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Hello, Captain,

Quick aside: I really like your switch to allowing comments only on select posts. It makes the whole site somehow calmer and more inviting. Being able to read your writing without the distraction of subconsciously wondering what sharp poky things might turn up at the bottom is relaxing in a way I wouldn’t have predicted. So thanks!

Of course, now I’m going to ask a question that might benefit from commenter input. Or not?

One afternoon a year and one Christmas present a year are the entire extent of the contact I and most of the extended family have with a 10-year-old niece (an only child, daughter of my spouse’s sibling). What kind of present would be the most helpful and most grounding for a child whose parents are out of touch with reality even on their best days and who are now separating and using her as a pawn?

More frequent communication is impossible. Parents are paranoid and intelligent: giving their child a book called “Your Parents’ Booze and 420 Abuse Is Not Your Fault” or “You’re Not Wrong: Most People Don’t Actually Say Whatever Lie Comes into Their Head Just to Get What They Want Right This Second” or “We All Sure Hope the Dream Fairy Who Told Them Their Bipolar Meds Were Poison Changes Her Mind” will be seen for what it is and may sever all communication with them entirely. I don’t know that the child is a big reader anyway.

Despite the fact that their daughter’s emotional needs don’t seem to be of interest to either of them, they seem to love her to the extent that they can, and she seems to have food and ice skating lessons and clothes that fit, and I see no evidence of physical abuse. They don’t live near any of us, so who knows, really, but I don’t have anything to report to her school (if I even knew what school) or CPS.

The child is intelligent and relatively outgoing and wants to be a part of things. It is heartbreaking to hear her asking desperately confused questions and to hear them answer with baldfaced lies in front of us.

She is so young and so dependent on them, and we have no means of contacting her, even through her parents, 364 days out of the year. What can we do to support her from afar, through gifts that won’t set the parents off?

Auntie Out of State

Dear Auntie Out Of State,

Re: Your Quick Aside:  I am very relieved to hear this. Sometimes I really miss comments and the community culture, and I know others do, too, but it became absolutely unsustainable for me to read 10,000+ words every time I wanted to write any words or deal with the 1% of people who are A Problem (but who absorbed 99% of moderation time and energy). I’m still experimenting with the right mix of discussion vs. just writing, and I hope people who value in-depth discussions will take advantage of the reader-led forums at friendsofcaptainawkward.com and the subreddit. Thank you so much for reading and hanging in.

As to your question, I am not going to open comments on this because in my strong opinion gifts aimed at “fixing” or “helping” tend to suck unless they are specifically asked for by the recipient, there is no “right” Christmas gift that will fix or make up for or counteract your niece’s present home life, nor do I wish to curate a bunch of links to extremely specific toy and other gift suggestions, no matter how thoughtfully recommended. Your “Holiday Gift Guide For Possibly Sad 10-Year-Olds” Princess Is In Another Internet Castle.

Fortunately, I know from experience that good presents from a faraway aunt one never sees can actually foster a permanent “Aunt _____ LOVES ME and is AWESOME!” feeling in nieces and there is one method that works, namely:

Get your niece the MOST FUN stuff you can think of while she’s a child.

It’s okay to ask her parents for ideas as a courtesy even if you aren’t close, and to briefly check stuff like clothing sizes and favorite colors. If they’re forthcoming great, if not, no worries, you can also ask your friends who are parents of similarly-aged kids what their kids go apeshit for. Stuff like:

  • Art supplies! Craft kits! What is shiniest/glossiest/has the most colors? Glitter pens? Stickers? Beautiful notebooks? Do that!
  • Books! – BUT ONLY FUN, ADDICTIVE STORYBOOKS, NOT “HELPFUL” BOOKS!  If you’re stumped your local librarian will probably know what they can’t keep on the shelves in the children’s section, and they’ll also probably know what extremely fun stuff will fly under the radar of, say, strict conservative parents who are Terribly Concerned About Wizards. Graphic novels absolutely count as reading, Ms. Marvel and Squirrel Girl might be good places to start.
  • Toys! The prettiest dolls if she plays with dolls, the best Legos, Lincoln Logs, and other “building” sets (there’s this one that has magnetic balls and multi-colored rods that is like, my favorite thing ever though maybe it’s a better fit for littler kids and middle aged people like me, who knows), the niftiest action figures and spaceships or robots or dinosaurs or dragons or fancy horses.
  • Costumes/dress-up clothes in her size! The little girls I’m around most these days are in the 6-8YO demographic but they show zero signs of slowing down with questions like “can I be princess, a firefighter, a princess who is also a firefighter, a scientist (who secretly fights fires)(and is possibly the heiress to a mythical royal family/a unicorn)?” 2) I know the princess thing can get tedious and hella gendered, but honestly, who doesn’t need a sparkly floor-length purple velvet cloak and a tiara in their size? Not me! Wait, I mean me! (As in, I might need that).
  • Tech/Games/Videos – If you come across whatever the coolest 10-year-old you know can’t put down, and get inspired, do that.

Don’t overdo it, pick one or two special things every Christmas, and put a gift receipt inside to make exchanges easy. If it’s something that makes you squee inside because you would have loved it at her age? So much the better. That’s a genuine connection and pleasure you are handing down, even if it’s invisible, even if it’s not the exact thing she already thought of to want. You’ll probably have some misses but more hits, and over time your niece will notice and remember that you and your spouse love to give her presents.

Throughout the year you could also be the Aunt Who Sends Postcards  – silly ones, ones with beautiful art or from wonderful places – write a few innocuous greetings that communicate some version of “Hello there, we like you!” on the back and don’t worry about getting a reply. If you’re only allowed a few crumbs of interaction now and then, think of holiday gifts and the odd postcard as safe, no-pressure bread crumbs that might lead her to your door someday when she’s older and more in charge of her family relationships. If not, they won’t make anything worse than it already is. Sometimes “not making it worse” is all you can do.

Edited To Add: Reader Suggestion! In addition to fun gifts, you and other family members could quietly divert some $ from the toy budget into a savings account or savings bonds for your niece every year. Don’t put anything in her name now (the parents might not let you, and they would 100% have access to it while she’s still a child). It could be a lifesaver someday when she’s old enough to leave home.

How I Know That Fun Works: My dad’s sister, Aunt Mary, lived in Ohio most of my life and we rarely saw her in Massachusetts. But she sent the best Christmas presents every year, you cannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnottttttttttttttt imaginnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnne the anticipation with which we opened the annual package from her knowing that if there were clothes they would be cool, trendy, name-brand clothes that we would wear into rags alongside our hated Toughskins, and if there were toys they would be fancy toys that we’d want to go to bed with that night so as not to be parted from them even for a second.

Aunt Mary didn’t necessarily know us or our changing interests well, and she never bought anything from our lists painstakingly compiled out of The Sears Christmas WishBook complete with SKU# or based around whatever Star Wars movie was out at the time. Her daughters were much older than my brothers and me, so I think she asked our parents about our sizes and her friends who had children our age “What’s the coolest thing your kid wants for Christmas right now?” and then went with that.

She’d get enthusiastic Christmas Day thank-you phone calls from us when we were kids and hearing she was coming for a visit or we were going to Cleveland to see her was always incredibly exciting. She died in the early 2000s (fuck cancer) and I just have to say, all “blah blah gifts are soooooooooo commercial and distract from the real meaning of the season” aside, every memory I have of my aunt is based on a) 20% how funny and delightful she was when we did hang out (I’m so glad I got to see her one last time when she was pretty much on her deathbed, and she was still the life of the party cracking up the whole room) and b) 80% childhood memories of my siblings and I staring at the boxes with her return address on them in hungry anticipation all week, trying to ask “Can we open Aunt Mary’s presents first?” on Christmas morning without hurting our parents’* feelings, and then wearing or playing with the well-chosen things inside until they disintegrated.

Above all, I knew she loved me. She didn’t have to re-parent me from afar to get that across, her gifts weren’t competing with my parents, they were just chosen with obvious enthusiasm, and that’s why I wanted to tell you about her, my lovely Letter Writer. You are so limited in what you can do for your niece right now, but I think you absolutely can do this one thing well by following fun and joy and pleasure rather than concern.

Honestly, now that I think of it half the “holiday survival” stuff in my inbox for adult relationships boils down to “Can’t you just please like me and enjoy today with me without trying to fix me/my life” in some fashion, so here’s your chance to start young. 😉“I like you so much and want you to have fun on Christmas!” is a message that will go deeper and linger longer than any “I’m very worried about you and I pretty much hate your parents” “solution” or “message” could possibly hope to do.

*I should note, cursèd E.T. statues are outliers in my family (and the aunt who made that for me was a solid A+ present-giver every other year and obviously genuinely thought I would love it). My parents are great gift givers and definitely the “Aunt Mary” to their nieces and nephews, to such a degree that someday I should collect all the home videos of little cousins’ mouths dropping open in awe as they unwrapped whatever Uncle Frank and Aunt Anne brought them this year. It would be a joyful montage indeed.

 

I wrote a piece for VICE about taking good care of yourself during holiday visits with family. We’re at work on the sequel about hosting holiday visits that people won’t have to write to internet advice columns about.

The therapist I spoke with for the Vice piece, Rae McDaniel, is a delight and had so many quotable bits besides “Discomfort is not harm” and “You’re not going to be able to buy groceries at the hardware store” that had to be cut for space, so I want to direct you to their online coaching practice for people who want a safe place to explore gender in case that’s a thing that would interest you or someone you love. Lott Hill, a former colleague of mine quoted in the article, also had some beautiful things to say during our interview that we couldn’t include. He and I talked a lot about college students who were in the process of coming out or exploring gender identity and sexuality and who felt afraid to go home,  and this is one piece of advice that sticks with me about what parents can do to affirm and welcome their kids:

“Encourage any parent at any opportunity to tell their children that they are proud of them and appreciate them. If something terrible happens that’s unavoidable, like a relative goes off despite being told what’s unacceptable behavior, a parent can check in later and make it clear to their child that they don’t agree even if they couldn’t speak up in that moment: ‘I don’t agree with what your Grandma said and I love you very much.’

Remind parents that for the majority of their child’s life, they’ve been protective of that child in whatever setting that child is in, don’t forget that you’re still in a position that you can protect your child with as much strength and awareness and compassion as you’ve always protected that child. You don’t have to speak for them, but you can intervene and protect them at a very vulnerable times in their lives.”

❤ Imagine a holiday celebration where everybody tells everybody else: “I’m proud of you and happy to see you.” What a wonderful world it could be.

On a related topic, this Asking Bear column: “My home is unsafe for me to explore my gender. What do I do?” is extremely good. I completely hate that it’s necessary to strategize and work at “surviving” a situation, but S. Bear has very good advice for getting through.

It’s also a good day to mention that Scarleteen is offering donors a preview of their ADORABLE and HIGHLY USEFUL sex ed zine. Need an affirming, funny, safe way to articulate just what the heck it is you even think about sex? This is a great tool for that and a great cause.

Hope everybody’s staying warm and that your holidays are the good kind of awkward. I’ll be back to regularly scheduled advice programming very shortly.

aaamikkikendallbook

Image: Cover of Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists by Mikki Kendall and A. D’Amico

Good news, Mikki Kendall’s beautiful book, Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists: A Graphic History Of Women’s Fight For Their Rights, is finally out. The IndieBound link is above, Amazon is here, it’s illustrated by the amazing A. D’Amico and just breathtakingly wonderful and gorgeous.

Mr. Awkward is cataloging his year of ambitious projects with his blog/email newsletter, Too Early Old, Too Late Smart. Mental health, fighting perfectionism, the nitty gritty daily work of acquiring a new skill and flexing old ones, it’s good stuff.

Do you wish all the holiday + faaaaaaaamily advice from our site was re-fashioned as satire for Reductress or The Onion instead? Good news, my brain did, too:

“I had never really considered that my mother-in-law might want grandchildren or have anything to say about human reproduction,” explained Lucy*, 38, a graphic designer in Baltimore, Maryland. “But then we were saying the blessing before the meal at Thanksgiving and she locked eyes with me, reached over my plate, patted my stomach, and told me that she had asked God to send me a baby soon, and it was like this lightbulb went off. I grabbed my husband and we went to the guest room right then to get cracking on giving her the Christmas Present she wants most.”

Read on for how (not) to overcome political disagreements, find common ground on “healthy” eating, and get the most up-to-date employment advice from people who haven’t had to look for a job in 30 years. Free to read and share at Patreon.

Fourth! I have promised my therapist I will organize my thoughts in more posts and fewer long Twitter threads, so let’s discuss about a recent column from Ask A Manager: Where do you start when you inherit a bad employee? The Letter Writer’s colleague is about to be promoted and inherit a known problem employee, and wants advice for how to handle that, especially when previous managers have let a lot of things slide and things have festered. Alison advises [bolding mine]:

  

   

I heartily agree, and want to re-apply this advice both to work and interpersonal conflicts. Since the beginning of the site, I’ve tried to spell out the difference between “Hey, knock it off”/”Can you please do x?” conversations vs. “We need to talk” conversations and give script recommendations for both kinds so that Letter Writers have a range of options at their disposal.

Many, many people who write to me about a ongoing stressful situation are hoping for a guide to having One Uncomfortable Conversation To Rule Them All. What is the most efficient, honest, kind, direct way to sit down with someone, spell out the range of issues, head off uncomfortable moments and potential problems ahead of time, tell someone news they don’t want to hear “without upsetting them,” say “good talk everyone,” and then never have to worry about the problem behavior or irritating habit again? Why spend all this time with little check-ins and reminders when, surely, there is a way to just address to the root causes and handle the whole thing at once?

This is an admirable impulse and I love it, every time. (((((((((MY PEOPLE)))))))))

It is also incredibly hard to pull off in real life.

When everyone is acting in good faith and there is a lot of trust and goodwill in place, State Of The Relationship talks can be useful, clarifying, and bring everyone closer together with a greater understanding of each other’s needs and preferences.

However:

When something has been allowed to fester, unaddressed over time…

When hints and subtle requests have not worked, when the person is known to ‘not take criticism’ well…

When the other person does not act in good faith and/or is un-self-aware…

When the person is someone you don’t particularly like [like a ‘problem’ coworker or roommate vs. a close friend] and you just want to get what you want and not have to delve into their feelings or reasons…

…Having a “bigger picture” sit-down to lay out some overall things the person could do to make the relationship better is riddled with pitfalls.

I say this especially for the conflict-averse [MY PEOPLE!!!] folks who might be putting off a difficult discussion until they can find the one true perfect way to have it [MY PEOPLE!!!!!]:

One of the biggest constructive conflict-management life skills I have ever learned, after much trial and error, is that it is not in any way easier to wait and talk to people in terms of overall patterns and personality traits that bother you than it is to address very specific actions you want them to take (or stop taking) at the detail level.

It’s the difference between saying “Hey, roommate, did you eat my leftovers? Ok, can you stop?” the first or second time it happens vs. letting it happen for a year without saying anything to them, complaining constantly to your friends and everyone who is not your roommate, getting angrier and angrier until the whole living space is seething with unspoken hostility, and then eventually exploding at the person with a laundry list of stored grievances, which makes them feel (understandably) attacked and defensive.

There’s a fallacy that it’s not “worth” speaking up when a problem is small because we don’t want to appear “difficult” or “make trouble” and I don’t know what put it in so many of our heads that we are supposed to save up the words “no” and “stop” and “don’t” for Special Occasions, but one of my missions in life is to extract this extremely maladaptive training from myself and anyone else who needs it. It’s not helping us. It’s not helping anyone, when you consider that good people who would be happy to give us what we need if they knew what it was tend to be mortified when they find out how long they were secretly upsetting us, and the assholes basically got to buy more assholing time at our expense, now with more plausible deniability!

Plus, it turns out that extrapolating pattens from observing others’ individual behaviors and collapsing a general statement about human behavior and applying it to one’s own behaviors are very, very different activities.

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Hello Captain,

I have a situation with a hug-seeking missile. Is it cruel to exclude one or two people of a family?

I hug my in-laws except two guys my age, 33. My SIL (Becky’s) bf (Matt) wanted to be hugged before I was ready. I acquiesced, not wanting him to feel shunned. But he aggressively goes in for hugs if I freeze, even if I pull away! I lightly said no thanks a couple times, it was ignored. So I became a master at hug dodging. I’d duck out of reach (difficult because I’m disabled,) he’d immediately come for me again. He doesn’t hug my husband or BIL Bart, who don’t usually hug. He didn’t treat it as a joke, he seemed serious and implacable. There’s no way Matt doesn’t know that’s uncomfortable, right? He also seems to try to force eye contact with me on days I dodge him. I can’t stand any eye contact at the best of times so I may be oversensitive to it, but that seems so aggressive to me.

I immaturely asked my husband James to act as a bouncer. He stood between us and gave Matt a firm “NO hugs, go away.” There wasn’t huge fallout, but it will be different when I do it because women’s boundaries aren’t as respected. Matt only stopped for that day.

I know I was ridiculous for dodging so long.

Surely anyone’s feelings would be hurt by being the only one not hugged. It seems cruel to hug every person in a room but one or two. I stopped hugging even my SILs for awhile, but slowly phased that back in. After that, Matt gave up for 3 years until this weekend. I dodged.

I suspect being friendly with Bart is what triggered it. James, Bart, and I hang out lately and I consider him a brother. We don’t hug yet but would if he wanted to, if Matt wasn’t around. I’ve known Bart for 10 years longer than Matt.

I can understand not wanting to be excluded. But Matt’s not a good friend. He monologues instead of conversing, we have to take the mic from him by saying, “Matt, [name] was trying to speak.” Becky has picked up his unpleasant conversation style. This monologuing was a problem previously, which we resolved by having some events we invite Becky and Matt to, but mostly it’s 4 of 5 siblings, and me. We all worry if this is mean of us.

Matt’s seriously drained my benefit of doubt. It’s partly my fault for not firmly saying, “No.” After this weekend I feel ready to say “NO,” or state that I don’t feel comfortable when people ignore clear signs of discomfort like pulling away. I’ve practised in the mirror, but I don’t know how to deal if the larger family points out it’s not fair to hug everyone but Matt. I don’t want to be mean to anyone, but I can’t handle dodging Matt anymore.

Thank you for any advice,

Missile Defense System

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Hello again! Patrons have sent short questions. I have attempted to answer them. Installment 1 is here.

This round: How do I deal with my mom’s anxiety about my life, how do I tell a roommate that their helpfulness is not actually helpful, how do I preserve a friendship over distance, how do I build a family relationship over distance, and for a little #ThisFuckingGuy seasoning: I planned a birthday celebration for my mom and now my StepDad has made his own totally conflicting plans.

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Dear Captain Awkward,

My fiancé and I (male and female, respectively; late 20s) are getting married next year. We are both so happy and in love and so excited to be taking this next step in our relationship. Our issue is that we want to alter some elements of our wedding and are facing judgement from our family and friends. I am admittedly the prototypical liberal feminist who enjoys interrogating materialism, capitalism, and the patriarchy for sport. My partner is easy-going, but he understands my beliefs and has open dialogues with me on a variety of weighted topics. I can admit that most of these wedding-related changes are my ideas, but my partner supports me and understands why I feel so strongly.

I’ve told my family and close friends some of our ideas for the wedding, like:
We don’t want gifts and want folks to donate to a charity on our behalf if they so choose.
We’re not having a full wedding party, but using our siblings instead; my brother will be my “man of honor” and my future sister-in-law will be the “groomswoman”.
I don’t want my father to walk me down the aisle because I think that is too patriarchal. In my mind, it looks as if one man is passing ownership of me to another man. Instead, my parents will walk down the aisle together and I will walk alone.
Our family and friends are often shocked that we’d consider straying from the “traditional” wedding etiquette, like wedding registries and my father walking me down the aisle. We’ve heard from multiple people on multiple occasions “why even have a wedding if it’s not going to be traditional?”. My response so far is to say that this is mine and my partners’ day to celebrate us, so we should be able to have the wedding we want and our friends and family should support us.

I try to be as open minded to suggestions as possible. We’ve gotten feedback on our venue, the date, and even if it should be inside or outside. We’ve heard these suggestions and made adjustments to our plans in the spirit of making our guests comfortable. The suggestions I listed above are more about representing who my partner and I are as a couple, at least in my mind.

For what it’s worth – my partner sticks up for me as best he can, but we’re both at a loss for words. The judgement is coming from both sides of our family/friends…and take from this what you will, but the judgers are primarily female.

As we get deeper into the planning process, I anticipate that I will want to put my personal spin on even more wedding elements, and we will continue to be judged for our choices. Can you either help me put this in perspective, or provide some responses I can say to my family and friends? I don’t think that any of my suggestions so far are that radical, and I struggle seeing other people’s perspective on why our ideas are so strange. Of course this is not the biggest deal in the world, and I know we are lucky to be able to afford a wedding and to have found our partner for life. I want to enjoy the next several months of planning and represent who my partner and I are without judgement.

Feminist Bride in a Patriarchal World

Hi there,

We covered a lot of ground with weddings earlier in the year, but your question is so interesting to me because it’s a case of someone trying to be thoughtful and inclusive and ask for feedback and really discuss things (all lovely qualities) and it’s backfiring all over you. It’s time to bring certain decisions inside to a small internal audience and stop running things by everybody or explaining them.

How do we get there?

Offbeat Bride and A Practical Wedding are going to be your best buds right now.  Most of what you need will be there.

Click for my plan for making the process less argumentative.

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Hello, monthly feature with short questions from patrons continues from the previous chapter.

Q7: I am single in my 40s and have never had a serious long-term partner. I used to think I hadn’t met the right person yet but have recently come to understand that I’m aromantic (and probably demisexual – not ace but I don’t really feel like chasing after sex, either). I don’t know how much of this to share with the world, specifically my late-70s parents who would need the aromantic crash course. Thoughts? (he/him/his)

A7: You know your parents best, so you know how much energy you want to invest and how likely they are to be receptive. You don’t owe them (or the world) the details, on the other hand, they’ve surely noticed by now that you don’t seek long-term romantic attachments. If you do decide to speak with them, maybe that’s the context to use, like, “Parents, I’m sure you’ve noticed that I’ve never been that interested in romantic relationships, I just found out that a lot of people feel this way and there’s a word for us – aromantic – pretty cool, right?” 

You’ve been reading a lot about the topic, so possibly pull together some of the resources that made it easier for you to describe your identity so that if your parents say, “How interesting, I always noticed that about you but didn’t want to pry, tell me more,” you’re prepared and if they say, “What’s that? Kids these days!” you’re also prepared.

As for the world, probably the best thing I can do is ask our readers: Got a favorite community or other resource for aromantic info and peer support? This place seems pretty active and detailed, from what I can tell, but I’m not a member.

Q8: I am coming to terms with the fact that my boundaries are… not great. Being a Ravenclaw, my first instinct is to seek out books. I found the seminal BOUNDARIES by Cloud & Townsend, and while it confirmed that yep, boundary problems abound, this book is a terrible fit for me because I have a lot of trauma around religion and every other sentence is a Bible quote. Can anyone recommend other great boundary books? (She/Her)

A8: Who wants to recommend some non-religious books about boundaries?

Q9: I love my wonderful boyfriend so much and find most of his quirks delightful. But his breathing irritates me a lot. When we’re resting on the couch or in bed, he holds his breath for long periods of time and then lets it out really loudly. When we’re cuddling, he breathes in my face and I have no air to breathe. We’ve talked about it but he often doesn’t realize he’s doing it. Any ideas? (She/her/hers)

A9: There’s no good way to tell someone, “You breathe wrong,” but I do have some ideas.

First, if your boyfriend isn’t already seeing a doctor about this, it’s time. Habitually holding the breath can be a stress reaction, it can also be a sign of a medical condition (apnea, sleep and other kinds, for one example). We can’t & won’t diagnose strangers via blogging (fortunately you have a working search engine and can look up specific possibilities and symptoms in detail) so I’ll just say as someone who was diagnosed with asthma as an adult specifically because a partner said, “You’re breathing weird, I’m worried about you (& annoyed), please get it looked at.” He was right, I had developed odd, subconscious, habitual workarounds to try to control coughing and get enough air and it took someone else being around all the time to notice. Your script can be some version of “Hey, this breathing thing might not just be a quirk, so can you please make a doctor appointment and at least rule out the prospect of something serious?” 

In the meantime, look for cuddle positions where he’s not breathing in your face (big spoon, little spoon?). If he can’t control whatever this is or he always forgets, you can remember and take steps to make sure you can always breathe. It won’t be a mystery as to why, he knows why, flip over when you need to so that you can still be close and minimize face-to-face time while he gets checked out. Hopefully he can get some answers and both of you can get some relief.

Q10: Last year, my sister was killed in a very public accident. I’ve been struggling with how to tell friends and acquaintances that I speak to intermittently what happened. I don’t know how to bring it up, and get emotional when I do. Can you give me some scripts to follow so I can explain the situation and (maybe) not fall apart while doing so? Thank you so much. (she/her/hers)

A10: Oh, how awful, I’m so sorry! The loss of your sister + the newsworthiness (constant reminders + people’s need to speculate) must have been a special kind of hell.

I always fall back on two strategies for communicating bad news that I’m nervous or stressed about sharing.

First, it’s okay to use email, text, social media, etc. and share the news before any planned hangouts, and tell people exactly what you told us:

“Friend, you may not have heard this, but since we saw each other last, my sister was killed in [incident]. I get very emotional when I talk about it and I never know how to bring it up, so I thought I’d send you a note before we [have drinks][go birdwatching][resume our opera subscription] this week so you’ll understand if the ‘So, what’s new with you?’ part of our conversation gets a little messy.  I’m really looking forward to seeing you and catching up.”

You could do this one-on-one, you could do this in batches, or all at once, whatever works for you. Ideally, you’ll feel better not dreading having to deliver the news in person, and your friends and acquaintances will appreciate knowing that this huge thing happened to you and having a minute to [privately react][privately Google what happened and refresh their memories/satisfy curiosities][privately react again] before you see each other.

Second, enlist the connectors/planners/hosts/organizers in your social and professional groups to spread the word for you. The kind of people who take it upon themselves to organize a book club or a college reunion or networking event often see keeping up with everyone’s news as part of the role, you can absolutely message them or call them up and ask for their help spreading the word. Maybe something like:

“Hi [Nice Person], I hope you’re well. Can I ask for your help with an awkward task?

You may or may not have heard the news, but I  lost my sister in an accident last year. As I emerge from just being with my family, I’m realizing that a lot of people don’t know, and I have this recurring problem of having to break the news again and again. I’m looking forward to catching up with all of you at [upcoming event], so would you be willing to quietly spread the news of what happened for me before we all get together?

Then tell people what you want them to do/not do about your news. For example:

“I’m looking forward to [discussing the book][rehearsing the play][building the marketing plan for the North East region][registering new voters] and hearing what everyone’s been up to, and it would really ease my mind if I know every “so what’s new with you” conversation won’t be a rehash of events and that people won’t be surprised if I’m a little down or easily flustered. Thank you.”

You’re going to get some “I’m so sorry,” and shoulder pats and hugs when you do see people, but this way hopefully every time you run into people it won’t be a Run, Lola Run! or Groundhog Day-style montage of surprise and grief.

Q11: Hi Captain, here’s my question: I am Childfree by Choice, and I used to think kids just stressed me the fuck out. Turns out I was mistaken – I’m quite comfortable in situations with babies/kids, where their adults are supervising them well, and I know the boundaries about how and when I should intervene if I’ve noticed something unsafe before the other adults have. It’s the more ambiguous situations that stress me out. So like, if a crawling baby is making a beeline for something dangerous and I’m the first one to notice, I am a-OK with going over and picking the baby up, distracting them, and pointing them another direction. That’s my duty as a friend or auntie.

But with bigger kids, especially if it’s clear that their caregivers are aware of the situation but not responding they way I think they should be, that really stresses me out. Like when there’s roughhousing that is getting mean and the smaller kid isn’t enjoying it anymore, or some kind of play that’s pretty much guaranteed to end up with somebody getting hurt, and the caregivers are just giving half-assed verbal warnings and not following up when they’re ignored. But they’re not my kids and I’m just a friend or relative of the parents, so my impulse to physically wade in, tuck a child under my arm like a bad kitty, and remove them from the situation, is probably unwelcome. What is the correct course of action in a situation like that?

A11: I would say, mostly, if the parents/caregivers are nearby/available and the kids aren’t coming to them for adjudication or comfort and it’s not a “you are seriously going to injure yourselves/each other or break something expensive” situation, grabbing & tucking the child like a football is going to be overkill. From my Not-A-Parent observation deck, when there’s an adults-and-kids-who-aren’t-toddlers-anymore gathering going on, there are some skills being learned and practiced on both sides:

  1. Kids are learning to play together and have some autonomy without coming to adults every five minutes, and to self-soothe and self-regulate if they don’t enjoy something.
  2. Parents are learning to find balance. What’s the right mix of socializing with fellow adults, keeping an eye on kids, but also letting everybody have a little space?The “correct” amount of supervision is always in flux. If something bad does happen, there will always, always, always be a subtext of “why wasn’t somebody watching them more closely” but like, sometimes you can be RIGHT THERE and the kid can still shove a nickel up her nose or decide that she can fly.

As a Not-Their Parents observer, there is no “the” correct course of action but there are a few strategies, which I’m adapting from “bystander intervention” training, where the emphasis is on de-escalating difficult situations while still respecting everyone’s autonomy, often expressed as “D’s” (3 Ds, 4 Ds, depends on who you ask):

  1. Direct: Your scoop-up-a-kid instinct would be classified as direct intervention, as would telling the aggressors to knock it off. A matter-of-fact reminder of what you want them to do (“Hey, Buddy, let’s use our inside voices and keep our feet off the furniture, thanks”) (All kids and pets are addressed as Buddy) can work better than lots of non-specific “Quiet down!” reminders.
  2. Distract: If you do intervene, don’t necessarily do it by “rescuing” the smaller kid or admonishing the bigger kids, jump in with a distraction instead. Ask a question, show them something cool on your phone, get them to help you with a task. It’s part of bystander intervention generally, where ‘confronting’ people is risky (and can escalate a bad situation), but engaging the target in friendly conversation communicates ‘you aren’t alone, there’s someone here to catch you if you fall.’
  3. Delegate: Get a parent. “Are they allowed to jump on that?” “Hey, I think that the fun screaming might have turned into the not-fun kind.” “If we’re every hanging out and I see some roughhousing that crosses a line, or some of the kids being mean, would you like me to come get you or jump in there myself?” It’s okay to be selective about who you ask and how you ask, if you know that certain friends are easily riled or take questions like this as implied criticisms, you’re the best judge of how likely someone is to hear you. Also, turf matters: In your house, or where you are the host, it’s okay to be more active (“Please don’t touch that/jump on that/eat that/open that/Please use inside voices so the neighbors can’t hear us/Don’t pick up the cat she doesn’t like it,” etc.) Think of it as communicating “Party Rules” vs. “Correcting People’s Parenting.”
  4. Delay: Kids (like kittens) can get pretty rough in short bursts and be totally chaotic and then snap back to being best buds in an instant. Sometimes you can’t prevent whatever it is, but it’s okay to hang back, let it resolve itself and check in with the kid who was on the bottom of the pile, “How are you doing, Buddy? Wanna come sit by me?” If the kid was really upset by something, give them the opportunity to tell you about it.

This stuff can be so fraught so again, there’s no one approach. If you get really stressed out by certain friends’ parenting dynamic, maybe take breaks and schedule some adult-only time to give everybody a chance to grow out of whatever “difficult stage” is happening now. It’s okay to enjoy being around children sometimes and also to be stressed out by them sometimes, it’s okay to find some people’s parenting style kinda stressful and wish they’d supervise their kids more closely at gatherings without having any particular obligation to Do Something about it.

Q12: So, how can I (F) respond to the “just relax” I get from guys when they’re being disruptive, and I raise an objection. My two most recent examples: 1) coworkers in the back of the room at a staff meeting, cutting up and being so noisy I couldn’t hear what our boss (the department head!?) was saying up front. “Guys, can you quiet down, please?” “Oh, just relax.” 2) Thumping and banging and screaming and yelling coming from upstairs neighbors. (Sounds like, when I was a kid, would occasionally accompany black eyes and broken bones.) Saw them out in the parking lot, asked, “Everything okay?” Dad got incredibly defensive and, after a shouting argument, muttered, “Just relax.” I thought this was common enough to be a Thing, but I don’t find any discussion of the phenomenon online.

A12: Things I know about the command “Just relax!”

  1. It is often used by people who want to manipulate you into doing something you don’t want to do and people who want to punish you for being right when they know they are in the wrong.
  2. It has never, in the history of the world, made anyone actually relax.
  3. One possible response is a flat “I am relaxed” and then continuing to expect what you expect and need what you need (Workbros to shush already, “I am relaxed, I’m just making sure everyone’s okay, it sounded pretty rowdy last night. Have a great day.”)
  4. When men say it to women, they want us to be quiet and afraid of appearing “shrill,” so another possible response when circumstances warrant is to selectively and strategically show them what EXTREMELY UNRELAXED looks like and then snap back to “Ok, so, what were we talking about? Right, I’m gonna need you to _____.” Neither examples you shared warrant this strategy yet (you don’t want to escalate with scary neighbor), but for habitual offenders who you don’t work with? Sometimes reminding people that they have choices and that you also have choices can snap people into coming correct.
  5. As for the neighbor situation, his defensive reaction is right out of the textbook, so read the bystander intervention stuff up thread and think about de-escalation, especially distraction. This has a nice short summary (probably don’t call the police unless it’s an immediate life-or-death situation, check in with the other parent subtly). You could also talk to a DV resource like LoveIsRespect.org for more guidance.

Thanks for the interesting and challenging questions! We’ll be back with more in about a month.