Answer Lady: February 2010

This month our wise and witty expert takes on giving job references, rude moviegoers, and how to tell someone her breath isn't minty fresh.
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Q. Every time I go to the movies I wind up sitting near someone who checks his PDA the entire time. The light it gives off drives me crazy. It's okay to say something, right?

A. Well, it might be easier for you to consider moving to another seat. While most theaters run a "silence your cell phone" reminder at the end of the previews, noiseless nuisances fall into a gray area. Some people think checking texts or e-mail during movies is rude, but apparently many others don't. Maybe these PDA addicts don't realize they're distracting you from fully appreciating Leonardo DiCaprio's talent-slash-hotness in Shutter Island every time they check their texts. But if moving isn't an option, you could lean over and whisper something like, "Is there any way you can dim the screen? The light is bothering me. Thanks so much." Realistically, if you require perfect movie-viewing conditions with no risk of talkers, candy crunchers, texters, coughers, or giants with exceptionally good posture, DVD is your best bet.

Q. Is there any way to tell someone she has bad breath without embarrassing or insulting her? Should I even try?

A. The answer depends on how well you know this person. If she's someone you don't have to deal with regularly -- a not-so-minty-fresh neighbor, for example -- it might be wiser to say nothing. Obviously, no one wants to hear that she has hellacious halitosis, and if the news comes from a relative stranger it's going to sting more than if it came from a friend or colleague. If I were you, the most I'd do in that scenario is pop a stick of gum or a mint in my mouth and offer one to the woman (hey, you're just doing the polite thing by sharing, right?). If she's someone you have more contact with, like a close friend or a coworker you see frequently, it's okay to be a bit more direct. Work up the courage to give her a gentle hint. Wait until no one else is around, then offer gum or mints and ask, "Have you tried these? I think they really help." Yes, it will still be an awkward moment. But the beauty of this approach is that you don't have to actually utter the words "you have bad breath."

Q. A former coworker is job hunting and asked if she could list me as a reference. I liked her well enough as a person but I didn't think her work was very good. What should I say?

A. Hmm, tricky. First, check your company's policy: Some businesses forbid giving references, so you may luck out and use that as an excuse. If not, say something like "I can definitely give you a personal reference but I don't know that I'm qualified to comment on your work." She may take the hint and ask someone else. Or you can say yes and, if a prospective employer calls you, put a kind (but honest) spin on your responses. Think along the lines of "Jody was really well liked by people in the office." Divulge any negative details only if pressed. After all, there's some chance this woman will do a better job for these people than she did for you.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, February 2010.

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