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Hi there,

I’m hoping to find some scripts/strategies to employ when I run into someone I’m happy to chat with, like a friend or one of the super friendly baristas at a coffee shop I’m always in, and they ask “so what’s new with you?” or “what have you been up to this week?” when the honest answer is often something like “I managed to leave the house every day” or “Well my house is still messy but I did write 70 thousand words of erotic fanfiction in the past few months” or “I’m sorry but my depression seems to be leaning hard on my memory lately and I have no idea what I did yesterday, let alone last week.”

Sometimes I even have done something I could talk about; there might be a knitting or art project I picked up, I try to take small trips to see friends when I can, and of course plenty of my friends would be happy to talk about the weird fanfic I’ve been writing. But in the moment I rarely remember any of this.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been at a bar and forgotten the name of every cocktail you have ever enjoyed or even heard of the moment you get the bartender’s attention, but that’s what this feels like. I’m a deer in the headlights and can’t think of something that’s even vaguely interesting and not some form of “I’m super depressed so I can’t remember, sorry.” That’s fine to say sometimes, I know, but I don’t want that to be my response every time someone talks to me in person.

I am getting as much mental health support as I can; I have a good therapist and meds that seem to work as well as anything else could (I tried some new ones last year and it was a disaster), but I’m still struggling a bit; I don’t mind being honest about that, in many circumstances, but I feel so dull and boring when these questions come up and at times it impacts my confidence around other people. I’m trying hard right now to get out more and connect with people because I know that’s good for me but I keep hitting this awkward roadblock. Any thoughts?

Thanks,
I Promise I’m Not This Boring, For Real (he/him)

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Dear Captain,

I looked through the archives and I couldn’t see anything on this particular topic, but apologies if I missed something. It does seem connected to the Geek Social Fallacies though.

My question is about how to deal with awkwardness and anxieties over the dreaded Group Chat.

I have a group of friends who are not particularly close but they are friends I see a few times a year. I am pleased that they want to be my friend. We live in the same city. Over the past year, however, there have been some issues around differing expectations over the Group WhatsApp Chat.

Basically–there is a Group Chat. Actually now there are FOUR Group Chats. There are seven of us in it, all from this friendship group. The other six people use the chats constantly throughout the day to update each other on their movements and what they are doing. There used to be one chat but because of the high volume of chat traffic they split it into four: General Chat, TV (what people are watching), Logistics (about them meeting up), and Rants and Raves (where you can complain about stuff that happened to you). There is now a high volume of chat on all four groups.

The issue is that I can’t keep up with the chats. I am a remote worker and so I am in Slack groups for my work. Apart from that I don’t like chatting online in group chats, especially not with people who live in the same city as me, as I prefer to catch up in person and have an offline chat with them even if it is not frequent. I find that more social. The expectations of this group around the chats are very high. They literally update it with their movements, like “I’m having a coffee now” or “Just popped out for some milk”, or “omg I sat next to a smelly person on the bus just now, eww” and “just cooked some sausages”, this goes on all day. They post photos of these activities too and if they go on vacation, the chat gets filled with many, many vacation photos and videos that they get upset if I don’t look at or watch and then comment on. The TV and Rants chats are also very busy where they say “Just put on the TV, surfing the channels now” or go into more details ranting about the smelly person on the bus and so on. Basically they are narrating their lives in the chats, I don’t enjoy doing that and I don’t like reading it either…does that make me antisocial?

However the other six Chatters are upset that I do not participate in the chats. One guy literally told me that he did not understand what I did all day (I’m working..also why does he care??). We recently all met up in person and when they complained that I do not talk on the chats I tried to explain that I prefer to catch up in person with people rather than say everything online since then when we meet we have nothing to say because we already typed it… online… And they were offended by this, they seemed to take it as a personal rejection. It isn’t! I like catching up with them over a coffee or beer and finding out what’s new, it’s nicer in person. During the meetup they literally all sat on their phones chatting about the meetup on the group chat even though they were all there, apart from one person. They took photos of each other and posted them to the chat… When I asked them what they had been up to recently, they said that “if I had read the chat, I would know…”

I don’t get it.

I have muted the chats because otherwise my phone was pinging every couple of minutes. At the end of the day when I look at the chats there are a few hundred messages that I didn’t read. I feel overwhelmed just looking at it so I don’t read them usually and if I do all I learn is that someone went out for milk and there was no semi skimmed in the store. After the MeetUp where they suggested that they were offended and hurt that I didn’t talk on the chat I tried to join in by saying hi in the chat and asking what people were up to, but they were upset with me there, saying “wow nice of you to drop in”. So I gave up. I’m not ignoring them or shunning them, I just don’t want to type on my phone all day about what I am doing…

What can I tell them? I don’t want to offend anyone, and if I quit the chats they will not tell me when they are meeting up, so I will not see them again. I am an introvert who however enjoys group interactions (as long as I can be alone afterwards to decompress) so it’s not that. I just don’t get this group chat thing. Any ideas for how to tell them nicely without losing friends?

Whats Up With WhatsApp

Hello there!

Friend groups can become cultures unto themselves, and the culture of this one is to be constantly connected in a low-intensity way with social media. It’s not right or wrong – your “Ugh, too much!” is their “This is my little daily anchor for feeling less lonely in the world” and both reactions are just as honest and just as true. I think the less we make value judgments or appeal to “Manners!” and the more we cast this as a difference in style and/or compatibility, the more helpful I can be. One form of communication isn’t necessarily more genuine or deeper than any other, so what we’re dealing with is 1) their strong preference vs. yours 2) whether there’s a way to make these preferences more compatible 3) whether the affection between you is strong enough to make it worth the effort to try.

Example time! Imagine you’re out in a restaurant at breakfast time, and you see a family on vacation, and everyone is on their screens during the meal. It’s easy to think “Such disconnection, why can’t they just talk to each other like people used to do?” but I look at it and think, hey, look, they are all reading and nobody is yelling at anybody, how relaxing, I wish I’d been able to read at the table sometimes when I was a kid. We’re only seeing one snapshot, not the whole of this family’s communications with each other, maybe mealtime screen-time is a vacation-only treat, maybe their family’s first language is “judgmental screaming” and “quiet disconnection” is a serious upgrade, not all faaaaaaamily mealtime conversation is good or desirable or automatically more polite.

A second example: Recently I got to hang out with a friend I’d seen in person maybe once in probably 20 years. We went to school together in the 1990s, worked at two of the same places, lived a few doors down from each other in the same apartment building, had “Family Dinner” every Sunday night, met each other’s families, and it’s not an exaggeration to say we we talked close to every day between 1997 and 2000. Then I moved away and I didn’t see him again until last week. If you need proof of true friendship, he once moved most of my belongings into an un-air-conditioned 4th floor walkup on a 100 degree day. But what made our friendship work was hugely, hugely based on proximity: “You are a person I like to do a lot of nothing with, and hey look, you’re right here, let’s hang out!” When it was easy to hang out, we did, all the time. When it was hard due to geography, we didn’t. It doesn’t mean we’re not friends, it just means that friendship fits into a particular shape, and “pen pal” isn’t that shape. That dynamic might not work for everyone (or even anyone) else, and that’s okay. The WhatsApp dynamic might be a way these folks maintain that feeling of proximity, whereas the LW prefers physical proximity, and they live in the same town so why not go with that? How does proximity affect our friendships is a useful question, I think, for lots of Geek Social Fallacies-adjacent and “Why am I friends with this person again?” questions in addition to today’s post.

Another possibly more relevant example: My experience with this “how can you not know when we share everything with each other online?” dynamic dates back to the days of LiveJournal, where I had a post go ridiculously viral and I ended up putting something in my profile to the tune of “‘I like ______’ and ‘I want to read ______’s every waking thought (and show them all of mine)’ are not the same thing at all” and then I pruned my friends’ list to people I was actually actively reading and engaging with and unfriended/refused literally everyone else. Some people I knew locally found this really confusing and painful to parse, like, “If you like me, why don’t you like me all the time, in every possible medium, as much as possible?” and the answer was (and still is) “I don’t knowwwwwwwwwwwwww, but I know that it’s true of me. I read as way more extroverted than I actually am, I have a bigger ‘friendliness’ footprint than I have attention units and that’s just how it is.” 

Previously I’d tried using filters for both what I posted and what I read, since there were people I liked in meatspace but didn’t want to interact with much online (and you better believe there was both a vice and a versa with that one), and there were people all over the world I made forever-kindred-spirit-friendships with just ’cause we read each other’s internet diaries, and lots and lots and lots of in-between.

Sadly, the thing your friends identify as a problem was actually a problem when it came to people I knew both online and locally in Chicago: By using filters and limiting my reading, I wasn’t keeping up with people’s lives in the way they assumed I was, and that definitely had repercussions in my local social scene. It really only takes saying “You must be so excited about the baaaaaaaaaaaby!” (because that was a detail I sort of remembered about a nice-but-not-necessarily-close-person in the brunch circle) once and hearing Don’t you fucking read?” hissed by someone else into the horrified, echoing silence after the sadly-not-pregnant-anymore person fled the restaurant weeping, to learn some important lessons:

  1. Pregnant people will tell you if there is anything new to tell, if they don’t mention it, STFU, nope, shut up, always be shutting up.
  2. I, Jennifer, should not try to half-ass stuff out of social obligation that I cannot keep up with from the heart, it will only end in tears and 17+ years of shame-echoes.
  3. If this online-offline hybrid social life we’ve made has any hope of working, I need to know my limits and stay inside them.

Now we have the excuse of both privacy filters and the algorithms* straight-up not showing us certain people’s stuff when we do want to follow their lives, but the problem remains the same: With so many apps and points of contact to share and absorb a constant stream of everybody’s thoughts and doings, how do we keep up with what’s actually important? And where/how do we set the expectations? And how do we account for the fact that what goes on social media is necessarily an edited & curated version of people’s life events, so the most important stuff might not be visible? Everybody is navigating this a little bit differently and there is no one right way.

(*I’ve lost count of what example we’re on but in the last year I’ve completely missed at least one friend’s divorce and another’s life-threatening accident – and these are people I avidly follow on social media but don’t see face to face often or talk on the phone with. If not for in-person catch-ups and asking questions, I would literally never have known what was going on. Information does not equal knowledge part the millionth.)

As a person who does a lot of her living inside the internet, it’s helped me to assume that possibly nobody knows anything about me until I actually tell specifically them what’s going on. I might Tweet or blog here about a thing, but that doesn’t mean my friends who aren’t Extremely Online saw it or know about it or care about it, so if I want them to know I tell them. If that means repeating myself, oh well, they’ll interrupt me and it will be fine. If I haven’t seen you in a while, I will ask you questions in that vein, like, “You’ve probably told Facebook or Twitter all about what’s new lately but I miss a lot of things, would you mind giving me the friend-recap, I’d love to hear all about everything!?!”

Again, not everyone is me or thinks like me or needs what I need, so I’m not saying that this should be the standard for others, it’s not “what you should do” it’s “what I am actually doing, maybe that will help somebody?” For me, social media interactions are real interactions, internet friends are real friends, but not everyone switches between modes of communication with the same speed and enthusiasm as me, so I am happier in face-to-face interactions when I assume nothing and default to asking (and telling). So that might be a script for you – “I’m sure you’ve posted all this in the group chat, but please tell me again! I want to know! Thank you!” 

All this to say, I can see why your friends are like “But I put literally everything about me in the chats, if you really wanted to know what’s going on with me you would know and you are like “Ok but there were 12,000 updates about breakfast cereal and which episode of Inspector Lewis you’re watching, so forgive me if your life-changing promotion was a blip, if you really wanted me to know you’d tell me when I asked you what’s new and not lecture me about keeping up with the chats when I’ve already told you that I can’t.”

[To harken back to Ye Olden Times On The Internets and show you how little has changed: I have been u! “Hello Granddaughter, I forward jokes, un-fact-checked stories, MP3s of songs it takes four hours to download, and crackpot racism from the Rancid Old Man Internet to everyone I know and all our members of Congress to keep in touch Fwd: fwd: FWD: fwd:” vs. “Okay Grampa, but look, unless you’re emailing specifically me to tell me something that you wrote, I might not write back.” vs. “Well then I guess I just won’t BOTHER you anymore.” vs. “I mean, you can always call me but actually if you don’t forward random emails anymore that would be great, thanks!” vs. “Fwd:Fwd:FWD:Fwd: How DEMOCRATS are like VioLEnt TerrORist ABortioN GANGS the REAl story The MEDIA won’t TELL you FWD:FWD:FWD:fwd:>>>>>>>>>>fwd…. Love, Grampa Oscar”].

It’s okay to have different preferences. And I make fun, but being mutually dismissive of each other’s preferred communication styles will not help people who like each other actually hang out and remain friends. We can all say WTF? at the guy saying ‘he doesn’t understand what you do all day’ (WORKING AND NOT DOCUMENTING THE OL’ MORNING POTTY BREAK ON THE OL’ WHATSAPP, THAT’S WHAT, KEVIN, MAYBE TRY IT?), but you saying “Ugh, I don’t really get it” or calling their affectionate way of being with each other “from hell” won’t fix it either. Trading “If you really wanted to ______, you would DO _______” never goes anywhere good. So how do we break this impasse?

I don’t think you are going to be able to change the overall culture of the group, so let’s talk about what you can do to preserve these friendships.

One option is to continue as you are. Pop into the chats only when you feel like it, focus on the “Logistics” channel to see if there are any hangouts coming up, before you hang out in person maybe do a quick skim of the past day or two’s updates so you can ask topical questions. You will miss some things that are going on with these people and it’s okay to be honest about that – “I like you so much but I will never, ever be able to stay on top of the chats, so can I get a quick recap?” This is a way to recognize that you are dealing with a culture that isn’t your natural medium and you are doing your best to meet them where they are. If they can’t accept that? Then maybe they are incompatible with you and that’s sad but it’s good information to have. As you meet and befriend new people, you can prioritize closer ties with people who share the kind of communication style that makes you most happy and comfortable. For best results, cast it as your own preference, like “I know it makes me an outlier, but the group chat is just really not my thing, however, YOU are my thing, so, hang out on Friday?” 

I think you’ve been very clear that you find the chats overwhelming and prefer to catch up in person, and there’s nothing stopping you from periodically calling or meeting up with these folks one on one or arranging your own outings, right? So another option is to uninstall WhatsApp from your phone, call or email or text or use whatever other form of communication you have to get in touch with one person in the group – your favorite person, the friendliest person – and say, “Hey friend, I’ve tried but I can’t keep up with the Group Chats and I don’t want to argue about them ever again. I like you so much, I like everyone in the group so much, and I hope you’ll let me know when you all get together next so we can catch up face to face, but if there’s something you want me to know about or come to for sure, here’s my #.” 

If you do this will there be shock, surprise, hurt feelings? Will they talk about you behind your back? Will the friendships drift? Yes. 100%. But nothing will drift that isn’t already drifting. What you are doing is removing the fiction that you are ever going to participate in these chats again or keep up with every coffee break or bus ride with these people.

Which brings me to Part 2:

Whether you stay casually engaged with the chats or decide to go cold turkey, if you want to maintain these friendships, you’ll need to get in touch with folks – individually and as a group – and invite them to do things with you. You’re opting out of the way they do things and you’re the one who wants a change, therefore the initial work falls to you.

Whenever there is a group dynamic that’s iffy, I really encourage people to stop engaging with The Whole Group as a monolith and start engaging with people in ones and twos.  Sometimes we outgrow friendships, sometimes we outgrow friend groups, but sometimes there are relationships worth preserving even if the idea of the group fades, and sometimes there is necessary pruning to be done.

Inviting people out means taking on some work that The Group used to handle for you on its own, but it also means letting your own pleasure and enjoyment guide you and learning more about how you like to do friendship. If you host events like, “dinner and movies at my place, and hey, this is just my quirk, but let’s put our phones away for a couple of hours,” who shows up, who makes you feel good, who gives you what you need, who is willing to try it your way some of the time? Once you start initiating plans suit you, you can see who likes you enough to meet you halfway, and from there you can see what can be saved and what can be built.

Before people comment I want to reiterate: If a social media platform or way of staying in touch with people makes you feel dread, don’t do it. DON’T USE IT. Delete it. Nobody is making you, so…don’t? Use the tools that you enjoy using, and make case-by-case exceptions when affection and connection truly compel you, like, “okay, the only way to interact with this person I REALLY want to interact with is phone talking so for that one person I am a grudging phone talker, everyone else is text only.” Our preferences are just that, preferences, and we’re all making compromises all the time. “I prefer in-person hangouts, texts are just impersonal!” vs. “Well I’m disabled so good fucking luck with that” IS A THING, it might be an insurmountable thing for two particular people, but it is a real thing and pretending that there is only one best way to interact is doomed. The Letter Writer’s friend group is doing a thing they enjoy that works for them. It doesn’t work for the Letter Writer. That’s okay, good news is we can find that we are incompatible with other people without anyone being a jerk, this ain’t Reddit, this site doesn’t exist to archive rants or tabulate votes that apportion blame correctly. Cool? Cool.

What I do want to hear from readers about: When you & somebody you care about have vastly different preferences about how to communicate, what works to keep you connected? And how did you figure it out?

 

 

 

Here is the second post in this week’s collaboration between Jennifer P. from CaptainAwkward.com and Alison Green from Ask A Manager.

Previously On: “Is it disloyal to leave a company who cut my pay and postponed my promotion?” (Nope! Cutting everyone’s pay is like the part in the horror movie where the house says “get ouuuuuut” and none of the cabinet doors will stay closed and suddenly there is a ghost boy with no irises (only pupils) staring at you while you shower, maybe the time to leave is right now?) and “Can I talk about my boyfriend’s other girlfriend at work?” (Sure, but maybe check with her first?)

Additionally, there was a question about ADHD and applying for jobs that we didn’t get to and that needed more space than this short format, I’ve answered it over on Patreon: (Part 1)(Part 2)

Now for today’s question batch:

1. Everyone in the office is hanging out without me and it feels like high school.

I work in a very clique-y office where I am just not in the main clique. I have a coworker who is sort of in the same boat and we have bonded over it, but she’s still more in than I. These people tend to organize outings outside of work to which I am not invited, but where as far as I can tell they include everyone I work with. I’ve sort of just been ignoring it, but now they keep talking about their plans, how much fun they have, etc while I’m in the room. Look, I understand if you don’t want to invite everyone (though it’s still quite hurtful frankly) but can’t they at least keep it a secret if they don’t want me involved instead of rubbing it in my face? I feel like I’m in high school again. (For the record I am in my mid-thirties). And I feel like crap. Look, I’m on the spectrum, and I know that means I will often have to deal with being the outsider, but this just seems unnecessarily cruel. Am I overreacting?

Jennifer (Captain Awkward): When social interactions among adults ping the old “OH NO, NOT HIGH SCHOOL, NOT AGAIN” radar, a good question is: Are people being mean or are they being lazy? Mean happens, certainly, but when in doubt, start with lazy. As in, maybe people are purposely excluding you (not everyone has to become free-time friends with coworkers) but it’s also incredibly likely that people assume that someone else already invited you and that if you don’t come to a particular thing it’s because you didn’t want to. 

And I’m talking about the merest blip of a thought, a second or two of wondering “Should I invite Fergusella?” “Eh, but they never come to stuff” and then moving on with their day. The longer this goes on, the easier it is to mirror these bad assumptions, and perversely this applies to people feeling comfortable talking about events in front of you. “Everyone’s invited, the more the merrier, I don’t have to make it explicit” or “Well, Fergusella would say something if they really wanted to come, right?” feel easier than changing anything. Your coworkers aren’t thinking about ableism, your history of being left out, or the very real worry that speaking up could expose and codify a probable afterthought (lazy) into an explicit (mean) choice probably because they aren’t thinking about you all that much in the first place. “They just forgot me” probably doesn’t feel less awkward than “They just don’t like me,” but it leaves more to work with in changing the situation.

Speaking of implicit vs. explicit: If literally every single person in your office is going across the street for after-work drinks and talking about it in front of you on the regular, there’s a 99.99% chance that you are and have always been invited and people assume you already know that. If you’d feel better knowing for sure, you won’t make it weird by asking, “Hey, is this invite only or can I join you?” If people are mean in response, it’s because they are mean people, not because you did anything wrong by trying to clarify it. (Now, if it’s a weekend and people are gathering at somebody’s house, that’s different: Like vampires, coworkers need to be invited in.) 

Before you do anything, an important question for yourself is: Do you want to get to know these specific people better and become friends with them? Do you want to not only be invited but to actually go to more of these things? If so, one strategy might be to choose one or two the kindest, friendliest people in the group and invite them to a very occasional solo lunch or coffee. Not from a “Why does nobody ever invite me?” angle but from a “I’m trying to be more social in 2020 and you always seem so nice and fun” angle. “I’m trying to be more social in 2020” is a useful script because it communicates that you want to hang out with them in a way that doesn’t blame them for leaving you out in the past. Once you know people better and have a one-on-one relationship, it’s less risky to have conversations like “Do you do bowling karaoke every weekend? It always sounds so fun, is it ok if I tag along once in a while?” Or even, “Hey I’m autistic, and have kind of a terror of poking myself in where I’m not wanted, so it really helps me when people turn ‘Anyone up for lunch?’ into ‘Would you like to get lunch?’ That way I know for sure I’m invited.” 

Is it less about these specific people and more about generally feeling left out and lonely? Then that’s probably a sign to work on your friendships and social life in general, inside and outside work. You’ll be able to let the chit-chat about what the office is up to go by much more easily if you’re having great weekends doing exactly what you like.

One thing I always want to tell fellow adults who may have a history of being bullied and left out: Hosting and event planning is a lot of work, and it’s not generally something the Popular Kids(™) we remember from school do as adults specifically to torment each other. Those dynamics certainly exist, I definitely believe any horror stories any of you might tell me about people in your office who think recreating school cafeteria seating hierarchies is the social pinnacle of achievement, but I think it’s good to remind ourselves that most extroverts/outgoing/social folks are doing what they do because they *want* to include and enjoy people.

Additionally, extroverts get social anxiety too.(Will people actually show up? Will they have fun? Will there be enough chairs? If I didn’t invite people, would anybody think to invite me?) They also get burnt out and feel unappreciated. If you’re trying to break into a social hub at work or outside it, it might help everybody leave high school behind to stop looking at the organizers as powerful gatekeepers who have it all figured out, and stop assuming that you have nothing to offer them. When you are invited to things, assume people want you there, enjoy yourself, offer to help if you can, and most of all, notice and appreciate people’s work in planning and hosting. It’s easy to dunk on Mandatory Office Fun, but going out of your way to say “Thank you for putting this together, that was the best sheet cake yet, need a hand cleaning up?” can win you allies on the Party Planning Committee for life.

Alison (Ask A Manager): And thus a perfect answer was written, and will be one I link people to for years to come.

I’m not trying to be lazy, I promise, but this is so comprehensive and wise and I feel I can do no better than joining in presenting it to the world.

Jennifer: Well, thank you. I obviously have a lot of feelings about this. 🙂 

2. People tell me how my name is pronounced (wrong).

I have a name that’s pretty common, but has multiple pronunciations. I pronounce my name the less common way, and usually when I meet new people they pronounce it the more common way. When I try to kindly correct them (“Oh, I actually pronounce it like Cahr-a, not Cair-a”), more often than not people push back. Everything from “Well, all the Caras I know pronounce it the other way” to “That’s weird” and “I wouldn’t spell it that way if I pronounced it like that.”

I try to be patient, but this annoys me to no end. Partly because I am 100% sure I am spelling and pronouncing my own name correctly, partly because I have had this conversation no less than once a month for 20+ years. I know people don’t love being corrected, but I do my best to clarify kindly with a smile, and struggle to keep that smile when the umpteenth person in my life tells me that my name is weird.

I don’t want coworkers’ first impression of me to be “Woman who has no sense of humor about her name,” so more often than not these days I just don’t correct it and skip the discussion. But then if a coworker I’ve worked with for a while does notice that I introduce myself differently than how they’re saying my name, they’re annoyed I didn’t correct them sooner. I feel like I can’t win!

Any advice for language I can use to correct mispronunciations and shut down pushback without getting defensive? It’s especially challenging when it’s someone like my grandboss or senior executives telling me how I should pronounce my name.

Jennifer: I’m a Jennifer who everybody wants to call Jen or Jenny the second they meet me, so, solidarity! I know that tension between “I do not want to ruin this friendly moment” and “But that’s not my naaaaaaaaaaaaaame arglebargle.” 

There has to be a path between the pompous guy I went on an extremely doomed date with who introduced himself by pre-correcting everyone (“Hi, I’m David, DaVID) and the time I was 22 and my 55-year-old boss kept calling me “Jenny” because his last assistant was Jenny and I asked him not to about 100 times and then I finally snapped in a meeting and called him “Tommy” instead of Tom in front of our grandboss and a client (“Oh Jenny will get that right over to you” “Sure thing, Tommy!”*), right? 

You are already doing the right thing by smiling and gently correcting people when they mess up and your best bet when they make it weird in a professional setting is to keep smiling but also keep insisting. “Oh, I get that all the time, but really, it’s Cah-ra, thank you so much” and then skip as quickly as possible to the work topic at hand. The vibe to aim for is “No worries, it’s an easy mistake to make, and I am going to do you the magnanimous kindness of forgetting all about it and pre-thanking you for doing the right thing.” Most good people will want to get it right from now on and people who don’t take the face-saving out you gave them are showing you something about who they are, ergo you won’t be the one making it weird if they keep doubling down on awkwardness and you get real humorless for a minute. The social contract insists that we call people what they want to be called no matter what our assumptions are, and if it means getting corrected sometimes, then it means accepting correction with kindness and grace. 

*You know what? I can’t recommend this strategy as the most professionally diplomatic one, but it only took being called “Tommy” once for a middle-aged cisgender guy to be reminded that names are important and it matters how we use them especially in professional settings. He could feel how disrespected I’d felt for himself, and he did take it to heart. After a very awkward moment in the meeting and a wee lecture on professionalism, he sincerely apologized, and my new work/Jellicle Cat name JennyohcrapI’msorry-iFER! became a running joke between us. 

Alison: Yep, matter-of-fact and breezy and moving on is what you want here. As if now that you have clarified that you do indeed know the correct pronunciation of your own name and it is not the one they want it to be, of course they will accept that and not make it into a whole big thing, because of course  they would not be so odd or boorish as to do that.

That’ll work with most people. Anyone who continues dwelling on it after that point is being rude and weird and you are allowed to say react accordingly, with a reaction that conveys half “how strange” and half “how embarrassing for you that are responding this way.” Like a puzzled look and/or a very dry “okay then” followed by an immediate pivot to a work-related topic. 

I think some of the frustration here is probably just having to go through this so many times with so many different people, even if most people aren’t all that rude about it. It’s just exhausting to have go through “wait, is it X?” / “no, it’s Y” every time you introduce yourself. 

3. Coworker won’t stop talking about her diet.

My small-ish office has monthly meetings that start with a personal check-in. It’s a time for people to share news about vacations, babies, etc. For the last few months, one of my coworkers has shared news about her diet. What she’s eating, whether she’s lost weight and, just today, how many pounds she’s lost! She talks about all this in other settings around the office as well.

Like many people, I struggle with disordered eating, and hearing her talk about losing weight constantly is unpleasant. Even if that wasn’t true, I think this is still really unprofessional. She hasn’t responded to me pointedly ignoring her or even (jokingly) saying that I didn’t want to hear about whatever she was eating. Can I address this with our supervisor? How should I phrase this? I’ve tried to let it roll off my back but it has been really difficult to cope with.

Jennifer: I wish more workplaces agreed that diet talk and obsession with weight is unprofessional, unfortunately the trend toward making employees wear fitness trackers and participate in humiliating (and discriminatory!) weight loss competitions makes me despair of getting a consensus around that any time soon. 

You’ve tried ignoring your coworker and jokingly saying you didn’t want to hear about her eating, which are good strategies to start with. Since it hasn’t stopped, before you make it a supervisor issue, what if you stopped joking? Could you pull her aside for a private direct conversation before the next scheduled meeting? A script could be “I can tell you are so excited about this diet and you had no way of knowing this, but hearing about weight and diets can be triggering and very distracting for people recovering from eating disorders. Can you update us about something else fun that’s going on with you at the next meeting? I would appreciate it so much.” 

If you focus on that specific meeting (vs. trying to monitor all her conversations in the office) and keep it personal (vs. “this is generally unprofessional”) it will help you figure out a few things before you take it to a supervisor level. Is she willing to listen to you? Does she try to curb herself at all? Or does she double down in the meetings and escalate in the office? National Eating Disorders Awareness Week is coming up February 24-March 1, and maybe your human resources team needs a timely reminder to spread the word about the importance of showing sensitivity by not talking about diets and weight loss in professional situations because we never know who is struggling. 

Alison: I love this advice. I co-sign it heartily.

So often people try delivering a message via joke, it doesn’t work, and then they feel stuck. There’s nothing wrong with starting that way — sometimes the other person does successfully receive the message that way, and framing it as a joke lets them save a little face and lets you both avoid a potentially awkward (or at least more serious) conversation. But if the joke doesn’t work, that’s a sign that you’ve got to move on to a more direct conversation if you want to solve the problem.

I can see why you’re unsure of how to do that here though! It feels weird to ask someone at work not to talk about a topic of personal interest to them, especially in a culture that seemingly loves talking about that topic. And you might worry she’ll feel you’re shooting down something that is a source of real pride/joy/satisfaction to her. That’s why I love Jennifer’s wording — it acknowledges that the topic is legitimately exciting and positive for the coworker, explains why it’s landing in a different and harmful way for you, and asks to enlist her help. It doesn’t tell her she’s doing anything wrong, which is really key. It’s just “this is affecting me differently than you realized.”

And yes, if that doesn’t solve it, at that point it’s reasonable to raise it with your manager (or, if your manager isn’t especially skilled at this kind of thing, then with HR). 

Jennifer/The Captain again:Thank you again, Alison, for letting me into your mailbox and your Secrets Of Being A Creative Sole Proprietor advice, let’s please do this again sometime. ❤

P.S. Bonus cat photo content.

 

 

My combined Christmas/birthday present this year was a trip to Washington, D.C. to catch up with some very old friends who were managing to be both in the same country and the same city all at the same time for the first time in almost 20 years. We’ve seen each other piecemeal over the years but the last time we were all in the same room was my going away party in late July 2000, so I could not miss this rare convergence and chance to relive my early 20s with people who truly remember them (from a safe distance). IT WAS THE BEST TRIP. I laughed so hard. I ate so well. IT WAS THE BEST.

While I was in the region, I was lucky enough to meet some longtime internet friends in person. There was a relaxing and fun birthday party in Northern Virginia with people whose wise words I’d been RT’ing and pets I’d been ogling on Twitter for years, there was taking the train up to Philadelphia for a delightful dinner with our beloved Lenée aka @dopegirlfresh aka “the Mayor of West Philly” and Ali of @OK2BFat, and there was the chance to sit down for an afternoon coffee with Alison of Ask A Manager and talk her ear off about how we do this weird, wonderful job. It is that last bit that spawned this post, since Alison and I decided it would be fun to collaborate on answering a few questions using her “Five Answers To Five Questions” format and crosspost them to both sites.

Here are two answers to two questions, with three more to follow this week.

1. Can I talk about my boyfriend’s other girlfriend at work?

“Adam” is dating both me and “Jane,” and we all live together.  We aren’t really into any sort of “polyamory scene” sort of thing; this is simply an arrangement that happened because it’s what works for us and our happy little family.

Moving in with them coincided with a new job, and I really don’t know how to talk about it at work, or if it’s even appropriate.  I’m so used to talking freely about Thanksgiving plans; but it feels overly personal to say that we’re flying out to spend Thanksgiving with Jane’s family (because that would lead to: Jane?  Who is Jane?). 

Jane has some work-appropriate, performance-related hobbies, so weekend plans often involve going to shows that are in that sphere; it feels oddly dismissive of Jane and her place in my life to say, “oh, I’m watching my friend’s performance,” but at the same time, overly TMI to say, “oh, this weekend I’m watching my boyfriend’s other girlfriend’s performance.”

Thus far I’ve just… kind of avoided the details, but have mentioned “Jane” or my “friend” or “housemate” a bit.  I’m comfortable and confident with my household arrangement in other spheres of my life, but work is a place where I like to abide by the rules, and I really don’t know what the rules are here!  It feels so weird to have this person who is so integrated into my life, and then not really know how or if to talk about her.

I know my workplace is at least a little bit open (I’ve got a trans coworker, and that’s No Big Deal), but it isn’t particularly progressive. Very much a Normal Office.

P.S. I think a coworker thinks Jane is my daughter.  If this ever comes up, should I correct them?

Jennifer: To me, there are three things in tension here: 

  1. The more non-traditional romantic and family structures become boring and routine, probably the more safety and comfort people in non-traditional relationships will have. You’re harming nobody, secrecy increases stigma, so why not share it without making a big deal the way anybody would talk about a spouse or partner at work?
  2. Unfortunately, depending on where you live and work, there is stigma and legal discrimination against people in any relationship that isn’t one man and one woman that can have real professional and legal consequences, and privacy isn’t a thing anybody can get back once it’s out there. 
  3. Who specifically is in your workplace, what is the culture there, and how many questions about non-traditional relationships do you want to answer from your coworkers if you bring this up? Do you want to take on an educator/ambassador role, do you want to risk releasing the kraken known as That One Guy Who Is Just Very, Very Curious About Your Exact Sleeping Arrangements? And do you want to do this at work? 

Really there’s no one right thing to do and no wrong one either. Asking Jane and your boyfriend how they’d like to be referred to and specifically how much of their private business they are comfortable with your coworkers knowing is probably a good idea before you make any detailed corrections, as in, you’re worried about being “dismissive of Jane” but Jane doesn’t have to work where you work nor does she necessarily want to be a topic of discussion there. 

When in doubt, “Oh, she’s not my daughter, Jane’s my close friend and also our housemate, we think of her as family” works just fine.“Partner,” “Part of the family,” “My boyfriend’s other partner,” etc. might work if you want to disclose more in a way that people familiar with polyamory will pick up. 

Most likely this will be fascinating for a week or so and then probably nobody will care because they aren’t that interested, and That One Person can always be told it’s none of their beeswax.

Alison:  I’m so glad Jennifer answered this first because I’m really conflicted on this kind of question. On one hand, I am all for reducing stigma about personal choices that harm no one — especially when it can be done by people who are in a relative position of safety. And I’m acutely aware of how “you must hide this core thing about who you are when you’re at work” often plays out in ways that are harmful and oppressive, especially when your coworkers don’t have to hide parallel things from their own lives. On the other hand, the reality is that there is still a stigma against polyamorous relationships, and it very well may affect your career if this becomes a gossipy thing that gets mentioned ahead of your work when your name comes up.

So I think you’ve to figure out (a) how your specific office is likely to respond to this, and maybe your broader field or network, since at some point you’ll change jobs and people talk, and (b) how much you care, which is a combination of how uncomfortable/unhappy you’ll be if you hide the nature of the relationship and how concerned you are about potentially dealing with weirdness or bias from people in your professional realm.

I’ll also note that whenever this comes up, some people like to argue that coming out as polyamorous is TMI — that it’s “sharing things about your sex life that they don’t want to hear.” So I want to state for the record that this is no more that than sharing the existence of any other partner is. It’s about sharing who you love and who you are in an important relationship with. The culture as a whole hasn’t totally figured that out yet — which is why this is still a question — but it’s worth flagging in any discussion here.

2. I like my job but my company is postponing a promised promotion and cutting everyone’s pay. Should I stay or go?

I’m an entry-level employee at a small company of about 40 people in a major city with high cost of living. Despite my previous three years of experience in the industry, I was hired at the lowest level in the company and told I would be eligible for a promotion within a year if my performance went well. Fast forward a year and a half and my performance has been stellar and I was on the track for a promotion. However, the company is undergoing dramatic financial issues and last week management cut everyone’s salary by 10% to preserve our financial stability. A lot of the entry-level employees were baffled and asked that we be exempt from the cut since we make the least and have the least amount of decision-making power that led to this situation. To accommodate us, management cut entry-level pay by 5% and everyone else received the 10% cut. They’re planning to maintain the cut throughout all of 2020. In addition to the salary cut, they’ve frozen all new hires and promotions for this year.

I feel defeated because my promotion (and accompanying raise) will not happen in 2020. I also feel angry because management is planning on creating more products to boost our sales and revenue, which means everyone will be working harder for less pay in the hope that our sales improve next year. Management is adamant that this difficult time is for staff to “give back” to the company and make sacrifices for the whole.

All my friends and family say I should run, quit, and find a new job ASAP. I feel hesitant because I did really like my job before this happened and felt like I had a career trajectory at this company. I’m also struggling to determine if I owe it to the company to stay, put in the work, and weather the storm of 2020 for $3,000 less a year than what I was making. I think my manager is sensing my hesitation because he offered me a title-only promotion without an increase in pay. It feels like a consolation prize and the more reality sets in, the more I’m concerned about my financial and professional future if I stay. Am I selling myself short if I stay? Am I a traitor if I leave?

Jennifer (Captain Awkward): Imagine for a moment that you are an investor considering putting money into your company. Does a firm “undergoing dramatic financial issues” that forced even its most junior staff take a pay cut, froze all hiring and promotions for a year, and then still thought it could develop and launch new product lines sound like the safest bet? The company is gambling that that this move will pay off and maybe it will, but a smart investor wouldn’t put 100% of their money and hopes into this place and probably neither should you. What’s the harm in looking around to see what’s out there and applying to interesting opportunities? You’re not obligated to take any offers that aren’t a better fit than you have now, but if things “dramatically” deteriorate you’ll be glad you have options.

If you decide to accept the title boost (it’s good for your resume whether you stay or go), ask for something in return and put it in writing. Could be a retention bonus (“I’ll stay in this role for one year in return for $X now and $Y at the end of that year”), could be a retroactive raise in 2021 (“On Jan 1, 2021 the company agrees to raise my salary to $X and pay me retroactively for the months I worked as [title]”), could be more paid vacation, could be more flexibility to work from home, could be offloading your most hated tasks to someone else and taking on more of what you want to do with your time. Negotiate something in consideration for taking on more work and I’ll repeat it again – get it in writing. It doesn’t have to be a contentious thing, you can tell your boss how much you appreciate him for going to bat for you to have the new role and just add in that it would be foolish not to ask for something in writing about compensation given how much the industry and company finances fluctuate. If he gets mad at you, calls you “disloyal” or “entitled,” or tries to manipulate your emotions to get you to forgo money, it is a sign that you should quietly accept the promotion and start sending out your resume IMMEDIATELY. 

Finally, I want you to excise the word “traitor” from your vocabulary when you think about this problem. The company broke a promise to promote you and also cut your pay because they’ve decided that it saves them money. If they need to lay you off to make their numbers they will, so consider that when this employer talks about “giving back” and “loyalty” they mean a thing you owe them so you’ll work more for less. How can looking out for your own money – i.e. the whole reason you work there – possibly be “a betrayal”? If you stole their proprietary information and sold it to competitors, that would be betrayal. If you find a new job with more money and a better title, you’re making a business decision the same as them.

Alison (Ask A Manager):  Yes! Excellent, excellent. 

And also, re-think your ideas of what you “owe” an employer. This isn’t a marriage, where you’ve taken vows. Here’s what you owe your employer: good, focused work while you’re there; clear communication when there are problems if your employer has a track record of handling that sort of input well, and a reasonable amount of notice when you decide to leave (for most people, that’s two weeks). You do not owe them a commitment to stay for longer than would be in your own interests. I promise you, they will act in their own interests — and that’s as it should be! That’s not, like a sneering commentary on them; it’s just a recognition that this is a business relationship. Each side should treat the other with respect and integrity, but you don’t sacrifice your own interests for theirs, just as they wouldn’t for you. That’s the nature of it! You get to walk away when you want to walk away and when it makes sense for you to walk away. (And it sounds like it’s time to start thinking about doing that.)

Tune in later this week for Part 2 of this conversation and the answers to three more questions. 

 

Hey Captain,

I (she/her) am getting married in May! Besides all the awful that is wedding planning, my fiancé (he/him) and I are excited and happy to celebrate this milestone.

His parents had a short, violent relationship that resulted in their divorce and going no-contact with each other when my fiancé was a child. I, perhaps naively, assumed that they would be able to navigate their own discomfort in order to be present for my fiancé on his wedding day (it’s been 20 years, after all!). We invited both of them to the wedding.

Now, we have been informed (indirectly) that his father will likely not come if his mother is there. My fiancé is wrecked. He doesn’t want to be in the middle or have to choose and it is bringing up old hurts for him.

I want to support him, but I also don’t want to fall in the trap of us telling one or both of his parents to suck it up because faaaaaaamily, ya know? It’s not our decision and I don’t want to pressure anyone into seeing someone who had hurt them in the past… but I get why he feels kind of betrayed by the people who are supposed to put him first.

Any advice for scripts? I’m out of my depth on this one.

Thanks,
Three degrees of separation

Hi Three Degrees of Separation:

I am making an exception to my “not publishing letters where a woman is writing to sort out a man’s problems with his family/friendships/work situation” practice because I do want to help you sort this and because this letter is a textbook case as to why I/we need to make this shift.

Your fiancé’s relationship with his parents is HIS issue to sort out (hopefully with a licensed therapist) and the more you muck around in it without the knowledge of how it got this way or take it upon yourself to manage it, the more counterproductive it will be. You can be supportive by 1) asking your fiancé “How do you want to handle this?” and “What do you want me to do, if anything?” 2) listening carefully to the answers and then 3) figuring out where your boundaries are and what you can or even want to do about it. Your future spouse is the boss of how he handles his relationships with his family-of-origin, please do not default to a role where you navigate this stuff for him (or instead of him) or decide that it’s your job to be the peacemaker in a war you didn’t start or even witness. Cool? Yes? I’m glad you wrote, I’m not upset with you, you didn’t do anything wrong, but the “I must help” instinct is so strong and the cultural narrative that “ladies exist to help men be emotions” is so prevalent that I gotta fight it wherever I can, and “great, have him write to me” is one way I am trying.

Here’s what you know: You invited both parents. That was a nice impulse. They get to take it from here. I get the whole “Can’t you show up for one day to make your kid happy?” impulse but like, maybe they literally can’t, and you tried your best but it’s not happening. Your wedding doesn’t exist to fix everybody’s family, you can’t possibly present your fiancé with a tidy bow on his parental situation, so what’s the worst that happens if you do literally nothing about this information? It’s second-hand from a relative (the dad isn’t even communicating with his son directly), and until you get the RSVP card back or website checkboxes checked, it’s not even something you know for sure. If the Dad isn’t coming, he’s made the choice for you about what comes next. He won’t be there, and you don’t have to rescind the invitation to the other parent, or broker a peace deal, ’cause it’s already done.

The Dad has choices like, I don’t know, just off the top of my head, calling his son on the phone and talking about it, finding an alternate way to celebrate (“Howabout I get the rehearsal dinner and Mom gets the ceremony?”). He’s not made any of those choices, so…it’s not your job to fix it and it’s not your fiancé’s job to track the dude down or to give into a manipulation attempt if the dad’s goal is to punish the mom or get her disinvited or make it difficult for her or even just to make his son chase him and agonize about it. It will be sad if both parents can’t be there mostly because it’s sad when two people have a relationship that deteriorated to this point.

If your fiancé were here, he could answer questions like “Who was violent to whom during this short violent marriage?” and “Is/was going no contact about dislike or about safety?” If the dad abused the mom, I would say all of the above applies even harder, and I would see this as a power play to try to force his son to disinvite his ex-wife to punish her. If the mom was violent to the dad, then the polite routing of issues through a relative is about protecting the dad’s safety and was actually a way of being kind and not forcing the issue while also not opening himself up to be abused more. “I invited both you and your abuser to the same party, that’s a neutral thing to do” isn’t actually neutral at all nor is it precisely a party-planning sort of question. If your fiancé doesn’t know what happened between them maybe it’s time he found out? (Again, and I cannot stress this enough, this is a very good problem to take to a therapist). He was a child when they split and it’s completely, completely understandable that he wouldn’t know the whole story, it’s completely understandable that his parents would want to protect him from the full picture of what happened, but without this context, all we can do is speculate. I would 100% back him up if he decided “Hey, my wedding is not the time to excavate this whole deal, Dad said he probably won’t be there, let’s take him at his word and move on.” 

The situation sucks, it’s not weird or an overreaction to be very upset, but I would encourage you both to remind yourselves that one party – even one very meaningful and wonderful party – isn’t going to be the thing that made their relationship awful and it won’t be the thing that fixes it. Also your wedding will be a lot more relaxed if it’s not broken into two hostile camps, so maybe the Dad’s choice to bail is a gift and the right thing to do is to accept it without comment and let the older generation make up their own minds about what they can safely and comfortably do. Your impulse to want to help and support your fiancé is a good one, but these were people who were never able to co-parent effectively and civilly, clearly it hasn’t changed, fixing that has always been out of anyone’s hands but theirs.

What you can both actually do is remove pressure from yourselves to fix the parental relationship or further engineer the guest list. You’ve sent the invitations, it’s time count the replies and rent enough chairs for the people who will be there.

My wedding gift is a few scripts your fiancé could use if this keeps being a problem between now and the day:

  1. For the relative who acted as a go-between. “That’s sad to hear but Dad should call me himself if he wants to talk about this.”
  2. For the Dad (but only when and if the Dad contacts him, DO NOT CHASE A DAD WHO WON’T EVEN CALL HIS CHILD ABOUT SAID CHILD’S WEDDING): “I will be very sad if you can’t make it, but I understand if it’s just too painful for you to be around Mom.We’ll miss you but thanks for letting us know!”
  3. For the situation: “Weddings bring out the weirdness, right? But we are in party-planning mode, not family-therapy-excavate-my-whole-childhood-and-fix-my-parents’-horrible-marriage mode, so, how many people said they wanted the salmon?” 

And one script for you, for your fiancé:

  • “We invited them both, that’s all we can do. The rest is up to them, and this sucks, but at this point we’re not disinviting anybody to please somebody else.”

Congratulations in advance, have the best day and the best marriage.

P.S. If both parents do show up, your wedding photographer is your ally and has seen every possible “these two aren’t speaking so we’ll need to repeat certain photos” scenario before.

Hello lovely readers!

Whenever I write about family estrangement, setting boundaries with family members, difficult parents, etc. a) I’m usually answering a bunch of letters in one, if that makes sense, like, there are many of this kind of question so I am picking one to tackle at length and b) immediately afterward I get an influx of letters that are like “Hey, MY family is a lot like the Letter Writer’s, but also different, can you help me unpack the situation?” 

This is not a bad thing, I appreciate the letters and comments so much – we are not alone, I am so glad people are seeing patterns and finding the posts helpful! – but also I know 100% that I am not going to get to the influx of similar questions on the site or with a personal reply, and I’m reasonably sure that I’m not going to make any more posts about specifically this topic for at least the next month or so. I’d like to invite folks in similar straits to comment on the open discussions ( #1247 & #1248) and also refer back to this omnibus collection of past posts and summary of the best of the existing “family boundary” advice. Everybody’s situation is obviously unique (heeeeeey Tolstoy, hey!) but my overall approach and suggestions for scripts and strategies is probably going to be covered somewhere in that mix in a way that you can hopefully take to your own support system and tailor for your own purposes.

If you think online peer support around a sticky family situation would help you, the forums at friendsofcaptainawkward.com are back up after some temporary technical difficulties (I am told), and there are many communities on Reddit (r/raisedbynarcissists, r/CaptainAwkward are a few that come to mind) where people discuss these topics with a lot of gentleness and encouragement. If readers have suggestions for additional off-site “this is a good place to hang out and talk about this stuff” spots, that would be useful – email me those and I’ll add them to the list.

Let me leave you with one reminder: It’s not your job to fix every relationship or clean up every mess in your family, even if you could. (You can’t). Even when we’re armed with all the best advice, planning, strategies, counseling, support from safe friends and loved ones, safety plans, boundaries, kindness, patience, good intentions, etc. fraught family relationships can stay a total mess. Even when the worst of it stops (usually ’cause we grew up and got out), some people will never be what we need. Some people will never make us feel all the way good or relaxed. Some places will always feel haunted, and some situations will always have us double-checking under the bed or behind the shower curtain or between the lines for danger. The absence of danger is no less eerie! No monsters under the bed this time, but are the dust bunnies filled with menace? No monsters in the closet, just these wire hangers. The yellow wallpaper in the hall got paneled over long ago, observe the faded spots where the portraits of what looked like a happy family from outside used to hang. Don’t forget to jiggle the toilet handle after flushing and step over the broken stair. Oh yes, that sound you hear is definitely ghosts, The Ghost of The Childhood That Should Have Been likes to come out this time of night and wail for a while, she’s pretty friendly if you want to say hi! But come away, come away, you don’t need to repair or renovate this wreck, it’s time to hop in the rental car or catch your train back to where your small quiet room awaits. Come in, close the door behind you, nobody is going to knock on it. Hang up your coat, take your shoes off, fix yourself a beverage, sit in your comfiest chair, and open your presents:

  • 1 dog-eared copy of A Wrinkle In Time with “I give you your faults” highlighted.
  • 1 yellow post-it note with “Do less work to manage relationships with people who are unkind to you 2019” scrawled in teal glitter pen
  • 1 “Bless This Mess!” sign, $1, slightly cracked, purchased in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart

<3,

Not Just A Captain, She’s Also A Member