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Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall with text "Professor McBadass"

There is more to teaching and life than having a good small-talk game.

Dear Captain Awkward,

This question is not so much about a single major situation or a crisis as it is about a recurring, if minor, situation that I encounter again and again. I am a graduate student at a medium-sized research university where graduate students do a lot of teaching. As a result, I encounter former students on campus on a very regular basis. I hope very much to keep teaching college students long-term, though who knows what my future holds.

The problem I have is this. My classes are often fairly popular with students, in part because my teaching persona is very warm and approachable, and in the classroom, I am good at not taking myself too seriously and putting other people (i.e. students) at ease. In real life I am none of those things: I am awkward, introverted, and ill-at-ease with social acquaintances, and I overread Every. Damn. Detail. of routine social interactions. I often feel that students who run into me in public social settings (at coffee shops, libraries, etc.) are surprised by what they perceive as a change in my affect, and that–put bluntly–I make them feel uncomfortable when they greet me after our class is over. I hate that. I feel I talk too long, or not long enough, or that I greet them when they’d rather avoid me, or that I avoid them when they’d rather greet me.

I should say that, while many college instructors resist or resent outside encounters with students, I don’t feel that way at all. I enjoy keeping up with former students. Even more importantly, I think that students at my large, cold, competitive institution need as many one-on-one adult contacts as they can get, and that it’s important for them to feel like they are part of a supportive social network made up of people of many different ages. I think that having good, positive, low-key, supportive encounters–not with every single student, but with students who actually want to say “hi” or catch up briefly in passing–is an important part of my job. But I’m not good at it.

I’m asking you because I know you are a college professor, and I imagine that–like me–you have a lot of students who would like to keep in touch, or who check in when you pass them in the hallway. Any advice on how to make these encounters productive, or at least comfortable?

Wants to Be That Supportive Former Teacher

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Oh Captain My Captain;

I rent a room in a house with a pretty nice family, and for the most part it’s pretty cool. They’re very friendly and open, their eldest son and I share a lot of interests, and they aren’t really judgmental, though they are very vocal about their political views and beliefs, they know I don’t get involved in that sort of stuff and seem to respect my space as far as that’s concerned.

The problem is respecting space as far as everything else – I do my part around the house, cleaning bathrooms, mopping, vacuuming, doing dishes, laundry, helping care for their 19 year old cat and doing pretty much anything I can to make myself useful. My landlords, a married couple, also have two of their adult children living with them because finances suck for everyone except the elderly rich, which we are not among. Their kids, even though they are adults, are still very close to their parents and depend on them for a lot, and basically come off as young teens in a lot of ways. The main problem seems to stem from the fact that, although I am not one of their kids, because I’m younger than their kids they seem to feel the need to parent me.

Whenever I get anything in the mail, they want to know what it is, who it’s from, if it’s a package they want to hover over me and see what it is, who I ordered it from, how much did it cost, was it made in the USA? They have come in my room without permission several times, always ask me when I will be at work, how many hours I’m getting, what I’m paid, if I go out somewhere that isn’t work related where did I go, did I buy anything there? I can’t bring home so much as a single shopping bag without being interrogated or having it pawed through and my purchases commented on, along with how I dress, where I work, basically everything I do. They do it more to me than they do it to their own children!

I’m a very private person, and I hate discussing money with anyone, particularly when it’s really none of their business, and I really don’t want my every purchase judged and pawed through. I am one of those people that doesn’t want to talk about my day, I don’t want to talk about what happened at work or if I got a raise or if I bought lunch or something. I don’t like talking to people in general, but I try my best to at least be nice. It’s started creeping me out a lot that I can’t walk anywhere near the door with my keys without getting an interrogation on where I’m going, who I’m going with if anyone, what I’m buying, et cetera. If they had to drive me places, yeah, fine, I could understand them needing to know my work schedule or if I needed to go buy stuff or something, but I have my own car and drive myself everywhere so there is no reason they need to know any of this stuff. They also try to include me in their family events, even big holiday stuff like Christmas or Thanksgiving, even when they’re super loud and generally not the kind of thing I’d go within a hundred miles of if I didn’t live here, but when I live in the same house it’s kind of hard to avoid without it being painfully obvious that I’m avoiding it, particularly since I’m not social and generally don’t go anywhere other than work.

They seem to have semi-adopted me as one of their own kids, which is kind of problematic on it’s own, but that’s a whole different kettle of fish. Do you have a way for me to politely tell them to back off and stop questioning me about everything I do? I intend to move out soon, so I’ll have my privacy again eventually, but until then I’d like to get back at least a bit of privacy while I live here, without making things tense or possibly making them angry. They are a very close-knit, openly affectionate, rather loud kind of family, so I’m not sure they can even understand that no, I don’t really want to take part in all the loud, boisterous family stuff they do because I’m just not that kind of person. I like my quiet and privacy, and I would like to get some of that back.

Any ideas?

Thanks!

Not Their Kid

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Illustration of Godzilla and another lizard battle over the Golden Gate bridge.

Jerkbrain and Rageasaurus battle for control of the emotional landscape. Godzilla movie concept art by Frank Hong.

Dear Captain,

I have always been way too sensitive to criticism. In high school we had an assignment where we had to ask our loved ones what they thought our best and worst personality traits were, and EVERYONE told me that I take things too personally. I terrified of looking dumb in front of anyone, even strangers, so I hate anyone calling attention to the fact that I’m less than perfect.

This is true for criticism of a personal nature, an artistic nature, and a professional nature. Blunt or tactless questions are awful, of course, but even much-need criticism framed in a very constructive way can put me on the edge of tears.

This has been a problem lately at my work, because I’ve gone from part-time to full-time, which means (a) more time at work, so more time to mess up/get blamed for something, and (b) getting called upon to do tasks I’ve never done before or tasks that I’m TERRIBLE at (like covering phones, which is a nightmare to an introvert, especially one so bad with names she routinely forgets the caller’s name mid-transfer). I have a tendency to get defensive when I’m corrected on something, especially if it’s something I usually get right or that I wasn’t responsible for, even though absolutely no one is putting me on trial. They just want it fixed. Or I get so flustered that I just make more mistakes, get more criticisms, etc ad nauseam. Today at work I screwed up something I didn’t know I was supposed to do, and getting called out made me too upset to talk (one of my coworkers walked by and marveled at how red my face got), when a more rational response would probably have been “now I know I need to do that next time”.

How can I take criticism better? I NEVER want to become “the girl who cried in the office”, and when it comes to things that I really want to get better at, I know that hearing and responding to criticism is an important step. I’m just so bad at it. Help!

-Paper-Thin Skin

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It’s July, so time for the monthly “let’s answer the stuff people typed into search engines” post. It is, as always, a very mixed bag of topics.

1. “Is my partner’s family using my family for money? Help!”

I feel like there is a lot of backstory and context here that would be valuable to know, but one suggestion is to revisit and renegotiate current arrangements around money, and see what happens. It sounds like that you (or your family) are already uncomfortable with something about the financial arrangements that are taking place or requests that are being made, and that’s a good enough reason to pull on one of the threads and see where it goes. Do you feel like you are allowed to say “no, we can’t help with that, sorry?” Does it change how your partner’s family treats you?

2. “Should I be upset with a coworker who didn’t donate to a fundraiser in my name?”

Feel however you want, but I don’t think addressing it with the coworker, complaining to other people, or changing the way you interact with them at work is a good idea at all. Be grateful to the people who did donate, and assume the coworker who didn’t had completely understandable reasons that aren’t really your business. Let this one go.

I don’t feel shame about asking for donations here periodically, or for boosting charity stuff or crowd-funding campaigns for friends or causes I’m close to, and I don’t mind at all when people in my life ask me for help with their stuff, but that only works as long as everyone understands that a request is not an order and that gifts are voluntary. For real, the quickest way to make everyone you know go “fuck you and your cause” is to act like they are obligated to give. I also think, personally, that bosses should never ask their employees for charitable donations. Get some friends, boss. Get some friends.

3. “If someone with depression apologises for something they did, do u tell them its not their fault?”

Well, maybe it is their fault. Depression dulls and blunts a person’s ability to function within relationships sometimes, but it’s not an excuse for mean behavior, and we are still ultimately responsible for how we treat other people. If you want to say something comforting in response to the apology, howabout “Apology accepted, thank you.

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Grumpycat saying "no."

This word makes “yes” possible.

Dear Captain, my Captain,

Lately I have been very grumpy and I would like to stop. 

While I am in a very happy place right now mentally, best I’ve been in a long time, I have found that certain things irritate me more than they reasonably should. Prime examples are my flatmate coming home every day and complaining about her drive and an incompetent colleague. I love her and I know she has a right to whine, but it’s become very repetitive.(Someone in front of her was slow, someone behind her was pushy, and her colleague is useless because ‘something to do with Chemistry that I know nothing about’.) She will usually follow me to my room, lean against the doorframe, and just stay there watching me on my computer and complaining about stuff every once and again. And it irritates me.

I also have a friend who likes to talk about food. I have a history of eating disorders in my family and my circle of friends and I find the most random comments triggering – e.g. “wow I ate so much I feel sick ” after dinner, “I should really eat less/ lose weight” (while simultaneously eating a lot), and “my stomach is so full and fat *pat pat*” after food. But these are not really things I can ask her to stop doing, it’s just small comments!

I don’t know if it’s because of stress at uni lately, or because of some other thing, but I hate being so irritated all the time and I never know how to react to them both without being impolite.

So I guess my question is: do you have any scripts for me to opt out of those kinds of one-sided conversations?

Best wishes,
Grumpycat

Dear Grumpycat:

I’m glad you asked, because I DO have scripts.

First, let’s talk about the idea that these events are annoying you “more than they should.” When you are feeling less overall stress from school, you might in fact be able to better put up with the constant doorlurking from your roommate and the constant diet-talk from your friend. But that doesn’t mean something has to be wrong with you, or overwhelming in other parts of your life, for you to want to set and enforce boundaries in your living space and your relationships. Somehow, many of us have inherited the fallacy that listening to someone endlessly, way past our own comfort level, or listening to talk that is actively harmful to us, without interruption or protest, is the only polite thing to do. I suspect a lot of it is socialization (esp. if one is a female-raised person) and another big bunch of it is mistranslation or misunderstanding of Emily Post’s adage that it is bad manners to point out someone else’s bad manners.

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Image: a cheerful orange blob monster is chatting to a friend using a speech bubble containing a question mark and exclamation mark. The friend is a grumpy grey blob monster who looks away expressing grumpiness. Its speech bubble contains a grey scribble.

Hello friends! It’s Elodie Under Glass here with a guest post on Low Moods.

I particularly want to thank Quisty, Kellis Amberlee and TheOtherAlice  for their kindly help in reading and editing this piece. It would not have existed without their care, support, compassion, and wonderful editorial abilities. They are truly remarkable humans! (edited: And thanks to the radiant and patient NessieMonster, who let me come to her city and follow her around, burbling insensibly about this post, for far longer than most people would have.)

So recently, I went on a Stress and Mood Management course, and I thought that you all might enjoy sharing what I’ve learned.

This post is something of a correction/update to Adulthood is a Scary Horse, a post for the Captain which I was never quite satisfied with. It really crystallized for me on this course, in our discussion of the Low Mood Cycle. It’s a concept described in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and I thought it would be useful to share.

I am not a mental health professional (more caveats on that at the end). But I felt that if these resources had been usefully presented for free on the Internet – especially during times where taking a train and a bus and a taxi to get to a day-long course seemed like organizing a picnic on Venus – it could have helped me that little bit sooner. Maybe it will help others.

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Omar from the Wire, "Indeed."

From Wire Inspire, a worthy Tumblr.

Hi Awkwards!

My boyfriend and I have been together for around 2 years. We’re incredibly compatible and this relationship has done a lot for me. I was in a pretty shitty situation before we met, and he’s done so much to encourage me to accomplish the things I want, I feel very lucky.

Basically, there are several shows that I love dearly and want to share with him. He’s done the same for me – He’s a huge fan of Joss Whedon so we are working our way through the Whedonverse. We’ve completed Buffy and Angel and are now on the second season of Dollhouse. The original deal was that I would watch Buffy if he would watch The Wire. 7 seasons later… he’s watched the first episode and wouldn’t continue.

When we first started hanging out I tried to get him to watch Battlestar Galactica, but the explosions in space were too annoying for him to continue. I tried to get him to give Game of Thrones a try, but he was turned off by the fantasy setting. Several months later, he must have encountered something that made it finally sound interesting, because he’s now a huge fan of the show and we gush over new episodes together. The same thing happened with Deadwood, I wanted to watch it together but he wasn’t into it, and then he ended up watching all of it by himself sometime later and loved it.

I only really care about The Wire. The other shows I can enjoy on my own without wanting him to share them with me. I have pretty strong feelings about it, I think it’s an amazing example of storytelling and I think there are a lot of things he would really enjoy about it. It feels like he’s blowing it off without giving it a chance. We’ve talked about it and he knows that watching it would mean a lot to me. He says that the subject matter is too depressing and since he is already depressed it isn’t a good show to watch right now, but has promised that he is interested and will watch it in the future. I don’t really believe that, though.

Really I’m just writing in to find out if I’m being reasonable, and if it’s worth bringing up to him again. Forcing someone to watch something they aren’t interested in won’t make them suddenly like it. I don’t want to turn him off it forever, but I am feeling sad about this. I just don’t know if it’s justified. I do have a lot more tolerance for things in shows that I don’t like than he does. Do I just need to chalk this up to personal differences and get over it?

Thanks for reading,
Long Live Omar

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Captain,

I have a question about dealing with a Geek Social Fallacy #5 carrier, with a work-related twist.

I have a live-in position and a good working relationship with the other live-in staff members. Naturally we often spend our free time together, sometimes as a large group get-together but more often in smaller groups of the people we’re closest to / actually friends with.

There is one individual who generally gets on everyone’s nerves — she dominates the conversation and makes it all about herself, says slightly inappropriate things on a regular basis, asks people direct personal questions in front of everyone, etc. The problem is that she thinks that we’re all one big friend group and that anytime she hears that someone’s making social plans with another employee, it’s fine to invite herself along. She does not take hints at all, and no one wants to come right out and say, “You’re not invited to this” since this is someone we all have to live and work with on a daily basis.

From past experience, I have a feeling that trying to have an honest conversation with her would lead her to drop by everyone’s rooms to try to have hours-long FEELINGS conversations, and trying to shut that down will make her unbearable to work with. She recently renewed for another year-long contract.

Right now everyone’s strategy seems to be to make plans behind her back as much as possible, and then if she finds out and invites herself over/along, we suck it up and deal. Do you have any suggestions for a better strategy?

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The Bachelor group shot

“One of you lucky ladies is going to get tenure!”

Hi Captain (& friends),

I have been dating an awesome guy for a little over a year now. It’s not really my style to gush over a romantic partner, but this is possibly the happiest and most comfortable I’ve ever been with someone. However, we have one big difference: I’m a graduate student getting my PhD in a science field, and he never completed his bachelor’s and is currently working in the service industry. He’s taking online classes and collaborating on a startup, but doesn’t plan to finish his degree.

This doesn’t bother me, or adversely affect the relationship. He is extremely intelligent and genuinely interested in my research work, and I like hearing wild stories from the club he works at. He challenges my ideas and experiments in ways that are interesting and helpful, since they’re not coming from within the academic culture. And besides, we have a lot of shared interests, like programming, caving, and gaming, where we are at similar levels of accomplishment and feel like we can challenge each other.

But this doesn’t stop me from getting anxious about the education discrepancy. When I first met Boyfriend, my out-of-town friends told me I needed to be aiming higher. All my in-town friends are grad students / PhDs, and they’re all dating other grad students / PhDs. They spend date nights writing new theorems; I spend date nights playing Starcraft. It can make parties a little weird: “Oh, your partner developed an entirely new model of fish ecology? That’s awesome! Mine couldn’t come because he’s still washing tables.”

I already have a lot of anxiety about my career. Thanks to ever-present imposter syndrome, my brain loves telling me that I’m my department’s pity hire, I actually don’t know anything about science, and I will crash and burn horribly. So now I’m afraid that I’m somehow sabotaging myself and my career with this non-academic relationship. Is it going to turn me into a lesser scientist? Am I wasting time? Are my priorities all out of whack? I feel awful for making this all about me and my flawed, academia-instilled value system, but my brain won’t shut up about it. For what it’s worth, Boyfriend knows about this anxiety and tries to help (like, by scheduling Thesis / Startup Work “Dates”, to help with my fear that I’m spending too much time with him and not enough time in the lab).

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A children's book "Feelings and how to destroy them."

Reminder, Chicago people, Story Club South Side is tonight at 7:30 pm. It will be awkward in the best possible ways.

Hi Captain and Crew,

My partner and I have been together about eight years, and living together for most of that time. I think we’ve learnt a lot about working with each other’s boundaries and habits, and it’s generally going well.

I’m easily socially stressed and like a lot of space away from everyone. Currently Partner is working full time and I’m studying part time with a lot of working from home, so I get a lot of time to myself through the day and that works out really well.

Recently Partner has needed to take some time off so he’s been at home more than usual. It’s a temporary situation and it’s basically okay, but does leave me more drained than usual. He’s aware of the issue and makes an effort to leave me in peace, but just having another person in the house has an impact on me. I’m a lot more comfortable than I would have been even a year or two ago but it’s an ongoing process.

The real issue comes when I try to express how I’m doing, intended as something like “Heads up I’m starting to feel a bit stressed out and flakey”. I know they aren’t really feelings he can do anything about and I don’t expect him to. I just think check-ins are important and not doing them causes other problems. But I can’t seem to say something like that without triggering a large guilt response for all the trouble he’s causing me, and that’s even more draining.

It’s difficult to talk about what’s going on with me if it’s always going to result in an emotional outpouring about what it brings up for him. His stuff is important too but I can’t always be dealing with that on top of (instead of?) my own feelings.

I’ve tried to express this to him before — including bringing it up at calmer moments — but so far it hasn’t gone anywhere constructive. I suppose it’s difficult to work through being both a source of stress and a source of comfort, and that the stress part isn’t really his fault. Any scripts or advice for finding better ways to check in and support each other in ways we can both work with?

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