Life's Sticky Situations
Faith Salie graduated magna cum laude from Harvard. The Rhodes Scholar is a regular contributor to O, The Oprah Magazine's monthly column Now What Do I Do?, which helps unravel everyday ethical dilemmas.
Since 1998, Randy Cohen has been untangling ethical quandaries in his New York Times Magazine column, The Ethicist.
Should Mary have told her friends? Randy says no. "When it's a one-time misstep, I would let it go. If there's wine, if there's candlelight, if there's moonlight, we all make mistakes. We're all human," he says. "But if it's a persistent behavior, if someone would do this again, then I think you have to tell. ... I use the sort of guideline 'Once is never; twice is always.'"
Faith says she's shocked at Randy's answer. "I would assume that if those men acted that way toward you," Faith says to Mary, "that's probably not the only time they've acted inappropriately and breached that commitment with their wives."
Randy says in talking to your friend, you may be forcing them to admit something they aren't ready to face. "When I took up questions related to this [in my column] ... I found that half the people want to know because they want to know what their spouse is up to. Half don't because they may know and you force them to confront something formally."
Then, Michelle says the girl wrote him offering oral sex and told him she loved him. To make matters worse, news of the girl's text has made it around the neighborhood. "My son was very upset. I was very upset, needless to say. But there was a side of me that said, 'Should I call this 12-year-old girl's mother and let her know what's going on?' Or is it not my place to do that and just deal directly with my son on this matter?" To complicate matters, Michelle says she's never met the girl or her family before.
Faith says Michelle's first priority needs to be preserving her relationship with her son—and calling the girl's mother could embarrass him. "You should be elated as a mom that your 12-year-old son came to you and shared this information," she says. "So I think that this is a perfect opportunity to tell your son, 'Tell that girl that my mom reads my texts so don't write that kind of stuff.'"
Randy adds that the real issue at hand is how you tell, not if you tell. "Let your son know that you're going to do this. You should do it in a way that doesn't embarrass him," he says. "It's wonderful that your son is this open, but I think you can still protect this other child without betraying the trust of your son."
Michelle says she's decided to make that call. The conversation won't be easy, but as long as she has good intentions and is doing this out of love for both children, Faith says she's doing the right thing. "You can only come into it with your best intentions, and you can't control how people react."
Faith says humor should do the trick. "Something that calls attention to the fact that they're acting inappropriately but that you can roll with a joke," she says. "I would also suggest take one of them, maybe the instigator, out of his wolf pack environment and speak to him one-on-one and say, 'Look, Jim, maybe you don't realize this, but your comments sound sexist. And I'm sure you don't mean them to.' And be prepared to give him some specific examples and then, you know, wink and pat him on the butt."
Randy says he doesn't think making jokes will work. "I think if they're being sexist, they're being sexist and your joke isn't going to make them change," he says. "I think you can speak much more directly to people if you do it tactfully. If you do it gently and if you comment on the remark—not the person who made the remark."
The point, Randy says, isn't to humiliate. "It's to make them a little more sensitive," he says. "You can stick up for yourself. You can have a conversation where you disagree. ... And still treat each other with respect."
Randy says Kristen has to apologize for what she's already done. "And here's the hard part: You have to mean it," he says. "And you can make amends in some way. You know, sending flowers is not amiss here. You have to demonstrate that you really regret what you did, and you really won't do it again."
He also advises starting to use an underappreciated function in your e-mail program—the 'Drafts' file. "Look at it tomorrow. Reconsider," he says. "It's the e-mail equivalent of counting to 10 before you, you know, punch a guy."
Faith's answer is less technical. "You called yourself the queen. I think you have to decrown yourself," Faith says to Kristen. "You just have to never gossip on e-mail again."
Randy says telling the truth is not always the best policy. "Sometimes when people ask our opinions, they don't want our opinions. What they're really asking for is our praise and our approval," he says. "The right answer is, 'I'm so pleased you're happy.' There's nothing more you can do."
Faith says answering this question is all about framing your answer. "I had a very dear friend who was marrying someone that I didn't think she should marry. And weeks before the wedding, my bridesmaid's dress was bought and I talked to my other friends and we said we need to say something to her," she says. "I said: 'Look, I love you and I want you to be happy. I don't see his behavior making you happy. I hope I'm dead wrong. If you marry him, I will support you. If you divorce him, I will support you. I just couldn't stand for you at your wedding without telling you that I have these doubts about the way he treats you.' ... I felt honest; she felt supported."
Faith says she agrees that a preface is a good idea, but wouldn't make it so dramatic. "Say, 'Look, this is hard to say. I would want to know if I were in your position.' ... [Then] just say, 'Your breath isn't that fresh.'"
Randy says he'd take it to another level after that. "I would add, 'Is there anything you want to say to me?'" he says. "I think it establishes that we care about each other and we can speak freely to each other. 'I'm not trying to hurt you. I'm just trying to tell you something that I would want to know in your place.'"
How about if she's wearing too much makeup or unflattering clothing? Faith says that can be tricky, and it might be a good idea not to bring it up. "I think that's a form of self-expression, and they're going to feel bad about themselves—especially someone who's overweight," she says. "I think that could do a lot of damage to their self-esteem."
Randy agrees that you shouldn't be offering any advice—unless a friend specifically asks for it—in matters of taste. "Ask yourself this: Does my friend own a mirror? Has my friend employed me as her fashion consultant? Otherwise, I wouldn't volunteer," he says. "She knows how she looks. If she chooses to look that way, she's allowed to."
"Bill Cosby came up to me and pulled me aside, and he said, 'Sis, I want to tell you something because nobody else is telling you this.' He goes, 'You look like you just walked out of a morgue. ... You have entirely too much makeup on your face. Everybody knows it. You know it. But I had to tell you.' I was very grateful to him for doing that."
"In that moment were you grateful?" Faith asks.
"In that moment I wanted to cry!" Oprah says. "But I just thought, 'What a really nice thing you did, Bill.'"
"The people who acted really badly in this situation were your hair and makeup people," Randy says. "They didn't tell you what they genuinely thought, and that was their job there. They owed you that honesty."
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