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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?

 

 

 

This is another one in a series about difficult parent relationships: A dad who wants to talk on the phone for hours about only the things he wants to talk about and who reminds his daughter, when she tries to set boundaries, that he has nobody else to talk to. It’s about guilt and about how the hardest part of boundary-setting can be a negotiation between us and ourselves. Maybe the key to this negotiation is figuring out the difference between “should” and “want to.”

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Y’all I have another Vice piece dropping soon and I have to confess I am HOLIDAYED TF OUT RIGHT NOW. Let’s talk endings. Breakups. My wheelhouse.

We’ll call the first one #1240: “How do I approach a friend who doesn’t want to talk to me anymore?”

Hey Captain Awkward,

Here is my dilemma:

I am currently in my second year of college. At the beginning of last school year, I became friends with a girl [M] and we both hit it off. We instantly became best friends and spent a lot of time together, including with my family (I live close to school). We grew close and so I decided to shoot my shot and ask her out. I was politely turned down and said she wanted to just be friends. She was really cool about it and never made me feel uncomfortable about the situation.
Over the course of the last year we got extremely close to each other and were inseparable. I never really did lose feelings for her and that became a problem eventually.

She was in a relationship with someone from back home, but they were constantly on the rocks and had even been on-and-off over the year. This left me with the slightest bit of hope that things might change. That being said, I was always respectful of [M] and her relationship. I rarely asked about the situation or pry into her relationship — I always let her bring it up.

She went away for the summer (abroad) and I was ok with the distance — a lot better than I thought I would be. So when we came back from summer break, I tried to pursue other people (romantically), but I never felt the same connection I had with [M], with anyone else. I then talked to her about it and that led me to telling her my feelings, to which she had no response other than being gracious for my kind words. Things were seemingly normal for the next couple of days, and we made no mention of the discussion.

After a few days, she did not talk to me or text me. This was not normal at all.

Once I talked to her (a whole two weeks later), she let me know that she felt uncomfortable about what I said and that I had crossed a line, “Something a friend doesn’t do.” Noting how her relationship with her boyfriend was rocky but was committed to him. I apologized profusely, admitted I made a mistake and crossed a line. She accepted and said that she was unsure how to proceed with our friendship and need time/space. Especially since I knew that she had a boyfriend and already turned me down previous.l I agreed and admitted that I put myself in an emotionally unhealthy situation, by spending so much time with her if she was never going to be interested in anything more than a friendship.

Since then, we have not spoken to each other beyond a greeting and in class we don’t say hello to each other (she sits in front of me in class). We go to a small college and have a class together, but it was as though we had never known each other. When we pass each other around campus, a greeting is barely shared. This has left me confused, hurt, and sad.

I am not delusional and expect us to become best friends again, but I don’t think we have to ignore each other and pretend we don’t exist. I feel like I have no closure about the situation which hurts the most.

I have no idea what to do. I want to at least talk to her and see what she was to say about the situation, now that it has been over a month since we last talked — at all.
Do I try to talk to her or let things be and just try to get over it?

Thanks for reading, any help is greatly appreciated.

Sincerely,
— S.

Dear S,

You gotta leave M. alone. 

I know you are hurting. I know you tried your best to be a good friend and be respectful of her boundaries and you tried to be a good manager of the feelings you were developing for her. I know it would sting slightly less if M. would talk it over one more time and maybe give you hope that something is salvageable. Still: You gotta leave M. alone. 

We don’t, as a culture, have a good template for scaling down or ending friendships (and let’s face it, our collective romantic breakup skills ain’t anything to brag about, though obviously I’m working on it). It’s okay if both you and M. are muddling through this and don’t know quite how to act.

That said, I feel strongly that there is no conversation you could “approach her” about that would send the message “Hey I want to be respectful of what you need and not bother you, but what the fuck, can we talk for just a second and clear the air?” that communicates “I will leave you alone if that’s what you want” better than actually leaving M. alone like she wants. Every single past interaction you describe in your letter eventually leads to a conversation where what M. wants most from you seems to be “more space” with a side of “never talking about your feelings about her again.”

Her silence now is a way of making that space when asking didn’t work.

Maybe it’s not a smooth way of making that space, an “I gotta let him down easy” way of making that space (a thing she tried several times), but as messages go, but freezing you out is hardly an ambiguous way of claiming space. What is there to explain? She’s been pretty consistent with you from the start and it’s extremely clear what’s going on, the way it’s clear that a cat who hides whenever you walk into a room is a cat who doesn’t want your snuggles. The only way to ever get the cat to come out without being a ball of needle-claws and yowls is to ignore it until it comes out on its own. You’re probably not going to make a situation any worse than it already is by applying the same principle to humans who indicate they’d prefer to be left alone.

Things might not stay this chilly between you and M. forever, once enough time goes by, but the thing you can do to give the situation the best possible chance of a thaw is to realize that the only way your former friend’s shoulders are going to come down from around her ears when you’re around is if you show her you will give her space…by giving her space…and not hanging out expectantly waiting for her to explain herself or suggesting that if you could just talk about all of it one more time that will fix it somehow. When someone sets a hard limit, we show we are safe people who respect boundaries by retreating back behind the boundary and staying there until invited to cross, not by hanging out just outside the gates trying to have just one more conversation about what kind of fish to put in the moat.

So where do you go from here? You can decide that M. is incompatible friend material for you at the present time without talking through it with her. She decided that she didn’t want to be friends anymore, which is a thing she gets to do without taking a vote, and you also get to decide, hey, I need friends who want me around, she’s not that person, it’s time to stop trying to make this happen.

In the class you share, say ‘hello’ if she says ‘hello,’ try to match her energy where possible, don’t double down on the awkwardness by giving her the silent treatment or doing anything dramatic to “punish” her. Find a different seat if you can, actively seek different study buddies and lunch companions, don’t lurk around her conversations, don’t monitor what she does or who she talks to, try to think of her as just another stranger in the room. When you get tempted to dwell on her during class, dare I say it, re-focus your attention on the material you’re there to learn at considerable expense? 😉 And let her do the same, without having to manage your feelings!

Outside of class, put your energy into other connections that aren’t so fraught. It’s a small campus, but women you have a crush on and a failed friendship with aren’t the only people on it. M. has already occupied a lot of a school year you’ll never get back, I wonder how many hangouts with other people did you forgo to hear more about the dude back home she likes better than you in the hopes that today would be the day she’d either love you back or you’d become finally immune? It’s time to break that cycle, stick the landing on your finals, enjoy the holiday break, and next semester or quarter, get yourself a fresh start. Join a club or two, try something new, and make some friends who aren’t her. In both friend material and future crush/romantic partner material, start selecting for people who enthusiastically want you around and who want the same thing you want.

As for M., one last thing: It actually takes a ton more effort to ignore someone and actively freeze them out than it does to be casually pleasant, so This WILL pass, I think, if you give her space. It won’t go back to how it was before, a little friendliness from her absolutely will NOT be an indication that she’s changed her mind and is now Into You That Way, but chances are it won’t always be quite so tense. If and only if: You give her space.

(And if you hear that she’s broken up with her boyfriend at some future point? KEEP GIVING HER SPACE. We don’t forget when people close to us tell us they are in love with us, if she ever wants to talk about that again you will know because she seeks you out and brings it up. If she doesn’t talk about it, assume she’s not feeling it.)

I’ve learned the hard way that you can’t persuade people into loving you back or letting you in even if you use all the best words. It took so many times and so many words for that to sink in, but it never stopped being true if I’d only let myself see it. What I’d love to hand down to you, my dear S., is the knowledge that the closure you give yourself is the closure that ultimately heals you in the end. Giving M. space, walking away, and choosing to prioritize other people is the kind of closure that lets you stop auditioning in an empty room where she walked out, turned out the lights, and shut the door behind her. It’s the kind of closure where you find the story you can live with, the one where you tried your best. Time does the rest, if you’ll let it.

Now, onward to #1241, “Is a person ever entitled to direct communication?” 

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It’s time for the monthly feature where I answer the things people typed into their search engine before they wound up here as if they are questions. These come in completely anonymously and context-free.

A few links before we get started:

  1. Dear Mantis on Twitter: Great advice column or GREATEST ADVICE COLUMN?
  2. Our beloved Goat Lady has made some big changes and is chronicling them here.
  3. Podcast Listener People: I was a guest on the Fat Like Me Podcast, answering questions about how the holidays bring out everyone’s food & body weirdness. Come for the question from the woman whose boyfriend was suggesting she cook a holiday feast for his fatphobic parents (NOPE) and stay for questions like “Is it okay to show off arms/legs at company holiday party by wearing a cute minidress” (YES).  I don’t know if the story of The Last Time I Ever Wore Spanx made it into the final edit, but talking to Cass is always a great time.

Now, as traditional, a song to take us into the search terms:

Lyrics here.

Also bonus song sent by a reader, I’ve been listening to it basically nonstop because it is so pretty:

And now for the main event!

1) “When to leave an ex alone.”

If your ex has asked you to leave them alone, that’s easy: You leave them alone 100% of the time, forever, to the very best of your ability.

If an ex has asked you to leave them alone, but you share parenting of minor children, you can still respect their wishes. Good ways to do this: Follow the custody agreement to the letter, be pro-active about anything to do with time, paperwork, and money so it only has to be done once and nobody has to chase anybody down, and stick to the least-intrusive possible way of communicating about non-emergency child-topics as they come up. The rest of the time, you leave them alone.

If an ex has asked you to leave them alone, but you work at the same place and must interact sometimes, you direct all non-essential communications to fellow team members if at all possible, you give them space, and when you absolutely have to interact you keep it polite, brief, and 100% about work topics. Be professional, don’t make things harder than they have to be. Outside of work? Leave them alone!

If an ex has never specifically asked you to leave them alone but also, they never initiate contact with you, are slow to respond to communications from you (and respond tersely when they do), they do not invite you places, include you in social events, or seek your company, then it’s probably time to stop trying to forge a friendship (or whatever you’re after) here. “But they said they wanted to stay friends!” A lot of people say that, many of them mean it sincerely, and yet: Are they acting like they want to be friends? No? Then leave them alone.

If they’ve never asked you to leave them alone and seem quite happy to stay in touch, but being around them makes you feel bad because you’re not over the relationship and/or because things that happened during the relationship are still upsetting you, and you feel like you’re having to force yourself to stay in touch, maybe give yourself the gift of not hanging out with people who routinely make you feel bad, and leave your ex alone!

When in doubt, leave your ex alone! Unfollow their social media, disengage from keeping tabs on them, and spend that energy on people who actively want to enjoy your company in the present and the future. Your ex knows how to reach you if they’d like to reconsider.

Related Content: 

2) “Is it weird to want to reach out to an ex after years” and 3) “I want to get coffee with an ex.”

“Weird” is very subjective. It’s certainly not unusual to want to reconnect with an ex if how often this comes up in the search terms, the awkward mailbox, and the odd “hey I was just thinking about you” popping up in my dms a couple times a decade are indicators.

“Not weird”/”Not unusual” aren’t the same as “A Very Good Idea That I Endorse!,” so how’s this for a few guidelines for making it less weird?

  • Assume the other person has not been thinking about you as much as you have been thinking about them (as in, they might not think about you at all).
  • Be honest with yourself about your hopes and intentions.
  • If things ended relatively amicably and you think this person might be open to having coffee or catching up briefly online, then ask, once. 
  • Ask in a way that’s straightforward and easy to say “yes” or “no” about. “Hey, I’m going to be in town over the holidays, if you’ll be around can we meet for coffee?” “Hey, I found a bunch of old photos and recordings from that band we were in together, can I mail you copies?” 
  • If they say yes, then enjoy the coffee or the catch-up. If the person says “no thanks,” leave it there. You broke up for a reason, you made the one attempt, now you know!
  • Back to those intentions: Don’t be sketchy with yourself or others in your life, especially current romantic partners. Does “just catching up with an old friend” mean lying  to somebody about something? That’s a good sign to Just Not!
  • Speaking from experience both personal and forged in the fire of 1,000 Awkward Mailbox letters: If you’ve recently become single and you think your long-ago ex would be the best sympathetic, comforting sounding board for you as you process your feelings about life, love and loss, it’s possible The Highwomen wrote a song for you.
  • If any of this seems harsh please note: The search string wasn’t “how do I reconnect with a friend who is also an ex” –  if these people were friends, they’d already be friends.

:brief musical interlude:

(Lyrics)

4) “Fourth date and he hasn’t kissed me.”

There is exactly one person on earth who knows if “he” is not particularly attracted to you vs. he is into you but nervous about kissing you for the first time vs. he is not comfortable with taking the expected role where “he” = “common initiator of kissing stuff”  vs. he’s  asexual/demisexual and not particularly into kissing or needs a lot of time to know if he is into kissing you, specifically vs. he’s at home wondering why you haven’t made the first kissing-sort-of-move in his direction.

If you’ve been enjoying the dates so far and would like to see if Kissing Each Other is a thing that “he” is into, it’s probably time for you to ask him about it. “Would it be okay if I kissed you?” or “I’ve enjoyed going on these dates with you, would you be interested in some kissing?” are possible ways to do that, I hope you get a clear and mutually satisfying answer.

5) “He realized he cant handle a relationship right now.”

That’s a breakup. You are broken up. Grieve the possibility and move on,  he knows how to find you if he changes his mind. I’m so sorry.

6) “My friend told me I was obsessing over a guy.”

Are you obsessing over a guy?

If yes, is your friend trying to tell you:

a) The fixation is noticeable to others and your friend wants you to be aware so it doesn’t get embarrassingly out of hand (for instance, you all work together) or unhealthy for you (i.e. your friend is saying, ‘being this intense about someone is worrying them or unlike you, are you sure you’re ok?’).

b) Your friend wishes to hear much, much less about said guy.

c) Both a and b, i.e. a) “reign it in” and b) “find another sounding board, please. “

If no, why does your friend think that you are? (Plus, see (b) above). These are very good questions to ask yourself and your friend!

6) “Talking and treating your adult kids with baby voices.”

My entire body recoiled from this, but I’m back.

If you were to say, “[Parent], I’m [age]. I have a mortgage. I have a will. I have at least three distinct types of insurance. Can you please stop with the baby voice?” 

What would happen? Would they stop? Or would you get: “But I’m your [parent] and you’ll always be my liddle-widdle babykins!” 

Because to that you could try saying, “I understand that you remember when I was a baby very fondly, but I don’t remember that (’cause I was… a baby), and it’s very distracting to try to have an adult conversation when you use that [voice][nickname] with me. Can you just talk to Adult Me, A Grownup That You Successfully Raised, from now on?” 

They either will or they won’t. If that affects how you perceive your relationship and how much you want to spend time being baby-talked at, so be it, that’s a choice they are making and you have choices, too.

There are tactics that can help over time, like ignoring requests that are made in the baby voice and responding to ones that are made in a normal speaking voice (giving attention for good behavior and removing it for bad), reminders (“[Parent], we talked about this, you know I really hate the baby voice, so why are you still doing it?”). It will probably get worse before it gets better, and for that, I am sorry. Stay firm, this is worth fighting about.

7) “I am so tired of hearing my husband complain about his job.”

Periodic venting about work and asking for emotional support and advice about work and career stuff are pretty routine, reasonable partner-things to do with a spouse, but there are limits.

Signs it’s gone too far:

  • The partner spends their workday at Horrible Job and then your entire evening together is spent Reliving Horrible Job and the whole weekend is about Dreading Horrible Job.
  • You find yourself thinking, “But I don’t have to work there, so why do I feel like I do?”
  • Sharing the problem doesn’t seem to release tension or make the person feel better, the venting feeds on itself and the person gets more and more irritable as they go.
  • Bonus: Their irritability about work becomes irritability with you.
  • The venting is repetitive and unchangeable. Today’s bad work thing reminds them of every bad work thing that’s ever happened, and once a rant has started the person resists subject changes to the point it starts feeling (to you) like a ritual that cannot be interrupted once it’s begun. What is this for?
  • You’ve of course done the “Do you want advice or do you just want me to listen?” check-in before giving any advice, they choose “advice” sometimes, and now the nightly venting ritual includes arguing with you about why your advice is bad/impossible.
  • Nothing at work gets better, and you start to feel as stuck in the relationship dynamic as they do in the job.

I want to make it super-clear that both Mr. Awkward and I have been the “And ANOTHER THING about [adjuncting][customer service]!!!!!!” person and the “Babe, quit or don’t, but we can’t have this conversation even one more time” person in the last seven years and this is because capitalism sucks.

Some things that readers have suggested/Some things that have helped me, personally, ruin fewer evenings with endless workfeelingsdump are:

  • Create a structure for work-talk. Some people literally set a timer – you get 5 minutes, I get 5 minutes, we go back and forth for 10, then we try to stop talking about work for the day. Adapt that or find something else that works for you (I, personally, do not use the timer) with the caveats that setting limits or designing a structure doesn’t mean that work is never discussed at any other time, or that you have to make formal appointments, etc., with each other for support or venting, or that there’s never a reason to dig in for a good long discussion. When it works, it hopefully interrupts a daily, unsustainable cycle where one person auto-dumps and the other person dreads it/avoids it/tunes out of it/endures it, and replaces it with a predictable routine where everybody gets to vent some, everybody gets the expectation of being listened to with full attention some, and there is an agreement in place to fight, together on the same team, the notion that The Problem Of The No-Good Terrible Job always has to be the focus of the time you spend together.
  • Reclaim the time. If you try setting limits about how often work talk can be happening, reframe it away from “SHOULDn’t I be more supportive?”/”But isn’t it a partner’s JOB to listen?” and toward “Look, if we spend the whole day working and the whole evening talking about work, it’s like the job stole both your day and our night, too. We have to set limits on how much of our time and energy that place gets to have during unpaid hours!” You’re not a terrible spouse if you need to vent about your job, you’re not a bad, unsupportive, mean, selfish spouse if you do not want to mentally work four+ additional hours at your spouse’s job for every eight hateful hours they spend there. This dynamic is worth re-designing.
  • Practice opening the floodgates and closing them again, even if there is more to say. In film and theater we talk about “putting a button” on the end of a scene, which means finding an action or line (or lighting cue, cut, transition) that signifies that this beat is done for now, but still leaves the story open to continue. Maybe this concept can help with refiguring how you end difficult discussions, which is not a thing that comes naturally? As in, once discussion time is over, can you decide to physically move into a different room and purposely start a different, pleasurable activity together (put your feet up, watch a TV show, play with the pets) or separate for a little while and do solo self-care stuff (take a shower, practice piano, take a bike ride or walk, take some quiet time to read or play computer games)? There may be more to say, but honestly, you don’t have to rehash every work problem from the beginning or solve it all in one go every single time you talk about it, this is a hard but extremely worthwhile lesson to learn, plus I generally suck at task-switching and find that moving into a different room to end one thing and start something new makes it easier.
  • Give credit and acknowledgement and love often. Sometimes the least worst option (assuming everyone would like to keep eating and living indoors) is to keep going to a bad job with the knowledge that you’re not going to be able to change it or fix it or suddenly stumble on or invent a new one any time soon. In that case, validating oneself (“Everything sucks but I am doing my best I can in an unfixable situation”) and each other (“I know it sucks, and I can see how hard you work to keep your integrity in a difficult situation, I’m proud of you”) can go a long way.

Set some limits, redirect some conversations, offer what support you can, be gentle with yourselves and each other.

If you’re the serial venter with the bad job, here are some resources for getting out of it/enduring it until you can: 

And here’s my two-cents from having been that person:

Practice converting complaints into action, even silly action. Sometimes complaining is healthy and necessary to define problems, process emotions, and let my Team Me into what’s going on in my life. Other times, I get in anxiety loops where the more attention and words I give the problem without doing anything about it, the worse I feel. When I catch myself in an unhappy cycle where nothing is improving, I’m sick of the problem and myself, and I can feel the people who love me are maxing out on soothing noises, I write down my complaints, and then for each one I write down something I could do about it, including both realistic action steps and total absurdities.

Maybe today isn’t the day I can [take rational, reasonable, positive steps to further my career] but it’s also the day I successfully did NOT [quit without notice by yelling “Good luck, fuckers!” and rappelling dramatically down the building][Smuggle in a live goose as an offering to HONK, the God of Mayhem], go me! Sometimes having that snapshot of actionable vs. absurd helps me begin sorting out whether anything can be done and in what order. On the occasions it doesn’t, at least I amused myself momentarily and didn’t ruin another evening dumping it all in Mr. Awkward’s lap without preamble. Some days that’s the best we can do.

Create rituals around ending the workday and re-entering “home” or “relationship” space. Example: When I was teaching full-time, I’d sometimes have 12 hours in a row of teaching and meeting with students, with 20 minutes here and there to check emails, wolf down a food, and use the restroom before the next class. On good days, nobody followed me into the bathroom to try to pitch me their projects or ask about their grades through the stall door!

When I came home after a day like that, I needed to take the bra off, put on pajamas, wash my face, and be unavailable to every living being for 15-30 minutes of quiet. I couldn’t be a listener in that mode, and if I started talking, I might not ever stop. Once I figured that out, on days I gave myself permission to take that time and space, I would be a much better [human cat bed and servant][wife][dining companion][self-regulator of emotional workspew] then when I did not. If you and your spouse don’t have your own versions of coming inside and donning your snappy indoor cardigan and tennis shoes, think about making some. I think it helps with the whole “we are not on Work Time right now” project.

8) “My boyfriend keeps accusing me of still being married to my ex.” 

I am assuming a) you are NOT still married to your ex and b) you have told your boyfriend this with words? If so, what we have here is a boyfriend problem.

Feeling jealousy sometimes is human.

Making wild, untrue accusations, repeating these accusations even when they’ve been corrected, and using jealousy as a reason to question a partner’s integrity and control their behavior is what’s known as a red flag.

I don’t even know how to fashion a script for this, but I’ll try:

“I’m not still married to my ex, the fact that you still bring it up is incredibly weird and upsetting. 

If worrying about this is occupying your thoughts to the point that it’s affecting how you feel about our relationship, please seek counseling, but I’m not discussing it with you again. Stop.” 

If he brings it up after that? Someone who questions reality in a way designed to upset and blame you is unlikely to result in a safe or healthy long-term partnership. Abort!

9) “Should I tell my parents I’m gay before I get married.”

Methinks you were searching for this prior post on how to share news that 1) I’m gay 2) I’m married!.

tl;dr: Wedding announcements: So useful!

If that’s the case, it seems like a good time to talk to your fiancé(e) about coming out to family before the wedding, who (if anyone from the family) should get this information and be invited to the wedding, and who would be better off with a nice wedding announcement after the fact. Decide together with your future spouse how you want to handle everything for maximum safety and comfort, and then work from there.

If you are gay but you are about to marry a straight person who thinks you are also a straight person, BEFORE THE WEDDING is the time to have that conversation (even if that conversation is “I’m sorry, we need to cancel the wedding, this is a mistake“), whether or not you can safely come out or loop in your parents right away. I don’t know anyone who has done this specific thing before the wedding personally, but I have seen more than one marriage where the people in it learned the hard way that nothing painful gets LESS painful after “I do,” a breakup that needs expensive government paperwork, and a party with lots of photos to remind you how sad and scary and lonely it felt to go through with it even when you knew it was doomed. ❤ and courage.

10) “My professor is so hard to reach through email.”

Professors vary wildly in their preferences around email and what constitutes a reasonable timeframe for expecting a response. Some people will get right back to you, some people will write back within the week, some will wonder why you don’t just come to office hours, already, some really wanted to write back to you but they are adjuncts on a semester contract and their access to the system auto-locked them out the second the grades posted.

In ye olden days of the mid-1990s, I went through undergraduate study without ever emailing a professor that I can remember (I think my senior year is when they started issuing faculty email addresses that students could know about) and I’ve studied with and taught alongside some folks who act as if those days are still happening.

Here are my suggestions if you have a professor who is routinely non-responsive to email:

  1. Email them anyway. This spells out the question or request and documents that it was made in the first place.
  2. This seems like a good time to re-link the basic guide to emailing professors
  3. If your question is about the course subject matter, revisit: The syllabus, your notes & readings, talk to classmates and see if it’s in their notes. Give it your best shot. Best case you answer it yourself, the worst that happens here is you end up with a way more specific question when the prof does respond.
  4. If your question is about course logistics (due dates, something is unclear on syllabus, what’s going to be exams, etc.) double-check syllabus and course materials and check in with the [teaching assistants][the most diligent note-takers in the class, at least one of whom you should befriend if at all possible]. Maybe they can help you.
  5. #3 & #4, translated: Assume that due dates on the syllabus are still real, assignments as described are still the assignments, even if your professor doesn’t respond. A lot of students email their professors and then stop working on anything until they get an answer, which, I get why they do this, but professors working on the old “I talk to students in class and then during office hours, that should cover it!” model do not think this way, so I advise asking your question and then proceeding as best you can with the work based on the information you have. Revisions of imperfect work that was handed in as spelled out in the syllabus > opening negotiations around late work with someone who is bad at responding to questions.
  6. Go class and to office hours if you possibly can. If you can’t, make an appointment to meet face-to-face. If the problem is that you can’t physically be in class or attend office hours, and/or your question is time-sensitive try: calling the number on the syllabus and/or calling the department phone to leave a message for them, or asking a classmate who can attend to carry a note/question for you.
  7. Ask politely if they prefer another way of being contacted. “I sent an email about _____ and haven’t heard back yet, is it okay to send another email if I have more questions about ______, or do you prefer the phone for things like that?” “Making it to office hours is hard for me, it conflicts with another class, can I make an appointment to meet before our lecture to go through [my paper draft][review difficult material], or could we set up brief phone conference?”
  8. Sometimes department admins have the cheat codes, and speaking with them in person (do not put anything in writing that you wouldn’t want forwarded to the person you’re writing about) can unlock the secrets of the Eldritch Ways. Script: “I’ve been trying to email Professor ______, and I’m not hearing back, is there another good way to get in touch about [thing you need]?” Sometimes the admin will gently put a metaphoric boot in the person’s ass on your behalf, sometimes they’ll direct you to that person’s teaching assistant/minder and sometimes they’ll tell you stuff like “Oh, ____ is terrible at email, anything I want them to see I write on a piece of paper and shove under their office door. If you’re a student, include your name, what class and section it is, your phone number and a good time to call you back, it usually takes a day or two, but they will respond.” 
  9. Probably get someone else to write time-sensitive recommendation letters?
  10. There might be contact info for a “department coordinator” or “course coordinator” listed on the syllabus. If the above tactics aren’t getting it done, try a note to that person, as in: “Dear _____, I am a student in [course][section] with [professor]. I had a family emergency and will need to miss class on ____. I’ve emailed Professor ___ to arrange makeup work/handing in late work and have not heard back yet. Are you someone who can let him know that I won’t be there this week, and do you have suggestions for getting in touch by phone or some other way to sort out due dates?” 
  11. Be polite and professional, even if you’re frustrated, especially with anything that’s in writing. If this becomes a grade dispute or something where the department needs to be looped in, the more the emails you’ve sent read like “Hello, this is a polite, reasonable person who asks good questions in a timely manner,” the more it will go your way. If these people work with your bad-at-email professor all the time, trust me, they know how bad it sucks.

11) “Family member always canceling plans.”

In the absence of history, context, or reasons (disability/illness? small kids? money?transportation issues? family disputes/history? other logistics) here are some things I suggest for handling someone who routinely cancels plans:

  • Talk to ’em directly about it and ask questions. “I want to keep including you and trying to see you, but you keep cancelling. Is there some reason that’s happening that I don’t know about? Is there something we could do to make attending easier for you?” 
  • Change up the plans. Maybe you go to them instead of inviting them to you, maybe you try something last minute if advance-planning is hard to commit to, maybe a quick drink or coffee or running an errand together > a big family gathering.
  • Take a break from making plans for a while, at least, stop taking the lead on making plans, and put the ball in their court. “I’d love to see you, and I’m happy to work around your schedule, why don’t you let me know when you can definitely get together and we’ll work something out then.” “You’re always invited, if you know can’t make it for some reason, it helps a lot if you give me as much lead time as possible.”
  • Don’t plan things with this person that require advance tickets or deposits if you have a history of having to eat the cost of those things when they can’t come.
  • Plan things that don’t depend 100% on their attendance. One way to do this is to lock in reliable people and then include the frequent canceller in those plans once they’re set, i.e. “X, Y, and Z are going to see Knives Out at 3pm Sunday at [theater], with an early dinner at [place] right after. Feel free to join us, everyone’s just gonna snag their own ticket and meet up at the theater, so just grab yourself a ticket and text me on the day if you want us to save you a seat.” This gives the person the chance to opt in and you the chance to enjoy yourself without banking on them.
  • If it’s not okay with you when someone cancels, stop pretending that it is. Stop saying “no problem” when it is a problem. People can have very good reasons for needing to cancel, we can be accommodating and understanding of those reasons, and it can still hurt like hell when it happens routinely. If you find yourself saying “no problem” around this a lot (and then quietly seething), try replacing it with “Oh no! I was really looking forward to seeing you, so I hope you’ll reschedule when you’re able.” 

This question and its mirror (“I am the person who has to keep cancelling plans, for Reasons, and I’m afraid of losing all my relationships, but I just can’t guarantee that it will be different next time”) carry a lot of fear: fear of rejection, of losing connections, of looking bad, of being considered “too flaky” or “too rigid,” of imbalance/lack of reciprocity, of being the person who has to do all the work of maintaining relationships (“Would anyone even like me if I didn’t host/plan all the things?” is a variant I see a lot, as well as “Everyone stopped inviting me places and I’m pretty sure it’s my fault for saying no 100 times in a row, but how do fix it?” ), of shame around money (“I want to go but I can’t afford it”), of ableist messages (“They would be here if they really wanted to come”).

It sucks, and sometimes the best we can do is to speak honestly about what we want and need, find ways to convey affection and stay connected even when face-to-face hangouts aren’t working, set each other up to succeed as much as possible, enjoy relationships even if they aren’t perfectly balanced, take breaks from working on unworkable problems when we need to and leave the door open a little (even when it would be fair to shut it for a while) when we can.

No comments today. May upcoming holidays be restful and celebratory.

Hi Captain Awkward –

TL;DR: one of my partner’s friends became my Cool New Friend, right up until he abruptly pulled back and implied I had romantic feelings for him. I do not. He seems to want to keep hanging out (??!) and I don’t want to make it awkward but this really upset me and I have no idea how to feel or behave.

I (32, she/her) am in a very happy relationship with wonderful Partner (31M). Earlier this year I hit it off with Partner’s friend “Bob” (30??M). Bob is funny and interesting and well-read, and Partner suggested Bob and I could see movies together (Partner has a low tolerance for silent films). Over 6 months, Bob and I ended up hanging out every 2-3 weeks. Periodically one of us (usually Bob) would suggest we meet for a movie or a meal. We’d hang out for couple of hours and talk a lot. Bob seemed surprisingly comfortable being open early on (family, health, a recent breakup), and taking my cue from him, I found myself talking unreservedly to him like a close friend. (I cringe now to think of this.) Partly I think Bob needed to process the denouement of his romantic relationship, but we canvassed lots of other things, so I wasn’t just the Designated Woman Listener. And, well, I am in a conspicuously happy relationship with Partner, while Bob is dealing with feelings for someone else. No When Harry Met Sally problems here!

Then Bob abruptly cancelled a dinner he had suggested, before a movie he had suggested, via text message, because he was “uncomfortable” and felt like we had been “going on dates.” After some prodding, Bob divulged that he thought I had romantic feelings for him. Bob is a great guy and I would have no hesitation setting him up with a friend, but I do not have feelings for Bob. At all. (Bob did not help matters by subsequently demanding text confirmation of this for “reassurance”. What?)

Unfortunately, Bob stepped right into a bear trap of my anxieties. Making friends has always been hard for me. It makes me feel so pathetic in retrospect, but I’d been really excited about my awesome new friend. I also have a history of damaging friendships through thoughtlessness or terrible boundaries – behaviours I *thought* I’d grown out of. I was embarrassed, upset, and increasingly, angry. Bob basically cast aspersions on my commitment to Partner – who literally laughed out loud at the idea when I told him.

Captain, we’ve hung out twice since, and it was awful. I’m stilted and uncomfortable; Bob seems to want to pretend nothing happened. But I’m not comfortable behaving like before, because clearly that gave Bob the wrong idea! Being so wildly misread really sucks, and I’m torn between wanting to know how Bob got this idea, and never wanting to hear it because oh nooooo what did I doooooo.

Bob is still doggedly suggesting movies. I really don’t want to screw up Partner’s social circle and part of me wonders if any friendship is salvageable. But I don’t know how much of this is my fault and I don’t know how to behave around Bob anymore. Also, now I’m back down to zero people to watch weird old movies with. I have no idea how to address this situation. Help??

Hello!

Other people don’t get to tell you what your feelings are, full stop.

Additionally, I consulted Occam’s Razor (I keep it next to Occam’s hand lotion, Occam’s minty morning mouthwash, and Occam’s Big Paisley Tie) and it indicated that Bob possibly became weird because HE was developing a big old crush on YOU. Your hangouts felt like dates…to him. And instead of either ruefully admitting it or dealing with it quietly (“I’ll just keep being her friend, it will pass“), he projected it all onto you.

A second possibility that still has nothing to do with anything you did wrong: The person Bob is actually pursuing romantically looks askance at the friendship between you, either because they are jealous of you, specifically, or because they are one of those people who are convinced that men and women can’t ever be friends (au contraire, mon frère) and unfortunately Bob is also sort of one of those people but was making an exception for his Silent Film Buddy. Maybe your hangouts looked like dates to that person, so that person made it weird for Bob, who in turn made it weird for you. The demand for text confirmation makes me imagine Bob saying to this person, “See? I asked her and she doesn’t feel that way. We just go to the movies sometimes.” 

Third possibility: This is like one of those things where you get really upset at someone in a dream and you wake up and you’re angry at them in real life but only for stuff they did in the dream. Maybe Dream-You got horny for Dream-Bob one night, which, fine, except, Not Fine, because Awake-Bob crossed the dream streams and broke up your film club dream team.

Fourth possibility: Say you accidentally did or said something that made Bob feel uncomfortable, like a line was being crossed. You didn’t hit on him, but the intimacy of your conversations, for whatever reason, felt like Too Much for the level of movie buddies he wants to be. Or he felt like he was sharing too much private information with you and wanted to pull back from those kinds of conversations. In that scenario a friend might reasonably want to regroup a bit, like, “Note to self, these friend-dates are starting to feel like date-dates…to me…maybe I should change something up here” but that can be done without blaming you or asking for a notarized statement of your lack of pantsfeelings. Crushes happen, misunderstandings happen, but we don’t tell our friends they have feelings and then, like, punish them for their feelings that we made up in our heads and told them they had.

So what to do now? To truly clear the air, Bob would need to admit what he did and apologize to you. “I’m so sorry I insisted that you had feelings for me. What actually happened was I was feeling ________ about ________ and I projected all that on to you.” 

You could attempt to clear the air. The next time he suggests a film, you could say, “Dude, I want to go to the movies but not until we talk about the very weird thing you did. I never had romantic feelings for you, and you made me INCREDIBLY uncomfortable when you insisted I did. If I did or said something specific that made you uncomfortable, please tell me what it was so I can apologize and not ever do it again. We can go back to acting like it never happened once you tell me, honestly, what the hell was that about?”

I realize asking him directly is nerve-wracking for you, both because of your history because you can’t necessarily trust him to be honest or self-aware enough to not double down and try even more projection. But please know, you’d be entirely within your rights to do it.

You could let Partner intervene on your behalf. I generally advise letting our partners handle their own friendships and not getting in the middle, which seems to be your strategy as well, but maybe next time the two men hang out solo your Partner can throw up a “Dude, [LW] doesn’t have feelings for you and you made her incredibly uncomfortable about that whole thing. What was UP with that?” and a “Well, you probably need to apologize before you try to plan any more movie nights.” 

You could also take a break and hang with Bob only at bigger Partner-social-circle events. You’re not “screwing up” anybody’s social circle, you just don’t have time right now to go to the movies with your Partner’s friend who you thought was a cool friend but who is actually a super-presumptive and demanding friend who you didn’t enjoy seeing movies with the last two times you did that. Make a rule going forward: “For every 10 minutes I spending navigating The Bobness, I will spend 10 minutes finding (or founding!) a women-watching-old movies-together meet where I live.” Go to screenings alone sometimes. Wear an incredibly fancy and fetching hat. Say hello to the other regulars in the crowd (there are almost certainly regulars in the crowd). If your town has silent film screenings, plural, you and Bob are not the only people in that scene. Meet the other beautiful nerds.

You can also join Bob for an occasional film/joint exercise in pretending it didn’t happen, and see if it gets better with some time. Bob’s persistence in making plans is an indicator that he does like you and want to go to the movies still. But look, I’m bilingual in both English and acting like the elephant is not in the room, so I want to be clear: Bygones are a gift. If you never bring this up again, if you try to hang out with Bob like it never happened and give the friendship some time to recover, that is a favor you are doing for him. You are letting him save face after the weird thing he did, with a silent message of: “Friend, I’m trusting that was a one-time thing and you had your reasons, reasons which you will sheepishly acknowledge someday, maybe to me, maybe to your therapist, and I like you enough to give it another try. Don’t fuck it up.” 

The most important thing, to me, is that you stop blaming yourself and get off the back foot. Climb out of your shame-hole. You’re in a weird situation not because something’s inherently wrong with you but because your friend Bob put you in the impossible position of denying a negative. Bob’s gonna Bob. It doesn’t mean you’ll never again pass a pleasant afternoon together watching a restored print of Nosferatu while a live orchestra plays the score, but it does mean that the closer friendship you thought was happening is not entirely possible within Bob’s limitations.