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Captain, my Captain!

I’ve looked through the archives, and while you’ve answered similar-ish questions, this one hasn’t come up before, so I’m hoping you can help! I (she/her) work as a freelance editor and am in a fairly privileged position––I have enough clients that I can afford to be somewhat choosy; I’m white and cisgender, so while I certainly object to racist content, it doesn’t actually trigger me when I come across it in the works I’m editing.

However, I’ve been running into more and more works with racist content from new clients, whether stereotyped characters, cultural appropriation, or micro-aggressions in their prose (and I’m *sure* I’m missing problems content-wise). Often times, it’s content that’s hard for me to screen for before taking the job–there’s no easy search for racism in a manuscript, unfortunately–and furthermore, I also know with my relative privilege, I’m better-placed to give feedback that these authors may at least listen to.

What I’m struggling with is these sorts of clients are taking up more and more of my time and mental energy and space. I know I need to find a better way of “screening” clients and balancing the ones who slip through the cracks with the ones I actually enjoy working with, but in the meantime, do you have any script suggestions for telling people that their writing is terribly racist? Alternatively, any scripts for “breaking up” with clients whose works are too terrible for me to work with them in good conscious? (All my contracts have break-up clauses, so that’s not a concern––it’s the giving the criticism part I need help with!)

I don’t want to condone these authors’ works, but I don’t want to be mired down in fixing unfixable content either (especially if the author isn’t inclined to listen regardless!). Since it’s a client-freelancer relationship, I feel the boundaries are different–we can work with each other at will and there’s no HR to report to–so I’m at a loss. Any help would be much appreciated!

– No, Your Book isn’t Misunderstood; It’s Racist

Hi there Not Misunderstood:

DIRECTNESS IS KINDNESS.

Here is my suggestion which I think will cover both “Honest Feedback For Clients” and “Fix This Right Now Or We Have To Break Up” bases. I am writing a blanket script that can be adapted, please use what is useful to you however this works best with your existing process for contracting for edits, ok?

FYI, here are my goals for the proposed script:

  • Directness is kindness. These people NEED to hear this feedback from someone, today you’re the “someone.” They hired you to help them make their book the best it can be, it can’t be the best it can be until this gets fixed, sugarcoating it or avoiding it is unhelpful.
  • Be specific about the nature and scope of the problem to the extent you can. You don’t have to include every detail, find a few particularly telling ones.
  • Make it clear that you cannot work on the project until/unless substantive changes are made. “Can’t you just clean up the text like I hired you to do?” Nope!
  • Strongly disinvite the person from arguing with you about the nature of the feedback – They can fix it or don’t, you’re not touching this again until they do.
  • Direct them somewhere that might actually solve the problem.
  • For now, grant them the fig leaf of “I’m sure this is unintentional, and confidentially between you & an editor is the right time to fix these problems!” which hopefully they will take as the giant gift that it is. For the record, I do not think most or all of the people who write and say racist stuff are doing it unintentionally, but when you are trying to persuade someone to do better, it might help them rise to the occasion if you don’t immediately shame or punish them. If they double-down, argue, counter with abuse of you or try to invoke that One Black Friend Every Racist Definitely Has But Never Actually Listens To, strip that white fragility fig leaf right off and add them to your “Nope, Never Again” list.

And here’s the recommended script, which I imagine delivering as soon as you’ve completed your initial read-through. Write your prospective/new client an email that spells out your feedback about the content, including the problematic content, and the next steps for editing the book, like so:

“Dear [Author],

I’ve completed my initial read of [Your Book] and I want to share my initial feedback and outline next steps for the editing process if we’re going to continue working together.

While some elements of the draft are very strong [mention one or two], I’ve identified some content that needs serious revision before I can commit to another round of edits.

Unfortunately, there are some examples of [common stereotypes][cultural appropriation][outdated language][misuse of dialect][racist, transphobic, homophobic, sexist, ableist tropes or attitudes, and go ahead and use these words, no ‘racially charged’ euphemisms][for fuck’s sake stop redeeming slaveholders and Nazis through the power of luuuuuuurrrrrrveeee] throughout the draft, for example:

[List out some of what you found and briefly spell out what is wrong with it, i.e. “Spirit Animal” is a term that is sacred to specific indigenous religious traditions, a white woman of Swedish descent from Minnesota categorically does not have a spirit animal.]

[OPTIONAL – I’ve tried to flag and highlight problematic passages in the text as I found them], which you can see in the attached draft which I am returning to you. I did not make edits in these passages since changes on this scale would constitute a rewrite of the material, and the issues go deep enough that in my opinion some authorial re-imagining and revision that falls outside my scope is the right fix].

Additionally, while I know enough to spot some potential problems, I am not the right kind of editor to get this where it needs to be, so I must bow out of working on this project further until substantial revisions are made. Many authors choose to work with sensitivity readers for just this reason, if you’re interested I can link you to a few resources.*

I know this was probably not the feedback you were hoping to hear, but I hope you will take this to heart: This has potential to be a wonderful book, you’ve got such strong [worldbuilding][characterization][sense of place][addictive plot][idk think of something you can sincerely compliment and throw it out there!] that I think it is well worth investing some more time in making sure that it finds the widest possible audience and doing due diligence to make sure it is not unintentionally causing harm and making you come across as [racist, homophobic, etc. etc.].

I wish you well with making the necessary changes and I hope you’ll get back in touch when you have a revised draft. [If you don’t actually want this, don’t worry, this is like promising to be friends the second after a breakup, time will tell].

Best wishes,

[Your Sign-off]

Attachments: 1) A document with your draft with my initial highlights and comments. [OPTIONAL, obviously] 2) My invoice for X hours for work completed so far, due [DATE]”[YES, GET PAID FOR WHAT YOU DID SO FAR]

Hopefully that does the trick. People are either going to get it or they won’t, and you’ll know VERY QUICKLY which kind you are dealing with. A person who can sit with feedback like this, realize it is A GIFT meant to HELP them avoid harmful (and reputation-destroying MISTAKES) is someone you can possibly work with in the future.

*Some places you might direct authors:

Edited To Add: You mentioned looking for a new process for screening projects as they come in. I detailed one I used to use for writing screenplay coverage here that might be adaptable. I think you absolutely should spell out, in advance, some stages of how you work and lay out expectations, and one stage can absolutely be something like:

“The right author-editor collaboration requires trust and a large investment of time and energy, so part of my process is making sure that we will be the right fit. For new clients, I do an initial read where I give some initial reactions to story, characters, setting and suggest some starting points for the next round of revisions [spell exactly out what this involves, possibly incl. a basic template & time-frame]. Since this process reflects X hours of work, I charge a non-refundable fee of $$$ [this can be pretty nominal , and it’s also ok to base it on length of submission, so you’re not agreeing to read a freaking dictionary out of hand], payable at the time you submit your manuscript. Should we sign a contract for ongoing editing services, this fee is applied toward the first X hours.”

When you’re first hanging out a shingle, you want lots of clients, right? But when you’re established, you want the right clients, and it’s possible that charging a fee will also encourage people to polish their work as much as possible before investing the $.

A kind reader suggested the following additional language: “Content that reinforces racist stereotypes and oppression may be returned unedited and may be reconsidered for acceptance after significant revisions are made, entirely at the discretion of the editor” that you could include on your website and in your materials.

No comments today I have 10,000 things to do/write/do/write. Hope this helps!

 

Hey Cap,

My mother in law has been out of work for some time and really needs a job, she’s applied to a lot of places and not gotten any calls. She has very specific work experience, work in this field has dried up significantly and is sporadic at best, she still has a mortgage etc. and needs to be working full time, so now she’s applying for jobs that are outside her area of expertise and is struggling to find work as a result. This has been going on for some time and is really weighing on my boyfriend, so to try to help her out he spoke to the manager at his job about hiring her and it’s looking like she’s going to get a job, great news….except I also work there and I’m not happy about it, and I don’t know if I’m being a horrible raging bitch or if I’m justified in this, or maybe it’s a bit of both.

For some background I don’t particularly like my mother in law, she’s a “very nice lady” on the surface but underneath not so nice, she says everything in a sweet voice with a smile but there can be ice in the words, she is very manipulative and plays the victim when she’s called out, she plays woe is me when she doesn’t get her way, she’s just a difficult person, we’ve had some issues over the years, but she doesn’t push me too far anymore as I’ve been quite good at setting my boundaries and sticking to them and boyfriend has gotten and is still getting better at seeing her behavior for what it is.

We get along fine, but I just don’t really like her, never will, I don’t trust her.

My concern about working with her is that she’s very needy and not very good at mixing with people so I worry that she’s going to expect me to be her work friend and to take my breaks with her and that she’s going to be popping into my office for chats etc and I’m not cool with any of that, I don’t want to be her friend and I don’t want my working life changing because she got a job there.

I know that she’s going to play the victim and tell my boyfriend I’m a horrible person because I don’t want to be her friend and I fear that this could cause serious issues for us as a couple.

Am I being really unreasonable?

I need scripts for how to deal with this, I’m blunt by nature and I don’t think bluntness is the best option here, or maybe it is.

I need to know how to tell her no and I also need to know how to explain it to my boyfriend.

Please help!!

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Hello Captain,

Two years ago, a friend paid me to critique her novel because I studied writing and know the publishing industry. I agreed to read three drafts of the work. We did not sign a formal contract.

Then I got the manuscript, and it’s terrible on all levels, from prose to plot. I’ve tried addressing the issues tactfully. I’ve suggested good examples in her genre to emulate. She is unwilling to analyze WHAT makes stories good and apply those lessons. From unrelated conversations I know she doesn’t respect people who think about why they like what they like (i.e. my partner). “They take the fun out of things.” She also thinks “time invested=value to others” regardless of the quality of her efforts.

To date, I have read 1.5 drafts and given one in-person, intensive critique session. I have (unprofessionally) delayed talking with her about the work because I suspected (correctly) that even saying, “I’m sorry, but I’m not finding improvements or good technique,” would upset her. I’ve been there, and I know how much it hurts. However, she tunes out anything she doesn’t want to hear.

In my professional opinion, the manuscript is unpublishable and her attitude/ego will not lead to success.

When I finally was direct, like I would be with a non-friend client, she became upset because in her words, I don’t “like” the work. I’ve explained that it’s not about “liking,” but whether or not the work communicates effectively (It doesn’t). I’ve asked what her ideal outcome is, and how she wants me to handle feedback I think she won’t like. When I did, accused me of not taking the project “seriously,” again, because I don’t “like” it.

I realize that delaying so long has eroded my credibility/professionalism, but I feel like we’re at an impasse. I’ve told her I care and want her to succeed, but I can’t help her do that if I can’t be honest.

At this point, I think the best I can do is offer her a partial refund for the incomplete work, with the latest marked-up manuscript and an apology for the delay, then walk away. I don’t know that our friendship will survive. I’m not sure if I want it to.

How should I resolve this, Captain?

Sincerely,
Never Crossing the Streams Again

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Hello Captain,

I’ve got a few older women in my life who keep talking to me like I’m one of their kids. It’s either unsolicited advice or outright orders in a snotty tone. One of these women volunteers at the same place I do. She orders people around constantly, is generally rude and condescending, and from what I can tell she’s a ‘missing stair’ that people don’t stand up to. She’s not in a position of power, though you wouldn’t know it from how she acts.

I know I do look young but I don’t look that young – and even if I did, I don’t think that’s excuse to treat people the way she does. I’m 34, professional, and the organization has been super happy that I’ve come on board. From what I can tell, she doesn’t know anything about my credentials or my background and she doesn’t care. I’ve heard some stories but I wasn’t prepared to handle it myself. My own mother hasn’t talked to me like that since I was ten. I’ll admit I don’t love being ordered around, and I bristle when people don’t acknowledge the hard work that other people are putting in. From what other staff has said, she’s definitely alienating people with her behavior.

Tonight was the first time that I worked with this woman for a long event, rather than interacting with her at meetings. I’m still relatively new, so I didn’t feel comfortable confronting her. I plan to let the agency know my experience (and that if I didn’t care so much about what they do, I would have left on the spot), but do you have any good scripts for telling her to knock it off without making the situation worse?
Thanks!
Here for the good cause, not your condescending remarks

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Hello everyone! I’ve tweaked the format for short answer question submission (explainer for how it works is here) for these posts to keep the number & scope of responses manageable and to better guard privacy. Here’s this week’s batch of answers. Thanks to all who submitted and helped me try out the new system, I learned a lot.

Q1 Any advice on how to compliment a longtime friend in his late 20s on his intentional emotional growth without sounding condescending? I can tell he’s worked hard in the last year to become more confident, vulnerable, and considerate! So far I’ve said, “I can tell you’re in a really good place,” but I want to honor the work I can tell he’s done, you know? Thanks! (Pronouns: she/her/hers)

A1: I think “I can tell you’re in a really good place” is a wonderful way of putting it, why not leave it there for now? “I’m so glad you’re my friend” or “I’m so proud to be your friend” or “You’re so good at ____” are always in season.

If you want to say something more, try asking a question: “You seem like you’re in such a good place these days. How are you feeling/How are you doing/What are you excited about right now?” If he wants to tell you about some of the changes he’s been making, you can make more specific affirming noises then.

Sorting out our own emotional well-being is its own reward. Your friend is happier. You are happier in his company. Honor his work best by enjoying its fruits!

Q2: Hey Capt.! I recently had to move home with my parents due to financial reasons. And I know that I’m lucky to be able to! But as a late-twenty-something its a bit demoralizing. Not to mention my mother still treats me like a kid. Any tips on keeping my spirits up? Negotiating boundaries (no I will not go to church)? Not feeling like a loser for living at home at nearly 30? Thanks! (Pronouns: she/her/hers)

A2: Hi there! This is probably a good time to remind folks that US culture is really big on the idea that moving away from home and establishing one’s own household is the sole path to becoming a ‘real adult.’ On an individual basis that might be a necessary path for some of us to breathe and thrive (it certainly was for me) but it’s far from universal. Cultural traditions, disability, care-taking, and financial realities keep lots of “real” adults close to home, not to mention that there are people who like living with their parents.

It’s okay if you prefer living away from home, it’s okay to feel upset at having to move back there, it’s okay to want to go back to having your own household again, but freeing yourself from the “I”m such a loser” framework frees others from harmful, often ableist messages, too. If you can’t do it for yourself right now, could you try for the sake of other people? The good news is that you’re already practicing reframing this – “I recently had to move home with my parents due to financial reasons. And I know that I’m lucky to be able to!” – so keep doing that as you tell the story to yourself and others. “I had some financial setbacks, thankfully my parents are able to put me up.” 

There is advice on some more practical concerns in another past post:

“Be nice to your parents.  As weird as it is for you to be home, it’s also weird and awkward for them to have an adult child back in the nest.  Be extra considerate about chores.  Volunteer for things before you are asked.  Cook dinner.  Wash up.  When they give you “helpful” (annoying) advice, say “Thanks, mom, I’ll think about it.”  Even if it’s wrong, you’ll think about it, right?  Don’t pick fights, sulk, or punish them for your circumstances. Thank them for being a port in a storm for you. Take a lot of long walks away from home to give them space and privacy from you.  Make effort to seek out their company and do stuff with them – board games, cards, renting movies, taking a walk after dinner.  Ask them about their days. Treat them like adult humans who you like and not necessary evils.”

It’s harder to treat someone like a kid when they are actively participating in the household like an adult. See if you can mentally convert some of the things that were rules in childhood (like a curfew) into consideration for others (“I won’t be home for dinner tonight and I’ll text if I’ll be later than 11:00 pm.”)

As for church, and other boundaries you want to set, consider how much of setting a boundary is about having confidence in your own integrity and your own needs. You don’t want to go to church, your mom wants you to go, as long as saying “no” won’t jeopardize your immediate housing security (sadly not something everyone can count on), she can ask as many times as she likes and you can say “Mom, thanks for asking, but I don’t want to go to church. I can have lunch ready when you get home, though!” “Mom, I know church is really important to you, and I respect that, but I also know that it’s not for me, so, no thanks! Enjoy the service!” every time. If she yells at you or gets really upset? That’s her choice. You still don’t have to go, and you might be able to go a long way by modeling the behavior you expect in return. 

People often think the next step is to convince her to stop asking, but you can’t control that, and you can’t fix her feelings. What you can do is to be consistent with what you said you’d do (not go to church) and experiment treating this like a recurring caring and friendly invitation that you’re politely declining vs. a primal fight for autonomy (which on some level? It is) and seeing if your mom adjusts with some time. Mine did, I hope yours does too.

Q3. I’m so exhausted all the time, and it feels impossible to get all of my responsibilities done. Whenever I have a free moment, and try to change gears to something relaxing or fun, my partner always seems to be nearby, asking me to grab things for them or take them to a myriad of stores… and by the time I’m done, it’s time for bed. I feel trapped in an endless, exhausting cycle. Pronouns: they/them or he/his. 

A3. Hi there! I must congratulate you. So few words, so many overlapping and interconnected issues, namely:

  1. You’re exhausted all the time,
  2. You have too many responsibilities for the energy & time you have and you’re overwhelmed,
  3. When you do have some down time, your partner jumps in to schedule things and ask for help,
  4. When this happens, you don’t say no.

My suggestions for starting points or processes for addressing the exhaustion/overload piece of this are:

  1. Consider a medical checkup, esp. if exhaustion is new or has grown significantly recently.
  2. Consider tracking where your time goes for the next a week or so, without judgment or attempts to optimize things. DON’T BE FANCY. No shiny new productivity tools or or tips or hacks or apps (how would we even know which one to recommend or apply without knowing what the issue is). I’ve had good luck with a simple grid with days of the week and times of day (downloadable template) and a pencil or pen. Another even simpler way is to end your day by making a list of all the things you did. Nobody’s gotta look at this but you.
  3. Block out 2-3 hours about 2 weeks from now (after data collection) where you can be totally alone and quiet and unreachable. Libraries are good for this. Bring your filled-out grids, some blank ones, some ways to make notes.
  4. What does the data tell you? (Past insights when I’ve tried this:  Commuting and eating take up actual time/I should stop pretending I’m ever going to get up at 6:00 am/My lowest-paid/lowest reward freelance client was taking up way too much time, time to either raise rates or quit)
  5. Consider at 5 -10 possible ways you might be able to address the overall “too much on the plate” situation. Discard anything that smacks of “work smarter, not harder” or beating yourself up for not being able to do everything on your list. Keep wishes & daydreams.
  6. Sort your list. What’s one step you could reasonably take in the next 24 hours? Is anything looking juicy and quittable? What’s the worst thing that could happen if certain tasks remained undone, or got deleted from your workload?
  7. Use a fresh time grid as a planning template for the week ahead, block out obligations and things you want to do. Can you start to see ways some of this could work better? Or maybe everything is still bullshit but you can see the shape of the bullshit a little more clearly? Great! That’s enough for right now. Treat yourself.
  8. See if you can keep this going and check in every two weeks: A free hour, thinking about what you need & want to do in the week ahead, brainstorming actions & next steps, treating yourself. Repeat. My hope is that you’ll slowly regain a sense of control.
  9. Important: Probably nobody is ever going to give you time to think or plan, certainly not most employers, so you’re going to have to wrest it for yourself and guard it carefully against interruptions. People are going to be very quick to offer hacks/tips/tricks (The Pomodoro Method! Habitica! Bullet journaling! Morning pages!) and those can be useful tools but they are not a substitute for an overall process for setting boundaries around your time and giving yourself permission – this 1 hour every week, this 15 minutes at the beginning and end of every workday – to think about your life and how you want and need to live it.
  10. You may want to share your process with your partner, especially as you go, or invite them to try it out, too, but consider focusing on yourself at first, with your own schedule & priorities uppermost.

Now, here are some questions I suggest asking yourself/your partner/the situation:

  • Is your partner able to do these errands alone? If not, what alternatives exist (find a delivery service, ask someone else they know)?
  • What happens if you say “No, I’d rather not do that today, can it wait?” or “I need to close my eyes for half an hour, can I come help you then?” or “Mind handling the shopping on your own today?” Not to argue (“You always jump on me the second I get home!”), but, neutrally, as if this is a perfectly reasonable thing to ask (because it is). If you have a habit of always agreeing to help when your partner asks, is it silly that they’d develop an expectation that asking isn’t a big deal?
  • Because you are so busy in other parts of your life, do you think your partner is trying to cross the streams of spending time with you AND getting all the errands done? What are your partner’s “busy” levels compared to yours? (I can easily imagine a situation where one person coming home from work is ready to wind down for the day and someone who has been home all day is like, “You’re here! Let’s get this party started!” aka “Life with kittens.”)
  • Can you both agree to interrupt that pattern, by setting aside clear blocks of time for errands/household stuff and relaxing/date stuff?

Best of luck in finding a way to be more intentional about how you spend your days and your dates.

Q4: Some neighbours (idk who) have a cat, Bob. He liked to hang in our backyard (stressing our indoor cats to the point of peeing on a bed) until we enclosed it ($$$) Now he sits on the mesh and fights my 14yo cat through it. This week I got close enough to Bob to read their tag + phone number. I didn’t text them at 2am (last fight) What do I say, and when? Pronouns: she/hers

A4: Maybe the next time “Bob” drops by for a fight, you can snap a photo with your phone, or shoot video if you can. Then you could text the number and say “Hello, neighbor, this is [Name] at [Address.] Is this your cat, Bob? He really likes to drop by and bother my cats at night. Any way you can keep him in at night?” 

Recommendations:

  • The first time, wait until the next morning/a decent hour before you text.
  • Keep in mind that this person didn’t know about your expensive problems with Bob before this moment, they don’t have the same buildup of upset feelings. Start friendly, and focus on what is happening NOW and what you would like to happen NOW/IN THE FUTURE.
  • Keep expectations low. You’re probably not getting reimbursed for anything expensive you did to your yard. What you might get is “Can you keep Bob inside at night?” or “Hey, if Bob is being loud/disruptive, howabout I text you and you can come collect him?”
  • This vet I turned up in my Google search had some interesting suggestions.
  • I know nothing about where you live or what laws & rules about animals are like there. You should research the rules where you live and talk to people in your neighborhood. That way, if a direct request to Bob’s person doesn’t work, you can maybe find good next steps.

Moderation Note for this one: I rarely post anything about animals and animal welfare – Nicole Cliffe correctly calls this “the third rail of advice column work”- and this is why: People get very concerned about animals (a fine quality!), and sometimes also get very unrealistic ideas about what it is possible to do in regard to someone else’s animal in a way that crosses over into vigilantism or the fallacy  that the questioner is OBLIGATED to trap/steal/save Bob from his owners (an upsetting quality!). Unfortunately, “Bob” might just be an annoying quirk of this questioner’s neighborhood, and they may not have much recourse. If you’ve successfully convinced a neighbor to be more proactive about a cat situation, tell us about that! Catnapping fantasies or unfounded legal advice: No.

Q5: Whether I’m teaching my college class or explaining board game rules, people often forget small things I’ve already explained. Nbd, shit gets complicated, I clarify the thing if they ask. However, my anxiety spikes when they respond, “BUT YOU NEVER SAID THAT!! HOW WAS I SUPPOSED TO KNOW??” Correcting them seems like punching down, so I just smile and apologize and stress. Do you have any better ways to deal if/when this happens to you? Pronouns: she/her/hers

A5: If you’re pretty sure that you are covering whatever it is adequately, it might help if you think of a strange “BUT YOU NEVER SAID THAT!” reaction (vs. a simple request to repeat or review the information) as someone else’s anxiety (or other feelings-reaction) flaring up at you. Their feelings are real, but that doesn’t mean you caused them, or that their feelings are the primary thing you need to address. What’s happening is more about them than it is about you.

It still feels weird/upsetting in the moment? But maybe knowing/reminding yourself of that can help you get some distance?

In response, you don’t have to correct them, but you certainly can. And you can stop apologizing, which I think is one thing that is stressing you out. Try being very neutral and factual, like, “I did cover that at the beginning, but it’s okay to go over it again. What’s tripping you up?” 

Another thought, teacher-to-teacher: When I get the same student questions a lot, or the same part of the instructions is breaking down for people, it’s usually a sign to either create & make available or edit a written version students can refer to.

Q6: My ex is fine but definitely Ex-For-A-Reason. Occasionally they’ll reconnect and it’s great! Eventually For-A-Reason shows up and I’ll cut contact. This happened recently and I handled it well, but I’m sad to gain/lose that connection again (for good, I’m done playing emotional yo-yo). Logicbrain knows I miss idealized ex, I’m not close to many people, and I’m generally lonely (but working on it!). I did good/regret nothing, but what do I do with feeeeeeeeelings? Pronouns: she/her/hers

A6: There’s no shortcut with feelings, sorry, friend. You feel them for a while, you be nice to yourself, you give it a lot of time and space, you redirect your attention to parts of your life that are satisfying. More detailed instructions here.

Q7: I have a friend that I wish was a small-doses friend, who I instead spend an evening a week with; we take a class together and take the same train home after. I’m getting frustrated with her for invading my space, through no fault of her own. How do I manage my feelings and maintain a friendship with her when I find her annoying sometimes and see her 1000% more than I wish I did? Pronouns: she/her/hers

A7: How long does the class go? I ask because time will take care of this problem pretty soon, right? And when the class is over you can take a break. In the meantime:

  • Who do you like in the class, who makes you look forward to it? Time to quietly branch out, make sure you meet and work with some other people during class time?
  • Make a list of reasons you like this person and a list of things you enjoy talking to her about. On some train rides, ask her about those safe, enjoyable topics. Choose to engage.
  • On other train rides, could you try saying “Hey [friend], it’s been a super long day, I need to put headphones on and tune out on the way home, can we chat next week?” thank her for understanding, and grab some quiet time. Sometimes people need quiet, it’s okay to ask!

Q8: I know you’re married to a great dude after having a not-so-great history with some dudes in the past. Do you have any advice on how to feel okay and safe dating when it seems like every small thing is a red flag and every expression of intimacy is terrifying? I don’t want to override my body’s fear signals but I also don’t want to be alone forever. Already in therapy. Pronouns: she/her/hers

A8: Hi! During the winter in 2012 when Mr. Awkward luckily crossed my path, I was trying to rid myself of certain habits like sleeping with people right away, being afraid to disappoint people, or letting my essential homebody nature and inertia steer the ship too soon.

Chicago winters are harsh, liking a variety of cosy indoor activities isn’t wrong, and yet, I wanted to stop living this Marilyn Hacker poem. I wanted to stop recreating cycles of “Hi, you seem nice and like you can carry on a conversation!” followed by “Let’s imprint on each other sexually!” followed by “Eh, just come over, I made soup!” followed by either “Hey bro, don’t you have your own apartment to go to?” or “Welp, I guess you’re my boyfriend now, I can work with this.” Maybe it was time to change something up.

What I had going for me then:

  • I wasn’t new at online dating – the novelty had definitely worn off, and I had learned from some earlier mistakes.
  • We teach what we need to learn – advising others  here had helped me re-examine my own history in a gentle light and helped me articulate what I wanted.
  • I liked my life, I liked my apartment, I liked my friends, I liked my work, I liked myself, I liked being alone. This empowered me to be very, very picky.

Again, thanks to the writing I did for this site, I did put some pretty specific guardrails in place. Seven years later I can’t say for sure how much was instinct and how much was deliberate, but this is what I tried at the time:

  • Small Doses. I scheduled first dates with new people on weeknights.Why this worked for me:
    • Dates like “Want to grab some tacos after work Tuesday?” kept things centrally located, low-key, and inexpensive. If I’m already out of the house for work, no need to fight inertia or put on a special shirt!
    • “School nights” gave me ironclad reason to wrap things up early, limit or skip drinking altogether, and avoid the whole idea of going home with somebody or inviting them home with me.
    • It kept weekends free for hanging out with friends (who I already knew I liked) or enjoying time alone. If I liked someone enough to want to book up a Saturday, that was good information.
  • Slowing Down. I scheduled first dates few and far between, and after each first date, I tried to give myself some time to decide about whether I wanted another one. For example:
    • At the end of a date, I tried to say stuff like “It was really nice meeting you, thank you for coming out” instead of “Sure, let’s do this again sometime!” so I could sleep on it.
    • Before making another date, I thought about what I wrote in all the dating answers on here: Is this person as cool as my friends? Am I excited to see them again and get to know them better? Was the actual time we spent on the date fun, comfortable, relaxing? Am I at least contemplating [kissing stuff]? Were there any red flags (more on this below)?
    • Unless the prospect of a second date made me want to say a wholehearted “Yay!!!!!!!!” it was a No thank you.” And I straight up cancelled/reversed on some things if I caught myself trying to talk myself into the idea of someone.
    • If I did like someone and want to have a second or third date, I waited a long time before inviting them to my home or doing any home/cooking/cosy OR sexy stuff. Not because that’s bad (cosy evenings at my place are awesome!) but because I personally didn’t want to lapse into that mode of least resistance right away.
  • Safety and Congruence
    • Basic Safety Stuff: I met people in public places that were easy to get myself to and from. I told friends where I was going. I asked people for real names. I did at least a cursory Google search, and left that info with friends, too. I made a Google Voice number to keep my cell number private. I texted my check-in person when I arrived on the date and when I got home.
    • Intermediate Safety Stuff: I gave myself permission to bail pretty immediately if something didn’t feel right, especially if I sensed someone was a jerk or being untruthful.
      • One time a man looked at least 15 years older than his profile photo. Another man had a very different body type than he did in photos. It wasn’t that they were unattractive in person, or that I expected movie stars, but I did expect…congruence? Honesty? Self-awareness? Whatever was going on, it wasn’t my issue to dig into, so I excused myself pretty quickly and sent some extremely awkward “Look, I can’t help but noticing you look really different from your photos. Since you look fine just as you are, I hope you’ll post some recent photos before you try this again! But the discrepancy is so jarring to me, I’m just not comfortable” messages through the app when I got home.
      • Someone whose profile said “divorced” whose story morphed into “I finally told my wife I wanted to separate last week and we are still going to be roommates for a while, is that a problem?” on the actual date? = MARRIED, WHAT YOU ARE IS MARRIED, SIR. I wish that person well, I don’t think they were evil (esp. since they ‘fessed up right away when we met), I know this shit gets complicated and expensive sometimes, but I had made it clear in my profile that I didn’t want to mess with married people or anyone with an ongoing committed romantic/emotional/legal entanglement, and someone who thought they could override that or worm their way around it was not for me. Let me have informed consent, or leave me alone.
    • Sorting “Red Flags”: Dealbreakers vs. Incompatibilities vs. Questions. These are/were some of mine, provided as examples. Yours/other people’s will be different
      • Dealbreakers (Red Flags): Untruthful. Mean to the waitstaff. Brings feature screenplay to our date expecting me to give notes on it. Mansplains my job to me. Takes “no thanks” as an invitation to negotiate: (“Come on, have another drink”). Keeps trying to push the level of intimacy higher than is comfortable, talks explicitly about sex a lot or keeps bring the conversation back there even when I don’t participate or change the subject. Talks during movies. Hipster racism (which is still racism!) or casual misogyny (totes misogyny!). Negs/Backhanded compliments. Handsy, grabby, a space invader.
      • Incompatibilities (Orange Flags): Mistakes first date for therapy session, downloads a ton of sensitive/personal info on me, overshares. Conversation has no flow, I either feel like I’m performing, I’m expected to be the audience, or it’s an interrogation. Explains jokes to me. Is weird about “who pays” – either insists on paying for everything despite me holding out money, or pulls out a calculator. Every story is a rant or complaint. Making plans is difficult, requires way too many texts, person has no suggestions of activities or places to meet, lots of “I don’t know, whatever you want to do is fine!” Crosses the enthusiasm/evangelism line, i.e. If we’re on a date and you like something a lot, it’s probably fun to listen to you talk about it, even if it’s not my thing! But if you start insisting that I must like a thing, too, or telling me how much a thing I like sucks, I will endeavor to never touch any part of your body with any part of my body. Also here? “I’m not attracted to them/just not feeling it, not sure why” and “Our investment/enthusiasm levels are mismatched somehow.” 
      • Questions (Yellow Flags): Only people from their lives they mention are exes/sex partners, no mention of friends or family. Evasive answers to questions like “where did you grow up.” Any serious topic of conversation gets deflected with jokes (which, it takes one to know one, but what are we evading/avoiding?) Gaps in their story, long silences that aren’t comfortable silences.

Dealbreakers/Red Flags meant something about this person was pinging my radar where it comes to safety and/or integrity.  I didn’t want to go out with them again, and I probably would prefer not to see again in this life. As soon as I sent the “hey thanks for coming out, I don’t think we’re a good fit but I hope you meet someone great” message, I tended to block them on the dating app. And, since I had some good friends who were using the site at the same time as me,  I also sent out a few “Hey, watch out for this username, he’s pushy as hell” warnings.

People who seemed to be kind & doing their best but were just incompatible with me got filed as “Nice enough, but not for me!” Someone didn’t have to be a bad person to be a mismatch for me & what I wanted. Realizing this, and putting into practice by saying “No thank you!” to spending more time with people – even when they were very, very nice people, even when I did not want to hurt anyone’s feelings – was an incredibly powerful and healthy realization for me.

If what I had after a date were questions AND I really enthusiastically liked the person, I might give things a little more time. I didn’t need people to be cheerful or have perfect lives, and I was definitely okay with someone being reticent about painful or uncomfortable topics or a little shy (especially when meeting a stranger for the first time)(especially in contrast to people who wanted to dump all their baggage on me). If we had a second date and something still didn’t feel right? I’d know what to do.

I don’t know where to stick this in the bulleted list, but it’s another important lesson of that time: I didn’t try to convert incompatible date-people into friends. New friendships were and are for people who goddamn delight me, where I feel strong connections and enthusiasm, not an awkward dumping ground or collection plate for people I didn’t want to have sex with because I couldn’t bear to say “You’re nice, but no.” 

That’s a lot of text, right? I swear at the time, in practice, it wasn’t that complicated. All these rules/practices were about knowing myself, giving myself permission to want what I really wanted and set boundaries with myself about that.

What happened was:

I went on a bunch of first dates over the course of 6 months or so. Those ranged from “Oof, awkward” to “Eh, fine” to “Whoa, that person is a catch! He’s wonderful! But not my catch!”

I went on no second dates.

Then I went on one great first date.

And a great second date.

And all my guardrails/checks-and-balances were important because they were a reminder to myself to slow down and pay attention.

And they were a reminder to let myself enjoy things, to appreciate how good things could be. Because I felt safe, seen, respected, loved, appreciated. Because things were easy. Because I could be vulnerable. Because things matched.

So I married that one.*

I hope that helps.

Let’s do this again sometime!

 

 

*I realize this makes it sound like we got hitched on the third date. No. We got married about 4 years after we met, though I knew that it was likely/probable within a few months of meeting.

P.S. I wrote some stuff about compatibility around living space/household stuff that fits in with the whole red flags/dating someone new/is this for me? discussion here (#7).

Good morning Captain,

I have a really nice problem that I could use help with, which is: how do I send professional compliments?

I work in a healthcare-adjacent field, which is a pretty tough and thankless job 99% of the time. Because absolutely no one is here for the money, I frequently encounter workers, from my own organisation and others, who go above and beyond their work duties and pull off some truly incredible feats in the name of getting a good result for our clients.

I want to make sure that people are being professionally recognised when they do an amazing job, but I’m not sure how to go about this in a way that’s not boundary-crossing or weird. My own organisation has a clear internal process for passing along feedback about other employees via our team leaders, which is great, but when I encounter awesome people from other organisations, how can I best communicate to their bosses that they are great and valuable employees that should be given All The Money and Praise?

Thanks!

– In Need Of An English-to-Corporate Translation

Dear Corporate-To-English,

For everyone considering doing this: Be only positive in your message about the person, if you have critique or suggestion about the company or their services uses a separate message. Also, consider being non-specific beyond “great service,” especially if you sense that this person’s talents mean they are working around/beyond the company’s red tape, since you don’t want to get them in trouble (or find your sweet deal is subject to extra scrutiny).

With that said, I think there are a few ways I can think of to do this that should be pretty simple & straightforward:

1. The organizations’s general mailbox or contact form from their website.

If they do identify a compliments/complaints/customer feedback person, use that address obviously, but the person who has to fish out whatever’s in the general mailbox has to read a lot of gripes, make their day with a positive note!

“Dear ____, this is just a note to say that Melissa in your Amarillo, TX branch gave me fantastic service today. She is always so friendly and knowledgeable and she makes my job so much easier. Best wishes, Your Name/Job Title/Organization.” 

2. A letter on your company’s letterhead to the company’s CEO or head of customer/client services. 

Are you Kind of a Big Deal? Send something like this (or get your Big Deal Boss to send it) to the other Big Deals:

“Dear _____,

Please accept my thanks for your company’s wonderful service around [issue], especially the diligent work of [person] in [department], whose knowledge/attention to detail/great attitude/problem-solving skills/kindness/thoughtfulness/attention to customer needs makes [Your Company] the first place we turn when we need [X kind of goods/services].

Looking forward to many more years of working together, thank you for having people like [Great Person] on your team!

Sincerely,

Big Deal/Title]”

Something about paper makes it all more official-seeming.

3. Social media. 

“@Company, thank you so much for the wonderful service today, the client services rep in your Gary, Indiana office is a customer service star!”

4. Ask the person you want to praise directly how to do it.

Especially if it’s someone you interact with a lot, through work: “You are doing such a wonderful job, is there any quick way to let your company know how much I appreciate it?” 

5. Do those ridiculous surveys sometimes if you can. 

Not specifically for you & your professional contacts, LW, but in general: When retail/food service workers give you those “fill out a survey and maybe win a prize” spiels with your receipts, or your cable installer, etc. asks you to fill out an online survey about their work, if you loved what they did consider taking two minutes and doing the thing. If the person is asking you about it, there’s a high chance it makes a difference for them.

Other suggestions, readers?