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Hello, it’s the monthly feature where patrons of the site can ask short questions.

Q1: Thanks to years of reading your blog I finally learned how to call out -isms when they happen! But now I’m stuck at the next hurdle, where people who get called out are so mortified they go into an over-the-top apology loop and keep it up until the apology gets more annoying than the original transgression. Do you have any scripts for when people go way too hard on the apologies after being corrected? (she/her/hers)

A1: INTERRUPT!!!!

I know, we’re taught that interrupting is always rude & wrong, but honestly, it’s so useful at times, like when you ask someone to stop doing something and they take it as an opportunity to process all of their feelings about whatever it is at you. Thanks, Stu, it was so fun to experience your misogyny at work, now, bonus I get to be your personal sexism therapist, translator, and Interpreter of All Women, ooh goody! So glad we had this talk!

Multiply that by infinity for white people who freak out when we are reminded that a) racism exists and b) racism isn’t a bone in our bodies and isn’t about our personal intentions or goodness. Robin DiAngelo coined the term “white fragility” to describe this phenomenon, and says that the “splutterings,” (extreme defensiveness, shouting, crying, disbelieving people about their lived experiences, compulsively shifting the topic to historical events (politicians who remind everyone “I marched with Dr. King!” when asked about racism now) or unsolicited non sequiturs about how cool we are about race stuff serve a purpose that isn’t just the personal shame of getting something wrong or cognitive dissonance at the magnitude of white supremacy and injustice.

“These splutterings ‘work,’ DiAngelo explains, ‘to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy.’ She finds that the social costs for a black person in awakening the sleeping dragon of white fragility often prove so high that many black people don’t risk pointing out discrimination when they see it. And the expectation of “white solidarity”—white people will forbear from correcting each other’s racial missteps, to preserve the peace—makes genuine allyship elusive. White fragility holds racism in place.”

These overshares, even when the person is sincerely upset and ashamed, have a structural, ritual purpose. Ever ended up apologizing to someone who actually owes you an apology, but when you asked them to stop doing whatever it is that hurt you, they get so upset that you feel bad about saying anything in the first place and pressured to comfort them…about the bad thing…they did… to you? Yeah. Like that. But on a grand, national, and global scale.

So where does that leave us?

If you mess something up, and we all mess up sometimes, I think one good practice is to do whatever we can to not dwell on ourselves in that exact moment. Whatever our intentions were, we said something that hurts. Our feelings of shame and worry that we messed up can be real, but they aren’t THE immediate problem. Being corrected isn’t about our personal epiphany or learning to be a better person (that can wait!), it’s about stopping the harmful behavior with minimum fuss and adverse impact, and making a commitment to get it right going forward. Apologize, correct the behavior, and move on. From this piece on accidentally using the wrong pronouns:(bolding mine):

You are talking about someone who goes by “he/him” pronouns. “She is a great student. I’m sorry, I meant to say he is a great student. He’s been reading all of the assignments very thoroughly and it’s been a pleasure to work with him.” You don’t have to make a big deal out of your mistake or draw a lot of attention to it. You mostly need to fix it. You might have a follow up conversation with the person you referred to incorrectly to apologize or see if there’s something else you can do to correct it moving forward besides doing better. Making it a bigger deal in the moment is not necessarily helpful and could be harmful unless that’s what the person who was incorrectly referred to wants. Depending on the situation, you might be worried that people think you aren’t friendly towards transgender people because you made a mistake, but generally it’s good to avoid making the situation about you and your intent. A good way to show you are friendly is to get it right in the future and to act upon some of the other guidances you may find through this website or other resources.

Critique is an investment in the relationship. If someone is taking the risk of telling you you messed up, it doesn’t mean “YOU ARE THE WORST PERSON WHO EVER LIVED, PLEASE DIE NOW” it means “I care about this and I’m trusting you to get it right.” If you feel awful and embarrassed, that’s normal, just, those feelings are for you to take to your journal or a therapist, not to process in real time with the expectation that the person you offended will hang out and help you do it.

Anyway, dear Querent, here’s your shame-spiral interruption script to adapt into your own words as the situation demands.

“Hey _____, let me interrupt for a second. These conversations are awkward for everyone. I appreciate the apology, and as long as you [do the good thing/stop doing the bad thing] from now on, we’re good.” 

Interrupt. Translate their apology into a promise for better action in the future. Keep Awkwarding.

Q2: I recently joined a beer and philosophy meetup. I enjoy the group and the discussion, except for one person. Her comments are often neither brief nor relevant, with her talking as much as everyone else combined and going on tangents that don’t connect to the topic. She seems to be friends with the organizers and while they’re otherwise great, they don’t seem interested in reining her in; is there anything I can do? (she/her/hers)

A2: Since you’re new and she’s a regular, this is tricky. Almost certainly you’re not alone in feeling as you do about this person, but you don’t know who your allies are and if you complain about her to the wrong folks you will come across as the jerk.

One tactic I might try is suggesting that the big group break into smaller groups for discussion, maybe switch/rotate every 10-15 minutes, or chew on a question in small groups and have each group report back to the big group at the end. “Can we break into smaller groups next time? I love hearing from everyone and talking about the work, and with the big discussion circle we sometimes only get through a few people.” 

You can also channel group discussions with aggressive “Yes, And!” action. You don’t have to let her finish every paragraph. Wait for a pause or the end of a sentence and then speak up and throw the discussion ball to someone else in the group. “Interesting point, Alex! Phil, weren’t you talking about how ___________ leads to _________ last week? Do you think this is the same sort of question?”

That way you’re not interrupting to talk over her, you’re including other people in the conversation. Be strategic and choose someone talkative if you do this, the shy quiet people will not catch your ball and it will go right back to her.

Q3: What are your favorite ice breaker/ getting-to-know-you questions? Spouse and I trying to get out and build a bigger community. I’m not great at spontaneous chat with new people and would love a few more conversation starters to add to my bank beyond the not-great “what do you do?” (She/her/hers)

A3: Commander Logic, enthusiastic connector, has been going with “What are you nerdy about?” of late, and having great results with it. She is also great at asking people for recommendations for local things and getting them talking about their neighborhood. “Do you have a favorite bakery or coffee joint?” “If you ever have out of town guests, what’s a place you love to take them?” 

I try to think about both context and subjects that are low stakes but that people have strong opinions about. You’d be surprised at how well “What is your favorite sandwich?” at an event where people are eating, people get very excited about sandwiches.

The “what five objects would someone use to summon you” or “what would create an irresistible You-trap, like, if you walked by this place on the street you’d have to go in and check it out” threads that go around sometimes on social media are pretty good stuff.

I don’t like “Would you rather ____ or _____?” questions or “Let’s generate some debate!” type questions for this stuff, I like questions that get the person to tell me a story about themselves. If you celebrate, what’s the best Halloween costume you ever saw/wore? What was your first ever job? Did you have an imaginary friend when you were a kid? What’s a word that you knew what it meant but never knew how to pronounce? If the universe could give you back one lost item, what would it be? When you were little what did you want to be when you grew up?

Q4: I’m slowly pulling myself out of a Depression Hole where one of the biggest problems has been executive functioning. (Got a therapist, working on the medical side.) My issue is that I have a ton of deep seated shame from a childhood filled with notes sent home for missing homework assignments, getting yelled at for being late, etc. How do I avoid the shame spiral/impostor syndrome around ordinary mistakes? (She/her)

Hi there, friend! When I got diagnosed with ADHD in my early 40s on top of the anxiety & depression, there was a giant period of grieving. What would my life be like if I hadn’t been struggling so long with all the “little things” that add up to so many unfinished “big things” and so much avoidance and disorganization?

You asked how you can avoid the shame spiral/imposter syndrome around ordinary mistakes, and the answer is, you probably can’t avoid/prevent/control your feelings. That’s not a thing we can do, even though it’s a thing that people desperately want to do.

What I think we can try to do (thanks, therapy!) is practice ways of feeling the feelings without letting them sink us. On a certain level, feelings are just information. We can have the feelings, observe the feelings, name the feelings, make a note of the feelings, and make decisions about what, if anything, we want to do about the feelings. We can have compassion for ourselves about them, we can hold space for them, and maybe they don’t have to be the boss of us all the time.

One thing I do is make note of feelings that come up when I’m trying to plan my day or my week. Is a task getting moved day after day without getting finished? What are the feelings about that? It’s not magic, I still struggle with executive function stuff despite medication and therapy, but it does actually help me to know, if I’m avoiding or dreading something, why? And sometimes I’m able to say, hey, Buddy (my internal monologue is addressed as Buddy), it’s obvious that you’re procrastinating about that, so do you actually want to do it or not? What’s going on here? And that’s enough to help me get to the “I will feel better once this is done” place and get that little nugget of momentum and satisfaction from crossing it off the list.

Those narratives built in childhood about how “lazy” I was hurt really bad, and changing the narrative to, I wasn’t lazy, I just had a different brain that made it harder to do certain kinds of things, has been a process. The past affects us, but we can’t undo it, so what do we want to do with today? May your process be healing.

Q5: My friend has a bad habit of complaining to me about stuff that they know stresses me out, pausing mid-rant to say “sorry, I know you don’t like hearing about this stuff” and then continuing right on again. For Reasons I don’t want to shut them down completely, but how can I ask them to A) dial it back and B) stop apologizing when they have no intention of stopping? (she/her/hers)

A5: This is a hard one, because I think at a certain point you are going to have to shut one of these rants down so that the discomfort this person is making you feel is returned to sender. Boundaries have three steps: Deciding where your boundary is, telling the other person where it is, and then enforcing it.

This could mean interrupting one of the rants:

  • “I’ve told you I don’t like hearing about this stuff, so, let’s not do this today, ok?”
  • “We talked about this. Please find a different sounding board for ____.” 
  • “I’m sympathetic, but I’m really not up for this today.”
  • “I need you to check before you go into download mode, and I need the answer to be actually meaningful, so, not today.”
  • “Hashtag gentle reminder, hashtag please vent to someone else about stuff like this and hashtag but please come back when you want to go get ice cream.” 

And it could mean, when the fauxpology comes, holding up your hands and saying, “You always apologize, but you never actually stop doing the thing, so, can we not?” 

And it could mean that the conversation is cut short and things get very awkward and you feel enormous pressure to just give in and let it happen. But it sounds like you’ve been perfectly clear (they know you don’t like this and they do it anyway), so probably this person needs to feel the full “This is what ‘nope’ feels like” effect at least once. I can’t think of a gentle, more subtle “dial it back” way that you didn’t already try.

Whether you put this into practice or not is up to you, I just want to emphasize: It’s not mean to to tell someone ‘no’ inside a friendship.

Q6: What’s something romantic I can do for my husband serving in Afghanistan? I send him random silly stuff and we can chat and Skype and text. I’m not feeling very creative. We’ve been married nearly 20 years. (I am she/her/hers husband is he/him/his)

A6: Have you and he ever written paper letters to one another? There’s something about a tangible object that you can carry with you, something that can be read and re-read, something written quietly and intentionally to the person that has a magic to it. Maybe find a list of questions like these (not necessarily these exact ones, adapt to your purposes) and trade answers on paper over time? Could you read the same book together and have a long-distance book club (or each pick out a favorite book to assign to the other person to read) and talk about it?

Readers, what kinds of things keep you connected in long distance relationships?

Part 2 is coming.