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Dear Captain,

I have a friend that I’ve known since high school (we’re both in our thirties now) and I consider her a good friend. Over the years we’ve gone through phases where we’re more apart and distant (mostly from living in other states or distant parts of the country from each other and only seeing each other a few times a year) and phases where we’re closer. I like talking to her and I like having her in my life, and very soon she’s moving to the town I live in now and we’re both planning on and looking forward to getting together and being closer again.

The thing is, she’s spent the last two years becoming a minister and sometimes when we talk about how our lives are going, it feels like she’s not listening and talking to me as a friend, but as a minister to a congregant or a counselor to someone seeking help; so I find myself not wanting to talk about difficult things in my life, or talking about them in minimizing ways because I don’t want advice, well-meaning and well-trained as it might be. I’m not seeking counseling or guidance or theological insight from her, I just want to talk to my friend and share some of our lives as friends do.

Do you have any scripts for gently asserting the boundary that I want to just talk as friends, that I love her dearly, but that unless I explicitly ask for advice or guidance, I don’t want her to act as my minister or counselor?

Thank you!

–not interested in unsolicited counseling

Dear Not Interested,

Thank YOU for a good question that can be answered quickly. And your last line is a great script if you want to just go with that.

Light-hearted script: “Thanks for the suggestion, most Reverend Friendname, but I want to talk to Just Plain Old Friendname now please.

Additional scripts:

  • “It must be really easy to slip into counseling or advising-mode, given what you do all day, but you’re slipping into it with me a little too readily just now. You know I value your insights, but I’d appreciate it if you’d ask me if I even want advice before offering it.” 
  • “Reminder: Me sharing a situation is not an automatic request for advice/Engage Counselor Mode!”

I think she’ll hear you and will be ultimately glad that you set a boundary and reminded her to relax and be a person when she’s around you. This seems like a good time to say, “Eep, maybe I do this sometimes, if so, Real Life Friends, please tell me to knock it off and I will be very grateful.”

Hi Captain,
I’m wondering if you could give me some advice on dealing with my challenging Mother when I’m going through stressful times.

Right now I’m nearing the end of my Master’s degree, so I’m working long hours, stressed out, and have a lot to do (your posts on graduate life have been very helpful!). And today my Mom calls me to let me know that we’re having my Dad’s birthday dinner tomorrow (the next day). I ask if it could be moved to the weekend (as to give me some time to get a gift, and to just better deal with it in my schedule). She says no, and gives no reason. The dinner will only involve my Mom, my Dad, and me so it’s not a big deal where many people’s schedules have to be accommodated.

This is just typical behaviour for my Mom (my Dad isn’t perfect, but he’s easier to deal with). I’d say she has a lot of narcissistic traits (your recommendation of ‘Will I Ever Be Good Enough’ by Karyl McBride was also very helpful!). She makes everything about herself. I predict if I approach this situation in a reasonable manner, and say something like ‘Could you give me more notice for family events? Especially when you know I’m on deadline?’ it will cause a huge fight where she makes it about herself, and there will be no recognition of my needs.

My usual way of dealing with my mom is 1) emotionally distancing myself from her, and 2) being very passive and going along with whatever she wants to avoid a no-win fight (which is why I am now having dinner with my parents tomorrow night, showing up with no gift, then coming home and writing until God knows what hour to make up the lost time). It would be really great if I could mix in some assertiveness in there!

I don’t want to make things worse between us. And I want to continue having a relationship with my Mom (there are some good things). But I want to be myself much more than I am right now. I feel like I have to chop off parts of myself at the door when I deal with her :/

Thanks so much!

Work in Progress

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Hi there CA and screeners. Long-time reader, first time writer. I’m writing to ask for some advice on how to get my extended family to treat me like an adult.

I’m 21 years old now, about to graduate from college and start my life in the real world and I’m starting to find that my family is still treating me like I’m part of the “younger crowd.” As background, my parents waited until much later than any of their siblings to have kids, so my younger brother and I are both in a weird place where we’re actually closer in age to the next generation than ours (my next oldest cousin is in her 30s, while the next youngest after my brother is 14 now). As an example of what I’m talking about, at Christmas my grandparents have a stocking for every descendent of theirs, all the way down to the youngest great-grandchild, and there are two sets of stocking gifts: the “adult” stockings, which have things like lottery tickets and kitchen utensils, and the “kids” stockings, that have stuffed animals and coloring books. Every year I’ve gotten a kid stocking, which didn’t bother me…until I turned 18…and then last Christmas, when I was 21 and *still* got a kids stocking.

The reason I’ve been thinking about this lately is because my cousin’s wedding is coming up, and I’d really, *really* like it if I got my own invitation to it instead of being lumped in with my parents and brother (maybe even with a +1 but I totally understand if that’s not possible), but I don’t know what to say to the family at large that isn’t rude. My parents treat me like the adult I am, but what do I say to people like my cousins and my grandparents? I’m an adult, I pay taxes, I have a stable romantic relationship, and I’d just like a seat at the big kids’ table these days, you know? Or is it like being a king, where “if you have to say you’re an adult, you’re not an adult?”

Yours in awkwardness,
Sick of Coloring Books

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The Captain's cat, Beadie, on her desk with a fat tail and anime eyes.

“HAI, I HAVE INVITED MYSELF TO YOUR DESK!” – this morning in my house.

Dear Captain Awkward,

I was recently called out for inviting myself over to my friend’s home to show off my new bike. It didn’t occur to me that that was what I was doing, I was just excited, don’t get to see her much, and the bike shop is close to her home.

I have routinely over the last year asked if she were free for me to drop in for a hug when fetching mail (I receive mail in the same building as her office) and that’s seemed fine. The only difference I can tell between this and the bike incident is that it was about a bike and it would be me dropping by her home rather than office.

I already add a fair number of caveats to my speech, my precise meaning often misunderstood. For example, I often add ‘in the (near) future’, when asking if someone would like to get together as a number of people thought I meant right now. I can’t tell if this is a serious enough thing that I should consider a caveat for this type of thing too.

I’m not sure if it’s germane to this issue, but I considered her until about a year ago my best friend. Even before then she’s become increasingly distant and I’ve been getting the impression that if I’m not in her life in a certain way, she doesn’t have space for me.

Regardless, I’m wondering how big a transgression this is- another blog said that inviting your self over to someone’s home is viewed as rude and presumptuous and should only be done seldom with a very, very close friend. Is this something I should be policing in my speech? I used to, when my father called called me on inviting myself over to a classmate’s home for her next birthday (I said let’s do x instead of y next year) when I was 7 or 8. Moreover, I don’t quite understand what I said wrong (I wish I could remember the exact words I used)

I’d appreciate any words of wisdom you can share.

Thanks,

Moderately Confused

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“But I was reading.” Photo by Ash Hernandez, via Cathy De La Cruz (@SadDiego)

Hello Captain!

I have an situation that I don’t think has been discussed: how do you deal with Stranger Mansplainers when you are a lady doing things normally associated with manliness & they can’t fathom how a lady could figure out how to do such things?

For me: I am a lady & I participate in an activity that involves pulling trailers behind trucks. Backing the trailer into a parking space so you can go participate in the actual event is a frequent occurrence. I’m usually at these events by myself & can back up my own trailer, thank you very much. But I frequently encounter dudes who refuse to believe this is the case. I have had them bang on the windows of my truck, yell at me to stop, & block me from backing up my rig, all when I have a completely clear path & am not in danger of hitting anything. I’ve tried the “thank you, but I’m fine” approach but they refuse to move until I follow their directions. Sometimes they tell me to do exactly what I was already doing, other times they want me to follow a completely convoluted path that makes no sense. Even better, they usually follow it up with something along the lines of “if you don’t get hysterical, it’s easy!”

Other than going to the event management, how can I deal with this? It makes even more fun when the Mansplainers have their own rig that they parked like a Picasso painting, but it still sours the event for me. I don’t have any history with these dudes, they’re just total strangers who see a lady driving a truck & trailer and assume incompetence. Please help.

I’ve Been Backing My Own Trailers For A Long Time, Eff Off.

Dear Eff Off,

I think it’s worth reaching out to the organizers with this to see if they can’t send out some kind of safety reminder, like, “Hey, if you offer to help someone back up, and they say they’ve got it, it means they’ve got it. Get out of the way!” Treating it like a safety issue (which it is), rather than a sexism issue (which it also is) is going to have the cleanest chance of getting through.

You could also try a not-moving standoff. Dude won’t move until you take his directions? You won’t move until he gets out of the way.

But the truth of it is: You’re doing everything right already and there is no way to preemptively get these guys to stop acting like jackasses. You can’t control their behavior at all by phrasing things differently. So what remains is to deliver the message very clearly in a way that (hopefully) amuses you.

To do this, first, decline the offers verbally just as you have been. “Thank you, I got this!

If the interrupter persists in standing behind your truck and waving his arms at you, beckon him over, roll down your window, and hand him this flyer from the stack you keep in your glove box.

A photo of Imperator Furiosa from Mad Max Fury Road that says

Prepare for lots of sadface and “I was just TRYING to HELP YOU you are SO RUDE, JEEZ” pouting. Feel no need to smooth it over. No condescending insistence on “helping” complete with condescending “don’t get hysterical” comments? No condescending flyer!

P.S. This comment rules. Consider it.

Hi, Captain and company,

Recently I was reading through your archives and I found a great discussion on how to deal with a parent’s significant other who co-ops all conversations into another round of ‘Who’s right-er?’ with the answer always being “me.” (of course I cannot find that question now to give you context)

You gave some great advice about how to disengage from the conversation, how to change the subject, and how to set boundaries with that person, and I’m wondering if you have any advice on how to take this a step further, with a group discussion where you are not being addressed personally, in which you are one of say, six or so, who does not agree with one person.

Because this all feels very vague and theoretical, let me give you an example:

I am a very liberal person in all aspects of life: political, social, and religious. I am part of an extended family who cares very deeply about these things in a much more conservative way. Most of my family is super cool and can accept that I disagree (while still thinking I’m wrong) and I’ve had good discussions with them about these issues before.

My uncle, however, is mean and loud about it. He says awful, hateful things about our president and social issues and most of the rest of my family lets him talk until he’s done, even though I suspect (and in some cases, know, like with my mother) they do not agree with him or the way he expresses himself. No matter what the group is talking about, he’ll turn it into a discussion of politics, religion, or social issues. As I am writing this I realize that he’s a bit of a missing stair.

I am usually the youngest family member in these conversations, and also a lady person. Leaving the room would mean that I don’t get to spend time with the other family who is there, like my grandparents.

How do I co-opt a conversation from the man who has co-op’ed it in the first place? I’m not as loud as him, nor as pushy, nor as heard in the family, due to my age.

Signed,
There Will Be No Third Term

Dear There Will Be No Third Term,

Hi! Your sign-off made me literally LOL, so, good work there.

I think the old response you are looking for is this one. Or maybe this one.

You’re not the hostess of these gatherings, so you have less standing to say, loudly, “How interesting, Uncle. Cousin, how is your landscaping project going?” and redirect the conversation of the whole table like Ye Dowager Countess of Olde. But one thing you can do is tune him the fuck out on the micro level, by turning to the people sitting close to you and saying, quietly, “Cousin, however did you grow this pumpkin?” or “Grandma, I loved reading about the new church choir in that last letter you sent, how is that going?” and starting up a murmur of side conversations. Do it quietly, so you aren’t challenging your uncle directly , but also rebel by visibly tuning out and physically turning your body away from him while he talks and focusing your attention solely on the person you’re asking.

No lie: It will feel incredibly rude and weird the first time you do it, but no more rude than making the entire group listen to his rants. Think of it as throwing a conversational lifeline to your neighbor. If they pick it up, you two can have a little side conversation. Others may see this and gratefully flock to it. Suddenly the overall subject will be changed, and Uncle will flail, as he will not quite know what happened. If they don’t pick it up, try it again with someone else. You can start small and sort of work your way up to it.

Uncle may attempt to turn the conversation back to himself, and he may pick on you in the process, like “How rude, didn’t you hear that I was talking?” If he just talks louder, or whatever, without picking on you, keep doing what you’re doing without comment. If he makes it about you, this is where the advice to Have The Argument, Already kicks in.

  • “Sorry, Uncle, you seemed to show know sign of stopping, and I really wanted to catch up with Grandma since I’m here for such a short time.”
  • “Wow, Uncle, I wasn’t aware that we’d hired you to lecture us for this gathering. I thought this was a family dinner, and that everyone is allowed to talk.” 
  • “Uncle, I really didn’t feel like arguing with you about politics, so I asked other people at the table to talk quietly about other things.” 
  • “Uncle, I kept waiting for you to come to the end of your point, but then 30 minutes passed, and I wanted to talk to Grandpa while he’s still with us.”

This is one you could deploy in the moment, or one you can ask your parents & grandparents about ahead of time:

  • “I don’t know how everyone else feels about this, but maybe it’s time for a No Politics At The Dinner Table rule. I know I get really fatigued by discussions like that, especially when I get so little time to see you all.” 

Others may be willing to adapt a “no, really, this rule is for everyone!” stance rather than take on your uncle directly. You may get some friction from your family around this, like, you’re the one making it weird. Stay strong and keep trying, little by little! There is *someone* else in that room who is grateful to you and who will pick up your conversational lifelines and throw you lifelines in return.

Finally, when you’re not all at the dinner table together, consider pulling favorite relatives aside and hanging out with them in twos and threes and volunteering for tasks away from the main action. “Let’s go on a nice after-dinner walk.” “We need more milk from the store. Grandma, want to come with me to get some?” “Cousin, want to stay out here with me while I clean the grill?” That way you get some quality time in without anyone having to make a scene.

Readers, what strategies do you have for rescuing a gathering from That Guy or That Lady?

Grumpycat saying "no."

This word makes “yes” possible.

Dear Captain, my Captain,

Lately I have been very grumpy and I would like to stop. 

While I am in a very happy place right now mentally, best I’ve been in a long time, I have found that certain things irritate me more than they reasonably should. Prime examples are my flatmate coming home every day and complaining about her drive and an incompetent colleague. I love her and I know she has a right to whine, but it’s become very repetitive.(Someone in front of her was slow, someone behind her was pushy, and her colleague is useless because ‘something to do with Chemistry that I know nothing about’.) She will usually follow me to my room, lean against the doorframe, and just stay there watching me on my computer and complaining about stuff every once and again. And it irritates me.

I also have a friend who likes to talk about food. I have a history of eating disorders in my family and my circle of friends and I find the most random comments triggering – e.g. “wow I ate so much I feel sick ” after dinner, “I should really eat less/ lose weight” (while simultaneously eating a lot), and “my stomach is so full and fat *pat pat*” after food. But these are not really things I can ask her to stop doing, it’s just small comments!

I don’t know if it’s because of stress at uni lately, or because of some other thing, but I hate being so irritated all the time and I never know how to react to them both without being impolite.

So I guess my question is: do you have any scripts for me to opt out of those kinds of one-sided conversations?

Best wishes,
Grumpycat

Dear Grumpycat:

I’m glad you asked, because I DO have scripts.

First, let’s talk about the idea that these events are annoying you “more than they should.” When you are feeling less overall stress from school, you might in fact be able to better put up with the constant doorlurking from your roommate and the constant diet-talk from your friend. But that doesn’t mean something has to be wrong with you, or overwhelming in other parts of your life, for you to want to set and enforce boundaries in your living space and your relationships. Somehow, many of us have inherited the fallacy that listening to someone endlessly, way past our own comfort level, or listening to talk that is actively harmful to us, without interruption or protest, is the only polite thing to do. I suspect a lot of it is socialization (esp. if one is a female-raised person) and another big bunch of it is mistranslation or misunderstanding of Emily Post’s adage that it is bad manners to point out someone else’s bad manners.

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