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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?

 

 

 

My combined Christmas/birthday present this year was a trip to Washington, D.C. to catch up with some very old friends who were managing to be both in the same country and the same city all at the same time for the first time in almost 20 years. We’ve seen each other piecemeal over the years but the last time we were all in the same room was my going away party in late July 2000, so I could not miss this rare convergence and chance to relive my early 20s with people who truly remember them (from a safe distance). IT WAS THE BEST TRIP. I laughed so hard. I ate so well. IT WAS THE BEST.

While I was in the region, I was lucky enough to meet some longtime internet friends in person. There was a relaxing and fun birthday party in Northern Virginia with people whose wise words I’d been RT’ing and pets I’d been ogling on Twitter for years, there was taking the train up to Philadelphia for a delightful dinner with our beloved Lenée aka @dopegirlfresh aka “the Mayor of West Philly” and Ali of @OK2BFat, and there was the chance to sit down for an afternoon coffee with Alison of Ask A Manager and talk her ear off about how we do this weird, wonderful job. It is that last bit that spawned this post, since Alison and I decided it would be fun to collaborate on answering a few questions using her “Five Answers To Five Questions” format and crosspost them to both sites.

Here are two answers to two questions, with three more to follow this week.

1. Can I talk about my boyfriend’s other girlfriend at work?

“Adam” is dating both me and “Jane,” and we all live together.  We aren’t really into any sort of “polyamory scene” sort of thing; this is simply an arrangement that happened because it’s what works for us and our happy little family.

Moving in with them coincided with a new job, and I really don’t know how to talk about it at work, or if it’s even appropriate.  I’m so used to talking freely about Thanksgiving plans; but it feels overly personal to say that we’re flying out to spend Thanksgiving with Jane’s family (because that would lead to: Jane?  Who is Jane?). 

Jane has some work-appropriate, performance-related hobbies, so weekend plans often involve going to shows that are in that sphere; it feels oddly dismissive of Jane and her place in my life to say, “oh, I’m watching my friend’s performance,” but at the same time, overly TMI to say, “oh, this weekend I’m watching my boyfriend’s other girlfriend’s performance.”

Thus far I’ve just… kind of avoided the details, but have mentioned “Jane” or my “friend” or “housemate” a bit.  I’m comfortable and confident with my household arrangement in other spheres of my life, but work is a place where I like to abide by the rules, and I really don’t know what the rules are here!  It feels so weird to have this person who is so integrated into my life, and then not really know how or if to talk about her.

I know my workplace is at least a little bit open (I’ve got a trans coworker, and that’s No Big Deal), but it isn’t particularly progressive. Very much a Normal Office.

P.S. I think a coworker thinks Jane is my daughter.  If this ever comes up, should I correct them?

Jennifer: To me, there are three things in tension here: 

  1. The more non-traditional romantic and family structures become boring and routine, probably the more safety and comfort people in non-traditional relationships will have. You’re harming nobody, secrecy increases stigma, so why not share it without making a big deal the way anybody would talk about a spouse or partner at work?
  2. Unfortunately, depending on where you live and work, there is stigma and legal discrimination against people in any relationship that isn’t one man and one woman that can have real professional and legal consequences, and privacy isn’t a thing anybody can get back once it’s out there. 
  3. Who specifically is in your workplace, what is the culture there, and how many questions about non-traditional relationships do you want to answer from your coworkers if you bring this up? Do you want to take on an educator/ambassador role, do you want to risk releasing the kraken known as That One Guy Who Is Just Very, Very Curious About Your Exact Sleeping Arrangements? And do you want to do this at work? 

Really there’s no one right thing to do and no wrong one either. Asking Jane and your boyfriend how they’d like to be referred to and specifically how much of their private business they are comfortable with your coworkers knowing is probably a good idea before you make any detailed corrections, as in, you’re worried about being “dismissive of Jane” but Jane doesn’t have to work where you work nor does she necessarily want to be a topic of discussion there. 

When in doubt, “Oh, she’s not my daughter, Jane’s my close friend and also our housemate, we think of her as family” works just fine.“Partner,” “Part of the family,” “My boyfriend’s other partner,” etc. might work if you want to disclose more in a way that people familiar with polyamory will pick up. 

Most likely this will be fascinating for a week or so and then probably nobody will care because they aren’t that interested, and That One Person can always be told it’s none of their beeswax.

Alison:  I’m so glad Jennifer answered this first because I’m really conflicted on this kind of question. On one hand, I am all for reducing stigma about personal choices that harm no one — especially when it can be done by people who are in a relative position of safety. And I’m acutely aware of how “you must hide this core thing about who you are when you’re at work” often plays out in ways that are harmful and oppressive, especially when your coworkers don’t have to hide parallel things from their own lives. On the other hand, the reality is that there is still a stigma against polyamorous relationships, and it very well may affect your career if this becomes a gossipy thing that gets mentioned ahead of your work when your name comes up.

So I think you’ve to figure out (a) how your specific office is likely to respond to this, and maybe your broader field or network, since at some point you’ll change jobs and people talk, and (b) how much you care, which is a combination of how uncomfortable/unhappy you’ll be if you hide the nature of the relationship and how concerned you are about potentially dealing with weirdness or bias from people in your professional realm.

I’ll also note that whenever this comes up, some people like to argue that coming out as polyamorous is TMI — that it’s “sharing things about your sex life that they don’t want to hear.” So I want to state for the record that this is no more that than sharing the existence of any other partner is. It’s about sharing who you love and who you are in an important relationship with. The culture as a whole hasn’t totally figured that out yet — which is why this is still a question — but it’s worth flagging in any discussion here.

2. I like my job but my company is postponing a promised promotion and cutting everyone’s pay. Should I stay or go?

I’m an entry-level employee at a small company of about 40 people in a major city with high cost of living. Despite my previous three years of experience in the industry, I was hired at the lowest level in the company and told I would be eligible for a promotion within a year if my performance went well. Fast forward a year and a half and my performance has been stellar and I was on the track for a promotion. However, the company is undergoing dramatic financial issues and last week management cut everyone’s salary by 10% to preserve our financial stability. A lot of the entry-level employees were baffled and asked that we be exempt from the cut since we make the least and have the least amount of decision-making power that led to this situation. To accommodate us, management cut entry-level pay by 5% and everyone else received the 10% cut. They’re planning to maintain the cut throughout all of 2020. In addition to the salary cut, they’ve frozen all new hires and promotions for this year.

I feel defeated because my promotion (and accompanying raise) will not happen in 2020. I also feel angry because management is planning on creating more products to boost our sales and revenue, which means everyone will be working harder for less pay in the hope that our sales improve next year. Management is adamant that this difficult time is for staff to “give back” to the company and make sacrifices for the whole.

All my friends and family say I should run, quit, and find a new job ASAP. I feel hesitant because I did really like my job before this happened and felt like I had a career trajectory at this company. I’m also struggling to determine if I owe it to the company to stay, put in the work, and weather the storm of 2020 for $3,000 less a year than what I was making. I think my manager is sensing my hesitation because he offered me a title-only promotion without an increase in pay. It feels like a consolation prize and the more reality sets in, the more I’m concerned about my financial and professional future if I stay. Am I selling myself short if I stay? Am I a traitor if I leave?

Jennifer (Captain Awkward): Imagine for a moment that you are an investor considering putting money into your company. Does a firm “undergoing dramatic financial issues” that forced even its most junior staff take a pay cut, froze all hiring and promotions for a year, and then still thought it could develop and launch new product lines sound like the safest bet? The company is gambling that that this move will pay off and maybe it will, but a smart investor wouldn’t put 100% of their money and hopes into this place and probably neither should you. What’s the harm in looking around to see what’s out there and applying to interesting opportunities? You’re not obligated to take any offers that aren’t a better fit than you have now, but if things “dramatically” deteriorate you’ll be glad you have options.

If you decide to accept the title boost (it’s good for your resume whether you stay or go), ask for something in return and put it in writing. Could be a retention bonus (“I’ll stay in this role for one year in return for $X now and $Y at the end of that year”), could be a retroactive raise in 2021 (“On Jan 1, 2021 the company agrees to raise my salary to $X and pay me retroactively for the months I worked as [title]”), could be more paid vacation, could be more flexibility to work from home, could be offloading your most hated tasks to someone else and taking on more of what you want to do with your time. Negotiate something in consideration for taking on more work and I’ll repeat it again – get it in writing. It doesn’t have to be a contentious thing, you can tell your boss how much you appreciate him for going to bat for you to have the new role and just add in that it would be foolish not to ask for something in writing about compensation given how much the industry and company finances fluctuate. If he gets mad at you, calls you “disloyal” or “entitled,” or tries to manipulate your emotions to get you to forgo money, it is a sign that you should quietly accept the promotion and start sending out your resume IMMEDIATELY. 

Finally, I want you to excise the word “traitor” from your vocabulary when you think about this problem. The company broke a promise to promote you and also cut your pay because they’ve decided that it saves them money. If they need to lay you off to make their numbers they will, so consider that when this employer talks about “giving back” and “loyalty” they mean a thing you owe them so you’ll work more for less. How can looking out for your own money – i.e. the whole reason you work there – possibly be “a betrayal”? If you stole their proprietary information and sold it to competitors, that would be betrayal. If you find a new job with more money and a better title, you’re making a business decision the same as them.

Alison (Ask A Manager):  Yes! Excellent, excellent. 

And also, re-think your ideas of what you “owe” an employer. This isn’t a marriage, where you’ve taken vows. Here’s what you owe your employer: good, focused work while you’re there; clear communication when there are problems if your employer has a track record of handling that sort of input well, and a reasonable amount of notice when you decide to leave (for most people, that’s two weeks). You do not owe them a commitment to stay for longer than would be in your own interests. I promise you, they will act in their own interests — and that’s as it should be! That’s not, like a sneering commentary on them; it’s just a recognition that this is a business relationship. Each side should treat the other with respect and integrity, but you don’t sacrifice your own interests for theirs, just as they wouldn’t for you. That’s the nature of it! You get to walk away when you want to walk away and when it makes sense for you to walk away. (And it sounds like it’s time to start thinking about doing that.)

Tune in later this week for Part 2 of this conversation and the answers to three more questions. 

 

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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