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Relationships

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.

An old timey-sampler that says "Behold the field in which I grow my fuck. Lay thine eyes upon it and see that it is barren."

Literally any excuse to use this image from now on.

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.”

  1. 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” 
  2.  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?”
  3. 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,

I’ve (she/her) been dating my boyfriend (he/him) for one year now, we are both in our late 20s and sadly both still living with our families due to student debt.

For context, we also both have anxiety and he struggles with depression.

It can be very difficult for me to bring up any issues I have with his behaviors, because no matter how small they seem to turn into a big fight because he sees it as me criticizing him. He tells me how unfair it is that i’m always criticizing him when he never criticizes me. He seems to think there are loads of things that I dislike about him and that there is nothing he dislikes about me. Truthfully, I think he’s a wonderful person and a wonderful boyfriend and I tell him that constantly.

It also feels unfair to put me on a pedestal. I for sure do things wrong, I often run late (although due to living situations the burden of transport is always on me).

No matter how gently I approach him he still finds a way to make me an antagonist and then wallows for days (he won’t go out or do anything, he’ll cancel all his plans). I feel like by telling him how I feel about something I am pushing him into depressive moods, and it makes it hard to bring anything up.

Its not as if i’m being overly critical or focusing on the little things. It’s things like him wanting to cancel a date last minute to go play a game with his friends and me trying to say that it makes me feel like i’m not a priority (we have set date nights 1-2 times a week depending on his work schedule, I am very busy and if we don’t have set nights I won’t have any free time to see him). He also tends to respond in extremes “fine then i’ll never try to do anything else on a Tuesday ever again” it makes it really hard to feel as if we’re having a productive conversation.

He also works a part time job in a store while he’s on break from school and I work a full-time job in an office (i’ve graduated). He likes to game with his friends and stay up all night, which I can’t do if I want to be a functioning employee. So when I sleep over at his place (2 nights a week usually) he’ll hop in bed with me for ten minutes and then get up to game all night. He does it because he doesn’t want to feel trapped in bed all night (I get that, I lived with a boyfriend who wouldn’t let me leave the apartment without him and who expected me to go to bed at a certain time and stay there) but often him getting up as I’m falling asleep wakes me back up and makes me feel both a little sad and annoyed (I can sometimes hear him gaming and talking to buddies online although he tries to be quiet, also, is spooning me really that much of a chore?).

I feel as though I can’t talk to him about this without him going off the deep end, I wonder if its best to just stop having sleep overs. I really love him, I just feel as though he takes things so hard that I can’t really trust him with how I feel.

-June Wants to Spoon

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Hi Captain!

As I’ve tried to make better friends with her, I’ve realized that my roommate’s GF is a very negative person. Several times in a conversation, small talk will be shut down with very honest but also very negative responses that make it hard to move the conversation forward. Some examples:

Me: I heard you and your parents are going to [nice restaurant] next week, that’ll be so fun!
Her: It’s actually not very nice there.
Me: Oh, really?
Her: No.

Roommate: I think I’ll start taking Spanish classes.
Me: That’ll be fun! And it will definitely help in your line of work.
Her: I speak 3 languages and it’s never helped me.

A few points:
1) These are conversations that take place, for example, while we’re all sitting around in the den before we all scatter to do separate things. That is, she and I are not hanging out one-on-one or having intentional heart-to-hearts, it’s ‘we’re both/all sitting here, let’s not sit in silence’ vibes.
2) She has apparently told her BF she wishes she were better friends with me, so it’s not that she’s trying to shut me down and I’m missing the hint. I would have stopped trying by now if I didn’t know she apparently wanted to be friends.
3) I recognize that my pattern is to try and put a positive spin on things, and clearly she doesn’t appreciate that… but I have no idea how else to make light small talk, especially when she doesn’t seem to be introducing these negative angles in order to confide in me or something. It just makes the conversation die.

While I do want advice for how to manage this particular friendship better because this person is constantly hanging around my house, I realized that this is also a bigger question, and one I thought you’d be particularly suited to answer because it comes up quite a lot from the opposite side in questions here. What do you do when you’re the person trying to make the small talk that the other person apparently finds annoying or offensive (accepting as a given that they aren’t just trying to make you go away)?

best,
Chatty Cathy (she/her)

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Dear Captain Awkward,

My fiancé and I (male and female, respectively; late 20s) are getting married next year. We are both so happy and in love and so excited to be taking this next step in our relationship. Our issue is that we want to alter some elements of our wedding and are facing judgement from our family and friends. I am admittedly the prototypical liberal feminist who enjoys interrogating materialism, capitalism, and the patriarchy for sport. My partner is easy-going, but he understands my beliefs and has open dialogues with me on a variety of weighted topics. I can admit that most of these wedding-related changes are my ideas, but my partner supports me and understands why I feel so strongly.

I’ve told my family and close friends some of our ideas for the wedding, like:
We don’t want gifts and want folks to donate to a charity on our behalf if they so choose.
We’re not having a full wedding party, but using our siblings instead; my brother will be my “man of honor” and my future sister-in-law will be the “groomswoman”.
I don’t want my father to walk me down the aisle because I think that is too patriarchal. In my mind, it looks as if one man is passing ownership of me to another man. Instead, my parents will walk down the aisle together and I will walk alone.
Our family and friends are often shocked that we’d consider straying from the “traditional” wedding etiquette, like wedding registries and my father walking me down the aisle. We’ve heard from multiple people on multiple occasions “why even have a wedding if it’s not going to be traditional?”. My response so far is to say that this is mine and my partners’ day to celebrate us, so we should be able to have the wedding we want and our friends and family should support us.

I try to be as open minded to suggestions as possible. We’ve gotten feedback on our venue, the date, and even if it should be inside or outside. We’ve heard these suggestions and made adjustments to our plans in the spirit of making our guests comfortable. The suggestions I listed above are more about representing who my partner and I are as a couple, at least in my mind.

For what it’s worth – my partner sticks up for me as best he can, but we’re both at a loss for words. The judgement is coming from both sides of our family/friends…and take from this what you will, but the judgers are primarily female.

As we get deeper into the planning process, I anticipate that I will want to put my personal spin on even more wedding elements, and we will continue to be judged for our choices. Can you either help me put this in perspective, or provide some responses I can say to my family and friends? I don’t think that any of my suggestions so far are that radical, and I struggle seeing other people’s perspective on why our ideas are so strange. Of course this is not the biggest deal in the world, and I know we are lucky to be able to afford a wedding and to have found our partner for life. I want to enjoy the next several months of planning and represent who my partner and I are without judgement.

Feminist Bride in a Patriarchal World

Hi there,

We covered a lot of ground with weddings earlier in the year, but your question is so interesting to me because it’s a case of someone trying to be thoughtful and inclusive and ask for feedback and really discuss things (all lovely qualities) and it’s backfiring all over you. It’s time to bring certain decisions inside to a small internal audience and stop running things by everybody or explaining them.

How do we get there?

Offbeat Bride and A Practical Wedding are going to be your best buds right now.  Most of what you need will be there.

Click for my plan for making the process less argumentative.

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Hello, monthly feature with short questions from patrons continues from the previous chapter.

Q7: I am single in my 40s and have never had a serious long-term partner. I used to think I hadn’t met the right person yet but have recently come to understand that I’m aromantic (and probably demisexual – not ace but I don’t really feel like chasing after sex, either). I don’t know how much of this to share with the world, specifically my late-70s parents who would need the aromantic crash course. Thoughts? (he/him/his)

A7: You know your parents best, so you know how much energy you want to invest and how likely they are to be receptive. You don’t owe them (or the world) the details, on the other hand, they’ve surely noticed by now that you don’t seek long-term romantic attachments. If you do decide to speak with them, maybe that’s the context to use, like, “Parents, I’m sure you’ve noticed that I’ve never been that interested in romantic relationships, I just found out that a lot of people feel this way and there’s a word for us – aromantic – pretty cool, right?” 

You’ve been reading a lot about the topic, so possibly pull together some of the resources that made it easier for you to describe your identity so that if your parents say, “How interesting, I always noticed that about you but didn’t want to pry, tell me more,” you’re prepared and if they say, “What’s that? Kids these days!” you’re also prepared.

As for the world, probably the best thing I can do is ask our readers: Got a favorite community or other resource for aromantic info and peer support? This place seems pretty active and detailed, from what I can tell, but I’m not a member.

Q8: I am coming to terms with the fact that my boundaries are… not great. Being a Ravenclaw, my first instinct is to seek out books. I found the seminal BOUNDARIES by Cloud & Townsend, and while it confirmed that yep, boundary problems abound, this book is a terrible fit for me because I have a lot of trauma around religion and every other sentence is a Bible quote. Can anyone recommend other great boundary books? (She/Her)

A8: Who wants to recommend some non-religious books about boundaries?

Q9: I love my wonderful boyfriend so much and find most of his quirks delightful. But his breathing irritates me a lot. When we’re resting on the couch or in bed, he holds his breath for long periods of time and then lets it out really loudly. When we’re cuddling, he breathes in my face and I have no air to breathe. We’ve talked about it but he often doesn’t realize he’s doing it. Any ideas? (She/her/hers)

A9: There’s no good way to tell someone, “You breathe wrong,” but I do have some ideas.

First, if your boyfriend isn’t already seeing a doctor about this, it’s time. Habitually holding the breath can be a stress reaction, it can also be a sign of a medical condition (apnea, sleep and other kinds, for one example). We can’t & won’t diagnose strangers via blogging (fortunately you have a working search engine and can look up specific possibilities and symptoms in detail) so I’ll just say as someone who was diagnosed with asthma as an adult specifically because a partner said, “You’re breathing weird, I’m worried about you (& annoyed), please get it looked at.” He was right, I had developed odd, subconscious, habitual workarounds to try to control coughing and get enough air and it took someone else being around all the time to notice. Your script can be some version of “Hey, this breathing thing might not just be a quirk, so can you please make a doctor appointment and at least rule out the prospect of something serious?” 

In the meantime, look for cuddle positions where he’s not breathing in your face (big spoon, little spoon?). If he can’t control whatever this is or he always forgets, you can remember and take steps to make sure you can always breathe. It won’t be a mystery as to why, he knows why, flip over when you need to so that you can still be close and minimize face-to-face time while he gets checked out. Hopefully he can get some answers and both of you can get some relief.

Q10: Last year, my sister was killed in a very public accident. I’ve been struggling with how to tell friends and acquaintances that I speak to intermittently what happened. I don’t know how to bring it up, and get emotional when I do. Can you give me some scripts to follow so I can explain the situation and (maybe) not fall apart while doing so? Thank you so much. (she/her/hers)

A10: Oh, how awful, I’m so sorry! The loss of your sister + the newsworthiness (constant reminders + people’s need to speculate) must have been a special kind of hell.

I always fall back on two strategies for communicating bad news that I’m nervous or stressed about sharing.

First, it’s okay to use email, text, social media, etc. and share the news before any planned hangouts, and tell people exactly what you told us:

“Friend, you may not have heard this, but since we saw each other last, my sister was killed in [incident]. I get very emotional when I talk about it and I never know how to bring it up, so I thought I’d send you a note before we [have drinks][go birdwatching][resume our opera subscription] this week so you’ll understand if the ‘So, what’s new with you?’ part of our conversation gets a little messy.  I’m really looking forward to seeing you and catching up.”

You could do this one-on-one, you could do this in batches, or all at once, whatever works for you. Ideally, you’ll feel better not dreading having to deliver the news in person, and your friends and acquaintances will appreciate knowing that this huge thing happened to you and having a minute to [privately react][privately Google what happened and refresh their memories/satisfy curiosities][privately react again] before you see each other.

Second, enlist the connectors/planners/hosts/organizers in your social and professional groups to spread the word for you. The kind of people who take it upon themselves to organize a book club or a college reunion or networking event often see keeping up with everyone’s news as part of the role, you can absolutely message them or call them up and ask for their help spreading the word. Maybe something like:

“Hi [Nice Person], I hope you’re well. Can I ask for your help with an awkward task?

You may or may not have heard the news, but I  lost my sister in an accident last year. As I emerge from just being with my family, I’m realizing that a lot of people don’t know, and I have this recurring problem of having to break the news again and again. I’m looking forward to catching up with all of you at [upcoming event], so would you be willing to quietly spread the news of what happened for me before we all get together?

Then tell people what you want them to do/not do about your news. For example:

“I’m looking forward to [discussing the book][rehearsing the play][building the marketing plan for the North East region][registering new voters] and hearing what everyone’s been up to, and it would really ease my mind if I know every “so what’s new with you” conversation won’t be a rehash of events and that people won’t be surprised if I’m a little down or easily flustered. Thank you.”

You’re going to get some “I’m so sorry,” and shoulder pats and hugs when you do see people, but this way hopefully every time you run into people it won’t be a Run, Lola Run! or Groundhog Day-style montage of surprise and grief.

Q11: Hi Captain, here’s my question: I am Childfree by Choice, and I used to think kids just stressed me the fuck out. Turns out I was mistaken – I’m quite comfortable in situations with babies/kids, where their adults are supervising them well, and I know the boundaries about how and when I should intervene if I’ve noticed something unsafe before the other adults have. It’s the more ambiguous situations that stress me out. So like, if a crawling baby is making a beeline for something dangerous and I’m the first one to notice, I am a-OK with going over and picking the baby up, distracting them, and pointing them another direction. That’s my duty as a friend or auntie.

But with bigger kids, especially if it’s clear that their caregivers are aware of the situation but not responding they way I think they should be, that really stresses me out. Like when there’s roughhousing that is getting mean and the smaller kid isn’t enjoying it anymore, or some kind of play that’s pretty much guaranteed to end up with somebody getting hurt, and the caregivers are just giving half-assed verbal warnings and not following up when they’re ignored. But they’re not my kids and I’m just a friend or relative of the parents, so my impulse to physically wade in, tuck a child under my arm like a bad kitty, and remove them from the situation, is probably unwelcome. What is the correct course of action in a situation like that?

A11: I would say, mostly, if the parents/caregivers are nearby/available and the kids aren’t coming to them for adjudication or comfort and it’s not a “you are seriously going to injure yourselves/each other or break something expensive” situation, grabbing & tucking the child like a football is going to be overkill. From my Not-A-Parent observation deck, when there’s an adults-and-kids-who-aren’t-toddlers-anymore gathering going on, there are some skills being learned and practiced on both sides:

  1. Kids are learning to play together and have some autonomy without coming to adults every five minutes, and to self-soothe and self-regulate if they don’t enjoy something.
  2. Parents are learning to find balance. What’s the right mix of socializing with fellow adults, keeping an eye on kids, but also letting everybody have a little space?The “correct” amount of supervision is always in flux. If something bad does happen, there will always, always, always be a subtext of “why wasn’t somebody watching them more closely” but like, sometimes you can be RIGHT THERE and the kid can still shove a nickel up her nose or decide that she can fly.

As a Not-Their Parents observer, there is no “the” correct course of action but there are a few strategies, which I’m adapting from “bystander intervention” training, where the emphasis is on de-escalating difficult situations while still respecting everyone’s autonomy, often expressed as “D’s” (3 Ds, 4 Ds, depends on who you ask):

  1. Direct: Your scoop-up-a-kid instinct would be classified as direct intervention, as would telling the aggressors to knock it off. A matter-of-fact reminder of what you want them to do (“Hey, Buddy, let’s use our inside voices and keep our feet off the furniture, thanks”) (All kids and pets are addressed as Buddy) can work better than lots of non-specific “Quiet down!” reminders.
  2. Distract: If you do intervene, don’t necessarily do it by “rescuing” the smaller kid or admonishing the bigger kids, jump in with a distraction instead. Ask a question, show them something cool on your phone, get them to help you with a task. It’s part of bystander intervention generally, where ‘confronting’ people is risky (and can escalate a bad situation), but engaging the target in friendly conversation communicates ‘you aren’t alone, there’s someone here to catch you if you fall.’
  3. Delegate: Get a parent. “Are they allowed to jump on that?” “Hey, I think that the fun screaming might have turned into the not-fun kind.” “If we’re every hanging out and I see some roughhousing that crosses a line, or some of the kids being mean, would you like me to come get you or jump in there myself?” It’s okay to be selective about who you ask and how you ask, if you know that certain friends are easily riled or take questions like this as implied criticisms, you’re the best judge of how likely someone is to hear you. Also, turf matters: In your house, or where you are the host, it’s okay to be more active (“Please don’t touch that/jump on that/eat that/open that/Please use inside voices so the neighbors can’t hear us/Don’t pick up the cat she doesn’t like it,” etc.) Think of it as communicating “Party Rules” vs. “Correcting People’s Parenting.”
  4. Delay: Kids (like kittens) can get pretty rough in short bursts and be totally chaotic and then snap back to being best buds in an instant. Sometimes you can’t prevent whatever it is, but it’s okay to hang back, let it resolve itself and check in with the kid who was on the bottom of the pile, “How are you doing, Buddy? Wanna come sit by me?” If the kid was really upset by something, give them the opportunity to tell you about it.

This stuff can be so fraught so again, there’s no one approach. If you get really stressed out by certain friends’ parenting dynamic, maybe take breaks and schedule some adult-only time to give everybody a chance to grow out of whatever “difficult stage” is happening now. It’s okay to enjoy being around children sometimes and also to be stressed out by them sometimes, it’s okay to find some people’s parenting style kinda stressful and wish they’d supervise their kids more closely at gatherings without having any particular obligation to Do Something about it.

Q12: So, how can I (F) respond to the “just relax” I get from guys when they’re being disruptive, and I raise an objection. My two most recent examples: 1) coworkers in the back of the room at a staff meeting, cutting up and being so noisy I couldn’t hear what our boss (the department head!?) was saying up front. “Guys, can you quiet down, please?” “Oh, just relax.” 2) Thumping and banging and screaming and yelling coming from upstairs neighbors. (Sounds like, when I was a kid, would occasionally accompany black eyes and broken bones.) Saw them out in the parking lot, asked, “Everything okay?” Dad got incredibly defensive and, after a shouting argument, muttered, “Just relax.” I thought this was common enough to be a Thing, but I don’t find any discussion of the phenomenon online.

A12: Things I know about the command “Just relax!”

  1. It is often used by people who want to manipulate you into doing something you don’t want to do and people who want to punish you for being right when they know they are in the wrong.
  2. It has never, in the history of the world, made anyone actually relax.
  3. One possible response is a flat “I am relaxed” and then continuing to expect what you expect and need what you need (Workbros to shush already, “I am relaxed, I’m just making sure everyone’s okay, it sounded pretty rowdy last night. Have a great day.”)
  4. When men say it to women, they want us to be quiet and afraid of appearing “shrill,” so another possible response when circumstances warrant is to selectively and strategically show them what EXTREMELY UNRELAXED looks like and then snap back to “Ok, so, what were we talking about? Right, I’m gonna need you to _____.” Neither examples you shared warrant this strategy yet (you don’t want to escalate with scary neighbor), but for habitual offenders who you don’t work with? Sometimes reminding people that they have choices and that you also have choices can snap people into coming correct.
  5. As for the neighbor situation, his defensive reaction is right out of the textbook, so read the bystander intervention stuff up thread and think about de-escalation, especially distraction. This has a nice short summary (probably don’t call the police unless it’s an immediate life-or-death situation, check in with the other parent subtly). You could also talk to a DV resource like LoveIsRespect.org for more guidance.

Thanks for the interesting and challenging questions! We’ll be back with more in about a month.

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)

A1: INTERRUPT!!!!

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.

 

 

 

 

Behind a cut for emotional abuse, misogyny, and discussion of these things as specifically related to recent gun violence and the possibility thereof, which is not what the Letter Writer asked, but definitely something I saw in the question.

I did a giant dump of cat photos for patrons if you need to click on over that way. ❤

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