Dear Captain Awkward,
When I was seventeen, in order to escape an emotionally and physically abusive mother, I joined the Air Force. However, about six months into a four year contract, I realized that my priorities (and my politics) had shifted, and that I could no longer justify to myself being in the military as a positive or moral choice. Unfortunately, short of getting pregnant or deliberately getting in trouble (neither of which I wanted to do), I had no way of getting out early.
Now, I’ve made it. I’m less than a month away from separating, and I’ve made plans to attend college and study biology. When I’m a civilian again, the people and organizations that I most want to interact with politically are very left-leaning, often with an emphasis on criticizing the military industrial complex. In a situation like that, I don’t know how to bring up the fact that I’m a veteran. I don’t want to lie to people, but I find it embarrassing, and I also worry that people might distrust me because of it.
I guess the core of my question is, how do I talk to people about something I did in my past that I no longer condone, and even actively oppose?
A Regretful Veteran
I recently became the very happy owner of a large, visually striking tattoo on a visible part of my body. This has been a hugely positive experience for me and I am happy to display my art to other people, the occasional attention and questions don’t bother me at all — except for one response that I didn’t anticipate.
About once or twice a month, someone will ask me “but what does it mean” or a variation on this, and keep digging at me until I offer up something suitably personal. My problem is that a) these otherwise well-meaning people really pressure me for a detailed answer, asking and re-asking their question repeatedly even though I am visibly uncomfortable with their interrogation and give them multiple non-answers, and b) there is indeed a personal meaning behind my tattoo, but I have less than zero interest in sharing it with random strangers or new acquaintances.
I’ve been trying to come up with a simple deflection that is not also a total fabrication but nothing has worked so far. When I say “I don’t really talk about that stuff with strangers” or “that’s a pretty personal question” people seem to just get more intrigued and pressure me even harder. I suspect some of this is because people having been conditioned by reality TV shows like “LA Ink” to think that ‘tattoo!’ = “deeply intimate personal story the tattooed person is delighted to share with an audience” but I am not interested in sharing details of my internal emotional life with strangers. At this point I don’t really care what the ‘audience’ motivations are, I just want a simple way to shut them down that doesn’t sound like an invitation to keep asking the same damn question in fourteen different ways until I snap at them.
I don’t think these people are hitting on me or being deliberately invasive, but I do think they’re not respecting my attempts to not answer. It’s like their brain short-circuits when they see a tattoo (I really believe these are otherwise polite, boundary-respecting people). Also I’m still taken aback every time this happens and not so great at thinking on my feet in the moment — it’s only been six months and it’s not like this problem is going to go away anytime soon.
Is there something I can say or do to shut this down and move on to more appropriate, less intimately-personal questions? I have no problem with the fact that my body art is going to draw attention, I knew that going in and it’s fine, but it seems like there’s 5% of people who lose all sense of appropriateness when they see my newly-decorated arm. Maybe I should just start lying???
– Not Cut Out For Reality Television
When I meet people for the first time (for example, at a party) often the first thing they ask is “What do you do?” (meaning, what paid work do you do.)
I have very severe health problems that prevent me from working, but that’s a very painful, personal subject, and I really don’t want to mention that when I’ve just met someone.
I don’t look sick, and I don’t want to come out as invisibly ill/disabled to someone I’ve just met.
What’s a good response that doesn’t make me seem odd, or make the other person feel uncomfortable/awkward?
For the past year or so, I’ve been doing what I think most people do when they’re young and newly liberated from their ultra-conservative family – learning about the world. Before this, I was very sheltered and of the belief that the world is mostly okay save for a few small things like the price of gas and there being too many polyester shirts.
Since learning about a lot of other stuff that’s going on, I’ve become very political, and, well, very angry. I’m angry about drone strikes. I’m angry about Islamophobia. I’m angry about the mainstream media. I’m angry about the wage gap. I’m angry about rape culture. I’m angry about gentrification. I’m angry about climate change. I’m angry about factory farming.
I’m angry about a lot of stuff.
That last one is the biggest problem for me right now, though. I was raised to believe that there is a happy cow out there somewhere who generally enjoys life up until its last days and then dies quickly and painlessly and makes its way onto my plate. Turns out that isn’t the case, and factory farming is a source of enormous animal suffering, not to mention violations of worker and human rights, as well as the leading cause of global warming. As soon as I found this out, I did what I’ve been trying to do whenever I learn yet another thing about the world that’s out of whack – I tried to make whatever difference I could. I’ve been vegan for a few months now.
I haven’t told anyone about these new eating habits. I want people to know – I think there are a lot of people who, like me, didn’t know this stuff existed. I know there are also a lot of people who know but choose not to think about it, and that upsets me. I went out for one lunch with a friend of mine and ordered a bean burger, and before I said anything other than “Can I have a bean burger?” she was jumping on me about vegetarianism and preachy vegans and I haven’t eaten food in front of anyone else since. I don’t want to be a preachy vegan. I don’t want to police or shame people. I do want to have important conversations about our society’s eating habits and what they mean for our planet. Is there a middle ground there, or is telling someone that you’re eating vegan (not buying leather, not buying Nike or Sodastream or sharing anything by FCKH8, the list is so long I’m starting to realize I can’t avoid being immoral) inherently judgemental of their choices?
Hi Captain et al,
Like a number of commenters here, I have a chronic, incurable (not deadly) illness. I am really quite ill, it has a huge effect on my life and, advances in medical science notwithstanding, I will be very ill for the REST OF MY LIFE.
But I get on with it, because there’s nothing else to do. My life is painful and exhausting and full of social security bureaucracy, medical appointments, social care, mobility aids and limits to what I can do. I can accept that and most of my friends have adapted with me to fit around what I can and can’t do and to help out when they can.
What’s upsetting me are a few friends who keep sharing pictures and statuses along the lines of “Share if you know someone with [illness]” or “Show your support for people with [illness] by putting this on your facebook wall for one hour” etc
And… those things don’t make me feel supported or cared for. At all. If anything, they remind me that those people never call or text, that they’ve never asked how they could help. It’s like… they want me to see that they’re thinking of me but don’t actually want to put in the effort to contact me or find out what I need?
How best can I say “I know this is scary but if you want to support me, actually fucking talk to me about it?” Or should I perhaps leave the issue of “stop posting things on facebook that remind me you’re not actually helping” alone and go to the effort of finding things to ask them to do? They clearly want to *feel* useful but I’m scared that maybe they just want to feel like they’re doing something and don’t actually want the inconvenience of me saying “The practical things you can do to help include making an effort to come to see me, to keep in touch with me, to take me out of the house some time and/or fix your own drinks and food if you visit me at mine. Sometimes I need people to make phone calls, to accompany me to appointments or to help buy equipment I need. There are things you can practically do to help but all of them require time, effort and money”.
I want to know what people are actually prepared to do to help but I’m scared of asking in case the answer really is: “I care about you and want to do whatever I can to help but I don’t want to do anything that takes time, effort or money”
Too Ill For This
I graduated university about two months ago, and right now I work at a tiny indepedent publishing house. Well, I say “work”; they cover my travel expenses and feed me lunch, but I’m not getting paid, which I didn’t care about when I started because I thought it would be interesting. Nominally, I am a trainee.
This has its perks; I work with two people I get on quite well with, the food is good, and there’s a cat. But the job itself sucks. I thought that being taken on as a trainee would involve some kind of, you know, training; I was told I’d get to experience the day-to-day workings of a publishing house, learn my strengths and the like. It’s not like I didn’t expect that to involve some initiative, but I did think there’d be someone to vaguely oversee what I’m doing. There’s not. There’s the boss, two other trainees, and me. Nobody knows what they’re doing, so nobody does much, and the boss isn’t very involved in the company except for when he panics and snipes at us all for not having known to do what he thinks ought to have been done. The only work I get is work I scrounge up for myself. I am frustrated and bored.