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Oh Captain My Captain:

I’m running into a communications problem, and could use some advice.

First the backstory: I live with my parents. My mother, who is nearing seventy, is having arthritis issues and needs a little bit of extra help around the house; generally more help that I can reasonably provide while being a full-time student. A year ago, a friend of mine had to choose between an abusive situation and homelessness, and I convinced Mom that we could offer her a third option. Now we have Kat in our guest room, doing dishes and minor housecleaning tasks for ten dollars a day plus room and board.

Now, the problem: Mom is unhappy with Kat’s performance. A lot of this is coming from the fact that Mom isn’t actually talking to her. She doesn’t remind either of us of routine tasks (because we’re intelligent people and she shouldn’t have to explain the obvious), and deals with extraordinary requests by telling me that they need to be done (with the unspoken riders of “so get Kat to do it” and “you should already know how I want that task performed” and “I will be Very Upset if you do this yourself instead of making sure Kat does it to my specifications.”) When, somehwere along the line, communication inevitably breaks down and something *doesn’t* meet with her approval, I get to listen to Mom rant about how she’s not getting what she’s paying for and how Kat isn’t ever going to be able to make it in the real world if she can’t complete simple tasks. Mom does not, generally speaking, ever voice concerns directly to Kat.

Do you have advice/scripts/etc. for how to stop being the Mom-to-Kat translator in this arrangement?

Sincerely,

The Messenger Is Tired Of Being Shot

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Hi Captain,

I’m a twenty something female working in a retail job where it’s NECESSARY to work as a team. In the six months I’ve been at my job, I’ve built especially great rapport with a few people. The man henceforth named Paul is one of them. Paul is a year younger than me. Most of our dynamic has been sarcastic banter, punctuated by some more serious conversations about a wide variety of topics. After about two months Paul asked some questions about my opinions on romance related topics (we were off the clock and out in a group with coworkers), and I answered in the context of the happy/trusting/loving relationship I have with my boyfriend of 4 years. Paul seemed surprised to hear about him.

I later brought up one of Paul’s questions I didn’t feel I answered well, and he got extremely flustered and changed the topic. A week later he told me that he struggled with feelings for a coworker at an old job for a year or so before he really stopped having feelings for her, and he regrets that it took him that long to deal with an unrequited crush. Since he told me about that, he hasn’t brought up anything even remotely related to romance.

I’m pretty damn sure that Paul has a crush on me. He hasn’t said or done anything inappropriate either in or outside the workplace, and since describing that old crush has not brought up romance in any context (that was nearly 3 months ago). It doesn’t get in the way of our work, most of the time we still execute the sarcastic banter/serious topics conversations without a hitch.

But I definitely feel like there’s a weird feelings stalemate. In my personal life I would have confronted him about it long ago and let him know that if he can’t handle being around me, then he shouldn’t be around me, and I’d be happy to have his friendship whenever it’s just friendship. But given that we work together that’s not an option, and I don’t know what’s appropriate. I feel bad because I get the sense that he’s doing everything he can to keep the feelings off my radar since that story. If he were creepy I’d tell a manager, and if the fact that we get along didn’t make our job way easier and more enjoyable it would be an unwelcome but simple task to freeze him out. Ultimately I just want to be able to work and occasionally hang out with this guy in group settings without the sense that he’s experiencing heartwrenching crush feels half the time I laugh at his jokes. Is there even anything to do, Captain?

-Midshipman Awkward Sauce

Dear Midshipman!

:salutes:

You’re an empathetic person, so you are putting yourself in his shoes and wanting to make things better, but you can’t fix this for him. Short answer: Say nothing, it will get better soon. “Paul” is actually handling all of this very well, in my opinion, and it would be a mistake to stage-manage his feelings or pry further into them.

He most likely did have a crush on you, he figured out that it would not be requited, and he bailed out just in time before telling you about it beyond an oblique reference to a past situation. Of course he feels awkward, he’s got all these feelings and he can see how very close he came to 1) asking out a coworker and 2) macking on someone who he knows is happily coupled up. I think it speaks to him being a good person that he pulled back when he did. You can help everything get less awkward by being your same basic amount of work-friendly to him and letting him save face. In my opinion, he won’t thank you for addressing it directly: Imagine someone else peeling off a scab that’s on your body, and that’s pretty much what it will feel like for him if you bring it up before he does.

For now, return the text of your interactions to normal relations, ignore all subtext unless it does get angry or creepy or unless he sheepishly confesses, “I was developing a crush on you and that’s why I’ve been acting kinda weird lately” at which point you say “Aw,  knew *something* was up, but I didn’t want to make you more uncomfortable. So you know, I really like working with you and I’d like us to be friends, and I’ll follow your lead on that.” 

Hello Captain Awkward!

I love your blog. I love it so much that I’ve read through your archives and found a few questions that are cousins to, but not quite the same as mine, so here goes:

I am in my mid twenties and work at a nonprofit in a large, diverse (racially/ethnically, economically, politically) city. My organization trains and places volunteers to tutor children in Title I elementary schools. All of our volunteers are hardworking people who are very generous with their time and resources. Most of our volunteers are kind and thoughtful about the challenges many of our students face, and about the differences that may exist between their backgrounds and their students’ backgrounds. Some are not.

Some people say terrible things, usually privately to staff (if volunteers say racist things to students, we ALWAYS step in. It also doesn’t happen too frequently, thank goodness. The questions is more about one-on-one interactions with staff members.)

“I like working with Joe. At least he has a brain in his head, unlike Rose.” [not their real names]

“When I went to Ethiopia I expected to feel sorry for them, but I just felt like ‘get up off ground, stop pissing in the street, and clean up your city!'” [many of our students are Ethiopian]

“So are these poor kids?”

“It’s just too bad his parents don’t really care about his education.” [not true]

“I just don’t feel comfortable in this neighborhood. You know, since I’m a white lady.” [yes, someone said this]

There are semi-frequently comments from volunteers assuming that of course our students don’t have fathers in their lives, how their parents probably don’t care about how they’re doing in school, and how their students must have a terrible home life. Of course, some of our students may be in these circumstances – the problem is jumping to these conclusions after having spent 0-5 minutes with a student.

The comments range from foot-in-mouth to super racist, and those of us on staff struggle to know how to handle them. Some complicating factors:

1. In a perfect world, we’d have so many volunteers that we could dismiss the racist ones and replace them. Unfortunately, we need every volunteer we’ve got, and usually these volunteers are at least capable of not spewing this stuff in front of students, which is really the only way to get rid of a volunteer.

2. Part of the organization’s mission is to help educate people who don’t know much about urban education so they can become better advocates for our students and their schools. Therefore, though our first priority is our students, our second priority is providing excellent “customer service” to our volunteers.

3. Most of the offending volunteers are white, wealthy, and middle-aged/seniors who have raised children. The staff is in their 20-30s, mostly not white, definitely not wealthy, mostly childless.

Most of your scripts for dealing with racist behavior tends toward the more confrontational side. Though often wish I could employ them, I’m not in a position where I can straight up tell people that they are being racist. Do you have some scripts to help us make it clear to volunteers that certain comments are not acceptable, while still maintaining a good working relationship? Or do we have to pick between standing up to racist comments and making sure volunteers stick around?

Thank you for your help! I know this is a little long, so feel free to edit as needed.

Please Don’t Volunteer Like That

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Oh my Captain!

I’m working at a temp data entry job, where I scan and index files prepared by another team. When I started this project, the supervisor told me to go to her if I had any questions, or noticed anything unusual. I’ve been doing that, and I’ve been catching a fair few errors. After about a month of this, the supervisor decided to point a couple of the more common errors out to the prep team, so they can avoid them.

When this was pointed out to them, they seemed wounded, said they were shocked to find out there had been mistakes, and said I should bring questions to them first, so they can correct them.

I’ve been trying that for the past few days, but it’s been going… weirdly…  Here’s an example.

I have three files, one each for Alice, Bob, and Carol. They put all three under Bob’s name. When I point this out, the prep team said that all three shared Bob’s ID number. This is incorrect. I know they know it’s incorrect, because they use the correct ID numbers elsewhere in the file.
I’m inclined to go back to just asking my supervisor, but I’m worried that the prep team will take offense again. If they wanted to, they could make my job really difficult. I feel like they don’t take anything I catch seriously, possibly because I’m considerably younger, female, and a temp.

Thanks for looking this over,

Not Trying to Make Trouble

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Dear Captain & Crew,

I’m a grad student and I want to write thank-you cards to a couple of my undergrad professors whose classes and mentorship were really important to my academic and personal growth. There two profs are my former advisor/PI and another prof who basically inspired what I’m doing for my graduate work – similar topic coming from another field. The problem for me is that when I was graduating and for a while after (aka prime thank-you time) my anxiety was out of control, but as that has become more manageable my feelings of awkwardness about the amount of time that has passed are increasing. I feel like I would be taking advantage of their time and professionalism if I just reestablished contact because it might be useful to me.

I want to avoid turning these thank-yous into a FEELINGSDUMP. One of the things I appreciated was my advisor being supportive and calm about my (at the time undiagnosed) panic attacks and general graduating/life stress, but I don’t think that’s the kind of long-winded screed they really need, ya know? I also ideally would like these notes to maybe be the start of a friendly-professional correspondence. I think they’re cool people, and we’re facebook friends so though we don’t actually talk there I think they are open to being in that sort of contact with their graduated students.

Scripts? General tips on how I should approach the situation from a professor’s point of view?

Signed,
Grateful Also Awkward
PS I use she/her pronouns.

Dear Grateful:

Keep it short and sweet, but please don’t fear that saying “thank you” to a teacher is an imposition even if some time has gone by. Your teachers all did their work without ever knowing what would take root or how students would receive it, and getting the confirmation that something stuck with you is a gift that you’re giving them, not an imposition on their time. Script:

“Dear Professor, as you may know, I’ve been doing graduate work in (field of study), and I wanted to tell you how wonderfully your class set me up to succeed here, especially the way you covered (specific topic). Thank you again for your class and for the mentorship and advising you gave me. I hope all is well with you. Best wishes, Grateful.”

Since you’re casually in touch on social media, that will do the rest to keep the doors open.

P.S. Thanks for telling us what pronouns to use. It didn’t come into play here, but it’s so helpful to know.

—————

Since we’re in that time in the semester, I want to make a public service announcement to college students whose academic success is being derailed by stress and mental health issues:

Universities aren’t magical places where stigma about mental illness doesn’t exist, but you (yes, you! and you!) are not the first students having genuine difficulty that your professor has seen. Unfortunately, “not giving a fuck” and “having a major crisis” can look exactly the same to your professors, so if you can, communicate. They can often steer you toward advising and on-campus health services to help you pull through. With some notice, they can maybe set up alternate structures for you to complete your work. The sooner you reach out, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to get back on track in some way. The very last week of the semester, “But I need a good grade in this class I never come to or do work for to graduate/keep my scholarship” isn’t really gonna work.

If you’re behind on your work, and you’re overwhelmed about how you’re ever going to catch up, let me help you prioritize that shitpile:

  1. What’s the assignment that’s due next? Ignore the old stuff for now. Focus on the next thing and hand it in by the deadline.
  2. Hand in all future things by the deadline, i.e., show that you can respect deadlines and respect the professors’s time and get caught up.
  3. Once you’ve made a plan for future work, what’s the outstanding assignment that’s worth the most points toward your grade? Try negotiating an extension for that one thing.
  4. When asking for an extension, your profs don’t need all the details of why. Look at what the syllabus says about late work and/or extensions, and if you have to ask, just do it. “I am having some personal issues and I need an extra week to finish my assignment. Can I turn it in on x date? I understand that this might affect my grade.” Your profs don’t spend all their time thinking about you or your missing work. Tell them what they need to know, ask them for what you need, and do it with the least amount of friction for them.
  5. Show that you are aware of what you need to do and suggest a realistic plan for getting the additional work in. Asking a professor, “What assignments am I missing?” is kind of insulting (see also: “Did I miss anything in class today?“). If you haven’t been reading the syllabus or the class website, now’s the time to read it or fake that you have. Grading late work is a pain in the ass, so make it easy for busy people to help you.
  6.  Is the missing work from the very beginning of the semester? Maybe let that stuff go. You don’t want to do it and your prof probably doesn’t want to read/grade it.
  7. Attend all classes, even if you aren’t quite caught up. Students who shame-hide because they haven’t finished their work: We see you! Or, we don’t, because you are skipping a class you paid a lot of money for because you’re worried about what we’ll think of you for missing an assignment, but we’d like to see you! Come back! Show that you’re interested and committed to catching up.

I have had students fail a class or withdraw from a class because they were going through a really bad time and then come back at it a semester later and do beautifully. It makes me so happy when that happens. It’s not embarrassing, it’s awesome!

Comments closed as of 4/27.

Dear Captain Awkward, So, if I tell you that when I was in high school, a teacher of mine called off class for a session of “yoga in the dark where no one can see what the teacher is doing” that left me very upset, I probably don’t need to give you more details, right? And I see a therapist now (not just for that, but the therapist feels that part is important), but I am not serenely at peace with the past here, and I do really, really badly with yoga. I have problems with rage and tears just from being told to “focus on my breathing.” So I avoid going to yoga. (I also don’t do well with meditation, Alexander Technique, etc. — basically, being pressured to “relax” makes me panic.)

My problem is that many people, in both my personal and professional life, very strongly believe in the universal healing powers of yoga. They refuse to believe that I could find it anything other than relaxing and empowering. I try to explain that having someone dictate how I ought to move and breathe does not make me feel relaxed or empowered, but multiple staff retreats at multiple offices have left me in the superfun position of explaining that I really can’t do yoga, and being pushed about it until I cry, because they refuse to believe that anyone could have a good reason not to like yoga. I say I’ve had bad experiences, and they insist that this will be different, and I say, no, really kind of traumatic experiences, and they say, “But yoga helps traumatized people!” And there I’m back with the tears and rage. One year I tried to do it; I had to run out of the room and apparently the teacher said that some people aren’t brave enough to get in touch with their bodies. When my coworker told me that I think I literally bared my teeth like a dog and snarled. This does not make me look like a competent professional. And it makes me feel like shit. They’re my coworkers, my job has nothing to do with yoga, and I guess I don’t think I should have to bare my soul and expose my vulnerabilities because somebody else thinks their favorite form of exercise would make me a better worker/person.

I’ve just started a new job in a high-stress workplace. My boss is very excited about a yoga-focused health-and-centeredness retreat. I’m still in my probation period. How do I not look unstable, or like a bad team player? Please don’t tell me I just haven’t found the right yoga instructor yet. I hear that a lot. And, thank you.

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Dear Captain,

About two years ago, I was hired to work at an awesome but small non-profit. I spent my first year in a low-end administrative position that quickly became mundane. However, after taking on additional projects and consistently showing my skill and desire for more intensive work, I received a huge promotion to a development position. I now answer directly to the CEO, and things are going pretty well. I just brought a new donor on board, and everyone is singing my praises.

However, a huge mess of awkwardness has arisen.

The woman who held the position before me had years of experience in writing and development. She had a VERY good salary (from what I hear) and was close friends with the CEO. However, her performance was less than stellar. In an entire year in the position, she never brought a donor on board and failed to document most of her contacts. Because of this, the organization asked her to resign early last year. Since I took over eight months ago, I have been trying to fill in the informational gaps. In some cases, I’ve had to start from scratch.

Now, this woman had a list of potentials she was trying to develop, and my CEO (still hung up on how “experienced” she was, IMO) wants me to pursue them. However, I do not know (because of the utter lack of documentation) what the other woman’s relationship to these entities were, and some of them appear to be real long-shots. So now the CEO is asking me to CALL THE TERMINATED EMPLOYEE and ask! I’m so uncomfortable with this request, you have no idea. When she worked here, I was just a low-level associate. Now I’m supposed to tell her that not only have I taken over her old job, I want access to her contacts, too?! It seems insulting. I’m thinking about telling my boss that I just can’t do it. It’s not just an affront to her pride, but also to mine. What do you suggest?

Sincerely,

Too Appalled to Call

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