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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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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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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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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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Iain Glenn holding some kind of lute-thing.

“What rhymes with Khaleesi? Greasy? I like the way you try to make Peace-y? Let’s live together, I’ll sign that Lease-y?”

Ever since I saw the fake Skyler White from Breaking Bad letter to an advice columnist, I’ve been a wee bit jealous that no one has tried to troll me like that. So Indiewire and I are trying out a thing where we construct letters from television characters and then I answer them.

I know there are 10,000 fanfic lovers who read this site regularly, so consider this a call to you. Binge-watching Orange Is The New Black? Texting your friends with “Sestra!”/”Brother-sestra!” after every episode of Orphan Black? Wondering how the Lannisters are going to sort out their big pile of Family Stuff or how Sansa is going to handle her creepy Uncle Peter on Game of Thrones? (We’ll save the FITZ IS CREEPY AND NOT ACTUALLY GOOD AT ANYTHING stuff for the start of next season of Scandal if you don’t mind, but we will get to it). If you’ve got an idea for a letter related to a current (currently on, up-to-date with what is happening on the show) TV show? Send ‘em with “for Indiewire” in the subject line and we may see more of these.

In other news, a while ago my friend and Wardrobe-producer Dimitri William Moore brought me a story by one of his friends about the thin illusion of privacy we have when online dating. Together with some friends, some talented former students on camera, lights, and sound, and two great Chicago actors, we adapted the story into a short film. We shot it in few hours one morning at Hamburger Mary’s (eat there!), and thanks to the kindness of their staff, the whole thing cost whatever you’d pay for a big assortment of bagels from the bagel place next store. Post-production moves slowly when everyone is working for free and doing awesome stuff like having adorable babies, but I’m pleased to say, that film is finally ready!

 

 

How long would YOU stay sitting at that table? Tell us in the comments.

Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter movies

I’m sure she put smiley-faces on all of her o-mails.

Dear Captain Awkward,

My younger sister, let’s call her Bee, works as an executive assistant in a large, urban, corporate environment. Bee’s manager has recently mentioned, twice, that she is “coaching” my sister on developing better professional communication skills. In particular, she has expressed concerns that Bee is not “nice” enough in her emails to co-workers. She has mentioned that my sister does not use “smileys” and doesn’t start emails out with praising statements before doing something like asking for information. There has been no actual professional coaching, only these hints that my sister should be “sweeter” in her emails.

Here’s where I come in. When I say my sister is “nice,” that doesn’t quite get at the root of the matter. She is really, really nice. Doormat sweet. Works like a dog. Seriously. Rave performance reviews. Hours of overtime. Her superiors notice this–she is often singled out for extra projects, work, trips, etc. For example, she recently has been given some account management tasks and was also recently asked to attend a conference in Europe (where she literally worked so many hours a day she didn’t even go outside, but hey). I am 99.999999% sure there is no professionalism issue with my sister’s email communications.

Can you give us some scripts or ideas on how to talk about this with her manager?

My sister is not comfortable with direct confrontation and doesn’t always have a lot of self-confidence when talking about herself, but she is an amazing and hard-working woman. The thing is, I feel like this is a feminist issue. Strike that. This is a humanist issue. I believe that my sister is being penalized because she appears to be striving “above” her “place.” The suggestions her manager has made are not ones that will make my sister appear more professional–they are items that will make her seem more subservient, sweet/cute, passive, etc. I do not believe that these “suggestions” are being made in earnest, or with the intent to actually help my sister move forward in her career.

My sister doesn’t know much about Captain Awkward, but I’m a faithful reader. We would love some advice!

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What search terms are leading people to Captain Awkward? Let’s add punctuation and answer them like questions.

1. “What’s wrong with me? My boyfriend wants to be with me all the time but I don’t.”

Nothing is wrong with you, it just seems like you want different stuff. If this is about the amount of time each of you wants to spend together, try renegotiating a schedule that works for both of you. If this is about differing levels of affection and commitment to the relationship, maybe take it as a sign that it’s time to move on, or at least seriously rebalance expectations.

2. “Am I a Nice Guy tm”

Depends. Do you think The Friend Zone is a real place, and that you unfairly live there?

Do you lament that your female friends always date jerks when they could be dating you?

When you talk about how nice you are, does it actually sound really angry?

Is every female friend you have someone you have a crush on?

Prescription: Read lots of books and watch lots of movies and look at lots of art and listen to lots of music made by women. It will be fun, educational, and get you into all kinds of cool conversations because you have great stuff to recommend. And it will help you see women as protagonists in their own stories rather than the Female Romantic Lead in yours.

3. “How do I tell him he’s cute without it being awkward?”

Try complimenting a specific thing or make it specific to today. “I think you’re really cute” is harder to pull off for amateurs than “You look great today, that shirt really suits you!

Complimenting people – not just people you want to bone, but people who are all around you – is a nice habit to get into. It builds confidence and makes people feel good. To do it well, keep it focused on stuff they chose, like shoes/clothing/taste in books/jewelry, rather than body parts. “I like your bag, it looks really sturdy” is good; “I like your ass, it looks very grabbable” is creepy.

4. “My married ex is always calling me and texting me to say hello. Does it mean he’s missing me?”

The fact that you call him your ex and not a friend is what we call a telling detail. You could ask him “What’s up with all the texting, dude?” but the chances that this is a bored dude looking for validation and flirtation in familiar territory are high. Do you want him to be missing you, is the better question. Do you want to be dealing with this at all?

5. “Masturbation support hotline.” 

If you’re looking for information instead of, you know, fodder, get thee to Scarleteen.

6. “Can espresso make you horny?”

I am not a scientist, so I don’t know. Maybe you could do a controlled experiment, where you get a group of people to not drink espresso and look at sexy images, and another group to drink espresso and look at images of birds or cats or dining room furniture, and see who is hornier? I’m not a scientist, so I’m probably not good at designing experiments, either.

It’s probably not the coffee, tho.

7. “What to do in a situation where a coworker is really trying to be your friend and psychotically won’t leave you alone?”

Keep conversations to just work. Refuse all invitations to do stuff outside of work. Do the get up and walk thing when they linger by you work area.

If they refer to you as friends or ask you to be friends, be blunt. “We’re not friends. We work together, and I’d like that to be a pleasant, easy experience for both of us, but I don’t want to be friends.

Then be consistent about it. I just got a letter from the other perspective, where sometimes the coworker was super-friendly, wanted to have lunch all the time, etc. but other times just completely froze the letter writer out, like, not even “good morning” or whatever. Don’t do that. Pick a lane and then be professional.

Since you use the word “psychotically” maybe we’re past all that. If they do harassing stuff, invade your space, keep pushing the issue, etc. tell a supervisor or HR.

8. “What is a song from a girl to a man saying she loves him but the long distance isn’t working?”

I don’t have anything that perfectly fits the bill. This, from the year of my birth, comes to mind:

And it looks like there is a Tumblr devoted to exactly this. Other suggestions, readers?

9. “What does it mean when a guy likes you and then ignores you?”

Could mean a lot of things, from he changed his mind to he’s nursing hurt feelings from a rejection or perceived rejection to he’s really young and still figuring out how to feelings. Do you want his attention, is the question? What happens if you ask him to spend time together?

10. “What does it mean when a friend with benefits tells you they love you when drunk?”

Probably your first step is to figure out how you feel about what they said. Was this a welcome, hoped-for declaration, or “oh crap, now it’s ruined” kind of news or more of a “Huh, hadn’t thought about it” thing?

You could just wait and see if they say it again, while sober or outside the throes of, um, benefiting. If it’s not something you are also feeling, and it never comes up again, you could chalk it up to Extremely Good Benefits/Booze and not really worry about it either way. Or you could say “you said A Thing the other night, and I have been thinking about it ever since” and see what happens.

11. “How to reject people politely on Match.”

Rejection doesn’t feel good, no matter how politely it’s delivered. Reactions vary from “Ok, good luck” (good) to silence (good) to “I spend all this time crafting a cool message and never get any responses! Why can’t people at least respond and tell me they don’t like me?” or “Why write back at all if it’s only to reject me?” or “Why don’t you like me, exactly?” being among them.

You don’t know (just like you don’t know if someone will respond positively to a message). This was my personal rule:

No one is obligated to reply, so if the message or profile was creepy in any way, I didn’t answer at all.

If it was HILARIOUSLY, APPALLINGLY creepy I reported it to the Annals of Online Dating.

If the message was thoughtful and the person seemed basically cool, I answered the way I would want to be answered: “Thank you for the thoughtful message. I don’t think you and I would be a good match, but I hope you meet someone great.” Most people I encountered sent something very polite in return. “You too, thanks for acknowledging my message.” Anyone replying with any shade of “whyyyyyyyy” got blocked for their own good and mine.

12. “How do I write a letter to my husband telling him that I’m pregnant by someone?”

Wow. Okay. Do you want to keep a) the baby b) the husband c) both d) neither? Because there is an order of operations here. Like, “I’m leaving you for ______” is maybe news that can stand on its own, and the “and _____ and I are having a baby!” can come later, like, when a baby comes out of you after you’ve left your husband.

Whatever you write, keep it short and, not sweet exactly, but 1) clear about what you want and 2) focused on giving your husband information that would help him make a good decision about what to do next. “Dear Husband, I am pregnant. This would be incredibly happy news, but because of (shenanigans), I am not sure about paternity. I realize that this is a lot to take in, and that we have some serious thinking and talking to do. I love you and hope we can work through all of this together, please think about it and come talk to me when you are ready.

What the shenanigans (cheating vs. I went to the fertility clinic without you vs. my poly partner and I had a little condom oopsie, etc.) were controls how much “I’m sorry” is in the letter, but a good rule for apologies is to own your part in what happened without trying to make the other person feel sorry for you.

A letter has the advantage of giving the recipient time to react. Write it, send it, let go, and hope.

13. “How do I leave a social group without hurting their feelings?”

If you want or need to leave the group, do you have to make it known that’s what’s happening, or will unsubscribing from a Meetup or Facebook group or just not coming to events anymore get it done? If you need to actually make it clear, tell the organizer what’s up. “Can you take me off the invite list for x events for the next little bit? I’m feeling over-scheduled right now. I’ll let you know if that changes.

You don’t have to give reasons, though the organizers might ask why. This isn’t bad, it’s because they LIKE you and want you to be welcome/comfortable. You can decide what you want to tell them, anything from “It’s just not fitting in my schedule right now” to “X Person behaves inappropriately and I’ve decided not to be around them for a bit.

They are going to feel what they are going to feel. You can’t control that, so take care of yourself, be as polite and sincere as you feel you can be, and do what you need to do.

14. “Pull my finger princess.”

Han Solo smirking

Princess Leia smiling

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