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How Not To Be

Hi!

I am 28, she/her. My sister in law (“A”) is also 28 and my brother (“D”) is 31.

I have a question about gift etiquette.

Last year on my birthday, A and D gave me a bunch of used DVDs. They got me slightly damaged copies of a couple movies and every season of a TV show my parents liked in the 90’s that I have never expressed any interest in. They wrapped each one individually so they could watch me unwrap them and giggle. I got the joke – this is a terrible gift! Hahaha – but I wasn’t included in the joke. With each one I opened, I got more confused, which seemed to make it even more funny for them.

That Christmas, they did it again, and this time they did it to my parents as well. They got me individual seasons of a TV show that is available in its entirety on Netflix and that I have had conversations about with them in the past where I said I did not like the show. They got my parents copies of DVDs they already owned. All of these were slightly beat up from being previously owned. They giggled and said things like “That’s an important one” and “Better get on watching that soon” the whole time.

My parents pretended to like them the whole time, but as A and D had already done this on my birthday, I finally got frustrated and refused to open more presents from them, because they just kept coming. We all take turns opening gifts and every time it was my turn, it was another used DVD.

Meanwhile, I work very hard on gifts. Last year I got A, a notorious anglophile, a certificate to a years subscription to a service that gets a ton of different British TV shows she had been wanting to watch but hadn’t been able to get access to. I nestled the certificate in a box of fortune cookie fortunes I had collected throughout the year (she collects these and plans to cover a table with them someday). For D I spent months searching for a sweater that had the Coca Cola logo on it. (He loves Coke. He once wrote an essay on its history for a college history class.) These were in addition to other things – games they didn’t have (they love board games) and nice teas (they enjoy tea). I spent ages trying to find thoughtful gifts and then I wrapped each one in nice paper that’s in their favorite colors.

The Christmas before last they didn’t get me a joke gift. They got me a “gummy candy maker.” It was essentially brightly colored silicone molds and unbranded Jello to put in them. It was obviously a children’s toy, and when I opened it, it was sticky from being previously owned. I pretended to be interested and thanked them, which made them smirk at each other. They also gave me a wine-scented candle. It was branded as being from a winery A’s parents had gone to a month or two prior. (Meaning I think they regifted it.)

So they have always given gifts like this, last year was just kind of a new level.

After they left last Christmas, my mom pulled me aside and was like, “Do you know what was going on with all the used DVDs?”

I said, “I think they just thought it was funny.” She seemed a bit crestfallen. She gives gifts similar to mine. She had gotten A a rare kind of tea set.

Furthermore, I don’t think A used the gift certificate and I know D got rid of the sweater because this year Mom said we should take a family photo wearing goofy sweaters and D said he didn’t have one. I said, “What about the one I gave you last Christmas?” He said “Oh, right. I might still have that.”

This is not a money thing – they both make more money than I do and buy nice, new things for themselves regularly. They’re just giving me joke gifts and doubling down when my feelings are hurt. I guess they just don’t like the gifts I give them.

I don’t mean to seem like I’m bragging about being super great at giving gifts or I’m entitled to lots of cool presents. I only meant that I try to put a lot of thought into their gifts and save up for them for a long time. They take a long time to think of and pull off. And A and D get cheap gifts at the last second. I would rather they didn’t get me anything at all.

My question is, what is the etiquette for receiving gifts that hurt my feelings? Do I have to keep pretending they don’t? What should I feel about trying really hard to get them things they like and having them openly dislike them? I want to just get them Amazon gift cards this year, but if they decide to get me non-joke presents this year I’ll just look like an asshole. I don’t know what to do or say.

Sorry this is so long. Thank you in advance.

Hello, thank you for the extremely timely seasonal question that is also an example of when rules that we’re taught about good manners as a child stop working around certain adults.

A Rule Most Of Us Were Taught: “It’s rude to interrupt.”

Sometimes it is, but when you’re dealing with someone who never lets you talk, or who says upsetting things (shame spirals on an unceasing loop, un-constructive criticisms, various bigotries, answering questions you didn’t ask by explaining shit you already know, and yes – even well-meaning, enthusiastic conversational overflow from ADHD kids like me!), it really, really pays to interrupt them, and you’ll be much happier if you do. People who tend to dominate conversations won’t shrivel and die of interruption. (Truthfully, we might not even notice.)

A Rule Most Of Us Were Taught: “It’s ruder to criticize someone’s etiquette mistake than it is to make the etiquette mistake in the first place.” This is a rule about culture and fitting in.

Emily Post, one of the best-known proponents of this approach, saw her advice as a way to a) help both new immigrants to the United States and the suddenly proliferating middle and new-money classes understand social mores so they could better assimilate (with assumed advantages to them for employment and upward mobility) and b) remind her own snobby, crusty, filthy-rich peers to value kindness and making an effort over polish. She was hardly a revolutionary, but for every “don’t swing your arms please it’s unladylike” tip she ever wrote there is definitely a delicious aspect of “If a guest doesn’t know what a finger-bowl is and you, the host, try to embarrass them, call attention to their difference, or make fun of them for not knowing, YOU are the asshole in this situation and next time we run into each other in the lane be careful I don’t issue the Cut Direct in the form of a kid-gloved fist to your puckered little jerkface, you absolute failure of a human being”* running through her work. Good, right?

Sadly, somehow people have translated and handed this down as “When someone is being rude, it’s even ruder to speak up about it” even when the failure on display isn’t one of form but of kindness. Worse, they’ve taught some of us that what’s “most polite” is our silence and compliance and “civility” at all costs. The costs are adding up, to the point that thanks to old-fashioned white supremacy and widespread Fox News poisoning, next Thursday in these United States I doubt a single minute of daylight will pass without someone’s relative saying something downright genocidal without a peep from anybody (because: politeness!), but the second someone does challenge Uncle I-Put-The-Eugene-In-Eugenics, that person will be told  “Shhhh! No arguing politics at the holiday table!”** and get treated like the originator of the problem.

Is it an exaggeration to say that every word of this blog for the past nine years is meant to be a deliberate rebellion against this expectation and conditioning?

A Rule We Were Taught: GIFTING EDITION

“I don’t care if it’s a dog turd in a cereal box! When someone gives you a gift, you say ‘thank you’ and act like you love it ’til we get home.” – My Dad, Christmas, 1982, when my aunt gave me an E.T. figurine she’d crafted in a paint-your-own-ceramics workshop and I cried both because I’d wanted something Star Wars or Barbie-related and because, well, look at it. (The rest of the story, including, why is it in the top rack of a dishwasher, at Patreon).

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Image: A hideous though no-doubt lovingly crafted ceramic E.T. figurine, in the top rack of a dishwasher.

Dad was absolutely right, my aunt had worked hard on something she hoped I’d love, and she deserved a polite thank you. She didn’t know about the nightmares! But this doesn’t apply when it’s a repeat offender giving deliberately bad gifts. My big brother and I gave each other matching $35 Borders gift cards wrapped in increasingly elaborate packages for a solid decade as a way of saying, “I have no idea who you are and what you like as an adult, we can still beat a joke into submission and resurrect it, kill the joke again, and laugh hysterically at the zombie joke lurching through the room just like we did when we were kids!” It infuriated my mom that we weren’t giving “real presents,” but for us it was 100% a way of expressing love. Pranks where everyone isn’t in on the joke, pranks where everyone isn’t actively participating, pranks that fall flat every year? Are just being mean. 

Letter Writer, your parents’ confusion at the idea of joke gifts and pretense that this was in any way enjoyable tells me that you were taught something similar: Gifts are exercises in care and thoughtfulness; the worst thing in the world is to be visibly ungrateful for a gift.

Unfortunately your brother and his wife are being jerks and they need to be TOLD.  Either they genuinely think it’s funny and that you’re in on the joke, or they get off on bullying you, either way, they will not get hints. They will never ‘read the room.’ You gotta tell them.

Possible script:

“[Brother], I know you and [Spouse] love the joke gift thing, but I really hate it. This year can we either do real gifts – I’m happy to send you a list of a couple affordable things I could use and you can do the same, I’d love to get you and A. something you would definitely use – or, otherwise, can we agree to skip the whole thing? I’d rather just do nothing than have to unwrap a bunch of damaged crap again and pretend it’s fun.” 

Your parents are responsible for their own approach to this but maybe you could also ask your brother to give you money to purchase a group gift for your parents. You like picking out gifts! Volunteer to do the work and pick out something actually nice from all of you. If he offers any resistance, know that this is more trouble than its worth, get a nice gift for your parents from yourself and let your parents handle him.

If they agree to a cool gift and try to prank you with a shitty gift again, when you open the first scratched DVD of Two-And-A-Half Men or whatever utter garbage they chose this time I give you permission to say, “Oh, are we doing this again? Here, you open them, then since this is really a present for you.” DON’T PARTICIPATE IN OBVIOUS BULLSHIT. You may feel intense discomfort and pressure not to react this way (because of the “it’s ruder to acknowledge rudeness than to be the rudeness” conditioning you’ve received and because you are a good, thoughtful person) but like, enough already, Brother and Sister-in-Law! If they insist on making it weird, then let it be as fucking weird and unpleasant as they make it at least once.

As far as what to give them, may I suggest:

  • Nothing. “Oh, I didn’t bother this year – you like joke gifts and I don’t have the energy for all that. Who wants more eggnog?” I mixed a few joke suggestions in below but I am incredibly serious about trying out “Nothing” this year. They felt comfortable giving you nothing in the past, so…?
  • A single pair of white unisex gym socks each. (Socks are useful.)
  • Who couldn’t use an AA battery? You had this one in the junk drawer. It’s probably still good.
  • Donate to a charity you like in their name.
  • Your suggestion of gift cards is perfect, they never go out of style and you probably aren’t a person who can be comfortable coming empty-handed, but honestly, they don’t deserve you.
  • Seriously, save your money and your thoughtful, careful gift choices for people who appreciate them, these two are never gonna really get on your wavelength about this.

Additionally, readers have shared stories of deliberately mean, crappy, “I got everyone a nice gift and you an obviously ill-suited afterthought gift to show how much I don’t actually care about you” incidents from family members with me and asked what I suggest they do next time with repeat offenders, so may I offer up a flat “Oh thanks I would never have thought of this for myself” response and then leaving whatever it is behind under the tree, neatly tucked in a hall closet, or under a bed somewhere when you go. They’ll find it or they won’t, once it’s given to you it’s yours to do with as you please, and they can draw their own conclusions.

Yes, of course you coooooooooooooooooooooould quietly take it and throw it away or try to donate it or regift it once you get home but there’s something symbolic leaving this obviously hostile turd of a present behind for them to figure out how to store or dispose of. Of course this opens the door to the gifter trying to chase you down and get you to accept it (any excuse to bully you, right), so in that case try, “Oh, I didn’t forget, I had no desire for a [child-sized jumpsuit the color of dog doodoo][some dusty crap from the basement you’re trying to pawn off on me][a broken ice-scraper][a food thing I’m 100% allergic to, and oh goody, it’s expired][“Look I thought we covered this when I married your son and every one of the twelve years since, but I’M JEWISH, MISS ME WITH THE LIGHT UP MANGER SCENE AND THE ‘IRONIC’ CHRISTMAS SWEATERS], so hopefully you can use it? Thanks for the thought!”

Also, see above, and consider giving these people the gift of NOTHING from now on. They can try to play their game but you don’t have to participate.

*Obviously I’m paraphrasing  but if Emily Post were alive today she would 100% haunt the Am I The Asshole Reddit in her free time exhorting people to come correct even if they are tragically reduced to wearing last season’s gloves and keeping only one manservant. Believe it. P.S. Laura Claridge has written an excellent biography.

**“Don’t talk politics at the table.” Okay, I’ve been guilty of hoping  that one would work in the past, in the sense of giving hosts tools to shut down the loudmouths, but it needs an update. Most “politics” “arguments” afoot, especially among my fellow white people, currently aren’t “zoning laws should be slightly different, let’s discuss that and find the best solution,” they are more like:

Our Worst Relatives: “THOSE people with certain identities deserve to DIE and THEY are the ones VICTIMIZING ME by EXISTING LIKE THAT and YOU are being RUDE if you don’t agree, in silence.”

Us: “The opposite of all of that, actually? Also, I am somewhat Those People?”

Missing Stair Enabling Squad: “Why are you antagonizing them when you know they’re ‘just like that’? There’s no need to be uncivil!”

These lopsided calls for civility are bullshit, this isn’t about MANNERS, it’s about ETHICS and the SURVIVAL of our fellow humans, so let’s get fucking real and start Returning. Awkwardness. To. Sender. 

 

Hi Captain Awkward –

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hello!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hi Captain!

I’m an adjunct professor at a mid-sized University, a new mom, and I just had a very awkward encounter with my department head. I’m teaching one of the sections of my department head’s courses; so myself, the department head and all the other section instructors meet up each week to discuss things and make sure we’re on the same page. Before the semester started, I emailed her to let her know that I recently had a baby and if there was a place I could pump between our course meeting and the start of class. She responded that I was welcome to use her office anytime (I don’t have an office) and to let her know if I needed anything. Great! Fast forward to the first day of class: we have our course meeting and all is going well. At the end of the meeting, I ask my department head if now is convenient for her to lend me her office so I can pump; and if not, I’m happy to wait until she’s ready. She enthusiastically responds that now is a great time and that she’s totally comfortable “being around exposed boobies.”

I’m a bit taken aback at this point, I expected I’d be able to pump privately. I start mumbling about not wanting to interrupt her work when another one of my fellow adjuncts comes to my rescue and informs me the adjunct lounge is currently empty and the door has a lock. I’m relieved and my department head cheerfully remarks that’s the perfect place to pump. I make my way over to the adjunct lounge, lock the door and get to work. Five minutes later, I hear a knock on the door… it’s my department head. She whispers through the door to be let in, saying she has something important to discuss with me. Unnerved, I unlock the door and let her in. At this point, I have all my pumping gear on and am wearing my pumping bra, so I’m mostly covered up, but my shoulders are bare and one can clearly see my pumping bra. My department head looks at me for a moment, then asks me if I’ve seen where one of the other adjuncts has gone. Umm….what? She could have asked anyone else in the hallway that question, why did she have to come in and ask me? I’m clearly super uncomfortable and I respond that I haven’t seen her since the meeting. My department head stares for another moment, then apologizes profusely for disturbing me and leaves.

My question is: what on earth should I do about this? I’m incredibly uncomfortable with how she conducted herself, especially since she’s my boss. Should I speak to her about this? What should I say? Should I just pretend this never happened and hope it doesn’t happen again? I’m definitely not going to use her office to pump (or pump anywhere in that building if I can help it).

Thanks!
Awkward Academic (she/her/hers)

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Dear Captain Awkward,

Yesterday night, seemingly out of nowhere, my husband “Andy” (he/him) got a message from a friend of ours, “Marc” (he/him). In this very long message, Marc wrote that he felt hurt and attacked by Andy during his recent (2-3 days ago) visit to our house. Marc used words like “venomous” and “vitriol” to describe Andy’s “ceaseless attacks” on him from the moment he came home that reminded him of how he (Marc) was bullied and abused as a child. Marc ended the message by saying he has always valued Andy’s friendship and hopes Andy would tell him if he’d done something to upset him. Andy called Marc twice last night and once this morning, in addition to sending him a message but got no
response. I also called Marc but he didn’t pick up my call either.

Some background. We are all in our late thirties/early forties. We met Marc through a mutual friend about 5 or 6 years ago, and both Andy and I have been friendly with Marc, especially for the last 18 months that we have lived in the same city. Marc comes over to our house once a week, and usually hangs out for most of the day. Marc is independently
wealthy and would like to do more travel, outings, etc. but Andy and I both work and are trying to save money to start a family, buy a house, etc and usually aren’t up for it. We’ve always enjoyed hanging out with Marc. He was at our wedding! I think both Andy and I would describe him as one of our closest friends in the city.

The message really hit Andy hard. Andy is one of the kindest, most considerate people I have ever met who will bend over backwards to help people. This is not just wifely bias, but lots of people, even acquaintances/colleagues will say that about him. It’s possible that Andy maybe made a joke or comment that hurt Marc’s feelings but nothing rising the level of the constant, vitriolic attacks that Marc describes. Andy wanted to get in touch with Marc to get some examples of what he said wrong so he can apologise and not hurt him like that again. Despite saying he values the friendship, Marc is refusing to
engage with us.

So here’s the tricky part. For the past couple of months, I’ve gotten a feeling that Marc may have a crush on me. It’s little things that are easy enough to ignore, complimenting the way I look or the food I make, suggesting a time to hang out when he knows my husband will be working. Nothing substantial but you know how women sometimes just
have a sixth sense for when men are flirting. Like you just know? I never said anything to Andy because a) Marc was never inappropriate with me, b) I enjoyed Marc’s company and so did Andy, c) people have crushes and I figured it would fade and things would go back to normal. Now I’m wondering if Marc is purposely burning the bridge or got upset with Andy because of feelings for me? Ahhh, even writing that makes me feel so stuck up. I promise I don’t think everyone is in love with me.

Two questions: What should Andy and I do, if anything to try to address this with Marc?Should I be honest with Andy about my theory on Marc’s behavior?

*I read your rules and I swear I’m not simply doing emotional labour
for my husband, but I feel like this is my problem too.

(She/Her)

Hi there,

I’m sorry you’re dealing with this. I’m going to suggest, bluntly:

Let Andy & Marc work it out (or not). Do not attempt to mediate, explain, intervene, or search your soul for reasons a man is behaving badly and how you might have caused it or somehow affect the outcome. Question of the century: What if we collectively stopped pretending that volatile and hostile men are everyone else’s problem to fix?

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Dear Captain Awkward,

I ( 27, she/her) have an acquaintance (29, he/him) who is not neurotypical (he told me this). His preferred mode of communication is texting and he frequently tries to have long, involved text conversations with me. I was pretty tolerant of this at first, but it’s gotten a bit wearing. I’ve told him several times that I “am super busy and can’t text a lot”, “am not up for all of the texting”, and “I need space”. His standard response is along the lines of “That’s ok, you’re my friend and I like talking to you” and then to continue on exactly as before.

He also has a pretty intense crush on me and I told him very clearly that I did not feel the same way. According to mutual friends, the crush continues apace 6+ months after that conversation and he’s pretty regularly asking them for updates on me. This guy has a bit of a tendency to disregard realities that he doesn’t like and at this point I’m not sure if he still doesn’t understand the boundaries I’m trying to set (understandable) or if he’s just ignoring them (not ok). How do I extricate myself from this?

Thought I Was Being Loud and Clear

Dear Loud & Clear,

Block him and be done with this tedious mess. 

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As promised…more “If you’re ‘not allowed’ to say no to someone, they are not acting like friends” content. I have kept the Letter Writer’s subject line as the post title so that readers too can have the “Wait, where is the part where this person is an actual mom” “Oh wait, phew, this person isn’t anyone’s actual mother, that would be even more horrifying” realization that The Goat Lady (my trusty inbox sorter) and I did.

Dear Captain,

I (she/her) have a friend, “Mary” who is, by her own admission, a “mom” friend. Mary is very kind– but emotionally overreaching. She feels responsible for making sure her friends are well cared for. Mary has even joked that if it weren’t for her, her friends would buy nothing but junk food and toys at the grocery store, instead of groceries. When we get together, Mary will insist on cooking, even when somebody else volunteers to cook instead. If one of us DOES cook, Mary will hover, or “help” by essentially taking over the cooking–adding ingredients and more or less pushing the other cook out of the kitchen. Mary will consistently cite any accident or mistake any of us have made as an excuse to swoop in. Then she will complain that she is always the one stuck with the cooking.

Mary also feels very much–if she thinks her friends are upset or potentially upset, she will become upset for them. (For example, I have been very stressed at work and with personal projects, and Mary started crying because I “am going to burn out” and that I am “such a perfectionist that you are going to hurt yourself!”) If I complain to Mary about anything, be it annoyance over traffic to a problem with a coworker, it becomes a “problem” and Mary is quick to give me unsolicited advice, get defensive for me or otherwise volunteer to help me solve this “problem.”

If she knows I am struggling with something, Mary will constantly bring it up (probably in an attempt to reinforce what she thinks is the “positive” message), or turn even a casual comment (“I wish could sleep for five years,”) into a big referendum or discussion on my mental health. If we have a difficult conversation or discussion, it will end with Mary crying, clutching me like I am some sort of child and even kissing the top of my head while I am just feeling frustrated. If I try to establish boundaries (“This isn’t a topic I am willing to discuss with you, let’s talk about something else”), my boundaries are immediately overridden. In fact, it seems as if my attempts to establish boundaries are interpreted by Mary as a further excuse to involve herself in me and my life!

I know that Mary is coming from a place of love and care. What reads to me as “manipulative” and “immature,” aren’t necessarily that–it’s just that it is to me! (Ed. note: IT’S NOT JUST YOU) I care very much about Mary but I am reaching the end of my rope. I understand this is part of the “mom” friend aspect, but Cap, I HATE being mothered. My own mother doesn’t even “mother” me. It has never worked on me, and will never work on me, no matter how many times Mary tries to become my surrogate mom. I’m trying hard not to become a hallmark-movie-style troubled teen and start yelling “You are not my real mom!” at her.

Sometimes, I just need to vent or talk about my issues without needing a “solution” or it turning into an “argument.” I feel like I have to walk on eggshells around Mary because even a casual joke (the kind that everyone in our generation and friend group makes!) becomes an emotionally exhausting exercise where I am left feeling emotionally infantilized and I start to resent Mary’s lack of maturity.

On top of this, Mary is attending therapy and seems to think herself the authority on all matters now–she declares herself an expert on conflict resolution but her form of “resolution” is to cry until she gets what she wants or can manipulate the narrative to seem like she was correct (in case it wasn’t obvious by now, Mary has an INTENSE martyrdom complex.)

I don’t want to lose Mary as a friend, and I can’t really get away from her for now. I don’t know how to explain to Mary that I don’t need a “mom” or a “mom friend,” and that her “mothering” is making it impossible to just be “friends.” How do you get a “mom friend” to stop “mothering” her friends?

I don’t know how to ask Mary to emotionally detach herself from me and my problems without making it seem like I am asking her to get out of my life. I also don’t know how I could possibly have these difficult conversations with Mary without it turning into an emotional meltdown on Mary’s part that she then projects onto me, as further evidence that I “need” her. Can you help me find a script to deal with Mary?

Thanks,

She’s not my mom (friend)

Optional P.S. Neither of us are parents, apologies if it was confusing!

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Dear Captain Awkward,

I have a great younger brother who realized he was gay and came out a few years ago in his mid-twenties, which was met generally with cheerful support by family and friends. Coming out really kickstarted his interest in social justice issues, which is awesome; we both grew up in a fairly liberal region and attended the same famously liberal university, so these ideas weren’t new to him, but his new identification with a marginalized community seemed to have sparked a desire to engage more deeply. All fantastic!

But for the past year or so his interest specifically in black culture has given me and my husband a little cause for concern (my brother and I are white, and my husband is a POC, though not black). His media diet at this point is dominated by black shows, podcasts, music etc, most of it intended for audiences of other black people — which, again, cool! It’s undeniable that the most important and interesting pop culture right now is largely being produced by women and POC and I share a lot of his fandom. As a result, however, he constantly redirects conversations to show off his new insights into black culture or establish his “cred.” He’s in so many Facebook groups designed for the black community that he now just gets invited to others and shows off screencaps of the invitations as “proof” of how legit he is. He has been known to say things like “I’m basically the blackest person at work” — when there are actual black people who work there! And while he can talk a big game about Black Lives Matter, he doesn’t actually like, volunteer or do anything for the black community where he lives or even read much on the issues beyond what’s hip on Tumblr.

From where I stand, it’s pretty clear that my brother sees his recent addition to the queer community as entitling him to be a part of any and all marginalized communities that interest him, and that it allows him to be “one of the good ones” as a white guy. I am sympathetic to that desire, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how institutionalized racism works. When he brings it up, my general tendency is to respond mildly — maybe ask questions about the show he’s interested in while not giving much attention to his preening about how cool he is, or some gentle teasing and a change of subject.

On top of all this my brother has put an “indefinite moratorium” on dating white guys with a strong preference for black dudes. The very few black friends my brother has seem charmed by him, but I am worried he is on a crash course to do or say something really bizarre that will have serious professional or personal consequences for him and I am having grim visions of Quentin Tarantino’s dashiki phase. On the one hand, he’s an adult and maybe the best thing to do is stand back and let this play out however it’s going to. On the other, it might kind of be my duty as his sister and fellow white person to try and check him before he offends someone? I am struggling to envision a version of that conversation that would go well, because these are issues that cause people to get defensive, and he can be a little (a lot) defensive to criticism from his older sister in general. I’m pretty sure whatever I say would be met with a variation of “You don’t get it, sis, because you’re too white.”

Is this worth addressing or should I mind my own beeswax?

Thanks!

– There’s no “I” in Ally

She/her pronouns

Dear There’s No “I” in Ally:

Hi, it’s Lenée, subbing in for Captain Awkward this week.

As lovely as it is that your brother wants to be a not-awful-gay-white guy, he’s being exactly that. Consumption of Black cultural production — television, movies, and even BLM — does not make him a good person or an ally of any kind. In fact, as you so properly called it, he’s a fetishist. His screenshots and social capital as A Distinguished White Guest means absolutely nothing, as it’s pretty damn clear that Black people are theoretical people to him. He’s trading in Black cultural markers and identifying himself as “the blackest person” at his job because he thinks he can opt into Blackness the same way he chose to be out. I, as a Black queer woman, could not be more exhausted by this behavior. Sadly, it’s pretty standard in my experience with white queers, men especially. Wanting to be a “good white person,” as you so wonderfully observe, doesn’t work like this. Tumblr isn’t political education, though it’s a tool some folks have used to reach people. Facebook groups are not in any way a substitute for working to dismantle white supremacy and/ or using his privilege as a white man to protect and aid Black folks. That entitlement to structurally oppressed people, our culture, et cetera is so damn white.  Seriously. It’s so white, it just demanded to speak to my manager. It’s so white it has on Tevas and wool socks in a snowstorm.

So, here’s my take on it:

Don’t be so polite to him anymore. Push back firmly and tell him flat out that he’s wrong. You’re more than welcome to point him to any number of essays or tweet threads on how anti-racism actually works. Introduce him to misogynoir, performative allyship, or the histories (and labor!) of anti-racism. Your brother is latching onto Black people because of the way America exploits our experiences and makes us consumable, which has its roots in settler colonialism and chattel slavery. He’s following the script lain out for the entire world via antiblackness — Black people are flattened in a specific way when antiblackness is unchecked.

Your brother’s dating moratorium should be a general one until he figures himself out — being fetishized by a “good” white person is traumatic and nobody deserves that, even if they’re confused about the value of white validation. There is no way for this conversation to go smoothly. Not a single way. It is your duty, as a white person and as someone close to him to check him. Even if he isn’t receptive, you are doing something about his bullshit. It’s gross of him to continue in this way. I know you can’t control a grown ass person. I know you want him to be his best possible self. He may only learn once someone checks him — someone who’s Black, or someone who’s a non-black person of color. It’s hard to say how this’ll go. I do want you to know that holding your tongue, even though he’s clearly determined to be that guy, sends a message to him that he’s right/ okay. If he pushes back, that’s fine. Encourage him to do some reading and learning that doesn’t involve his online or IRL accessorized Black friends.

Ultimately, you don’t get him because he’s too white. And that shouldn’t be the burden of any Black person who crosses his path. (And tell him to stop calling you “sis,” as the iteration he uses is AAVE and neither of you is Black.)

About the Author: Lenée is a fat, Black, queer femme who lives in Philadelphia. She’s a lover of Black music, Steven Universe, true crime, and doing the electric slide whenever possible. A new plant mom, Lenée writes on occasion and usually tweets as @dopegirlfresh.

P.S. Quick Note From The Captain: Welcome Lenée and thanks for taking on The Case Of The World’s Wokest Man!

For readers who are thinking “I want to be more informed and learn how to push back on racism without doing more harm than good but I’m extremely afraid of messing up,” may I recommend So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. Written by a Black writer and anti-racism educator, this book is the best recent one-stop shop I can think of for giving context to important political and cultural discussions while also getting specific about how to do this necessary, urgent work, how to screw up less, and how to handle it when you inevitably do so (that you don’t make it all about yourself instead of correcting injustice in the word).