Dear Captain, my Captain,
Lately I have been very grumpy and I would like to stop.
While I am in a very happy place right now mentally, best I’ve been in a long time, I have found that certain things irritate me more than they reasonably should. Prime examples are my flatmate coming home every day and complaining about her drive and an incompetent colleague. I love her and I know she has a right to whine, but it’s become very repetitive.(Someone in front of her was slow, someone behind her was pushy, and her colleague is useless because ‘something to do with Chemistry that I know nothing about’.) She will usually follow me to my room, lean against the doorframe, and just stay there watching me on my computer and complaining about stuff every once and again. And it irritates me.
I also have a friend who likes to talk about food. I have a history of eating disorders in my family and my circle of friends and I find the most random comments triggering – e.g. “wow I ate so much I feel sick ” after dinner, “I should really eat less/ lose weight” (while simultaneously eating a lot), and “my stomach is so full and fat *pat pat*” after food. But these are not really things I can ask her to stop doing, it’s just small comments!
I don’t know if it’s because of stress at uni lately, or because of some other thing, but I hate being so irritated all the time and I never know how to react to them both without being impolite.
So I guess my question is: do you have any scripts for me to opt out of those kinds of one-sided conversations?
I’m glad you asked, because I DO have scripts.
First, let’s talk about the idea that these events are annoying you “more than they should.” When you are feeling less overall stress from school, you might in fact be able to better put up with the constant doorlurking from your roommate and the constant diet-talk from your friend. But that doesn’t mean something has to be wrong with you, or overwhelming in other parts of your life, for you to want to set and enforce boundaries in your living space and your relationships. Somehow, many of us have inherited the fallacy that listening to someone endlessly, way past our own comfort level, or listening to talk that is actively harmful to us, without interruption or protest, is the only polite thing to do. I suspect a lot of it is socialization (esp. if one is a female-raised person) and another big bunch of it is mistranslation or misunderstanding of Emily Post’s adage that it is bad manners to point out someone else’s bad manners.
It is bad manners to point out someone else’s lapse in manners as such, i.e. “Did you realize it’s rude to linger in someone’s doorway when they are obviously engaged in other activities?” or “Did you realize it’s very bad manners to talk about diets in a way that might be unkind to people with a history of eating disorders?” For the record, I think both behaviors are pretty questionable under many circumstances, and would especially like to see automatic diet talk die out as a thing we do, but I also think that speaking up about these behaviors in this particular way — as a lapse of manners — is far from ideal and also doomed. It’s doomed because:
- People are raised in different cultures and with different norms, and “manners” are highly context-dependent.
- Some things are also very PERSON-dependent or mood-dependent. With some friends, sometimes standing in doorways catching up on the day IS okay, if that’s the agreed-upon norm between you. It stops being okay not because: manners but because: you’re not feeling it today.
- The big one: When you displace a personal request or feeling onto a group or an appeal to vague authority like “manners,” it removes both urgency and agency and displaces the conflict in a way that is counterproductive and needlessly hurtful.
For instance, if you were in the shoes of last week’s letter about the coworker who invites herself everywhere, saying: “Everyone agrees with me that you should stop inviting yourself along places” because you are too scared to say “I prefer to hang out with a smaller group tonight” or (better yet) “Not tonight, thank you for asking!” would maximally hurt the coworker’s feelings and minimally get her to stop inviting herself places. It’s mean and judge-y to imply that the coworker is stupid for not knowing the unwritten rules or oblivious to the fact that “everyone” doesn’t like them. Maybe other people in the group do feel the same way, but assuming you speak for everyone isn’t cool and adds extra, unnecessary, vicious sting to something that’s already fraught. It’s counterproductive because it distracts the other person away from the perfectly reasonable thing you need and onto “who are all these people who agree with you?” and “when exactly did they say that?” It makes setting a boundary seem negotiable in a way that it shouldn’t be negotiable because it’s cloaked in all this extra crappy judgmental stuff and cultural baggage that is disputable. “I’d prefer not to” is about you and your feelings, which aren’t really disputable. “You can’t because everyone thinks so and also Society” is highly disputable. Does that make sense?
We’ve already covered the diet-talk thing extensively in several threads, so I’ll suggest one possible script here and let you dive into the many, many suggestions there. Next time your friend says something unfortunate, try saying “For my own well-being, I’m really trying not to talk about food or bodies with any guilt or negativity. Will you help me with that when we spend time together?” If it’s a good friend, level with her the way you did with us. “There’s a history of eating disorders in my family, and your seemingly innocuous comments hit me in a sensitive place. You had no way of knowing, of course, but if you can pull back on the diet/body talk it will help me a lot.”
As for your roommate, here’s the thread on ending one-sided conversations “gracefully”, and below are a few strategies that can work with your roommate. Mix and match them according to your comfort levels.
By far the simplest path open to you is total bluntness. For instance, the next time you run out of patience with her complaining in your doorway, try saying “That sounds like a terrible day. Unfortunately I don’t really have the energy to listen to this now. Can we catch up later?”
I predict that this saying this (or even imagining saying it) will feel really rude and unsettling to you. It is certainly a break in current pattern, and your roommate might certainly have a reaction to a change in how you receive her complaining, but asking her to hold off until another time is rude if and only if you work from a basic assumption that your roommate’s needs matter and yours don’t, i.e. the fallacy that good manners = not having or expressing any needs of your own. If you like your roommate and her needs count with you, you should probably listen to her some of the time. If yours count with her, you should be able to set reasonable limits as to when and how and how much. The trick is getting your needs to count with yourself so that you can more comfortably ask her for what you need and find a balanced way of interacting. Being honest about where your energy levels are is being a good friend, not a rude one.
Other strategies involve changing the routine and the environment where these conversations take place. If you know you’re not in the mood to be vented to, ten minutes before she comes home, shut your door. She may knock on it and want to vent anyway (which, if you don’t have a culture of closed door=do not disturb in your living space, is understandable because that’s her usual routine – more on that later!), but you have choices about what to do, and one of those choices is to say “Now isn’t a good time, can we talk later? I’ll come find you.” This will feel uncomfortable the first time you do it, probably, but with habit it will get easier. If she hangs out and insists on talking now, she is the one being rude, not you for asking her to come back another time.
Another “change the circumstances” strategy is to change the venue for the conversation. When she comes home, come out of your room and greet her in the common spaces. Actively engage with her for a little while, say, 10-20 minutes. Make it a real break for yourself that you build into your day. Get something to drink or a snack, sit down with her, and give her your full attention for that time period. Then when you’re ready, excuse yourself and go back to what you were doing. She’s still getting validation and contact, which she seems to need to switch from work/commute mode to home mode, but it’s less disruptive and more controllable by you. If she follows you or does set up shop in your doorway, you can ask her directly to stop (“It’s good to see you, but that’s all the time I have to talk. I’ll catch up with you later?“) or physically get up and move to a different room, like the boss back in question #11. Sometimes people linger in the doorway because they don’t know how to end the conversation themselves; it’s possible that she feels like once she’s started in it would be rude to walk away from you! The goal is to break up the routine where you feel trapped at your desk and she doesn’t really have your full attention anyway, and if it comes up in a way that you do end up having an explicit conversation about that, here’s a possible script:
“I realized that sometimes I get very anxious when I try to listen to you AND focus on work/study/other stuff I’m doing, so I’m training myself to take a real break when you come home and give you my full attention for a little while. That way you’re not stuck in the doorway with me sneaking glances at the computer. I hope that’s cool?”
If someone has a more gracious way to say that, I want to see it in the comments! In the meantime, I will slap my own ass and call myself “Sally” as in “Damn, Sally, that was a very kind way to say ‘pray don’t linger on my threshhold’.”
:brief musical interlude:
It’s worth saying that anytime you live with someone, it’s really easy to blur the boundaries between quiet time and social time. So you and your roommate might want to invest some energy in creating more structure in your house and your friendship, with stuff like:
- “Can we agree that a closed door means ‘do not disturb unless there is blood, flood, or fire?'”
- “Let’s have a standing weekly roommate date to eat breakfast or dinner together once a week or watch a favorite show so we don’t lose track of each other!”
- “Sometimes I’m the “lay it on me!” friend, sometimes I am the “I am here to distract you with silly stuff” friend, sometimes I’m the “sorry, can’t talk now!” friend, as I imagine you are, too. Can we make a habit of checking which kind of friend is present today before having deep or venting-style conversations?”
If you are actually seeking out your roommate sometimes for positive interactions, it will ease the transition for both of you as you start setting and enforcing boundaries. Structure is hard to initiate but easy to follow because everyone can relax and know how to be.
As you go, remember to be gentle with others and yourself, and give your friend and roommate a little time to adjust. One big problem with stewing silently for months is that your friends can go months without knowing there even is a problem, so by the time you do talk about it it comes out much harsher than you intended. If something was never an issue before, but it’s suddenly at “GODDAMN IT SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP” levels, your friends will be very understandably offended and taken aback. Say your thing matter-of-factly, like you expect to be listened to and believed, and give it a few tries and chances to readjust. In all likelihood they will adjust and it won’t be nearly as big a deal as you are probably worried it will be.
Remember also that your friend and roommate may have weird or awkward feelings about the new order of things, and that’s okay, and that’s not all on you to predict or manage. We all get uncomfortable with change, or the idea we’ve been secretly fucking it up without realizing it. Your diet-talking friend may have to deal with her own complex feelings about body image stuff and the diet industry and the shaming we do to ourselves and others around that in a way she did not before you spoke up. She might have to wonder to herself, “Is this okay to say?” before speaking to you. Not only is that okay, that’s what you want to happen, because that is your best hope for her actually changing the behavior. Your roommate may have to question “Does Grumpycat want to be bothered right now?” before interrupting you or be a little at loose ends with her own feelings after you’ve ended a conversation, and that is okay.
Finally, I can’t lie: There ARE actually people who buy into the idea that expressing any needs of your own IS bad manners and people who would openly chide you or guilt you for setting limits on how you like to be treated, etc. These are called “selfish people” or sometimes “irritating martyrs who use their own refusal to set limits in their lives as a weapon against others” and the good news, if there is good news to be found here, is that if someone deploys guilt-bombs at you for setting reasonable boundaries it actually sets you free to stop giving a single fuck about their feelings. A friend who insists on talking about stuff that she knows makes your skin crawl is not being a friend. A roommate who insists on lingering in your doorway even after being asked gently to leave is your soon-to-be ex-roommate. I don’t think you’ll run into problems like this in the situations you outlined, but the more you can think of setting boundaries as an exercise in helping people relate very positively to you, the more it will stop feeling rude or weird to set them.