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how to say no

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!

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,

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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This is going to be the first of a two-part series on how people who can’t hear the word ‘no’ are not your friends.

Hey Captain!

I (she/her) just moved out of a group house. I lived with five other people in the house, including a couple (Elsie and Jenna). Elsie (she/her) and I are pretty good friends and have known each other for a few years. I met Jenna (she/her) through Elsie when they started dating. before we lived together, I would have said we were low-key friends and that I thought she was cool, but I had never hung out with her without Elsie and we only ever saw each other in group contexts.

Elsie and Jenna’s fairly stable, two year long relationship became super rocky during the year we all lived together due to a lot of factors. During this period, both Elsie and Jenna, but especially Jenna, deeply relied on me for a lot of comfort/help/emotional processing. I like helping people and I think of myself as a comforting person, and I don’t mind helping, but this got out of hand incredibly quickly and soon I was spending all my free time processing Jenna’s emotions. This only got worse when they eventually broke up and Elsie moved out. Jenna would wait for me to get home and immediately come to my room to process for hours. I work two jobs that both require a lot of emotional labor and was struggling with depression and did not have the bandwidth for this. It made my living situation a personal nightmare for me, and I dreaded coming home. I attempted to set up boundaries (telling her I wasn’t interested in talking about it anymore! saying I was tired! locking my door!) but she was pushy and I didn’t stick to my guns enough. She also did a lot of unrelated things that made me uncomfortable in the breakup aftermath, such as trying to date a bunch of my friends/literally anyone I brought to the house to hang out, which made my friends uncomfortable so I felt like i couldn’t have friends over (a whole separate weird issue). Eventually, I just moved out of the house because I couldn’t take it anymore. I now live in a much better situation and feel much happier.

Since my move Jenna has reached out to me constantly about hanging out/spending time together. Three times in the last week, she has asked me to attend an event I was already attending with other friends, invited herself, and then brought a date along and made a HUGE deal about the fact that she was bringing a date (which is a part of her whole weird “I’m single and horny” thing she’s doing right now). She talks constantly about how much she misses me and is always asking to spend time together. I suspect part of this is because I’m a connection to Elsie (every time we hang she asks me about Elsie/talks about Elsie and I try to shut it down, but she just does it the next time anyway), and the other half is because she wants to keep using me as free therapy. I want out! I need space! We are not actually friends, she just uses me as therapy. I thought it would stop when I moved, but it hasn’t.

How do I nicely express to this girl that:

A. I refuse to process this breakup with her anymore
B. I wish she wouldn’t invite herself to plans I already made with other people
C. Its weird and unnecessary to bring dates to every interaction we have
D. I need her to hang out with her actual friends and give me some fucking space already

Thanks!!

Sincerely,

I’m not your personal live in breakup therapist

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Hello gentle friends, it’s time for that thing where we treat the things people typed into their search engines to find this place as if they are questions in their own right.

As is traditional, we begin with a tune:

 

Then we begin the no-context guessing games and assumptions!

1 “Adult male using baby talk voice.”

If this person is talking to babies, kitties, puppies, or other actual baby cute things, this is extremely okay, let the man babble!

If this person is talking to a fellow adult in a baby voice, and you are that adult, and you presumably don’t enjoy this, my suggestion is to be very direct: “What’s going on with the baby voice? I don’t like it, please stop.”

Bonus: Ask A Manager has advice for how to deal with people using baby voices at work (because of course, someone was using a baby voice at work).

2 “Ex asks ‘are you still angry with me?'”

This one keeps coming up, so here are some discussion questions for whoever needs them.

Are you still angry? What’s the worst thing that happens if you say “yep, still angry”? Did this person ever actually apologize? Why are they bugging you about this, exactly? And why now? And how interested are you in discussing a relationship that you’re not in anymore?

You don’t have to keep working on past relationships, and you’re allowed to find whatever intersection of unfiltered honesty and “ugh, what will get you to go away and stop asking me this” that works for you.

3 “I’m so sorry, but my boyfriend has forbidden me to communicate with you.”

What in the what now?

Please allow me to make the argument that “my boyfriend forbids it” is not a good enough reason to stop communicating with someone you want to be communicating with. If you don’t want to be communicating anymore, that’s a good enough reason on its own, though I do get that sometimes “another dude has priority here” is the only thing that makes a certain kind of annoying dude actually go away.

4 “Quinton just got a promotion at work.”

Congratulations Quinton? Hey everyone, drinks are on Quinton!

5 “How to change a person with disgusting hygiene?”

You were probably looking for this, but in case this was a more general query:

You can’t change other people. You can ask for what you need, you can tell them what you need, you can ask them to take steps to give you what you need, you can break it down in detail like “Please take a shower, brush your teeth often, and wear clean clothes on days you know you’re going to see me,” you can inquire if there is something preventing them doing this and see if it’s something you can help with, you can teach kids to do this stuff if you’re a parent, but ultimately it’s up to them. You can care about people, you can’t do their caring instead of them.

6 “My neighbor wants to be friends, but she makes me uncomfortable, what to do.”

It never feels great to have this conversation, but when someone is trying really hard to be part of your life and your desires around that are mismatched, sometimes you have to balance whether it’s kinder to avoid/dodge/fade on them them and hope they eventually get the hint or whether it’s kinder to speak up with something like “You’re a good neighbor, and I can tell you’re trying hard to be a good friend to me, but I don’t want to [spend more time together][join your book club][connect on social media][buy your kids’ school fundraising crap][help you with your cat rescuel][be friends]. I know this is awkward, and I’m so sorry, but can we just go back to being friendly acquaintances, and I’ll see you around the ‘hood when I see you? Thank you for understanding,” and then move on with your life.

There’s no blanket answer for this kind of thing or guarantee that any of it will go smoothly, some people take direct rejection well, some people eventually get hints, some really don’t do well with either direct refusals or the soft no, reasons work on reasonable people and give unreasonable people something to try to fix or argue with. People often claim they “just want to know why” or “just tell me!” but so often, like every sentence with the word “just” in the middle of it, those things don’t necessarily make anybody feel better.

I’ve had to be the person who gives the “Hey, this is the tenth thing you’ve invited me to, and that’s so kind but I know I’m probably never going to make it, it’s okay to just stop asking!” talk and the one who realizes after far too many times that what seemed like a sincere offer to “totally hang out sometime!” meant never, the “sometime” was actually “never.” It’s confusing and weird because human connection is confusing and weird, nobody wants to be the Bad Guy or find out they were being  a nuisance. Anyway, sometimes what’s kindest is being kind to yourself and setting the boundary where you need it to be. If you’re sure you don’t want to be friends with a person who “makes you uncomfortable,” don’t be! You do get to decide who you invite into your life.

7 “What to do with a boyfriend that is trying to protect you but constantly lectures you.”

Tell him “If you don’t stop acting like Professor Dad, I’m going to dump you. No more lectures!” 

When he starts lecturing, leave the room! Go home!

Or skip straight to the breaking up part.

There is a short story by Claire Humphrey about the fallacy that protecting someone means controlling them, with a content note for mentions of domestic abuse and serial killer stuff. I constantly think about adapting this story into a film.

8 “Asking a coworker to go on vacation.”

Okay but…why?

Like, do you mean, asking them to take a vacation: “Fergus, you’ve got a lot of vacation days saved up, time to take a break, buddy!”

Or asking them to go on vacation…with you? But…why? You didn’t use the word “friend,” and vacation time is AWAY FROM WORK time, so…I would start smaller if you want to become better friends with this person. Lunch. Coffee. After-work drinks. Small hangs outside the office before disappearing to a destination. 

If you meant asking a coworker if you could tag along on THEIR vacation, that’s a hard no from me.  You either have the kind of friendship where they invited you already or you should let them goooooo. Speaking of which, I never press for updates, but I would dearly love to know what happened with all of this if possible.

9 “Friend gets mad if I don’t invite them to every outing.”

Here’s a possible script:

“Friend, sometimes I want to see you, and sometimes I want to do things alone or with other people. I need you to accept.”

If you set a boundary and someone gets mad, let them be mad, you’re not doing anything wrong, punishing you around something like this is so controlling and not okay.

10 “Asking out a former student.”

COME THE FUCK ON.

Leave your students alone. Do not treat your students – including your former students – like your personal dating pool, ever. And definitely don’t come to me to be validated about that. No.

Discussion Note: Everyone can keep their anecdotes about the one time this really worked out happily for somebody somewhere to themselves. Sometimes if you’re a happy exception to a rule, your happiness has to be enough for you. It’s not evidence in an argument to move where the rule goes, especially given how often people who flout this rule are abusing their power, and how rarely even the worst offenders are held accountable for that.

11 “What can I do about a neighbour that calls me a pervert and tells me to stay away from his kids.”

YIKES.

Some possibilities:

  • You’re being targeted by bigots. Are you some variety of queer and your neighbors are big ol’ homophobes, by chance? Or are you neurodivergent in some way and your neighbors are being ableist bullies? Sadly not unheard of, and the query has the ring of that going on.
  • There’s some other neighbor hostility thing going on (lawn care, parking, trash bins, noise complaints, they leave their dog out in all weather and you called animal control on them, or, your dog constantly poops in their yard, idk what it is, but if you think about it you probably do) and it’s escalated to nuclear levels with this kind of accusation,
  • You’re doing something creepy that is making your neighbor reasonably concerned about your behavior (if this is the case you almost certainly know what it is, so, stop it and get some help please).

Mentally I’m moving forward with “the neighbors are the problem here and the person searching for this is not the bad guy” scenario, here are some possible smart moves that don’t actually depend on knowing exactly what’s happening.

Mandatory: Have zero further interaction with these neighbors, especially the kids. Leave them be. There’s not one thing you could say to anyone in that house that would de-escalate such a risky and high-stakes situation. Don’t apologize, explain, clarify. Don’t even wave to them. Give them no ammunition. If one of the kids kicks a ball into your yard, the parents can come get it or it can rot there, not your problem.

This is incredibly not fair especially if you’ve done nothing wrong, but sometimes protecting yourself means disengaging and de-escalating from people who are bad for you. Plus being able to truthfully say “Once they made it clear how they felt about me, I never contacted them again” can be a shield down the road if things get even worse.

Additional Possible Steps: 

Document your interactions with these neighbors. This can be brief: Dates, times, who was there, what happened, what was said. When did this start? Was there some kind of inciting incident? Is this really about something else? If this thing escalates you’ll want this record. Screencap any texts, emails, or messages you’ve exchanged, the NextDoor thread where it all went awry, anything that shows the history of the relationship with these people.

Tell people close to you what’s going on. This is an incredibly stressful situation, right? Again, through the frame of “the neighbors are the problem,” if you’re being harassed by a bigot or bully to this degree, what else might these people do?

This whole kind of thing thrives on secrecy and shame, so telling people ‘Look, my horrible neighbors accused me of some gross stuff and it’s incredibly humiliating and scary but I don’t want it to be a secret ’cause I need your help and support, especially if this all escalates,’ is one way to fight back. Make your friends aware of the situation and the history with these neighbors. Lean on people: Counselors, community, friends, family.

Heck, if you’re friendly with other neighbors, make the ones you trust at least basically aware of the situation – “Just so you know, I’ve been having a strange conflict with ______, they called me _______, I’m trying to give them a wide berth and hoping it all dies down, but if you hear some weird stuff, that’s why.” The rumor mill is gonna do what it’s gonna do anyway, if you’ve done nothing wrong you don’t have to flee or hide from it.

I’ve been watching a lot of Killing Eve lately and one thing I’ve noticed about Eve’s character is that, for a supposedly bright and perceptive lady, she is EXTREMELY BAD at informing people around her about necessary information and DANGEROUSLY OVERCONFIDENT in her ability to handle situations by herself. “I just don’t want to burden anyone else with my secret problems” is TV logic, the kind that creates plots like “I have a mutual crush on a terrifying assassin, how can this all be as dangerous and messy as possible?” vs. helpful real-life logic, which is what you need. Resist the impulse to hide and keep this all secret with everything you’ve got.

Tighten up your privacy and security. This is where you Google yourself from a private browsing window and think about the truly awful question, “How could an extremely hostile person who knows where I live possibly use this information against me?” This is where you lock your social feeds down, this is where possibly you quickly search for your neighbor’s social profiles (adults only, probably do not search for their children by name under any circumstances) and specifically block those people from accessing any of your feeds (Facebook, etc.) This sucks so bad and it’s completely unfair but it’s the smart thing to do so I’m telling you about it. Also consider blocking/locking out any mutuals you share if those people are not completely trustworthy.

This is also where you think about physical security and safety. Doors. Locks. Gates. Pets (don’t let your pets go where these people can have access to them). Cars. Packages. Lights. Motion-sensors. Window blinds/drapes/shades. Routines. Who has keys? Maybe nobody but you should have keys for now.

If this escalates at all, seek expert legal advice where you live. If your neighbor is unfairly harassing you with accusations like this, and you sense they might escalate things, get an expert, tell them everything that’s been going on, and let them help you. A lawyer can talk you through scenarios like, well what happens if they involve law enforcement or try to get you fired at work or do other harassing things? Trust your gut if you think these are people who will never let a grudge go or have a pattern of escalating conflicts.

Keep living your life. I’m hoping that as horrible as this is it was a passing, “Classic Unoriginal Rote Bigotry” sort of remark and not something more specifically and violently targeted, but who the hell even knows right now. (Holy crap is that a depressing collection of words.) This got pretty long for a drive-by query but I’d rather see someone take something like this very seriously and implement some filters and precautions and not need them if the alternative is leaving themselves open to more harassment and danger.

Moderation Note: We’re not Internet Detectives and can’t possibly solve this situation for what’s actually happening or give people legal advice in absentia. If you’ve been the target of something like this from bigoted/homophobic neighbors in the past and have practical tips to share, that would be useful. I’d ask people to not try to exhaustively detail all the possibilities.

12 “How to invite yourself to stay at someone’s house out of state.”

This is one of those areas where, either you know that you have that kind of relationship with the person, where “I’m coming to your area on [dates], is there any chance I can take advantage of your guest room or sofa for a few days?” is a perfectly appropriate question and everybody knows that “nope, sorry, that won’t work” is a perfectly appropriate answer or you don’t.

The wording of the request matters less than the strength and nature of the relationship. “Mind if I crash at your place during [week]?” vs. “Is your guest room open to visitors next month” vs. “Will trade some free babysitting and chef skills for space on your basement sectional” vs. “Hey Grandpa do you still keep the key to the lake house in the mouth of the fish? Mind if I head up that way this weekend?” matters less than whether you feel comfortable asking this person about this in the first place. Ask or don’t, consider also that you won’t lose anything by making a plan B for if they say “no.”

13 “How to handle jealous husband as female musician.” 

How stressful! Possible script if this were a scene in a movie:

“Dude, being a performer means that sometimes I get attention from people who want to flirt or who have crushes on me. I try to have good boundaries about that and be friendly without encouraging people or crossing any lines, but engaging with fans, even really enthusiastic ones, is part of the job and it’s not going away. Their feelings about me are not my fault or my problem to manage, nor are they something I need to apologize to you about or account for. And yeah, sometimes I’m going to wear ‘sexy’ outfits on stage or for photo shoots. It’s part of the brand, plus I like wearing them.

You knew what this was when we got together, I’ve never cheated on you and I don’t plan to change that, but it’s time for you to accept me and my job. You either trust me not to cheat on you or you don’t. If you trust me, stop [describe the behaviors – hovering/accusing me of cheating/being a jerk to my bandmates/being a giant hostile weirdo about it]. If you don’t trust me, we should think seriously about ending our marriage. I’ll hate to lose you but I can’t keep living with you being so mean and suspicious all the time. I’m not submitting to surveillance or constant checkups or soothing your feelings every time another dude looks my way.

Please think about it, talk it over with friends/a therapist/people you trust and tell me what you want to do. Just know that I’m not having this fight with you ever again. We have to put this to rest.”

Jealousy happens, not always rational, not always controllable. It’s the behaviors and reactions to that jealousy that are under our control, and it’s okay to ask people to get those under control if the alternative is living your life around their unfounded fears!

14 “I hate last-minute invitations.”

Don’t accept them. In the moment you can say “That sounds awesome, but I can’t join you. If you give me a little more notice next time, I’ll see what I can do. Have fun!” 

Tell people who are close to you who you hang out with a lot what’s up: “Hey, I’m a planner and I like to schedule things in advance/I need a lot of notice so I can get the night off from work/find a babysitter/budget my introvert energies/get a ride/set aside enough $, so I can’t always say yes to last-minute invites even when I’d like to see you. Thanks!” 

15 “I dreamt my ex invited me and his ex girlfriend in his house and had sex with us at different intervals what does it mean.”

Are you joking? Your true destiny has been revealed! Call them at once!

Or, just possibly, your brain’s hard drive was sorting through some old footage the other night and decided to show your sleeping self a movie that would push a couple of buttons real hard (maybe the ones marked “horniness” and “emotional stuff”?) and the dream isn’t necessarily meaningful in itself.

I never want to say that dreams aren’t important. I am a meticulous, vivid, immersive dreamer and I often remember my dreams upon waking. I can tell I’m anxious about something when I spend my nights waiting tables in a restaurant where suddenly I’m the only one working and a bus full of old people has just pulled up and I can’t stop until every one of them is satisfied, or I’m taking the final exam for a class I never signed up for but am unable to drop, or worse I’m TEACHING a class where I am totally unprepared and have no idea what the topic even is but the room is full of students looking expectantly at me and there is something on the white board that might help but try as I might I can’t read what it says. I have had recurring bad dreams about seemingly innocuous people from my life who turned out to be unsafe down the road enough times that I know to pay attention or at least ask why a person is suddenly showing up in my brain as the Devil. Those I’ve loved and lost visit me in dreams all the time, sometimes it’s Beadie, full of purrs and intense stares, and my childhood pets show up too, and we all walk together through a vast forest. Sometimes it’s my Grandma, red-nosed from drinking her single glass of rosé, destroying me at Rummy. And yup, sometimes I’m back in one of those situations, pressed close against some hot and confusing person in an encounter that I thought I’d deleted from the directory long ago but I clearly didn’t empty the Trash folder since my dream brain’s impressions are shockingly faithful to actual events.

My dreaming self isn’t the boss of me, she’s more of an observer, so if I happen to carry a strong memory of the night’s jumble of images forward into the day I always find it interesting but not necessarily instructive, in a “data isn’t the same thing as information” sense.

What do you think this dream means, if anything, and where is it pointing you in terms of what you need and desire? That’s probably what it means.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Captain,

About a year ago I was able to save just enough money to say, “F@&$ you!” to a really depressing living situation and moved cross-USA into my mom’s new house in the very expensive area near where I grew up. I’m lucky that my mom and I are fairly compatible personality-wise (and that my younger siblings are as well; the one I get along with best also lives here) and she doesn’t want me to pay her rent. After a few months of depression, followed by temp work, followed by getting into a great volunteer gig, a great part-time job, and re-entering community college to change careers (from the arts to a very applied science, which is un-coincidentally not viewed as prestigious or intellectual unlike my previous field), I’m finally starting to feel like I’m getting back on my feet emotionally and financially.

The problem is, my room is still crowded with unpacked boxes and is not very clean (I have pets which are creating messes I am slow to clean up). We bought paint and furniture months ago but I’ve been too busy and overwhelmed to put my room together and so I’m living out of laundry bags. I know this situation is untenable and unpleasant (for me) but I do try to keep the worst of the mess to my own room and to keep up with my pets’ needs. (UfYH has helped with that and is helping me keep the worst of the mess down.)

But I think my mom has been going in my space (expressly against my permission) and she keeps giving me bullshit ultimatums disguised as “help”.
Example: Mom non-sequiturs: “This weekend we are *going* to move your desk into the dining room so you can unpack.”
Me: “I don’t want to move my desk (because I have other more important things to do like laundry for work and eking out a little self-care and also I use my desk and also where TF did that come from?)”
Mom: “But you *can’t* live like this!”

Captain, I know it’s not great, but it isn’t a pigsty and I am already barely keeping up with my new responsibilities and I just don’t have the energy to do polishing touches on my room. There are too many steps to take before I am even close to that. My mom talks to me like an incompetent child whenever it comes to cleaning (or calling out sick from work!) and rags on me whenever I try to talk about the volunteer work I’m doing in my new field. She has *suggesti-told* me to quit whenever I say I’m tired (because it’s physical, outdoor work), and it makes me so, so angry. How can I tell her my priorities are different from hers and how can I express my feelings without her complaining that I’m just bad at managing my life? (I’ve been trying to keep her on an information diet because she’s been so critical but it’s backfired because now she thinks I have “sleep issues.” Which she just *told* me to see a doctor for, like that’s so easy or even the problem. I snapped back that my health is none of her business. Have I mentioned that I’m fat, queer, and happily single? I.e., failing at traditional womanhood?) I’m tired and overwhelmed because I’m still not out of my depression, but volunteering and working is helping, and if my room stays a mess for the next year it will still have been worth it for me! I know it’s her house but it is *my* room and *my* stuff she complains about.

I think part of the problem is that my new career is lower-status than what I originally went to school for (and declined to get an expensive Master’s for). I have heard her dismiss my work in conversations with family like she thinks it’s some sort of phase. Captain, I am in my thirties, I know I’m making good, sensible decisions for my future. I am “behind” my peers because I decided to start over, not because I’m incompetent. My life trajectory is different because I am different. I feel like my otherwise-lovely, supportive mother sees my room as visible evidence that I am a failure at adulting.

Thanks for any kind of scripts/assistance/creating this vaguely friendly void of an email account to scream my frustration into!

Darling daughter is doing just fine. (She/her)

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