Readers! Especially Readers Who Are Also Writers! Here is a blog you might want to know about:
It’s been a long time since we’ve looked into
the abyss… the internet’s unfiltered Id… the words that people type into their search engine windows in order to find this place. Good news, Patreon contributors met the first monthly goal, and this will be coming back as a monthly feature. Shall we dance?
1. “Colleagues surprised I got promoted.”
And they point out their surprise? To you? Depending on my comfort level & closeness with the people in question and the likelihood that they’d have the grace to be embarrassed, I might say something like “Thanks for that astounding vote of confidence, Marian!” to help everyone laugh off the moment. I might also call no attention to it and pretend I didn’t notice, based on the fact that sometimes people have weird reactions to things when they first find out about them and do better when their first reaction can be private.
Now, if they keep bringing it up after that first announcement, like, “I was so surprised they promoted you and not Andy…” – it’s time for a wicked smile and “And yet…here we are!” (+ subject change).
2. “Can I ask neighbours not to be on my drive.”
Yes? “Please don’t use my drive, thank you.”
3. “My mother died without resolving our strained relationship or saying thank you.”
We all die in the middle of something unfinished.That SUCKS and I’m sorry for the loss of your mom and for the loss of the chance to make things right between you. It sucks to be grieving someone when you’re bouncing back and forth between grief and anger and regret.
I hope you will honor your mother’s memory and your own experiences with your mom (the ones that made you need to keep your distance) someday when some more time has gone by. Write her a letter of all the things you wanted to say to her, but didn’t. Write the letter back to yourself that you wish that she would send you, the one where she says, “Thank you” and “I’m sorry” and “I understand.”
Be kind to yourself.
4. “Why would a man tell you he will take you out for coffee once in a while, even after breaking up?”
Maybe this man has some idea that you’ll still be friendly. Only he knows for sure, so before you say yes you might ask him: “Hey, was there something in particular you wanted to talk about over coffee?”
Before you go, ask yourself:
Do you want to go out for coffee?
Do you want to stay in contact, or would you benefit from a clean break?
Do you want to go even if it doesn’t really mean anything special about your future together?
5. “People who care about grad school too much.”
Duuuuuuuude. Seriously. What is it with grad school, being all expensive and intense and competitive and interesting and stuff.
(I have no good answer, sorry. Grad school: It’s absorbing.)
6. “She says, ‘Not now, sorry’ when I want to talk with her.”
My best guess is that she is busy and doesn’t want to talk right now.
Try saying, “Ok, let me know when it’s a good time” and then going and doing something else with your time for a while.
In a good [romance][friendship][artistic collaboration] she’ll come find you when she’s ready.
7. “My brother is an insufferable ass.”
You can’t choose your family. Can you limit the amount of time you spend in his company?
8. “If my boyfriend forces me to change my appearance”
Is this one of those fill-in-the-blank scenarios?
“If my boyfriend forces me to change my appearance, and it is not a matter of life and death because we are on the run from an international spy ring, then I should dump him for being a controlling jerk!”
People who “force” you to change important things about yourself are not on your side, Young Googler. Please love yourself enough to get away from this person.
9. “Why is my boyfriend really aggressive about me wearing makeup?”
The simplest explanation is that he does it because he is a controlling asswipe. See #8. He is literally trying to control your face.
10. If a family member shuns you, do they ever think of you?
Maybe? Sometimes? Without action on their part, it’s hard to know.
11. “I found my grandmother’s sex toys.”
Yes! GET IT, GRANNY!
My best suggestion is: Put them back where you found them and act the way you’d like Nana to act if she stumbled across your sex toys (i.e. “quiet” & ” discreet”).
12. “‘Sorry I can’t date you’ message.”
I like replacing “can’t” with “don’t want to” or “am not interested,” if you feel safe to do so. “Can’t” implies circumstances beyond your control, like, “I would totally date you, but this tornado just spirited me away to the land of Oz, so I can’t.” That little window of ambiguity can send a persistent lover into a tizzy of looking for ruby slippers that will click you back to Kansas when really you just want them to leave you in this Technicolor world where it’s not the Great Depression. Whereas, “It’s nice of you to ask, but I am not interested in dating you” is clearer and more specific.
13. “Are all bad girls confident?”
Marie Claire’s former pillock-in-chief Rich would have it so. I need a better definition of terms. What is a ‘bad girl,’ exactly?
14. “How many times should I invite myself to stay as a house guest?”
This is my personal house-guesting code as a 42-year-old white American lady with a job. It does not have to be your personal house-guesting code.
With a close friend or family member,
Where I have a good history of reciprocity,
And I trust them to say an honest “no” if it’s not a good time or whatever,
And the dates of my travel are pretty well-defined (nobody likes “sometime” hanging over their head) and short (1 night – a few days);
…I may ask once or twice or every now and again. More likely when I know that the hosts have a guest room and a habit of saying “Please come visit, we have a guest room and we’d love for you to stay with us!,” in which case, they have invited me and “inviting myself” is more about suggesting a specific time. Much less likely when there is no guest room or guest bed and I’d be taking up someone’s main living space. Not at all likely when the prospective hosts are brand-new parents of a baby or enmeshed in other big deal life stuff. Definitely not if a suggestion of staying there is met with any hesitation; one may ask “Is it okay if I stay in your guest room for a few days?” but one must not try to convince the hosts.
This was all more fungible when I was 25 and used words like “crash” and traveled more internationally and AirBnB did not exist.
15. “How to ask friends not to invite themselves over?”
“Hey, friend, I love your company, but when it comes to my space, can you wait until I invite you over? Thank you.”
16. “I don’t want to be friends with ex-boyfriends.”
You don’t have to be!
17. “A message to write to a friend to tell some one they are of value to you even if they have gone broke.”
“Hello, friend, I know times are really hard right now. I just wanted to say that you are important to me and I’m hoping things get better for you. Can I fix you dinner sometime soon? I’d love to see your face.”
18. “What is Captain in sex?”
If you’re lucky, there’s a recorder solo.
19. “Should teenage boys have sex toys?”
I’m neither a parent nor a legal expert, but my instincts say, “Why the hell shouldn’t all teenagers have access to information & resources to make themselves feel really really good in their own company?” I wish to hell I had grown up with Scarleteen and a waterproof, adjustable-speed vibrator.
20. “Do therapists want to hear how their former patients are doing?”
People in the helping professions sow a lot of seeds without expecting to see the blossoms, so, I say “yes” if you had a good relationship and the information is conveyed in a medium that doesn’t demand work from them. Think of it the way you’d write to a former teacher you wanted to thank in a short note, like, “Dear Therapist, I just wanted to let you know that things are going better at work thanks to your suggestions for managing my time and anxiety better. I hope all is well with you, thank you again for your help. Sincerely, Your former patient.” If you find yourself generating paragraph upon paragraph of text, maybe make an appointment?
21. “Stop meddling and being a matchmaker!”
Yeah, knock it off, Emma!
22. “Me and boyfriend break up because we never have sex.”
Breakups are HARD, even when they are the right thing to do. I hope you are both happier with a little time and distance, and may your next partner(s) be more compatible with you in that way.
23. “Should it bother me that my husband wants me to party with alcohol & cocaine knowing I have seizures and interactions with medications could be harmful?”
I find it useful to replace the word “should” in talks I have with myself. When we’re talking about feelings or big decisions, what “should” happen is not so helpful. The better question is “what IS happening?”
“Should it bother you…”
DOES it bother you? It sounds like it bothers you. (It bothers me!) And, since you are the sole boss of what substances you put in your body, you are the sole decider of what risks are unacceptable for you. “Husband, I don’t want to ‘party’ with you. I don’t want to have a seizure or a bad interaction with my meds. Please stop asking me.”
24. “My roommate leaves the bathroom door open when he goes to the bathroom and showers.”
“Dude, close the door!” (+ open the window!)
25. How to get your boyfriend to look after himself?
Any answer I give is going to generate an automatic “But it’s more complicated than that!” or “But I love him!” response, and rightly so, but I’m going to talk to my younger right now and let everyone listen in. If it’s not applicable then it’s not applicable.
Hey, Young Jennifer, I’m so sorry, the Time Machine did not get me back here in time to stop you from falling in love with [Hot But Troubled Boy]. I had the dial set for 1990, which is why I have all these catalogues for women’s colleges and a bass guitar in here with me, but I can see that I’m a couple years late.
I know you love Boy. His skin feels like magic and when you touch each other it feels like the microscopic space between you is filled with stardust. He smells like two angels fucking. You can stay up all night talking and fixing the world together. You are unstoppable…except for when he is very stoppable.
Boy has a condition called depression. You have it, too, and you should go and get checked out for that. Where I come from you didn’t figure that out for another 5-7 years, and I can’t help but wonder what would be different for me/us if you knew. Depression doesn’t mean you’re unloveable, it just means that it can take medical help and concentrated effort to manage the condition. When Boy hates himself, and stops going to work or class or washing his clothes or wanting to do anything with you, when he has mood swings and gets dark and mean, when he tells you that he doesn’t deserve you and wants you to go away, and then the next day tells you that he’ll die if you leave him, it’s at least partly a manifestation of an illness. It’s not your fault, it’s not something you are doing wrong or not doing enough of. What that also means is that you cannot love him out of it. You can’t fix him or fix it for him. He’s got to do it himself.
What I know now that you don’t know is that the time you are spending, tidying his space for him, worrying about him, talking to your friends about what to do about him, trying to coax him to eat or shower or go see a movie with you, wondering what he’s thinking about, making sure you always look pretty when you see him, keeping track of his schedule and his deadlines, processing the stuff he says to you in and out of his mood swings, taking care of him, trying to lay your love and your body down into all his cracks and fill them, time spent biting your tongue not wanting to make him sad or angry…this is time that you will never get back. You are stealing these years from yourself and offering them up to him, to no one’s benefit.
I know, you love him. I know.
And I have unfair knowledge, because I know stuff that you can’t know now, that maybe you wouldn’t have ever learned if you didn’t try and fail at this.
But I’m from the future, and if I could tell you what to do right now I’d tell you to have one conversation with him where you ask him to seek help for his troubles and to start being nicer to you. If he does? Great, maybe you can have that love story you’re so sure this is going to be. If he won’t? Especially the part about being nice to you? Then I’d tell you to bail. It’s too late for the women’s colleges, but it’s not too late for the bass. Take it, find some other awesome women, start a terrible punk band, and use all the painful things he’s said to you as material for lyrics. Hold out for someone who is always kind to you, someone who doesn’t need to be fixed or parented.
P.S. In 1997, when your friend I. offers you a chance to work at her internet startup but you’re going to take the job at the non-profit instead? WORK FOR I, FOOL. She’s gonna sell that thing to Yahoo right before the crash in 2000, and you can donate your millions of dollars to the non-profit.
This is Captain Awkward Dot Com Pledge Drive Week, as you know. Ways to contribute:
- You can become a patron at Patreon. At the next funding goal, I release an e-book of columns once every year, free to patrons, a few $ to download for non-patrons. When/if we hit $2000/month, the blog goes ad-free.
- Monthly contributions not your thing? Paypal , Cash.me and Dwolla also work. Whatever’s convenient for you!
Thank you so much for reading and for your generosity. It really makes a material difference in my life.
Blanket statement: Friendships have to be able to withstand boundary-setting and communications that certain behaviors are not cool, like “You are hurting my feelings” or “That thing you did is not okay, could you stop?” If you are always biting your tongue when the other person hurts your feelings, what you have is not a friendship.
(Note: I am girl and use she/her pronouns. Also, I changed all my friends’ names).
So I’ve been having some problems with a friend, Jasper (also female). She’s been snapping at me more than usually, especially over little things ( saying “Your laugh really annoys me” and “Please stop singing. If you can pronounce this, don’t even bother trying to learn it.”). This criticisms have gotten so frequent that I feel like I need to stay completely silent all the time, lest I stand on a landmine.
She also never answering any of my messages, even though she talks with our other friends all the time on Skype. I then have to call her for any confirmations, which she snaps at me for and demands I keep it to texts (which she rarely answers). It got so bad one time, because I was essentially stuck at her house till 9 at night, waiting for an answer to texts. Meanwhile, she had picked up a couple of our buddies and they were hanging out in town, playing Pokemon Go. I thought this would change things, but she would still ignore my texts when I want to plan things.
My friends, Skellington and Steven, have basically told me that this is getting too much. Steven even said, “The last time we hung out with you and Jasper, I felt so awkward. It was like I was only invited just to watch her tear you down.” The only reason why they can’t speak out if because they can’t drive and usually Jasper is their ride.
I started taking measures to distance myself from Jasper, but a part of me really does hope we can reconnect in better, healthier terms. I have blocked her on everything (except her phone number because she never texts me) and I’m not gonna hang with her for awhile. I also started reconnecting with friends I use to have before I got completely absorbed by Jasper. I am building a team me around me (which already consists of my mom, Skellington, and Steven).
So what I really want, Cap, is a script for when I finally confront Jasper. I really do want to connect with her, but I know I need to tell her what she did was not right.I want to try to mend the fences before I have to resort to possibly burning a bridge. Can you help find the words to say to a toxic friend?
You are doing all the right stuff to take care of yourself (minimizing contact with Jasper, prioritizing other friends). Keep doing that thing and maybe time will do its work and let the friendship end of its own accord.
I don’t know that you can “mend fences” with someone who constantly picks at you, not to mention someone who avoids you. It doesn’t sound like she likes you or wants to be friends anymore, I’m sorry. I think the tactic here is to keep ignoring her until/unless she actively seeks you out, at which point you could either try having a big talk along the lines of “Hey, I don’t like how you’ve been treating me, what’s going on with the constant belittling one second and avoiding me the next?” (at which point one or both of you admits that you’re not really feeling the friendship these days) or you could try waiting until she does or says something unkind and then saying “Hey, that’s pretty unkind, could you not?” and seeing how she reacts.
I think the big talk where you confront Jasper is unlikely to have the outcome you want (unless the outcome you want is extreme defensiveness & blame). A better strategy is to call out a specific instance of bad behavior in the moment. Someone you can make peace with is going to say some variant of “You’re right, I’m sorry” and then stop doing the unkind thing. Someone you can’t make peace with is going to explain how you are misinterpreting or exaggerating and how it’s not their fault anyhow. Even if it doesn’t help you right now with Jasper, maybe you could practice this skill a little bit and learn how not to go silent in the face of conflict. One way is to start speaking up more in low-stakes interactions, even if it’s just stating preferences – “Steven, I like that sweater on you!” “No thanks, Skellington, I don’t want anything to eat right now.” “That meeting time won’t work for me, could we do something earlier?” The more you practice, the easier it gets, and the less tongue-tied you’ll be in higher-stakes interactions, like when your supposed “friend” is telling you they are annoyed by your laugh and you can say, “Really? My laugh? Why would you think I want to know about that?”
I have become friends with (Friend), a work colleague, over the last few years while they’ve been getting through a domestic crisis (separation from an abusive partner), through which I have provided some support and advice. Friend’s life is improving gradually professionally as well as personally now, and a few months ago she was promoted to a position of greater responsibility at work.
Unfortunately she has responded to this new position by behaving like a real jerk from time to time – not to me (I’m not in her area), but to people who are under her, and in no position to defend themselves. She will tell me stories about things she’s done to people, machinating against them, yelling at them, and so on. In the most recent one she yelled at someone over the phone at some length, who had made a minor and unintentional error. She tells these stories clearly because she’s proud of herself; she sees herself as standing up to bullies in these situations. She has no idea, as far as I can tell, that she is behaving badly.
I understand how her background in a lengthy abusive relationship would predispose her to be confused about what “standing up for yourself” really looks like, at the same time as it would make her really want to do that. But in fact she is behaving abusively herself, now that she’s got enough power to be able to do so.
I’m never around when these things are happening, to intervene; she tells me later. You could argue that it’s none of my business, but it is my business, in that she is telling me, and in that I am beginning to feel as if I don’t want to be her friend anymore if she’s going to be abusive to people who can’t defend themselves.
What do I say? How do I conduct an intervention here? Or do I slide gracefully into the woodwork and just stop being available to see her?
self-righteous and judgmental church lady
Dear Church Lady,
If you were this person’s supervisor, there would be material for a long talk or series of talks about management styles, how to motivate people, how to communicate when someone has made a mistake, and other “How To Be A Manager” topics. It sounds like she could use some training around all of this stuff, at very least. Perhaps that uncomfortable talk is coming in her near future. Let’s hope, for her direct reports’ sake!
Not being her manager, your reaction can be less about “documenting incidents for HR” or “finding the teachable moment” and more about “being an appalled human being,” for instance:
- “I don’t know how to react to this story; it doesn’t present you in a good light.”
- “Wow, that seems like a really harsh reaction to an innocent mistake by (employee).”
- “Wow, it sounds like you yell at these folks a lot. What’s that about?”
- “Wow, that story is pretty uncomfortable. Why are you telling me this?”
- “Wow, that story is pretty uncomfortable. What does your manager say about how to handle things like that?”
- “Am I missing some context here? It sounds like you are the one who is out of line.”
- “How does (employee) react when you spoke to them that way?”
- “How is it ‘standing up to bullies’ when you are the boss and the one with the power?”
- “Wow, that story is also disturbing. Are you noticing a pattern here? This seems like way too much conflict for something so innocuous/simple.”
I would not bring up her recent personal relationship history or psychology or reasons you think this might be happening. That way lies Extreme Defensiveness Town, Population: There Is No Winning Any Arguments Here. Keep your response focused on the specific story she is telling you and the specific behaviors. Maybe float something like “There has been so much conflict in the stories you’ve been telling me lately. Have you thought about getting some management training or asking your boss to help you lessen the amount of conflict in your department? As your friend, and someone who knows your work well, I think you could use some support/some new tactics/to give people a break/some strategies for keeping your cool.”
If this is how she treats her staff, you’re probably taking a trip to Defensiveness Town anyhow, so your question about fading into the woodwork is on point. Make yourself less available, and when you do see her, disengage from serious topics and inviting confidences & keep your conversations very light. It sounds like your friendship was very helpful to her during a difficult time in her life, but you are no longer wanting to serve as her chief work confidant. Do what you can to steer your conversations away from “Here is the dirt!” to “Seen Ghostbusters yet?”
tl;dr If the person truly is your friend, engage directly with the crappy behaviors and trust that the caring you have for each other and your friend’s innate goodness will carry the day. “Not cool, friend” does not mean “I hate you!”
If they are not your friend (or their “goodness” is particularly “deep down” of late), engage anyway, and take the risk of a conflict that ends the friendship.
In any case, “appalled silence” is not working. It is too easily mistaken for assent.
I am hoping you can give me some scripts and tips regarding an incredibly awkward work trip that is approaching in about a month. I have been with my company for many years, but have obtained a promotion a year ago and am now remotely supervised. My boss also has another employee is in the same office as her, they have worked together longer, and seem to have a tight relationship, whereas I have only met my supervisor face to face three times. My former supervisor always gave me a lot of encouragement and feedback, but since my current supervisor is so far away, and she doesn’t give me much feedback, I feel like I have no read on how she feels about me or if she approves of my work.
My supervisor has worked hard to obtain a scholarship for an amazing multi-day training conference across the country for all three of us. She has also mentioned how important it is to develop relationships as a team during this time. It is possible that my co-worker’s sister, who works in the same field, may join us. My supervisor has let me know that due to funding restrictions, I will definitely be sharing a room with her, and all four of us may have to share a room. My supervisor is aware that I am an introvert and has joked that I should get as much alone time as possible before, since we may be all crammed into one room.
On top of this, I am terrified of flying and this is going to be a long trip and I can’t sleep on planes even with the anti-anxiety prescription I take when I fly. I tend to need more sleep than many people (nine to ten hours), and if I don’t sleep, I often get physically sick. The thought of the exhaustion of being with other people 24/7, being the odd one out when everyone else has established relationships, and trying to establish a professional relationships with everyone has sent my anxiety about this trip through the roof.
So I am asking advice on (1) how to recharge/complete self-care when there might not be any alone time, (2) good scripts to develop professional relationships, and (3) any tips on how to not completely break down physically and emotionally while traveling, since this is a professional trip and I really want to make a good impression. On the bright side, both my supervisor and co-worker seem like genuinely nice, kind human beings, so I expect them to be forgiving, but I still want to remain professional.
Terrified of Trip
Dear Captain Awkward,
I was just fired after less than a year at a toxic job. I was vomiting from anxiety on a semi-regular basis… it was awful.
My team and peers were amazing, but my relationship with my manager was terrible. After months trying to fix it, I began seeing a new psychiatrist and taking new meds just to manage the anxiety that it caused.
The circumstances surrounding my firing are also extremely shady. I feel so traumatized by the experience that the thought of working again fills me with panic. It will be a while before I can rejoin the workforce.
Needless to say, I’m extremely distrustful of Former Manager and have no desire to ever see or interact with him again. I’d still feel that way even if I had quit.
I’ve blocked both him and his SO on LinkedIn/Facebook. However, I’d really like to see my former coworkers again when some of this blows over. They’re awesome and were devastated by my departure. I’ve mentioned the possibility of a get-together and they seem interested, which is exciting!
Hosting an event is perfect: I have control over the attendees, and Former Manager is NOT on the list. But I don’t have any control over events hosted by others, and this fills me with dread. Coworkers are already planning at least one summer event.
I don’t want to flake out on them, but I rampantly avoid confrontational situations and I’m terrified of seeing Former Manager. It’s not a big group, so I can’t fade into the crowd. They also like board games, so “just don’t interact with him!” isn’t an option.
I could try to determine if he’ll be there in advance, but it’s hard to ask without making things weird or divulging inappropriate information. He’s still their manager; if I say I can’t be around him it could sound unprofessional or even impact their work relationship.
So, let’s say I go to an event and he’s there – I can’t give him the cold shoulder. I’m also terrible at doing the “neutral, yet disinterested” treatment. I always think I can, but then my stupid politeness kicks in and I treat the person like an old friend or even smooth over their awkwardness. This happened even when I worked for him.
How can I navigate this situation, particularly since my anxiety here is so fresh and I’m feeling very avoidant? I don’t want to dodge the group completely – I’d like to maintain these relationships – but I’m so afraid that my manager will be there!
Post-Traumatic Job Disorder is a Thing
I’m hooked on your advice as well as comments from the Awkward Army. Now, I need your help.
Let me set the scene. I’ve lived in Dubai, New York, Hong Kong and a lot of other cool places. I love anime (inner geek), talking shit with my friends (very cool, very diverse), and can’t cook if my life depended on it. Pretty average girl (or I like to think of myself as rocking cool!).
But that’s not how everyone sees me. You see, I’m also Muslim. I love my faith, and totally respect everyone else’s beliefs. The thing is, over the years, I’ve been feeling an increasingly hostile attitude. I understand why. Really bad things have been happening. And the media has increasingly painted all Muslims as extremists, that as if we somehow all share this messed up perversion of our ideology. The media doesn’t mention that the victims of most of these terrorist attacks are Muslims, and we hate these $@&#* more than anyone.
I feel like I’m in a position to represent that we’re not all like that – just by being me. When I make friends, they get to know me. That the majority of Muslims are like me. There’s over a billion Muslims.. You never hear about them because there’s nothing to say. So I’m in no way the exception.
I thought that was the cool way to do things. Just be yourself, and at least the circle of people I’m with will see that we’re not like the media reports. If people have questions about what I believe or about the religion, I answer and clarify the wildly inaccurate picture media reports.
In my life, there’s always been questions. But lately, the talk is getting… scarier. Some of the comments from people I know (not directed at me), are crazy racist, and just plain crazy. I’m no shrinking violet, but I feel like confronting people head on won’t change their minds because I come out as defensive (which is often equated to guilty). At the same time, sitting by passively while people say things I thought ended with WWII… not so good either. Sitting on the sidelines back then was sooo not the way to go. Plus in a twisted way, I feel like I have a responsibility to be some sort of spokesperson, since no one ever hears the Muslim perspective (extremists don’t represent our beliefs, terrorism is a crime against humanity, and we’re just normal people – doctors, teachers, geeks, if you cut me do I not bleed normal..)
Down to the question. The other day I was surprised to overhear a colleague of mine, let’s call him John, say all Muslims are terrorists and should be monitored (by overhear I mean sitting two desks down as he had a loud discussion with neighbouring desks.. WTF). John is not alone in his thoughts. John is a cool guy, who has also known me for a while. So I was really surprised that’s what he thinks of me (since I am ONE OF THEM).
What should I do the next time I hear a friend of mine say something along the lines of what Donald Trump has been spouting? My usual response, asking them if they think of me that way (the only Muslim they know), they say OMG OFCOURSE NOT! YOU’RE MY FRIEND! BUT YOU’RE NOT LIKE THEM, YOU’RE NICE!! Is there a script you can suggest?
A cross between Mulan, Princess Jasmine, and Dragonball Z
I’ve been sitting on your letter for an embarrassingly long time because what “script” could I give you to “politely” win over people who want to police and erase your existence and who feel secure enough in those beliefs that they’ll talk about it casually at work in front of you? Sadly, our presidential candidate whose name rhymes with “dump” didn’t set all this hate in motion. My grampa was sending me missives about how we have to “round up all the Muslims and watch them” from the Rancid Old Man Internet 10+ years ago, and my impassioned rebuttals did nothing to stop it or change it. I am angry for you and sad for you and I don’t know what to tell you. The two strategies that come to my mind are 1) what you’re doing:
“Wow, John, you know I am Muslim, right? Is that what you think about me?”
And they say ofcoursenotyouremyfriendyourenotlikethemyourenice…
… and you say, “Well, of course I am nice, and my family are nice, and the 1 billion of us on the planet are also pretty nice, so, could you cool it with the anti-Muslim talk?”
“There are terrible people with vested interests in making us hate each other. Can we try not to do their work for them? I value your friendship, but I can’t hang if you are going to advocate taking away my human rights and the rights of people like me.”
And then you have to watch, in that moment and in all the ones to follow, to see if your friendship means anything to the person. Anything at all. Even if this person still thinks terrible, xenophobic things do they care enough about you to keep a lid on all of it around you, for form’s sake, if nothing else? Or will you now be subject to a torrent of ranting about “political correctness” and increased retaliation from them? Or, worse, find out they were speaking aloud on purpose in order to terrorize you?
Option 2) seems to be “document the crap out of these comments and see if your workplace rules and the laws about ‘hostile workplaces’ will offer you any protection.” That immediately makes John your lifetime enemy and possibly you lose your job or have to leave it and get branded “difficult” and have a hard time finding a new one. Sounds fun.
You can combine the two strategies, like, start with the personal appeal and see if it works, and then if it doesn’t work appeal to authority so that you can have safety where you work, but what if the people in authority are not on your side?
Hateful, violent people test the waters by making cruel “jokes” and other comments to see how others react. They think that everyone secretly thinks just like they do. Your coworkers and your supervisor should be helping you when “John” gets going. “John, really? This is what we’re talking about?” “Wow, that’s offensive, please stop.” “Shocked silence” on their part (if shock is what’s fueling their silence) isn’t the same as resistance. Maybe one thing you could do is to ask people who you know don’t share John’s views to do some of the speaking up and take the pressure off you.
Just know, if you fail, it wasn’t because you used the wrong script or because you aren’t cool and wonderful or human enough.
-and now a brief interlude about historical/current events-
In 1998 I went to Ukraine on a work trip and one of my colleagues took me to an underground gay club there. Private sexual behavior between adults was technically legal in Ukraine after 1991, but any public expression could be classified as “pornographic” and LGBTQ-people in Ukraine were (and are) subject to extreme monitoring and violence by law enforcement and by hate-groups. Queer folks also face(d) employment discrimination, threats of blackmail, the fear of being outed & disowned by family, and as a result many choose to hide their orientation in public. That’s where the clubs came in – no fixed address, renting out halls here and there, this week’s or month’s location spread by word-of-mouth. The one I went to was in an old Soviet “Peoples’ Palace” covered in Socialist Realist murals of burly farm and factory workers sexily riding tractors (perfection, tbh). Each man came to the club with a woman as a date. Once inside, the women grabbed drinks and sat together out of the way at a cluster of tables – playing cards, talking among themselves, sometimes even knitting or doing embroidery while the men danced. If the police or local brownshirt assholes (or both) showed up, a certain folk song would play as a signal, at which time we women were to grab either our dates or the nearest man and immediately start dancing (“Look officer, it’s just our boring folkdance club!”) like lives depended on it. Because maybe they did.
In the meantime, the men danced, packing weeks or months of living into a few moments on the dance floor, dancing like their lives depended on having this space to be free and beautiful and sexual and human. (Because maybe they did).
Letter Writer, your story and the memory of beautiful humans dancing with each other under the shadow of violence are part of the same story. Homophobic slaughter of Latinx club patrons this weekend in Orlando and knee-jerk Islamophobia about the perpetrator are two awful tastes that are bringing all the worst people together. The question for me today isn’t how you can speak up better for your own humanity because you’re already doing that the best you can and you already deserve safety and freedom from hate. The question for me is: How do we who are not the immediate targets of hate because of our identity [create a shield of defensive folk dancers][summon Dumbledore’s Army][push back this tide of normalized bigotry, homophobia, xenophobia]?
Some of it (but not all of it) is about voting and writing and calling elected representatives and pulling the levers of government however we can. Some of it is about protesting – brave people literally putting their bodies and lives on the line for themselves and others in the name of justice and safety. A LOT of it is about organizing. Maybe it’s about running for office ourselves (though don’t read the comments if you follow that link and you like cogent discussion).
Some of it is about speaking up to the people we know when we see something wrong. “Wow, John, really? You think that’s an appropriate work conversation? I’m surprised at you.” “Dad, that opinion is really scary – you can’t be serious.” Take away the fig leaf that “everybody” agrees with these ideas.
Some of it about making art. (And love is love is love is love is love is love is LOVE). And knowing history. And correcting facts – “Refugees are FLEEING terrorism, not causing it.” “Transgender people using bathrooms are not a threat to others, seriously, stop, that is not the point of these bills.” “LET PEOPLE PEE AND POOP IN PEACE, OMG.”
What else is it? How do we protect each other from hate? How do we make it so that everyone is free to dance?
Okay, here’s the tale: I’m two years out of undergrad and was applying to grad schools this past winter, so emailed my senior thesis adviser to ask for a letter of recommendation (he’d already written me one for a fellowship a year ago). He never responded–after a month I checked that he wasn’t on sabbatical, sent another email, and then called his office and left a phone message, and finally figured that his lack of response was, in itself, a response. Fair enough, no one’s obligated to recommend me, but I was a little confused by why he didn’t simply reply and let me know that, which would have given me more time to find a back-up recommendation. But I got into my first choice program, and I really don’t bear any kind of hard feelings.
Here comes the question: he was the faculty sponsor of a club I was very heavily involved with as an undergrad and am still pretty connected to now, and since I’m planning on visiting friends on campus still in said club in the next few years, it seems not unlikely that we’ll bump into each other–if it hadn’t been for this, I would probably have deliberately stopped by his office to say hi. It was a pretty small department, and while I was working on my senior thesis we met once a week and talked about developments in the field, etc., as well as my actual paper.
As a college professor yourself, do you have any insight on how I should handle this? Should I go say hi anyway and just not bring it up? Assume that this means he doesn’t particularly want me to come say hi? Scripts for bumping into him? I get that a student-teacher relationship probably isn’t going to be a friendship of equals, but I would have liked to be friendly, since he’s a fun person and a great teacher, and I would have enjoyed getting to hear his thoughts about my continuing academic work.
-Unrecommended (she/her pronouns)
Next time you visit campus, pop in and say a quick hello to the guy. You’ll probably never get an answer as to why no recommendation and since the need has passed and you met your goal it’s hardly worth pursuing one at this point. There is a greater likelihood that your request fell through the cracks than that he hates your guts. You didn’t do anything wrong, and saying “hello” on your schedule and your terms will let you put this behind you and not spend your whole visit stewing about it or dreading when you run into him. You learned a lot from this person, you’re carrying on in the field, and I think all is (or will soon be) well. You got this!
For students requesting recommendations after some time has passed:
- It’s not a strange request, it’s part of the job. Though if the professor is an adjunct, know that they are writing this for you in on unpaid time and that they might be harder to get a hold of.
- If they say “no,” it’s not necessarily personal: I will say “no” rather than write a lukewarm or negative letter (who has time for that?), I will also say “no” to writing too many letters for the same opportunity.
- In your initial request, say immediately that you are asking for a recommendation and for what (don’t make us guess at what you want). Briefly remind the professor who you are, what class you took with them and when, a little about the work you did then. Give them the “elevator speech” about what you are applying for and why you want to do it. It’s not personal if they don’t remember every little thing about you and your work.
- Be ready to collaborate a little bit. I will sometimes ask students to send me a few bullet-points that they’d like me to include in the letter, or if there’s anything they’d like me to play up or mention specifically. I’ve had profs ask me to write the whole letter and then give it to them to beef up & sign. Writing part of your own letter is awkward (and a tad unethical?) but it’s not uncommon. Bottom line: Help the person help you.
- Send the person all the info for formally addressing the letter – “Please address the letter to Graduate Selection Committee, Department X, University Y, Complete Mailing Address.” And work out all the logistics about confidentiality & submission ahead of time – sometimes it needs to be in a sealed envelope on letter head with a signature over the flap that you collect and mail in with your application, sometimes there’s an online submission process. You need to be knowledgable about how to submit this thing and not make the professor Google it the night before the deadline.
- Give the person lots of lead time and have a backup plan. Also, I would advise telling them you need it about 3 weeks-1 month before you actually need it, so you have a cushion to find a backup plan.
- Send a thank you email and let them know the outcome of your application. (We like to brag on you.)
- If you weren’t the greatest student, own it, but don’t shame-spiral about it. I know that my students are dealing with adjusting to college, big important life stuff, mental health stuff, money stuff, etc. and that how they do in one class is not the whole story of who they are and how they are going to do. Someone who comes back a few years later to say “I was having a really hard time personally when I took your class, and I know I wasn’t always the best student, but here’s what I learned from you and how I applied it. I really turned things around, and now my work now is about x, y, and z,” is telling their teacher a GREAT story. We deal in growth and change, after all.❤
What am I missing, Awkward-demics?