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how to say no

Hello, it’s on!

Patrons can submit questions here (advantage: 1st dibs, more words). Anyone/Everyone can submit on Twitter (@CAwkward, #awkwardfriday), questions close at noon Chicago time, I answer as many as I can and update as I go between noon and 1pm. Whatever I don’t have time for gets held over for next week. Comments open once everything is posted.

This is also the last day (for a while, at least) that I remind folks about supporting the site. You can become a patron or send a donation anytime, of course, but these biannual reminder drives really help me be able to plan out nice things! One of these nice things: I’m officially hiring a graphic designer and a proofreader/formatter to put the finishing touches on an e-book of previously-published columns called #ThisF-ing Guy (And How To Avoid Him), so I can make it available before the end of the year. Thank you so much for all the support so far. This site is a labor of love, but it is labor, and it feels so great to be able to say “I run a fan-supported advice website.”

Cue the jazz flute which, I confess I started out including as a humorous homage to the NPR and WGBH-Boston pledge drives of my youth and my middle-school bad flute playing, but then I ended up listening to a crapload of jazz flute on YouTube this week, and now I’m like “JAZZ FLUTE IS AWESOME, MOAR JAZZ FLUTE PLEASE.” Proving that irony will lose out to sincerity every damn time.

Let’s begin: Talking to the neighbors about misbehaving kids, KITTENS, ADHD and learning to take compliments, bickering family/feeling bad about interacting with family, crushes (it’s okay to just ignore them!), when do you know if couples’ counseling is working, how to therapy, when to say ‘I love you’, drop-in houseguests, parents who want you to be their therapist, compliments that aren’t compliments.

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Ahoy Captain,

I am a part of a lovely circle of friends that at its core is good and strong and free of toxicity.

If you graduate out a bit in the social circles, we have a couple of friends that kind of move in and out of the friend group that are prone to dramatics (openly untreated depression because they say no therapist understands them, say things like “I don’t know why anyone even wants to be my friend, I’m a terrible person”, have chosen particular diets but never bring their type of dishes to potlucks so they passive aggressively make comments about having nothing to eat OR the host will make a special dish and at the last minute flake. Probably due to the depression(s), their homes are also at various levels of hoarding/uncleanliness-literal bags of garbage in corners, filthy litter boxes, etc. offers of “are you doing ok? Do you need help with anything” aka reaching out are met with indignation and weeks of “can you believe they insulted me that way!”.

These folks also smoke a lot of weed. Inside their homes and outside at other people’s homes (although if you ask them not to at your home because of piss test concerns from secondary they will begrudgingly stop). I am terribly allergic to almost all kinds of pot. I can be around the liquid form in vapes for whatever reason, but raw burning weed gives me a full body migraine that can last for days.

However not inviting these people to my home for gatherings would be…..well I don’t have the spoons to deal with the fallout. But when I don’t go to their house often enough for one of their parties, i inevitably get a message or text “why don’t you ever come over? Did I make you mad? I feel like you’re mad at me? It’s because I’m a terrible person isn’t it? It’s a wonder I have any friends at all” and literally I want to chuck my phone into the river from frustration.

Because I’m not going to be THAT PERSON and go to someone else’s house and demand they not smoke pot. But I also can’t be in bed for two days to protect someone else’s feelings. And as an addendum, my spouse does have a piss test issue so I worry about it showing up if they get checked at random.

Help?

Not a Narc, just got bad genes
(They/them for anonymity)

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Dear Captain,

I’m a woman in her mid-30’s who’s been dating a man a few years older than myself. We’ve only been together for about 6 months. Neither one of us has a very extensive dating history; he’s only dated one other woman, and I’ve only dated two other men. At first he seemed like the perfect match for me – we have the same quirky sense of humor, we share some similar interests, and we usually have a good time together. He’s also been very considerate of the fact that I’m extremely introverted and require a good deal of alone time.

I do have a major concern, however, and that is that we seem to have different ideas as to what our relationship boundaries should look like. For example, I’ve been saving up for the past two years to take a trip to Europe, and I finally have enough money and vacation time saved. I’ve been planning this trip long before I met this guy, and this is something that I’ve been looking forward to doing by myself. Also, I knew that he wouldn’t have enough money or vacation time saved up (his job gives much less vacation time then does mine). When I told him about the trip, however, he basically tried to invite himself along. When I tried to stress the fact that this was something that I had planned to do alone, he argued that we’re in a relationship now and we should be doing things like this as a couple. He went home and talked to his friends and his therapist, and apparently they told him that he shouldn’t be so upset that I want to go on this trip without him. So now he’s saying that I should go by myself, and have a great time – but he expects that we’ll talk on Skype every single day. I’m not entirely sure how open to compromise he’ll be on this – I was pretty upset about the whole thing – but I certainly don’t plan to call him every single day from across the globe.

(I had some concern about this a few months ago, when he basically invited himself over for Thanksgiving dinner when my parents were visiting. However, I wanted my parents to meet him, and everything worked out fairly smoothly, so I kept my mouth shut at the time).

I’m just having a lot of trouble with the fact that a) he tried to invite himself along in the first place, and b) the fact that now he thinks he can decide how often we’ll talk while I’m gone. I’m also aware that he’s going through a really rough time right now (he’s dealing with the recent death of one grandparent and taking care of another grandparent with Alzheimer’s, and his job situation is also not very good). So I’m trying to cut him a lot of slack. I’m also aware that I might not be communicating my expectations for our relationship as well as I could – I just never dreamed that he would react like this. I could really use some advice on how you think I should proceed from here.

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Dear Captain,

I have been thinking about this one for some time now, and I’m stuck: What is a good response to “What are you up to tonight / this weekend / next Thursday?”

I loathe this question, and I’ve been getting it a lot lately. I get it from friends (who usually just want to find a time to hang and that’s not so bad), my cousin (who usually wants me to babysit), my mom (whenever she wants to invite me somewhere), and people I’m chatting with on dating websites.

This is why I hate the question:

1. I don’t want to give you a rundown of my plans. They’re private and you don’t need to know them. I kind of resent that you assume I will tell you.

2. I feel like it’s asking me to say yes or no to an invitation / commitment before I even know what it is (like, if you’re having a party I might be free, but my babysitting quota is full for the month so no to that). Ugh.

3. In the case of friends and dates, I feel like sometimes it’s a slightly manipulative way of getting me to do the actual asking / planning. Like, you want to hang out with me, but don’t want to ask me straight up. Why not? Just ask!

4. I don’t understand the point of the question. Usually, the asker will tell me why they asked after I answer, no matter what the answer is (busy, not busy, don’t know). No matter what I say it’s, “okay, well I was just gonna see if you wanted to [actual invitation / request]”.

I usually end up saying something noncommittal like “I might be doing xyz, but I’m not sure yet – why?” and waiting to see what the actual deal is. But I hate this because then I have to pretend to wait while I figure out if my original “plans” are going through before I give them an answer. Or, if I tell a potential date some generic things (oh, probably reading and writing a lot) and add that I’d like to take a break so they know I’m open, I’m engaging in the same coy behavior that’s bothering me in the first place.

It all feels like a gross, stupid game I don’t want to play. I know it’s a common question and I’m sure most people don’t mean anything bad by it. But it puts me on edge every time I hear it. Is it just me? Should I keep doing what I’m doing? Or is there a better way to handle this?

Thanks Captain!

Free for the Good Stuff

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Dear Captain Awkward,

Four years ago, the first fling I had after I left my ex was with a guy at a large multi-day costume event in a far-off state. He came on really strong (in character) and as we have friends in common, I knew he was engaged and asked him about this. He eventually explained to me that he had permission from the fiancée to fool around above the waist, and as this is pretty common in our circles, I liked him, and I was about to go back halfway across the country, I figured what was the harm to have a little fun?

So we made out a little, and kept writing to each other flirtatiously after I went home. I wanted to come back for the final weekend of the event, and he offered to put me up at their home. I had been pressing him to tell her about us, and he said he was waiting for the right time, finally saying we’d all go out when I got there and he’d tell her then.

Long story short, “circumstances” intervened so that he never told her, she found out and chewed me out (with him standing there not stopping her), I had to find another place to stay in the middle of the weekend, and I was livid with him for ruining two potential friendships (with him and her) and cut off contact with him.

Months later she wrote me apologizing for yelling at me, said they had both worked everything out, and asked if I would consider being friends with him. I said yes, as long as he agreed never to flirt with me again.

Now he is a bit of an unusual guy. The characters he plays in these costumed events tend to be overly chivalrous and attentive to women (opening doors, pulling out chairs, getting the check) and that tends to carry over in his real life (he also has a lot of hobbies related to historical re-creation and crafts, and tends to like vintage things generally.) So what I might read as creepy boundary-pushing attention, due to the massive breach of trust he committed, others have just told me they see it as flirting/overpoliteness/old-fashioned aesthetic, and don’t really have a problem with it, just see it as harmless.

He tends to fall back on flirting-as-a-social-lubricant, because that is his comfort zone. He flirted with me a couple of times when we bumped into each other at a costume event after we had reconciled, but we also had drinks recently, out of costume, where he behaved himself.

As a modern woman, I don’t like pro forma chivalry in my normal life, but I can go with the flow of being “treated like a lady” at historical events if I know it’s all pretend. But with him, it rankles because I’m not convinced it’s all an act.

Recently I went again to the same event and spent a little time talking with him in character (during which he fawned a lot, flirted, and then apologized for flirting when I seemed to be bothered by it) and afterward, we went out with friends, during which he sat next to me, suggested we order stuff to share, and seemed to find excuses to brush up against me, which made me super leery. Usually, when he oversteps, I call him on it, but I didn’t do it during dinner because I didn’t want to have the big awkward conversation with friends there, and the breaches were slight enough that it felt like it wasn’t worth it to correct him.

So, since for the last few years he’d done little to restore my respect for him, or given me any consistent reason to trust him or his promise not to flirt, I made up my mind that I was done seeking out his company, although I’m okay with an occasional brief friendly interaction, and as we don’t run into each other very often, that’s not really hard to accomplish.

But he wrote me a couple weeks after that saying he’d had a dream about me being repulsed by him and was worried it was his subconscious telling him he had overstepped, and wanted to check if everything was ok between me and us. He said he admired my charm and talent and also liked me a lot, and that it was hard sometimes not to show it.

I’m not sure how to respond, or if I should. I’m going to be around his neck of the woods a lot next year and I’m worried about possible future interactions, especially since I like going to costume events in the area and we also share a group of friends.

A pretty timely problem to have, considering open and vocal disdain for creepiness is currently in the zeitgeist.

What do you think?

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Dear Captain,

This seems like a very minor thing to be asking for help with, I know. But I feel like even if there’s no solution to my “problem”, getting the input of a bunch of neutral parties (particularly neutral parties with solid understandings of boundaries) would make me feel better, and if you feel like this letter is a waste of time you can just delete it, no harm done.

I do not own pets, for a number of reasons. I feel like it shouldn’t matter, but in case it does, in no particular order those reasons are: 1) My husband is deathly allergic to cats/dogs. 2) My husband very explicitly does not want pets even if he wasn’t allergic. 3) I have had pets in the past and found that no amount of wanting to be a good pet owner changes the fact that I am not a good pet owner (I am not patient, consistent, or stable enough). 4) I am an extremely high strung (or anxious) person, and being in a constant state of panic (did pet just eat something they shouldn’t have!? Is pet sick!? What if their collar slips off while I’m walking them!? If I go to a dog park, what if pet runs away and I can’t catch them!?!) would be awful for both me and the pet. 5) I’ve now lived for a couple of years with no pets, and oh my goodness, I have learned to love not having fur everywhere so much.

I have 2 adult sisters, who have 2 dogs each. They are very much the “this dog is my baby” sort of people. They consistently ask me to care for their dogs while they go on vacation (which happens several times a year each). Years ago, I almost always acquiesced. When I moved in with my husband, however, I mostly stopped agreeing to pet-sit. I cannot bring the dogs to my place because my husband is allergic, so pet-sitting always requires driving 30 minutes across town, several times a day, or straight up living at their house for however many days they’re gone. In addition, these dogs are not well trained. The dogs are extremely food aggressive, they get into fights, they beg, they jump on people, they destroy furniture, etc. etc. etc. Hiring a professional would be too expensive, they say, although I also feel like part of the problem may be that a professional would not accept caring for aggressive dogs.

I have made it clear that I do not want to pet-sit. But they keep asking, piling on the guilt any time I say no. I am, at this point, known for being a terrible, selfish sister because I won’t take care of their dogs. I do not work, so they point out that they’re willing to pay me, and I have plenty of free time, so there’s no reason I can’t pet sit for them. I have turned them down several times this year, but yesterday my sister came over to “catch up and chat”. Turns out, that was just an excuse to ask me in person to pet sit for 4 days while she and my other sister went to Vegas together for a holiday vacation. She knew I wouldn’t be able to say no in person, and she was right. Now I am pet sitting next week. I guess I have a few questions for you and your commenters: Am I in the wrong for turning them down just because I do not want to pet-sit, when they’ve offered to pay me and I do have the free time ? Obviously I and my husband are pretty biased and think I shouldn’t have to regularly take on responsibilities because someone else has pets, but it seems like every pet owner we know disagrees and thinks we are just selfish, lazy people. (As a side note, I have no problems helping them with non-pet related things; I regularly edit resumes and help with landscaping projects and help decorate for parties, so it’s not like I’m refusing to ever lend a hand with anything.) Are there any scripts you could recommend for saying ‘no’ to favors for family, especially when saying no means potentially ruining major plans for them? And finally, is this just a thing I need to get over and stop being annoyed at (people are always going to ask for favors you don’t want to do, and you’re always going to be considered the bad guy if you turn them down, too bad, so sad, stop complaining)?

Thank you so much for your time,
Not a Willing Pet Sitter

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Dear Captain,

I write fiction, mostly fantasy. I admit I can be humorless about it. My friend “Shawn” writes fiction of similar genre. We used to talk about writing and about our ideas a lot, but less so since I got a day job.

Shawn starts projects all the time and most of them never come to a full rough draft, so I know not to get too invested in any particular setting or character concept they tell me about. (OTOH, due to my more limited free time for writing, I’ve just got the one novel I’ve been revising for a few years now.) My issue is that Shawn keeps telling me about all of these ideas, with no context. They’ll text me out of the blue, “I’ve decided that Character X and Character Y are going to date” or “I’m setting my next story in a fantasy version of Tibet” and I have no idea how to react anymore. I’d be happy to read any completed stories that came from these ideas. I’ve read their one completed manuscript and, hell, I’d be happy to hear random thoughts about that setting or those characters, who I already care about. But what on earth do I say to “My new character is a dragon and her favorite soda is Ramune,” especially when I know I’ll never hear about this dragon again?

I wouldn’t mind if I got to talk about my own writing in turn, but they don’t seem interested anymore. They asked to read my manuscript once, and (a year later) have finally stopped pretending they’ll ever get around to it. Recently they asked me a question about my protagonists, and I got excited at this sign that we could resume shop talk like we used to. But after I answered, they just said “Nice” and used it as a springboard to brag about their own great characterization, in the context of another story they had just thought up. I kinda feel like my time and effort are being disrespected here.

Am I being snooty about different approaches to the creative process? Am I being too precious about my own work while judging theirs harder? If not, how can I steer these conversations back to a fun and mutual place, and not a place where I’m getting infodumped on?

Thanks,
A Wiki for a Fictional Multiverse that Doesn’t Yet Exist (they/them)

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