The letter contains brief mention of the roommate either accidentally or accidentally-on-purpose leaving a pet outside for a while during a mental health episode. The pet was fine and this is neither the point of the letter nor the oddest thing in it, but readers have mentioned animals-in-peril stresses them out, so I’m including both a heads’ up and a cut.
It’s time for the monthly feature where I answer the things people typed into their search engine before they wound up here as if they are questions. These come in completely anonymously and context-free.
A few links before we get started:
- Dear Mantis on Twitter: Great advice column or GREATEST ADVICE COLUMN?
- Our beloved Goat Lady has made some big changes and is chronicling them here.
- Podcast Listener People: I was a guest on the Fat Like Me Podcast, answering questions about how the holidays bring out everyone’s food & body weirdness. Come for the question from the woman whose boyfriend was suggesting she cook a holiday feast for his fatphobic parents (NOPE) and stay for questions like “Is it okay to show off arms/legs at company holiday party by wearing a cute minidress” (YES). I don’t know if the story of The Last Time I Ever Wore Spanx made it into the final edit, but talking to Cass is always a great time.
Now, as traditional, a song to take us into the search terms:
Also bonus song sent by a reader, I’ve been listening to it basically nonstop because it is so pretty:
And now for the main event!
1) “When to leave an ex alone.”
If your ex has asked you to leave them alone, that’s easy: You leave them alone 100% of the time, forever, to the very best of your ability.
If an ex has asked you to leave them alone, but you share parenting of minor children, you can still respect their wishes. Good ways to do this: Follow the custody agreement to the letter, be pro-active about anything to do with time, paperwork, and money so it only has to be done once and nobody has to chase anybody down, and stick to the least-intrusive possible way of communicating about non-emergency child-topics as they come up. The rest of the time, you leave them alone.
If an ex has asked you to leave them alone, but you work at the same place and must interact sometimes, you direct all non-essential communications to fellow team members if at all possible, you give them space, and when you absolutely have to interact you keep it polite, brief, and 100% about work topics. Be professional, don’t make things harder than they have to be. Outside of work? Leave them alone!
If an ex has never specifically asked you to leave them alone but also, they never initiate contact with you, are slow to respond to communications from you (and respond tersely when they do), they do not invite you places, include you in social events, or seek your company, then it’s probably time to stop trying to forge a friendship (or whatever you’re after) here. “But they said they wanted to stay friends!” A lot of people say that, many of them mean it sincerely, and yet: Are they acting like they want to be friends? No? Then leave them alone.
If they’ve never asked you to leave them alone and seem quite happy to stay in touch, but being around them makes you feel bad because you’re not over the relationship and/or because things that happened during the relationship are still upsetting you, and you feel like you’re having to force yourself to stay in touch, maybe give yourself the gift of not hanging out with people who routinely make you feel bad, and leave your ex alone!
When in doubt, leave your ex alone! Unfollow their social media, disengage from keeping tabs on them, and spend that energy on people who actively want to enjoy your company in the present and the future. Your ex knows how to reach you if they’d like to reconsider.
2) “Is it weird to want to reach out to an ex after years” and 3) “I want to get coffee with an ex.”
“Weird” is very subjective. It’s certainly not unusual to want to reconnect with an ex if how often this comes up in the search terms, the awkward mailbox, and the odd “hey I was just thinking about you” popping up in my dms a couple times a decade are indicators.
“Not weird”/”Not unusual” aren’t the same as “A Very Good Idea That I Endorse!,” so how’s this for a few guidelines for making it less weird?
- Assume the other person has not been thinking about you as much as you have been thinking about them (as in, they might not think about you at all).
- Be honest with yourself about your hopes and intentions.
- If things ended relatively amicably and you think this person might be open to having coffee or catching up briefly online, then ask, once.
- Ask in a way that’s straightforward and easy to say “yes” or “no” about. “Hey, I’m going to be in town over the holidays, if you’ll be around can we meet for coffee?” “Hey, I found a bunch of old photos and recordings from that band we were in together, can I mail you copies?”
- If they say yes, then enjoy the coffee or the catch-up. If the person says “no thanks,” leave it there. You broke up for a reason, you made the one attempt, now you know!
- Back to those intentions: Don’t be sketchy with yourself or others in your life, especially current romantic partners. Does “just catching up with an old friend” mean lying to somebody about something? That’s a good sign to Just Not!
- Speaking from experience both personal and forged in the fire of 1,000 Awkward Mailbox letters: If you’ve recently become single and you think your long-ago ex would be the best sympathetic, comforting sounding board for you as you process your feelings about life, love and loss, it’s possible The Highwomen wrote a song for you.
- If any of this seems harsh please note: The search string wasn’t “how do I reconnect with a friend who is also an ex” – if these people were friends, they’d already be friends.
:brief musical interlude:
4) “Fourth date and he hasn’t kissed me.”
There is exactly one person on earth who knows if “he” is not particularly attracted to you vs. he is into you but nervous about kissing you for the first time vs. he is not comfortable with taking the expected role where “he” = “common initiator of kissing stuff” vs. he’s asexual/demisexual and not particularly into kissing or needs a lot of time to know if he is into kissing you, specifically vs. he’s at home wondering why you haven’t made the first kissing-sort-of-move in his direction.
If you’ve been enjoying the dates so far and would like to see if Kissing Each Other is a thing that “he” is into, it’s probably time for you to ask him about it. “Would it be okay if I kissed you?” or “I’ve enjoyed going on these dates with you, would you be interested in some kissing?” are possible ways to do that, I hope you get a clear and mutually satisfying answer.
5) “He realized he cant handle a relationship right now.”
That’s a breakup. You are broken up. Grieve the possibility and move on, he knows how to find you if he changes his mind. I’m so sorry.
6) “My friend told me I was obsessing over a guy.”
Are you obsessing over a guy?
If yes, is your friend trying to tell you:
a) The fixation is noticeable to others and your friend wants you to be aware so it doesn’t get embarrassingly out of hand (for instance, you all work together) or unhealthy for you (i.e. your friend is saying, ‘being this intense about someone is worrying them or unlike you, are you sure you’re ok?’).
b) Your friend wishes to hear much, much less about said guy.
c) Both a and b, i.e. a) “reign it in” and b) “find another sounding board, please. “
If no, why does your friend think that you are? (Plus, see (b) above). These are very good questions to ask yourself and your friend!
6) “Talking and treating your adult kids with baby voices.”
My entire body recoiled from this, but I’m back.
If you were to say, “[Parent], I’m [age]. I have a mortgage. I have a will. I have at least three distinct types of insurance. Can you please stop with the baby voice?”
What would happen? Would they stop? Or would you get: “But I’m your [parent] and you’ll always be my liddle-widdle babykins!”
Because to that you could try saying, “I understand that you remember when I was a baby very fondly, but I don’t remember that (’cause I was… a baby), and it’s very distracting to try to have an adult conversation when you use that [voice][nickname] with me. Can you just talk to Adult Me, A Grownup That You Successfully Raised, from now on?”
They either will or they won’t. If that affects how you perceive your relationship and how much you want to spend time being baby-talked at, so be it, that’s a choice they are making and you have choices, too.
There are tactics that can help over time, like ignoring requests that are made in the baby voice and responding to ones that are made in a normal speaking voice (giving attention for good behavior and removing it for bad), reminders (“[Parent], we talked about this, you know I really hate the baby voice, so why are you still doing it?”). It will probably get worse before it gets better, and for that, I am sorry. Stay firm, this is worth fighting about.
7) “I am so tired of hearing my husband complain about his job.”
Periodic venting about work and asking for emotional support and advice about work and career stuff are pretty routine, reasonable partner-things to do with a spouse, but there are limits.
Signs it’s gone too far:
- The partner spends their workday at Horrible Job and then your entire evening together is spent Reliving Horrible Job and the whole weekend is about Dreading Horrible Job.
- You find yourself thinking, “But I don’t have to work there, so why do I feel like I do?”
- Sharing the problem doesn’t seem to release tension or make the person feel better, the venting feeds on itself and the person gets more and more irritable as they go.
- Bonus: Their irritability about work becomes irritability with you.
- The venting is repetitive and unchangeable. Today’s bad work thing reminds them of every bad work thing that’s ever happened, and once a rant has started the person resists subject changes to the point it starts feeling (to you) like a ritual that cannot be interrupted once it’s begun. What is this for?
- You’ve of course done the “Do you want advice or do you just want me to listen?” check-in before giving any advice, they choose “advice” sometimes, and now the nightly venting ritual includes arguing with you about why your advice is bad/impossible.
- Nothing at work gets better, and you start to feel as stuck in the relationship dynamic as they do in the job.
I want to make it super-clear that both Mr. Awkward and I have been the “And ANOTHER THING about [adjuncting][customer service]!!!!!!” person and the “Babe, quit or don’t, but we can’t have this conversation even one more time” person in the last seven years and this is because capitalism sucks.
Some things that readers have suggested/Some things that have helped me, personally, ruin fewer evenings with endless workfeelingsdump are:
- Create a structure for work-talk. Some people literally set a timer – you get 5 minutes, I get 5 minutes, we go back and forth for 10, then we try to stop talking about work for the day. Adapt that or find something else that works for you (I, personally, do not use the timer) with the caveats that setting limits or designing a structure doesn’t mean that work is never discussed at any other time, or that you have to make formal appointments, etc., with each other for support or venting, or that there’s never a reason to dig in for a good long discussion. When it works, it hopefully interrupts a daily, unsustainable cycle where one person auto-dumps and the other person dreads it/avoids it/tunes out of it/endures it, and replaces it with a predictable routine where everybody gets to vent some, everybody gets the expectation of being listened to with full attention some, and there is an agreement in place to fight, together on the same team, the notion that The Problem Of The No-Good Terrible Job always has to be the focus of the time you spend together.
- Reclaim the time. If you try setting limits about how often work talk can be happening, reframe it away from “SHOULDn’t I be more supportive?”/”But isn’t it a partner’s JOB to listen?” and toward “Look, if we spend the whole day working and the whole evening talking about work, it’s like the job stole both your day and our night, too. We have to set limits on how much of our time and energy that place gets to have during unpaid hours!” You’re not a terrible spouse if you need to vent about your job, you’re not a bad, unsupportive, mean, selfish spouse if you do not want to mentally work four+ additional hours at your spouse’s job for every eight hateful hours they spend there. This dynamic is worth re-designing.
- Practice opening the floodgates and closing them again, even if there is more to say. In film and theater we talk about “putting a button” on the end of a scene, which means finding an action or line (or lighting cue, cut, transition) that signifies that this beat is done for now, but still leaves the story open to continue. Maybe this concept can help with refiguring how you end difficult discussions, which is not a thing that comes naturally? As in, once discussion time is over, can you decide to physically move into a different room and purposely start a different, pleasurable activity together (put your feet up, watch a TV show, play with the pets) or separate for a little while and do solo self-care stuff (take a shower, practice piano, take a bike ride or walk, take some quiet time to read or play computer games)? There may be more to say, but honestly, you don’t have to rehash every work problem from the beginning or solve it all in one go every single time you talk about it, this is a hard but extremely worthwhile lesson to learn, plus I generally suck at task-switching and find that moving into a different room to end one thing and start something new makes it easier.
- Give credit and acknowledgement and love often. Sometimes the least worst option (assuming everyone would like to keep eating and living indoors) is to keep going to a bad job with the knowledge that you’re not going to be able to change it or fix it or suddenly stumble on or invent a new one any time soon. In that case, validating oneself (“Everything sucks but I am doing my best I can in an unfixable situation”) and each other (“I know it sucks, and I can see how hard you work to keep your integrity in a difficult situation, I’m proud of you”) can go a long way.
Set some limits, redirect some conversations, offer what support you can, be gentle with yourselves and each other.
If you’re the serial venter with the bad job, here are some resources for getting out of it/enduring it until you can:
- Ask A Manager
- Dear Businesslady (Author of Is This Working?)
And here’s my two-cents from having been that person:
Practice converting complaints into action, even silly action. Sometimes complaining is healthy and necessary to define problems, process emotions, and let my Team Me into what’s going on in my life. Other times, I get in anxiety loops where the more attention and words I give the problem without doing anything about it, the worse I feel. When I catch myself in an unhappy cycle where nothing is improving, I’m sick of the problem and myself, and I can feel the people who love me are maxing out on soothing noises, I write down my complaints, and then for each one I write down something I could do about it, including both realistic action steps and total absurdities.
Maybe today isn’t the day I can [take rational, reasonable, positive steps to further my career] but it’s also the day I successfully did NOT [quit without notice by yelling “Good luck, fuckers!” and rappelling dramatically down the building][Smuggle in a live goose as an offering to HONK, the God of Mayhem], go me! Sometimes having that snapshot of actionable vs. absurd helps me begin sorting out whether anything can be done and in what order. On the occasions it doesn’t, at least I amused myself momentarily and didn’t ruin another evening dumping it all in Mr. Awkward’s lap without preamble. Some days that’s the best we can do.
Create rituals around ending the workday and re-entering “home” or “relationship” space. Example: When I was teaching full-time, I’d sometimes have 12 hours in a row of teaching and meeting with students, with 20 minutes here and there to check emails, wolf down a food, and use the restroom before the next class. On good days, nobody followed me into the bathroom to try to pitch me their projects or ask about their grades through the stall door!
When I came home after a day like that, I needed to take the bra off, put on pajamas, wash my face, and be unavailable to every living being for 15-30 minutes of quiet. I couldn’t be a listener in that mode, and if I started talking, I might not ever stop. Once I figured that out, on days I gave myself permission to take that time and space, I would be a much better [human cat bed and servant][wife][dining companion][self-regulator of emotional workspew] then when I did not. If you and your spouse don’t have your own versions of coming inside and donning your snappy indoor cardigan and tennis shoes, think about making some. I think it helps with the whole “we are not on Work Time right now” project.
8) “My boyfriend keeps accusing me of still being married to my ex.”
I am assuming a) you are NOT still married to your ex and b) you have told your boyfriend this with words? If so, what we have here is a boyfriend problem.
Feeling jealousy sometimes is human.
Making wild, untrue accusations, repeating these accusations even when they’ve been corrected, and using jealousy as a reason to question a partner’s integrity and control their behavior is what’s known as a red flag.
I don’t even know how to fashion a script for this, but I’ll try:
“I’m not still married to my ex, the fact that you still bring it up is incredibly weird and upsetting.
If worrying about this is occupying your thoughts to the point that it’s affecting how you feel about our relationship, please seek counseling, but I’m not discussing it with you again. Stop.”
If he brings it up after that? Someone who questions reality in a way designed to upset and blame you is unlikely to result in a safe or healthy long-term partnership. Abort!
9) “Should I tell my parents I’m gay before I get married.”
Methinks you were searching for this prior post on how to share news that 1) I’m gay 2) I’m married!.
tl;dr: Wedding announcements: So useful!
If that’s the case, it seems like a good time to talk to your fiancé(e) about coming out to family before the wedding, who (if anyone from the family) should get this information and be invited to the wedding, and who would be better off with a nice wedding announcement after the fact. Decide together with your future spouse how you want to handle everything for maximum safety and comfort, and then work from there.
If you are gay but you are about to marry a straight person who thinks you are also a straight person, BEFORE THE WEDDING is the time to have that conversation (even if that conversation is “I’m sorry, we need to cancel the wedding, this is a mistake“), whether or not you can safely come out or loop in your parents right away. I don’t know anyone who has done this specific thing before the wedding personally, but I have seen more than one marriage where the people in it learned the hard way that nothing painful gets LESS painful after “I do,” a breakup that needs expensive government paperwork, and a party with lots of photos to remind you how sad and scary and lonely it felt to go through with it even when you knew it was doomed. ❤ and courage.
10) “My professor is so hard to reach through email.”
Professors vary wildly in their preferences around email and what constitutes a reasonable timeframe for expecting a response. Some people will get right back to you, some people will write back within the week, some will wonder why you don’t just come to office hours, already, some really wanted to write back to you but they are adjuncts on a semester contract and their access to the system auto-locked them out the second the grades posted.
In ye olden days of the mid-1990s, I went through undergraduate study without ever emailing a professor that I can remember (I think my senior year is when they started issuing faculty email addresses that students could know about) and I’ve studied with and taught alongside some folks who act as if those days are still happening.
Here are my suggestions if you have a professor who is routinely non-responsive to email:
- Email them anyway. This spells out the question or request and documents that it was made in the first place.
- This seems like a good time to re-link the basic guide to emailing professors.
- If your question is about the course subject matter, revisit: The syllabus, your notes & readings, talk to classmates and see if it’s in their notes. Give it your best shot. Best case you answer it yourself, the worst that happens here is you end up with a way more specific question when the prof does respond.
- If your question is about course logistics (due dates, something is unclear on syllabus, what’s going to be exams, etc.) double-check syllabus and course materials and check in with the [teaching assistants][the most diligent note-takers in the class, at least one of whom you should befriend if at all possible]. Maybe they can help you.
- #3 & #4, translated: Assume that due dates on the syllabus are still real, assignments as described are still the assignments, even if your professor doesn’t respond. A lot of students email their professors and then stop working on anything until they get an answer, which, I get why they do this, but professors working on the old “I talk to students in class and then during office hours, that should cover it!” model do not think this way, so I advise asking your question and then proceeding as best you can with the work based on the information you have. Revisions of imperfect work that was handed in as spelled out in the syllabus > opening negotiations around late work with someone who is bad at responding to questions.
- Go class and to office hours if you possibly can. If you can’t, make an appointment to meet face-to-face. If the problem is that you can’t physically be in class or attend office hours, and/or your question is time-sensitive try: calling the number on the syllabus and/or calling the department phone to leave a message for them, or asking a classmate who can attend to carry a note/question for you.
- Ask politely if they prefer another way of being contacted. “I sent an email about _____ and haven’t heard back yet, is it okay to send another email if I have more questions about ______, or do you prefer the phone for things like that?” “Making it to office hours is hard for me, it conflicts with another class, can I make an appointment to meet before our lecture to go through [my paper draft][review difficult material], or could we set up brief phone conference?”
- Sometimes department admins have the cheat codes, and speaking with them in person (do not put anything in writing that you wouldn’t want forwarded to the person you’re writing about) can unlock the secrets of the Eldritch Ways. Script: “I’ve been trying to email Professor ______, and I’m not hearing back, is there another good way to get in touch about [thing you need]?” Sometimes the admin will gently put a metaphoric boot in the person’s ass on your behalf, sometimes they’ll direct you to that person’s teaching assistant/minder and sometimes they’ll tell you stuff like “Oh, ____ is terrible at email, anything I want them to see I write on a piece of paper and shove under their office door. If you’re a student, include your name, what class and section it is, your phone number and a good time to call you back, it usually takes a day or two, but they will respond.”
- Probably get someone else to write time-sensitive recommendation letters?
- There might be contact info for a “department coordinator” or “course coordinator” listed on the syllabus. If the above tactics aren’t getting it done, try a note to that person, as in: “Dear _____, I am a student in [course][section] with [professor]. I had a family emergency and will need to miss class on ____. I’ve emailed Professor ___ to arrange makeup work/handing in late work and have not heard back yet. Are you someone who can let him know that I won’t be there this week, and do you have suggestions for getting in touch by phone or some other way to sort out due dates?”
- Be polite and professional, even if you’re frustrated, especially with anything that’s in writing. If this becomes a grade dispute or something where the department needs to be looped in, the more the emails you’ve sent read like “Hello, this is a polite, reasonable person who asks good questions in a timely manner,” the more it will go your way. If these people work with your bad-at-email professor all the time, trust me, they know how bad it sucks.
11) “Family member always canceling plans.”
In the absence of history, context, or reasons (disability/illness? small kids? money?transportation issues? family disputes/history? other logistics) here are some things I suggest for handling someone who routinely cancels plans:
- Talk to ’em directly about it and ask questions. “I want to keep including you and trying to see you, but you keep cancelling. Is there some reason that’s happening that I don’t know about? Is there something we could do to make attending easier for you?”
- Change up the plans. Maybe you go to them instead of inviting them to you, maybe you try something last minute if advance-planning is hard to commit to, maybe a quick drink or coffee or running an errand together > a big family gathering.
- Take a break from making plans for a while, at least, stop taking the lead on making plans, and put the ball in their court. “I’d love to see you, and I’m happy to work around your schedule, why don’t you let me know when you can definitely get together and we’ll work something out then.” “You’re always invited, if you know can’t make it for some reason, it helps a lot if you give me as much lead time as possible.”
- Don’t plan things with this person that require advance tickets or deposits if you have a history of having to eat the cost of those things when they can’t come.
- Plan things that don’t depend 100% on their attendance. One way to do this is to lock in reliable people and then include the frequent canceller in those plans once they’re set, i.e. “X, Y, and Z are going to see Knives Out at 3pm Sunday at [theater], with an early dinner at [place] right after. Feel free to join us, everyone’s just gonna snag their own ticket and meet up at the theater, so just grab yourself a ticket and text me on the day if you want us to save you a seat.” This gives the person the chance to opt in and you the chance to enjoy yourself without banking on them.
- If it’s not okay with you when someone cancels, stop pretending that it is. Stop saying “no problem” when it is a problem. People can have very good reasons for needing to cancel, we can be accommodating and understanding of those reasons, and it can still hurt like hell when it happens routinely. If you find yourself saying “no problem” around this a lot (and then quietly seething), try replacing it with “Oh no! I was really looking forward to seeing you, so I hope you’ll reschedule when you’re able.”
This question and its mirror (“I am the person who has to keep cancelling plans, for Reasons, and I’m afraid of losing all my relationships, but I just can’t guarantee that it will be different next time”) carry a lot of fear: fear of rejection, of losing connections, of looking bad, of being considered “too flaky” or “too rigid,” of imbalance/lack of reciprocity, of being the person who has to do all the work of maintaining relationships (“Would anyone even like me if I didn’t host/plan all the things?” is a variant I see a lot, as well as “Everyone stopped inviting me places and I’m pretty sure it’s my fault for saying no 100 times in a row, but how do fix it?” ), of shame around money (“I want to go but I can’t afford it”), of ableist messages (“They would be here if they really wanted to come”).
It sucks, and sometimes the best we can do is to speak honestly about what we want and need, find ways to convey affection and stay connected even when face-to-face hangouts aren’t working, set each other up to succeed as much as possible, enjoy relationships even if they aren’t perfectly balanced, take breaks from working on unworkable problems when we need to and leave the door open a little (even when it would be fair to shut it for a while) when we can.
No comments today. May upcoming holidays be restful and celebratory.
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.
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.
It’s time for the thing where we pretend the search terms people typed into their computers before they landed on this place are actual questions. Context is missing; that’s kind of the point.
Let’s start with a song, as is traditional. Here’s Willie, breaking our hearts a little with his cover of “September Song:”
Onto the terms:
01: “The Field Of No Fucks Given”
Inspired by this meme from the Bayeux Tapestry, also sometimes known as “The Fuck-Its,” this is where you move when you’ve tried every reasonable measure to get along with people and they still won’t let you breathe, so you decide to stop trying so hard (or at all) to appease them since being accommodating is not getting you anywhere. If a person refuses to be pleased, and you’re not harming anyone, you might as well please yourself? Related post.
Strong start, Internet!
02: “Exit Interview Bully Boss”
I am of two minds about exit interviews. On the one hand, they can be your final chance to speak truth to power and make sure there is a record of your boss’s bullying (you’re leaving, but maybe your frankness can help those left behind). In this scenario, I’d especially want to get incidents of harassment and misconduct on the record, use the documentation you’ve (hopefully) done and language like “Now that I don’t have to worry about retaliation, I’d hate to see this behavior become an expensive legal issue for the company if not addressed.” This seems like a good time to remind people about the Al Capone Theory of Sexual Harassment, where data shows that people who harass people at work (surprise!) feel entitled to break lots of rules and cheat on their expense reports, so looking for patterns of crappy behavior is revealing.
On the other hand, your company never cared about this problem before this moment, they didn’t care about changing the circumstances for you when you actually worked there, so why put yourself through a difficult ordeal and possibly come off looking “difficult” to the people who will still have to give you references down the road? I think it’s really up to you how much you give to an exit interview. Especially if your exit interview is WITH your bully boss (vs. a human resources person) I think it’s okay to say “I’d prefer not to” or “Nothing to add, I wish you and the company well” and GTFO. You don’t owe anybody free management consulting or one last chance to bully you.
03: “I’m too busy for my boyfriend.”
Maybe…talk about that honestly? Like, here is what my schedule is, this is what time I have, does that work for you, how can we make this work, can we make this work, do we even want to make this work (given these constraints)? Two perfectly wonderful people can have mismatched needs and schedules.
04: “My workmate is always grumpy on Friday.”
Not a fan of The Cure, then, this person? Maybe something difficult on Thursday nights or something difficult coming up on the weekend?
Since you can’t really know (and might not want to if you could), and you know this is a routine thing, maybe try to get all the important stuff that needs their input done on Thursdays so you can both give and get space on Fridays?
05: “Ask for another place at office coworkers talk too much.”
- I believe you! I once had a database manager job that required focus and pretty much zero human interaction, but I sat right outside a busy conference room, so half my day was spent taking my headphones off and saying, “Oh, sorry, I don’t know what meeting that is or if “Richard” and “Julia” are waiting for your slides or when they’ll be done, sorry!” (Tbh I don’t know who those people even are) and the other half my day being told “Wow, sure is quiet over here!” and trying not to say, “Well, it was quiet, Andy”
- Perhaps a better way of asking for this is less about blaming/tattling on the talkative coworkers and phrasing it more in terms of your work, as in, “The [specific] work I do needs a lot of focus and concentration, is there a way I can move to a quieter spot?”
- Bonus points for identifying a specific quiet spot in the building in advance. Don’t share it out of the gate (you’ll seem entitled and they might have other plans for that space, so don’t assume), but hold onto it for if they seem open to moving you but not sure where they can move you. “Is _________’s old cube still open? That would work really well for me I think.”
Open office plans are the worst (and they know it).
06: “That awkward moment you both want to hug each other but don’t end up hugging.”
Oh, I see you’ve met…me. And everyone I know. Welcome! Maybe someday we’ll hug, but not today. Or, maybe we will. Who knows?
07: “My new relationship just said ‘he can’t do this.'”
Believe him and delete his number. (I’m so sorry, but in most cases you’ll probably be so much happier if you do this sooner rather than later vs. trying to cajole or hold space for him).
08: “Went to my husband’s game and he didn’t introduce me to anyone.”
Look, you know this guy best, you know your usual social patterns of who introduces who best, but that’s definitely odd and deserving of at least a question: “Dude! Why didn’t you introduce me to anyone? Did you want me to come to your game or not?”
Next time, if there is a next time, introduce yourself (which, my most generous possible read is: Your husband assumed you would). “Hi, I’m ________, _________’s wife/husband/spouse. Nice to meet you!”
09: “He hasn’t logged onto the dating site since we met.”
You clearly have in order to be able to tell! Which is completely okay, don’t assume a new date-thing is exclusive unless you’ve both talked about that and agreed to some kind of exclusive arrangement, for instance, he could be not logging into the site where he specifically met you and still be Christian Mingling somewhere else. So this is not necessarily a telling detail. Does it make you feel excited to think about the fact that he seems to be focusing only on you? Or does it feel like pressure/a trap? What do you *want* this relationship to be like? Probably figure that out and when you’re ready, talk to him.
10: “How to ask someone to host Thanksgiving.”
As straightforwardly and with as much lead time (think: today, today is a good day to get this done) as you possibly can. “Would you be up for hosting Thanksgiving at your place this year, and if so, what would you need from me/the rest of us to make that work?”
They’ll either say yes or they won’t, so give them the respect of a direct request and a chance to refuse.
11: “How to indirectly invite yourself.”
There are probably exceptions (there are always exceptions) but here is how I generally roll:
If you don’t feel comfortable enough/close enough/confident enough with the situation and people to say, “Hey, mind if I join you?” and be cool* if the answer is “Not this time, sorry!” then probably don’t invite yourself to stuff, indirectly or otherwise. I have no magic hint-scripts for you. They don’t work. They create SO MUCH anxiety, on both sides. Ask. Or don’t, and either work on the relationship or your own confidence between now and next time so you’ll feel comfortable asking and have more knowledge about whether the host is a “the more the merrier!” type of person.
*You can FEEL horrible, rejection from a thing you wanted sucks, just, probably take the performance of feelings about inviting yourself to a private event to a private space and don’t pressure the people to change their minds if they say no. Your dignity and their eventual willingness to consider including you in the future will both be better for it.
12: “Moving out of helicopter parents’ house.“
In some relationships, you announce your intention to do a thing, then carry out your research/planning, then discuss options/timelines and get advice/input/help, then actually do the thing.
In some relationships you do all the planning parts very quietly, make your decision, and then inform the other people about a decision you’ve already made about a plan that is already in motion. It can help to deliver this as very positive, exciting news that you expect them to be supportive and happy about (even if you suspect the opposite), it gives you a tiny bit more armor when the Worry Bomb goes off.
In some relationships you make a safety plan, hire a moving van and recruit friends to come get your shit while everyone else is at work, and leave a note on the kitchen counter.
You know your situation best, good luck!
13: “Captain Awkward sex ed for younger kids not high school yet”
Glad you asked! Captain Awkward does not have to make this resource because somebody else totally handled it!
Scarleteen’s Heather Corinna and illustrator Isabella Rotman collaborated on a comic and activity book for pre-teens called Wait, What?, it just came out this month, it’s great, it covers body stuff, identity stuff, consent, relationships, basically “how do learn about this messy and complicated thing and not be a jerk,” it’s inexpensive, I want to push it into the hands of every parent and teacher I know.
Buy Wait, What???: A Comic Book Guide To Relationships, Bodies, and Growing Up at Women & Children First / Amazon / Wherever books are sold. If you enjoy it and find it useful, leave a review, these really help with sales.
14: “White noise machine having sex”
White noise machines can mask your sex sounds for your roommates/neighbors and mask their sex sounds for you, so if you/they like it loud, probably a worthy investment. The way this is phrased reminds me of the time one of my students made a short film about a Tivo and a Roomba who fell in love. As soon as the humans would leave for work, Roomba would trace hearts in the carpet and Tivo would play romantic movies. 60 seconds of adorableness, shot on 16mm reversal so sadly I do not have a copy to share.
15: “My biological father was never around and now wants to come to my wedding.”
He can start with “lunch” or “coffee.” If that, even. This is completely, completely up to you and do not let “tradition” or “faaaaaaamily” sway you if you don’t want him there. Weddings don’t exist to fix our families. Yours does NOT have to be the stage for reconnecting with an absent dad.
16: “I get drunk and start being extremely rude to women… do I have an underlying problem?”
You’ve got problems, plural. Quit being a misogynist, quit being a rude asshole, lay off the drinking, maybe only greet your fellow men when you’re out on the town, see how you do.
17: “Is it odd to turn up outside someone’s work at end of day?”
If they’re not expecting you, you don’t have plans to hang out, and if you don’t know them well enough to know for sure they’d be happy to see you at work (thereby crossing the streams) then yeah, it’s somewhere on the scale between “odd” and “terrifying” with stops at “intrusive” and “creepy.”
Most of us have TELEPHONEPUTERS in our POCKETS where we can ASK people in our lives what they would prefer. USE YOURS.
That’s all for this month, thank you for keeping it weird!
Hello, it’s the monthly feature where patrons of the site can ask short questions.
Q1: Thanks to years of reading your blog I finally learned how to call out -isms when they happen! But now I’m stuck at the next hurdle, where people who get called out are so mortified they go into an over-the-top apology loop and keep it up until the apology gets more annoying than the original transgression. Do you have any scripts for when people go way too hard on the apologies after being corrected? (she/her/hers)
I know, we’re taught that interrupting is always rude & wrong, but honestly, it’s so useful at times, like when you ask someone to stop doing something and they take it as an opportunity to process all of their feelings about whatever it is at you. Thanks, Stu, it was so fun to experience your misogyny at work, now, bonus I get to be your personal sexism therapist, translator, and Interpreter of All Women, ooh goody! So glad we had this talk!
Multiply that by infinity for white people who freak out when we are reminded that a) racism exists and b) racism isn’t a bone in our bodies and isn’t about our personal intentions or goodness. Robin DiAngelo coined the term “white fragility” to describe this phenomenon, and says that the “splutterings,” (extreme defensiveness, shouting, crying, disbelieving people about their lived experiences, compulsively shifting the topic to historical events (politicians who remind everyone “I marched with Dr. King!” when asked about racism now) or unsolicited non sequiturs about how cool we are about race stuff serve a purpose that isn’t just the personal shame of getting something wrong or cognitive dissonance at the magnitude of white supremacy and injustice.
“These splutterings ‘work,’ DiAngelo explains, ‘to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy.’ She finds that the social costs for a black person in awakening the sleeping dragon of white fragility often prove so high that many black people don’t risk pointing out discrimination when they see it. And the expectation of “white solidarity”—white people will forbear from correcting each other’s racial missteps, to preserve the peace—makes genuine allyship elusive. White fragility holds racism in place.”
These overshares, even when the person is sincerely upset and ashamed, have a structural, ritual purpose. Ever ended up apologizing to someone who actually owes you an apology, but when you asked them to stop doing whatever it is that hurt you, they get so upset that you feel bad about saying anything in the first place and pressured to comfort them…about the bad thing…they did… to you? Yeah. Like that. But on a grand, national, and global scale.
So where does that leave us?
If you mess something up, and we all mess up sometimes, I think one good practice is to do whatever we can to not dwell on ourselves in that exact moment. Whatever our intentions were, we said something that hurts. Our feelings of shame and worry that we messed up can be real, but they aren’t THE immediate problem. Being corrected isn’t about our personal epiphany or learning to be a better person (that can wait!), it’s about stopping the harmful behavior with minimum fuss and adverse impact, and making a commitment to get it right going forward. Apologize, correct the behavior, and move on. From this piece on accidentally using the wrong pronouns:(bolding mine):
“You are talking about someone who goes by “he/him” pronouns. “She is a great student. I’m sorry, I meant to say he is a great student. He’s been reading all of the assignments very thoroughly and it’s been a pleasure to work with him.” You don’t have to make a big deal out of your mistake or draw a lot of attention to it. You mostly need to fix it. You might have a follow up conversation with the person you referred to incorrectly to apologize or see if there’s something else you can do to correct it moving forward besides doing better. Making it a bigger deal in the moment is not necessarily helpful and could be harmful unless that’s what the person who was incorrectly referred to wants. Depending on the situation, you might be worried that people think you aren’t friendly towards transgender people because you made a mistake, but generally it’s good to avoid making the situation about you and your intent. A good way to show you are friendly is to get it right in the future and to act upon some of the other guidances you may find through this website or other resources.
Critique is an investment in the relationship. If someone is taking the risk of telling you you messed up, it doesn’t mean “YOU ARE THE WORST PERSON WHO EVER LIVED, PLEASE DIE NOW” it means “I care about this and I’m trusting you to get it right.” If you feel awful and embarrassed, that’s normal, just, those feelings are for you to take to your journal or a therapist, not to process in real time with the expectation that the person you offended will hang out and help you do it.
Anyway, dear Querent, here’s your shame-spiral interruption script to adapt into your own words as the situation demands.
“Hey _____, let me interrupt for a second. These conversations are awkward for everyone. I appreciate the apology, and as long as you [do the good thing/stop doing the bad thing] from now on, we’re good.”
Interrupt. Translate their apology into a promise for better action in the future. Keep Awkwarding.
Q2: I recently joined a beer and philosophy meetup. I enjoy the group and the discussion, except for one person. Her comments are often neither brief nor relevant, with her talking as much as everyone else combined and going on tangents that don’t connect to the topic. She seems to be friends with the organizers and while they’re otherwise great, they don’t seem interested in reining her in; is there anything I can do? (she/her/hers)
A2: Since you’re new and she’s a regular, this is tricky. Almost certainly you’re not alone in feeling as you do about this person, but you don’t know who your allies are and if you complain about her to the wrong folks you will come across as the jerk.
One tactic I might try is suggesting that the big group break into smaller groups for discussion, maybe switch/rotate every 10-15 minutes, or chew on a question in small groups and have each group report back to the big group at the end. “Can we break into smaller groups next time? I love hearing from everyone and talking about the work, and with the big discussion circle we sometimes only get through a few people.”
You can also channel group discussions with aggressive “Yes, And!” action. You don’t have to let her finish every paragraph. Wait for a pause or the end of a sentence and then speak up and throw the discussion ball to someone else in the group. “Interesting point, Alex! Phil, weren’t you talking about how ___________ leads to _________ last week? Do you think this is the same sort of question?”
That way you’re not interrupting to talk over her, you’re including other people in the conversation. Be strategic and choose someone talkative if you do this, the shy quiet people will not catch your ball and it will go right back to her.
Q3: What are your favorite ice breaker/ getting-to-know-you questions? Spouse and I trying to get out and build a bigger community. I’m not great at spontaneous chat with new people and would love a few more conversation starters to add to my bank beyond the not-great “what do you do?” (She/her/hers)
A3: Commander Logic, enthusiastic connector, has been going with “What are you nerdy about?” of late, and having great results with it. She is also great at asking people for recommendations for local things and getting them talking about their neighborhood. “Do you have a favorite bakery or coffee joint?” “If you ever have out of town guests, what’s a place you love to take them?”
I try to think about both context and subjects that are low stakes but that people have strong opinions about. You’d be surprised at how well “What is your favorite sandwich?” at an event where people are eating, people get very excited about sandwiches.
The “what five objects would someone use to summon you” or “what would create an irresistible You-trap, like, if you walked by this place on the street you’d have to go in and check it out” threads that go around sometimes on social media are pretty good stuff.
I don’t like “Would you rather ____ or _____?” questions or “Let’s generate some debate!” type questions for this stuff, I like questions that get the person to tell me a story about themselves. If you celebrate, what’s the best Halloween costume you ever saw/wore? What was your first ever job? Did you have an imaginary friend when you were a kid? What’s a word that you knew what it meant but never knew how to pronounce? If the universe could give you back one lost item, what would it be? When you were little what did you want to be when you grew up?
Q4: I’m slowly pulling myself out of a Depression Hole where one of the biggest problems has been executive functioning. (Got a therapist, working on the medical side.) My issue is that I have a ton of deep seated shame from a childhood filled with notes sent home for missing homework assignments, getting yelled at for being late, etc. How do I avoid the shame spiral/impostor syndrome around ordinary mistakes? (She/her)
Hi there, friend! When I got diagnosed with ADHD in my early 40s on top of the anxiety & depression, there was a giant period of grieving. What would my life be like if I hadn’t been struggling so long with all the “little things” that add up to so many unfinished “big things” and so much avoidance and disorganization?
You asked how you can avoid the shame spiral/imposter syndrome around ordinary mistakes, and the answer is, you probably can’t avoid/prevent/control your feelings. That’s not a thing we can do, even though it’s a thing that people desperately want to do.
What I think we can try to do (thanks, therapy!) is practice ways of feeling the feelings without letting them sink us. On a certain level, feelings are just information. We can have the feelings, observe the feelings, name the feelings, make a note of the feelings, and make decisions about what, if anything, we want to do about the feelings. We can have compassion for ourselves about them, we can hold space for them, and maybe they don’t have to be the boss of us all the time.
One thing I do is make note of feelings that come up when I’m trying to plan my day or my week. Is a task getting moved day after day without getting finished? What are the feelings about that? It’s not magic, I still struggle with executive function stuff despite medication and therapy, but it does actually help me to know, if I’m avoiding or dreading something, why? And sometimes I’m able to say, hey, Buddy (my internal monologue is addressed as Buddy), it’s obvious that you’re procrastinating about that, so do you actually want to do it or not? What’s going on here? And that’s enough to help me get to the “I will feel better once this is done” place and get that little nugget of momentum and satisfaction from crossing it off the list.
Those narratives built in childhood about how “lazy” I was hurt really bad, and changing the narrative to, I wasn’t lazy, I just had a different brain that made it harder to do certain kinds of things, has been a process. The past affects us, but we can’t undo it, so what do we want to do with today? May your process be healing.
Q5: My friend has a bad habit of complaining to me about stuff that they know stresses me out, pausing mid-rant to say “sorry, I know you don’t like hearing about this stuff” and then continuing right on again. For Reasons I don’t want to shut them down completely, but how can I ask them to A) dial it back and B) stop apologizing when they have no intention of stopping? (she/her/hers)
A5: This is a hard one, because I think at a certain point you are going to have to shut one of these rants down so that the discomfort this person is making you feel is returned to sender. Boundaries have three steps: Deciding where your boundary is, telling the other person where it is, and then enforcing it.
This could mean interrupting one of the rants:
- “I’ve told you I don’t like hearing about this stuff, so, let’s not do this today, ok?”
- “We talked about this. Please find a different sounding board for ____.”
- “I’m sympathetic, but I’m really not up for this today.”
- “I need you to check before you go into download mode, and I need the answer to be actually meaningful, so, not today.”
- “Hashtag gentle reminder, hashtag please vent to someone else about stuff like this and hashtag but please come back when you want to go get ice cream.”
And it could mean, when the fauxpology comes, holding up your hands and saying, “You always apologize, but you never actually stop doing the thing, so, can we not?”
And it could mean that the conversation is cut short and things get very awkward and you feel enormous pressure to just give in and let it happen. But it sounds like you’ve been perfectly clear (they know you don’t like this and they do it anyway), so probably this person needs to feel the full “This is what ‘nope’ feels like” effect at least once. I can’t think of a gentle, more subtle “dial it back” way that you didn’t already try.
Whether you put this into practice or not is up to you, I just want to emphasize: It’s not mean to to tell someone ‘no’ inside a friendship.
Q6: What’s something romantic I can do for my husband serving in Afghanistan? I send him random silly stuff and we can chat and Skype and text. I’m not feeling very creative. We’ve been married nearly 20 years. (I am she/her/hers husband is he/him/his)
A6: Have you and he ever written paper letters to one another? There’s something about a tangible object that you can carry with you, something that can be read and re-read, something written quietly and intentionally to the person that has a magic to it. Maybe find a list of questions like these (not necessarily these exact ones, adapt to your purposes) and trade answers on paper over time? Could you read the same book together and have a long-distance book club (or each pick out a favorite book to assign to the other person to read) and talk about it?
Readers, what kinds of things keep you connected in long distance relationships?
Part 2 is coming.
Behind a cut for emotional abuse, misogyny, and discussion of these things as specifically related to recent gun violence and the possibility thereof, which is not what the Letter Writer asked, but definitely something I saw in the question.
I did a giant dump of cat photos for patrons if you need to click on over that way. ❤
Hello! Search terms have piled up, let’s do the thing where we answer the search strings people typed in that led them here as if they are questions. Context is missing (by design), so expect some comedy answers in between with the sincere stuff.
Let’s kick things off with a song. Have I used this one before? Who knows? I never don’t want to listen to Bananarama.