This is another one in a series about difficult parent relationships: A dad who wants to talk on the phone for hours about only the things he wants to talk about and who reminds his daughter, when she tries to set boundaries, that he has nobody else to talk to. It’s about guilt and about how the hardest part of boundary-setting can be a negotiation between us and ourselves. Maybe the key to this negotiation is figuring out the difference between “should” and “want to.”
Hey Captain Awkward.
I read some of your responses to other writers who had concerns about their partners’ finances, and I feel like this is related but not quite the same.
I’m stressed about my boyfriend’s money management skills and how I can help him without getting myself into a bad financial situation. I also recognize that he’s probably embarrassed on top of being stressed, so I’m trying not to make him feel ashamed. He was raised below the poverty line and when he made it “big” in his industry, he was earning huge salaries, so I think he’s allowed himself to fully enjoy it. Now he’s unemployed but is still living a “huge salary” lifestyle.
About me: I’ve always lived pretty frugally. I’m kind of a prepper in some ways – I buy a lot of dried or bulk foods, and I park nearly a mile away from work and walk every day so I don’t have to buy a $400 annual parking pass, plus I get some exercise which is hard to come by in my 9-5 cubicle lifestyle. My mortgage is manageable, 90% of my furniture is thrifted (thank god eclectic/Boho decor is “in” right now), I pay my bills on time, I have a modest emergency savings, and I have excellent credit — with a little bit of revolving credit card debt. My house is my first home purchase, and in addition to receiving some assistance from my grandparents, I participated in a federally funded first-time home buyer program and saved for years to come up with the down payment. My house isn’t fancy, but I love it because it’s mine goddamnit, and after changing addresses every year for 18 years, I finally get to lay down some roots! I‘ll hit my one-year anniversary of homeownership next week. Yay.
I do not typically seek out partners with tons of money. In fact, I’ve been known to date transient wildlife biologist types who briefly stay in the area to work for six months out of the year, and then squirrel their earnings away to get by the other six months. I just happened to fall in love with my BF who – up until last summer – was successful in his career, made a lot of money as a senior level designer with some recognizable household brands, and was promptly relieved of his duties the same week we met. He felt it was a blessing in disguise because he’s burned out on doing design for a living and wants to pursue his passion of selling rare European cars.
BF was earning a gratuitous salary last year, and while he lived within his means, said means were extravagant and now unsustainable: he owns two houses and has 7 cars (or 8? I actually don’t know anymore). Again, cars are his hobby/passion, as well as his side business, so some of this is to be expected. Two of them are “investment” items that will continue to appreciate in value, two are for driving, and the rest are “projects” that he plans to sell… but as you might imagine, this ties up a lot of capital in non-liquid assets.
BF is hemorrhaging money, but not cash, and is putting a lot of charges onto credit cards. He justifies this by saying that most entrepreneurs fund their businesses through credit. BF also owes his best friend a sizable amount for a recent generous loan which seems to have strained their friendship a little.
Three months ago, BF put his second house, which is in a popular resort town a few hours away from where we both live, on the market. He’s received multiple offers on the second house, but due to complications beyond his control, they continue to fall through, and so it remains on the market. BF was relying on the sale of this second house to kick-start the car business.
His monthly expenses (e.g. mortgages, private school tuition for his two kids, and commercial space for his new business) are over $5k. Not included are utilities, groceries, gasoline, health insurance, pet expenses, or anything else fun/recreational like an occasional meal out or outing to the nearby large city. BF has very little income right now except for infrequent freelance design work which he loathes and the car side hustle. Currently, he sells a car every 4-8 weeks and each sale results in a few thousand dollars. I in believe he’s receiving unemployment, but I’m not sure that he’ll qualify for much longer.
I told him he could sell his primary house and move into mine if he wanted. My mortgage is literally half the size of his, and if he paid HALF of my mortgage he’d still save $2k/month. However, he doesn’t want to sell his primary residence for a lot of (legitimate) reasons, and he wants to keep trying to sell the vacation home that’s been on the market for four months. OK, I get that… But right now, it’s just him and his dog occupying a 3,000 square foot space. He wants me to rent out rooms in my house and move in with him (I would contribute to his mortgage, which would only cover 25% of his monthly payment). I am considering it, but I’m also so happy to finally have a home of my own… it would make me sad to move out of my first home so soon.
I know he’s filed for bankruptcy once before, and he recently said he doesn’t want to do that again (he said it semi-jokingly, so I don’t know how much of a real possibility it is for him). He also told me early on that he thought I’d be a good influence on him as far as spending habits go. These were yellow-orange flags for me at the time. Now, he’s asking me to go with him to a cousin’s wedding on the absolute opposite side of the country in two months. We both have airline miles that will cover the trip, but it’s honestly not how I want to use those miles — the whole reason I got a credit card that gives airline miles is because he suggested I get one so we can travel overseas together this year. I wouldn’t have taken out a second line of credit if I didn’t think we weren’t going to use it for an *international* vacation. Plus, the wedding trip in two months becomes more expensive when you add up the other items that will not be covered: lodging, dining out for five days, hiring a pet sitter for our two dogs, rental car, etc. And I’m also just feeling less and less secure about out future together as the weeks roll by. Like what kind of message would I send to his family by attending this big family event if I’m not sure how into/secure I feel about the relationship by the time the wedding rolls around?
He has also half-joked about how I should have offered to pay for a recent ticket he got because he’s so broke. (He wouldn’t have received the ticket in the first place had he agreed for us to take my car that morning — which gets twice the MPGs — instead of his… but he insisted on taking his car. It apparently didn’t have a front license plate which resulted in a ticket.) The irony is that I almost offered to pay for it as a “sorry you’re broke, happy belated birthday” gift… but after he said that, I thought “NOPE. Nevermind; I don’t owe you shit.”
Let me preface that BF is the closest I’ve found to “my person”, if you get me — our connection, chemistry, and compatibility are mind bending. I’ve dated a lot of people in my day and never felt about them the way I do about him. I want to live with him at some point, get married, and maybe even have a child. How can I communicate my concerns to him without compounding his stress and sounding like a tightwad? (Also… Am I a tightwad? I’m starting to doubt myself and my saving habits…) And how do I support him without getting myself into a bad financial situation of my own? I don’t want to lose my savings, wreck my good credit, or be his cash cow, but I do want to be there for him in a way that empowers, not enables. I can see a future with him… so do I just sit tight through this rough spot and hope it all works out soon, or am I aboard a sinking ship and just don’t have the perspective to see it? Also, is there a way I can get out of attending this wedding?!
Thanks Captain Awkward!
Hello! I am so glad you wrote!
And congratulations on this month’s award for “burying the lede”! I retained the subject line of your email as the subject line of the post because I wanted readers to ride the same “oh, only 7 cars? Or is it 8?” roller coaster I did. 🙂
You have been so candid and such a good advocate for yourself that it makes my job very easy. My advice is:
- Do not jeopardize anything about your finances or housing to “help” or “support” a man with 2 houses and 7-8 cars.
- Re-examine the idea that it is your job to help him figure out his money & his relationship with money.
I’ll elaborate but here are some scripts:
- “I do not want to move out of my house.”
- “I do not want to move out of my house to make housing payments on a house I don’t own.”
- “I’d rather save my miles and money for a vacation than go to that wedding, and I can’t afford to do both, so you’ll have to fly solo on that one. I’ll have to meet your family some other time.”
- “We approach money really differently, and I do not think it will be good for either my credit score or our relationship if we combine money or housing, especially while you’re still getting your business off the ground.”
- “I want to help you through this, but ultimately it’s your money and your decision, so one way I can ‘help’ is by having really clear boundaries especially around financial decisions that affect me.”
Additionally, scriptwise, be very blunt and specific about money in your dating life. Do not let this flounder in expectations and hints, get in the habit of nailing stuff down like where are we going, what is the anticipated cost, who is paying. When you are offering to pay, make that offer up front: “Can I take you to ____ tonight? Dinner’s on me.” (This is a good thing to do anytime you are treating a known poor-er person, the anxiety of guessing and mentally running the budget numbers is just awful and fun-destroying). When you are splitting costs or expenses, settle up right away. “The bill is ______, do you want the waiter to split it for us or do you want to pay and I can Venmo (etc.) you my half?”
This may seem unromantic and tedious, and it might bring out some weird shame behaviors and avoidance in him, but do it anyway. If you can’t afford something, say so. “That sounds nice but pricier than I can handle right now, can we save it as a treat for next month and stay in tonight?” Make this shit matter-of-fact and normal. Make yourselves a couple who can talk frankly about money in mundane, routine ways that doesn’t require big negotiations or emotional processing.
The letter contains brief mention of the roommate either accidentally or accidentally-on-purpose leaving a pet outside for a while during a mental health episode. The pet was fine and this is neither the point of the letter nor the oddest thing in it, but readers have mentioned animals-in-peril stresses them out, so I’m including both a heads’ up and a cut.
Hi Captain Awkward –
TL;DR: one of my partner’s friends became my Cool New Friend, right up until he abruptly pulled back and implied I had romantic feelings for him. I do not. He seems to want to keep hanging out (??!) and I don’t want to make it awkward but this really upset me and I have no idea how to feel or behave.
I (32, she/her) am in a very happy relationship with wonderful Partner (31M). Earlier this year I hit it off with Partner’s friend “Bob” (30??M). Bob is funny and interesting and well-read, and Partner suggested Bob and I could see movies together (Partner has a low tolerance for silent films). Over 6 months, Bob and I ended up hanging out every 2-3 weeks. Periodically one of us (usually Bob) would suggest we meet for a movie or a meal. We’d hang out for couple of hours and talk a lot. Bob seemed surprisingly comfortable being open early on (family, health, a recent breakup), and taking my cue from him, I found myself talking unreservedly to him like a close friend. (I cringe now to think of this.) Partly I think Bob needed to process the denouement of his romantic relationship, but we canvassed lots of other things, so I wasn’t just the Designated Woman Listener. And, well, I am in a conspicuously happy relationship with Partner, while Bob is dealing with feelings for someone else. No When Harry Met Sally problems here!
Then Bob abruptly cancelled a dinner he had suggested, before a movie he had suggested, via text message, because he was “uncomfortable” and felt like we had been “going on dates.” After some prodding, Bob divulged that he thought I had romantic feelings for him. Bob is a great guy and I would have no hesitation setting him up with a friend, but I do not have feelings for Bob. At all. (Bob did not help matters by subsequently demanding text confirmation of this for “reassurance”. What?)
Unfortunately, Bob stepped right into a bear trap of my anxieties. Making friends has always been hard for me. It makes me feel so pathetic in retrospect, but I’d been really excited about my awesome new friend. I also have a history of damaging friendships through thoughtlessness or terrible boundaries – behaviours I *thought* I’d grown out of. I was embarrassed, upset, and increasingly, angry. Bob basically cast aspersions on my commitment to Partner – who literally laughed out loud at the idea when I told him.
Captain, we’ve hung out twice since, and it was awful. I’m stilted and uncomfortable; Bob seems to want to pretend nothing happened. But I’m not comfortable behaving like before, because clearly that gave Bob the wrong idea! Being so wildly misread really sucks, and I’m torn between wanting to know how Bob got this idea, and never wanting to hear it because oh nooooo what did I doooooo.
Bob is still doggedly suggesting movies. I really don’t want to screw up Partner’s social circle and part of me wonders if any friendship is salvageable. But I don’t know how much of this is my fault and I don’t know how to behave around Bob anymore. Also, now I’m back down to zero people to watch weird old movies with. I have no idea how to address this situation. Help??
Other people don’t get to tell you what your feelings are, full stop.
Additionally, I consulted Occam’s Razor (I keep it next to Occam’s hand lotion, Occam’s minty morning mouthwash, and Occam’s Big Paisley Tie) and it indicated that Bob possibly became weird because HE was developing a big old crush on YOU. Your hangouts felt like dates…to him. And instead of either ruefully admitting it or dealing with it quietly (“I’ll just keep being her friend, it will pass“), he projected it all onto you.
A second possibility that still has nothing to do with anything you did wrong: The person Bob is actually pursuing romantically looks askance at the friendship between you, either because they are jealous of you, specifically, or because they are one of those people who are convinced that men and women can’t ever be friends (au contraire, mon frère) and unfortunately Bob is also sort of one of those people but was making an exception for his Silent Film Buddy. Maybe your hangouts looked like dates to that person, so that person made it weird for Bob, who in turn made it weird for you. The demand for text confirmation makes me imagine Bob saying to this person, “See? I asked her and she doesn’t feel that way. We just go to the movies sometimes.”
Third possibility: This is like one of those things where you get really upset at someone in a dream and you wake up and you’re angry at them in real life but only for stuff they did in the dream. Maybe Dream-You got horny for Dream-Bob one night, which, fine, except, Not Fine, because Awake-Bob crossed the dream streams and broke up your film club dream team.
Fourth possibility: Say you accidentally did or said something that made Bob feel uncomfortable, like a line was being crossed. You didn’t hit on him, but the intimacy of your conversations, for whatever reason, felt like Too Much for the level of movie buddies he wants to be. Or he felt like he was sharing too much private information with you and wanted to pull back from those kinds of conversations. In that scenario a friend might reasonably want to regroup a bit, like, “Note to self, these friend-dates are starting to feel like date-dates…to me…maybe I should change something up here” but that can be done without blaming you or asking for a notarized statement of your lack of pantsfeelings. Crushes happen, misunderstandings happen, but we don’t tell our friends they have feelings and then, like, punish them for their feelings that we made up in our heads and told them they had.
So what to do now? To truly clear the air, Bob would need to admit what he did and apologize to you. “I’m so sorry I insisted that you had feelings for me. What actually happened was I was feeling ________ about ________ and I projected all that on to you.”
You could attempt to clear the air. The next time he suggests a film, you could say, “Dude, I want to go to the movies but not until we talk about the very weird thing you did. I never had romantic feelings for you, and you made me INCREDIBLY uncomfortable when you insisted I did. If I did or said something specific that made you uncomfortable, please tell me what it was so I can apologize and not ever do it again. We can go back to acting like it never happened once you tell me, honestly, what the hell was that about?”
I realize asking him directly is nerve-wracking for you, both because of your history because you can’t necessarily trust him to be honest or self-aware enough to not double down and try even more projection. But please know, you’d be entirely within your rights to do it.
You could let Partner intervene on your behalf. I generally advise letting our partners handle their own friendships and not getting in the middle, which seems to be your strategy as well, but maybe next time the two men hang out solo your Partner can throw up a “Dude, [LW] doesn’t have feelings for you and you made her incredibly uncomfortable about that whole thing. What was UP with that?” and a “Well, you probably need to apologize before you try to plan any more movie nights.”
You could also take a break and hang with Bob only at bigger Partner-social-circle events. You’re not “screwing up” anybody’s social circle, you just don’t have time right now to go to the movies with your Partner’s friend who you thought was a cool friend but who is actually a super-presumptive and demanding friend who you didn’t enjoy seeing movies with the last two times you did that. Make a rule going forward: “For every 10 minutes I spending navigating The Bobness, I will spend 10 minutes finding (or founding!) a women-watching-old movies-together meet where I live.” Go to screenings alone sometimes. Wear an incredibly fancy and fetching hat. Say hello to the other regulars in the crowd (there are almost certainly regulars in the crowd). If your town has silent film screenings, plural, you and Bob are not the only people in that scene. Meet the other beautiful nerds.
You can also join Bob for an occasional film/joint exercise in pretending it didn’t happen, and see if it gets better with some time. Bob’s persistence in making plans is an indicator that he does like you and want to go to the movies still. But look, I’m bilingual in both English and acting like the elephant is not in the room, so I want to be clear: Bygones are a gift. If you never bring this up again, if you try to hang out with Bob like it never happened and give the friendship some time to recover, that is a favor you are doing for him. You are letting him save face after the weird thing he did, with a silent message of: “Friend, I’m trusting that was a one-time thing and you had your reasons, reasons which you will sheepishly acknowledge someday, maybe to me, maybe to your therapist, and I like you enough to give it another try. Don’t fuck it up.”
The most important thing, to me, is that you stop blaming yourself and get off the back foot. Climb out of your shame-hole. You’re in a weird situation not because something’s inherently wrong with you but because your friend Bob put you in the impossible position of denying a negative. Bob’s gonna Bob. It doesn’t mean you’ll never again pass a pleasant afternoon together watching a restored print of Nosferatu while a live orchestra plays the score, but it does mean that the closer friendship you thought was happening is not entirely possible within Bob’s limitations.
It’s time for the thing where we pretend the search terms people typed into their computers before they landed on this place are actual questions. Context is missing; that’s kind of the point.
Let’s start with a song, as is traditional. Here’s Willie, breaking our hearts a little with his cover of “September Song:”
Onto the terms:
01: “The Field Of No Fucks Given”
Inspired by this meme from the Bayeux Tapestry, also sometimes known as “The Fuck-Its,” this is where you move when you’ve tried every reasonable measure to get along with people and they still won’t let you breathe, so you decide to stop trying so hard (or at all) to appease them since being accommodating is not getting you anywhere. If a person refuses to be pleased, and you’re not harming anyone, you might as well please yourself? Related post.
Strong start, Internet!
02: “Exit Interview Bully Boss”
I am of two minds about exit interviews. On the one hand, they can be your final chance to speak truth to power and make sure there is a record of your boss’s bullying (you’re leaving, but maybe your frankness can help those left behind). In this scenario, I’d especially want to get incidents of harassment and misconduct on the record, use the documentation you’ve (hopefully) done and language like “Now that I don’t have to worry about retaliation, I’d hate to see this behavior become an expensive legal issue for the company if not addressed.” This seems like a good time to remind people about the Al Capone Theory of Sexual Harassment, where data shows that people who harass people at work (surprise!) feel entitled to break lots of rules and cheat on their expense reports, so looking for patterns of crappy behavior is revealing.
On the other hand, your company never cared about this problem before this moment, they didn’t care about changing the circumstances for you when you actually worked there, so why put yourself through a difficult ordeal and possibly come off looking “difficult” to the people who will still have to give you references down the road? I think it’s really up to you how much you give to an exit interview. Especially if your exit interview is WITH your bully boss (vs. a human resources person) I think it’s okay to say “I’d prefer not to” or “Nothing to add, I wish you and the company well” and GTFO. You don’t owe anybody free management consulting or one last chance to bully you.
03: “I’m too busy for my boyfriend.”
Maybe…talk about that honestly? Like, here is what my schedule is, this is what time I have, does that work for you, how can we make this work, can we make this work, do we even want to make this work (given these constraints)? Two perfectly wonderful people can have mismatched needs and schedules.
04: “My workmate is always grumpy on Friday.”
Not a fan of The Cure, then, this person? Maybe something difficult on Thursday nights or something difficult coming up on the weekend?
Since you can’t really know (and might not want to if you could), and you know this is a routine thing, maybe try to get all the important stuff that needs their input done on Thursdays so you can both give and get space on Fridays?
05: “Ask for another place at office coworkers talk too much.”
- I believe you! I once had a database manager job that required focus and pretty much zero human interaction, but I sat right outside a busy conference room, so half my day was spent taking my headphones off and saying, “Oh, sorry, I don’t know what meeting that is or if “Richard” and “Julia” are waiting for your slides or when they’ll be done, sorry!” (Tbh I don’t know who those people even are) and the other half my day being told “Wow, sure is quiet over here!” and trying not to say, “Well, it was quiet, Andy”
- Perhaps a better way of asking for this is less about blaming/tattling on the talkative coworkers and phrasing it more in terms of your work, as in, “The [specific] work I do needs a lot of focus and concentration, is there a way I can move to a quieter spot?”
- Bonus points for identifying a specific quiet spot in the building in advance. Don’t share it out of the gate (you’ll seem entitled and they might have other plans for that space, so don’t assume), but hold onto it for if they seem open to moving you but not sure where they can move you. “Is _________’s old cube still open? That would work really well for me I think.”
Open office plans are the worst (and they know it).
06: “That awkward moment you both want to hug each other but don’t end up hugging.”
Oh, I see you’ve met…me. And everyone I know. Welcome! Maybe someday we’ll hug, but not today. Or, maybe we will. Who knows?
07: “My new relationship just said ‘he can’t do this.'”
Believe him and delete his number. (I’m so sorry, but in most cases you’ll probably be so much happier if you do this sooner rather than later vs. trying to cajole or hold space for him).
08: “Went to my husband’s game and he didn’t introduce me to anyone.”
Look, you know this guy best, you know your usual social patterns of who introduces who best, but that’s definitely odd and deserving of at least a question: “Dude! Why didn’t you introduce me to anyone? Did you want me to come to your game or not?”
Next time, if there is a next time, introduce yourself (which, my most generous possible read is: Your husband assumed you would). “Hi, I’m ________, _________’s wife/husband/spouse. Nice to meet you!”
09: “He hasn’t logged onto the dating site since we met.”
You clearly have in order to be able to tell! Which is completely okay, don’t assume a new date-thing is exclusive unless you’ve both talked about that and agreed to some kind of exclusive arrangement, for instance, he could be not logging into the site where he specifically met you and still be Christian Mingling somewhere else. So this is not necessarily a telling detail. Does it make you feel excited to think about the fact that he seems to be focusing only on you? Or does it feel like pressure/a trap? What do you *want* this relationship to be like? Probably figure that out and when you’re ready, talk to him.
10: “How to ask someone to host Thanksgiving.”
As straightforwardly and with as much lead time (think: today, today is a good day to get this done) as you possibly can. “Would you be up for hosting Thanksgiving at your place this year, and if so, what would you need from me/the rest of us to make that work?”
They’ll either say yes or they won’t, so give them the respect of a direct request and a chance to refuse.
11: “How to indirectly invite yourself.”
There are probably exceptions (there are always exceptions) but here is how I generally roll:
If you don’t feel comfortable enough/close enough/confident enough with the situation and people to say, “Hey, mind if I join you?” and be cool* if the answer is “Not this time, sorry!” then probably don’t invite yourself to stuff, indirectly or otherwise. I have no magic hint-scripts for you. They don’t work. They create SO MUCH anxiety, on both sides. Ask. Or don’t, and either work on the relationship or your own confidence between now and next time so you’ll feel comfortable asking and have more knowledge about whether the host is a “the more the merrier!” type of person.
*You can FEEL horrible, rejection from a thing you wanted sucks, just, probably take the performance of feelings about inviting yourself to a private event to a private space and don’t pressure the people to change their minds if they say no. Your dignity and their eventual willingness to consider including you in the future will both be better for it.
12: “Moving out of helicopter parents’ house.“
In some relationships, you announce your intention to do a thing, then carry out your research/planning, then discuss options/timelines and get advice/input/help, then actually do the thing.
In some relationships you do all the planning parts very quietly, make your decision, and then inform the other people about a decision you’ve already made about a plan that is already in motion. It can help to deliver this as very positive, exciting news that you expect them to be supportive and happy about (even if you suspect the opposite), it gives you a tiny bit more armor when the Worry Bomb goes off.
In some relationships you make a safety plan, hire a moving van and recruit friends to come get your shit while everyone else is at work, and leave a note on the kitchen counter.
You know your situation best, good luck!
13: “Captain Awkward sex ed for younger kids not high school yet”
Glad you asked! Captain Awkward does not have to make this resource because somebody else totally handled it!
Scarleteen’s Heather Corinna and illustrator Isabella Rotman collaborated on a comic and activity book for pre-teens called Wait, What?, it just came out this month, it’s great, it covers body stuff, identity stuff, consent, relationships, basically “how do learn about this messy and complicated thing and not be a jerk,” it’s inexpensive, I want to push it into the hands of every parent and teacher I know.
Buy Wait, What???: A Comic Book Guide To Relationships, Bodies, and Growing Up at Women & Children First / Amazon / Wherever books are sold. If you enjoy it and find it useful, leave a review, these really help with sales.
14: “White noise machine having sex”
White noise machines can mask your sex sounds for your roommates/neighbors and mask their sex sounds for you, so if you/they like it loud, probably a worthy investment. The way this is phrased reminds me of the time one of my students made a short film about a Tivo and a Roomba who fell in love. As soon as the humans would leave for work, Roomba would trace hearts in the carpet and Tivo would play romantic movies. 60 seconds of adorableness, shot on 16mm reversal so sadly I do not have a copy to share.
15: “My biological father was never around and now wants to come to my wedding.”
He can start with “lunch” or “coffee.” If that, even. This is completely, completely up to you and do not let “tradition” or “faaaaaaamily” sway you if you don’t want him there. Weddings don’t exist to fix our families. Yours does NOT have to be the stage for reconnecting with an absent dad.
16: “I get drunk and start being extremely rude to women… do I have an underlying problem?”
You’ve got problems, plural. Quit being a misogynist, quit being a rude asshole, lay off the drinking, maybe only greet your fellow men when you’re out on the town, see how you do.
17: “Is it odd to turn up outside someone’s work at end of day?”
If they’re not expecting you, you don’t have plans to hang out, and if you don’t know them well enough to know for sure they’d be happy to see you at work (thereby crossing the streams) then yeah, it’s somewhere on the scale between “odd” and “terrifying” with stops at “intrusive” and “creepy.”
Most of us have TELEPHONEPUTERS in our POCKETS where we can ASK people in our lives what they would prefer. USE YOURS.
That’s all for this month, thank you for keeping it weird!
Hello, it’s the monthly feature where patrons of the site can ask short questions.
Q1: Thanks to years of reading your blog I finally learned how to call out -isms when they happen! But now I’m stuck at the next hurdle, where people who get called out are so mortified they go into an over-the-top apology loop and keep it up until the apology gets more annoying than the original transgression. Do you have any scripts for when people go way too hard on the apologies after being corrected? (she/her/hers)
I know, we’re taught that interrupting is always rude & wrong, but honestly, it’s so useful at times, like when you ask someone to stop doing something and they take it as an opportunity to process all of their feelings about whatever it is at you. Thanks, Stu, it was so fun to experience your misogyny at work, now, bonus I get to be your personal sexism therapist, translator, and Interpreter of All Women, ooh goody! So glad we had this talk!
Multiply that by infinity for white people who freak out when we are reminded that a) racism exists and b) racism isn’t a bone in our bodies and isn’t about our personal intentions or goodness. Robin DiAngelo coined the term “white fragility” to describe this phenomenon, and says that the “splutterings,” (extreme defensiveness, shouting, crying, disbelieving people about their lived experiences, compulsively shifting the topic to historical events (politicians who remind everyone “I marched with Dr. King!” when asked about racism now) or unsolicited non sequiturs about how cool we are about race stuff serve a purpose that isn’t just the personal shame of getting something wrong or cognitive dissonance at the magnitude of white supremacy and injustice.
“These splutterings ‘work,’ DiAngelo explains, ‘to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy.’ She finds that the social costs for a black person in awakening the sleeping dragon of white fragility often prove so high that many black people don’t risk pointing out discrimination when they see it. And the expectation of “white solidarity”—white people will forbear from correcting each other’s racial missteps, to preserve the peace—makes genuine allyship elusive. White fragility holds racism in place.”
These overshares, even when the person is sincerely upset and ashamed, have a structural, ritual purpose. Ever ended up apologizing to someone who actually owes you an apology, but when you asked them to stop doing whatever it is that hurt you, they get so upset that you feel bad about saying anything in the first place and pressured to comfort them…about the bad thing…they did… to you? Yeah. Like that. But on a grand, national, and global scale.
So where does that leave us?
If you mess something up, and we all mess up sometimes, I think one good practice is to do whatever we can to not dwell on ourselves in that exact moment. Whatever our intentions were, we said something that hurts. Our feelings of shame and worry that we messed up can be real, but they aren’t THE immediate problem. Being corrected isn’t about our personal epiphany or learning to be a better person (that can wait!), it’s about stopping the harmful behavior with minimum fuss and adverse impact, and making a commitment to get it right going forward. Apologize, correct the behavior, and move on. From this piece on accidentally using the wrong pronouns:(bolding mine):
“You are talking about someone who goes by “he/him” pronouns. “She is a great student. I’m sorry, I meant to say he is a great student. He’s been reading all of the assignments very thoroughly and it’s been a pleasure to work with him.” You don’t have to make a big deal out of your mistake or draw a lot of attention to it. You mostly need to fix it. You might have a follow up conversation with the person you referred to incorrectly to apologize or see if there’s something else you can do to correct it moving forward besides doing better. Making it a bigger deal in the moment is not necessarily helpful and could be harmful unless that’s what the person who was incorrectly referred to wants. Depending on the situation, you might be worried that people think you aren’t friendly towards transgender people because you made a mistake, but generally it’s good to avoid making the situation about you and your intent. A good way to show you are friendly is to get it right in the future and to act upon some of the other guidances you may find through this website or other resources.
Critique is an investment in the relationship. If someone is taking the risk of telling you you messed up, it doesn’t mean “YOU ARE THE WORST PERSON WHO EVER LIVED, PLEASE DIE NOW” it means “I care about this and I’m trusting you to get it right.” If you feel awful and embarrassed, that’s normal, just, those feelings are for you to take to your journal or a therapist, not to process in real time with the expectation that the person you offended will hang out and help you do it.
Anyway, dear Querent, here’s your shame-spiral interruption script to adapt into your own words as the situation demands.
“Hey _____, let me interrupt for a second. These conversations are awkward for everyone. I appreciate the apology, and as long as you [do the good thing/stop doing the bad thing] from now on, we’re good.”
Interrupt. Translate their apology into a promise for better action in the future. Keep Awkwarding.
Q2: I recently joined a beer and philosophy meetup. I enjoy the group and the discussion, except for one person. Her comments are often neither brief nor relevant, with her talking as much as everyone else combined and going on tangents that don’t connect to the topic. She seems to be friends with the organizers and while they’re otherwise great, they don’t seem interested in reining her in; is there anything I can do? (she/her/hers)
A2: Since you’re new and she’s a regular, this is tricky. Almost certainly you’re not alone in feeling as you do about this person, but you don’t know who your allies are and if you complain about her to the wrong folks you will come across as the jerk.
One tactic I might try is suggesting that the big group break into smaller groups for discussion, maybe switch/rotate every 10-15 minutes, or chew on a question in small groups and have each group report back to the big group at the end. “Can we break into smaller groups next time? I love hearing from everyone and talking about the work, and with the big discussion circle we sometimes only get through a few people.”
You can also channel group discussions with aggressive “Yes, And!” action. You don’t have to let her finish every paragraph. Wait for a pause or the end of a sentence and then speak up and throw the discussion ball to someone else in the group. “Interesting point, Alex! Phil, weren’t you talking about how ___________ leads to _________ last week? Do you think this is the same sort of question?”
That way you’re not interrupting to talk over her, you’re including other people in the conversation. Be strategic and choose someone talkative if you do this, the shy quiet people will not catch your ball and it will go right back to her.
Q3: What are your favorite ice breaker/ getting-to-know-you questions? Spouse and I trying to get out and build a bigger community. I’m not great at spontaneous chat with new people and would love a few more conversation starters to add to my bank beyond the not-great “what do you do?” (She/her/hers)
A3: Commander Logic, enthusiastic connector, has been going with “What are you nerdy about?” of late, and having great results with it. She is also great at asking people for recommendations for local things and getting them talking about their neighborhood. “Do you have a favorite bakery or coffee joint?” “If you ever have out of town guests, what’s a place you love to take them?”
I try to think about both context and subjects that are low stakes but that people have strong opinions about. You’d be surprised at how well “What is your favorite sandwich?” at an event where people are eating, people get very excited about sandwiches.
The “what five objects would someone use to summon you” or “what would create an irresistible You-trap, like, if you walked by this place on the street you’d have to go in and check it out” threads that go around sometimes on social media are pretty good stuff.
I don’t like “Would you rather ____ or _____?” questions or “Let’s generate some debate!” type questions for this stuff, I like questions that get the person to tell me a story about themselves. If you celebrate, what’s the best Halloween costume you ever saw/wore? What was your first ever job? Did you have an imaginary friend when you were a kid? What’s a word that you knew what it meant but never knew how to pronounce? If the universe could give you back one lost item, what would it be? When you were little what did you want to be when you grew up?
Q4: I’m slowly pulling myself out of a Depression Hole where one of the biggest problems has been executive functioning. (Got a therapist, working on the medical side.) My issue is that I have a ton of deep seated shame from a childhood filled with notes sent home for missing homework assignments, getting yelled at for being late, etc. How do I avoid the shame spiral/impostor syndrome around ordinary mistakes? (She/her)
Hi there, friend! When I got diagnosed with ADHD in my early 40s on top of the anxiety & depression, there was a giant period of grieving. What would my life be like if I hadn’t been struggling so long with all the “little things” that add up to so many unfinished “big things” and so much avoidance and disorganization?
You asked how you can avoid the shame spiral/imposter syndrome around ordinary mistakes, and the answer is, you probably can’t avoid/prevent/control your feelings. That’s not a thing we can do, even though it’s a thing that people desperately want to do.
What I think we can try to do (thanks, therapy!) is practice ways of feeling the feelings without letting them sink us. On a certain level, feelings are just information. We can have the feelings, observe the feelings, name the feelings, make a note of the feelings, and make decisions about what, if anything, we want to do about the feelings. We can have compassion for ourselves about them, we can hold space for them, and maybe they don’t have to be the boss of us all the time.
One thing I do is make note of feelings that come up when I’m trying to plan my day or my week. Is a task getting moved day after day without getting finished? What are the feelings about that? It’s not magic, I still struggle with executive function stuff despite medication and therapy, but it does actually help me to know, if I’m avoiding or dreading something, why? And sometimes I’m able to say, hey, Buddy (my internal monologue is addressed as Buddy), it’s obvious that you’re procrastinating about that, so do you actually want to do it or not? What’s going on here? And that’s enough to help me get to the “I will feel better once this is done” place and get that little nugget of momentum and satisfaction from crossing it off the list.
Those narratives built in childhood about how “lazy” I was hurt really bad, and changing the narrative to, I wasn’t lazy, I just had a different brain that made it harder to do certain kinds of things, has been a process. The past affects us, but we can’t undo it, so what do we want to do with today? May your process be healing.
Q5: My friend has a bad habit of complaining to me about stuff that they know stresses me out, pausing mid-rant to say “sorry, I know you don’t like hearing about this stuff” and then continuing right on again. For Reasons I don’t want to shut them down completely, but how can I ask them to A) dial it back and B) stop apologizing when they have no intention of stopping? (she/her/hers)
A5: This is a hard one, because I think at a certain point you are going to have to shut one of these rants down so that the discomfort this person is making you feel is returned to sender. Boundaries have three steps: Deciding where your boundary is, telling the other person where it is, and then enforcing it.
This could mean interrupting one of the rants:
- “I’ve told you I don’t like hearing about this stuff, so, let’s not do this today, ok?”
- “We talked about this. Please find a different sounding board for ____.”
- “I’m sympathetic, but I’m really not up for this today.”
- “I need you to check before you go into download mode, and I need the answer to be actually meaningful, so, not today.”
- “Hashtag gentle reminder, hashtag please vent to someone else about stuff like this and hashtag but please come back when you want to go get ice cream.”
And it could mean, when the fauxpology comes, holding up your hands and saying, “You always apologize, but you never actually stop doing the thing, so, can we not?”
And it could mean that the conversation is cut short and things get very awkward and you feel enormous pressure to just give in and let it happen. But it sounds like you’ve been perfectly clear (they know you don’t like this and they do it anyway), so probably this person needs to feel the full “This is what ‘nope’ feels like” effect at least once. I can’t think of a gentle, more subtle “dial it back” way that you didn’t already try.
Whether you put this into practice or not is up to you, I just want to emphasize: It’s not mean to to tell someone ‘no’ inside a friendship.
Q6: What’s something romantic I can do for my husband serving in Afghanistan? I send him random silly stuff and we can chat and Skype and text. I’m not feeling very creative. We’ve been married nearly 20 years. (I am she/her/hers husband is he/him/his)
A6: Have you and he ever written paper letters to one another? There’s something about a tangible object that you can carry with you, something that can be read and re-read, something written quietly and intentionally to the person that has a magic to it. Maybe find a list of questions like these (not necessarily these exact ones, adapt to your purposes) and trade answers on paper over time? Could you read the same book together and have a long-distance book club (or each pick out a favorite book to assign to the other person to read) and talk about it?
Readers, what kinds of things keep you connected in long distance relationships?
Part 2 is coming.
Hello! Search terms have piled up, let’s do the thing where we answer the search strings people typed in that led them here as if they are questions. Context is missing (by design), so expect some comedy answers in between with the sincere stuff.
Let’s kick things off with a song. Have I used this one before? Who knows? I never don’t want to listen to Bananarama.