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MzHeather

Dear Captain Awkward,

There is a word people use all the time as filler in their speech. I first noticed it about 8 years ago and thought it was a quirk of my local progressive scene. (This is similar to someone hating “like” although I think my word is less common than that.) It has metastasized and is now popping up all over. I want to listen to podcasts where smart people talk about policy and cultural issues but sometimes I just shut them off because the word is driving me up the wall. I feel like I’m not old enough to hate a word used by young people but unfortunately I do.

I don’t want to miss out on people’s wisdom (delivered for free via podcast or radio) over a silly word! Do you have any ideas for not caring about this anymore?Thank you so much! I hope the Awkward household is all having a wonderful time settling in to the new spot.

Hello! Thank you for this packing procrastination diversion. In return for publishing this question, I request that you email me back and tell me what the word is. I will keep your secret, if you insist, but I must know.

The good news is that you recognize that this is a you-problem.

Language changes all the time. We are taught grammar, spelling, and usage rules as children as if they are timeless, static, and prescriptive, but really they are descriptive snapshots of a given time, place, and what agreements have been negotiated among various authorities, heavily influenced by class, race, gender, power, and other social striations. There are the rules, and then there are how people actually communicate, and the second will always reshape the first eventually, as teen girls, AAVE speakers, queer people, and other innovative social and linguistic out-groups are ridiculed by the relatively established, old, male, and white, and then see their language appropriated and mainstreamed by those same people. Sometimes the mainstreaming is a necessary reclamation of meaning that heralds greater inclusion and understanding, and sometimes it’s erasure, like “woke” and “cancel culture” dogwhistling hatefully out of rancid pundits, or the mortifying spectacle of a white woman “dancing” to choreography lifted without credit from Black TikTok creators on late night TV.

People love to decry “filler” words and phrases such as “Um,” “Like”, and “You know,” saying that they make the speaker sound unserious and tentative, that such words are unnecessary, and that they detract from the communicator’s authority. As much as I’d like to stab Henry Higgins in the neck with a hatpin, I can’t argue that “proper” speech has no correlation to a person’s perceived professional status and upward mobility and nobody should ever learn it, but it still fascinates me in terms of how people continue to perceive authority: who is assumed to have it, who has to earn it, and whose can be discounted if their thoughts don’t emerge from the mouth in complete, declarative sentences. Why is “authoritative” a thing people are supposed to emulate in the first place? People say all kinds of bullshit with an air of authority, after all. If “filler words” truly served no purpose, if they communicated nothing, nobody would say them. Since so many people say them, they must mean something, and I’m not sure that “um, why are you, like, so unsmart and incapable?” is the correct default assumption about that.

All that to say, I don’t know what your word-nemesis is, but it’s obviously here to stay, and fortunately you have recognized the futility of trying to control its spread. (“Kids these days! Can you believe it?” – Every generation of grownups since the beginning of recorded time.)

The bad news is, I don’t know how to tell your brain to stop tripping on the word. But since you asked, I’d like to offer an experiment:

  • Make yourself a “That-Word-Jar” like a swear jar. It can be physical, or it can be digital, since many online banking platforms will let you create sub-accounts within your main one.
  • Every time you hear the word and flinch or wince or mentally recoil or judge the person using it, put a quarter in the jar (physical) or record that it happened and transfer the funds later (digital).
  • When the jar is full (physical) or hits a certain dollar amount (digital), donate 80% of the money to a worthy cause and use the other 20% to buy yourself a little treat.
  • Repeat until you achieve some measure of peace with the word or get sick of doing the experiment.

I do not know if you will ever stop noticing or hating the word, but at least this way your suffering will have a purpose and do somebody some good.

I am closing comments because I do actually have to do more packing and 10,000 iterations of guessing what the word is or sharing personally annoying words is not a thing I’m going to moderate, but if any linguists want to send me links to papers about the perception, prevalence, and varied meanings of so-called “filler words,” I will read them for pleasure next week as I am able. Have a good weekend.

MzHeather

COVID-19 vaccines are rolling out in the United States. It’s decentralized, and the questions of “how to get the vaccine” and “when am I eligible to be vaccinated” vary widely depending on supply and where you live, sometimes day by day. Municipal sites, drive through appointments, pharmacies and grocery stores, health care providers, community colleges all have different schedules and different requirements. 

I’m starting to get questions from people who feel a lot of anger and envy about friends who have been vaccinated and about the relative fairness/unfairness of who gets classified as “essential,” who has computer access and time to refresh appointment sites and make phone calls and who doesn’t. There are possibly even more questions about guilt about all of these things for people who feel comparatively lucky. What do do with all these feelings? How not to be a vaxhole?

Here’s where I am with it: 

I’m in Illinois, in “group 1B+”. I’ve had my first Pfizer shot, which I scheduled by getting up at 5:55 am every day, logging into the Walgreen’s site, and hitting “enter” to supply my zip right at 6:00 am, which is when they reportedly release appointments for the next three days based on existing supply. It didn’t work, it didn’t work, and then on the 5th or 6th day, it worked perfectly, I could see available appointments and nab one at a nearby pharmacy.

The system automatically schedules the second dose in the same location at the same time slot, exactly 28 days after the first one. I could alter it if I need to based on availability, though I don’t know what the rescheduling process entails and am reluctant to roll the dice on it. I appreciated that the default setting is to schedule both doses off the bat. They sent me a confirmation number as well as paperwork to fill out before the appointment and bring with me, noting that if I couldn’t print it out for some reason they could provide the same stuff at the appointment. 

At the pharmacy, they scheduled vaccine appointments at half-hour intervals, so there’s time to arrive 15 minutes early as requested, get the jab, and sit for the recommended 15 minutes afterward to monitor reactions, without people stacking up in a crowd. It went very smoothly and I barely felt the needle. 

A few hours after receiving the vaccine, my arm was numb and then very sore for a few days around the injection site, like I’d been punched, and I took some long, dense naps for a few days as well. The Pfizer shot is considered fully effective 2 weeks after dose 2, so April 12 + 14 days = April 26 = If we know each other in real life, please know that I have a hug list and a balcony at the new place where we can sit outside in the spring breeze.

After April 26, I plan to continue masking up on public transit and in retail and public spaces and following the rest of the CDC guidelines: Relaxing mask protocols with people who have been fully vaccinated so long as there is informed, mutual consent, and, when in doubt, erring on the side of caution. I am definitely calling my dentist and my hairdresser to see what we can safely accomplish together, but I don’t see myself dining in restaurants or posting a lot of social media images of mask-less funtimes as long as people are still getting sick and dying. It’s not over as long as new cases are happening. 

To get the vaccine appointment, I had a computer, a flexible schedule, and a lot of help: From friends who were on top of the news of when my group was eligible, from friends with desk jobs who had time, access, and inclination to hunt down appointments and share what worked for them. I had help with a ride to the vaccine site on the day (windows down, masks on),  and help from a blog reader who recommended the “Chicago Vaccine Hunters” Facebook group, a network of people who share strategies, real-time updates on available locations, as well as ways to connect willing volunteers with people who need help obtaining vaccine appointments. I personally found the group very helpful, it seems to be well-moderated, but it’s an extremely active community and there was a lot of wading through and filtering posts that weren’t relevant or useful before I found the specific thing that would help me.

I can’t tell you if what worked for me will work for you, but hopefully reading an account from a real, live person will help somebody out there with setting expectations and locating help (like your nearest “Vaccine Hunter” online group).

Looking at my inbox, my wish is that people who have been successful so far in making vaccine appointments for themselves, and who have the time and resources to refresh websites and collate information, would offer to help their friends who work retail and other “Did you just look at the internet? You’re fired!” sorts of jobs. Figure out what you can realistically offer and follow through with before you offer (and if the answer is ‘nothing’, then don’t!) Script: “Friend, have you had your vaccine yet? Can I help with persistent Internetting or some other way of getting you an appointment?” 

My second wish is that anybody who needs that kind of help will ask their Eternally Online friends for it, or failing that, ask somebody for it, as there are volunteers plugging away at this who can be located in groups like the one I used. While it’s good to be mindful of privacy concerns before enlisting strangers,  logistically speaking, anyone who had my pharmacy login credentials, answers to the screening questions (easily obtained by me on a dry run), and time/geography parameters around appointments could have scheduled an appointment for me, if I’d needed that level of assistance. 

My third wish is about feelings, and triage. I think there are a lot of valid reasons to be angry about scarcity and disorganization and privilege and who always get to go first. For starters, I think it’s a crime against humanity that the vaccines aren’t freely available worldwide for manufacture and are instead of being reserved for wealthier countries. Vaccinate teachers and staff, at minimum, before opening schools, and have a much better plan for protecting children than “pretending they don’t get sick.” (They’re testing vaccines in kids and teens now, FYI). I want to say I can’t believe how many wealthy white people have deliberately scarfed up appointments that were meant to help marginalized and more at-risk communities, where people are more likely to be “essential” frontline workers, but I totally can believe it. It’s infuriating. 

But also, the fact that we even have these vaccines is a miracle. Which is why, when your eligibility group is up, when your community has available supply and appointments, please, go get your shot. No apologies. Every vaccinated person is one less vector. The sooner everyone is vaccinated, the less time that more contagious variants have to develop and spread. “Affix your oxygen mask before assisting others,” etc. If there’s an open time slot at your local pharmacy or community college or sports stadium, and you’re in the qualifying group, then that appointment is for you. You’re not taking it away from anyone else, your guilt is useless to anybody. Also, BMI is bullshit, we all know that, but if doctors would use that number to discriminate against you in providing treatment for COVID-19, then it’s definitely a good enough reason to get the vaccination as soon as you qualify. There’s enough medical fatphobia going around, don’t shame yourself out of saving your own life. 

If you’re one of the first people in your family or friend group to have the resources and ability to get your shot, and you feel guilty or ambivalent about fairness or luck or privilege, probably consider how much people who are more strapped for time and resources or not allowed to be immunized yet will enjoy comforting and reassuring you about something  that you have access to and they don’t. Judging by my inbox, they are not enjoying it. At all. It’s okay to be happy, relieved, grateful, you’re not getting vaccinated at people, but try to read the room, and hold off on the apologies or seeking validation. Comfort in, dump out. Again, your shame is not useful, but maybe your assistance is:“I’m really relieved to have gotten the vaccine. Is there anything I can do to make it easier for you to get yours?” 

My fourth wish is that people with relative power within their workplaces and institutional settings will use it: Managers, does your workplace have a If you can get a vaccine appointment, you can have that time off, no problem” policy? If not, why not, and how soon can you make one? A lot of the people who have written to me are retail workers or do other shift work that technically includes them in the eligible “essential workers” groups, but they can’t get time off or sufficient computer/phone access when things are open to chase down a time slot. Could an HR staffer (who already has access to and expectations of confidentiality around personal information)  be assigned to make appointments for willing employees on company time, working systematically until everyone is taken care of? Every vaccinated person is one less vector. Clergy, older members of your flock may not listen to their adult children or the CDC about vaccines, but they might listen to you, especially if volunteers from the church could help with making appointments, issuing reminders, and transportation. 

Finally, I’m also getting emails about what to do with “vaccine hesitant” relatives who can be immunized but refuse, and the honest answer is, I don’t know. Excluding the incredibly small number of people who cannot be vaccinated due to potential for adverse reactions, I’m not really privy to the logic that meets “This could save your life and the lives of people around you, plus, it’s free!” with “I prefer not to.” It’s even more incomprehensible when I encounter this attitude from people with firsthand memories of polio. What? How? Why? 

In the end, it comes down to controlling what you can control. 

Uncontrollable: Crap opinions from the exact same relatives who met every aspect of the last year or so with “Above all, I refuse to be inconvenienced for any reason.” 

 Controllable: Get your shots as soon as you can. Be transparent about what it was like for you. Where possible, ask questions to figure out why the reluctance exists, and clear up misinformation where you are able. Offer what assistance you can in cases where logistical help and access are the barriers, and maybe focus your helping efforts on people who want the vaccine and are having trouble getting it for now, especially when demand still outstrips supply.

Maintain strict masking & social distance protocols with those relatives, and present it as their choice: “If you choose not to get vaccinated, then it’s masks & outdoor visits for the rest of 2021 whenever we spend time together, I’m afraid, and that includes all holidays, grandkid visits, and my wedding.”  They have final say over what happens to their bodies, you have the same boundary-setting options you always have about protecting yourself and others, and you’re not the jerk if other people push you to the point of exercising them. 

This isn’t meant to be a static, definitive, prescriptive account. Things are changing so fast, and the situation is going to look entirely different a month or so from now as rollout continues ramping up. For now, if somebody reads this snapshot and feels like they are more on top of how to get themselves immunized, more confident in asking for and offering help, and less alone with all of it, I’ll sleep well tonight. 

MzHeather

Hello Captain,

I hope you are well! Good luck with your move and beautiful cats!

I am in therapy and working on building community in a new state (I moved during COVID, it’s been slow), but I am hoping for help on feeling like I have agency and a script for someone who non-consensually touches me, and my friend who enables it.

Yesterday was my birthday. My very sweet Friend (she/her) planned a 4 person “party” in our bubble, and gave me a generous gift. This was very meaningful after being so lonely this year, estranged from my parents, and going through a breakup. However, her roommate was the 4th person. She is homophobic (casually and directly to me), and she touches me all. the. time. One time, she squeezed my ass and ranked/ compared my body to others (I am fat, she is not). I was frozen at the moment, but I followed up the next day to say I didn’t want to be touched by her and that it is not cool to talk about bodies like that.

She went to Friend with this whole explanation, apparently pointed out that other people touch me and she just didn’t understand how sensitive I was. Friend tried to smooth it over with me. But Roommate never apologized or checked in with me and I pointed that out and asked not to be discussed unless I was included (maybe that was wrong though?). I was then iced out for 4 months, where I barely saw Friend and was uninvited from Friend’s house from all the dinners, movie nights, and social things (which was my entire social life in a COVID world, because we all agreed to bubble).

Eventually, I had a heart-to-heart with Friend. It got better, but I avoided Roommate. Yet when we briefly overlap, she touches me. Every. Time. And at my birthday she came to get dinner/ hung out for several hours. She also touched me and held my arm while Friend was in the bathroom. I don’t understand why she invited herself, especially to the part not in her house. I don’t understand why Friend did nothing, but she also bought me such an expensive present I feel ungrateful being mad at all. My other Buddy was there and he knows I have a problem with Roommate and was trying to buffer, but he also doesn’t seem to have much of an issue with her.

Roommate has trouble with substance abuse, dropped out of college, has gotten in trouble for touching people at work, and maintaining any other friendships. Friend really wants to support her financially and emotionally. I want to be kind and not contribute to the pain she is feeling… but every time she touches me I want to scream and turn into a feral animal. She has apparently pointed out that I touch other people and other people touch me (those people are my friends and we have discussed consent because I need that).

I am worried about losing two good friends because they choose to “not be awkward” and therefore enable this homophobic, fatphobic, manipulative creepy lady. As a last-ditch effort, I think I should say something directly to Roommate and Friend, but I don’t know if it should be together to prevent triangulation or separate. And for my Buddy, should I ask him to be an ally somehow? Or is that putting pressure/ manipulation on the situation? Everyone acts like she is harmless… but she is gross about many aspects of my identity, and seems committed to pushing boundaries and pushing me away from my friends (or I’m being paranoid/ too judgemental?).

Any suggestions on who to speak to, in what order, and how to ask for support, and how to call out a tiny white lady who likes to play dumb and helpless without looking like an asshole would be really great.

Thank you, I appreciate your advice and the space you have created so much, even if you don’t get to this one.

– Bubble Babe, She/They.

Hello Bubble Babe: 

The cats are good. Moving sucks, but it will be over soon. Thank you for asking! 

I’m going to make a small Dramatis Personae of nicknames and pronouns to ground me/readers: There’s you, Bubble Babe (she/they). There’s your actual Friend (she/her) and a Buddy (he/his) who is also in your small pod. Then there is Roommate (she/her) who lives with Friend, playing the role of the creep in this story. 

You’re not being too paranoid or judgmental.

Creepiness Review: If you touch someone, and they tell you they don’t like it, there is exactly one non-creepy path: Apologize, give the person personal space, and do not touch them in the future unless you are invited. Don’t argue, make excuses, punish them by sulking, or look for excuses to keep touching them. People have all kinds of reasons for not wanting to be touched, some are about you and some aren’t, and you don’t need to know why in order to respect basic boundaries.

One way to spot the difference between a creep and a person making an honest mistake is that creeps a) persist in behavior they’ve been told not to do b) complicate uncomplicated things (like consent) so that they can keep getting their way c) continually shop for loopholes.Why on earth would you want to touch someone once you know for sure that they don’t want you to? Bubble Babe, you and I are like “Uh, we wouldn’t?” but creeps will have some long story about why they can’t do the thing they were asked to do, full of “negs,” misguided appeals to “fairness,” while simultaneously – and completely without irony – arguing why they deserve an exception:

“But you hug other people!” Ones I like, with permission? 

“But what about if you’re in the path of an oncoming car? Can I touch you then?”

Sure, if some tedious handsy rules lawyer wishing a life-threatening disaster on me so they can dramatically refuse to save my life out of spite is the only thing standing between me and certain death, then go ahead and give me a shove, Brave Hero, with my permission and thanks! But until then, keep your fucking distance, and afterward we’re still gonna be on a  “perfunctory handshake only” basis.

Add in race, gender, sexuality, etc. and what you have is a thin white woman who refuses to keep her hands to herself engaging in a shitty dominance display. White women do this to women of color, straight women do it to gay women, cis women do it to trans women, thin women do this to fat women, because shit rolls downhill, onto people the offender perceives as having lower social status and not being fully human. The part where Roommate treats you like you’re the bully to get attention and sympathy (instead of the accountability she deserves) is all part of the dance. Hints don’t work on creeps, nor do gentle reminders, nor do logical reasons, because creeps use feigned ignorance, power differentials, fear of a “making a scene,” and other forms of social pressure to get their way. To get a creep to knock it off often requires making that scene and naming what they are doing loudly enough that other people might see and come to your aid. This risks that anyone who actually heeds the call will be like “the manager” with a bullying customer or the cops showing up in a gentrified neighborhood: Somewhere between “utterly useless” and “actively on the worst person’s side.” 

You mention wanting to avoid triangulation and I think that’s a good plan. You can’t control who talks to whom about what (I would assume that everything you say about Creepy Roommate to Friend is being passed on, and definitely vice versa), but you can adopt a principle for yourself ( “I don’t say anything about people that I wouldn’t say to them”) and follow through with that. That gives you your order of communication operations as well: 1) Say things to the Creepy Roommate about her behavior as they come up. 2) Reinforce those things with the Friend and Buddy as necessary, and tell them what you need from them in terms of support directly. That’s not triangulating or manipulation.

“Hey, knock it off!” 

There is no heart-to-heart you can have with someone who behaves like the Roommate. You’re going to have to disrupt the pattern where she touches you and you stay quiet because you don’t want want to “ruin” the moment and deliver matter-of-fact, consistent corrections. This is unfair and exhausting, and casts you as the one who is being loudly difficult because you’ve stopped letting it slide. It’s still the least worst way forward. 

When you have to interact with Creepy Roommate, tell her not to touch you immediately, every time she does it, and move away. “Oh hey, don’t touch me.” “But I didn’t mean…!” “Ok, but you did. I don’t like it when you touch me.” “But you touched ______.” “Sure did! But I’ve told you not to touch me. Are you going to keep making this weird for everyone?” 

When you see a touch coming at you, throw up a hand between you and this person and take a big step back. “Whoa, you weren’t going to touch me, were you? We’ve talked about this.” If you can’t anticipate a touch, remove her hands from your body and step away. “Whoa, bad touch!” 

If she sits right next to you or too close, it’s okay to move/get up/switch seats. If she pouts or sulks about this, I wouldn’t be surprised, and I’d ignore it unless she actually says something or provokes someone else to say something, at which point I’d be like, “the CDC doesn’t have social distancing guidelines for handsy people, but I do. Anyway, who wants something to drink while I’m up?” 

Same principle for “Whoa, that’s pretty homophobic.” “Yeah, don’t talk about people’s bodies that way.” An automatic, matter-of-fact, consistent correction right then and there and a giant step back. 

Cue the excuses from her and be ready to deflect them: 

  • “I’m sorry, I forgot.” “Uh huh, that’s why I reminded you: Don’t touch me.” 
  • “You let So-and-So touch you.” “Sure did! Good thing So-and-So only has to hear the word ‘no’ once.” “It’s not that I have an aversion to all human touch, but I definitely do when I say ‘no’ and you keep doing it anyway.” 
  • “But you touched Whatshername.” “Did I? Can we talk about how creepy it is that you monitor that about me?” “Sure, and if Whatshername told me to stop or not do it anymore, unlike you, I would listen and respect her wishes about that.” 
  • “You don’t need to be so cranky/rude/mean/hostile about it.” “Huh, it’s weird that you think I’m the rude one, when I’m not the one who can’t keep my mitts off of other people.” “What would get you to actually stop so we never have to have this fight again?” 
  • “Why are you ruining everyone’s good time?” “Why are you ruining my good time by not keeping your hands to yourself?” 
  • “I’m just a touchy-feely person.” “Right, and I’m not, unless there is explicit consent. What you and I have is the opposite of that.”

If Friend and Buddy treat you like you’re the jerk when you do this (because you’re The Reasonable One and they know that this Roommate is Absolutely Not), try to keep it pretty brief and also as matter-of-fact as you can. “Roommate has been told not to touch me. If she needs reminders like we’re at day care, that’s what she’s going to get until she stops touching me.” “This will stop being awkward for everyone when she stops touching me.” “She can stop this from being weird any time she decides to stop touching me.” “It’s not my fault that she would rather deliver bad touches than let everyone relax and have fun.” 

When the flood of excuses comes, be ready. 

  • Umbrella scripts: “I’m not the one making it weird right now.” “What I need from you is backup for making the bad touches stop. If you won’t help me make it stop, the least you can do is stop blaming me for causing it.” 
  • “But she has problems!” “Uh-huh, and the problem today is how she keeps touching me.” 
  • “But she’s going through a really hard time right now.” “I can have sympathy for whatever she’s going through and still expect her to respect me and my personal space.” “Why is her bad day an excuse for putting her hands all over me? I don’t think that’s making the argument you’re hoping for.” 
  • “But it’s not that bad!” “If you’re cool with her touching you, great! She can transfer that attention to you. I will never actually be cool with it.” 
  • “But you’re making a big deal out of nothing!” “No, I’m telling you that this is already very big deal for me.” 
  • “Ugh, you’re just too sensitive!” “Yup, I’m pretty sensitive about this! And yet, I’m not the one violating someone else’s personal space and trying to pretend that’s a normal thing to do?” 
  • “But she doesn’t mean it!” “That’s a relief, because if she did mean it we’d have to literally fight.”” I don’t care what’s in her heart, I care that she stops commenting on and touching my body.” “Okay, but what would it take for her to stop? She knows I don’t like to be touched without consent.” 
  • “But it’s all so awkward!” “Yes, it is awkward to have someone keep touching me when I’ve told them not to more than once! If you know some quiet way of making her knock it off forever, let’s do that! But it’s going to stay awkward for everyone as long as she refuses to control herself.” 

You can let your Buddy know that you’re instituting a Zero Touch policy ahead of a gathering and ask for backup if things get weird. That isn’t manipulative. That is asking for help. It’s also not manipulative to ask Friend if you can do stuff with just the two of you. She’s tired of this conflict, you’re tired of this conflict, why not make it easy on everyone and be clear about what is a group  event and what is not?

When and if you get resistance, I suggest *asking questions* and *naming specific behaviors* at every opportunity, especially when you have private one-on-one conversations with Buddy and Friend. Don’t talk around it, joke about it, brush it off, or use euphemisms or smooth it over.

  • “When someone else says homophobic things around you, do you just let it go? Is that what you’re asking me to do here? That can’t be right.” 
  • “If a creepy person –let’s say,  cis dude — were touching you all the time after you told him not to, what would you do about it?” “Would you try to argue with the person being touched and tell them to let it go?” “What would you want a friend to do to help you feel safe?” 
  • “I’ve tried every reasonable, direct, civil way to try to get her to stop touching me and insulting queer and fat people around me. What will it take to make her stop?” 
  • “How can I explain how violated and on edge it makes me feel to be touched all the time and know that if I say ‘no’ it won’t stop?  I ‘m afraid that if I ask you for help your solution might be to stop inviting me places instead of risking telling her ‘no’ or backing me up.” 
  • “What would she have to do to me before you’d take this seriously, and at least stop having her tag along to events at my house?” 

That Excuse Cannon will come pre-loaded, so let’s shore up your defenses. 

  • All purpose excuse-busting question: “Wait, are you telling me to just be quiet and put up with it when someone touches me in a way I don’t like?” 
  • “But what will we tell her?” “Tell her maybe she can be invited again when she goes one calendar year without touching me? That she should stop embarrassing you and creeping out your friends in public? I don’t know! She’s your friend, she clearly doesn’t listen to anything I say.” 
  • “But she really tries, she can’t help it!” “Hrmmmm, I believe she thinks that, but if so, then she should stay away from hangouts with me where it might become a problem.” 
  • “But she hates to be left out!” “We’re not eight. She will survive an afternoon on her own! Or, if she won’t, that’s a sign that some big time professional help is needed, not a thing that I have to solve.” 
  • “She’ll think you don’t like her.” “I do my best to tolerate her because she’s important to you, but that tolerance ends when she puts her grabby hands on my body. ‘Like’ left the building months ago.” 
  • “Why can’t everyone just get along?” “I want to get along, and I’m honestly scared of losing our friendship if I become too ‘difficult’ about this, but it’s not fair to put this on me. I’m not the one who keeps putting my hands on someone who knows they don’t want to be touched. I’m not the one making my friends make excuses for and apologize for me. I’m not actually the one making this complicated.” 
  • “Why are you making this so hard?” “Friend, with all the love in the world, why are you here trying to convince me to let someone keep violating my personal space? Why is it easier for you to argue with me than it is for you to tell a fellow adult to keep her hands to herself and expect her to actually do it?” 

I realize that you want to keep Friend in your life, but she hasn’t been trustworthy about helping you resolve this conflict. She brought Roommate to your birthday, knowingly risking your ability to enjoy yourself, yet had no problem disinviting you from social events in the pod, presumably to protect Roommate’s feelings. I can give you some scripts and tactics, but you might want to think about a long-term strategy where you widen your social circle after quarantine and consider Friend a Sometimes Friend that you invite to solo hangouts now and then but not as a social anchor. 

Which is why, I wish I could tell you that these scripts and approaches would guarantee that your friends will have your back with this person or that she will stop, but I can’t. I hope that this gives you some reassurance that you’re not causing this to happen. I hope you have a few more ways to shut it down quicker and with less second-guessing when it happens, and some backup in dispelling excuses, justification, and gas-lighting about the bad behavior. Most of all, I hope that a few months from now you don’t feel so socially isolated and dependent on people who keep choosing their worst friend’s feelings over your safety and comfort.

For those in the shoes of “Friend” and “Buddy” in this story: 

If reading this made you feel defensive because you have That One Toxic Friend and have become their unofficial buffer/enabler/ambassador to other people you know, I hope this helps you place the awkwardness back where it belongs and rethink your priorities. The person forcing fun events to become awkward confrontations is the person who won’t keep their hands (or toxic words and beliefs) to themselves, not the people who object to that. If you frequently find yourself in the position of explaining to Friend A why Friend B should be allowed to keep treating them like crap, that doesn’t make you The Great Peacemaker who brings people together; it makes you the person who is forcing a friend to endure harm if they want to spend time with you. As everyone becomes vaccinated and starts to reknit social ties later this year, maybe it’s time to step down as the resident Asshole Whisperer, lest you find yourself surrounded by assholes.

MzHeather

Dear Captain,

I’m a woman in my late 20s. About two years ago, I moved to a new city. I made a new friend, “Laura,” a young woman about my age who happens to enjoy the same fiber-crafty thing I do (think: sewing, knitting, embroidery). Laura invited me to join her craft circle, which consists of approx. 7-8 women friends who are within 5 or so years of us age-wise, share some of our other interests and political allegiances, and enjoy doing this same craft.

The Alsatian of the craft circle, “Beth,” founded and organized the group about five years ago. Beth set up a format that works like this: The circle meets monthly. Hosting duty rotates among members of the group. The host provides refreshments. (Other members of the circle are discouraged from bringing something along, which would otherwise be normal in this community. The idea is that they make their financial/labor contribution to the group when it is their turn to host.) After eating, the group chats and everyone works on their crafts. All skill levels are welcome, and the expectation is that people who are more skilled help those who are less experienced.

Sounds great, right? And it is. It really is. Everyone’s lovely and kind and supportive and helpful. My problem: I dread hosting people at my home. Especially nice charming friends I’d like to impress. Especially THESE charming friends. This is partially a class thing (some of these women have more disposable income than I do) and partially a know-how thing (the ones who are working with my kind of budget have managed to find cute places with like-minded roommates and know where all the good estate sales are and what a good cheap wine is and how to whip up delicious appetizers from stuff that costs very little).

Since I moved to the area, I have lived in a crappy garden-level apartment with a roommate who is fine as a person but doesn’t share my taste in… anything. The apartment itself is tiny and sucks (picture a lot of beige tile, many window bars, flimsy walls, and other telltale signs of cheap flip/landlord neglect). The living-area furniture, which mostly belongs to my roomie, is not my idea of cute (picture squishy black fake leather chairs and couches with cup holders in them, and a lot of Funko Pops on display), and I can’t afford to replace any of it with stuff I do like. Neither of us is super great about cleaning (a condition that has worsened with the pandemic). Roomie is also shy and antisocial to begin with and was always weird around the people I did have over (a condition that has also worsened with the pandemic). And I suck at cooking and choosing drinks and knowing how much to make or buy for how many and what goes with what, and all other food-related hosting decisions. I have nightmare visions of my elegant friends crammed and perched awkwardly in our living space, picking at the food and gulping at the alcohol, counting the dust bunnies and the sticky cup residue circles, their eyes widening as the loud video game sounds (and accompanying yelling) emanating from behind my roommate’s closed door intensify.

You might ask: Knowing this about myself, why oh why did I get into a situation where I was obliged, both by the explicit rules of the group and by the logic of reciprocal hospitality, to host the craft circle? The answer is wishful thinking! I knew when I joined that it would be many months before it was my turn. I hoped by then I could figure something out. Make more money, move out of my month to month into somewhere cute, or at least presentable. Or maybe save up enough to get cuter furniture and work up the energy to have a Conversation with the roommate about The Decor In Here and also Our Cleaning Responsibilities. I hoped I would transform myself into a woman more like these other women, who can figure out how to make people welcome and comfortable in her space. Obviously, none of those things happened.

So when my turn came toward the end of 2019, I made an excuse, and then I made another excuse, and I was three transparent excuses for not-hosting deep when the pandemic hit and the craft circle went online. Since then I have attended all meetings over Zoom, posed in front of a Strategic Bookshelf in my bedroom, and it’s been fantastic.

But now, everyone’s starting to get the vaccine, or get appointments to get the vaccine. The current estimate is all members will be vaccinated by May. Everyone wants to meet in person again. And I think people are sick of my excuses. Beth the Alsatian, in particular, has dropped a lot of hints about how she “can’t wait to finally see your place after all this time.” Everyone definitely seems to expect that I will be the first to host in-person crafting times.

Captain Awkward, I don’t want to be a mooch, although I’m sure that’s how I’m coming off. I also don’t know what my options even are here. Both the things that have occurred to me — just saying screw it and trying my best, or explaining how much I fail at being a gracious host and how inadequate I feel — sound about as comfortable and feasible as peeling off my skin. What should I do? Help?

Bad Stitch Witch

Hello Bad Stitch Witch! 

I want to pause for a moment and take delight in the first question about event planning  in a solid calendar year that does not come with an automatic “DON’T DO IT, U MIGHT DIE” disclaimer. The pandemic is far from over, but there are glimmers of light at the end of this tunnel, and today I’m going to bask in them. 

Have you read Little Women by chance? Right now you remind me of Amy March, and the question of hosting is a big old vat of pickled limes:

“Why, you see, the girls are always buying them, and unless you want to be thought mean, you must do it, too. It’s nothing but limes now, for everyone is sucking them in their desks in schooltime, and trading them off for pencils, bead rings, paper dolls, or something else….If one girl likes another, she gives her a lime; if she’s mad with her, she eats one before her face, and doesn’t offer even a suck. They treat by turns, and I’ve had ever so many but haven’t returned them, and I ought, for they are debts of honor, you know.” 

Amy’s shame, and feelings of obligation to her classmates, are real, but this seems like a good time to remember that everyone in your letter is long out of middle school. After everything that everybody went through over the last year, can we please let go of the idea that it’s important to fake being rich and okay at all times? Beige walls are nothing to apologize for, and I think that you have many options before you. 

One option is to rip the bandaid off and host the first gathering of the new season. It will give you a firm deadline to give your place a good scrub. It will stop this thing from looming so large and restarting a cycle of avoidance that already wasn’t working. Everyone will be so happy to see each other and do something resembling normal socializing again that you’ll be riding a wave of good will, if not downright euphoria. 

As for your nervousness about how to do this, you’ve been to prior gatherings, so you probably have an idea of what snacks people usually offer and which ones people can’t get enough of, and there are a jillion guides to hosting in small spaces and hosting on a budget out there in Internetland. You don’t have to have a fully stocked bar with infinite options and fancy crystal decanters like everyone had in the daytime soaps my Yia-yia was obsessed with. Do some Googles. Make a couple pitchers of sangria, or get some cheap Prosecco and fruit juices for mimosas, plus some non-boozy options. Feed people cheese and crackers, some grapes and cut fruit, something sweet, and maybe pick up a bouquet of grocery store flowers if you’re feeling fancy. If you’ve got a Trader Joe’s, Aldi, or similar near you, you can probably do it and do it well for around $50-$60. There’s still time to save up or discreetly ask one of the group members to walk you through the basics if that’s a concern. 

The real key to doing this is to stop pre-apologizing this minute. Ask yourself: Do you need to throw a party exactly like the other members of this group throw parties, with identical fanciness, or do you need to throw the party that you can realistically manage given your setup and budget? Are people coming to visit your apartment or are they coming to see each other, and you? You don’t live in an Apartment Therapy house tour, you live with objects that are not your exact taste, so what, these are not shameful deeds. Is there enough seating, and is it all basically functional and in one piece? Like Guy de Maupassant, who reportedly ate lunch under the Eiffel Tower each day because it was the only place in Paris that he couldn’t see the Eiffel Tower, when your ass is in an ugly chair that comes with its own cupholder, then you’re not looking at the chair, and you don’t have to balance your cup while you do your crafts or eat snacks. Sounds good to me! 

The host-guest relationship works two ways: The host provides safety, a roof, and libations, and the guest takes what is offered with thanks. If anyone is *mean* to you about furniture with more function than form, weird about both people who share a living space displaying les objets-de-Funko, or the least bit snarky about the grocery-store origins of your fare once they’ve crossed your threshold, they are the ones in violation of the ancient compact. In other words, if these people can’t be cool about this, I invite them to heartily go fuck themselves, and count themselves lucky that The Kindly Ones are most likely fictional constructs. 

Another option is to hold the line on not hosting, but be more honest generally so that you can let go of the shame. “I realize I’ve been making excuses for a long time, but nothing’s really changed, in that I’m still really not set up to host given my current space and roommate situation. I feel very embarrassed about it, and I know we’re supposed to take turns, but can we figure out another way I can contribute?”  You don’t have to catalog all the reasons. Assume that these friends are way more interested in your company than they are in your shame. “I’m sorry, it’s really not possible for me. I love seeing you all, so can we make a different plan, and I’ll let you know when I am truly both ready and able?” 

A third option, perhaps my favorite option, is to ask for help, already. Seek out the person you are closest to in the group. Laura? Not Beth, sounds like, but Beth is not The Whole Group, and without hearing her tone minus your shame filter, I can’t tell from here if her pointed comments are more catty, more “I truly want to see your place, invite us already,” or the middle path of “Please just tell us what’s going on with you already so we can stop being so weird about this.” Anyway, level with Laura, or somebody you trust: “I know it’s long  past my turn to host, but my current apartment and roommate situation is just not set up for guests, and my anxiety about it is off the charts.What should I do?”  

See also: “This is my first time every hosting anything like this, and I have no idea what I’m doing.” It’s okay to be new at something! You know 7-8 people who are practiced hands at shoving together a crafty little soirée. Could someone walk you through what they do when they host? Would Laura or someone else be wiling to come early and help you set up? Where do they get the good hummus? Could somebody with a bigger & more comfortable space provide the venue, and you’ll bring the refreshments and do the washing up after when it’s “your turn” to host? Or could they back you up on not hosting and help you negotiate another way with the rest of the group? These ladies sound resourceful as hell, and if you haven’t already asked for help, it’s time.

One reason that this kind of shame and the resulting anxiety is so isolating is that you are projecting your own judgment of yourself onto other people. You are seeing your living space and your circumstances through the unforgiving eyes of your inner critic, and then you are attributing those judgments to other people, using anticipated, imagined, assumed scorn and judgment as an excuse to avoid them. You’re punishing yourself, mostly, but it’s not particularly friendly to put words in people’s mouths. Do you truly think so little of these people, and of their affection for you, do you truly believe that they would choose cruelty and judgment over grace and humor?  Nothing in your letter indicates that this is how they think or behave toward you in reality, just, they have noticed that you never host and are legitimately a bit annoyed about the lack of hospitality/ reciprocity/high weirdness of constant excuse-making. 

Just, imagine you had a friend who was ashamed about something and didn’t know what to do, and you would gladly help if you possibly could, but they didn’t tell you what was going on or ever ask for help, and now they’re avoiding you. Wouldn’t you reach into that shame cycle if you possibly could and yank your friend out of it, like, “Please don’t wreck our friendship over cocktail napkins, you fool!”  Would you mock somebody for their college-era futon, or would you show up before their party and help them drag it to a more optimal position? Are you so certain that nobody would do the same for you if they knew how much you are beating yourself up right now? 

I’ll leave you with some homework. Imagine that you do host, and your place really doesn’t end up working, and people are awkwardly perched, and your roommate is loudly heeding The Call of The Duty/Booty from the bedroom the whole time, and it all kind of sucks, just as you feared. Now practice with me:

“Ah, well, there’s a reason I kept putting it off, now you know that my apartment is many things, but Instagrammable is not one of them. But I am so glad to see all of you in one place again, thank you so much for coming. Can I get anybody more cheese?’

Now, imagine ahead, a few years from now when you do have a place that suits you and the time, money, and ability to deck it all out according to your own taste. Imagine you’re in an adorable outfit and you’re throwing a little housewarming. Then, imagine your friends being so happy for you in that moment, because they know about the shitty apartment that is now both a funny story and a happy memory of the first time you could all be together again after a terrible year. Imagine that they’re glad to see you thrive the way they knew you always would, but mostly, they’re glad to see you. 

Your accumulated fear and shame are temporary stops on the way to that future, not the whole story. At what point is it riskier to keep deflecting than it is to open up? Only you can decide that, but what’s the worst that happens if you do the best you can with what you have, and allow yourself to hope?

P.S. If you do decide to host, don’t berate your roommate about their belongings or past lack of cleaning or choice of hobbies, or take your own shame out on them. Ask them to help you do a good spring clean the week before the event (and break it down by tasks/division of labor). Ask them if they have a favorite snack or drink you could pick up for them when you’re grabbing everything else. Ask them if they’d mind letting you take over the common areas for the day. Treat them like a valued member of Team Your House, and they might rise to the occasion. If you treat them like someone you need to apologize for, then you’ll be the rude one. Nobody needs that. 

MzHeather

Ahoy, Captain!

I ( 26, they/them) was recently broken up with by my partner (27, she/her) of four, almost five, years. We had been co-habitating for most of our relationship and last year, moved together to a new city for her job. We’d been planning a wedding for January 2021 which was (luckily?) cancelled due to COVID.

Here’s how the break-up went: Saturday night we had a date where we talked very happily about our future together, started replanning a new wedding, and agreed on a timeline for having kids. Sunday morning, she told me she wasn’t attracted to me and hadn’t been for years. I was blindsided and absolutely devastated.

I couldn’t afford to move out immediately, so we had to become awkward roommates for a few months until I’d saved up enough for a studio. During this time, things were honestly as good as they could be for recently-dumped-but-still-have-to-live together. We were friendly, we set good boundaries, we made sure to make time and space for one another to process our feelings with our respective support systems.

It still hurts, and I think I’m going to be hurting for a very long time. But I was really determined not to try to make her caretake for me, because I knew she felt terrible about how she handled things. I also wanted to try to make as clean a break as possible and avoid further emotional entanglements with a very recent ex.

Two months later, I got lucky: an old college friend had a space open up in their house. I’m moving in with them in two weeks, and I’m starting to get a little excited about being truly on my own for the first time in my adult life (I basically went from my parents to dorm rooms to living with her).

Now that I’ve started packing, she’s starting to get very sad and forlorn. She has no poker face, and is heaving heavy sighs and generally moping around. And I’m starting to get really mad at her. I know it’s not her fault, relationships just sometimes end, but it’s really hard for me to see her acting so heartbroken when she’s the one who dumped me and kicked me out!

I don’t want to be mad at her, and I don’t want these next couple weeks to be absolutely miserable for both of us. It seems like now that it’s real, I’m moving out, and things are definitely changing, she’s getting wistful. I just want to move on, but I’m worried that I’m going to totally blow up at her. I feel like I’ve worked so hard to keep things professional, for lack of a better term, and now she’s violating our implicit agreement not to dump break-up feelings onto one another. How can I keep setting boundaries and being kind when I honestly have no patience right now?

Help!

Hello! 

The good news is that this will be over in about two weeks. The hardest part – accepting the fact of the breakup, making decisions to take care of yourself, such as finding a new housing situation – is done. You are handling this so, so, so well. 

Make Space (For Feelings)

The “sad, weird, big feelings” part of breaking up is still in process, and those feelings are going to continue to show up according to no predictable or reasonable schedule. This applies equally to your hurt, shock, and grief about big changes in your life that you didn’t sign up for, and to your ex learning that making the right decision for her can still involve grieving for an important, formative relationship and what might have been. (As in, there’s “acting” sad, but there’s also just plain old feeling sad.)

The question of “how to be fair” was your framing, but feelings aren’t fair. It would be so much cooler and easier if your ex would put on a brave face like you did, but we don’t actually earn credit for secret favors or holding up our end of bargains that people didn’t know they were making. This lesson about human behavior is just as irritating every single time I’m forced to learn and re-learn it in my adult life, including the time almost a decade ago when I was the person who was broken up with and the one who had to move unexpectedly. That mental whirligig of “He dumped me, remember, so why does he want to hug me and cry all the time, ugh, you don’t see me crying on his shoulder. Whyyyyyyyyy did I get rid of my TV. Do I need more boxes? Why is he looking at me like that? I’m going to have to buy new potholders, too, dammit” is real. Firmer boundaries are going to be good for everyone in your house,  but a two-week general amnesty built on “nobody’s an asshole for having a lot of feelings right now, including me, so let’s just do our best to get through it” is also an all-around kindness.

Take Up Space (For *Your* Feelings) 

My first suggestion is logistical: Headphones. Earbuds. Music. Noise. Whenever you pack, spin up your favorite music or podcast or audiobook, put on the headphones, and be unavailable as you box your things. It’s really hard to tune out another person’s distress in the same living space, it goes against your habit (of being in love with this person for years), and likely your personality (as a compassionate person who would not ignore another person’s suffering). But if there is a way you can create a buffer for yourself to literally tune some of it out, while simultaneously creating a visual cue that you are in fact tuning out, it might help you keep your cool and your distance. See also: Working room by room and shutting doors between you whenever possible. 

This doesn’t have to be expressed a hostile or defensive maneuver, even if it feels like one. You mentioned that making an effort to keep things “professional” at home was helping you cope, so why not adopt the same tone you’d use to give an officemate a friendly heads-up that you’re about to put your head firmly down and focus without interruptions? You wouldn’t ask a peer at work for space, or reference weird feelings, you’d just say what you’re doing and then act on that. “I’m going to commandeer the kitchen & dining room for the rest of the afternoon while I pack. I was thinking of ordering myself some dumplings for dinner, I can check back around 7 if you think you’ll want in on that.” 

Sometimes you just gotta gently set people on the path of least resistance (where the easiest, most obvious response  from your Ex is something like “Good luck with packing, talk to you at 7″ or “Oh, I’m all set on dinner, but yes, stop by for a second and say hi if you want) and hope they stay there.

Say What You Need 

If that fails, if you sense that she’s really trying to interrupt or derail you and force a conversation about her feelings, and you don’t want to engage, it’s okay to both be more direct and react honestly. You’re worried about accidentally Hulk-ing out, but feeling annoyed and being honest about what you need isn’t the same as being mean, and it’s actually not the end of the world if you end up arguing during a breakup where feelings and tensions are still high. I sense that you will feel better if you do keep your emotions in check and can know that you behaved “professionally” throughout, but where is it written that you must be a robot of perfect detachment?

Answer: Not here! You’re allowed to feel angry at being dumped and having to uproot your life, and you don’t have to tamp down every momentary flash of irritation. If you were trying to punish your ex and make her feel bad, that would be one thing, but you’re clearly not doing that. Keeping out of her way as much as possible, and saying “Look, this sucks, but I cannot both process this with you and keep my own shit together, sorry” when and if she does breach your limits, is completely within bounds. When someone breaks up with you, along with all the painful stuff, you also receive a permission slip to stop working on the relationship, put your own needs first, find a sustainable level of polite and civil, and let the rest go. 

Additional scripts:

  • I’m sorry, I just can’t talk about this with you.”  
  • I’m doing my best to make a clean break here, you can help me by giving me space while I box everything up.” 
  • “I can see that you’re upset, but I’m sorry, I really can’t.” 
  • “Look, I’m trying to keep my cool, but that’s the third sigh in as many minutes. If there’s something you want to say, please say it. Otherwise, please leave me to it.” 
  • “I know we’re both processing breakup feels, but I’m the one who is being displaced by this. Until I’m all set up in my new place and have had time to be by myself, I just really need to disengage from talking about ‘us.'”
  • “I’d like to be alone right now, thank you.” 

They may be painful things to say, or to hear, but none of those scripts are particularly mean, rude, or untrue. If you start to feel guilty, remind yourself that your ex has choices about seeking support from friends and family, cranking up the volume in her own headphones, going into a different room to the extent possible, taking walks, running errands, etc.  It’s not some unforgivable display of fury on your part if hitting a wall of, “Yep, it sucks, nope, don’t want to talk about it” from you nudges her her in one of those directions. 

Follow Words With Actions

If you do end up adapting any of the scripts, think about how you might put a door between the two of you as soon as possible after you say the thing, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Take a walk around the block, invent an errand at the corner store, move into a different room to grab a glass of water or to write something down before you forget it. Remember that bathroom time = alone time.

The exact manner and justification are less important than the fact of creating a tangible physical or spatial interruption in the conversation’s momentum. You’re trying to erect new boundaries and break old habits, and accidentally creating a cycle where you work up the skills to tell your ex that you don’t want to talk about feelings right now, only to immediately get trapped into dealing with the feelings, is only going to make you feel more annoyed and powerless. Words describe boundaries, but it’s our actions that maintain them. So, like an actor leaving frame, or a director calling “cut,” like deliberately wearing headphones, or hanging up a telephone, the act of physically moving away where once you might have stayed and hung on every word can help you reset the scene and give yourself the space you need. 

Two more weeks. You can do this. Two more weeks. 

Brief Announcement: Like today’s Letter Writer, I am also packing for a move, in about two weeks. Not a breakup move, thankfully, just, our lease is ending and the whole Awkward Household is moving to a new place. But since Mr. Awkward is still in Texas looking after his mom, it’s just me right now. Twice the stuff (and cats) + half as many people as last time = I’m about to close the mailbox for a couple of weeks until I’m settled. Please take very good care of yourselves and hold that thought for now. Thank you!

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