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COMMUNICATION

Good morning! Submit your questions on Patreon or on Twitter (@CAwkward, #AwkwardFriday) before noon Chicago time today.

From 12-1 I’ll answer as many as I can and update as I go. Comments open once everything is posted.

These have been fun so far. I’m looking forward to questions.

Ok, it’s on!

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Dear Captain,

Context: J and I are both part of an online circle of friends who have known each other for years. Although several of us have never met in person, we consider each other close friends. Since we’re geographically scattered and many are dealing with our own issues of mental health, stress, strained finances, etc., we have limited bandwidth for socializing, making the main group chat an important point of contact, and alternatives to it hard to construct.

J has issues I’m not going to try to diagnose here, but they result in periodic outbursts of self-loathing. When this happens, it generally takes over the entire group chat for hours. We used to try to help, but never seemed to get anywhere. Over time things have gotten worse, to the point the rest of us agree they should be talking to a professional, but they’re highly resistant to seeking any help. Now we commonly say nothing because it’ll at best not help and at worst result in their self-loathing becoming anger directed at us, and usually this results in them complaining that no one listens or cares.

I fear this will reach a point where others start leaving the chat entirely to avoid them, and/or J getting kicked for exhausting the admin’s patience, resulting in people I care about dropping out of contact and losing important supports. While this isn’t exactly my responsibility to deal with, I’m generally one of the people with the most metaphorical spoons available within the group, and I don’t want to push the problem onto those with less.

On the one hand, we can just plan for the eventuality of having to kick J entirely and the fallout from that, but I’m hoping there are strategies we can try before it gets to that point to keep their outbursts from poisoning a communal space, while also encouraging them to get help (especially if it doesn’t involve in-person counseling or therapy, to which they’re particularly resistant) in a way they’re more likely to actually listen to. Other than the admin muting them, everyone refusing to engage at all, or broken-recording with “seek professional help” when J gets started, I’m at a loss.

– Not a Doctor

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Would you like to read about nice people with good problems today? Good! Me too!

Hello Captain,

This question may fall under “general conversation skills,” but as I haven’t seen it on the blog, I’m writing. My spouse and I are both academics, in the same discipline. Her career is hitting some bumpy spots (high teaching load, few publications, not a great institution) whereas mine is going gangbusters (low teaching load, books & articles, awesome institution). That’s stressful, but we’re working it out (we have a distance situation, to compound things). What is really challenging is a conversational pattern we’re falling into, where talking shop feels like an emotional minefield. And our work involves a lot of our respective personal identities and time, so it’s hard to avoid discussing.

The fuller picture: I prefer “talking” about my area of expertise in writing. I avoided talking about it in grad school with my peers, really dislike Q&A at conferences, and kinda work alone, except when I read with other people (my work is pretty textual). My wife likes to talk in person, at conferences, and over post-conference dinners, and she likes to puzzle through ideas out loud. I often don’t want to, though I will–but she can tell that I’m not into it, and it makes her sad. Sometimes I feel like she’s talking a lot, and not listening to my desire to stop, change conversation, or to tell her that I just don’t know (and am not interested in figuring out the issue at the moment).

But she has expressed feeling not only sad, but feeling like my reticence is a signal that her work isn’t good, that I don’t respect her, and so on. But that’s not true–she’s awesome! And in fact, despite some outward success, I have the “imposter” feeling lots of academics do, and I feel unintelligent when she talks about things I don’t know, and I bet it translates into a defensive tone, or dismissal. I sometimes share stuff, too, but it’s more “hey, I read this cool thing” or “I got this article done,” and not a give-and-take. Sometimes we can manage, like if we trade things we’re writing, or have a very clear focus. But casually bringing up work often turns into hurt feelings and an argument.

One more piece of (perhaps not relevant) info. Despite being in the same area, we work differently. She agreed the other day that I would not be the person she would normally seek out to chat about her work, because of our methodologies and focus. But we respect each other’s work–though given our conversational patterns, she doesn’t feel like I respect hers.

We do pretty good communicating elsewhere, I think, but this pattern is starting to get embedded, and I don’t want to hurt her. We’ve talked about just not having work be a shared topic of conversation, but that feels like cutting off big parts of ourselves.

Help?
(Masculine pronouns)
Not good at catchy sign-offs

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Submit questions on Twitter (@CAwkward, #AwkwardFriday) or on Patreon before noon Chicago time today.

I’ll answer as many as I can between noon and 1pm, with comments turned on once the post is up.

Thank you, this was fun to do last week.

Q 1, a holdover from last week: “Hi Captain! I’m starting at a prestigious med school this fall. I know that I’ve worked really hard to get here, but my parents have long been psychologically undermining me and won’t stop now. Any tips on resisting their signals and trusting my competency?”

A: Congratulations!

I think it’s time to examine how often you talk to these people, and why, and what information you give them about your life. Maybe it’s time for your parents to become “occasional greeting cards/passing pleasantries”-level people, where you aim for a series of mostly pleasant surface-level interactions and the goal of not escalating things from your side or making anything worse than it already is. Give yourself permission to leave a conversation or an event if they say mean things, give yourself breaks from being in contact at all, give yourself permission to edit the details of what you tell them about your life. After all, they can’t comment unfavorably on something if they don’t know about it, and if they wonder why there is distance between you, hey, you’re busy with med school!

Even when it’s necessary to protect ourselves and liberating to acknowledge the truth about what’s happening, it is very painful for emotional abuse survivors to acknowledge the gap between how parents should act (loving, supportive, proud) and how they are actually acting. So please shore up your other support systems and reach out to friends, possible mental health support, mentors & other members of Team You, so that you do have people you can confide in and count on to be supportive, loving, and proud.

Q2: “A question… scripts for negotiating with debt collectors and related financial entities, with a side order of bypassing and shutting up brainweasels that shriek YOU ARE BAD FOR NEEDING TO DO THIS IN THE FIRST PLACE…?”

I was a broke grad student for a very long time and I have had to deal with debt collectors before. it’s the worst! I’m so sorry you’re dealing with this!

Some things that have helped me:

First, I found out everything I could about my rights and their practices.

Second, I never, ever, ever talk to them on the phone. I don’t verify shit for their records. I definitely don’t give them contact info for friends or family if they are trying to use me to hunt down someone else. I also do everything in writing. The first time one calls I ask “Can you send me something in writing? I have no way of knowing that you are who you say you are, and I don’t talk about sensitive financial matters over the phone.” They will do everything they can to try to pressure you to stay on the phone, so just repeat that like a broken record and then hang up.

In the USA anyone attempting to collect a debt is required to verify their authority to collect the debt in writing, usually within 30-45 days. I also document everything: The firm, the name of the person, the date, everything they say. After that request for things in writing, I create a contact for them and then block the # on my cell phone.

There’s more practical stuff at that link.

As for the shame aspect of it, your shame is useful to debt collectors. It is not useful to you. I assume that you are a conscientious person who generally tries to pay what you owe, and that if you’re not paying something it’s because you can’t. Even if you were careless or “lazy” in some way, I would still think you deserved food, shelter, health care, leisure time, and good things in life because you are a human being.

I’m going to tell the truth about something that I was very ashamed of once upon a time: When I moved out of my ex’s place in 2011, I had less than $300 in the bank and no computer, and the breakup & move came in the summer when I didn’t have adjunct work. I was lucky in so many ways, I had a friend moving out of her place to get married, and she had paid up the rent for a few months. I had community, as in, the very first Captain Awkward Dot Com pledge drive bought me a computer and put food on my table. Other friends hooked me up with freelance work. But it was grim for a minute there, and during that time I stopped being able to pay off a credit card from grad school. That $150/month minimum payment wasn’t doing anything to bring down the overall balance, it was like throwing money down a hole. It basically came down to eat & have health insurance? vs. pay this bill. So I stopped paying it and eventually it got sent to collections.

Let me be *completely* honest, in case it might help someone: Also during that time, I had a bunch of automatic payments for bills, student loans, etc. coming out of my bank account, and while I did my best to stop/re-organize them, I didn’t act in time and I bounced some payments. When I couldn’t deposit enough money to cover them in my bank account within a few days, my banker helped me temporarily suspend my account. We didn’t want to close it with a negative balance, because it could have meant I might not be able to open another bank account for a period of years, but this temporary fix stopped any payments from going out or through while keeping the account technically open. That meant I couldn’t use an ATM or debit card until I had had a positive balance and no shenanigans for six months, and I had to do all my financial transactions in cash or in person at the bank or by paying bills at currency exchanges. It sucked and was terribly inconvenient, though it made me very, very careful with money and reversed some lazy habits I had accumulated.

Back to the unpaid credit card balance! Down the road, I settled it for a nominal amount of money, about 10% of the total balance. There were credit report consequences (my only credit card now is a secured card with a $500 limit, tbh I like it that way b/c it means I can never go into bigger debt again) and tax consequences (companies can write off bad debt as a loss for tax purposes, but individual people have to claim the difference between the total balance owed and what we settle for as income), and bill collectors calling, but otherwise nothing bad happened to me. I wish I’d just had the money to pay the whole thing off without a fuss, but since I didn’t, I made the best choice for myself out of some bad options. There’s a reason they call it unsecured debt, and I wasn’t going to harm my health to pay something that the credit card company had written off without a thought.

People can judge all they want or think I should have made better choices, but fact is most financial advice that exists is for people who are already pretty secure and comfortable and there weren’t a lot of resources I could turn to. Like, sure, “have a budget and stick to it!”, but how do you budget 0$? Also, I personally find most money-saving “tips” to be completely exhausting and depressing.

I dug out of the hole. It took time. I would like to never go back there, but I know it’s always possible, so I will give any moralizing or shame that serves the interests American financial industry at the expense of my safety & survival a hard fucking lifetime pass, and I hope you can do the same.

Possibly helpful reading: Joon Madriga’s Rising: Money Strategies for the Broke, The At Risk, and Those Who Love Them, Poorcraft by C. Spike Trotman, Money Drunk, Money Sober by Julia Cameron & Mark Bryan, Hand To Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado.

Forgive all student loans! Universal health care! Solidarity! Bread AND roses!

Q3: “I recently held a phone interview w/ an applicant who was an ideal candidate on the phone, until the end when they said “I’m glad it was a phone interview b/c you can’t tell I didn’t shower.” They are asking why they didn’t get the job. Do I tell them?”

A: Even if that was THE dealbreaker, I wouldn’t tell them that. Especially not in an email.

At most I’d say “We just found someone who was a better fit for the job. However, I really enjoyed speaking with you and you have some great experience and skills, so can I offer a piece of advice for your job search? I’m sure you were joking at the end of the call when you mentioned not taking a shower, but you might want to avoid jokes like that in future phone interviews and err on the side of being more formal. Good luck with everything and thanks again for taking the time to apply and speak with me.” 

This is our daily reminder that there’s a real fine line between “nervous person who makes a bad joke that doesn’t land” and “weirdo with no filter.”

Q4: Through a charity program, I am putting a teenager in a foreign country through private school. She was 12 when I started, she’s 16 now. She seems like a nice kid and I’m happy to do it. But she found me on Facebook recently and chats me regularly. She wants to know about my spouse (I’m a lesbian) and my family (I’m minimal contact with parents who were abusive) and my dog (thank God, that one’s easy).

I am happy to write the checks, but I’m not really looking to be her penpal. She seems to live in happy traditional family and doesn’t get the hint that I’m not and doesn’t seem to have the “don’t Facebook chat adults with six questions in a row about their personal lives” cultural understanding that American teenagers have.

So… how can I not be an asshole here?

A: You could most likely remove her ability to contact you on Messenger, right? Maybe give her an email address instead, so there’s less expectation of immediate responses, and you can answer or not more at leisure.

There’s also always “Oh, so nice to hear from you, but I don’t have time to chat, so don’t be worried if I don’t respond. Hope school is going well!” and then, well, not answering. I think it’s easy to forgive or overlook her initial enthusiasm, and chances are it will die down over time, especially if you are slow to answer.

Could you hook her up with a website that’s more geared toward international penpals for teens? “Since you like chatting so much, would you like to find people your own age to talk with?” Related: A pretty delightful short documentary about this.

Failing that, what’s wrong with “Oh, I don’t have a spouse right now. If I did, it would be another woman“, “I’m not close to my parents, sadly,” or just sticking to dog topics? Those are pretty routine small-talk sorts of questions (and in fact form the basics of early language learning texts) and it’s okay to answer them in a perfunctory way. See also: “Ooh, so many questions! Well, here’s a picture of my dog, for now. Sorry I can’t chat, but have a good day at school.” 

Q5: “I was wondering how best to establish a social event for work people. I would like to invite some of my colleagues socially, maybe make it a regular thing. The wrinkle: It needs to be outside my home and right now the number is small, so I wonder what happens when everyone declines. Also what if I stumble upon some unknown animosities between the people I like? Any advice welcome and thanks for getting back to me :)”

Start with a one-time thing, make sure it’s something that would be enjoyable for you to do, and then secure one reliable colleague who will show up before you make the general announcement so you know that it won’t just be you.

Pick something preferably inexpensive, close to work, and inclusive (at minimum make sure the venue is accessible to any & all disabled folks on your team, think about whether drinking/alcohol is a thing your team handles safely and enjoyably).

Then issue the invite: “Reliable Colleague and I are going to try axe-throwing after work next Thursday, from 5:30-7:30 pm, at [venue]. Anyone want to join us? RSVP by [day] so we can schedule enough axes.” Then send a reminder when you need the final head count.

If people reply and can’t make the first thing, or suggest something else, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you should change your plans. “Sorry that you can’t make it this week, we’re going to try to make this a regular thing though, so maybe next time.” “Our heart is really set on axe-throwing this week, but we want to make a regular Thursday night thing, so let’s go to the tapas place the following week. Want to plan that with me?” One way to get me to stop planning anything (and to secretly hate you) is to be a person who doesn’t plan anything but who craps on every plan that other people come up with.

If people have animosities toward each other, you don’t have to fix that, but as host you do have to make expectations about behaviors clear and smack down anything that’s inappropriate or mean. One rule could be “Ok, a 5 minute limit on work venting, this is supposed to be fun” or “To keep this fun and light, please don’t say anything about people who aren’t here that you wouldn’t say to them.” 

Give it some time to get into a groove, and good luck.

Last one:

Q6: Hi Cap! It is that time in my early 30s when old friends who disappeared into 5+ year relationships have broken up & now suddenly want friends again. Advice for navigating friendship renewal when the reason old friend & I haven’t been in touch is because they chose to disappear? In all cases so far I would have been thrilled if friend got in touch to resume friendship at any prior point but I am bitter as soon as I find out friendship-renewal attempt is on heels of new singleness. (with the male examples, am giving benefit of the doubt that they aren’t trying to hookup) (this may be naive but we’ll see)

A: Two things come to mind:

  1. Let them be the one to make the effort/the plans, and don’t necessarily put a lot of effort into juggling your schedule to fit them in. See them when it’s fun/interesting to you now, not out of obligation to the past.
  2. Seriously limit your role as post-breakup-shoulder-to-cry on, and if they try to take advantage of you in this way, definitely address it: “Hey, you kinda disappeared from my life when you started dating X, and it’s great to have you back, but that doesn’t mean I want to process the last 5 years with you. Let me be your fun-going-to-the-movies friend for a while, and we’ll see if listening-to-my-problems friend still lives here.” Especially for heterosexual dude friends who might be looking to hook up or get a lot of free emotional labor (or both).

That’s all for today, thanks for the great questions, comments are open.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hi Captain,

I have a problem with knowing what to say when people ask about my life.

For some background, I am 25, have completed a Bachelors degree, but I have ended up living with my parents again. Originally I was only going to live with my parents for a summer before finding a place of my own to live. Unfortunately, I have chronic pain and it has gotten so bad that I can not work. Not being able to work in a problem for several reasons, though the financial side is being taken care of as I am receiving aid while I await an official diagnosis. My main problem is that all of my peers are moving on from school into their careers and I keep getting asked when I will move on.

I know that mostly everyone is coming from a good place when they ask me what my life plans are, but I’m having trouble coming up with a short, polite way of saying “I am terrified for the future so I think about it as little as possible and instead focus on trying to figure out how to live my daily life with limited mobility”. Another issue is that the disease the doctors think I might have tends to be thought of as causing mild pain even though it can be completely debilitating. I am at my wits end trying to shut these conversations down and it’s to the point where I avoid talking to people and I almost cry when they do start asking me things. Any ideas on things I can say?

Signed,

Pained and Tired

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Dear Captain,

I have a friend who, for a long time, was a very chill person but as of late they seem to find fault in all I do and shame me for it.

For example: I’ll talk about a cute guy, and they will point out all the ways the guy is a bad dude or how I’m fetishizing being gay, somehow. Which is weird, because, how can you fetishize your own sexuality? Or I’ll bring up a piece of media I enjoy and they’re quick to point out every issue within the show, or I’ll even make an innocent joke about my own writing and suddenly the joke is under a microscope being picked apart.

I’ve spoken to them about the issue, even proposed we have a sort of signal (specifically, an emoji to include alongside our statements) along the lines of ‘this emoji means I just want to talk about this thing and not analyze it beneath a moral compass’. But even the most innocent statements seem to warrant a judgmental rant. They make me feel ashamed to the point I just don’t want to talk to them about anything anymore.

I’m a queer man with some shame-based trauma. This person knows that, and yet, it doesn’t feel respected, even after asking them to please keep this in mind during our discussions.

This friend and I are in a rather close knit group chat, so I don’t really have a means of stepping away easily and so I have to just face them and I try to suck it up but it seems relentless sometimes. I understand that there are morality issues everywhere one goes, but I just want to talk and chill out sometimes. If I want to talk about morality, I’ll talk about morality.

Any advice on how to get along better with this person or to avoid further upset with them? Are there any particular things I could say to deflect these unwarranted discussions?

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Turbulent month, turbulent song:

And yes, it’s that time of the month, when we treat the things people typed into search engines as if they are questions they want answers to.

1 “How to handle snubs from close relatives.”

Sometimes you end up related to people you would never interact with by choice.

If you’re the one who messed things up and you know it, apologize once and then try to do better.

If you’re not the person who caused the breach, or if your apology for what you did is not accepted, stop trying so hard to make the situation better. Your effort is probably wasted, and you don’t have to keep auditioning for the approval of people who regularly show that they don’t care about you or want you around.

When you absolutely have to deal with the person, it might help to find a basic amount of polite that you can be to them suitable to the occasion. Not because they deserve it, but because it might make you feel better if you have a plan for interacting with some dignity. If it helps, imagine they are distant acquaintances, like, employees of a satellite office of your company that you run into once a year at the holiday party. In that instance you’d say “Hi, happy new year!” and then you go talk to the people you actually like and want to see.

Don’t treat the family like a monolith. Form your own relationships with the people you care about and who you want to connect with. The uncle who hates you hosts Thanksgiving every year? You do not have to go to his house and choke down his grudge-turkey, but also you don’t have to let Thanksgiving and his turf be the only time you see any of these people. He doesn’t own your grandma or your cousins or the month of November.

 

2 “My aunt says my partner is not welcome, what do I do?”

“Well, Aunt, we’ll be sorry to miss you. Maybe next year.” It’s okay to skip events where your partner is not welcome.

Unless your partner is some form of Nazi. In that case, I’m Team Aunt and also you should dump that Nazi dickhead.

 

3 “Do you have to invite adult son’s girlfriend to family parties.”

Depends. Do you want your son to come to these parties and feel happy and welcome there, or do you secretly wish he’d stay away?

Also depends – is his girlfriend a Nazi? If so, definitely don’t invite her to anything.

 

4 “My neighbor doesn’t respect the property line.”

You need to find someone who knows the laws where you live. That’s not me, even if you live where I live.

 

5 “My boyfriend tells me how to eat how to exercise.”

Did you want a free volunteer personal trainer? If so, enjoy! If not, tell him it’s none of his beeswax.

 

6 “What do you say to someone who is trying to set you up with someone you’re not interested in?”

“I appreciate the thought, but I’m not interested.”

“No thank you!”

 

7 “I’m in New Jersey when is this oak pollen going to go away for god sakes.”

I’m in Chicago and I also want to know this.

 

8 “Where will Harry and Meghan live?”

Google says “Nottingham Cottage” in “Kensington Palace.”

 

9 “Stories of sexy young girl with huge tits.”

Stories of people who are not efficient users of search engines.

 

 

10 “Boyfriend wants me to better myself.”

Did you ask him to be your amateur life coach? If not, tell him to focus on his own issues and ambitions.

 

11 “I don’t like my grandchild’s name.”

Learn to love it, or learn to be quiet about it, or both.

 

 

12 “Coworker dating app.”

My jerk of a brain initially read this as “Oh shit did someone make an app to try to help people date their coworkers please god no” when really the person is probably looking for “what do I do if I spot my coworker on a dating app.” Picture my entire body seizing up with revulsion for a few seconds until my brain caught up with the more likely interpretation.

My instinct is almost always to say hey, just leave the person alone, it’s not like it’s some terrible secret that you’re both on the app, and it would be pretty cool if you could give each other the gift of a bubble of privacy while you both try to do something vulnerable, especially since you work together. If they spot you as well and are interested in you, they can find a way to let you know!

 

13 “Husband doesn’t want me on birth control.”

If you’re a person who can get pregnant, you are the ultimate boss of whether, when, and if. No exceptions.

 

14 “I want to call suicide hotline but don’t know what to say.”

“Hi, I’m [Firstname] and I’m having suicidal thoughts.”

“Hi, I’m nervous about calling this hotline and I don’t know what to say.”

You won’t freak them out or get it wrong. They want you to call even if you don’t know what to say. I really hope you get what you need.

 

15 “When family wants you to visit but they never visit you.”

Visit them when you want to and when it makes sense for you, and if they pressure you for more visits say “I won’t make it, but you’re always welcome to visit me here! Can we put a plan together?” 

 

16 “jean luc picard open shirt”

HEL-lo!

picard_on_holiday

Image description: Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard wearing shorts and an open shirt reading a book on a green lounge chair. First spotted on this site here.

 

17 “Is it rude to invite guests to someone’s house without letting them know?”

Almost certainly yes! Even if you know this person is very hospitable and wouldn’t mind extra guests, why wouldn’t you at least let them know to expect them?

 

18 “firthing”

Refers to the way Mr. Darcy (as played by Colin Firth in the 1990s Pride & Prejudice adaptation) treats Elizabeth Bennett when he develops a crush on her. Especially characterized by weird, intense staring bouts or standing really close to someone while studiously NOT looking at them, general glowering, and hostile non sequiturs intended to camouflage romantic interest. If unchecked, Firthing can lead to cornering one’s love interest and vomiting a bunch of feelings all over someone who didn’t even know that you liked them, or doing weird shit like showing up in the middle of the night to give them wordy letters.

Mitigating factors: A really nice house

Best avoided by: Asking the person on a date pretty soon after you know that you like them.

(Please tell me someone who knows Colin Firth reads this blog and has told him about this, it would make my year.)

NOTICE: By request, this behavior will from now on be referred to as “Darcy-ing.”