It Came From The Search Terms: October Symphony (Oct. 2020)

Greetings, it is the time for the periodic tradition where I answer search strings people typed in as if they are questions. 

First, I want to share a few links – Here I am at Vice, writing about family arguments, and I also want to call attention to S. Bear Bergman’s recent post there: How To Support Someone You Care About If They’re Stuck At Home With Bigots. Several/many of you have written for tips on how to help someone who is far away, and stuck in situations where what you can do is very limited, and I’m grateful to S. Bear for such a practical and supportive guide. 

Next, as is traditional, a seasonal song, and I have been corrected as to its deepness, thank you. 

Onward, to the Search Terms!

1 “Family talks about my weight even though I’m not fat.”

Hello, it’s not cool to make weird overly-familiar and judgmental comments about people’s bodies, and this is true for absolutely every body, of every size and shape. Absolutely none of my suggestions for shutting this down involve protesting, “But I’m thin, actually!” even if that’s true of you. Instead, try:

  • “Commenting on my body is off limits; my weight isn’t up for discussion.” Make it boring, be a broken record. 
  • “Huh, let’s try a thing where we say only kind things about other people’s bodies.” 
  • “Yikes. That probably sounded better inside your head, and the next time you can’t stop checking out my [body part] you should probably leave those thoughts there.” 
  • When they camouflage their bullying as concern for your health, try: “Hmmm, if I ever have to start relying on you for medical advice, we should probably rent a backhoe and dig a whole row of graves, this family is doomed.” 

If you’re consistent and really boring, and you don’t give your family the traction and attention they’re clearly angling for, they might learn to stop bringing it up over time , but even if they don’t, it can be important for you to practice not putting up with their comments in silence. 

Never explain your body to anyone who isn’t 1) yourself b) your doctor when said information would actually help sort out some specific concern, and never apologize for your body to anyone, including clinicians. ❤

2 “Friend trying to set me up with a woman I’m not attracted to.”

This is tricky because you never know what a matchmaker with poor boundaries will repeat back to the other person, so listing reasons *why* you are not attracted risks hurting the feelings of the one person in this scenario who is not pressuring you to go on a date with her.

Start with “Thanks for the thought, but no. I prefer to find my own dates” and if that doesn’t work, try “Look, I am never going to call this person or go on a date with them, take ‘no’ for an answer please.” Make it about the friend and their behavior, not the person they’re setting you up with, if that makes sense. 

3 “I want to break up with my girlfriend but I don’t want to lose all her friends.” 

Oh man, this is a tough situation because it is entirely possible that the friends that you met through a partner will choose to prioritize their ties to that partner in the event of a breakup. Part of being a cool ex-partner is accepting that gracefully, like, “I hope we’ll stay friends, and I would really love to keep hanging out with people like [name] and [name], but if you want to take some space I promise to follow your lead. I’m not going to insert myself into every group event with your people.” (I’m living in a pre-pandemic liminal space where group get-togethers are a thing, indulge me, thank you)

For best results, make a clean, honest break where you own your feelings (“I’m so sorry, my feelings have changed and I don’t want to be a couple anymore.”) DON’T be a cheater, and DON’T pursue people in the immediate brunching circle as romantic partners. The better you treat her, the better your chance of staying in with them. 

I also suggest separating the idea of “you and your girlfriend have some mutual friends that you’d like to hold onto” from “you want to keep ties with your girlfriend’s whole social group” as much as you can. Don’t lobby for invites to their events, instead, invite one or two of the people in your girlfriend’s circle who you really like and have stuff in common with to hang out from time to time. If they really like you, and if you’re destined to have your own friendships with them, re-inclusion in the wider group will probably happen organically over time as you and your ex create a new normal, hopefully as friends yourselves. 

Insisting on remaining on the whole group’s guest list, now and forever, especially if you’re using her friends as your personal shoulder to cry on or as an outlet for re-litigating things that happened in the relationship *might* get them to do a “I don’t want to pick sides, so I’m going to pick your ex’s side by inviting them to absolutely everything” number on your girlfriend, at best. At best. Are those terms you can live with? You can show you have good boundaries by maintaining good boundaries, like, “Oh, I don’t like to talk about ex when she’s not here, especially with mutual friends” and showing that you understand why she might not want you around all the time. 

I should disclose that *I* am a *serial* friendship-via-exes accumulator, to the point that one time an ex brought me as a date to a wedding with his college circle and one of his oldest friends from college screamed, “THANK YOU FOR BRINGING HER BACK TO US!” across a crowded wedding reception as she hurtled toward me, hugging arms engaged. (Thank you to this person for being pretty much the poster boy for good ex-ing and sharing some of the loveliest people on earth with me!) This happened because a) Obviously I am a g.d. delight b) I formed and maintained my own ties with people over time, unmediated by my ex vs. expecting to inherit the whole group. 

Searcher, this seems like a really good time to a) break up b) show that you can be a mensch about that process c) shore up your friendships, family relationships, and other supportive ties that don’t depend on her. Strength and courage! 

4 “How to get rid of a FB stalker in a few words.” 

I can do even better than that, as pressing the “block” button requires zero words.

If you still have to deal with the person in meatspace (work, family), and they demand an explanation, “I wasn’t enjoying our online interactions” or “Huh, I trimmed my feed way back to include only people I’m very close to/people I’m able to engage with on a daily basis” can work, but really, that’s also too much work. Blocking or unfriending someone on social media isn’t cryptic or confusing, and demanding “Why did you block me on FB (after I stalked you)?” kind of answers its own question. 

Sometimes I block people because of my own impulses:  I need a reminder not to engage or argue, or I want to keep liking them and probably the less I interact with all of their most racist high school friends the more possible that is.

There are lots of ways to keep in touch with people you want to be in touch with, so please, follow (and normalize following) your heart, your affections, and your pleasure at least as much as you hit the “follow” button in all areas of life. Life is too short to suffer social media attentions from people who annoy the shit out of you. 

5 “Sex with cosplay Darth Vader”

As long as it’s consensual, do whatever, and I mean whatever, freaky stuff gets you through! 

6 “My girlfriend has pictures of her past boyfriends.”  

If your girlfriend is pulling these photos out every day for a retrospective slide show and comparing you unfavorably to her exes? Yes, probably weird! 

If they’re in an album, box, or on an old hard drive somewhere, and the person dragging them into the present is you, that’s 100%, always and forever, a you-problem. 

I have photos of everyone I’ve spent lots of time with, it’s not particularly meaningful, though it is part of my history that I’m allowed to hold onto and archive any way I choose. Anybody who seeks to erase all evidence of a partner’s romantic history (or worse, does the erasing themselves) is showing some serious red-flags. Let it go! 

7 “How do friends naturally transition into relationships?” 

How it happens in stories: Two friends are on the run from evil forces and they have to stop for the night and there’s

Only.

One.

Bed.

Alternately, they are on the run from evil forces, and one of them gets wounded and the other cleans the wound with a white cloth dipped in a bowl of water, which is how they finally know: We’re in love! 

How it happens in real life: At a certain point, one friend says to the other friend, “Me and you, babe, how about it?” and the other person says “Sure, let’s try it” because they have similar feelings of love/attraction, then when they try it, it’s really good and makes them happy, so they keep going.

If you want to tag your real life with some hot “friends-to-lovers” action, your most likely path lies through saying some version of “I am having a feeling, are you perhaps also having that feeling?” out loud to the person and seeing what they have to say. It only ever looks effortless/”natural” from the outside; trust that even in the slowest of burns, somebody somewhere made an explicit move or finally said the thing out loud. 

8 “Why would a boyfriend say he would never physically hurt you?”

In my experience, including nine+ years of writing this website and reading extensively about abusive relationships, those words tend to come out when said boyfriend has done enough emotional and verbal harm to cause fear and alarm, and he’d like you to stop “overreacting” to that fear in a way that makes him look bad and feel bad  — by responding realistically to the harm he has done, by say, crying, or expressing trepidation –so he issues a reminder of how afraid he could make you, if he really wanted to. 

Nobody says “You know I would never hit you, right?” or “Why are you crying, it’s not like I physically hurt you?” unless the option of physically harming you has crossed their mind, and been rejected…for now. Oh, what a heroic man, He Who Would Never Actually Lay A Hand On You, what a high bar for romance! Ugh. No. If this is a sentence that’s being said aloud in your relationship, please visit LoveIsRespect.org from a secure/private browser and start the process of getting free and safe. ❤

9 “Feeling left out from boyfriend’s med class hangouts.” 

Hrmmmmmm, obviously I don’t know the whole story here, but if you’re not a fellow student in said medical school class, his hangouts with his colleagues sound like a series of the perfect windows of time for you to do something social with your friends, family, hobby group, or other social connections. 

Expecting your boyfriend to *introduce* you to colleagues, and to invite you along as a date to periodic functions and where everyone else is bringing partners/roommates/friends is quite reasonable, when it’s safe to have those again, and if he’s keeping you entirely secret and never letting you even meet anybody he works with, yes, that’s weird! 

But outside of that, if you’re expecting to regularly crash a partner’s work happy hours and informal study sessions (or even weirder, work Zoom socials) I think some expectations could use re-setting. Your boyfriend is going to need study partners and friends to get him through a really intense, taxing, and specialized program of study, and if he’s not enthusiastically inviting you to tag along to every interaction, it’s time to either talk about what’s really bothering you (Is he getting a suspicious case of The Mentionitis about somebody in particular, or doing something where jealousy of his behavior is a reasonable reaction?) or leave him entirely to it while you do your own thing.

10 “My partner wants to move in together, and I don’t.” 

Blanket advice: Listen to your gut and do not combine households until you are both sure and downright enthusiastic about the process. Here is a past post that runs through many of the conversations, including conversations about finances, that might help you make a good decision. 

I don’t often give financial advice (due to bona fides like “See what I did there? Probably do the opposite!”) but I want every undecided couple or reluctant roommate who is on the fence about moving in with someone but who is tempted by the “splitting rent will save so much money!” argument to at least run all the numbers for how much it costs to un-combine households before signing any paperwork.

If you were legally stuck paying half the rent for a lease on a place you don’t want to live anymore for several months, plus coming up with a new security deposit and new rent for your new place, plus whatever it costs to hire movers/put things in storage/replace household items, plus you have to negotiate all of that with someone who may or may not be on your side about anything anymore, what does that cost, and from what you “save” by splitting rent, could you routinely put enough money aside as a just-in-case from the start?

If you don’t end up needing these funds to move out, then you’ve got a lovely wedding or honeymoon or emergency/vacation fund. If you do end up needing it? Take it from the person who left a bad relationship with less than $300 in the bank and had to crowd-fund stuff like “food” and “second-hand laptop so I can write things, then buy food” and “getting all my stuff + my cat in same apartment as me, also, cats need food” within the last decade: Betting your financial well-being on someone you are madly in love with is hard enough, doing the same with a person you aren’t jazzed about living with from the start is in no way cheaper than whatever going-it-alone alternative you’re considering. 

11 “What to say if you don’t work and someone asks what you do” and “How to tell people why you don’t have a job?” 

Greetings to (probably) my fellow U.S. denizens, where this is one of those introductory “small-talk” questions that we are probably never getting rid of, because for us, saying “______ is my career, the thing I do that people pay me for, what’s yours?” is fundamental to how we place ourselves and each other.

(Note: I didn’t say it was good, it’s definitely classist/ableist, just for starters, I said it was culturally ingrained and therefore probably never going away in my lifetime.)

Since the question is so common, and since it is presently so common to either not have a job at all or have far too many, it probably pays to think of some ways to respond that let you be honest, let you normalize your actual experiences and a variety of possible experiences, and makes it as easy and comfortable as possible for you to answer. 

If you are a fellow Advice Blogger, and you don’t want to give life advice or explain “what are blog?” to your brand new acquaintance/every Lyft driver you meet, may I suggest “Oh, I’m a freelancer” and “What do you like to do when you’re not [doing whatever this is]?” as a redirect, brought to you by All The Times A Stranger Mistook Me For Their Personal Backseat Therapist in the BeforeTimes™*. 😉

If you are looking for work, especially a specific kind of work, why not put a friendly new acquaintance’s curiosity to work for you? “I trained as a librarian, I’ve just been laid off from a corporate archiving and information job, so if you hear of anyone who needs a lot of text and information organized, send them my way!” 

If you have four jobs that somehow still don’t add up to a reasonable standard of living, “What do I do? What day is it? Tuesday, oh, today I’m a grocery store clerk, tomorrow I’m a fitness instructor, and the rest of the time I write corporate newsletters and do childcare for my neighbors, howabout you?” Just say whatever it is! 

If it’s more comfortable, you can both ask AND answer the question in terms of “What’s keeping you busy nowadays?”

For example, “On good days I work in the garden, and I’m also trying to pick up Czech as a second language, but most of the time I have to take it easy for my health, howabout you?”

Some people will both get it and respond to your prompt in kind with their interests and hobbies, and I think that by far the majority of people who ask this question simply want to know, or are performing what they know to be a routine, polite cultural exchange. They are not interested in every detail, and they are not asking questions like this in order to embarrass you or drive a sharp stick directly into your sore spots. This means, on the whole, that they will take whatever answer you give them in stride and take their cues from you about how to respond.

If you run into one of life’s nosy exceptions, remember, you don’t owe anyone a happy, simple, or expected story about your life, but you also don’t owe them justifications or apologies for who you are. If someone says “No, I meant, like, what’s your job?” as if this were not obvious in the question from the start, you get to decide how much you care about either impressing or informing them about economics, disabilities invisible or visible, and the like. It’s completely up to you whether you say “Right, you asked about my job, and I told you what I actually do with my time, was that not clear?” or “Job? I don’t have one at present, but that’s what keeps me busy nowadays, howabout yourself?” versus just looking expectantly at them until they ask a better question or saying “Well, nice talking with you, anyway!” and getting on with your day. 

*Honestly, at this point in the pandemic, I miss my weekly “20 minutes with a random stranger” rides, “Hey is it okay if I play you my mix-tape” (Always!), unprompted syphilis test results tossed over the back seat (Yep, your husband’s cheating on you, also, get this treated immediately), weird scrapbook of dash-cam photos of notable passengers, “I’m thinking of leaving my wife…and finding someone just like YOU, what do you think?” and all.

Moderation Note: 

Comments are open! Since it’s been a while, I’ll remind people to review the site policies, specifically:

  • Please keep it kind, constructive, and in service of the question-askers, which includes today’s theoretical askers. How does your comment help someone wrestling with this question?
  • Re: Question 1, diet talk and naming specific weights or body sizes, even if it’s meant positively/as compliments, are prohibited on the site. 
  • Please don’t write long essays as blog comments. If you’ve got a lot to say about something, it’s okay to write everything up at your own web-space and throw us a link and a few sentences to describe it so interested people can follow you there for deeper discussion. 
  • When threading replies to a specific commenter, it’s very helpful to throw their username in your reply so it’s clear – “@Username, building on your point…” 
  • The spam filter often eats legit comments, which I release as fast as I can, and I check at least several times a day as long as there is an open discussion. If your post gets eaten, wait 24 hours – I’ll fish it out (or, if it’s shit, I’ll quietly delete it and save you the embarrassment). You don’t have to keep posting to say that your comment got eaten, I’m on the case! 🙂 

Away we go! Thank you for reading. 

192 thoughts on “It Came From The Search Terms: October Symphony (Oct. 2020)

  1. On the chance LW2 wants to be set up with other folks, it is pretty low-stakes to just say “They’re not my type” to the mutual friend.

    I think anyone setting their friends up on a date has got to be prepared for that answer, and hearing that right off the bat would likely save them from making the introduction in the first place.

    1. I’ve found doing the “I just don’t feel a ~coneeection~” works. Some may think I’m weird but people know the Romance narrative, so leaning on it even if it’s not 100% true works

        1. Chemistry implies that it’s a mutual thing that would have been so obvious the other person must have felt the lack of it too, which is often not the case – the other person may have had a really good time, and felt a connection, and been quite attracted, and really want to meet again, and being told it was all fake or in your head can make you wonder if you should doubt your own perceptions. It’s not the end of the world, but it seems needless to bring it up.

          So I prefer something more neutral that gives no explanation, just says no thanks or that you don’t feel like a second date.

          1. I don’t think the issue is necessarily in the word ‘chemistry’ as it is in the words “there isn’t.” If you say “I just don’t feel any chemistry with them,” you’re not invalidating the other person’s experience, whatever it may be.

    2. The Not My Type argument is good, but occasionally results in a barrage of intrusive questions, and I don’t have much patience for that.

      I would usually say, “No, thanks. I just don’t like to be set up with people.”

      Mostly that takes care of it. If the matchmaking friend comes back with a whiny, “But whyyyyy?!?”
      I say repeatedly and forever, “I just don’t want to.”

      This has always worked really well for me. One particularly persistent Emma wannabe told me I was boring, but I am actually ok with that.

      1. Emma wannabe!! I’ve never been brave enough to just say, sorry your relationship isn’t fulfilling enough and you need to use me as your Sim but I’m good.

        1. Yeah, I never said it out loud to anyone, as most would be Emmas were otherwise lovely people. Like, from my dear friend I could just say no thanks and we would get on with our knitting and movies or whatever.

          The Wannabe Emma was definitely implied along with a bit of side eye at the really obnoxious ones, though. (I’m looking at you, random woman on the train with a son who I would just looooove) 😉

  2. Thanks for the suggestion of “what’s keeping you busy” as a question – I’ve recently been the person without a convenient Job answer, but in social situations (back in the Before Times) my mind would go blank when trying to think of another way to start conversation. Hopefully I’ll remember it by the time I’m back to in person socialising with new people!

    1. I love asking “What’s keeping you busy?” – I don’t remember when or where I first saw it (might have been here!) but it’s so useful. If someone really is super into their job or that’s taking up all their time they don’t have to be awkward about “well, I don’t have many hobbies…” and on the flip side if someone is out of work or just sick of work talk they can take it another direction.

      I have found occasionally people will be a little confused and ask “You mean at work?” My response to that is “If you want!” – it keeps the space open but gives them direction.

  3. Hello everyone! Long time no see, just needed to check in with other humans on a medium that is not twitter, and therefore is not trying to tell me All The Things That Distress Me Today.

      1. Hello, both fellow humans! That’s why I was excited to see the comments open too (though I don’t tweet, so in my case it’s more wanting to reacquaint myself with the existence of humans who aren’t my immediate family, as lovely as my immediate family may be).

    1. Hello Quill! Yes, other humans out here, turn off twitter if you can (try!!), go to youtube and look at cute cat/dog/otter/gerbil/your choice of critter videos.

    2. Same, I was also happy to see an open comment section! The leaves started changing colors this week where I live, it’s spectacular. Anyone else enjoying a normal human thing right now?

      1. Why yes! This weekend we had spectacular weather and my spouse and I met my parents to take a walk through the outdoor gardens of a city park. We usually take seasonal nature walks together and it felt so good to see them and enjoy the fall colors.

      2. I took a walk yesterday and the weather was perfect — exactly the right temperature for a t-shirt, and windy enough that all my sweat was just wicked away. An excellent blustery fall day!

    3. Hi Quill! A very gentle Jedi Fist Bump! (my joints are sore)

      Yeah, the world is too full of stressful, upsetting stuff. I am spending a lot of time looking at kittens on the internet because kittens don’t tell me scary things. Or rereading fluffy fanfiction and novels I have read a million billion times. Or I mute the tv and do bad lipreading of the people talking.

    4. Hi Quill, I’m commenting for what I think it’s the very first time to let you know about animal Twitter! I follow (and consistently like) so many animal accounts (cow of the day! Birdbot! Cat every hour! So many more!) that when I open Twitter, that’s pretty much all I see. I recommend 🙂

  4. Woohoo, comments! I wonder if the “Sex with cosplay Darth Vader” searcher was talking about actual Star Wars sexy role playing, or referring to a Darth Vader Boyfriend type within the cosplay community? I hope Captain was right and it’s the former!

      1. I mean, SEX with the mysteriously-hot-but-unreliable guy can be fun as hell, but just because you bring him home it doesn’t mean you have to keep him.

        1. “…just because you bring him home it doesn’t mean you have to keep him.” I never heard this in my sex ed classes, or the reading I did to supplement it, and it would have saved me so much trouble if I had!

  5. I am gainfully employed and I *hate* when someone asks me to explain what I do for a living, and I pretty much always have. It’s not very interesting, and it involves a big explanation of the industry before people catch wise and I always feel like i’m explaining it badly, which makes me feel like I am terrible at my job if I can’t even explain what it is. I generally try to wave away with something super vauge “I’m in X industry” and rapidly change the subject to something about the person I’m talking to. I can’t explain why I hate it, but it’s like being poked with the hot poker or socially uncomfortable.

    1. Agreed. I have what is widely perceived as a “fun job” but it turns out to be a job like any other. Some of it is fun, some of it is drudgery, much of it is in between. But people get very excited about all the things they imagine that I do all day, and it’s not that much fun to rein them in. Yes, for you, when you do the [fun thing] that I do for work, yay, it’s soooo much fun. When I do it, I am paying my mortgage (and wondering when clients will pay me, if ever.) How about all the fun things that I do outside of work? My friends, my music, the beer I am drinking, the last big hike that my partner and I did? Can’t we talk about those? I promise I will ask you about your fun things.

      1. That’s the perfect answer. Or even cut it down: “It’s fun when’s it’s not for pay! Lemme tell you about the beer I am drinking, I am such a beer nerd [and just LAUNCH into it]’

        Either they will be excited to talk with you about beer or they will know never to ask about your “fun” job again unless they want to hear your rant on ALL THINGS BEER.

      2. I once heard a young man being questioned for potential jury duty on a civil case asked what he did for a living. He said, “I hang out with my friends and go to movies.” The lawyer incredulously asked, “That’s what you do for your job?” “Ohhh, no, I work at a grocery store.” But when you think about it, why is it that what pays your bills is what’s considered “a living”?

        1. This is exactly the existential crisis a friend is having.
          “What should I do with my life?”
          I asked her whether she meant her life or her work, because they really, genuinely CAN be different things, and I really want her to feel that.
          Big fan of “work to live” rather than “live to work”. Doing enough to keep me occupied and paying my bills, and the rest of my time is mine for enjoying.

        2. ‘But when you think about it, why is it that what pays your bills is what’s considered “a living”?’

          I think the idea behind that expression is that it’s literally what keeps you alive, as in, this is how I afford to buy food and other things that stop me from dying. But you’re right; it’s so much nicer to think about ‘living’ in its broader sense.

          1. If I’m recalling my history correctly, it began when that was the title for the stipend paid to clergymen (when they *were* all clergymen instead of just clergy). Since you technically can’t have a wage for a priest — or I guess while you could, it was considered inappropriate — they called the money assigned to keep the priest of a given parish alive the living for that parish. I don’t know why that particular term spread as distinguished from the terms for any of umpteen other professions, though.

    2. I have a “helpy” job at a toxic workplace. I haaaaate this question because it invariably leads to me being expected to do helpy work off the clock; also, for me it’s a day job (see: toxic workplace) and I don’t always want to pretend that I looove my job. There are so many other things about me beyond my job title — please, can’t I talk about those?

      1. Oh gosh, the “can you do your job for me too?” questions are so irritating. I teach a skill that’s fairly high-ish demand in my area and I simply cannot seem to dodge the “hey could you teach me XYZ too? Haha just kidding…UNLESS” questions. I’m trying to enjoy this lovely drink at the bar I’m chilling at (way back in the before times) I’m glad you like the thing I teach but I’m afraid I do not currently care about your interest in it.

        The questions tend to dry up when I say what my hourly rates are and mention that my schedule likely can’t accommodate them. Is it because I’m legit super busy all day every day? Is it because I don’t want to cut into my Laying About Time? Who knows!

        Butanyway, I totally feel you on the “no please don’t talk about my job” thing. I’m not a 24-hour knowledge vending machine.

        1. Idea: price list. In other words, “Hey, get I can you to do your job for me?” “Certainly! Here is my price list.” (Sing and dance something here like “Gots to get PAID, muthaf*cka!!”)

          1. I bill by the hour so I tell them my hourly amount, which so far has been much higher than anyone who wants to talk to me on the casual about $thingIteach wants to pay. Funny thing, that.

            If they get snippy about the price (looking at you, coworker who demanded I charge her a third of my then-much-lower rate) I get to icily remind them that we’re talking about skilled work, the pricetag comes from the fact that I have fifteen years of experience, and I most certainly will not lower it for them.

      2. I’m clergy, and people have an unfortunate habit of unloading their guilt about Not Religioning More or Having Complicated Feelings about the Religion of their Youth at social events at me. It’s like no friends, I am here with my partner. We came for the craft beer. This is fun time.

        1. That sounds terrible.

          I am fortunate. As an accountant (working in a place where accountants work) (no really tho) literally nobody wants to discuss my job with me. A declaration of my profession can kill a conversation dead lol.

    3. Oh my gosh do I feel this. I work in an incredibly specific niche of publishing, and if I had a nickel for every time I had to answer, “oh, so you edit stuff?” with “uh, no, here’s my very boring/confusing explanation of what I *actually* do…” I’d probably be making what I’m worth, lololololol. In this day and age, with people hardly ever doing what they went to school for anyway, our jobs are so often one of the least important things about us IMO! I so wish that it was the norm to ask more interesting questions when meeting people–I need to work harder at doing that myself. I think I have some fear about looking like the ~*quirky*~ one right off the bat by doing that, but like…the older I get, the more I realize that the stakes are not nearly as high as my anxiety brain wants me to think they are!

      1. Mr. Awkward, when he worked in a used book store used to get “Oh, you must just read books all day, I would love that!” Nooooooooooooo.

          1. Also librarian. I tried explaining what I really do all day to a ‘oh how lovely, all day reading books!’ acquaintance once and she was even slightly offended that her charming daydream of being paid to sit about reading and drinking tea for 8 hours straight was in fact a daydream.

          2. @Tuna
            I always thought, as a rampant bibliophile, being a librarian would be pretty boring and frustrating.

        1. I worked in a bookshop for years, and I did indeed love it, but no I didn’t get paid to sit around reading all day. People who started work at the bookshop expecting to do that got very swiftly disabused of the notion.

          Everyone still envied me that job, though.

        2. I used to manage a nonprofit garden and got a lot of “OMG dream job!” from amateur gardeners. I would be like “Yesterday I spent ten solid hours filling out grant paperwork and today I got 12 beestings and still had to show up for a shift supervising 30 volunteers doing heavy labor in 95-degree weather, so…”

          Every job has downsides. No one wants to hear how great their job is from people who have never had to do that job.

          1. Worked in community radio. OMG, no one wants to hear about how much time you spend chasing down funding, or “Did anyone actually get this week’s PSAs recorded?”, “Okay, pledge week’s coming up, everyone needs to pick a shift on the phones in addition to your show” or, in the days when there were primarily volunteer hosts, “Shit, Al’s sick, can someone come in and cover her show?”

          2. I used to work for a very well-known progressive organization. Prior to working there, it was my dream job; now, it sometimes shows up in my nightmares. I still support the work they do, but my coworkers at the local level were basically demonic, with a few exceptions. Whenever someone would ask what my job was, I would have to explain that I worked there, and be subject to their “yay! How awesome! They do such great work!” when I’d be thinking “well, my boss just spent 10 minutes screaming at one of my few decent coworkers today; we’re consistently understaffed and overworked; several of my coworkers can’t pay their electric bills for months on end due to the low pay; and the place is rampant with gossip and favoritism. OH YEAH, DREAM JOB!”

        3. I used to work as a nanny. People would say things like, “You must have so much fun playing all day! What a relaxing job!”

          Inevitably followed up by, “Maybe you can take care of my kids too! In the evenings and on weekends! You will be just like a member of the faaaaamily!”

          Noooooooooo indeed.

        4. I work for a well-known company that makes baking and decorating supplies (cake pans, piping tips, gingerbread houses, sprinkles, icing, candy melts, etc). And in The Before times yes, there were frequently cupcakes and product samples around, but no, I don’t just spend all day eating cake. And it’s not always fun. But nobody wants to hear about the ridiculous office politics of a company they associate with weddings and birthday parties.

          1. Oh my, yes.
            I worked in an ice cream shop for awhile, back in the day. I did eat a lot of ice cream, because I was poor and it was free. But let me tell you, when you spend all day wiping gross ice cream dribbles mixed with goodness knows what off all the tables and mopping it off the floor, it really doesn’t inspire that whole Yummy Ice Cream feeling. And don’t get me started on the bizarre gossipy circus of work politics to be found there, oh the horrors

        5. A friend of mine who used to work in a bookstore answered that question with, “Nope, *you* get to read them. I just haul them around.”

    4. I’m with you. I HATE HATE HATE HATE talking about work, despite enjoying my work. Whenever I get asked, I say it as quickly as possible and then change the subject.

      “Yes, I work importing widjets. It’s a lot of spreadsheets. But I love superhero movies, indie rock and podcasts where friends have loose casual conversations with each other. What do you watch or listen to?”

      1. @Reenie, this sounds like my favourite kind of podcasts! Do you have any recommendations? I’ve been looking for this kind of podcasts lately and they’re… not as easy to google as I hoped!

        I loved the no longer active Han and Matt Know It All – it’s two people with great energy chatting about advice columns! Don’t know if it counts as loose casual conversation but I just love listening to people who really click and clearly like each other a lot, talking about something they’re passionate about.

        Captain, I’m sorry if this is too off-topic, please feel free to remove!

        1. omg I realized recently this is also my favorite podcast genre but it’s impossible to search for. It’s why I especially enjoy the docket-clearing episodes of Judge John Hodgman. You might also check out Cursed or Blursed, about “children’s” movies (I am biased because I know the podcasters but it’s very funny) and Kevin and Ursula Eat Cheap.

        2. Maybe check out on YouTube:
          Draftsmen : two art teachers talking about all different aspects about art
          Trapped under plastic : very ey nerdy one. Two miniature painters talking about our niche hobby. Be prepared for some fart jokes so I guess it’s not for everyone.
          Devin Townsend Podcast : okay, it’s only Devin Townsend with no others. But it helps my a lot these times to listen to his wonderful voice and how he growed as a person over the years. If you like to listen to someone opening up and talk about how it is for an empathic man to grow up without healthy ways to express himself but learns it over the years, give it a try. Warning : in the first episodes he talks about drug abuse. Maybe check out episode #9 first to see if you like it.

        3. Love pseudo-human-contact podcasts! My favourite is Chat 10, Looks 3. Two extremely engaging Aussie journalists and long time friends discussing the “content” they’ve read, watched, listened to.

          I started from the start but my favourite ep to recommend is #115 where their teasing of each other after a weird protest of one (someone threw food at her at a speaking event) is just hysterical.

          1. “Pseudo-human contact” is a perfect description. Especially in these pandemic days. I live alone and just having pleasant low impact chatting in my apartment is soothing. Like having a very organized cocktail party.

        4. I pretty much listen to the entire McElroy family of podcasts, which allegedly have formats but always devolve into just chat.

          I also really love Blank Check which is movie focused but Griffin and David who host it have been friends for years so their rapport is very friendly. Quick Question with Soren Bowie and Daniel O’Brien also does it for me

        5. Loose casual conversation podcasts are also my favourite type of podcast (and explains why I listen to so many podcasts about TV shows I don’t actually watch…).

          My number one podcast recommendation is You’re Wrong About by Michael Hobbes & Sarah Marshall- they’ve got a super fun rapport, it’s about all the people/events that have been miscast by the media, and they’re journalists so everything is really well researched and thoughtfully looked at. Their Y2K episode had me in stitches, but all the episodes are really good!

        6. Podcasts in a similar vein I would suggest:
          – Be There In Five: one host, but it feels like she’s talking to you
          – You Can Sit With Us: three hosts and conversational
          – True Romance with Carolina Barlow and Devin Leary

        7. This is a genre I like as well – I like Friendshipping (advice pod about friendship, on a break right now), Call Your Girlfriend (older episodes are more just chatty, newer ones are more structured), and The Bechdel Cast (about female representation in movies).

        8. I like Boonta Vista, a meandering chatty podcast about all sorts of odd topics (and Australian politics sometimes), and Seriously Wrong, a utopian leftist comedy podcast which is a little more structured, but the hosts have such a lovely warm rapport.

        9. Chat 10 Looks 3! It’s big in Australia. Two fabulous women discuss books/podcasts/films they’re currently reading/listening/watching. Casual and unstructured, and they realllyy click. Hilarity ensues.

    5. I used to be a stripper. Therefore, “what do you do for a living?” type questions always led to an internal analysis of whether or not it was safe to out myself as a sex worker in that particular social context. It wasn’t fun.

    6. SO timely, this advice! (Also, hello hi hey hello, missed all of you!)

      I work in the legal field and am currently at a US attorney’s office. Yes, I probably do have access to that newsworthy case you have heard about. I probably helped prepare some documents for it. No, I absolutely cannot tell you anything about it. No, not even if you claim you could get the same information off of CourtLink or PACER (so go do that, if you must).

      This mostly comes up with a specific nosy family member who wanted to know about local people’s estate planning when that was my boss’ focus, or about certain criminal cases when that was my boss’s focus, and honestly I’m never going to tell you anything or acknowledge I know who you’re trying to fish up information about, because it could get me fired in addition to just being nosy & GROSSLY unethical!

      What I do every day is pretty boring, as a rule, and if you think I actually have time to read ALL the info in the files of all the “juicy” cases, well, you have never worked in the legal profession as a support staff person before. (WHAT free time?)

      So, yes, I do a lot of conversational re-routing. “What’s keeping you busy?” is going on my Cheat Sheet of Conversation Hacks for Introverts Like Me, Possibly Raised By Wolves In a Barn.

      This re-routing also applies to my pandemic-era personal life, as, honestly, no, I didn’t do anything interesting this weekend because I was staying at home avoiding the deadly virus for the 45th week in a row, and there are only so many “my cute pets did a cute thing, I fluffed my nest with a new art, & I read many books” conversations one can have before being the Weird Loner Animal Lady at work. (You went out?! Please step back a few more feet.)

      1. Britpoptarts–I feel you so hard! I worked in a US District Court that had some notorious cases come through (think Mafia, etc). After that I worked in a small town law enforcement agency. I took to just saying I worked for “the County” or I’d have to explain ad nauseum how, no, I can’t fix your ticket or get your brother-in-law arrested for kicking your cat 10 years ago.

        1. Lordt, yass. I feel you on the tickets thing, too. I mean, if I knew how to “fix tickets,” I’d certainly try to do that for my OWN car, which gets a ticket every 2 months or so if one of the wheels is too close to the sidewalk. (The gutter is a slope. It’s a tricksy thing.) I know you’re not saying that’s a District Court employee thing, I’m just sympathetic.

          The most we do IN HOUSE is commiserate over how appellants with likely mental illnesses really adore UNDERLINING AND BOLD AND ALL CAPS AND EXCLAMATION POINTS in their pro se legal documents. That’s a weird thing that happens, along with appellants developing an unreasonable, irrational hatred for a particular US Attorney or AUSA and writing hate screeds to same, sometimes wrapped in Goog-legalese like a poop burrito.

    7. The biggest thing I’ve learned is that I don’t have to answer the question absolutely literally. Most of the time it really is about the social ritual, rather than a deep interest in your specific job. This means that your response can be about fulfilling the ritual in a very general way – and in fact that’s what most people are likely expecting, rather than a deep dive into the specifics of what you actually do.

      I work in government, but I have a job that pretty much nobody has ever heard of. So when somebody says “what do you do for a living?” I tell them I work for the Ministry of Teapots, and then we talk about their latest frustrating experience with teapot bureaucracy or whatever. Sometimes I also say that I’m not in the cool Teapot Production department that everybody already knows about, my job is a back-end admin role. Most people will change the subject at this point, but if they really are interested in the finer points of Teapot Administration, then we can certainly talk about it!

    8. Oh god. This. Thiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiis.

      I work in regulatory environmental science and boy howdy do people have capital F Feelings about my work! In both directions! Usually loud ones! And even the ones i agree with are exhausting when I’ve already been doing it for 50-70 hours/week.

      I usually go with “Oh I do science for my day job AND my volunteer gig but my volunteer gig is ~~of course~~ more fun. Let me tell you about the time I had to fix a bear pelt/found a shark preserved in Bombay Sapphire/we acquired a REALLY badly taxidermed sloth.”

    9. Have a friend whose superpower is Snappy Snark write out a script for you, heh heh…. If you can get the inquisitor laughing, that often supports a smooth transition to Any Other Topic….

    10. As a contract office worker who gets brought on to clean up paperwork drudgery, my go-to is to get very specific about the job and vague about the industry, tbh. Like, “I get paid to move around numbers in Excel spreadsheets while listening to podcasts for eight hours a day, it’s great.” Very quickly gives people the (generally correct) impression that they aren’t interested in getting more detail, and we can move on to more interesting topics.

  6. I’m not currently working in a way that lends itself to easy description, so when people ask what I do I say, “Acid or mushrooms–it depends on how I’m feeling.”

    This answer prompts laughter and easily segues into talk about the joys of psychedelics, a subject that interests me.

  7. I like to ask people what their CREATIVE work is. Often they say they aren’t creative. I share my definition of “creative work”: Anything we do, that lifts our hearts, brings out the best in us, brings out the best in others, and makes the world a better place. It can be making art, yeah, or music, or dance, or acting, etc. But it can also be healing, helping, fixing, repairing, restoring, care-taking, gardening, cooking, building–anything that is a force for good in the world, that we enjoy and love. I’ve never been disappointed by the answers. And seeing those people light up, realizing they ARE doing creative work, lifts MY heart! If they have a day job, that’s fine, we all have to pay the rent, and eat. And maybe their day job is creative, and the work of their heart. Reframing the expectations about what “work” is and what’s “creative work” is part of my life mission!

    1. This is a very sweet impulse, but even as someone who does creative work as work-work, it might be way more work than I want to do in a drive-by casual conversation to dig to the roots of someone else’s creativity. Or my own. Hence: “oh, I freelance” + NOW PLEASE LET’S TALK ABOUT YOU. 😉

      Finding a creative way to really get to know someone is kind, but finding the quickest way to complete the social circuit and move on can be quite useful as well.

      1. Asking me about my creative projects is a sure-fire way to make me feel guilty and depressed, because I’ve been letting EVERYTHING except broken-bone-healing, avoiding the plague, maintaining decent job, featuring tiny nest as best as I can on tinier budget, keeping plants and small furry creatures alive and well, etc., which can have creative elements (e.g., How to Trick Cranky Deaf Ferret Codger Into Not Spitting Out His Life-Sustaining Meds Onto Me, a 12-part series) none of which is particularly OBVIOUSLY CREATIVE like illustration or singing or writing or knitting or painting or playing an instrument (that I have no room to store) or WHATEVER obviously is. It’s just going to make me feel sad to realize how long it has been since I felt safe enough when not at work to do something purely creative just for myself.

        So, yeah, lots of “did you do anything fun this weekend?”-type or “what do you do?”-style questions asked with good intentions get quickly bounced back like a badminton shuttlecock, because, on the surface at least, my little wins and joys (slept at least 7 hours without pain! pets did not crap on rug today! actually used a POT or PAN to feed self a FOOD today!) are awfully small potatoes right now. We do what we can because we must and all that.

        1. Seeing as how a lot of us are in similar positions at the moment, just struggling to keep afloat and unhappily aware when presented with most forms of social interaction that they’re not doing anything they’d like to talk about lately… what would help you to have new acquaintances say instead? Is there something you’d like to be asked about, or a way to try to get to know you a little which doesn’t feel like it’s stepping on your struggle to exist?

    2. As someone currently struggling hard with feeling trapped by the concept of “loving” my job that has treated me in some ways amazingly and in some ways like garbage, but definitely sucks up all my energy for hobbies, this would be exactly the kind of question that pokes me in the sore spots.

  8. 1 – As someone who has plenty of Well Meaning Family who are Gently Concerned on a fairly routine basis…don’t be afraid to be a bitch about this. Yes, they might genuinely be concerned about health. Yes, they might actually mean well. You’re still finding these comments harmful to your well-being, so they need to stop, no matter what the intentions are.

    I’ve had more luck with replies like “I don’t want to talk about this,” “My body isn’t up for comment,” “Don’t tell me what to eat,” and “We talked about this, I don’t want to hear it, stop bringing it up” than with lighthearted or jokey responses, personally. People seem to interpret jokes as “I don’t want to talk about this RIGHT NOW but it’s not that big a deal, I’m not upset, you can try again later.” When I go blunt and ‘harsh’ (to my midwestern-raised ear) about it, it’s more likely to get the message across that no, this is off limits now and forever, there are no loopholes.

  9. For #11, I used to ask people “Do you work outside the home?” as a way of first, recognizing that stay-at-home parents or caregivers are, y’know, working, and second giving those with invisible disabilities, unconventional careers, or multiple jobs (hallo bloggers!) a more flexible way to enter the conversation than asking “Where do you work?”.

    I could really use a pandemic alternative to this, if anyone has anything to offer?

    1. Maybe this is just me, and if it is, I own it, but that tag of “outside the home” just rankles SO badly. It seems so 1950s, throwback, retro, old-fashioned, conservative socially and politically, and when a man asks me this as a woman, I am so ready right then to write him off as someone I’d never have anything in common with. I’ve been known to turn on the sarcasm full blast, and say something like, “Why YES, I actually have a decades-long career, not just a job, ‘outside the home’ and I’m one of them thar career women!” I know intellectually that shouldn’t trigger me, but it does, and I’d like to know how to answer that in a less snarky, more kind way. I don’t like feeling defensive like that!

      1. @K, Just K, assuming you don’t like your job, you could always respond with something like “Only when I can’t avoid it!” and then segue immediately into “but in my free time, I love to embroider cityscapes” or whatever you actually want to talk about.

        1. It’s not that I didn’t like my job; I was an English teacher for middle and high school for 25 years, it’s just that the ideas people have about teachers can be really, really messed up, almost as bad as what librarians and book store clerks do! Online (its own weird world) I fairly regularly got asked if I’d ever f’d a student, especially when I taught middle school, which skeeved me out NO end. And online and in real time, the constant requests to give away my professional knowledge for free (oh you could help me improve my English! NOPE, you should hire someone), or the comments stemming from insecurity about “don’t grade my grammar haha” were just so trite, boring, and oblivious. Anyway, I’m retired three years early, and as others have said here, I am going to start saying retired English teacher, and also like [hobbies] and [other random cool thing]. And just keep re-directing! There is so much more to life than work.

      2. Whether this is snarky or not will be in the delivery, but what about, “Oh, yes — do you?” A woman earnestly asking a man whether he works outside the home is potentially a polite way to turn the script and stereotypes on their head, and someone who’s asking in good faith will answer in kind.

    2. I don’t generally ask people about their work when I first meet them socially. I don’t like being asked a lot of questions and so I try to return the favor – people who want to talk about their work usually do.

      But I do ask professionally. I’m a pediatrician, so I ask my patient’s parents as part of getting a complete history.

      I usually say “Are you working right now?’ and if they aren’t, sometimes I ask what kind of work they have done in the past.

      1. I wonder if as a pediatrician you could ask whatever specific aspect of that question concerns the child’s health, e.g. Who is the child’s caregiver most days? What do a normal day’s meals look like for your child? How much do you read aloud to your child? Does your child have a safe place to play outdoors?

        I hate all the wrong assumptions a dr. may make when I answer that question, and I’m left to wonder how the dr’s bias or ignorance about other people’s professions might affect my child’s health. I feel much more confusion and intimidation when asked this by a doctor than socially.

        1. Thank for saying this. Doctors, please ask the actual question you need answered.

          I went with a friend to their appointment once and the doctor asked no questions related to their injury and Assumed my friend didn’t eat vegetables, didn’t exercise on a regular basis, and ate lots of fried fast food. My friend was there to make sure the knee they had had surgery on was okay to do hours-long martial arts classes with twice a week.

          This doctor’s inability to see my friend as a person was disappointing but sadly not surprising. I and my friend had to speak up and bring attention to the actual problem we were there for, not the imaginary one made of (literally un-examined) stereotypes.

          1. I share your frustration. Not being heard has happened to me, friends and family and I saw it happen to a lot of patients during my training. Then people don’t get the care they need and are reluctant to seek care again in the future. I can’t guarantee that I haven’t missed things with my patients but I try to do everything I can to make sure their priorities are heard and addressed.

            My patients are all children with developmental disabilities and pretty much everything is relevant from past medical history to sibling relationships so I try to get to know patients and families pretty thoroughly. I start appointments by asking families to tell me about their child, what concerns they have, and give them time to talk. When I think I’m done gathering information near the end of the visit I then ask if there is anything else they wanted to talk about that we hadn’t discussed yet. I ask how families feel about the plan and encourage to contact me between visits if they have further concerns.

        2. I ask pretty much all that too. I specialize in caring for children with developmental disabilities and most of my questions are really open ended. What does your child like to eat? (or ask the child directly that question if they can answer) Who lives at home and who else takes care of your child? What does your child like to do for fun? Tell me about school. What does bedtime look like? Actually mostly I start with “tell me about what brought you here today” gets better answers with fewer questions.

          Unfortunately there are a few questions we are required to ask and document to have a complete chart for billing. Caregiver work is one of them. I keep trying to find the best and non-judgmental ways to ask but until I manage to overhaul the entire medical system, I am expected to document an answer. Certainly open to better ways to ask.

          1. I’ve been a patient in situations where a doctor has to ask me an awkward question as part of standard procedure rather than due to an immediate concern driven by my personal symptoms. For example, my doctor asks everyone, every visit, if they feel safe at home. What really helped me is when the doctor prefaced the question with the fact that it was part of standard intake. That allowed me to see that the question was not coming from a place of judgement or suspicion.

          2. Nightengale,

            “Tell me what brought you here today” is an excellent opener.

            Going off a thing you said about judgment, when I or my loved ones go to the doctor we go to get advice from people who know more than we do. Doctors and Nurses and others in the medical professions have knowledge and access to technology we don’t have. So oddly yes, a kind of judgement.

            However there is also the kind of judgement that Autumn was talking about, and that you have seen, and that my friend experienced. Doctors and Nurses and other medical professionals have the power to limit or deny access entirely to their knowledge and technology. When people go to the hospital or clinic or urgent care center, etc… we hope for the kind of judgement that helps us or our loved ones get better. We fear the kind of judgement that keeps us out of reach of help. It sounds like this is the kind of harmful judgement you and your loved ones have also experienced and are trying to avoid in your own practice.

            With that in mind, the best questions would acknowledge that power difference. Possibly;
            “Here are things I can do, which one works for you?”
            After someone shares an unhelpful medical experience,”That does not sound professional.”
            “I need an answer on this form for insurance, what would you like me to put down?”
            “Do you have time or money limitations that could effect this?”
            “What kind of help do you have at home?”
            “Would you need help to get this done?”
            “How about _____?”
            “Do you have any concerns?”

            Please don’t take my frustration about what happened to my friend as being against you personally. It sounds like you have put a lot of time and thought into trying to do things as best you can in a less-than ideal system. Thank you for your work and please keep trying to help the people you can.

          3. @hamsterpants, that’s the same way I sometimes phrase questions as a VITA tax volunteer. For example, one of the requirements for the American Opportunity Credit (a tax credit for college expenses) is that you can’t get it if you’ve been convicted of a drug-related felony. I don’t care about the answer myself, but the government cares, so I have to ask. And that’s how I usually start it: “I have to ask for the form…”

      2. I got cured of asking people what they did in my 20s, when I was at a party and met a guy (who I think my friends were trying to set me up with) and asked, and he blurted “I HATE IT when people ask what I do!” I could practically feel my hair blowing back from the force of it.

        That could be why I’m shitty at ice-breaking. (Though actually I was before that, so never mind.)

    3. I’m currently disabled and can’t work outside the home, and it’s a really sore spot for me. I usually say that I’m self-employed and then kind of avoid revealing how much my “business” is really more like a hobby that I can sort of get paid for. I appreciate the your desire to acknowledge people who are doing things other than 9-5s – those are usually the people with the most interesting stories! – but some of the other wording suggested in this comment thread would work a lot better for me.

    4. I’ve given this entirely too much thought and there’s something about the specific phrasing “do you work outside the home?” that bugs me. I think it implies that working inside the home isn’t interesting, I think “do you work inside or outside the home?” would be more inclusive, but then that implies everyone works and that’s likely to hit unemployed people or people whose health doesn’t let them work right in a huge sore spot. I’m a fan of “what’s keeping you busy lately?” or the suggestion later in the comments “what have you been enjoying lately?”

  10. Q11 made me realize that my friends would probably be 1000% more flattered to be introduced by their hobbies as opposed to their jobs, like “and this is Sue who throws the BEST online board game parties” as opposed to “this is Sue who teaches junior high” Going to make a deliberate effort to do this from now on.

  11. them: Your body, let’s discuss it!
    me: So, what does a healthy body look like, actually?
    them: opens mouth, no sound comes out.

    It is a thing of BEAUTY. And it’s happened more than once.
    Because (thank you, hollywood) people don’t actually know what “healthy” looks like. It’s mind boggling.

    1. I’ll believe you, but in my experience people who want to discuss have a fully formed idea of what a healthy body looks like and are happy to share it, at length. Hint: What they’re describing is not a large body.

    2. If somebody is already being judgemental about my body size or shape, asking them to describe their standards in detail is the LAST thing I want.

  12. LW7 – Do yourself and your crush a favour and -don’t- set up “friendship” as the on-ramp to “dating”, or as a consolation prize for that matter.
    Value your friendships for what they are. Dating and Friendship are different types of relationships. They are not a natural, inevitable progression, and not everyone wants to date everyone they’re friends with (even though certain elements of our culture scream otherwise, I PROMISE you this is true)

    You can love your friends without ever wanting to date them.
    Appreciate your friendships. Revel in them. Value them even as society screams that ROMANCE is the only valueable connection between unrelated adults.

    You aren’t doing anything bad by developing non-platonic feelings, not by any stretch! You just shouldn’t set up romance as a natural next step to friendship because it, isn’t.

    (And just in case it needs to be said:
    Don’t “datezone” your friends, and don’t imagine you’re the one that will magically “”””fix”””” your friend’s non-interest in dating – at all or people of your gender or what have you. Nothing works that way.)

    1. For some people, friendship is the natural step before dating, though. Of course that doesn’t mean all friends will turn into romantic partners, or that anyone wants them too. And it’s fine if you see “friendship” and “dating” as separate boxes and don’t want to mix them. But it’s also valid to feel that you need to be someone’s friend before you can decide whether you have romantic feelings for them. Strangers-to-immediately-dating is not a thing that works for everyone.

      1. I don’t disagree, with you or the Captain’s answer! This is 100% ALSO, not instead.
        Does that make sense?

        I`m coming from “doesn’t want to date anyone at all ever” camp – so being datezoned and finding that someone I thought was my friend is actually just waiting for me to magically fall in love is A Thing that has happened.

        In general I just think recognizing the validity and importance of friendship in and of itself needs more emphasis in life.

        1. Definitely you don’t need to date any of your friends if that is not your thing, but I personally definitely do not think of friendship and romance as different buckets. I actually cannot even imagine that.

        2. “Also” makes total sense.

          While, in general, I’ve slept with people I’m friendly with, they haven’t been friends.

          My friends are a damn sight more important to me than that.

  13. Learning about Geek Social Fallacies was super timely for me, because I’d recently entered a social circle as a single woman and everyone who was partnered had Opinions on which of the Super Nice Single Guys I should date (despite my lack of indication that I wanted to date).

    I got through it, but for a terrible ~2 months I felt like I wouldn’t keep getting invited to parties unless I started dating someone in that group (I was also in my early 20s- not something I’d put up with now). “Why aren’t you interested in X, Y, or Z? I know they like you! Are they not your type?” was definitely a question someone asked me. Please don’t try to set your friends up on dates unless they ask you, folks!

  14. Brother used to constantly comment on my being ‘well endowed’. He was always cracking jokes and making me feel uncomfortable. I tried to be forthright and say ‘off limits’ but nothing worked, till one day I said ‘you know your obsession with my body seems very unhealthy, and frankly quite creepy’. He has never said a word since (and that was 10 years ago). Let them have it straight between the eyes.

  15. For the friendship-to-romance question: One thing I encourage you to do, if you have more-than-friendly feelings towards a friend, is, as soon as practical, rip the band-aid off and shoot your shot.

    They may or may not reciprocate. If they don’t reciprocate, that stinks, but at least you know, and can move on romantically and fish in greener pastures (hopefully while maintaining the friendship). But if you do the thing where you linger around being In Love for months/years/centuries, and the other person isn’t romantically interested – that hurts a heckuva lot more, for a heckuva lot longer, and a lot of people get inappropriately resentful towards a person who has done nothing wrong (except conduct a friendship in a way they thought you both agreed on?).

    I’ve been on both sides of the equation (let no one try to tell you women don’t get “friendzoned”), and I both kick myself for some cringey past behaviour, and don’t appreciate when someone I consider a friend explodes at me because they’ve been nursing an endless hope for something “more”, and I’m a bad person if I don’t reciprocate.

  16. LW7: The Captain’s answer made me howl with laughter because I was on the run from evil forces (if “evil forces” are my Terrible Ex) when I convinced my Best Friend to stay over in the Only. One. Bed. because it was very late and we’d had quite a lot of wine and also because I’d realized how extremely cute he is. However, the Captain is 100% right that, even in this scenario, someone has to explicitly put their cards on the table. Best Friend (now Mr. Snow) and I had a conversation that went something like “Wow, all this kissing is great, can we date now? Yes? Yes!”

  17. For LW1, I’m a fan of blunt. It doesn’t matter how well-meaning they intend. It’s none of their business, nor is the LW’s health their business. Far too often we (women, especially) are socialized to be nice at our detriment.

  18. For LW9, I feel for you. I’m in med school, and it can be a very intense, insular culture, where “work” and “personal life” are all kinds of blurred together. I know classmates who have moved to a new city for school have had a hard time adjusting- and so have the partners. In my friend group, some of the partners have formed their own friendships- and in the Before Times we’d do day trips or weekend trips where all talk of school was banned for 24 hours. I also agree with the Captain’s advice to invest in your own support network. And talk to your partner about how things are going, what you need (you should not be stuck in the role of Attentive Doting Partner to Busy Stressed Med Student) and how you both see work-life balance playing out across his career and your life together- because medicine can chew you up if you don’t set boundaries.

    1. Hello! I am married to a doctor (Been friends/dating since med school) and I saw the question from the angle that I always experienced. When I got invited to events/gatherings with the med students, they were all perfectly nice but spoke this different language, lots of acronyms, and only talked about work. Hard not to feel left out. I went down the route of trying to understand as much as possible, bringing up other topics if I could get a word in edgeways, but also seeking out other non-medics to chat with them.
      Now I’m older and have read books by doctors, I understand just how much of a tough vocation it is. It is all consuming, and marriage has been hard because of it. I learned to understand that he needs space to process everything that goes on at work, and we get on better than ever (and mostly hang out with non-doctors now.)

      1. Oh yes, so many acronyms and so much jargon. Even just to understand my schedule/”What are you up to this week?” it’s so confusing.

        1. Yes! Nth-ing the replies above – I’m a doctor (in residency) and during medical school my classmates and I tried really hard to keep it to non-work topics at gatherings so that partners/companions wouldn’t die of boredom or feel excluded, but invariably it crept back in and bored the non-med-students to tears.

  19. So I just want to chime in here as a guilty user of “So what do you do?” I thought ‘do’ was more broad than “So what is your job”, and I have had answers of “I’m a stay at home Mum” and “I’m a student”. THAT SAID, I’m trying to be as inclusive as possible with the question, it’s just conversation bait, so if anyone has any suggestions for me of a replacement phrase I would be most grateful.

    1. Personally I would find a version of “So what do you *like* to do?” much easier because it would give me the chance to reply with a hobby or activity I’m working on easily. When people ask me what I do I’ve generally found if I answer with hobbies I then get further interrogated with “no, what is your job” or being asked if my hobbies are my job. It’s always awkward as I don’t work due to disability and the kind of person that pushes to know that rarely knows what to do with the answer.

    2. I mean, my honest answer to that is “mope around in a fog of depression all day, shaming myself for the things I don’t do.” My best advice would be to model the kinds of answers you’d like to hear, such as “I spend my time doing [Job Thing] and [Hobby] and following [Content], how about you?” Because I don’t want to talk to a random stranger about the fog of depression but I’ll happily trade banter about Netflix shows, if I know they count “binge watch Netflix” as a thing “you do.”

  20. I love your website Captain but I have to take strong issue with your Pet Shop Boys diss. The song My October Symphony is about the Russian Revolution of 1917! Context is everything.

  21. I play the euphonium, which is a small tuba basically. I’ve gotten a fair bit of mileage from it as a relatively obscure instrument that occasionally, my conversational partner will know someone who plays/played it, or rarely, also played/plays it.
    Finding and learning an unusual instrument is probably easier said than done though.

  22. Maybe it’s a location thing, but I can’t remember ever hearing the job question as small talk, and it would never occur to me to ask since most jobs make poor social conversation. I ask people if they have pets, because everyone wants to talk about the cute thing their cat did or how their dog is a total weirdo.

  23. “by far the majority of people who ask this question simply want to know, or are performing what they know to be a routine, polite cultural exchange. . . . on the whole, that they will take whatever answer you give them in stride and take their cues from you about how to respond.”

    This is SO perfectly expressed.

    Some years, I was trying to coach an online friend who had not had much opportunity to acquire social skills, and was struggling to catch up. They were desperately afraid that every casual encounter held landmines, and that the world mostly consisted of hostile judgers whose every word and look might hide a threat, and I was trying to make “No, really, most of the world is not interested in attacking you, they just want to be polite” into something reassuring.

      1. Several years ago I had just gotten out of a relationship and realized that my friend group had really diminished — I wasn’t good at maintaining them while I was dating Ex. Suddenly I had way more free time than I was used to, my anxiety was through the roof, and I felt like a loser that I didn’t have social plans as much as I wanted. I found this Web site called succeedsocially.com that helped me a lot with figuring out how to improve my relationships and make new ones.

    1. I used to have that knee-jerk reaction when I turned 30 and when people met me asked if I was married or had kids. I grew up in a family where getting married and having kids was What Everyone Did and if you were single with no kids it was because no one wanted to marry you. So when people asked if that, my knee-jerk reaction was the fear that they think a single woman has no value, blah, blah, but I realized it was just a basic getting to know you question. I would just say no and ask about their family and it was never an issue.

      1. Once, when I was about 30, I was at a work social event talking to someone I knew in passing. They asked if I had a family and for some reason my brain interpreted this as ANY family so my response was a somewhat incredulous “yes, I have parents and a sister.” The poor man was completely thrown off but managed to reply “I meant are you married or do you have children?” I told him no and the conversation more or less ended there.

        1. He should have rolled with it because all answers to this question are interesting.
          I don’t have a sister so I’d love to hear about what it’s like to have a sister. And let me tell you about my brother…

        2. “…so my response was a somewhat incredulous “yes, I have parents and a sister.”
          – this is amazing and I love it.

  24. I don’t *love* my job that much anymore, but i get plenty of mileage out of “I’m a stripper” when asked that question. I’m in my 60s and have worked in printing most of my life. That answer is completely accurate — but the looks i get are priceless!

    1. I could truthfully say that I do modeling (computer simulation modeling) and that I make films (thin films of metal as part of a manufacturing company).

  25. RE: What do you do?: I am an awkward woman with an engineering background who has spent the last decade at home tending my special needs kids and my autoimmune conditions. I realized I often ask what people do or what their backgrounds are because if I can find a fellow techie, it is so, so much less work to find common ground/connection. Is it possible to do this without making people feel put on the spot?

    1. Volunteer what you do first in the question – “I’m an engineer by training and a full-time caretaker and mom for now, and I like [hobby] and [pop culture thing]. Howabout you?”

    2. I ask people what their favourite operating system is if I want to find a fellow techie. Seriously is how I attracted my husband.
      Then again I’m British so we start every conversation by talking about the weather usually. Neutral topic, unlikely to cause offence. I’m currently unemployed and burned out so I can talk endlessly about rain.

  26. About the work talk thing: because I’m in customer service (workplace is good but the job is… well it’s customer service, come on) I don’t even bother with answering the question and move directly to “My dog has this ongoing feud with a grey squirrel it’s hilarious” which will then lead either Lots of Dog Talk (YAY) or Bye Felicia (also YAY because come on, it’s a dog arguing with a squirrel, that sht’s hilarious and adorable if you don’t want to talk about it then you’re missing out).

    The weight thing infuriates me. My mother has some sort of internalised fatphobia because ever since A Traumatic Thing happened 12 years before I arrived in the world she was Severely Underweight and she’s now at a normal weight for her body (as a wheelchair user she can’t use her anxious energy to accidentally burn all of the calories like she did before paralysis) and she keeps turning her concern trolling on me, now. I am fat. I have a tum, I have love handles and I *like* my body – wellll I have a complicated relationship with my body because of chronic illness but I like my body being fat. And she HATES that I like that my body is fat. I commented to her one day that fatness is not a moral failing and to please stop talking about it in those terms and now it’s all “Oh, Covid will kill you if you’re fat.” Em, no. Covid will kill me because of my blood pressure or give me a stroke. Please take your fatphobia away from me. And dammit she KNOWS I have chronic pain (I literally found out 2 months ago that 2 discs have been bulging since 2007) so she KNOWS it has taken me a long ass time to get to the point where I don’t actively hate all of my body. All that to say, commenting on anyone’s body, fat, thin, in-between is Not Cool because you don’t know what that person’s relationship with their body is like.

  27. I disagree that Q8 implies that the speaker might soon offer such abuse. It certainly confirms that he has close experience of that as a result of disagreement: either watching a friend, or family member or receiving it himself. It’s important for the LW to use his/her spidey sense to posit the danger. My ex-husband never *ever* offered me harm intentionally and especially not physically, but blurted this out during a relationship negotiation one day. It confirmed what I’d suspected: that one or more of his foster homes had been abusive, but he refused to ever talk about any of them. It also confirmed that his ideas of “normal and happy” relationships operated at different gut levels from mine.

    (It’s not surprising that the relationship didn’t work out, because we had very different levels of emotional needs, despite our deep love and appreciation for one another.)

    1. I’d say at best… it’s not really a thing healthy or happy people say. Like for me, hitting isn’t even an option on the table, so it’s an automatic eyebrow raise when someone says they “never would.” I assume that going in, y’know? And if I actually do get to the point where it seems like hitting is a possible thing, it’s time to go.

      I have had one or two exes say that sort of thing, and while they were never violent (at least not towards me), one of those guys was absolutely emotionally abusive (and had grown up physically abused), and the other relationship was just plain unhealthy. In hindsight, the vibe I had from hearing “I’d never hit you” was that those guys wanted a cookie for it or something, or were defining “good partner” as “not violent”. For the emotionally abusive ex, I truly do think his entire calibration of what makes a healthy relationship was thrown off. For the other guy, he just seemed catastrophically immature and viewed “would never hit his girlfriend” as something that should grant him good guy points or something.

      I don’t necessarily think saying something like that is a direct straight line to being physically abusive, but it’s hard to think of situations where it doesn’t mean *something* is badly off.

    2. I would also agree that context is key in that sort of situation. I remember one time a partner saying something similar in the context of discovering that something he did was a PTSD trigger for me (imagine that each day he would come home from class and drop his books on the floor with what to him was a satisfying thud, but the sudden loud noise was the trigger). He a) said something like this to reassure me and b) never did the thing again around me, so the evidence supports that his motives were good.

      (That being said, the good Captain is probably right on in this situation since if it were a scenario like what I just described the question asked would probably have known.)

    3. I dunno, I think if someone gets to the point that they actually say out loud “at least I don’t hit you,” that means that in their view, hitting you *is* actually on the list of possible things they could do – they’re explicitly stating that they have not chosen this option (at this time), like that’s supposed to help or something. Same deal for someone saying or thinking to themselves “at least they don’t hit me” – it’s not a good sign if you think (1) that’s a thing that could happen and (2) the best thing you can say about the relationship. Cap’s right, if this is a thing that gets said out loud at any point in your relationship, it’s time to reevaluate HARD.

    4. without taking anything away from your specific experience…. that was a phrase my ex-husband used, and i really do think he expected some recognition for getting over that very low bar. and while he ranted and raved at me, punched a wall, physically prevented me from leaving during an argument and threw my purse at me, he never did ACTUALLY hit me… but there was certainly the implication that it could go that way at some point, and he was very upset when i called that out, as if i had no right to call it abuse without the fist actually hitting my face. i would definitely urge LW8 to take note of what else is happening in the relationship and put that in context as they decide what they need to do next, to stay safe.

    5. I’m extrapolating from a search string someone typed in who knows when or why, not a specific letter someone sent with context and details, so yes – there are assumptions galore on my part, and there are always exceptions!

      And yet, overall, I think that that sort of reassurance coming unsolicited from a partner means CHECK THE SPIDEY SENSE, THERE IS POSSIBLY A FLY OR A WASP HERE. It is a COMMON red flag, if not a universal one. 🙂 If there isn’t a problem, great!

  28. Also, to Bad at Screen Names, Oh, so much This!! When I was divorced and trying to find a new partner, I dated a man who had kids and lived in Deep Suburbia. Every. Single. Person’s second question was, “do you have kids?” Most of them had moved there from a big city in order to raise their families, and it was so central to their self-definition that they could no longer conceive of any other life. At the time I *didn’t* have them, but desperately wanted them, and it was excruciating.

    1. Yes, @nedInthred — that was my thought, too. I can *know* that the question is just intended to be polite, and still the question “do you have kids?” pokes at the very worst thing in my life.

      I’d love it if we didn’t treat that as random small talk, too. I know that’s an aside from the job question.

  29. I want to say that I love so much the storybook response to the friends becoming a couple comment. It is SO TRUE. I love fantasy novels, but they do have some… repetitive tropes.

  30. Even though I’ve been reading Captain Awkward for years, my brain still hears “Darth Vader cosplay” and thinks “Can they do the voice? Oooooh yeeees” asdfclsked

    Also ‘cooch and release’ I’m dying.

  31. The downside of that one is it kind of hurts if the other person felt a ton of chemistry and gets told that. It’s within the bounds of fair enough, though, IMO.

  32. “Blanket advice: Listen to your gut and do not combine households until you are both sure and downright enthusiastic about the process.”

    What if you’re beginning to suspect you’re becoming a boringly stereotypical “afraid of commitment” thirty-something dude, and you’ve noticed that when times in the past when you’ve pushed yourself out of your comfort zone and allowed for more commitment, it ended up feeling pretty good, but you still get major anxiety about every additional step and giving up any more of your independence, but you’re worried if you don’t ignore that fear and take the plunge eventually you’ll be stuck as this stereotype forever?

    1. t h e r a p y

      Really though, what are you *actually* afraid of? It may help to bring in a neutral outside perspective to help you pick apart that particular Gordian knot, and they can also help you learn new and different ways of dealing with anxiety about stuff.

    2. Hmm, well. @rrrelationships
      What are you -actually- afraid of? Don’t answer that here, just in your own mind or with a trusted confidant that you’re not remotely considering moving in with.

      Don’t change your life simply out of fear of becoming a stereotype.
      Drill down and figure out what, exactly, your concerns are, in general and in specific with any prospective roommate. Then ask yourself what it would take to make those fears and concerns non-deal breakers.
      Identify your green flags, basically.

      And you know, it’s ok to be single. It’s ok to have separate homes or separate bedrooms if you are coupled. You can find ways to show commitment to your partner that don’t involve sharing bank accounts and real estate.
      Harder than the defaults, sure, but probably worth it once you find them. Good luck!

    3. Is it so bad to be a stereotype? Like, if you don’t actually want to move in with a partner, is it the worst thing in the world if people see you as the kind of guy who doesn’t want to move in with a partner?

    4. 1. Get a therapist probably to work on the anxiety.
      2. Don’t move in with someone until you can be enthusiastic and feel ready. You may miss out on some good things but you’ll probably save yourself a lot of heartache, too.
      3. If you do decide to move in with someone, definitely make a contingency fund in case it doesn’t work out. One balm to anxiety is action, like, if what I fear happens, what will I *do* about it? Answer: I will set aside money so that if things don’t work out, we can both move on without it being a financial emergency.
      4. Not every romantic partnership requires cohabitation, maybe look for like-minded people?

    5. This is me, partly. Didn’t want to move in with my fiance because I’m used to living alone and I was worried that we’d have to entertain each other all day and I would have no alone time, which I need. Then because of pandemic-related circumstances I temporarily moved in with him and it turned out that my fears were baseless and living together was really good, and now we’re making plans to move in together permanently.

      So perhaps see if you can temporarily live together, to see how you like it?

    6. Listen to your gut is the most annoying advice, for someone who has anxiety and whose gut would really like them to never do anything. I talked to my therapist about my relationship some years back when we were moving to more commitment and I wasn’t sure it was the right choice. She started off with all sorts of good questions to get at what my gut might be seeing (what about the relationship concerns you? How do you work out disagreements? Do they try to control you, do they communicate well with you, do they listen to you, do you communicate well with them? Are you scared of them? When around them are you happier, or unhappier?

      And we went through it and all I had was, apparently, “what if something is going to change and make me unhappy later? How can I get a Good Relationship certification from the Good Relationships Bureau of External Validation?”

      So I think the important thing here is that you can listen to your gut, but you have to drill down with specific questions and you don’t have to do what it says – you can listen and decide that you want the thing you’re chasing even though you’re scared.

  33. #11- I turn that question into “What do you do for fun?” and that expands the range of topics, because when someone says, “I do agility with a tripod dog,” or “I assist reluctant sky divers,” then you can go into dog talk or how did you get into skydiving and you’re not stuck. I’ve got a lawyer friend who is one of those fantastic Southern storytellers and getting him started on work stories is always great because he’s hilarious, but not all of us are so talented.

    I might be an outlier because I’ve always liked Lyft/Uber rides. Yes, I’ve heard more Christian music than I care to, but I’ve also had some great conversations. One guy worked at a local restaurant I loved that closed for a time and told me how to make their awesome eggplant fries. Another asked me if I was Amish because I looked so clean. Yet another one spent the ride home discussing the likelihood of him meeting a delightful alien lady and becoming an alien as well. Context- it started with him telling me he was having a good day, “I haven’t turned into an alien, so that’s good!” I pointed out that he could become a cute ET kind of alien, which he thought might be nice, but how would he date? Well, he’d have to find a cute alien girl. And it just went from there.

    1. I never thought of it as a Southern thing, but my family is very Southern-WASP, and my maternal uncle is one of those great storytellers; his specialty is stories where he is the butt of the joke. (The man can turn the story of how he broke his toe while playing on the beach with his grandchildren into a laugh riot, at his expense, and he’s laughing at himself at least as much as his listeners are.)

  34. Hey Fluffy, MusicwithRocksIn, DelaneyKay, and all! I have a suggestion for the “So, what do you do?” question.

    Here’s the problem: any time we answer with a job title, the conversation is screwed. So whether you have a job at this crazy moment or not, your job title (be it writer or homemaker or CEO of Widgets) is *always* the wrong answer, because it never leads to an interesting conversation. They are either confused (“What’s a VP of Social Marketing?”) or they want to co-opt your skills (“You’re a stand-up comic? Say something funny!”). So don’t answer with a job title, ever.

    Answer with a project. Learning Czech, working in the garden, shooting a short film, leading a team researching the mating habits of penguins, all excellent, but it’s better to just pick one. “Right now I’m making the most of this surreal time by learning Czech as a second language. My goal is to read [famous Czech author] in the original.” “Right now, I’m devoting myself to growing my own food. I have mint coming out of my ears, and my next goal is to harvest more than one potato per crop.” “I just finished presenting a paper on Bitcoins to the International Monetary Fund, and I’m thrilled that Zoom finally let me attend a conference without crazy jet-lag.” Giving the arena plus one detail for them to cling to is usually enough to get the conversation moving in that direction.

    I do heartily endorse saying “What’s keeping you busy?” rather than the “What do you do?” — which they will probably answer with a job title, and that is conversational death. You can also say, “What are you interested in?” or “What’s your passion?” or “What have you been up to recently?” all of which leave room for job or non-job answers and have less cultural pressure associated with them.

    Hope this helps!

  35. I am a gay, so “let’s just share the one bed, friend!” followed by hooking up has definitely been a very real, nonfictional thing in my relationship history. But actually the Captain is right and it is way easier to have the awkward feelings talk BEFORE you spend a hot and (to at least one of you) meaningful night with your friend. Getting the romantic brush-off from a good friend is a little painful but WAY more painful after you have fooled around with them in a way only you thought was deeply romantic.

  36. “Nobody says “You know I would never hit you, right?” or “Why are you crying, it’s not like I physically hurt you?” unless the option of physically harming you has crossed their mind, and been rejected…for now. ”

    I don’t know why this hit me hard today. But it’s another reason why I can’t move back home if all this crud keeps me from dealing with rent. Holy crud.

  37. Search term hits with “sex with cosplay Darth Vader” sounds like a newly unlocked blog achievement! Maybe? Might have to wait to see what November brings in, but this is the best one yet!

    Also, from now on, I plan to answer “What do you do?” with some variant of “I am a James Bond villain (or front office/tech support/science consultant/personal assistant/hired thug for a James Bond villain).” Huh… I just realized that for some, this response might not be far from the truth.

  38. WRT the “What do you do?” question, a former coworker hipped me to variations on “what are you enjoying these days?” I like this because it rather specifically points the discussion in a nerding-out direction. Once in a while I run across somebody who just wants to complain about irritant du jour, and this prompt therefore often doesn’t work. But that’s usually the exception, and is generally deal-with-able on a case-by-case basis.

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