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Smeagol looking scarily enthusiastic.

If you had met up with your ex that day, this would have been the expression on his face. Still feel guilty?

Hi! This is very sweet, right? But don’t spring it on someone the first or second time you meet them. Friend-date people for a little while and if you’re meant to be friends you will totally figure it out.

Dear Captain Awkward:

I ended my first romantic relationship earlier this year. I’m in my early 20s, still in college. He was 10 years older than me. Long story short, we had met during the previous summer and had been attempting a long distance relationship. We talked constantly. Though he was needy and was borderline smothering me at times, he was sweet and fun. We finally met up again in early spring and everything seemed fine. Shortly after, he decided to tell me that he had slept with two other girls while we were apart. To get them to sleep with him, he told them that he had feelings for them. I was disgusted and called off our relationship. Still wanting to be amicable, I left the door open for a future friendship, but I told him that I needed some time. 

I wish it ended there. After a few months, I contacted him again. In a moment of loneliness and weakness, I wrote him a letter apologizing for cutting it off so abruptly. I also apologized for not being expressive enough-I’m not lovey-dovey and I tend to be shy about expressing my true feelings around men (Somehow, at the time, I felt that I had caused him to cheat on me-which I now realize was HIS decision. I have no control over his actions.) I missed him, and I wrote that I wanted him back in my life. Note that I never expressed any desire for a romantic relationship, and I had previously said that I wanted to be friends in the future.

After a month of casually e-mailing back and forth, he suddenly sent me a text message asking to meet me somewhere near my school. After a few texts back and forth, I found out that he had traveled cross country to see me, without warning. A trip to see me would have been long and costly. I panicked. Clearly, what he was doing was beyond being “friendly”. My entire mind and body seemed to be screaming: “Do.Not.Meet.Him!” I didn’t. I sent him an e-mail to leave me alone, and everything finally ended there.

I never wanted to start a romantic relationship again. I had only wanted to start our friendship over again. Was I leading him on? I’m still beating myself up over this. I hate that I had to hurt him, but at the same time, I don’t want to see him again. I felt that he was trying to pressure me into doing something that I didn’t want to do. He proved that he would always think about his own needs/desires first, not mine. But I still can’t justify my own behavior. Was I in the wrong?

Love Rookie

Dear Love Rookie:

Your former dude mistook your friendly email for a romantic gesture, so he made what he thought was a big romantic gesture in return, except really it was a stalkery gesture. That isn’t about you “leading him on,” that’s about a story he told himself in his head about what you wanted and about what would happen when he showed up. You say you felt like he was trying to pressure you into doing something you didn’t want to do. You felt correctly! He was in fact a “needy & smothering,” high pressure and manipulative guy! Who lies about his feelings to get girls to sleep with him, which constitutes actually “leading someone on!” You learned what he was like the first time you parted ways, and then you tried to give him another chance to be in your life as a friend, and he blew that other chance.

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Dear Captain Awkward,

I’m a 20-something who’s had a hell of a year. I was in an accident earlier this year and am still recuperating: I’ve had three major surgeries and have one more coming up. I just restarted therapy for childhood trauma, and I have moved several times this year due to bad roommate situations. I also have a full-time job as a social worker, specializing in personality disorders and trauma care for homeless adults. I feel like I am handling my life well, but my plate is very full!

One of the things that’s helped me get through this year is my amazing group of friends. I’m very social, and I really lucked out when I found this group of folks. They make me soup after surgery, they help me move, and they are generally really supportive. We frequently go out to bars for board games or casual drinking, host barbecues at our houses, and cook giant brunches.

Often, at these large gatherings, somebody will quietly say to me that they’re having a very hard time, or drop a hint that they’re struggling, or pull me aside in the bathroom and tell me about current problems they’re having. I clearly like being a support to people and have no problem having intense conversations one-on-one, but these occasions seem really inappropriately timed.

I’ve tried the obvious line of “Hey, I really do want to hear about Problem X, but I’m not able to give you my best advice right now. Can we talk about this on Friday over dinner?” While some folks have responded well, a few people have taken this to mean that I never want to talk about anything serious. Some have voiced that, as they have supported me after my accident, the “give and take” of our friendship is out of balance. Also, sometimes somebody will just corner me in the kitchen and start crying, and it seems inappropriate to defer talking to them then.

This problem has been going on for years. My friends sometimes joke that instead of sexy-time pheromones, I emit “TELL ME YOUR FEELINGS” pheromones. I really appreciate that I’m a person that people trust in crisis situations, but I need some time off! How can I better explain to my friends that, while I’m happy to have serious conversations at times, parties should be parties?

Thank you!
Girl, Overworked, Avoids Weird, Awkward Yakking

Dear GOAWAY,

Do you even realize how awesome you are? You have indeed had a hell of a year! You are recovering from childhood trauma, a major accident, and ensuing surgeries; you are working full time in a job that (while I’m sure it’s rewarding, too) has to be emotionally exhausting; home has not been a sanctuary for you for much of that time, yet you are fully prepared to lend a compassionate ear to your friends’ troubles (without playing the one-upmanship, my-troubles-are-bigger-than-your-troubles game)… All you ask is to be able to relax and enjoy yourself at social gatherings, and to save your counseling sessions for other times. You rock! And to answer your unasked question: no, that should not be too much to ask.

The problem isn’t that you aren’t expressing yourself effectively, either. Not only are you setting a very reasonable boundary, you are articulating it pretty much perfectly: “I’d love to help, but I’m not really in the right frame of mind right now, so how about [specified time in the very near future], when I can give you the quality of attention you deserve?” That cannot reasonably be interpreted as a brush off – which is why your more reasonable friends are not giving you guff about it, they’re pulling out their calendars to set up that date and counting themselves lucky to have such a great friend.

No, the problem is that some of your friends’ brains are infected with Entitlement, so that when you say anything other than “Oh dear, you are feeling down? Nevermind how badly I needed to recharge my batteries, let’s find somewhere quiet so you can coopt my social occasion and turn it into a free therapy session!” what they hear is “I am a selfish jerk!”

It’s like the Nice Guy phenomenon: the way a Nice Guy tells the story, there you are, exuding sexy hotness, making him want you. He does nice stuff for you. He brings you soup when you’re recovering from surgery! He helps you move! He has earned some serious Tokens! Yet when he tries to cash them in for some of that sexy hotness, you tell him “Sorry, Tokens aren’t redeemable for sex!” which is totally unfair, means you are a selfish bitch, a user, blah blah blah.

The only difference is that in this case what you’re exuding is kindness, compassion, and professionally trained listening skills, rather than (or perhaps in addition to!) sexy hotness, and that’s what your friends are demanding a piece of. But you are not a Compassion vending machine any more than you are a sex vending machine. You need to be in the mood for that kind of thing, and to feel the connection. And you have a right to say “not right now” for no better reason than that you aren’t feeling it, or that you came to have fun. Going out in public while Kind is no more an invitation to be cornered in the hall for free therapy than going out in public while Female is an invitation to be groped.

(Note: I say “for free therapy” instead of just “to listen to their troubles” because I think part of what’s happening here is something doctors, nurses, lawyers, computer-professionals (and probably others) get all the time: people wanting them to provide professional services for free on personal time. Which is ok if it’s a VERY brief description of a problem requiring only an off-the-top-of-the-head answer, not so ok if it goes on and on.)

Which means the real question is not “what do I say?’ but “How can I enforce this boundary better against the ones who are giving me guff without them getting hurt or mad?” and as always, since that’s about trying to manage their emotions, trying to make them be satisfied with what you are willing to offer when it’s less than what they want, the answer may be that you can’t. You have to know that.

Then again, because there’s at least a chance your friends are not doing the Nice Guy thing on purpose (though yeah, some friends do “kindnesses” to create indebtedness, too), here are a few things worth trying:

(1) Go with the repetition thing. Perfect your preferred wording for the “this is not a good time” mantra, and repeat it pretty much verbatim. It will highlight your willingness to help, and that they are being boorish by insisting you do it this very instant. Feel ok with being increasingly curt about it; people don’t deserve the same level of courtesy when they make you say the same thing over and over.

(2) Try toning down your awesome (especially with the friends who burst into tears and fling themselves at you, or who drop hints about how they’re struggling). Just because you are capable of being the World’s Best Listener doesn’t mean you have to do it every time. It’s all right to “not notice” every plea for attention, or to listen a little, say some “wow, that sucks,” offer to go to the bathroom with them while they splash water on their face, then offer to find their ride (or public-transit buddy)/call a cab, or fob them off on someone who’s closer to them than you are. You are not the only nice person in your circle of friends; someone else can carry the ball sometimes.

(3) With those who explicitly invoke the “I have been there for you, you oooooowe me!” try a little consciousness-raising. “I really appreciate everything you’ve done for me, and I want to be as good a friend to you as you’ve been to me, but I don’t think you realize what you’re asking of me. My job is about listening compassionately to people in very difficult situations, trying to help them find solutions; that’s what I do all day. As rewarding as that is, it is also really emotionally draining. One of the reasons I socialize as much as I do is that I need to recharge my batteries doing stuff that’s just plain fun! That doesn’t mean I’m not willing to listen to your problems – but it does mean that I need that not to be at the expense of the social occasions. That’s like unplugging my phone when it’s at 2% and plugging yours in, when this is my only time to charge it!”

(4) If they keep pushing, hold up a mirror: “Are you saying that if I’m not willing to stop in the middle of a party to give you my undivided attention it makes you wish you had not brought me soup?” “Are you saying that if I won’t give you what you want the second you want it I’m a jerk? Because I’ve been pretty clear I’m willing to listen, just not this instant!”

(5) Work on not feeling guilty. If you try all this stuff and they’re still disgruntled, the problem really is 100% theirs. Don’t let them try to shove it off on you, like the bill for stuff you didn’t order. Their bad feelings are not your responsibility.

Good luck with that,

Alphakitty.

From all of us.

Dear Captain Awkward,

I am a Theater Geek.  I recently got a short term, temporary job teaching Theater to budding Theater Geeks at a university.  My contract is for one semester; I’ll be done here in May.

It’s the tradition at this university to have a party after the closing performance of each production.  Cast, crew, staff and faculty all attend.  Little speeches are made; thank-you gifts are given.  After the cast party for our latest production, the director — a faculty member, and in fact the department head — sent an email to the stage manager (a student) and insisted she forward it to the entire cast and crew.  The email in question expressed the fact that the director was disappointed with his thank-you gift, and felt that the amount of thought and time that went into the gift were insufficient.  The stage manager did as she was instructed, and forwarded the email to everyone.

The stage manager and another student came to me.  They felt uncomfortable.  Embarrassed, and “a little scared.”  They thought the director’s behavior was inappropriate and petty.  They felt someone up the chain of command, namely the director’s boss, should be told.

I told them that I wanted to support them.  That they should document all the emails, responses, and responses to the responses.  That they should tell me right away if anybody threatened violence to anybody or if the situation otherwise escalated.  And that I needed to think about how to proceed.

Captian Awkward, I agree that this director’s behavior was inappropriate.  I think he’s being petty and overly critical.  (A thank-you gift is not a right, dude!)  In my short few months teaching, I’ve leaned that students sometimes disappoint, and I do know how that can suck.  But 1) as the “more adult” person in the situation, it’s my job to suck it up and deal with it and 2) it’s not about me, it’s about them and their education.

My big question is, do I talk to the director about this directly, or do I go over his head to his boss?  And if I talk to him directly, how do I broach the subject?  In essence, this guy is guilty of not behaving like an adult, but he’s easily 20 years my senior.

Furthermore, while my position here is temporary, I would like to teach in a university setting again, someday.  And to make that happen, I’ll need a good reference.  Guess who I’ll need to approach about writing that?

Help me have this oh-so awkward conversation.

~Befuddled Visiting Lecturer in Theater

Dear Befuddled Lecturer:

I have a very cynical answer for you today.

If the director is a full-time professor (did you say he was the Department Chair?) his colleagues and superiors already know that he’s a big jackass crybaby and have decided that they can live with it.

The university has a code of conduct, I imagine, and if the students can show that something in the email violates that code of conduct (if he was acting like a sexually harassing or racist jackass crybaby, for example, or they could make an argument about a hostile learning environment, or if the behavior escalated), they could maybe take the email to his superior – The Dean? – and make a complaint.  Without reading the specific email, the part that stands out to me as being the worst is where he insisted that the stage manager share the email with everyone – she has the biggest claim to an actual grievance.

If there are a ton of documented cases of him acting this way, and a ton of people have made similar complaints, who knows….this could be the straw that gets him….a strongly worded letter about being more polite to students?  Maybe he’d be forced to make some kind of grudging formal apology?

The students would gain a sense of justice done and an enemy for life.

If your name comes into it anywhere, you would also gain an enemy for life.  A petty vindictive shitty emailing enemy for life.  And a reputation for being “difficult to work with.”

This is probably not a hill that you want to die on, young adjunct instructor.

It’s totally unfair and crappy and he is in the wrong, and someone will probably come along and make the argument that if you all let him get away with it, well, that’s how stuff like this is allowed to happen and goddamnit someone has to make a stand!  But honestly, the stakes just aren’t that high and the advantages are few.  It’s not the first time you or your students will meet entitled assholes in show biz (or academia).  I realize you want to make the world a better place for your students and help them speak truth to power.  If they’re up for it, they might get far more impact and far more of a growing/learning experience by responding to the guy directly:  “Hey, we’re so sorry and troubled that you didn’t like your gift, we really valued working with you and certainly didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”

Then the email chain is Him = asshole, Them = polite, direct, and professional.  If he responds rudely or gets vindictive, then they clearly and legitimately have something to take up the grievance chain.  Think of it not as giving in, but as baiting the trap with sweet, sweet honey.  The way to to present it to the students is “You’re right to be upset.  I understand that you want to report this to someone, and you are welcome to do that, but there is a lesson to be had here in handling yourself politely and professionally even when someone is unprofessional and rude.  He only made himself look badyou didn’t do anything wrong, and nothing about his actions reflect on you.”

You did the right thing by asking them to document it, and you are right to be protective of them if things escalate, and I understand the temptation to sock it to a bully and save the day for your nice students, but you did the smart thing by holding off.   The likelihood is that a) This will all blow over soon b) They’d probably get far better justice giving him a mean nickname (May I suggest “Evita?”) and posting it on PassiveAggressiveNotes.com and RateMyProfessors.com (though obviously your students didn’t hear that from you).