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Cultural Differences

“Sometimes I imagine what it would be like to give this book to my mother. To present it to her as a precious gift over a meal that I’ve cooked for her. To say: Here is everything that keeps us from really talking. Here is my heart. Here are my words. I wrote this for you.” – Michele Filgate, Introduction, What My Mother And I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence

I just devoured this essay collection curated by the wonderful  Michele Filgate (whose title-essay about her mother’s refusal to believe her about childhood sexual assault at the hands of her stepfather is in the book) and it’s really good. There are love and appreciation stories aplenty, though many essays cover seriously harrowing ground around mental illness, addiction, emotional abuse, and other kinds of abuse without holding back. It’s not a light read, is what I am saying.

I feel like almost every piece in the book maps to a letter that someone has sent to my inbox about how to say the unsayable thing, how to know when it’s time to let go, how to tell your own truth, how to dig into the past without letting it define you, how to set boundaries, how to see a parent as a separate person who existed before you, how to honor the gifts our mothers give us and be honest about the poisoned apples they sometimes pass on. I kept highlighting as I went because I knew that some Letter Writer somewhere needed to see that sentence, see themselves on that page. “Mother Tongue,” Carmen Maria Machado‘s chapter about estrangement is one of the best things about that topic I’ve read. Some quotes from that essay:

“Whenever I saw her, she found some way to let me know that despite my accomplishments, I was failing. ‘You need to learn to make better choices,’ she told me, though what choices they were, she never specified. Besides, all I could hear was, ‘I wish I’d made better choices.’ And I couldn’t help her with that.”

“A reader might think that this is, obviously, a kind of misplaced parental anxiety and love. And they might be right. But I felt like I was losing my mind. There was no trust, no affection, no listening, just ignorant micromanagement. It felt like I was existing in a parallel universe, where everything I’d just done with my life, everything I was doing with my life, hadn’t made any difference at all. I was a kid again, useless. Nothing was mine–not my time, not my schedule, not my choices.”

I’ll stop before I accidentally re-publish the whole thing. If you spent Mother’s Day curled up in a ball because of a difficult relationship and/or if you have a letter hanging out in my queue about this topic, this might be a healing book for you. ❤

I’m working on a book proposal for a collection of essays, so I’m on a tear of reading essay collections of late. Here are some other collections I couldn’t put down:

  • Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, which is an essay collection about race and politics and identity in America AND a memoir about family and love and being from a particular place in the Midwest AND a chronicle of how the music we love carries our dreams and tells our stories, how the music brings us back to particular moment in time, how it helps us remember and see. It’s a fucking stunner.
  • Alexander Chee’s How To Write An Autobiographical Novel which is, among many other things, such a love letter to the teachers who taught him to write. Chee has an essay in the What My Mother And I Don’t Talk About collection as well.
  • JoAnn Beard’s The Boys Of My Youth (I discovered her work through the outstanding 1996 essay The Fourth State of Matter which, if you are unfamiliar, could use a content note for everything from “school shooting/gun violence” to “dying pet” but it’s one of those pieces that says EVERYTHING and never lets go).

No comments, as I don’t really like debating about the books I read in my free time, I like what I like and you like what you like, but since people always want to know what I’m reading, here’s some of what I’m reading. I hope you’re reading things that speak to you!

Finally, I just got an advance copy of Jessica Pan’s “Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want To Come: One Introvert’s Year Of Saying Yes” in the mail, I’ll update here when I’m done since I think “What would happen if a shy introvert lived like a gregarious extrovert for one year?” is a question that lots of us might like to see answered, if only vicariously and from a very safe distance.

It’s time to answer the things people typed into search engines as if they are questions.

Here is a seasonal jam by The Avett Brothers:

Lyrics are here.

1 “I can’t stand going to my friend’s house because she smokes inside.”

Legit! I have a very hard time with smoke (asthma trigger), the same way cat-allergic friends have a hard time hanging out in the kitten palace. Sometimes it’s possible to hang out for a little while at my lovely smoker-friends’ places with the aid of my inhaler (used both pre-emptively and refreshed periodically), sometimes it’s not. Sometimes my friends can hang out at my place for a little while with the help of Zyrtec, sometimes they can’t, and/or we need to cut the visit short. Nobody holds it against anyone (we all get to set our own risk tolerance, especially when it comes to breathing, and we all get to make our homes primarily serve ourselves). It’s okay to invite the friend out and generally try to meet in places other than her home.


2 “My sister has changed so much I don’t even know her anymore.”

What if you could let go of who she used to be, or how you imagined she was?

Pretend you just met her. Look at her like a friendly stranger might, someone without any baggage or history where she’s concerned. Try to spend some enjoyable time with her, find out what she’s interested in now, find out what you might have in common now.

Look for reasons to enjoy her company, be proud of her, look for things to be curious about and praise. If she’s unkind to you, or just an asshole, that’s different, obviously, but what if you started from a place of kindness and curiosity?

Sometimes I wish we could all do this with all of our family members.

3 “Tidying Up hard to understand her accent

.”

As someone who has studied multiple languages and taught ESL to kids and adults, I have recommendations, though I should say up front that these suggestions require the ability to see the screen and read and I’m not sure what to recommend for people with visual impairments.

If you want to watch a TV show and you have trouble parsing the performer’s accent, try this:

  1.  Turn on the captions/subtitles.
  2. Remove other distractions (don’t try to watch it in the background while you keep one eye on your phone or sorting your mail or whatever). You’re going to have to pay closer attention.
  3. Get used to the idea that you might not catch absolutely every nuance the first time. You can rewind if necessary, rewatch if necessary.
  4. Stick with it for a few episodes. It’s very likely that it will get easier the more you listen and watch. You’ll pick up the cadences of speech better, and you’ll have more context clues, you’ll get to know the performers/presenters body language/facial expressions over time.

If you try that and it doesn’t get easier, maybe the show is not for you. Try the book instead, or find something else to watch.

Moderation Note:  Kindly refrain from cluttering the comments section with complaints/criticisms/feelings/arguments/jokes/incl. compliments! about Marie Kondo, her show, her book, her approach, literally anything about her. I find the intense discourse around her exhausting at best and racist at worst, and I will delete all of it (even nice things)(even jokes that are clever variations about whether something sparks joy). I like you an awful lot, let’s keep it that way.

4 “Can’t wear anything too “fancy” or my boyfriend gets mad

.”

I have an idea, let’s look at pretty outfits and imagine what we might wear to a “I dumped that controlling jerkass” party.

Maybe something from the Vivienne Westwood ’94 collection? 

Or the recent Golden Globes?

5 “Flowers on dick.” 

Scroll down to #18 for all your funeral-arrangements-for-enemies needs.

6 “sexual favors”and “free rent” “massachusetts”



Well that’s wicked specific.

7 “My boyfriend expects me to eat from his squalid kitchen

.”

Well, what happens when you say “I’m not comfortable with that?” 

I meant to add this to the “red flags & compatibility when meeting new people to date” discussion at the end of this post last week but I forgot, so I’ll add it here:

Visit each other’s living spaces  – after you feel safe/comfortable being alone with someone before you commit to an ongoing relationship. Are you comfortable there? Do you feel welcome? Can you relax? Is what you see (smell/feel) congruent with the person you’re getting to know and what you want?

“This person’s living space upsets me” vs. “What if they can’t help it?” is a well-covered discussion topic on the site. I am not interested in judging people, blaming people, diagnosing people, excusing people, shaming people, setting these conflicts up as moral contests. I am interested in giving everyone permission to factor how a current or potential partner keeps their living space into decisions about comfort and compatibility.

Back in grad school I made a short film about a laundry pile achieving sentience. It wasn’t a documentary due to biological impossibility…for now…but let’s just say my real-life hamper did all its own stunts. By contrast, my dad, the world’s tidiest man, can sense when you are close to finishing a soda. He hovers while you take your last swallow, pounces before you can put the can down on any surface, rinses it to restore factory settings, and ferries it gently to its rightful place in the garage, where his complex recycling system made up of 12 distinct bins and barrels awaits. He is an extremely good match for my mom, who prefers to maintain all surfaces in a state of surgical sterility.

A date who preferred my parents’ “we keep the correct vacuum cleaner for each room in a closet in that room” lifestyle would have looked at my MFA in chore avoidance and thought: “Nope! We would make each other miserable!” This is fine! We would! I would gross him out, he would remind me of my dad and send my shoulders up around my ears!

Maybe the boyfriend in the search string will clean his kitchen. Maybe he’ll get dumped ’cause he won’t. Maybe he’ll be the one who breaks up because the querent made him feel judged and uncomfortable. Maybe they’ll decide to live happily ever after on takeout and prepackaged things. Fine! This is all fine!

In no universe will I ever recommend anything resembling “Since some people struggle with housekeeping, love probably means swallowing your discomfort along with whatever they cooked, no matter how unsanitary you find it.” Serious incompatibility around housekeeping stuff is a recipe for intense stress and conflict, you’re allowed to have preferences, needs, and choose a lower difficulty setting for yourself and your relationships.


8 “Why does my boyfriend treats his daughter like his wife.”

He creepy?

9 “Niece hates me for no reason.”

She has a reason. It may not be a good reason, it may not be a reason you’ll ever get to the bottom of, but it exists even if it’s only her opinion.

When I sense someone doesn’t like me, and I can’t think of a plausible reason for the conflict,  and “Hey, have I done something to upset you?” doesn’t work (either b/c I asked and didn’t get a good answer or I don’t feel comfortable enough to even ask), I try to give the person a lot of space, be polite and keep it light when I do have to interact, and see if time either mellows the situation or gives me more information.


10 “BF’s ex-girlfriend warns me about him how do I respond

.”

Do you actually need to respond? Do you need to respond to her?

In your shoes, I might say something very non-committal to her, like, “thanks for telling me, I’ll think about it.” It’s such an unusual thing to do that (in my opinion) it’s probably worth thinking about for a few days before you either act on it or disregard it.

What’s the worst thing that could happen if you do nothing about what she said? (Don’t respond, don’t address it with your boyfriend, brush it off).

What’s the substance of the warning? Is she trying to warn you about abuse? Have you noticed any red flags?

What’s in this for her? What reason would she have to lie? Like, is she trying to get you to break up with the boyfriend so she can be with him again, or to create trouble for him? Or is she trying to warn you to GTFO for your own safety?

Your answers to those questions will most likely point you in the right direction.


11 “Housemate comments on everything I do.”



I’m sure I wrote some more emotionally mature and useful responses and you should probably go read those and try those suggestions.

Right now what comes to mind is:”What are you, the narrator?”

12 “What does it mean when someone reacts to a minor little comment that bothers them with a barrage of made up hurtful things to hurt the other person?

”

Nothing good! Consider how much time you want to spend with someone who does this (if any).

13 “I feel like I am a burden on my therapist

.” 


This is probably worth mentioning to your therapist. Consider also that your therapist gets paid for the time they spend with you, most therapists have some choices about who they take on as a client, and you’re just one of many clients they see. It is unlikely they are thinking about you (as a burden or otherwise) as much as you think about them.


14 “How often to go to someones house.”

I love literally any excuse to make a chart.

Screen Shot 2019-02-14 at 5.52.01 PM

A Venn Diagram that shows the intersection of being invited to someone’s house and actually wanting to go to their house. Maybe you’ll need Zyrtec.

 

Happy Valentine’s Day to those who celebrate, happy “day before half price candy” for those who don’t. Be excellent to yourselves and each other.

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!

Many years ago, I was in love with a woman friend of mine, let’s call her P, and when I used my words, she told me that she didn’t feel the same way and was already in love with someone else (a mutual friend of ours, A). I was heart-broken and after about a year of being sad I resolved to move on and rebuild my life. I moved to a different country, went back to school to get an advanced degree and started a new job a year ago in my field. Although I wish I could have found someone else, I was mostly busy with my career and having been hurt + some personal issues about being a short guy (I was never bothered too much about my height before, but having been heart-broken seemed to have brought out my insecurities), I did not really pursue any relationships.

Now, as arranged marriages are customary in my culture, my parents want me to get married soon. At my age this is already considered very late in my culture and my parents tell me my prospects are thin and I should quickly settle for someone. While I like to think I don’t *have* to get married soon, or at all, I also feel very strongly that that’s not really an option for me. There’s enormous pressure in my society to settle down, I feel obligated to my parents and sometimes feel an arranged marriage is my best chance since dating is scary. Surely, my parents got married this way, as do lots of people in my culture, even some of my best friends, and are, by all appearances, on average, pretty happy.

Given this, how do I make the best of my situation, how do I learn to love someone who I barely know and who I may not be attracted to? When I talk to my friends, they always seem to have been into their prospective partners and vice-versa from the get go, they appear to not have had any major misgivings or spent any time thinking in terms like mine and in fact appear to have been excited and thrilled about starting a new life which is again, apparently, how their prospective partners also felt. When I listen to them, I think I want to feel that way too, feel genuinely thrilled and excited to find someone and get on with life and they advise me that “things just work out”. But I always end up concluding that either my outlook on life is different from theirs or that their personal situation isn’t like mine and so what worked for them may not work for me.

I also recently discovered that A and P had broken up and that A is now married to someone else(an arranged marriage no less!). I fantasize about getting back in touch with P and trying my luck again despite zero contact and no signs that P is even interested. I know that is just a fantasy but with the difficult choice of an arranged marriage, I keep thinking why not give it a shot.

I would greatly appreciate any advice on whether it’s even advisable to think about talking to P and if not, if you have any advice on how to go about being okay with an arranged marriage and learning to appreciate and love this other person who also may or may not be into me, given that putting off / not getting married isn’t an option.

Thanks,
Feeling Desperate

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Dear Captain Awkward,

I’m afraid I might be walking into an Alice situation (a la letter #247). My boyfriend’s family is very conservative and even though he is an adult, he not only lives with them (which is fine) but lives by their rules, curfews, and puts up with their interrogations over who he is spending time with, who his friends are, etc. They don’t know I exist, but he’ll be telling them within a month. He hasn’t so far because due to conservative culture reasons he can’t tell them he has a girlfriend, but rather that there is this girl (me) he wants to marry. And I’m terrified because they’re going to hate me (his mother especially) and I need scripts on how to deal with that when I meet them.

From everything he’s told me (and I take his word for it) I will be considered all wrong because I’m older than him, have been married before, am bisexual (here’s hoping his family needn’t find out, at least initially), am from a different culture (and don’t speak the language he speaks with his family, and his mother doesn’t speak English fluently), I’m not conservative and certainly don’t fit the mould of what a stereotypical wife would be like (I have no intention to just pop out babies, cook and clean, etc., which Boyfriend is fine with but his family won’t be), I’ve already vetoed the idea of us living with his family when we get married, and I’m expecting there to be body shaming.

Boyfriend has said that he expects his family’s displeasure about all of this to be voiced to him, and not to me and I know I can’t force them to like me. Boyfriend is also scared himself about their reaction to his upcoming conversation with them about wanting to marry me. I have tried to direct him to this site so he can read up some great advice about setting boundaries and making it clear what shit he will put up with and what he won’t, but he says that sort of thing is not done in his culture and apparently I just don’t understand (it’s true, I don’t), and while he sees that I’m trying to be helpful, it’s not helping because boundaries is just not the done thing.

How can I support him with this difficult conversation coming up for him (which will be more of an extended series of fights/arguments) while respecting his decision to not have me encourage him to set boundaries, while also being able to set boundaries myself? What am I meant to say to his family when I meet them (and yes, I’m trying to learn the language so I can at least exchange pleasantries with his mother)? (And yes, social anxiety and severe depression is making me overthink all of this, and yes, I am in therapy, but any scripts would help a lot!!).

Any help would be much appreciated,

Scared of future in-laws

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Dear Captain Awkward,

I should probably start off by saying that I come from a culture (one of many) where family ties are super close, and family members getting into your business is acceptable and if you complain about it you’re ungrateful and aggressive.

I am now going to be working in another country (my country of birth) for the summer, and my aunt and grandparents are also here, staying in their home. I’m living alone (hallelujah) in another apartment, but i go over there once in awhile to see my grandparents.

However, something very strange is happening. I’ve been on my own pretty much, or trying to be. My aunt, however, decides to accompany me back to my dorm whenever i leave their home, even though I do not ask her to do this. She also decided, unilaterally, that she would accompany me to meet the person I’m working for. So she came in and SAT IN THE MEETING, and she did all this at the speed of light, totally ignoring my attmepts to divert her and giving me no chance to say hey, maybe you don’t need to be here. The job is acutally an internship and has been in the works, and this was not my first impression on the person I’m working for, so I’m not as mortified as I would be. The interviewers are also from the same culture, and appeared to understand the dynamics of the situation, for which i’m thankful.

That’s not the weird part. The weird part is that on the way back, as we went our separate ways, she told me that I needed to be more independent. I had no idea how to respond, besides “uh, i’m perfectly capable of being independent, except when you all foist yourselves into things that don’t concern you.” This is a common pattern in my family – be overbearing and steamroll people, then proclaim that they are too dependent and can’t live on their own and NEED the intervention of people constantly trying to dictate things to them.

What i’m wondering is…..what on earth do i do here? If i object to their meddling it’s considered rude. If I accept their “help” without comment, they use it against me to claim that I need their help, when i never asked for it. What. The. Hell.

Signed,

Trapped in a Feedback Loop

Dear Trapped in a Feedback Loop:

I want to introduce you to my favorite word right now and it’s not “no” or “wow” or “really?” as you might suspect. It’s “okay” and I’ve found it useful whenever someone is projecting something onto me that isn’t really about me at all.

Family Member: “You really need to be more independent!

“Okay.”

Family Member: “If you don’t listen to my intrusive advice, terrible things will happen!

“Okay.”

Family Member: “I’m just worried that my stream of anxiety about you will actually come into being!

“Okay.”

Family Member: “I’m just worried our family won’t see it as a ‘real wedding’ if there is no religious aspect.” (True story, y’all)

“Okay.”

It’s a different version of “Sure, I’ll think about it!” where you will think about whatever it is (and then not do it if it doesn’t suit you). It’s a non sequitur/feigned agreement way of saying “I heard you and I am not particularly ruffled by your concerns but I also don’t want to fight with you.” It doesn’t work in every situation, but try it out and see what happens. Sometimes it stops the conversation in its tracks because there just isn’t any place to go from there.

Another way to deal with the “You need to be more independent (while I totally undercut your independence at every turn)” Auntie is to ask her what she means. “Auntie, I’d love to be more independent. Can you help me understand what you mean by that?” She’s not gonna gain sudden self-awareness about how her intrusion on your job meeting or walking you home every single night conflicts with that wish, but it might help to know her specific concerns and get an idea of her point of view about everything. Don’t argue with her when she answers you even if what she says is very unfair, just hear her out and tell her you’ll think about what she suggested. Then, over time (not during that particular conversation, just, when another intrusion comes up organically in a specific situation), gently and inexorably refer back to that conversation. “Auntie, I’ve really taken to heart your advice about being more independent, and I’d like to handle work meetings by myself.” “Auntie, you’re very kind to escort me home, but for the sake of being more independent, I’d like to go by myself tonight. Thank you!” Think of it as boundaries-Aikido, where you are channeling her aggression away from yourself. In that sense, the “Be more independent!” advice was a gift she gave you to help you start gently maintaining your boundaries. It gives you a way to say “Thank you, but thanks to your excellent guidance,  I got this!” and carve out some space in a constructive way rather than lapsing into a teenaged-sounding “QUIT SMOTHERING ME!” (even if that’s legitimately how you feel around these folks).

She will not disengage quietly, so know going in that it will probably take many attempts. Go slow and avoid ultimatums to the extent that you can.

 

It’s time for the monthly-ish post where we answer the things that people typed into search engines as if they are questions.

1. “Captain Awkward help my boyfriend keeps trying to optimise me.

Eff that dude. He’s not your Pygmalion and you are not a project.

2. “How should you act when you see your former affair and his wife in public?”

Give him a “hey, ‘sup bro?” nod and keep on walking/don’t stop to talk to them. You’re not going to be successful at pretending you don’t know him (hence the nod), but let him be the one to scramble for explanations about how y’all know each other. If you don’t engage at all it makes it less likely that you’ll have to lie to some poor woman’s face.

Clint Eastwood nodding like a bro.

3. “How do I tell my husband I’m sick of him playing games on his phone?”

Text him?

In all seriousness, I think it’s a good idea to make mealtimes and certain other times gadget/screen free, and I think you can ask him outright. to do that.

4. “What to do when your boyfriend’s ex wants him back.”

Ignore the ex to the extent that you can and don’t engage with them if you can help it. In my experience, this is almost always a partner problem more than it is an ex problem, as in, the ex can want all they want, but how your partner treats you is everything.

5. “What to do when every time I go out side my neighbour tells me all her troubles.” 

Awkward. Give it like, 2 minutes, and then deploy some scripts:

1) “Hey, good to see you, but I actually don’t have time to talk today.”

2) “Hey, nice to see you, but I came out here to get a bit of quiet. We can catch up another time, maybe.

3) If you’re like me, and you always carry a book, “Hi! I’m in a really exciting part of my book and I’ve been waiting all day to read it. I’ll have to catch up with you another time, thanks.” Pull out book.

Your neighbor will likely never get the hint, so you’ll have to ask. Prepare for sighing and harrumphing. If she makes a big show of avoiding you, be magnanimous – you’ve won! If she gives you some space, once a week, maybe just hang out with her for 10 minutes and ask about her day to show her that boundaries don’t mean y’all are enemies. If she doesn’t give you space, get more terse. “When I said I wasn’t in the mood to talk, I really meant it. Good night!”

6. “All our neighbors don’t talk to us.”

Maybe your neighbors just aren’t your people*? Try finding friends and a social life elsewhere?

My other question is, do you talk to them? Could you find the friendliest-seeming person and bake them a cake or something to break the ice? Give it some time and see if it gets better.

*”Aren’t your people” *could* mean “you have unwittingly moved to a racist, homophobic, and sexist hellscape.” Sorry, that’s a real thing, and it sucks.

7. “Just because he’s my boss should he not act on his feelings about me?”

Pretty much, bosses should not try to date or seduce or romance their employees and should look to, I dunno, literally anyone else.

8. “4 dates means he must like me.”

Sadly, that’s not a guarantee, though the possibility is there. In a new dating relationship, look to the present tense. What are things like between you now? Does he demonstrate that he likes you? Do you like him? Is it easy to make plans?

9. “He’s ignoring my Facebook messages.”

Stop sending Facebook messages and see if he contacts you.

10. “How to know if a girl loves you secretly from long distance?”

Ask her? She has the universe’s sole monopoly on the information you want.

11. “iamabeautifulperson.”

Fuck yeah!

12. “What does it mean when a boy suddenly message me saying sorry to be blunt but do you like me yes or no.”

Most likely explanation: 1) The boy likes you and is trying to make it known 2) Y’all are in middle school.

You don’t have to answer right away if you need time to make up your mind. “I’m thinking about it. Why do you want to know?” is a perfectly good answer.

13. “Having trouble accepting that my adult married daughter is gay.”

The best thing you can do is to realize that she was always gay there was always the possibility that she would be gay. It’s a fact, not something that needs your acceptance in order to be true, but if you want to keep having a relationship with her you need to do the work. Please be a good person about this, educate yourself, tell your daughter you love her, and don’t make her sexuality an issue between the two of you.

14. “A guy told me my messages creep him out what does that mean.”

Bluntly: Stop sending that guy messages. He doesn’t like them.

15. “Comebacks for people gaslighting you.”

In my estimation, no one is topping this lady who figured out her boyfriend was gaslighting her and then made him watch Gaslight. My heroine.

The key with gaslighters is not comebacks, it’s to get yourself out of proximity to them and in proximity to good people who treat you well.

16. “My boyfriend wants to move in together but I don’t.”

Listen to and believe that voice that is telling you that you don’t want to live with him. Maybe it’s that you don’t want to live with him yet, maybe it’s that you don’t want to live with him ever, maybe there is a fixable problem that you can work on together, and maybe it’s not fixable. Whatever it is, sit with it quietly, write about it, talk to trusted people about it, talk to your boyfriend about it, but don’t discount it.

17. “He’s mean to me, rude to me and doesn’t care about my feelings. What does it mean?”

A sign that says

It means: Get this dude out of your life forever.

Monty Python & the Holy Grail: Run away! Run away!