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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“But I was reading.” Photo by Ash Hernandez, via Cathy De La Cruz (@SadDiego)

Hello Captain!

I have an situation that I don’t think has been discussed: how do you deal with Stranger Mansplainers when you are a lady doing things normally associated with manliness & they can’t fathom how a lady could figure out how to do such things?

For me: I am a lady & I participate in an activity that involves pulling trailers behind trucks. Backing the trailer into a parking space so you can go participate in the actual event is a frequent occurrence. I’m usually at these events by myself & can back up my own trailer, thank you very much. But I frequently encounter dudes who refuse to believe this is the case. I have had them bang on the windows of my truck, yell at me to stop, & block me from backing up my rig, all when I have a completely clear path & am not in danger of hitting anything. I’ve tried the “thank you, but I’m fine” approach but they refuse to move until I follow their directions. Sometimes they tell me to do exactly what I was already doing, other times they want me to follow a completely convoluted path that makes no sense. Even better, they usually follow it up with something along the lines of “if you don’t get hysterical, it’s easy!”

Other than going to the event management, how can I deal with this? It makes even more fun when the Mansplainers have their own rig that they parked like a Picasso painting, but it still sours the event for me. I don’t have any history with these dudes, they’re just total strangers who see a lady driving a truck & trailer and assume incompetence. Please help.

I’ve Been Backing My Own Trailers For A Long Time, Eff Off.

Dear Eff Off,

I think it’s worth reaching out to the organizers with this to see if they can’t send out some kind of safety reminder, like, “Hey, if you offer to help someone back up, and they say they’ve got it, it means they’ve got it. Get out of the way!” Treating it like a safety issue (which it is), rather than a sexism issue (which it also is) is going to have the cleanest chance of getting through.

You could also try a not-moving standoff. Dude won’t move until you take his directions? You won’t move until he gets out of the way.

But the truth of it is: You’re doing everything right already and there is no way to preemptively get these guys to stop acting like jackasses. You can’t control their behavior at all by phrasing things differently. So what remains is to deliver the message very clearly in a way that (hopefully) amuses you.

To do this, first, decline the offers verbally just as you have been. “Thank you, I got this!

If the interrupter persists in standing behind your truck and waving his arms at you, beckon him over, roll down your window, and hand him this flyer from the stack you keep in your glove box.

A photo of Imperator Furiosa from Mad Max Fury Road that says

Prepare for lots of sadface and “I was just TRYING to HELP YOU you are SO RUDE, JEEZ” pouting. Feel no need to smooth it over. No condescending insistence on “helping” complete with condescending “don’t get hysterical” comments? No condescending flyer!

P.S. This comment rules. Consider it.

It’s time for the monthly-ish post where we answer the things that people typed into search engines as if they are questions.

1. “Captain Awkward help my boyfriend keeps trying to optimise me.

Eff that dude. He’s not your Pygmalion and you are not a project.

2. “How should you act when you see your former affair and his wife in public?”

Give him a “hey, ‘sup bro?” nod and keep on walking/don’t stop to talk to them. You’re not going to be successful at pretending you don’t know him (hence the nod), but let him be the one to scramble for explanations about how y’all know each other. If you don’t engage at all it makes it less likely that you’ll have to lie to some poor woman’s face.

Clint Eastwood nodding like a bro.

3. “How do I tell my husband I’m sick of him playing games on his phone?”

Text him?

In all seriousness, I think it’s a good idea to make mealtimes and certain other times gadget/screen free, and I think you can ask him outright. to do that.

4. “What to do when your boyfriend’s ex wants him back.”

Ignore the ex to the extent that you can and don’t engage with them if you can help it. In my experience, this is almost always a partner problem more than it is an ex problem, as in, the ex can want all they want, but how your partner treats you is everything.

5. “What to do when every time I go out side my neighbour tells me all her troubles.” 

Awkward. Give it like, 2 minutes, and then deploy some scripts:

1) “Hey, good to see you, but I actually don’t have time to talk today.”

2) “Hey, nice to see you, but I came out here to get a bit of quiet. We can catch up another time, maybe.

3) If you’re like me, and you always carry a book, “Hi! I’m in a really exciting part of my book and I’ve been waiting all day to read it. I’ll have to catch up with you another time, thanks.” Pull out book.

Your neighbor will likely never get the hint, so you’ll have to ask. Prepare for sighing and harrumphing. If she makes a big show of avoiding you, be magnanimous – you’ve won! If she gives you some space, once a week, maybe just hang out with her for 10 minutes and ask about her day to show her that boundaries don’t mean y’all are enemies. If she doesn’t give you space, get more terse. “When I said I wasn’t in the mood to talk, I really meant it. Good night!”

6. “All our neighbors don’t talk to us.”

Maybe your neighbors just aren’t your people*? Try finding friends and a social life elsewhere?

My other question is, do you talk to them? Could you find the friendliest-seeming person and bake them a cake or something to break the ice? Give it some time and see if it gets better.

*”Aren’t your people” *could* mean “you have unwittingly moved to a racist, homophobic, and sexist hellscape.” Sorry, that’s a real thing, and it sucks.

7. “Just because he’s my boss should he not act on his feelings about me?”

Pretty much, bosses should not try to date or seduce or romance their employees and should look to, I dunno, literally anyone else.

8. “4 dates means he must like me.”

Sadly, that’s not a guarantee, though the possibility is there. In a new dating relationship, look to the present tense. What are things like between you now? Does he demonstrate that he likes you? Do you like him? Is it easy to make plans?

9. “He’s ignoring my Facebook messages.”

Stop sending Facebook messages and see if he contacts you.

10. “How to know if a girl loves you secretly from long distance?”

Ask her? She has the universe’s sole monopoly on the information you want.

11. “iamabeautifulperson.”

Fuck yeah!

12. “What does it mean when a boy suddenly message me saying sorry to be blunt but do you like me yes or no.”

Most likely explanation: 1) The boy likes you and is trying to make it known 2) Y’all are in middle school.

You don’t have to answer right away if you need time to make up your mind. “I’m thinking about it. Why do you want to know?” is a perfectly good answer.

13. “Having trouble accepting that my adult married daughter is gay.”

The best thing you can do is to realize that she was always gay there was always the possibility that she would be gay. It’s a fact, not something that needs your acceptance in order to be true, but if you want to keep having a relationship with her you need to do the work. Please be a good person about this, educate yourself, tell your daughter you love her, and don’t make her sexuality an issue between the two of you.

14. “A guy told me my messages creep him out what does that mean.”

Bluntly: Stop sending that guy messages. He doesn’t like them.

15. “Comebacks for people gaslighting you.”

In my estimation, no one is topping this lady who figured out her boyfriend was gaslighting her and then made him watch Gaslight. My heroine.

The key with gaslighters is not comebacks, it’s to get yourself out of proximity to them and in proximity to good people who treat you well.

16. “My boyfriend wants to move in together but I don’t.”

Listen to and believe that voice that is telling you that you don’t want to live with him. Maybe it’s that you don’t want to live with him yet, maybe it’s that you don’t want to live with him ever, maybe there is a fixable problem that you can work on together, and maybe it’s not fixable. Whatever it is, sit with it quietly, write about it, talk to trusted people about it, talk to your boyfriend about it, but don’t discount it.

17. “He’s mean to me, rude to me and doesn’t care about my feelings. What does it mean?”

A sign that says

It means: Get this dude out of your life forever.

Monty Python & the Holy Grail: Run away! Run away!

O Captain my Captain:

How on earth does one ever take charge of the creative process when it requires the input of others? Please help.

The specifics: I’ve written a novel. (Okay, actually I’ve written three. But I could imagine that someone might want to publish this one someday.) Various friends, colleagues, etc. have offered to read it and provide comments. Of those people (all of who have received it roughly 6 months ago), I’ve gotten responses from … one. Out of ten.

The jerkbrain has a really good answer to this: it’s such shit that nobody can finish it, and they don’t want to be honest, so I should just smash the computer and move on with my life and find something else to do. Preferably something where I can fool people into thinking I’m competent. Fuck my dreams. Fuck the work I put in. I’m bad at this and that’s that.

How do I silence the jerkbrain? Actually, more importantly, how do I actually get some useful feedback so that I can actually work on making it better? (That would go a long way towards silencing the jerkbrain, since it would give me something to actually work on!)

I’ve tried leveling with the people I’m the closest to, and asked them to commit to reading it and getting me comments by some specific date. And: radio silence from one, broken promises from two more. And some good news: regular updates from one about the life events that are keeping her from getting there, which is awesome, and keeps giving me hope!

— the next Bulwer-Lytton [or insert your least favorite author here]

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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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