Dear Captain Awkward,
I live and work at an isolated location with six other people. We are nearing the end of our work rotation and everyone is wearing a little thin emotionally so that might be partially where this problem stems from.
I have a really good relationship with the woman that I spend the most time working with. She’s about twenty years older than me. (I am twenty-three.) She says shocking things sometimes and it has never bothered me before. She says that she lacks a “filter” and that she always keeps going when other people stop. Anyway, she never seemed mean and her outspokenness was kind of refreshing but today she really knocked me through a loop. Another coworker was in the kitchen with us and we were joking and talking and I’m not even sure what the topic was but someone said “young and a virgin.” She looked at me and said “you’re two for two there.” I was shocked because I had never said “I am a virgin” to her before and I wasn’t aware that it was that obvious. I also have feelings for the coworker that was there with us and it was embarrassing to have that said in front of him.
I am bewildered why this comment hurt so much. I had to fight back tears for the rest of the day and was pretty much incapable of talking to anyone. I know that she felt really bad and she apologized. I didn’t want her to feel bad so I tried to act normally but I really wasn’t able to. The coworker whom I have feelings for knew that something was wrong because I wasn’t talking to him. I wished that I could just tell him which comment specifically bothered me but I really couldn’t because I was afraid I would start crying.
I know that part of my reaction to the comment is embarrassment at never having had a sexual relationship before. But part of the reaction might be because of an earlier conversation that I heard her have with someone else (I wasn’t eavesdropping, there is just no privacy here). She said that she has a tendency to lash out at “sweet” people and it is something that she feels really bad about and has tried really hard to work on. She had a friend who was “really sweet just like (my name)” and she was really mean to this person for a long time until she was aware of what she was doing and made an effort to stop. Hearing this, I automatically replaced “sweet” with “weak”. Since I am small in stature and soft spoken and generally “cute” I struggle a lot against weakness in both body and mind and it is important to me how others see me, at least in that I want to be taken seriously. The way in which this comment ripped me apart has caused me to question myself. I have weathered plenty of criticisms and thoughtless comments with complete calm, but the word “virgin” left me completely speechless for an entire day and caused me to sob in the shower hours after the comment was made. I just wish I knew what triggered these feelings when I am normally very levelheaded. When someone says that I’m “innocent” or “I can never tell when I you’re angry” or “it’s cute when you get angry” it bothers me a little but it doesn’t cause me to cry.
“Sweet.” “Cute.” “Innocent.” “Young.” “Weak.” So many words people use to try to keep you in what they see as your place!
Before we dig into your coworker’s behavior, I want to put your mind at ease about a few things first.
1) While it is certainly no one’s business but yours, there is nothing wrong with being a virgin. Nothing. NOTHING. It is not a millstone around your neck or an impediment to having an awesome sex life when you decide. It is not proof of some kind of unworthiness or, conversely, any kind of proof of superior moral worthiness. You don’t carry your value as a person between your legs, and you don’t increase or decrease in value as a person by virtue of a single heterosexual penetrative sex act that is somehow defined as losing one’s virginity, ok? Recommended reading: The Purity Myth, What You Really, Really Want.
2) Virginity is not visible to others, including your coworker and the Object of Your Affection. Even if she made an unlucky guess, it’s not something they can actually tell by looking at you, and if they could, see #1.
There is nothing wrong with being new to sex, but there is a lot wrong with saying mean, condescending things to coworkers and then trying make it seem like a personality trait instead of a series of decisions. When your coworker uses “sweet” as an insult and tells someone that she used to pick on someone just like you until she one day snapped out of it when she knows you can hear her, she’s threatening you. She’s saying “I have it in me to be so much worse to you than I am right now, and I will decide when and if I stop.” If she’s acknowledging that she has a problem with how she treats people like you (and you), she can go ahead and fix that without you having to see and give her credit for her moves toward self-actualization.
Next time someone tells you that they don’t have a filter, translate it into its native tongue:
“I choose to act like an oblivious asshole sometimes and I’ve decided that everyone should think it’s an adorable quirk.”
I don’t think you have a great relationship with this person at all. I think her passing comment and the way it hit you was one of a series of small jabs that have been building for sometime. Does she know or guess about your crush on your coworker? Whether it was a deliberate attempt to bully and humiliate you and keep you in her power, or her blowing off steam at the end of an emotionally draining rotation maybe doesn’t matter – she was still mean and out of line. And I think your reaction later was about feeling stung and betrayed by someone who acts like they like you and who throws a lot of charisma at you but who really treats you not so well in the day to day.
Would you like to gain some power back in this relationship?
Here are some steps:
1. Decide privately that she is not nice, not safe, and not really your friend.
2. Since it’s work, and you don’t want to be in a war with a really mean person, appear to accept whatever crappy apology she gives you. “Sure, whatever, thanks.“
3. After that, be cordial to her but only as professionalism dictates. Talk about work. Talk about innocuous things like what to eat for lunch, the weather, what was on TV last night. Don’t share or invite confidences about your personal lives.
4. Don’t be alone with her if you can help it.
5. She may notice the new coolness between you. She may escalate her jabs to try to get your attention. You may not be quick and practiced with a comeback – it takes time and some age and developing a thicker skin and a quicker tongue – so look forward to the day when you can casually say “Maybe don’t brag about that, _____,” when she announces her filter-lessness like it’s something awesome. Stay armed with the ways to deflect and end unpleasant conversations. And use the comeback I always love to steal from Carolyn Hax: “Wow.”
Whenever she says something awkward and mean, you can say “Wow,” and let the silence hang there. Let her be the one to try to make things less awkward and smooth them over. Picture yourself as teflon or rubber; her words slide down or bounce off and can’t stick to you.
6. She may try to get you alone to talk about what she may have done wrong and to try to get back in your good graces. She actually cares A LOT about what you think about her and needs your approval/forgiveness if you’re going to continue as her willing sidekick. If you want to stop this while being less confrontational but truthful, you could say “We’re all stressed and sick of each other lately as this rotation winds down, so I’m taking a break from socializing at work. Let’s keep the conversations light, ok?“
Don’t get drawn into some emotional conversation with her where she tries to tell you about her issues and turn something she is doing to you into something that you end up comforting her about – it’s a classic Jerk Move for a reason. You’re not actually friends, so you don’t have to give a shit about her moods or childhood or self-realizations about past cruelty to “sweet” people. You just have to stay professional at work and mentally relegate her to “Vaguely Irritating Coworker” status as much as possible.
7. Read this essay by s.e. smith on youth, confidence, work, and mean condescending people who try to keep you small so that they can feel bigger.
8. Be really nice to yourself. Your tears the other day might have been partially a stress reaction from being overworked and near the end of a project. Work on the basics of self-care: Enough sleep, good food at regular intervals, making sure you see the sun and get some fresh air and exercise if possible, calling/Skyping/seeing people who make you feel good and avoiding as much as possible people who drain you and make you feel bad. Don’t neglect the visuals: Put a little love into your workspace and making it tidy and welcoming, put a little love into your habitat, get an awesome haircut, wear colors that suit you. If your company has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) call the free number and talk to a nice person about what’s stressing you out. It’s there for moments like this one.
9. Next time you see Object-of-Your-Affection-Coworker, greet him like nothing is wrong. If he asks about the weirdness the other day, say “Eh, sometimes ____’s filterlessness is just annoying and mean,” and change the subject back to something you want to talk about.
You’re feeling stung because the work Mean Girl was trying to sting you. There’s no shame in that. This is survivable. She is survivable. She thinks she can see you clearly and control you, but she can only see a reflection of herself on your cool surface. That isn’t weakness.