Monthly Archives: March 2011

"This entire discussion is inappropriate and uncalled for."

There were a few requests in the “nothreads this week to write about saying no at work.  I want to write about saying “no” to sexual/romantic interest from people you work with (and who you will have to interact with again, so you might need a more nuanced approach than you do with subway strangers or handsy dates) and how to say “no” about the work itself, like, just because you are the only woman doesn’t mean you have to be on the party planning committee.

I need to set some ground rules, first, though.  Here are some assumptions I’m making when I write this stuff:

I’m assuming that you want to keep working at your job for as long as you decide to stay there, and are looking for scripts and strategies to make your day-to-day situation better.  Assholes who probably deserve to be fired may not be fired.  Bad people may go unpunished.  Don’t come here seeking justice.

There are times to take it to the barricades – tell your boss, go to HR, hire a lawyer, file formal complaints, etc.  Sometimes people just need to be told/shown/sued/fined/jailed for their nefarious, entitled, and oppressive bullshit.  Most times are not those times, and often going to HR brings no consequences to the people who deserve them, and many consequences for you.  So when you need to fight?  FIGHT.  But choose your battles.

As the Evil HR Lady explains:

HR does not have the role of playground supervisor.  When you and your coworkers went to HR to complain, you expect her to run over and say, “Bad, bad, manager.  Time out!”  But, it doesn’t work that way.   HR’s job is to help the business.

So, I realize that there is no one solution for every problem, person, conflict, or situation that comes up and there are 1,000,000,000 exceptions to every single thing I say here, but in general, this is my recommended strategy for handling interpersonal problems at work in a way that might help you get what you need in the short-term and fight to win in the long-term.

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From all of us.

Dear Captain Awkward,

I am a Theater Geek.  I recently got a short term, temporary job teaching Theater to budding Theater Geeks at a university.  My contract is for one semester; I’ll be done here in May.

It’s the tradition at this university to have a party after the closing performance of each production.  Cast, crew, staff and faculty all attend.  Little speeches are made; thank-you gifts are given.  After the cast party for our latest production, the director — a faculty member, and in fact the department head — sent an email to the stage manager (a student) and insisted she forward it to the entire cast and crew.  The email in question expressed the fact that the director was disappointed with his thank-you gift, and felt that the amount of thought and time that went into the gift were insufficient.  The stage manager did as she was instructed, and forwarded the email to everyone.

The stage manager and another student came to me.  They felt uncomfortable.  Embarrassed, and “a little scared.”  They thought the director’s behavior was inappropriate and petty.  They felt someone up the chain of command, namely the director’s boss, should be told.

I told them that I wanted to support them.  That they should document all the emails, responses, and responses to the responses.  That they should tell me right away if anybody threatened violence to anybody or if the situation otherwise escalated.  And that I needed to think about how to proceed.

Captian Awkward, I agree that this director’s behavior was inappropriate.  I think he’s being petty and overly critical.  (A thank-you gift is not a right, dude!)  In my short few months teaching, I’ve leaned that students sometimes disappoint, and I do know how that can suck.  But 1) as the “more adult” person in the situation, it’s my job to suck it up and deal with it and 2) it’s not about me, it’s about them and their education.

My big question is, do I talk to the director about this directly, or do I go over his head to his boss?  And if I talk to him directly, how do I broach the subject?  In essence, this guy is guilty of not behaving like an adult, but he’s easily 20 years my senior.

Furthermore, while my position here is temporary, I would like to teach in a university setting again, someday.  And to make that happen, I’ll need a good reference.  Guess who I’ll need to approach about writing that?

Help me have this oh-so awkward conversation.

~Befuddled Visiting Lecturer in Theater

Dear Befuddled Lecturer:

I have a very cynical answer for you today.

If the director is a full-time professor (did you say he was the Department Chair?) his colleagues and superiors already know that he’s a big jackass crybaby and have decided that they can live with it.

The university has a code of conduct, I imagine, and if the students can show that something in the email violates that code of conduct (if he was acting like a sexually harassing or racist jackass crybaby, for example, or they could make an argument about a hostile learning environment, or if the behavior escalated), they could maybe take the email to his superior – The Dean? – and make a complaint.  Without reading the specific email, the part that stands out to me as being the worst is where he insisted that the stage manager share the email with everyone – she has the biggest claim to an actual grievance.

If there are a ton of documented cases of him acting this way, and a ton of people have made similar complaints, who knows….this could be the straw that gets him….a strongly worded letter about being more polite to students?  Maybe he’d be forced to make some kind of grudging formal apology?

The students would gain a sense of justice done and an enemy for life.

If your name comes into it anywhere, you would also gain an enemy for life.  A petty vindictive shitty emailing enemy for life.  And a reputation for being “difficult to work with.”

This is probably not a hill that you want to die on, young adjunct instructor.

It’s totally unfair and crappy and he is in the wrong, and someone will probably come along and make the argument that if you all let him get away with it, well, that’s how stuff like this is allowed to happen and goddamnit someone has to make a stand!  But honestly, the stakes just aren’t that high and the advantages are few.  It’s not the first time you or your students will meet entitled assholes in show biz (or academia).  I realize you want to make the world a better place for your students and help them speak truth to power.  If they’re up for it, they might get far more impact and far more of a growing/learning experience by responding to the guy directly:  “Hey, we’re so sorry and troubled that you didn’t like your gift, we really valued working with you and certainly didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”

Then the email chain is Him = asshole, Them = polite, direct, and professional.  If he responds rudely or gets vindictive, then they clearly and legitimately have something to take up the grievance chain.  Think of it not as giving in, but as baiting the trap with sweet, sweet honey.  The way to to present it to the students is “You’re right to be upset.  I understand that you want to report this to someone, and you are welcome to do that, but there is a lesson to be had here in handling yourself politely and professionally even when someone is unprofessional and rude.  He only made himself look badyou didn’t do anything wrong, and nothing about his actions reflect on you.”

You did the right thing by asking them to document it, and you are right to be protective of them if things escalate, and I understand the temptation to sock it to a bully and save the day for your nice students, but you did the smart thing by holding off.   The likelihood is that a) This will all blow over soon b) They’d probably get far better justice giving him a mean nickname (May I suggest “Evita?”) and posting it on and (though obviously your students didn’t hear that from you).

Morrissey and these tiny kittens will not judge your sadness.

Dear Capt. Awkward,

I feel like I’m an inveterate fuck-up. Everything I touch eventually falls apart, and I make decisions rashly and avoid the fallout by never peering too closely at myself. My most recent debacle started when a guy I was sleeping with in another city introduced me to his friends in this new city I just moved to, with the warning that I was not allowed to sleep with two of his closest friends in the group. So, of course, I made out with one of the guys the very night I met him, and eventually ended up sleeping with both of them. I wonder sometimes if I’m a sociopath; sure, the first boy probably shouldn’t have made such an irrational demand, but in the long run it comes down to my knowing that doing something would hurt someone I cared about and doing it anyway.

I’m not exactly suicidal, but I feel sincerely like it wouldn’t matter if I died. I’ve moved 13 times since 1997, and while I have friends, I mostly communicate with them over IM or Facebook. I place way too much importance in what other people think of me, and a large measure of my (mostly non-existent) self-esteem comes from how many people IM me first, or invite me along with them to whatever they’re doing at the time.

I am aware that I would probably benefit substantially from therapy; I grew up with a bipolar mother who was only diagnosed a few years ago (my comment upon being told that she was diagnosed? “Wow, that makes my childhood make so much more sense.”) She was emotionally abusive and neglectful and at 12 told me she didn’t want me and sent me to live with my father and stepmother, who also mostly didn’t want me. I crave being wanted. Unfortunately, I’m unemployed and have no money to spend on therapy. Oh, that’s another issue. I think I might be depressed and deliberately (though unconsciously) sabotaging my life. I’ve been in this new city for a month, and haven’t applied for any jobs. If I can’t make rent in three months I honestly don’t know what I’ll do, but that doesn’t seem to motivate me to actually search for a real job. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I don’t know how to fix it, and just jumping off a bridge sometimes seems like the only option that will actually solve everything.

There are so many personal details in this that anyone who read it and knows me will immediately identify me. I feel like I should care, that I should hide my issues and keep pretending, but maybe it’s just that self-destructive side of me coming out again and pressing send.

Sign me,
I don’t have issues, I have subscriptions

Dear Issues,

Would you mind letting me know (confidentially) what city you’re in, maybe I can look up some mental health services there and at least get you started.

Dear Captain:

I’m in [MAJOR CITY]- I feel sure that if there’s anywhere in the country that would have free mental health care it would be here, but I’m 31, straight, white, cis and otherwise average. I also have the problem that my mother took me to a shrink when I was a kid and having issues with lying and stealing. The shrink who was supposed to help me was useless, and as a result I have absolutely no faith in the mental health establishment. There’s also kind of this stigma — I may be crazy, but at least I’m not *going to a shrink* crazy, you know? (Even though clearly I am going to a shrink crazy.)

I have this feeling that if I just did one thing right, everything else would fall into place. Like, if I met that perfect boy I would magically get an awesome job and have an apartment where I don’t have 5 roommates and my hair would cooperate. But boys ignore me and my resumes are apparently sent into space and I still have five roommates and frizzy hair. There’s got to be more than this, right? Being an kid sucked ass, but I moved out and away…but it still sucks. I can’t move out of my head, I guess.

Dear Issues,

I don’t want to practice unlicensed psychiatric care over the internet, but I feel pretty sure that the the feelings you describe (meaninglessness, feeling lost, self-sabotaging behavior, feeling unmotivated, mentioning suicide, having a family history of bipolar disorder) are in the DSM somewhere and I feel comfortable saying that if you did seek out some care that you would tick a lot of boxes on those ticky-box forms they use at intake.

I know this not because I’m a mental health professional (DISCLAIMER:  NOT A MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONAL) but because I’ve been alone and new in a strange city where I moved more to flee something than to seek something new, sending my resume into a void, living with sketchy assholes including a man who wore so much cologne that it caused my cat to pee defensively on his things and a dominatrix who used to re-arrange my furniture whenever I went out of town, watching my savings dwindle while I slept with a grotesque series of The Wrong People, including one who I refer to as “A Three-Dimensional Interactive Display Of How Bad I Was Feeling About Myself At The Time” and who old friends reading this will remember by his 1) luxurious ponytail 2) “helpful,” “friendly” offers to have them come over so he could massage their feet. Also, for the record, HE dumped ME for someone else (and if I said something different at the time it was a lie to save face).
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Dear Captain Awkward:

I have a part-time job that is, at its core, a retail job.  The gist of it is that our paying customers come in once a week and sit and talk with each other. One of our customers has, there is no way to mince words here, the Worst Body Odor I Have Ever Smelled.  I can easily be 10 feet away and still smell him.

Two of our other customers have noticed this and mentioned it to me.  What I don’t want to have happen is that this problem gets to the point where my customers don’t return because it’s just not worth the hassle.

I’ve spoken to my supervisor about this (she is not on site with me when I work) and she admitted to me that she was stumped.  We each agreed to ask around and see if there are others who have been in our situation, and what they have done.  My supervisor said she’d know what to do if this were an EMPLOYEE, but when it’s a paying customer, it’s a slightly different dynamic.

I am the worst at confrontation and uncomfortably honest discussions, so this chills me to the core.  Supervisor has said that if we decide a frank discussion is needed, she can be there to do it and/or support me in it, so that’s good.  But we are, at this point, wondering how to handle this.  Help us, Captain Awkward!


Temporary Mouth Breather

I do not envy you.  Either the customer does not know he smells and has to be told, or he does know and it’s because of some health issue that he can’t help (in which case you’re in disability/civil rights territory).

You’re going to have to rip the bandaid off and address it with him.  And you’re going to have to talk about the smell that you have personally noticed and not hide behind “other customers have noticed” or “There have been complaints…” First, it’s a coward’s refuge, and second, it makes the whole thing that much more horrible to tell him, “Yeah, we all got together and talked about you behind your back. ENJOY RELIVING JUNIOR HIGH, CHUMP!”

Also, you have to do it face-to-face or on the phone, not through email.  And you can’t have your supervisor do it for you or with you – it’s completely insulting to him.  It has to be you and him, human to human.


Next time he comes in, after you all do what you do, pull him aside for a private chat.  And then what you say can be some variation of this:

Hey, _____, I need to bring up something very awkward with you.

The past few times you’ve been in, I’ve noticed a strong and distinct body odor.  If that’s something you are aware of and can control, I need to ask you to take a shower and generally freshen up before you come here.  If it’s not something that you were aware of, I need to say that extreme body odor can be the sign of a serious medical condition (like diabetes) and that you should get a health checkup if you haven’t had one recently.

I’m really sorry to have to have this talk, I’ve been enjoying your contributions to our meetings and really want you to feel comfortable here. Please know that I would not bring it up if it was not a serious issue.”

He might run screaming from the room and never be seen again, too embarrassed, which would be a shame, but that’s probably the most classy, least awkward way that you can handle a really awkward thing.  Sometimes smooth corporatespeak and the passive voice is your friend.

Good luck, I don’t envy you that talk.  Let us know how it went?

P.S. I tried looking for a witty image, but it was too insulting/depressing.


Dear Captain,

I am in what seems to be the early stages of a relationship – four dates in – and I need some advice in how to proceed.

The woman I am dating is a very lovely person (I am, by the way, a queer woman), we have a lot in common, and I enjoy spending time with her. However, for a start I worry that I enjoy the thought of dating her for two rather selfish reasons. First, that I have a habit of being the ‘carer’ in all my relationships with friends and sometimes family. With this woman, I don’t feel that this would be necessary so much and that’s quite a restful thought. Second, she’s more interested in me than I am in her. It feels bad to say, but I have a history (thankfully something I have been able to put aside and begin working through) of a very painful two-year unrequited love/lust for someone, which made me feel undesirable/unlovable/etc. Her being interested in me feels, after all that, very nice.

So I worry that my motivations in getting into this aren’t nice motivations, and further I worry about what I can give her back.

I don’t want a romantic relationship. I enjoy dating her, and sex with her, but I don’t want her to be my girlfriend. Not only is this a very busy time for me (last year of university), I don’t think I’d want her as a girlfriend anyway; I don’t think she’s someone I could be in love with.

I don’t want to bring her into my core group of friends. She already knows most of them through the wider social circle – I’m not ashamed of her. But if I bring her in it will be as ‘my date’ and that would change the dynamics I have with my friends. I’m not happy about the thought of giving up that dynamic.

I randomly swing into low energy/introvert mode. At that time, all further social interaction becomes a chore, and all I want to do is go home and read a book. With my ex, we would call a time out when on a date and both read for half an hour, so that worked okay. But I’m not sure how to make it clear to this woman that it will keep happening (I’ve already bailed on her twice when hanging out) and that it isn’t something about her.

I don’t want to sleep over at her place – I get insomniac in strange beds. She seems to have less trouble sleeping over at mine (as she has done so) but I worry that I’ll seem aloof.

I have an unpredictable libido with partnered sex, and also have occasional trouble orgasming. In the past, I’ve handled this by only dating/hooking up very casually – getting in touch with whoever I was seeing only when I felt like sex. I’d be happy to do this with her, too, but she contacts me a lot and I feel she wants to date more regularly. The trouble orgasming links in with the introvert mode – not only is it embarrassing for me when I don’t come, as I’m not very good about talking about it yet, all I want to do afterwards is say goodbye to the rest of the evening and go home.

With all this, I don’t know if I should be pursuing a relationship with her at all, and if I do I know she’s got a right to know a lot/all of this but I don’t know how to bring it up in a way that isn’t potentially going to hurt or offend her. She has not yet asked to be in a relationship or to hang with me and my friends, or for me to hang with hers, but as she does seem to want to date regularly I want to make things clear from the get go.

Thoughts? Advice?

Thanks for this question!  First, it gives me a chance to post the awesome trailer for Chicago indie filmmaker Wendy Jo Carlton’s new musical, Jamie and Jessie Are Not Together.

Cute gay women!  Overthinking it!  IN SONG!

Wendy Jo is the talented shizznit, people, and I cannot wait to see this movie.

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Normally about this time I’d be posting links to the Shameless Self Promotion Sunday thread, but it looks like that won’t be necessary this week. Welcome Feministe and Manboobz readers!  I am enjoying your fine and well-spelled comments.  I would love to hear more thoughts on how we socialize both men and women to say “no” and to respond to “no.”  And I’m always looking for questions – email me at

Also, maybe some of you can help me with a doozy of a reader question.  I’m especially interested in hearing from higher ed people, occupational health and safety people, lawyers, etc.  Here we go:


I have a work-related question that is gnawing at me, and since you tackle those, I figured I’d give it a shot. I work in a chemistry research lab with a number of rather nasty chemicals. We have several undergrad interns who are finishing up their projects, and one of them has recently announced that she’s pregnant to the entire lab minus the people in charge. She goes on like nothing is going on, and she’s still doing experiments with the aforementioned dangerous products.

The reason she doesn’t want to tell the people in charge at the lab is that her immediate boss is also her professor, who still needs to grade one of her exams. The professor in question is a horrible woman and nobody would put it past her to fail the student for being pregnant. Please keep in mind that this is all happening in a country where women’s rights are not as well-defended as in the US, and there isn’t much of a structure to help the student with her problems with the professor. However, if the baby is born with a problem due to exposure to dangerous chemicals, the lab could still be held liable for that.

The pregnant student has made us swear that we wouldn’t tell the bosses behind her back, but considering the number of people who know, there is bound to be a slip-up soon. Furthermore, she has made the rest of the lab extremely uncomfortable with her reckless experimenting, and we’ve more of less decided to sit her down and let her know that what she’s doing is extremely dangerous for her child (we have all already told her this, but so far she hasn’t listened).

My position in this is very difficult in this. I’m a post doc, which means I’m not a student, but I’m not part of management either. I need to think about my relationship with my boss, which I want to be as good as possible (my boss is also the boss of the professor in question – I don’t really work with her, but I don’t want to be on her bad side either). She doesn’t seem to care about what impression she leaves behind once she leaves the lab in a few months, but I’m staying behind and I don’t want this to turn against me. I want to tell the student that if she doesn’t tell her boss soon, I’ll tell my boss.

I know that this is a very difficult ethical question, and I know that I’m slipping into woman-as-vessel territory (and I’m not going to even speculate on the exam problem), but I don’t think that “it goes against my political beliefs to tell pregnant women not to do something” is going to cut it as an excuse when I’m asked if I knew about this, and I don’t want to lie to my boss. Do you have any advice on how not to be a concern troll and how to handle the situation in order to minimize the drama?

Thanks for your attention,
Clever Name Here

Dear Clever Name:

A lot of this stuff is above my pay grade.  I have no legal or occupational health and safety expertise.  I do teach at a college, and if this were one of my students I would feel justified in telling the student “You have put me in a terrible position, and I am obligated to tell my boss about this so that we can make sure that you are served well and also to protect the school in case of complications,” and then referring the student to my boss and/or student services, etc. but I am in the U.S. and there are some clear guidelines and protections available that you and your intern might not have.  I haven’t had to face this with pregnant students (though that does come up every other semester or so – Thanks, Abstinence Only Education!  You Don’t Work At All And Should Be Completely De-funded and Called Out For Being A Crock of Shit!) but I have had a student with some obvious and scary health problems who needed to be referred to some services so (s)he didn’t do things like stop breathing or have fainting spells and seizures in my class. Read More

A reader responded to yesterday’s post with this story:

…I was sitting around at 3am reading blogs when some guy knocked on my window, since mine was the only light on in the street–he’d locked his keys in his car, and wanted to borrow my phone. Then when he couldn’t reach the person he called, he wanted money for a cab ride to his mother’s. It was creepy, but he had puppy dog eyes and a plausible story, and I ended up walking to a nearby ATM and giving him the money. (Before I left, I gave a friend his full description and orders to raise hell if I didn’t come back in a timely fashion.) Then he asked if I wanted to get together for drinks when he returned the money. I made an awkward comment that I didn’t drink… but I’m going to come up with something stronger if he comes back, because my desire to spend time with a guy with boundary issues is pretty low. (Oh, and now I’m worried because he lives next door, and what if I have Angry Guy living next door and knowing where I live and seeing my car every day…)

While it’s not technically a question, I’d like to offer some suggestions for how to come up with something stronger to say if (when) he comes back, and how to deal with the possibility of Angry Guy Living Next Door.

First, I’m very glad you are safe, and I don’t want to make you feel bad about doing a kind thing for someone, and you are the best judge of your own boundaries and safety. However, since you use the words “creepy” and “boundary issues,” I am going to be honest about several things that are red flags to me about this guy’s behavior: 

  • Knocking on a strange woman’s window at 3 am = sketchy.
  • Story about keys locked in car, no phone, person not picking up, needing money and a ride to mom’s = sketchy.
  • ASKING YOU OUT when you got back from the ATM = sketchy.

I’m not saying he’s a predator, but I am comfortable saying that a person with a decent understanding of boundaries does not knock on a strange woman’s window in the middle of the night with bizarre requests.  A person who understands boundaries would be very conscious that he is making a bizarre request and that you would have legitimate reasons (being sketched out, your own safety) for not helping him.  He would understand that he is putting you out and that you are taking serious risks to help him and do everything to minimize that feeling and respect your safety.

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