Join our growing site,
& meet dozens of singles today!

User blogs

Valerie L

If the title doesn’t fully get it across, content warnings for violence, transmisogyny, and general “here there be assholes, ye navigate around them by naming what they do” vibes.

Hello Captain!

I (they/them) am in a relationship with a lovely transfeminine musician & organizer (she/her) who holds a lot of space for very traumatized people, sometimes to her detriment. She has a friend/professional connection, who I shall call Garment (they/them).

I have met Garment twice and they have been nothing but pleasant to me but their reputation precedes them. They are transmisogynistic, they are an alcoholic and very mean when drunk, they have a dark past that they tell people about in great detail on first introduction, and my girlfriend has a permanent scar from where they bit her when she was trying to prevent them from driving drunk. Apparently they made up over the biting incident, but I still don’t trust Garment (and Garment knows I hate them). 

The other night I was spending time at my girlfriend’s with a mutual friend of ours, one I’ve known since before we both transitioned (let’s call her Cindy, she/her). Garment came over to visit and Cindy agreed to stay at theirs later that night. While Garment was out my girlfriend and I warned Cindy extensively of Garment’s past behavior. Cindy stayed over anyway and Garment got drunk, put on a movie about a man cannibalizing women and getting his penis bitten off for it, and said that Cindy only found it off-putting because she’s “not AFAB.” After that they talked about their harrowing history of experiencing sexual violence from men, and complained that my girlfriend lords the biting incident over them but really they could have bitten her much harder. 

Cindy feels horrible and unstable, my girlfriend feels guilty and doesn’t know what to do (I’ve suggested “enact social consequences for this kind of shit” but easier said than done obviously), and I’m trying to curb my judgment at both of them since this is fundamentally Garment’s fault and my girlfriend is just as much a victim of their behavior.  I have no role here but for the fact that I only know them for gleefully mistreating people I care about. Are we doomed to deal with this violent freak forever? Can they be chased away or is my girlfriend doomed to have to constantly warn people of their nonsense?


Norm L. Person 

Dear Norm. L.,

Thanks for your letter. You’re bang on about social consequences being one of the only ways to successfully deal with the Garments of the world. And there are lots of ways to enact and enforce those.

Before I just start singing “There Must Be 50 Ways To Ban Your Biter,” let’s review some terms so everybody reading knows what we’re talking about. The Missing Stair™ as first described by Cliff at The Pervocracy, is a regular in a social circle (kink scene, subculture, friend group, workplace, creative community, activist space, or what have you) who presents a safety hazard due to a history of sketchy behavior, poor boundaries, consent violations, emotional, sexual, and physical abuse, and other kinds of toxic behavior. Unlike Schrödinger’s Jackass (a newcomer who may or may not turn out to be a jerk upon further acquaintance), longtime group members and event organizers in the scene know that the Missing Stair is bad news, but instead of kicking them out, they try to put safeguards around the problem person, like warning newcomers to move around the gaping hole in the staircase instead of through it.

Back to your letter. If I’m understanding events correctly, Cindy is a long-time friend of both you and your girlfriend, but she didn’t know Garment or had not spent significant time with them until everybody met up at your girlfriend’s house the other day. For reasons I cannot currently account for, Cindy planned to stay overnight at Garment’s place, so you and your girlfriend dutifully unfurled the scroll of “Reasons Why Garment Sucks And Should Not Be Trusted,” but Cindy was undeterred.

From there, events unfolded suckily, as advertised. Garment, who sometimes gets so drunk that they bite people, invited Cindy over, got a similar amount of drunk, forced her to watch a film about graphic sexual violence and people who bite people, monologued extensively about sexual violence  and biting people. And who’s “lording” what now? “By the way, the last time I bit someone in real life, I really could have done it much harder.” That’s allllllll on Garment, from where I sit.

Then, after hours of drunk rape history and and drunk remembrance of bites past, Garment blamed their guest’s dismay on…:checks notes:…some bold, inappropriate, and frankly downright TERF-y assumptions about whatever the person who filled out Cindy’s birth certificate glimpsed inside her very first diaper. Sounds fun, and not at all aggressive, ominous, or deliberately threatening!

While I still have many, many, many questions about whose idea was it for Cindy to stay at Garment’s place, you mentioned both doom and social consequences, and it’s probably time to talk about what some of those might look like.

First, Cindy has a very interesting choice right now. She was warned about how much Garment sucks, and after the full Chez Garment experience, she knows firsthand, no Schrödinger about it. So what to do?

If Cindy chooses to shrug off the other night, minimize her own discomfort, and keep subjecting herself to an unkind, uncool, unfunny, unsafe person she dislikes in order to smooth things over for your girlfriend’s sake, then “doom” looks like someday when Cindy’s the one researching “vitamin E or silicone adhesives for bite marks (human)” and unfurling Garment’s Scroll of Warning, Now With Even More Warning for the next shiny new cool person. Doom is when all of you put another layer of metaphorical gaff tape down where the stairs have splintered under the weight of normalizing Garment’s behavior, and hope the next person doesn’t fall in.

But that’s not the only option!  If Cindy decides, nope, never doing that again, she could message Garment and say, “You were so kind to put me up the other night, but I don’t think we’re compatible as friends and I’d prefer not to stay in touch in the future,” and then block every single number, email, and social media profile, and never look back. The social consequence is, people don’t like assholes and might not hang out with you more than once if they think you are one. If Garment gets upset, that’s not Cindy’s problem. Sometimes you meet people who just don’t like you and there’s no pretending that they do, oh well! Not everyone is meant to be friends!

Boundaries work best when direct, specific requests are backed up by consistent actions (consequences) when and if those limits are not respected.

A boundary: “Hi, Norm L. and Girlfriend!  I’ve already told Garment that I don’t think we should be friends, so I figure I’d tell you as well. I loved catching up with you both, and I’d love to do it again sometime, but not if Garment will also be there, so let’s make plans for just us from now on.”

Some consequences:  Decline invitations that also include Garment or take place in environments where Garment is likely to be. Do not explain or negotiate, just automatically RSVP “Another time, perhaps!” and follow up later to plan something else.

Sometimes gentle reminders are necessary. “That sounds great, but you said ‘a couple of people’ are getting together, so I just want to double-check. Is Garment also invited? Oh, in that case, count me out. Uh-huh, I know you care about them, and I hope they have in fact ‘changed a lot,’ but one evening in their company was more than enough for me, and that’s going to be a ‘forever’ rule I’m afraid.”

Make an action plan in case a hangout is already underway and Garment shows up unexpectedly, which doesn’t have to be a big confrontation or scene.“Oh hello, Garment, you’re looking well.”  Politely get up, go the restroom, wait 5 minutes in case it really is a quick errand. If, upon departing the bathroom, Garment’s ass is touching furniture, or their hand is holding a beverage? “Oh, hey, I was just about to get on the road, so I’ll leave you all to it. Have a great night!” Then leave. Don’t explain or negotiate. Everybody knows exactly why. “I had a lovely time, thanks, but it’s time for me to go.”

Once Cindy’s boundary is set at “I don’t spend time with Garment, period,” there’s no need to argue or convince anybody of anything. She’s in control of the situation and can absent herself anytime.

If your lovely girlfriend keeps trying to force the issue, Cindy may need to reconsider how much she wants to stick around in a friendship where tolerating Garment is the price of admission, or where she can’t trust your girlfriend’s word that Garment won’t be there. Your girlfriend undoubtedly has her reasons for wanting to keep Garment in her life. She also has many options for maintaining bilateral, non-Garment relationships with others, same as for her non-asshole friends, since not everyone is destined to hit it off with everybody else. Does your girlfriend want to risk the social consequences of seeing Cindy less or damaging their friendship?

Your girlfriend feels guilty after the other night because on some level she knows that if she routinely inflicts somebody who requires a software license worth of caveats on innocent people, and those people hit “Dismiss” or “I decline,” and she keeps suggesting updates anyway, something’s bound to crash.

So if there’s a doom here, it’s this:  You asked if Garment “can be chased away.” And the answer is, no, not until somebody starts chasing. As long as your girlfriend includes Garment in the spaces she inhabits without setting limits or visiting consequences for bad behavior, Garment will stick to her like gum on the bottom of a shoe. To avoid this doom, your girlfriend can set boundaries:

  • “Garment, you can drink if you want to, but not at my house, and not around me. Go home.” “Garment, you’re not invited, today I made plans with other friends. I’ll see you later.”
  • “Garment, sure, we’ll watch the move you brought, but if we get 15 minutes in and nobody’s enjoying it, we’re watching something else.” [This script brought to you by an awful ex who loved to “surprise” me with “challenging” “material”  like Phantom of the Paradise, Re-animator, and many other things that really, really, REALLY require informed, ongoing, and yes, enthusiastic consent before infliction, and then arguing with me for hours when I didn’t love it. He and Garment would hit it off, is what I’m saying.]
  • “Garment, hahahaha nice offer, but no. After last time, I’m not sending anyone home with you. [New Friend], you’re sleeping on our sofa.”
  • “Garment, let me interrupt you. Now is not the time or place for that story, and you really need to check and make sure people consent before you share graphic or personal stuff.”

And she can enforce them with consequences: If Garment can’t be trusted to take no for an answer or behave, then Garment will be sent packing or not invited in the first place. Garment has choices, and if they want to maintain a friendship with your girlfriend, they can either follow some simple rules or GTFO!

My dear Norm L., I realize that I just typed out a lot of advice for Cindy, who didn’t write to me, and for your girlfriend, who also didn’t write to me, so what about you? I promise I didn’t forget you, I just thought it might be easier for you to ingest all my advice for you if you read it all as advice to Cindy first. Cindy doesn’t have to hang out with Garment if she doesn’t want to. Cindy doesn’t have to pretend that Garment’s behavior is acceptable. Cindy can just leave unpleasant situations anytime she wants to. Fuck yeah, Cindy! Oh, wait.

Cindy’s choices are your choices, too. “Girlfriend, you’re the boss of you, and if Garment is important to you, so be it. But I’m not spending time with them again, so please don’t ask me to.” “Oh, hey Garment, didn’t know you were stopping by! Wait, why are you taking off your coat? Oh, you’re staying. Uh-huh, well, that’s my cue, then. Good night!” 

There’s a double-bind here, the way there always is with bullies. If you stay away from Garment-heavy events and leave rooms whenever they walk into them, then you’re potentially leaving your girlfriend alone with an unsafe person, and Garment technically “wins.” Plus, leaving visits social consequences on your girlfriend, not the obvious problem person, who already knows of your loathing and doesn’t care. Ultimatums carry risk, as in, what if you ask your girlfriend to choose and she doesn’t choose herself/you? So there’s understandably going to be a strong a temptation to stick around and see if you can mitigate the situation, or at least hold your ground, or at least cosplay as an orange safety cone and warn everybody about the gap in the stairs.

You see the problem, right? At some point, somebody has to set a baseline for acceptable behavior and stick to it, or else join the tacit agreement that the Missing Stair may be an asshole, but at least their “our” asshole, and we know how to deal with them so nobody gets hurt. Nobody…except the people who didn’t get the warning in time, but we don’t talk about that, that’s all in the past. Nobody…except the people who silence their self-preservation instincts and erode their own integrity in order to remain in community with abusers. Nobody…except all the people who tend to “freeze” or “fawn” in the face of danger, who are conveniently* the only ones left after all the “fight” folks got tone policed out for “creating drama” and all the “flight” folks sensibly noped back down the stairs, never to be heard from again.

(*Conveniently for the bully, that is. “It didn’t kill me, so shut up, hold still, and let me make you stronger” is fucking great for manufacturing consent.)

You can only control your own choices, my dear Norm L., so what will it be? Complicity or consequences? The lady or the biter? Whatever you choose, choose it with your eyes open.

As I’ve been writing this draft, I  keep cutting and pasting this next part to see where it fits, and it fits nowhere and everywhere, so I’m putting it here: Trauma runs through your letter like the nervous system runs through the body. Your girlfriend “holds space for very traumatized people.” Garment overshares about their “dark past” and traumatic history with violence to dominate conversations and keep the attention on themselves. Cindy feels “horrible and unstable” after her experience. I have five opinions about trauma and Missing Stairs based more on experience than expertise, so use whatever you find useful:

  1. It is possible to be both a trauma survivor and a bully.
  2. Trauma, especially repeated exposure and long-term, ongoing trauma can erode a survivor’s sense of what’s normal and acceptable. In spaces where lots of trauma survivors tend to congregate (say, “queer and trans people,” “social justice organizers,” and “artists,” just for example), a charismatic bully can do a lot (!!!!!) of damage to total sweethearts who, through no fault of their own, have been conditioned to have a high tolerance for pain and little or no evidence that saying “no!” and “stop that!” would accomplish anything.
  3. It is possible to have compassion and empathy for someone’s suffering without excusing or normalizing unacceptable behavior.
  4. Bullies, predators, and other Missing Stair varietals thrive when the compassionate people around them assume that understanding and explaining the reasons for their bad behavior is necessary before (or worse, the same as/instead of) taking action to stop it.
  5. There’s no perfect way to deal with a bully, because they ruin everything, but I suggest the following order of operations: Stop the harm now, take care of the targets now, contain and limit the bully’s power and access to do more harm now, and delve into the bully’s origin story later (if at all), when everybody is safe.

This has been yet another blog post that should probably be a book chapter about the Schrödinger’s-Jerkface-to-Missing Stair-pipeline. Speaking of, I have an actual deadline to turn an actual book draft in on February 27, so I’m closing the inbox to new questions until after then. Thank you, as always, for your patience.

Valerie L

Ahoy, Captain; 

I (she/her) work happily in a customer-service type of position. The job is pretty chill, except on weekends when it can get hectic. Because I’m the most senior employee, I am often called upon to train the new recruits. I’ve been doing this for a long time and my reputation as a trainer is that my trainees usually end up successful in the role. I’ve received feedback that I’m a stern but fair coach, and that I’m a supportive teacher albeit with high standards. For some context, I’m typically more than a decade older than my trainees. 

One of these newbies (she/her) is a delightful and funny person with a good head on her shoulders who I can see doing well here. It’s her very first job ever, so she’s learning a lot very fast and so far she’s grasping everything wonderfully. But I’m encountering a problem that I’ve never dealt with professionally before – she’s got a debilitating Case of the Sorries.She says “sorry” CONSTANTLY, and is visibly panicked much of the time, especially in front of guests. She trembles like a leaf when I give her even the most gentle and innocuous feedback, followed of course by “I’m SO sorry!” She hyperventilates while speaking to customers and says sorry when they ask if she’s alright. When I’m teaching her something, she’s apologizing for not knowing the task already, but why would she expect herself to know when I’m not done teaching it?

I wish it didn’t bother me as much as it does. I could be wrong but I’ve never gotten the sense that I’m a monstrous tyrant who eats newbies for breakfast, so I’m having trouble letting her behavior just roll off my back. Still, the truth is, I’M the problem. It’s not that her sorries annoy me – it just brings up a lot of Feelings when she’s cowering and whimpering at my feet for mercy.I grew up with a highly anxious and tightly-wound parent, who was prone to screaming and crying fits of confusion and anger when stressed or upset. Sometimes this would happen in the car when they were driving while inconsolably freaked out, putting mine and my siblings’ safety at risk. Sometimes this would happen in public, meaning that if I didn’t salvage the situation, we’d never make it out of the store or through the airport or whatever. When my parent would experience meltdowns, I felt forced over and over to step in and calm them down for the sake of stability. Despite being a minor, I was always the one keeping a level head. In an emergency, real or perceived, it became my job to parent my parent. 

When my easily-frazzled newbie starts exhibiting the symptoms of panic that I’m so painfully attuned to, it puts ME in fight-or-flight mode. My brain, having been mis-wired in my formative years, always thinks that if someone around me is in a panic, and I don’t fix them, I’m going to die. I care about my trainees and want their happiness and success. They’re all nice kids that I respect and like. But I become at war within myself when faced with this particular newb. The trainer part of me wants to bring the hammer down and correct this behavior, because the line of customers is still out the door and work still needs doing whether or not you’re upset. But I know that’s not fair and I’m not sure how I could say this to her in a way that would not devastate her. 

The parent-ified part of me wants to gather her up like an injured hatchling in my gently cupped hands and softly say, “Oh sweet little baby bird, please don’t be upset. It’s okay. I won’t let anything happen to you. You don’t have to be so scared. Everything’s alright.”My inner child is frustrated and upset with her for making me feel this way. Nobody asked me to expend all the emotional labor that I’m spending soothing her and being an emotional anchor, not to mention all the overthinking I’m doing about it, but I feel like I cannot help it. Why can’t I go to pieces and cry at the drop of a hat too? Because if I do, everything will fall apart. I’m not allowed to get emotional. I have to be the adult all the time, and I’m resentful that she is so needy of validation and reassurance. 

I welcome any advice or thoughts you may have. How can I make peace with her behavior when it makes me spiral? How do I manage my resentment when she’s done nothing wrong? Can I reframe this some way in my head that would make it easier to deal? And do you have any thoughts on providing professional feedback and criticism to someone who needs to be treated with kid gloves? I’m hesitant to armchair diagnose as we’re not friends and I don’t know her background, but it feels safe to say she seems emotionally fragile and I’m not sure I’m equipped to handle it.

–A Bird In The Hand Is Making Me Sad 

Dear Bird In The Hand,

I had a feeling that Alison over at Ask A Manager would know how to solve this exact scenario, and her approach is solid. Her script for someone in a similar situation is, “Please don’t worry about apologizing. I just want to make sure you understand the corrections I’m giving you and that you know what to do differently next time. Do you feel like you have the information that you need now?”

Because you’re in a busy customer service setting, and the apology spiral is hindering the work in real time, I’m going to adapt this for you slightly. As soon as the apologorrhea starts, hold up your hand in front of your chest in a “stop” gesture, and say “Apologize later. Right now, we need to get Mrs. Brackenlicker the gooseberry fool* she ordered. Can you ring her up, or do you want me to take over the register while you bag it up for her?”

*For example purposes, I’ve decided you work in a fancy dessert shop from a forgotten Preston Sturges movie, thanks for just going with it.

As you adapt this ritual to your actual workplace, the key beats are:

1. “Hold up.” I recommended a palm out “stop” motion, but holding up the index finger of “wait a second” would also get it done. Why a physical gesture? Since your trainee’s reactions are also activating you, I want to give you a way to ground yourself before you speak. This is quick, it’s quiet, and it anchors the routine in your body, like, ah, yes, we’re doing the steps now, no surprises here.

You can say the words “Hold up” or “Let me interrupt you real quick” or “Whoa, TraineeName” along with the gesture, if that’s more your style. With repetition, the gesture itself might be enough for the trainee to catch herself and change course, but even if it doesn’t, it’s a reminder to you to take a breath and focus.

2. “Apologize later.” She doesn’t need to apologize, you’d prefer she not apologize, but if you tell her to stop apologizing, she’s going to apologize for apologizing, and you’re going to be like “But I told you not to apologize” and she’s going to apologize more, and then maybe she’s going to cry, and so you’ll start apologizing to her, and if that keeps up you’ll create a Ted Lasso-type “semantic satiation” situation where words lose all meaning when you say ’em too much.

To head off what Mr. Awkward calls “A Who’s On First Of Competitive Remorse,” don’t argue with the apology, postpone it so that you can move through it and do what needs doing.

3. “Right now, [customer] needs [business things].” Literally nobody showed up here today because they want to torture you and your trainee, that costs extra, so what is the actual work that needs to happen?

4. “Do you want [Option A, where you continue handling it] or [Option B, where I step in, you take a second to collect yourself, business event events unfold as they should, and nobody suffers]?” Grant agency by prompting her to choose what happens next, preserve momentum by making sure that her choices all contain action verbs.

If she freezes completely, it’s not the end of the world, you can choose for her. In that case, I suggest that you tell what you’re doing first, and tell her what you want her to do second. “I’m going to ring this order up, why don’t you watch while I do it, and then you can box it up while I wait on the next person.” That’s not a correction, it’s a division of labor.

5. Keep it moving! Interrupt her spiral and redirect her, then turn the bulk of your attention back to the customers. Greet the regulars, comment on the weather, compliment any fetching attire, and triage the line while your trainee catches up.

6. Keep it boring! Stay calm, matter-of-fact, and repeat this pattern as many times as you need to.  “Hold up (gesture), apologize later. Right now, Mr. Ditzywicket needs his poached pears in port. Oops, looks like we need to grab some more whipped cream from the back. Want to ring him up while I fetch that, or do you know where it is? Great, thank you.”

And, since training is your forté, here is a bonus recommendation straight out of film school that you might play around with next time you have a slow day:

7. Convert “correction” to “permission.”

This advice is right out of Judith Weston’s book Directing Actors,  written to help directors give useful and constructive feedback to people whose job it is to be vulnerable in front of lots of other people in time-sensitive and high-pressure situations. The feeling of being constantly monitored and publicly corrected frankly sucks, even for people who aren’t sensitive the way your trainee is sensitive, even when everyone agrees that ongoing adjustments are necessary to the work.

Weston suggests that people will feel less like they’re living in a Daft Punk song if you convert commands and corrections into giving permission. “You need to hit your mark sooner” becomes “You can get to your mark sooner.” “Take your sunglasses off first, then give the line.” vs. “You can say the line after you take your sunglasses off.” It’s a teensy distinction, and everybody knows that you’re really saying “Please do the thing now.” But the actor is the vulnerable one who has to actually execute the thing, and something about “Here is what I want, but you’re in charge of how you give it to me” can be liberating, for everyone.

Naturally, this doesn’t apply in matters of safety, sometimes yelling “HEY! STOP! Do NOT combine bleach and ammonia!” is the exact right call, “don’t accidentally invoke each other’s childhood trauma” comes after “don’t accidentally make mustard gas in the break room sink” on the list of priorities. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think permission language would fundamentally change how this specific trainee reacts to direction, but it might make you feel more confident in how *you* distinguish between evaluating what’s wrong and encouraging what’s right.

As for the rest of what you typed out about your family history, probably the less you define and react to what is happening at work now that you’re an adult in terms of what you endured in your family as a child, the better. I applaud you for recognizing the pattern and asking for help before you accidentally make it weirder, I hope it helped you to write it all out, I definitely see and sympathize with the awful burden your parent placed on you, but I’m mostly ignoring it for practical purposes because the advice about how to interrupt the issue and fix it is the same no matter where you’re coming from. If this is bringing up stuff for you that you need to take to your therapist and support system to help you get through your workdays, that’s a great idea. But assuming that you have special insight into your trainee’s vibe or special capability to fix things for her because of your background is going to help nobody. So let’s address where you said Still, the truth is, I’M the problem. It’s not that her sorries annoy me…”  because I’m not convinced about either of these statements.

Someone who “trembles like a leaf,” hyperventilates (!!!!), and compulsively apologizes to coworkers and customers in response to tiny hiccups and routine, normal, constructive feedback at a new job is bringing stuff to the table that has nothing to do with you. If something about her past or how her brain works is making things weird at work, hopefully she can look into stuff like therapy and medication so that she can deal with the feelings and function.Your childhood history may be making you feel extra weird about it,  but that doesn’t mean that that you are creating the problem, and it doesn’t mean bystanders without your same history wouldn’t also find her behavior troubling, odd, and yes, annoying. Annoying in a way that doesn’t just affect her, or you, but in a way that affects the business when customers start complaining or avoiding her register because they don’t want to deal with the floodgates.

If you were your trainee’s direct supervisor, it would be your job to address the behavior pretty directly. That could mean everything from discussing the problem and asking her what she thinks would help, directing her to the company Employee Assistance Program for a counseling referral, documenting the problem as a performance issue if nothing changes within a reasonable time.

That said, I don’t get the impression that you are her direct supervisor. You’re training her because you’re a more experienced peer, but once she’s fully trained you’re hanging out at roughly the same tier on the org chart. Since you’re not paid like a manager, and you’re not assigned to be her manager, my suggestion is that you use the scripts and strategies I suggested to de-escalate and keep things moving.

If you want to have one conversation about the overall dynamic, try pulling her aside for a private chat at the end of a shift or during a lull in the action:

“I’ve noticed you get flustered sometimes when you’re learning something new or when you run into a snare. No, no – :HAND UP IN ‘PLEASE STOP’ GESTURE: – no, apologize later, I need you to just listen now. Over the years I’ve learned that whenever I make a mistake and start feeling overwhelmed, most customers want me to say ‘sorry’ once, and then either fix the problem or find someone who can. From now on, if I notice you getting flustered, you get one “sorry.” Then I’m going to interrupt you so we can get on with solving the problem. If you ever feel yourself getting overwhelmed and need to step away for a minute, that’s totally fine, just tag me or another person on the team in so we can keep the line moving.”

She might get even more upset during or after this conversation, but I think that pretending that it’s not happening or that you don’t notice is going to be even worse. Think of it as replacing the anxiety of “Everyone hates me!” assumptions with clear “Nobody hates you, but yeah, you gotta knock this one thing off, here’s exactly how that’s going to work” feedback, which she will either take or she won’t.

Tell her what you’ve noticed and what you plan to do about it. If things don’t get better by the end of the training period, alert your manager who can take it up with her manager. “Trainee X is very bright and capable, but sometimes gets pretty flustered when she makes a mistake. I’ve spoken to her about it, but if it comes up in the future she and whoever her shift lead is might need a reminder that it’s okay to step away as long as she tags in somebody else to take care of the customer.” That’s not throwing her under the bus in any way, that’s setting her up to succeed within the limitations of a work setting.

Valerie L

Dear Captain Awkward,

My wife of almost 10 years blindsided me last month with divorce papers, moved out of the house and has barely communicated with me since. We own a small business together which brought some tension to the marriage but I never suspected that she was considering a divorce. This of course made the holidays very awkward and stressful, and now I’m dreading the reality of going to court. We don’t have any children and thankfully signed a prenup, but I’m still trying to weigh my options and hope to come to some sort of resolution with her. I’ve suggested working with a collaborative divorce lawyer who can help us reach an agreement that works for the both of us but she doesn’t seem too interested. Would you recommend that we see a counselor or mediator or other divorce specialist? Is this something we can work out together?

Friend, I think you most likely need a divorce lawyer, and more importantly, you and your wife both need your own divorce lawyers. What’s available is really down to your location, so search for “divorce” or “family law” attorneys where you live. Discreetly ask around to divorced friends or relatives. If you know a lawyer friend or have worked with someone you like and trust for business matters, ask that person for a referral to someone they know who handles divorces. If all else fails, call your local bar association for some names. Initial consultations to discuss the case and determine fit are usually free, and you could ask any lawyers you speak with about options like mediation vs. collaborative divorce (which still requires 1 lawyer per person).

If your wife has already given you contact information for her lawyer and asked you to direct all questions there, then your next step is clear: Have your lawyer call her lawyer.

Otherwise, ask your wife how she would prefer to handle communications and all the legal, financial, and logistical processes to make the divorce as seamless as possible. This was her idea, so what is her plan? If during your research you come across a well-reviewed mediator or collaborative attorneys that you think would make it work, you could make a specific recommendation to your wife vs. asking her about it as a general concept (and hoping she’ll pick up the ball.) “I would really like to try mediation, and ______ person comes highly recommended. Shall I make an appointment?”  But this is one of those “it takes two yeses and only one no” situations, so if your wife says no, it’s lawyer time.

You have a prenup, you have no children, and your wife has already sent you divorce papers, so maybe you’re wondering why I keep saying you need a lawyer. What is left to work out? And that’s precisely the question: What is left to work out? Why do you fear that going to court will be more than a quick formality where you both tell a judge “I don’t” and sign some papers? What is stopping you from signing the papers she sent and returning them already? Possible snags that come to mind:

  • Something in her proposed agreement doesn’t work for you, or the agreement is incomplete as it stands, and more negotiation is needed. A lawyer can help hash out the details!
  • Something embarrassing is going on (such as accusations of abuse/control, financial mismanagement, infidelity on either side) and you’d like to avoid discussing that on the record in court.You know who would know what to do to minimize fallout? A divorce lawyer, that’s who.
  • Seems like your wife has been thinking about this and planning for a while, whereas you’ve been “blindsided.” She hired someone to draw up those papers, why not hire someone to at least read them over before you sign? Someone who isn’t swirling in a maelstrom of feelings, someone whose literal job it is to take a breath, walk you through the process, and keep your best interests in mind.
  • Because you own a business together, more due diligence is needed to ensure that marital finances and business finances are fair, separate, transparent, and squeaky clean. Hiring a lawyer is the smart business move.
  • You. Operate. A. Business. Together. Most of what you assumed about how your life worked turned out to be incorrect, and assumptions are very bad for business. At minimum, you’re going to want to review every single written agreement that pertains to the business ownership, governance, management structure, financial control, and conditions for buying each other out or dissolving the thing. A lawyer can make sure that everyone involved in the business is maximally protected and that all assumptions are spelled out in writing.

You mentioned counseling, and I think that individual counseling, for you, is a wonderful idea. Give yourself the gift of a safe, supportive, structured environment for processing all the painful and messy parts of this and for taking the very best care of yourself. Sometimes just knowing that there’s one hour a week where you can ugly-cry and nobody will judge you for it can help you keep yourself together the rest of the time.

As for joint counseling, couples’ counseling, marital counseling, etc., no, I don’t think so. That ship sailed sometime in 2022 and I doubt it’s coming back this way again. Because you’re still in shock, I think you’re living in the liminal space called “If I could just get her to talk to me, maybe things would be okay.” You’d understand what happened. You’d work things out together. If you could just get her into a room, on the phone, by your side to sort things out, maybe you could still be a team, one last time.

This mix of anguish and hope that there’s some secret, overlooked solution is completely understandable, it’s just the most relatable, primal, human thing, and you have my sympathies. But it’s just not happening. I’ve never met your wife, but even I can tell that she is extremely done talking. That lady does not want to walk you through her thought process or her plans, and she does not seem particularly curious about yours. If she were, she’d have dragged you to counseling long ago. She didn’t. She has decided. She doesn’t live here anymore. She’s already gone.

When someone leaves you, sometimes the most loving thing you can do is believe them, let them go, and begin the hard work of taking care of yourself. Your best chance of getting through this in a way that works for everyone is to let people who know what they’re doing help you through this.

Valerie L

Hello Captain Awkward,

I (she/her) have been asked to take over three large first-year courses after the previous professor died suddenly on the weekend. Our first-year courses run over the full academic year, which is September to April.

The first term was already over and marks had been submitted so nothing has been left undone for me to try and piece together. The university has informed students via email and course announcement so I don’t have to be the one to break the news to them. No one is expecting me to do a thing until term starts in January which is nice.

However, I don’t know how to address this in the first week. I’m a very irreverent teacher – I joke a lot in class, I often relate our course material to Taylor Swift videos, I start every week with an anecdote about my dogs. I’m the sort of prof who dresses like Miss Frizzle and whose hair is a different colour every few weeks. But it feels inappropriate to be that way at the beginning of term when the previous professor has died. 

All the courses have been online – one was asynchronous and the other two were live but over Zoom.

I’m seeking a lot of advice on how to best do this because I think some students will be very upset while other students won’t care much at all. How do you think I should proceed?

Thank you so much,

J. (I have no witty sign offs)

Hello, J., all the sympathies for the sudden loss of your colleague and for the gravity of the task ahead. I think you have great instincts. I’m going to assume that you don’t need help with subject matter or pedagogy, and this is more about how to present yourself, set the right tone, and get the semester underway as smoothly and compassionately as possible.

First, speaking Frizzle-to-Frizzle, I think you’re right to consider adopting a slightly more formal and serious tone and visual style for at least the first few weeks. 

If it helps, think of it as being in France and deciding which version of “you” to call somebody you just met. In the future, the person may instruct you to use the informal tu, but until you know for sure, you’re unlikely to cause actual offense by sticking with vous. It’s much easier to swap your outside business cardigan for an inside hangout cardigan like Mr. Rogers than it is to accidentally start out way too casual and have to recover from a faux pas.

Visually, you don’t need to change anything drastic. Don’t get rid of your fun hair color, but do aim to be one or two notches more polished than whatever informal, exuberant eclecticism had you concerned enough to mention it in your letter. Since you’ll be on camera, look for ways to reduce visual distractions and set yourself up for maximum focus and flow. Is your shirt covered with visible dog hair, logos, or text that people will inevitably get sucked into reading? Did you clean your glasses? Are the plants visible on the bookshelf behind you still alive? Have the half-finished tea mugs on your desk been breeding, and have their efforts been, uh, “fruitful?” Can you quickly put your hands on a pen, your notes, and things you need without having to shift piles of other things or spend time fumbling? If you share your screen, are the tabs and links you actually need already cued up, or will we be taking an unscheduled journey through “147 times I clicked the ‘only one bed’ tag on AO3 and 3 times I didn’t”?

And yes, try to minimize any swearing, off-topic jokes, and other markers of irreverence, at least the first week. Once you’re in the swing of it, chances are high that many students with matching “eff the patriarchy” keychains will appreciate your down-to-earth teaching style and your little dog, too. But out of the gate, what your students need is probably less about “What FUN we’re all going to have together!” and more “Hello, I realize that this is a terrible situation that no one asked for, but I’m a professional, I know what I’m doing, and I’ve got you. The effort you’ve already invested has not been wasted, and together we are going to land this plane safely and on time.” 

Now, during my teaching days, I lost some colleagues before their time, I took over classes that were designed wholesale by someone else (with the lie that “there’s nothing to prepare”), and I’ve taught only the second half of a year-long thing, though never all three at once like you are doing now. So I want to offer some specific ways to aid your preparations. I debated making this part a bonus Patreon post because it’s kind of inside-baseball-y, but we’re already here so we might as well.

Bonus Suggestion #1: You’re going to need to acknowledge the death of your colleague in some way at the start of class, but I suggest pulling some information together first:

  • Is there a planned memorial service at the school? Gather the time, location, etc.
  • Is someone (department chair, department administrator, a colleague who was close to the person) collecting remembrances and stories about the person? If no one is already explicitly doing that, can you think of someone who might reasonably want to?
  • Did you know or work with the person? Can you think of a good memory or something you admired about them?
  • If not, can you peek at their bio, their CV, or glance at a few abstracts of stuff they published to get an idea of what they were about, or recall something nice other people have told you about them?

Depending on what you turn up, you can tailor whatever opening statement you make to students about how you are sorry you are meeting under these circumstances. If you knew the person, say something good that you personally experienced. If you didn’t know them, don’t fake that you did.

Sample for you to adapt: “I wasn’t lucky enough to work with [Departed Colleague], but people who did always mention [knowledge about subject area][dedication to students][unforgettable lecturing style][notoriously rigorous grading practices][uncanny knack for sports analogies]. There will be a memorial service on campus at [provide all logistical information], and if anyone has a memory of working with Professor _______ you’d like to share, you can send it to [person who is collecting such things] or email it to me and I’ll pass it on. As we go along this term, I’m sure we’ll be reminded often of Professor _____, and as sad and heavy as that might feel at times, I hope it can also serve as a reminder that their knowledge and work live on.”

Key points: Acknowledge the loss, try to come up with one genuine compliment, give grieving students something they can do (go to memorial service, share a story), invite them to share thoughts with you if they want to. Don’t assume how they feel, but make space for however they feel, and make it clear that they can bring up the professor and the prior semester in the future in whatever context, because it’s not a forbidden topic. If you organize all the info ahead of time you’ll be less likely to flail. 😉

Bonus Suggestion #2: Sometime during the first or second week, use a short, informal survey to take the temperature of the room and help students put the prior semester in context. How useful this is is going to depend a lot on the subject and type of class, so build one that suits your goals. For example purposes, here’s some stuff I might want students to tell me:

  • Thinking over last term, was there a week or topic that you liked more than others? If “like” is too strong a word, is there a week or topic you remember better than others, something you were more interested in, something you had a knack for, something that was just a good day in class, one “cool” or new thing you learned?
  • What’s a lingering question you have about something you covered last semester? Something you’re still curious about, something you’re still confused about? If you could pick one thing you’d like us to review in depth before we get underway, what would it be?
  • What was your favorite assignment and what was your least favorite assignment? If you don’t have a favorite, go with “worst” and “least worst.” Why did you pick those?
  • Did anyone – either the teacher or a fellow student – give you feedback about your work that you thought was helpful? What did they say?
  • Looking ahead at our syllabus, is there a week or topic you’re looking forward to more than the others? Is there one you’re not so enthused about? 

In the group that meets in real time, you could assign them to break-out chat rooms in small groups and have them talk through the questions together for 10-15 minutes and then report back to the class or upload individual written answers. In the online-only versions you could do it as a forum post or short individual writing assignment they hand in to you. In that case, I’d indicate that you want quick, informal, honest answers and that you only expect it to take 15 minutes or so. Participating (including turning something in or making forum posts) earns positive points toward class participation.

If this works, you’ll come out with a sense of what they valued, what made them feel valued, where they need the most help, and evidence that they’ve consulted the syllabus at least once. If people consistently mention the same best and worst assignments, you can go peek at the grade-book and see what’s up. Maybe look at the two highest grades, the two lowest, and a few in the middle if you feel like you need more info. How’s everybody doing? Does the grading make sense to you? Like, is there a rubric at work here or are you taking over from Professor Vibes?

Bonus Suggestion #3: This is about prep beyond whatever you’ll need to do to update the syllabus and organize yourself to present the material from week to week, which I assume you’ve already got handled.

Once upon a time someone handed me a syllabus and a course website for a hybrid online/in-person class, told me it was “all set” and that I didn’t need to do any prep, and turned me loose on some undergrads. Fortunately I did not believe the “all set” lie, and as I started clicking around on the dense website full of clicky things during my semester break, I discovered something horrible.

This person had recorded and uploaded weekly lectures that had no written transcripts, no ability to speed up or slow down, no way to isolate or review specific topics (such as a list of topics with timestamps so someone could jump to specific sections), no connection to or integration of any assigned reading or hands-on work, and to add insult to injury, *each* of these tedious motherfuckers was between two and three hours long. TWO UNBROKEN, IRREPLACEABLE HOURS of a person droning over a PowerPoint slideshow, but you couldn’t just download or click through the slides at your own pace and be on your way, and you couldn’t ever know when the audio would impart some essential kernel of information that wasn’t on the slides.

I tried watching and listening to a few of them to see if they were all like that. They were all like that. I tried seeing how long I, personally, could pay attention to one of these things, and I think my record was 11 minutes. I tried asking for a PDF of just the slides and was rebuffed. (The person had painstakingly done “all the work” for me! “Online” classes were the future, and I just needed to “adapt” to the “tech” and “pivot to video.”)

I pivoted, all right. I pivoted every last one of those abominations away from anywhere students might encounter them and figured out another, shorter, more organized way to teach the material. And ever since then, whenever I’ve taken over a course website that was designed by someone else, I change my access so I see only what students see, and then I click through the first few weeks as if I’m a student coming in fresh. Can I find everything? Is it easy to figure out what I should look at and in what order? If I were to read what I’m assigned to read and watch what I’m assigned to watch, could I reasonably do everything I’m being asked to do, by the deadline when I’m supposed to do it? Are outside links, articles, etc. working, and are they labeled so it’s clear what they are for and so I could search for something easily if I needed to find it again?

I’ve never inherited anything quite as cursèd as that one class, but I’ve also never inherited something that didn’t need at least some reworking until it made sense to *me.* This is your class now, for better or for worse, and it is okay  to tinker and make it your own. As for the rest, you’re doing the students and the institution an enormous service by stepping in. It’s likely to be a thankless and unheralded service, where the better you do your job the less they’ll realize how much of a service it was. I don’t envy you, but I do believe in you. You know your shit, and you give a shit, and that’s enough.




























       There was once a blind man who had so fine a sense of touch that, 

when any animal was put into his hands, he could tell what it was merely by 

the feel of it. One day the cub of a wolf was put into his hands, and he was asked

 what it was. He felt it for some time, and then said, "Indeed, I am not sure whether 

agxs65658 Dec 11 '22 · Tags: agxs65658
Pages: Previous 1 2 3 4 5 ... Next »


Password protected photo
Password protected photo
Password protected photo