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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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Good morning! Today we’re doing the thing!

Submit your question before noon either at Patreon or on Twitter (@CAwkward, #AwkwardFriday) and I will answer as many as I can between noon and 1pm Chicago time. Comments open when the full transcript is posted.

Search Terms drop Monday, so, short answers all around! Short answers (literally) for days.

And we’re off: Financial stuff with parents, being a wedding buffer, the hellscape of academic career decisions, more academia with added grief, Mourning Periods, revisited, new dating partners and mismatched feelings, “but we just fell in love how can we be breaking up already” breakups, and avoiding cultural appropriation at family weddings.

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How it works: Patreon supporters can use the thread there to submit questions, everyone else can use Twitter (@CAwkward, #awkwardfriday). Submissions close at noon Chicago time, at which time I’ll answer as many as I can until 1pm

Discussions open after I’m done with the questions. These are fun to write.

Q1: I (she, feminine pronouns) work in the same industry as a close friend. Networking is a huge part of excelling and getting your work noticed. My friend, who I genuinely love, has blacklisted/ comprehensively gone off an astonishing number of people (male and female) in the industry, and she continues to speak very negatively of them whenever their names are mentioned. She experienced a lot of bullying growing up, and I don’t doubt that some of these industry people have behaved genuinely badly towards her. However, I have seen her decide to never speak to industry people (some of whom were also close friends) because of things that seem very minor or even completely subjective (for example, different texting styles or infrequent communication between projects). She gets very upset if I do not support her by cutting off these people, too. It’s getting to the point where I am not sure how to navigate this. For example, I just completed a very successful project with two people whom she introduced me to, but since then, she has decided never to speak to them again (to be clear, not over anything big like bullying or sexual harassment but because she thought the guy was giving off potentially flirty vibes – I read the email in question and it did not seem flirty to me). I’d like to work with them again, but I’m really worried about how she will respond. She’s already unhappy because I was invited to participate in an event with two other people she dislikes (because they didn’t want a close friendship with her but were otherwise perfectly friendly and professional). I didn’t even know they were involved until I’d agreed to participate! I don’t want to invalidate her experience, and I don’t want to work with assholes, but when she takes offense so easily and so often, I’m not sure how to proceed. I don’t want to be best friends with all these people – I just want to get my work done! She is otherwise a fantastic, very supportive friend. Advice + scripts for moving forward would be much appreciated!

A1: This sounds a lot like the letter Alison and I tackled together at Ask A Manager a few months back.

I appreciate your clarification that your friend’s dislike is not based on abuse or bullying or other #MeToo stuff, and is more about small interpersonal frictions or dislike. We all know that the same person can treat two people very differently, so I appreciate your thoughtfulness about that.

Say you do tell your friend about your plans to work with these folks she doesn’t like, and she complains about them a lot and seems to expect you to…what? Ditch working with them? Take on her grudge as your own?…I think it’s worth trying scripts like:

“Ok, I get that you don’t like them. What are you asking me to do?”

Like, get it in the open. Is she venting or is she expecting you to actually quit gigs or not accept any invitation that involves people she doesn’t like?

See also:

“Wait, are you asking me to not work with people that I work well with so far because you don’t like working with them?”

“I get that you don’t like _____, but you’re not the one that has to work with them. I don’t want to invalidate your experiences but I also need to cultivate my own professional network, even if it means working with people you aren’t fans of sometimes.” 

“You should absolutely work only with people you respect and get along with. But what you look for in a collaboration isn’t necessarily the same as what I look for. I don’t need to be friends with people in order to work with them.”

“I always appreciate the heads up when a situation might get sticky, but I also appreciate the chance to form my own network and my own working relationships with people. Sometimes it feels like you expect me to take on every grudge you have as my own, and I don’t know what to tell you.”

Hopefully she’ll hear you. If you love and value this friend, I also suggest finding some Not Work topics of discussion.

Q2: I work at a university with an (apparently) amazing staff benefits package. Thing is, all my coworkers are permanent salaried employees, and I’m an underpaid temp worker. My contract keeps getting extended & I fully believe that they really will make it permanent sometime (soonish? hopefully?), but university bureaucracy is a nightmare. In the meantime, what do I do when my coworkers complain about not being able to use up their vacation time and I struggle to pay bills when the office closes for July 4? Do you have any scripts/methods for not raging when they talk about scheduling free massages & eye checkups?

A2: As an adjunct professor who recently had a tenured colleague complain to me about not knowing quite what to focus on during his upcoming paid sabbatical, my answer to this is:

FUCKED IF I KNOW

You could try silence, or “hrmmm, interesting” + ye olde subject change.

You could try “Oh, paid vacation time, that sounds like a pretty good problem to me! Let me know how that all works out.”

But really…

Fucked if I know.

Q3: What are you reading this summer?

A3: I’m reading EVERYTHING this summer. Thanks to library extension and being a fast reader and a little more free time than I get during the school year, I probably read a book about every three days.

Sunday I finally finished N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky (I’d been saving it) and then immediately started re-reading The Fifth Season. 

Last week I devoured The Changeling by Victor LaValle (this needs to be a TV series ASAP, it’s just so visual and well-plotted and suspenseful) and The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry.

Right before that I read Circe and The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, and Circling The Sun by Paula McClain. And Mark Oshiro’s debut, Anger Is A Gift, which destroyed me and would be a great companion to The Hate U Give for YA books about right now.

I read all the Tommy & Tuppence books by Agatha Christie, in sequence. Michelle MacNamara’s I’ll Be Gone In The Dark has me rethinking sliding glass doors.

I got some romance in there: T. Kingfisher’s The Clockwork Boys and The Wonder Engine made me rethink sexy paladins. An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole should 100% be adapted for the screen.

Last night I started The Strange Case of The Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss. It’s fun. Soon I’ll dive into Her Body And Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado.

Reading is the best.

Because this has come up before in book threads: I’m not a book blogger or book reviewer, and I’m sure everything I’ve listed here should get a trigger warning or content note for something. I read very fast, I read for my own fun, and I literally do not keep track of what might be upsetting to other people. This is a list of what I am reading, not what you or anyone should read. If something here catches your eye but you’re worried about potential triggers, please read someone else’s reviews before you dive in.

Q4: Any tips for dealing with shame/guilt about not being disciplined enough? I’m coming off a hellish couple of months of constant travel/public speaking/work events, and although it was great for my CV, it was really difficult and I’m feeling burned out. Now I just want to laze around the house and watch Parts Unknown, but I’m having a lot of trouble letting go of all of the projects that I want to do but aren’t urgent. It’s also making my envy of other colleague’s success much worse. I’m aware I’m being too hard on myself but am not sure how to move past thinking about it as a self-discipline problem.

Parts Unknown is wonderful and we’ve watched a fair bit of it ourselves this past month (The Houston episode is especially beautiful and seems like everything Bourdain was trying to do or say). And I’m glad you mentioned that show specifically, because it is a literally a show about stopping to smell the flowers and drink beers with people and look at the world.

You need breaks. You know you need breaks. So what if you gave yourself a defined period, like, three weeks, to just indulge in your breaks, read widely, catch up on TV and naps, etc. and then after that you’ll dive back into working on projects? That way you can tell the little “should” voice inside that you have a plan to get back to work.

The reason I say three weeks and not one week is that you need to trick your mind a little, like Marmee in Little Women when she said “fine, don’t do your chores, do whatever you want” and Beth was back to dusting in like, three days.  One week isn’t enough time. Two is probably about right. That third week you’ll be actually a little bored with yourself and hungry to get back into a working routine.

Another suggestion: During that three weeks, disconnect from whatever medium keeps shoving your colleagues’ successes in your face. Who gives a shit what they’re doing? Their work doesn’t take anything away from yours.

Now go and RELAX.

Q5: What do I say in a first message to parents after 2+ years of minimal contact & a mental health breakdown last year that is continuing? I know I’ve disappointed them but I don’t really want to get into that or my mental health.

A5: This first message isn’t going to be the only message, right? So it doesn’t have to do All Of The Things. It doesn’t have to make up for lost time. It just has to communicate some version of “Hi, are you still there? I’m still here.” 

People make fun of greeting cards for being trite (personally, I clutch my chest anytime I need to buy one and see that some of them are SEVEN WHOLE DOLLARS now), but sometimes trite gets the job done. Pick out a greeting card in the general “thinking of you” genre or a postcard with a cool image on it, scrawl out a short message, and send it. See what comes back.

Also, I think it would be helpful for you to avoid starting with “I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch.” Maybe you are sorry, maybe you aren’t, maybe you aren’t the one who owes apologies, maybe no apologies are owed. Sorries are for later, if ever. Start with “Hi!”

I hope things get better for you real soon. ❤

Q6: I recently started my first full-time, after-college job, and it’s great. I firmly believe that I would not be here without your blog (and Ask a Manager!). Thank you so much. My question is, now that I have actual, functional health insurance (where the deductible isn’t so high that I can’t imagine actually scheduling anything) … how do I go about finding a primary-care doc and/or a dentist? My EAP has set me up with a short-term therapist for now, so huzzah for that, but I think I should probably schedule some checkups / cleanings / whatnot, and I don’t know where to start.

A6: Congratulations on the new job.

Your health plan almost certainly has a website, and that website has a “find a provider” function to help you locate people who are in network. For a primary care doctor in the USA look for both “primary care” and “internal medicine” as specialties. You could also ask nice coworkers who are on the same health plan, “Hey, I need to pick a primary care doctor and I’d like to find one close to the office – anybody know someone great?” Then pick one, make an appointment, and see how it goes.

I’ve also used apps like Zocdoc successfully. You enter all your stuff, and your health insurance info, and they match you to doctors who are taking new patients in your area.

I’m sure you can master these logistics, is part of this about not knowing which doctor to choose? I like seeing female doctors, I have better luck with young ones, I like asking them about Health At Every Size or at least people who can roll with “Yup, I’m fat, so, what would you do for a thin person with the exact same symptoms?” I like doctors who are close to public transit and close to work/home or other places I go regularly, so I factor all this in when I’m looking.

And then there’s good old trial-and-error. You’re not married to the first one you pick.

Q7: So, this may be too big a question for the short answer session, but I’d love some tips on becoming less selfish. The problem is on the surface I seem to others like a kind and generous person – I donate lots of time and money to charity, would rather get gifts for others than buy stuff for myself, take the time to listen when others are down, etc. However, I’m doing these things either to give myself an ego boost (i.e., I love to see a friend’s big smile when I’ve found the perfect gift) or because I’d feel guilty if I didn’t (i.e, helping coworkers when they seemed stressed due to heavy workloads). Even when I help others basically anonymously (such as giving money/food to the homeless) I’m doing it to give myself a warm fuzzy feeling. I feel awful that I am basically using other people this way but don’t know how to change my mindset.

A7: This sounds like a self-worth problem rather than a “doing generosity wrong” problem to me – have you ever spoken to a therapist about feeling like you’re using people when you do nice things for them? Is doing your best to be a kind person really a reason to beat yourself up? Maybe dig into that with a trustworthy pro.

The other practical solution that comes to mind: Volunteer for a cause in a way that connects you to an organization and community over a longer-term, so you are working on an issue in concert with other people. Let the community and the work sustain you.

Q8: Do you have any general guidelines/tips to help someone decide whether or not they should pursue therapy?

A8: Well, I think most adults could use a look under the emotional hood at some point in their lives, so if you’ve never tried it and you think you might benefit from it and you have access to it, why not try it? You could always stop if you don’t get anything out of it.

There is one kind of letter that I get over and over again that is almost universally a signal for “Stop, drop, and try therapy!”

That letter starts with “Ever since I was a child…” and then includes many many many details about childhood, family history, and things from the past that the Letter Writer thinks might be relevant to the current problem.

Then the current problem is something that could be solved with “Break up!” or “Maybe you could host Thanksgiving at your house instead?” and I am not making fun here – in most cases there is a pretty simple solution that feels genuinely impossible to the Letter Writer because the past is so much with them. It’s not their fault, it’s just that the coping mechanisms that they developed to survive whatever happened in the first 500 words or so of their letter are things that are not helping them function now.

Therapy’s good for that. It lets you excavate all that past stuff in a safe way. It helps you be the adult in your own life instead of the hurt child in somebody else’s life. It helps you tell new stories about what you want to do and what you need.

Q9: Partner & I don’t want homophobes at our wedding but we have lots of “disagree w/ the lifestyle” people in extended family. How do we find them out & not invite them? Have 50 conversations w/ people who don’t think they hate me but actually do? Scripts?

A9: Here’s one possible way to handle this:

Make a list of the people you want to be at your wedding. Not “because faaaaaamily” or “because mom will be mad if I don’t invite all the cousins” but the list of people whose faces you’d be genuinely happy to see that day. Are any of the known, vocal homophobes on that list? Cross them off.

Then invite the rest of the list.

If anyone left on the list of people you really want to see on your wedding day is secretly homophobic, they’ll self-select out. Or they’ll show up and they’ll behave themselves. Not a win, exactly, but maybe a draw?

If anyone, and I mean ANYONE, gives you shit about leaving off homophobic relatives, have a united front: “Wow, it’s so weird that you’d want us to invite someone who has said so many ignorant and terrible things about queer people to our big gay wedding.” “Well, Granny has made it pretty clear that she disagrees with our ‘lifestyle’, so why would we invite her, exactly?” 

Your wedding doesn’t have to fix your family, or their attitudes. It also doesn’t have to settle every old score with perfect fairness.

Congratulations, I hope it’s an awesome party.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Submit short questions before noon Chicago time either on Patreon or on Twitter (@CAwkward, #awkwardfriday).

Between noon and 1pm I’ll answer as many as I can, updating as I go.

Comments get turned on once everything is up. Thank you!

Q1: “I just bought lunch for a homeless man, so why do I feel so bad?”

A1: I can only offer wild guesses here, but it might be just one of those passing things where doing *something* feels good but you still want to do more and feel bad because you can’t do everything.

Keep doing the something. Someone got to eat today. That’s pretty cool, and probably more important than feelings.

Q2: Going on a road trip soon to visit friends with kids ages 5 & 2 1/2! How can we be good houseguests to a family, and what are good gifts for parents and kids of that age? Any ideas on how to be a great (fake) aunt/uncle who kids only see occasionally?

A2: That sounds really fun, I hope it’s a great time!

As someone who used to be nervous/awkward around little kids and who now is fine, I have lessons. If you’re not really a kid person, it can help to think of toddlers as being a little bit like cats. As in, when you visit a house where there are cats, if the cats don’t really want to pay attention to you, they won’t, and if they do, they will, and there’s really nothing you can do to make either thing happen. Cat don’t really give a shit and neither do little kids for the most part, so you don’t have to do anything besides roll with whatever is already happening. If the kid drags all the books off the shelf and brings them to you one by one, you maybe read them a story. If they put hats on you and find it funny, you let them put hats on you and you laugh. If they are absorbed in whatever they are doing, you let them do that. If they are in an “ONLY PARENT WILL DO, PREFERABLY MOMMY” phase, don’t take it personally. If they’re doing something that might be dangerous or destructive, you stop them, but otherwise it’s just improv and you can’t go wrong with “Yes, and?

I don’t interrogate little kids about their hobbies, I don’t give a fuck about what they learned in school that day, I don’t care if they are “making polite conversation” with me as a guest, I generally don’t care if they remember me 30 seconds after I’ve left the room (never mind between visits to their parents). If they want to demonstrate alphabetic or numerical knowledge, I am an appreciative audience for the ABCs and 123s, but I don’t try to get them to count for me or say the alphabet or stuff like that. I say hello and then basically sit somewhere quietly and see if they come to me, and if they do I try to smile and be pleasant and engaged in what they are doing, the same way I would let a friend’s cat headbutt my fist and give it skritches.

Usually after about two hours of this I could use a nap. It takes a lot of energy to say “Cool!” with the requisite amount of enthusiasm when someone has shown you the 100th Transformer-transformation in a row. This is why I tend to bring parents consumable things like BOOZE or FANCY CHEESE when I visit them. 2-5 year old kids might really like blowing bubbles outside, so maybe find an inexpensive kit of wands and bubble stuff? Their parents might appreciate you taking them outside in the back yard for an hour to use said bubble stuff while they take a nap.

My other piece of guesting-with-families-with-small-kids advice is: Follow the routine of the house. The parents are gonna have the kids on a schedule, find out what it is, and help them keep the kids on schedule during your visit. Naptime is sacred, don’t fuck with it. Ask what the family meal-times are and work around that. The parents might be pretty preoccupied with kids and kid talk and kid stuff until after their bedtime, at which time they can emerge as adult-conversation-butterflies. Don’t take it personally if conversations get interrupted or sort of trail off, it’s not the parents being rude, their lives are just Like This for a while and it won’t always be that way.

Q3: A longtime friend (allegedly! still!) supports Trump. I only know from my partners (white cis males talking politics at 3AM). Friend NEVER brings it up, is sweet & kind in person. I pretend not to know, as hostess ignoring awful rumors, but…feel gross.

A3: A lot of my personal “OK, ‘let’s politely agree to disagree’ about politics is for stuff like how to best fund environmental protections, not about who gets to have human rights” stuff from this week is about people who are vocal about what and who they are supporting. And like, I don’t think any of that is easy or there is one solution to everything, but have reached the end of my patience with pretending that there’s a way we get out of this with everyone feeling safe and comfortable and never called to account for what they have enabled. And I am talking about people I LOVE, people who have always been kind to me, openly expressing and supporting shocking bigotry, shocking violence, a shocking abdication of things they claim to stand for (I’m talking about a pastor in the family preaching that the kids in cages aren’t “our” kids and that his Bible, the one that says ‘love strangers and welcome them,’ doesn’t obligate us in any way to their welfare and safety, and it’s like, ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME RIGHT NOW UNCLE LARRY?). Like, I’ve got the same whiplash as every other well-meaning white person who thought some of this shit was getting better. And I have the knowledge we’ve learned in this community that just ’cause an abusive person was always nice to you it doesn’t mean shit to the vulnerable people they target.

I also think that if you’re going to spend precious time and energy trying to convince people or persuade people, you should focus on mobilizing the ones who mostly agree with you to get out and vote (repeatedly contact elected representatives, protest, support protestors, maybe stay home from work in case of a general strike, etc.) and treat the others like maybe they joined a cult and they can’t be reasoned with right now and it’s sad that you won’t see them for a while but you’ve got other shit to do! I think that calls for “civility” right now are utter bullshit. Get every single kid who is in a cage out of that cage and back with their families, let those families come into the country like all the asylum-seekers and migrants before them, allowed to get jobs and find housing and move freely and recover from the trauma of what they’ve been through, get them legal representation so they can navigate the entire process, and then we can talk about civility. Maybe. (And yes I do want completely open borders, thanks for asking!)

So, what do you do about the person who is quiet, especially when we have secret ballots for a reason?

I think your real question here is, “Do I ask?” 

And if you’re gonna risk cutting a longtime friend out of your life because of a rumor, maybe risk the ask? They may not tell you, and they may not be persuadable if they do, but if it’s worth possibly ending a friendship, it’s worth knowing the truth first.

And like, if you’re reading this and want to convince me that your personal Trump-supporting-relative is actually really great or they had their reasons, I would beg you, go talk to THEM about it, I’m not the New York Times, I don’t have time to give out individual absolutions even if I wanted to. Your emails are noted (and deleted).

Q4: This question might be tough: How to best support your friend who is taking care of her dying father? He’ll likely die within the next 2 to 6 months, everyone’s resistant to using outside help. Also they’re in a different country. It’s more a “How can I be a good friend” question because I know logistically, they will do whatever, no matter what I say. Also if you have any pointers for the grieving period because I have NO CLUE.

A4: It is tough. You are obviously kind and you want to help, but “you performing good friend” is not at the center of what’s happening, and you are very limited in what you can do.

I’d say, 1) Be available to listen without interrupting if your friend wants to talk and let her take the lead on whether the conversation is a heavy one or a light one 2) Send a care package if you can – stickers, comic books, gift cards, just little things that say I like you and am thinking about you. That can be done without putting an additional burden on her to tell you what she needs. 3) Think long-term. Lots of people cluster around to offer help or condolences in a crisis. The friend who a year from now understands that grief doesn’t have a definite timeline, the person who can listen then, is a pretty valuable friend.

Otherwise, focus on your own life, your own family, your own circle. Don’t set up a situation where you’re like, annoying or overwhelming your friend with your desire to help.

Q5: Moved out a year ago. For family events (Fathers Day) parents make plans at last minute, won’t tell me plans unless I ask (often night before), & get angry if I made separate travel plans (“faaamily”) or say the time doesn’t work for me. What do I do?

A5: I mean, I hope they like seeing you a lot less?

If you tend to be a planner, and they tend to be more of a “we’ll leave the day open and not communicate the plan, but there probably is sort of a plan (in our minds, that we sure hope you’ll read, and be mad if you don’t!)” people around events that you know they usually celebrate, i.e., Father’s Day, and you want to celebrate that stuff with them, then leave the day as open as you can and bug them in advance, like, “Hey, any Father’s Day plan I should know about? I’ve got that day open right now, let me know.” 

If they don’t tell you, or the time they have in mind when the plan comes together doesn’t work for you, then say “Sorry, that plan doesn’t work for me, I need more lead time if I’m going to change my work schedule/it works better for me if I ride solo so I can leave when I need to/[or whatever else is true for you and the situation]”, suggest the thing that WOULD work better for you, and then let them be upset if they’re gonna be upset.

Then, try again next time and see if it gets better over time if you’re consistent. You can also in that initial contact be the one to suggest plans that will work for you, like, “Do you want to get together on ____ day, let’s meet at [time] at [place]” and see what they do. Just because they’ve always been the one to plan celebrations doesn’t mean that you, an adult, can’t plan them, too.

Q6: “Months ago I texted close friend that something he said on social media hurt me. He said he would respond later when able to devote his full attention to this but never did. Know I should move on but can’t let go of my anger/desire to confront him. Ideas? 

(Tbh I’m not interested in preserving the friendship. just, in a totally childish way, I think I don’t want him to have the last word. Like, he doesn’t get to quit, I want to fire him!)

A6: I almost guarantee he is not still thinking about this, but what’s stopping you from saying “Hey, you promised to follow up with me about ______. Got time to talk about it now?” and seeing what he says?

What’s stopping you from pressing the block button?

(I can’t compose a parting remark for you without knowing what he said.)

Ok, this concludes our shenanigans for today. Thank you for the questions!

 

 

 

 

 

Good morning! Submit your questions on Patreon or on Twitter (@CAwkward, #AwkwardFriday) before noon Chicago time today.

From 12-1 I’ll answer as many as I can and update as I go. Comments open once everything is posted.

These have been fun so far. I’m looking forward to questions.

Ok, it’s on!

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Submit questions on Twitter (@CAwkward, #AwkwardFriday) or on Patreon before noon Chicago time today.

I’ll answer as many as I can between noon and 1pm, with comments turned on once the post is up.

Thank you, this was fun to do last week.

Q 1, a holdover from last week: “Hi Captain! I’m starting at a prestigious med school this fall. I know that I’ve worked really hard to get here, but my parents have long been psychologically undermining me and won’t stop now. Any tips on resisting their signals and trusting my competency?”

A: Congratulations!

I think it’s time to examine how often you talk to these people, and why, and what information you give them about your life. Maybe it’s time for your parents to become “occasional greeting cards/passing pleasantries”-level people, where you aim for a series of mostly pleasant surface-level interactions and the goal of not escalating things from your side or making anything worse than it already is. Give yourself permission to leave a conversation or an event if they say mean things, give yourself breaks from being in contact at all, give yourself permission to edit the details of what you tell them about your life. After all, they can’t comment unfavorably on something if they don’t know about it, and if they wonder why there is distance between you, hey, you’re busy with med school!

Even when it’s necessary to protect ourselves and liberating to acknowledge the truth about what’s happening, it is very painful for emotional abuse survivors to acknowledge the gap between how parents should act (loving, supportive, proud) and how they are actually acting. So please shore up your other support systems and reach out to friends, possible mental health support, mentors & other members of Team You, so that you do have people you can confide in and count on to be supportive, loving, and proud.

Q2: “A question… scripts for negotiating with debt collectors and related financial entities, with a side order of bypassing and shutting up brainweasels that shriek YOU ARE BAD FOR NEEDING TO DO THIS IN THE FIRST PLACE…?”

I was a broke grad student for a very long time and I have had to deal with debt collectors before. it’s the worst! I’m so sorry you’re dealing with this!

Some things that have helped me:

First, I found out everything I could about my rights and their practices.

Second, I never, ever, ever talk to them on the phone. I don’t verify shit for their records. I definitely don’t give them contact info for friends or family if they are trying to use me to hunt down someone else. I also do everything in writing. The first time one calls I ask “Can you send me something in writing? I have no way of knowing that you are who you say you are, and I don’t talk about sensitive financial matters over the phone.” They will do everything they can to try to pressure you to stay on the phone, so just repeat that like a broken record and then hang up.

In the USA anyone attempting to collect a debt is required to verify their authority to collect the debt in writing, usually within 30-45 days. I also document everything: The firm, the name of the person, the date, everything they say. After that request for things in writing, I create a contact for them and then block the # on my cell phone.

There’s more practical stuff at that link.

As for the shame aspect of it, your shame is useful to debt collectors. It is not useful to you. I assume that you are a conscientious person who generally tries to pay what you owe, and that if you’re not paying something it’s because you can’t. Even if you were careless or “lazy” in some way, I would still think you deserved food, shelter, health care, leisure time, and good things in life because you are a human being.

I’m going to tell the truth about something that I was very ashamed of once upon a time: When I moved out of my ex’s place in 2011, I had less than $300 in the bank and no computer, and the breakup & move came in the summer when I didn’t have adjunct work. I was lucky in so many ways, I had a friend moving out of her place to get married, and she had paid up the rent for a few months. I had community, as in, the very first Captain Awkward Dot Com pledge drive bought me a computer and put food on my table. Other friends hooked me up with freelance work. But it was grim for a minute there, and during that time I stopped being able to pay off a credit card from grad school. That $150/month minimum payment wasn’t doing anything to bring down the overall balance, it was like throwing money down a hole. It basically came down to eat & have health insurance? vs. pay this bill. So I stopped paying it and eventually it got sent to collections.

Let me be *completely* honest, in case it might help someone: Also during that time, I had a bunch of automatic payments for bills, student loans, etc. coming out of my bank account, and while I did my best to stop/re-organize them, I didn’t act in time and I bounced some payments. When I couldn’t deposit enough money to cover them in my bank account within a few days, my banker helped me temporarily suspend my account. We didn’t want to close it with a negative balance, because it could have meant I might not be able to open another bank account for a period of years, but this temporary fix stopped any payments from going out or through while keeping the account technically open. That meant I couldn’t use an ATM or debit card until I had had a positive balance and no shenanigans for six months, and I had to do all my financial transactions in cash or in person at the bank or by paying bills at currency exchanges. It sucked and was terribly inconvenient, though it made me very, very careful with money and reversed some lazy habits I had accumulated.

Back to the unpaid credit card balance! Down the road, I settled it for a nominal amount of money, about 10% of the total balance. There were credit report consequences (my only credit card now is a secured card with a $500 limit, tbh I like it that way b/c it means I can never go into bigger debt again) and tax consequences (companies can write off bad debt as a loss for tax purposes, but individual people have to claim the difference between the total balance owed and what we settle for as income), and bill collectors calling, but otherwise nothing bad happened to me. I wish I’d just had the money to pay the whole thing off without a fuss, but since I didn’t, I made the best choice for myself out of some bad options. There’s a reason they call it unsecured debt, and I wasn’t going to harm my health to pay something that the credit card company had written off without a thought.

People can judge all they want or think I should have made better choices, but fact is most financial advice that exists is for people who are already pretty secure and comfortable and there weren’t a lot of resources I could turn to. Like, sure, “have a budget and stick to it!”, but how do you budget 0$? Also, I personally find most money-saving “tips” to be completely exhausting and depressing.

I dug out of the hole. It took time. I would like to never go back there, but I know it’s always possible, so I will give any moralizing or shame that serves the interests American financial industry at the expense of my safety & survival a hard fucking lifetime pass, and I hope you can do the same.

Possibly helpful reading: Joon Madriga’s Rising: Money Strategies for the Broke, The At Risk, and Those Who Love Them, Poorcraft by C. Spike Trotman, Money Drunk, Money Sober by Julia Cameron & Mark Bryan, Hand To Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado.

Forgive all student loans! Universal health care! Solidarity! Bread AND roses!

Q3: “I recently held a phone interview w/ an applicant who was an ideal candidate on the phone, until the end when they said “I’m glad it was a phone interview b/c you can’t tell I didn’t shower.” They are asking why they didn’t get the job. Do I tell them?”

A: Even if that was THE dealbreaker, I wouldn’t tell them that. Especially not in an email.

At most I’d say “We just found someone who was a better fit for the job. However, I really enjoyed speaking with you and you have some great experience and skills, so can I offer a piece of advice for your job search? I’m sure you were joking at the end of the call when you mentioned not taking a shower, but you might want to avoid jokes like that in future phone interviews and err on the side of being more formal. Good luck with everything and thanks again for taking the time to apply and speak with me.” 

This is our daily reminder that there’s a real fine line between “nervous person who makes a bad joke that doesn’t land” and “weirdo with no filter.”

Q4: Through a charity program, I am putting a teenager in a foreign country through private school. She was 12 when I started, she’s 16 now. She seems like a nice kid and I’m happy to do it. But she found me on Facebook recently and chats me regularly. She wants to know about my spouse (I’m a lesbian) and my family (I’m minimal contact with parents who were abusive) and my dog (thank God, that one’s easy).

I am happy to write the checks, but I’m not really looking to be her penpal. She seems to live in happy traditional family and doesn’t get the hint that I’m not and doesn’t seem to have the “don’t Facebook chat adults with six questions in a row about their personal lives” cultural understanding that American teenagers have.

So… how can I not be an asshole here?

A: You could most likely remove her ability to contact you on Messenger, right? Maybe give her an email address instead, so there’s less expectation of immediate responses, and you can answer or not more at leisure.

There’s also always “Oh, so nice to hear from you, but I don’t have time to chat, so don’t be worried if I don’t respond. Hope school is going well!” and then, well, not answering. I think it’s easy to forgive or overlook her initial enthusiasm, and chances are it will die down over time, especially if you are slow to answer.

Could you hook her up with a website that’s more geared toward international penpals for teens? “Since you like chatting so much, would you like to find people your own age to talk with?” Related: A pretty delightful short documentary about this.

Failing that, what’s wrong with “Oh, I don’t have a spouse right now. If I did, it would be another woman“, “I’m not close to my parents, sadly,” or just sticking to dog topics? Those are pretty routine small-talk sorts of questions (and in fact form the basics of early language learning texts) and it’s okay to answer them in a perfunctory way. See also: “Ooh, so many questions! Well, here’s a picture of my dog, for now. Sorry I can’t chat, but have a good day at school.” 

Q5: “I was wondering how best to establish a social event for work people. I would like to invite some of my colleagues socially, maybe make it a regular thing. The wrinkle: It needs to be outside my home and right now the number is small, so I wonder what happens when everyone declines. Also what if I stumble upon some unknown animosities between the people I like? Any advice welcome and thanks for getting back to me :)”

Start with a one-time thing, make sure it’s something that would be enjoyable for you to do, and then secure one reliable colleague who will show up before you make the general announcement so you know that it won’t just be you.

Pick something preferably inexpensive, close to work, and inclusive (at minimum make sure the venue is accessible to any & all disabled folks on your team, think about whether drinking/alcohol is a thing your team handles safely and enjoyably).

Then issue the invite: “Reliable Colleague and I are going to try axe-throwing after work next Thursday, from 5:30-7:30 pm, at [venue]. Anyone want to join us? RSVP by [day] so we can schedule enough axes.” Then send a reminder when you need the final head count.

If people reply and can’t make the first thing, or suggest something else, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you should change your plans. “Sorry that you can’t make it this week, we’re going to try to make this a regular thing though, so maybe next time.” “Our heart is really set on axe-throwing this week, but we want to make a regular Thursday night thing, so let’s go to the tapas place the following week. Want to plan that with me?” One way to get me to stop planning anything (and to secretly hate you) is to be a person who doesn’t plan anything but who craps on every plan that other people come up with.

If people have animosities toward each other, you don’t have to fix that, but as host you do have to make expectations about behaviors clear and smack down anything that’s inappropriate or mean. One rule could be “Ok, a 5 minute limit on work venting, this is supposed to be fun” or “To keep this fun and light, please don’t say anything about people who aren’t here that you wouldn’t say to them.” 

Give it some time to get into a groove, and good luck.

Last one:

Q6: Hi Cap! It is that time in my early 30s when old friends who disappeared into 5+ year relationships have broken up & now suddenly want friends again. Advice for navigating friendship renewal when the reason old friend & I haven’t been in touch is because they chose to disappear? In all cases so far I would have been thrilled if friend got in touch to resume friendship at any prior point but I am bitter as soon as I find out friendship-renewal attempt is on heels of new singleness. (with the male examples, am giving benefit of the doubt that they aren’t trying to hookup) (this may be naive but we’ll see)

A: Two things come to mind:

  1. Let them be the one to make the effort/the plans, and don’t necessarily put a lot of effort into juggling your schedule to fit them in. See them when it’s fun/interesting to you now, not out of obligation to the past.
  2. Seriously limit your role as post-breakup-shoulder-to-cry on, and if they try to take advantage of you in this way, definitely address it: “Hey, you kinda disappeared from my life when you started dating X, and it’s great to have you back, but that doesn’t mean I want to process the last 5 years with you. Let me be your fun-going-to-the-movies friend for a while, and we’ll see if listening-to-my-problems friend still lives here.” Especially for heterosexual dude friends who might be looking to hook up or get a lot of free emotional labor (or both).

That’s all for today, thanks for the great questions, comments are open.