another woman, I might be slightly jealous, but I’d know there is absolutely nothing to worry about. I just don’t know if that feeling is the same for his girlfriend, and I wouldn’t want to cause this to another woman. What do you think?

A: I think you have a friendship. No more, no less. If it relieves your conscience, you might consider scaling back on some of the late-night messaging in order to focus on your own boyfriend, but you have not crossed any lines and do not appear to be on the verge of crossing them anytime soon. “Having deep conversations” is a normal part of friendship and not something to feel guilty about. Again, if you find yourself spending an inordinate amount of time talking to your friend to the exclusion of your other friends or your romantic relationship, you may redirect your energies elsewhere, but you do not appear to be engaging in plausibly deniable unfaithful behavior. Clear your conscience.

Q. Attractive nuisance: My husband and I live in a small, tight-knit development full of families with young kids. We were excited to become new parents a month ago and feel more included in the neighborhood already. Our backyard is a large hill sloping down from the street toward our house, and as my husband and I can testify, it’s great for sledding. My issue is that when enough snow accumulates, the neighborhood kids gravitate to our yard, without our permission. Last year, one of the older kids slammed into the back of our house. Thankfully, I was in our house and heard her and was able to walk her home. She was fine (and our house undamaged), but all of this makes me nervous. When the kids came over uninvited a few days ago, our neighbor texted me, “Hope you don’t mind, the kids are sledding in your yard!” We’re interested in keeping the peace with our neighbors, but I’m very concerned about kids getting hurt and the real, albeit small, possibility of getting sued if something happens. How should I handle this? Ignore it? I know it will continue to happen when we aren’t home. When other neighbors have gone to the HOA board about things, people tend to get upset that they weren’t notified directly. Am I just being overly dramatic?

A: Talk to your home insurance agent about the best way to protect yourself. I’m reluctant to tell you to kick everyone off the neighborhood sledding hill as a first option, because I think it’s better to live with possible lawsuits somewhere in the middle, rather than at the forefront, of one’s mind. Something naturally occurring like a hill may not incur the same sort of liability that, say, an unfenced pool might, and you might be able to set up a few basic, low-cost safety precautions that will prevent neighborhood children from barreling into your living room (an embankment, a small fence between the end of the hill and the side of your house, etc). It may be, too, that there are state or local laws regarding attractive nuisances that you can look up; in the unhappy event that you are ever sued by an angry parent, you will be able demonstrate you followed the law in minimizing danger to others.

Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone. That’s it for this week.

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