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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: This has always puzzled me. Why do people who are virtual strangers tell you their deepest secrets?

I was on a first date not long ago with "Phil." Before the evening was over, he'd told me about his father's attempted suicide, the fact that he hasn't spoken to his mother in more than 18 years, and his sister's many bad habits -- all of which were described in detail.

On another occasion, the woman seated next to me at a seminar told me more than I ever wanted to know about her struggle with infertility. What gives? -- OFFENDED IN OTHELLO, WASH.

DEAR OFFENDED: Phil may have been talking to mask his first-date jitters. Many people use nervous chatter to hide their feelings. Or perhaps he mistook you for a sympathetic listener. You could have gently stopped his recitation by turning the conversation to another subject, or lightly suggesting that it wasn't necessary for you to learn everything about him in one night.

Some people confide in strangers because it's "safe." They are able to express their emotions and lighten their emotional burden without worrying about the other's reaction, or living with the consequences of what they have disclosed.

DEAR ABBY: I owe you a debt of gratitude. I'm a 20-year-old married college student. "Rick" and I married five months ago, and we live in Palo Alto, Calif. I love my in-laws dearly. They are kind and generous, but I do have one problem with them. They are so perfect they intimidate me.

They live in a lovely house that my husband's father keeps in good repair. The outside looks almost picture-perfect. "Jill," my mother-in-law, has made the interior look like a designer's pet project. She's a great cook, too. Neither of Rick's parents has every tried to make me feel inferior, but how could I ever measure up to their level?

Recently, Rick's father was sent to Oakland on business and decided to bring Jill with him. They asked to come to our apartment since they were in the area. I was scared out of my wits. However, among the gifts I received at my kitchen shower before my wedding were your two cookbooklets. I needed something that I, a novice at cooking, could prepare.

Abby, I chose my entire menu from your "More Favorite Recipes." Your tomato salad because it could be made the night before; your Sour Cream Chicken because I could assemble it early in the morning to cook just before their arrival, and the Heavenly Peanut Butter Pie. While I made the salad on Friday night, Rick made the pie. He also helped me with the chicken recipe on Saturday morning.

I'm happy to report that dinner was a great success. My in-laws were impressed. In fact, Jill said, "You've been hiding something from me -- I had no idea you were such a talented cook." Rick's dad was equally complimentary and didn't have to be encouraged to take seconds.

Thank you, Abby, for helping me measure up to Rick's terrific parents. Sign me ... GRATEFUL IN PALO ALTO, CALIF.

DEAR GRATEFUL: I'm delighted that my recipes helped you dazzle your in-laws. (However, I suspect your secret weapon was Rick, the kitchen collaborator!) Next time you entertain, try my carrot cake, the sweet potato pie or the brownies. They're not lo-cal -- but I predict there won't be any leftovers.

Abby shares her favorite recipes in two booklets: Abby's Favorite Recipes and Abby's More Favorite Recipes. To order, send a business-sized, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $3.95 per booklet ($4.50 each in Canada) to: Dear Abby Cookbooklets I and II, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, Ill. 61054-0447. (Postage is included in price.)

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