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a drunken cowboy, gingerbread house chaos, and other office contests that went badly

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This post, a drunken cowboy, gingerbread house chaos, and other office contests that went badly , was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

Last week, I asked you to share your stories of workplace contests gone awry. Here are 10 of my favorites.

1. The chili cook-off winner

Not my story but my dad’s, and it makes me laugh every time. His workplace hosts an annual chili cookoff and everyone would bring in a crockpot of their chili, put it in the kitchen, and then judging and mass chili consumption would happen at lunch.

One year, one of his coworkers brought in an empty crockpot in the morning, took a bowl of chili from every other crockpot and dumped it in his crockpot while people were working, stirred it up and called it his own chili. He ended up WINNING that year for his “depth of flavor”, and confessed after he got asked for the recipe and had no answer. Everyone wanted to riot!

2. The run-down gingerbread house

My work did a gingerbread house contest a couple years back. All the employees could vote for their favourites. Most teams spent hours on it and made really beautiful things but mine was basic and fell apart before I was done. I put a sign on it that said “for rent: $2000 per month” since the COL in my city is super high and I figured at least people would laugh even though I obviously wouldn’t win.

I was wrong because I won in a landslide despite putting in less than 30 minutes of work. Most people were good sports but some people were definitely bitter!

3. The free day off

We did Office Olympics with events like rubber band archery and seated trashcan basketball. Beer, wine, and snacks were provided, but we got into trouble with a VP pulled out some whiskey. At the end of the event, I grabbed the mic to thank the organizers and participants, and yadda, yadda, yadda… I announced that everyone would be receiving a free PTO day, which I had absolutely zero authority to give. Thankfully management made sure we all got home safe and followed through with the PTO day like it had been planned and approved.

4. The drunken cowboy

Long ago, my company had an annual Halloween parade and contest. And then there was the year that someone came in as a drunken cowboy. Problem came when a vice president who was acting as judge grabbed the bottle of Jim Beam and took a swig and found out it was real. I’m still not sure how the cowboy kept his job…but it was 15 years before we had another costume contest.

5. The steps contest

Our work has a terrible “who can walk the most steps” contest. It’s framed as a fitness thing, but it’s pretty ableist and frankly comes off not great when all of us are working from our homes, are pressured to work more hours, and a lot of folks (particularly at more junior levels) find it hard to find the time for regular exercise.

So, sorry not sorry, I attached my activity tracker to my siberian husky’s collar and am KILLING it. I’ve made my views known and no one listened, so if the doggo wins the prize will go straight to the furloughed employees assistance fund.

6. The hot sauce contest

The full story of the hot sauce eating contest, in all its horrifying glory.

On year as part of our Oktoberfest party the party organizer (Brad) decided that we would have a hot sauce eating contest. I don’t do spice, so I sat the whole thing out. The prize (singular) was an Amazon gift card.

The contest starts with maybe 20 people, a good mix of folks from all the departments in the building, sitting panel-style at the front of the big conference room. They start with some mild hot sauce served straight on a spoon, and they’re off to the races. And people start dropping out left and right as the sauces keep getting hotter and hotter, until we comes to the last two people, and the hottest sauce. This sauce is so hot that it comes with a large warning label. Brad dons a pair of nitrile gloves before even opening the box the bottle comes in. This sauce is so hot that rather than a drop on a spoon, it is presented as a tiny drop on a toothpick. (It’s called The Source.)

Both people eat it. Neither bows out. So Brad sort of stares at them and gets two more toothpicks.

Again they eat, and again neither bows out. Neither is even sweating, unlike Brad, who is looking very concerned. See, the bottle says not to ingest more than 2 drops in a day, for the sake of your esophagus.

At this point half the audience is shouting “tie tie!” in an effort to get them to stop before someone gets hurt. But then one of the bosses (who had tapped out 5 sauces earlier) shouts that there is only one prize, and to keep going. So Brad gets out the bottle again. Now the audience is in a complete uproar, with some demanding that the contestants keep going, while others insist that they stop. While the toothpicks are prepared someone shouts “I’ve got five bucks if you stop!” which starts the passing of the hat to scrounge up enough cash to balance the Amazon card.

Eventually a tie is declared and the hot sauce eating stops. One contestant threw up in the bushes on the way to his bus, and the other missed work the next day because she was up all night with GI distress.

And that was the last eating contest.

7. The IT contest

Some people shouldn’t try to manage IT departments. Case in point:

Our boss back then had a “really fun great contest” in mind to increase team morale across the various local IT departments. There were about 6 different teams he directly managed.

His plan? “The team that identifies AND fixes the most system errors in a month gets several days paid leave! And an award of whatever food they like.”

Anyone with any experience in IT or software engineering knows what happened next: the most colossal amount of service failure calls logged EVER. Heck, wander into the LAN room, disconnect a random cable and you could get 20 calls logged before you put the cable back in. Edit permissions in Active Directory!

There was 2 days of this before the boss sent round a single line email: “This was a f**king stupid idea eh?”

8. The voting cheat

My ex company (which was pretty huge at around 500 people) regularly held inter-department competitions – charity bake sales (most popular stall), staff walking count (total number of steps collated on a fitbit). As one of the smallest and least known departments, we always ranked the lowest… until one day, a colleague of mine realised the most popular stall voting sticker looked exactly the standard yellow circle sticker you can find in any stationary store. Several votes were added to our count, and for the first time in YEARS, our department won something.

(If it’s any comfort, you don’t get a prize other than a mention in the next company news letter)

9. The unfamiliar foods

At a staff picnic, we had a contest where blindfolded contestants were given various foods to guess and finish. Unfamiliar stuff like pickled eggs, sardines, huge Castelvetrano olives, caviar (the cheap stuff, not the good stuff), pickled mushrooms, etc. The staff team responsible went out of their way to serve items that our contestants would probably be unfamiliar with — that was the point. I got a whole HEAD of garlic in oil. I did not win the contest; I did not even complete the contest. I’ve often thought later how lucky they were not to serve something that would have triggered a food allergy.

10. The gingerbread chaos

One of my lovely former colleagues always had great ideas for fun contests and she outdid herself at one holiday party. The teams in this contest had 15 minutes to assemble and decorate a gingerbread house from a kit. Not too difficult, you may think. But everyone assembling and decorating had to do it wearing a blindfold. Each team was allowed one non-blindfolded member, who was allowed only to shout out instructions.

Well, I’m glad they put down a tarp first and made the participants wear plastic aprons, because I’ve never seen so many gumdrops go flying and so much icing get squirted everywhere. It was total chaos and hilarious to watch. And if you’re wondering how difficult it was, the winning house had two walls standing, one of which fell over right after the contest ended.

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bibismcbryde
236 days ago
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#1314: “I put my emotions in the fridge and went away for a few years and now I’m afraid of what’s growing in there.”

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Hi Cap-

The short version of my question is, what to do when day-to-day survival and long-term aspirations are incompatible?

The long form: there’s this Annie Dillard quote, “how we spend our days is how we spend our lives,” and I don’t *think* it’s supposed to feel awful, but like that Eleanor Roosevelt(?) saw about how “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” it… does. Feel awful. I never meant to spend my life like this.

Once I lived in rad group houses with my friends, rode my bike everywhere, felt independent yet pleasantly interdependent, and felt free to express my queer anarchist art self. I met a rad person, we were solid friends for several years, and then we fell in love. He was, and remains, fantastically interested in and supportive of what I’m doing, what I’m interested in, what I’m thinking. We moved in together and a few years later we got married. Our roommates were awful and the house was far from my usual haunts, but that’s bay area real estate for you.

I got a job that made me feel stupid and incompetent, and stayed there for four years. (My first serious relationship had the same dynamic. Why? My parents are lovely and raised me right, but somehow I’m vulnerable to the suggestion that I’m terrible and only this one person/job could possibly put up with me.) Then the 2016 election happened. Then I got cancer. Then I just… quit having feelings. Battened down the hatches and avoided everything that might threaten my control. Stopped reading fiction, didn’t listen to music, made some really rote art, cancer stole my sexuality, and living in the almost-suburbs was an easy logistical excuse when my friends went out dancing. My one feeling was “angry” and I was angry about everything. I’m still mad – I don’t know how/why not to be anymore – but my anxiety level is steadily rising and I suspect there is a monstrous sadness under those boards I nailed over my heart.

I didn’t think the pandemic was gonna be this bad for me personally. I’ve always been sort of a homebody (or, that deadly combination, a homebody prone to FOMO). I had already quit the horrible job. We moved to the actual suburbs (ow, my punk rock ego), with no awful roommates (hooray). My husband’s business can be done without COVID danger, and can support both of us, so I could suspend my pointless job hunt. I don’t have to freak out about food and rent and I have more time to spend making art than ever before – I literally used to daydream about this – but the art feels boring and/or compulsive and I’ve never been more lonely. My situational casual friendships and community are on hiatus (or secretly hanging out without me; see FOMO), and three of my dearest friends have moved away, and another is dying, and I miss them, and I miss *myself.* I miss my husband – who has to have noticed, but he’s constantly tired from work and probably doing the same sort of internet-based coping that I am and we sort of keep different hours and after four years I have no idea how to even start the conversation. The best connection I’ve had in ages was with an old housemate I don’t really like – he called to ask me an obnoxious question and I don’t give a shit what he thinks of me, so we just had an entirely honest conversation and it felt like cool water after years in the desert. And then I hung up the phone and the water just seeped away into the sand. How to… be a person? Anymore?

It’s obvious that this is a GURL GET PROFESSIONAL HELP situation and I want to assure you that I am. I’m doing OK at “this is depression/anxiety talking and not The Voice Of God.” I really understand, finally, that I can’t just keep myself boarded up for the rest of my life, and I guess that’s progress? But I’ve had a peek behind those boards recently and it’s fucking awful in there. How on earth can I reclaim a feeling, vulnerable, honest *life* when the only thing that gets me through each *day* is the sort of superficial, disassociative behavior that got me to this terrible spot?

She/her pronouns please. Thanks for listening.

Hello, thanks for writing and thank you also for expressing a very relatable thing for many people in this Plague Year, where the BeforeTimes™ and the AfterTimes™ feel equally distant. It’s all middle, somehow. It’s all February, all the way down. Those of us who have survived this long are grateful for it, but maybe we don’t feel particularly grateful, and then we’re guilty for feeling ungrateful, and then we’re mad again. 

Numbness and compartmentalization can be survival skills, but I think you are right that you can only go so long without feeling your feelings. You mentioned anger, as if there is something wrong with feeling angry, and anger sounds like a good starting point to me. I’m picturing a baby bird in a shell, an angry little beak about to make the first strike against the brittle egg. What emerges won’t be pretty, all screaming, and bewildered, and surrounded by shattered things, but it will be alive.

I am going to leave sorting out professional help and long-term brain and feelings-care to you. There is healing that needs to happen that is well above my pay grade and allotted time. 

Instead I am going to give you a series of non-mandatory assignments for some things you might do with your days between now and when you’re ready to make that first screaming peck. Little art projects, letter writing, daydreams, rambles, love, a syllabus for doing things that might point you in the direction of feelings. 

Assignment 1: Tomorrow

Your friend is dying. Get out a notebook or whatever you use to write with. Write down some stories:

  • The first time you met them. What did you think, what did you imagine about this person? Did you know how important they would become in your life? 
  • The last day you saw them face-to-face. What were you doing? What was everyone wearing? What did it smell like, what did you eat, what did they say? How did you feel? Did you know it would be the last time for a while? What do you want to remember about that time? 
  • The best day you can ever remember spending in their company. The day you would want to go back to and live in, if you could. 
  • Something they taught you/gave you. What did you learn, and how? What pieces of them – jokes, language, habits – have become a part of you? Is there a gift they gave you that you love and use all the time? 
  • Something you admire about them. Something that makes you proud. 
  • Something you need to apologize for. (If anything) What do you wish you had done or said instead? 
  • A daydream about this friend. If you could do anything or go anywhere with this friend again, where would you go? What would you do> 

Don’t be literary, don’t edit, don’t worry about a coherent narrative (snapshots/glimpses/snippets are fine), just write, as true and simple and vivid as you can what happened, what you remember. Fix this person in your memory the way you want to hold onto them forever. 

Also tomorrow: Gather all the photos you have of this friend, all the photos of you and this friend together. Get the best of them printed at the local drugstore so you have physical objects. 

Friday, write a letter to this friend and tell them how much you love them and will miss them and the best things you remember about them. Use as much or as little as your journaling as you wish. Pick up your photo prints and put copies of the photos in the letter. Mail everything to your friend.

If they are still in the world, then you still have time to tell them how much you love them. If they can’t read the letter for some reason, someone close by who also loves them will read it to them, or for them, and know that their love and grief are shared.

You feel enormous grief, true, but you also feel enormous love. Let it in, and then give it away. There is still time.

Assignment 2: Next Week/Next Year 

Consider your three closest friends who moved away. Is it possible to plan a getaway with them for approximately a year from now? One long weekend. One rental house or cabin that sleeps all of you. No bras or waistbands required. All of the snacks. Mixes of everyone’s favorite music. 

I have a group of friends who do annual getaways like this in non-pandemic years, no spouses or partners or kids. It is the best. Almost exactly a year ago, I returned to Washington, D.C. for my 46th birthday and saw my very best friends from when I was 26, all gathered in the same room for the first time in 20 years. I also got to meet some longtime internet friends in person for the first time. It was the best. It’s not the sightseeing, or parties, or any particular place we ate or went that makes it magical, it’s the luxury of unlimited downtime to sit and talk with people and catch up with them about all the things that don’t get posted on social media or conveyed in texts or emails or Zooms. To say “how are you?” and look into their eyes while they tell you, for real, but nobody has to rush off anywhere because the wedding is starting soon or the babysitter needs to go home. It is the best. 

You can have this if you want it, I think. Start making the plan. 

Assignment 3: Art (On-going) 

As you get time, little by little, create (if necessary) and revisit the archive of every piece of art you’ve ever made that you still have access to/copies of/drafts of/notes for/images of.

Within this archive, locate and make note of the following items: 

  • The first thing you ever made in your chosen medium. Go back as far as you can. Where did you start? 
  • The first good thing you made. The first thing that made you think, “I’m pretty proud of this.” “I understand how to do this.” 
  • The best thing you made. The thing that you’re most proud of to show others, maybe the thing that got the most positive response from others, but also, the thing that came the closest to what was in your mind’s eye. 
  • The thing it was the most fun to make. Maybe it came out great, maybe not so much, but it was a pleasure to work on it. 
  • The almost-thing. You had such hopes and ambitions for it, it was even fun to work on it sometimes, maybe, but it never quite came together or landed. 
  • Bonus: Something that is not covered by the above list that you have strong negative feelings about when you revisit it. The thing you loved but your art teacher and fellow students hated. The thing it felt too scary to make. The thing that made you doubt your abilities. The thing that feels too sad, too faraway to even look at now.

Write/reflect a little bit. What do these things have in common – aesthetically, subject-wise, medium? I did this once and realize that all of my student film protagonists are trying to break free of something, and they all wear this certain shade of pink when they do, and it was an accident (what skirt they brought to set, a borrowed jacket from a crew member on a freezing day, a recent dye job) but it was still true, it was still there. The color of “getting away” is hot pink, for me.

What was going on in your life when you created each of them? Were there support systems, inspirations, funding, material, collaborations that helped? Who was a fan and cheerleader of this work? 

Choose one of the pieces from your initial list or something else from your personal archive. Remake it. 

If necessary, change the scale to fit the resources you’re working with now. A short film from 10 years ago could become a stage play, or a feature screenplay. Consider changing the medium. A short story to a screenplay, a screenplay or film to a comic, or a stage play reimagined for radio with soundscapes instead of set dressing or stage directions. Turn a poem into a song, a dance into a photograph, a painting into a collage. If it’s a medium you’ve never tried before, so much the better! 

It doesn’t have to be skilled. It doesn’t have to be better than the original, or even good. It’s a document of yourself, for yourself. It’s that thing where art is about both an idea or emotion and about solving a specific set of creative problems at a certain time. You don’t feel connected to your emotions right now, you don’t feel capable of expressing them, but you are still making things. So go back, to when it was new, to when you had more feelings than you knew what to do with, and apply the skills, and more importantly, the experience and perspective you have now. What comes out may not be good, but it won’t be bloodless or routine, because you will care about your younger self, and want to do right by her. 

Assignment 4: Anger (On-going) 

Every time you feel helplessly angry, try to do something about it. Examples, depending on how much energy you have and what you’re mad about: 

  • Transform “raising awareness” into action. If you share topical articles about world events and policies that make you angry on social media, include information about actions people can take if they want to do something about it, too. “I’m planning on calling my local reps about X bill, here’s the info if you want to call, too.”
  • Write or call your local government officials and light a fire under them. 
  • Donate to your local food bank when you can. Feed somebody. 
  • Find an activist group that works on an issue you care about. Make a donation that you can afford to support their work. 
  • Make art about it. 
  • Clean something. Rage is motivating. 
  • Repair something. You might not be able to fix systemic issues in one go today but maybe you can do one small thing to make the world a little better. 

Inaction breeds anxiety. Start channeling your anger and anxiety into action whenever you can. You don’t have to feel good in order to do good and useful things.

Assignment 5: Seeing (On-going) 

Use your phone camera to take a photograph of yourself every day for the next year. It doesn’t have to be artsy, flattering, or posed. 

With his consent, use your phone camera to take a photograph of your husband every day for the next year. It doesn’t have to be artsy, flattering, or posed. (There are conversations you need to have with your husband, about daydreams and love and deeper connection and the future. Probably tell your therapist all about that. For now, make a practice where you stop and look at his face for a little while, once a day. See him.)

If you have pets, definitely repeat the above steps. 

Look at these faces.

These are the best faces in the whole world!

Assignment 6: Love (On-going) 

Once a week, say “I love you” to somebody, and mean it. 

Tell somebody you are proud of them. Say thank you, tell people you are grateful for their kindnesses and their work. Tell somebody you are glad to see them. Tell them they look good today. If you want to start feeling feelings, and saying them, possibly in the same year? Start with the love ones. Say them all the time. 

(That somebody can be you.)

Assignment 7: Enough

Do not use anything I’ve written here to beat yourself up for not doing more. If you find yourself doing that, stop immediately. Consider this list-making process instead and go back to baby steps. 

This is enough for now. You, still in the world, surviving, imperfectly, in your boring suburb, with your half-baked art, and your sweet husband, and the friends you miss, are enough. 



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bibismcbryde
257 days ago
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katster
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Helpful tips for climbing out of some deep dark holes.
Sactown, CA

#1304: “Fox News stole my mom and replaced her with a ranting lady who won’t let me say or do anything without it setting her off. How do I get along with her until I can leave for college?”

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On calling bluffs, escape velocity, and the futile, necessary, but probably still futile, work of reclaiming some of our relatives from history’s flaming dumpster. Content note: Sometimes honestly talking about authoritarian stuff and white supremacy means describing it, so there are examples of actual racist and xenophobic statements from relatives herein.

Dear Captain, 

I (she/her,18) have a multifaceted problem that I would appreciate some help with. It stems from a larger more managed issue (Thanks Therapy), but I’ve been thinking a lot about it as I plan to essentially flee for college next fall, COVID-19 permitting. 

I am left-leaning and queer while my family is conservative. This is fine with most of my family, I’m in the closet and none of them are actively politically engaged conservatives, except for my Mother. She and I used to (Again, Thanks Therapy) get into Fights about politics among other things on an almost weekly basis. Fights would almost always be multi-hour affairs where both of us ended up in tears, have gotten physical a few times, and resulted in threats to not pay for my college. I made the safety decision to stop Talking Politics at home. 

I have managed to set up boundaries, though they have to be non-explicit as my Mother feels that any boundaries are a Personal Attack on her. I avoid watching the news with my family and have been forced to develop a Fox News Anchor Acceptability Ranker. I don’t bring up anything that might be construed as political. I do not express emotion when they try to talk politics or watch the news (No matter how much I want to beat Tucker Carlson’s head in with a heavy statue of Zora Neale Hurston). The issue is that literally anything I say can set my mother off on a political rant. All examples are paraphrased, but relatively accurate. 

Example One:

Me: “My friends and I are laughing at the fact that they are making a 2nd Tall Girl Movie” 

Mother: “What is Tall Girl?”

——–Captain Awkward, interjecting: What is Tall Girl? :googles: Ah, I see. Carry on. ——-

Me: (explains Tall Girl in its profound stupidity)

Mother: “See this is what Liberals do. Now everyone thinks they can complain about their life problems. It’s making our children weak, etc.”

Example Two: 

Me: Shows Father (who is normally Fine) picture of ugly bathroom in an expensive house “Isn’t it wild that people pay that much money to have a toilet on a two foot tall pedestal”

Father: (laughing) “Actually some basketball players have to do that for comfort.”

——-Captain Awkward: Tall people, tall toilets, sensing a theme here possibly? ;)———

Mother: (not previously in any way involved in this conversation) “Well doesn’t that make them entitled. How could any Black person in this country be oppressed if some basketball players have access to custom toilets?”

Example Three:

Me: (talking to mother on phone about sleep-away summer educational program pre-Covid) “… Anyway my class and I just vibe with each other.”

Mother: “Vibe, never use that word again. It is an un-Christian word. You’re being brainwashed by communists that want to destroy gender.”

    There are literally no topics I can safely discuss at home. What my friends are doing turns into they are actually all planning to secretly screw you over so you should never be friends with anyone. Media turns into you’re being brainwashed by liberal conspiracies. Clothes turn into weird weight shit. Cooking, my hobby, more weight shit. My feelings turn into why do you feel that way, are you saying I’m a Bad Mother.

    She gets upset when I don’t talk at home. Do you have any scripts or ideas for how to manage this? I want to be able to interact with my own family without it feeling like a puzzle that will zap me if I get it wrong. I somehow still love her, I just think that we are going to have to maintain a superficial relationship for the rest of our lives. This should be easier once I get to college, hopefully out of state, but I don’t want to piss her off enough in the coming months that she won’t pay for it. 

Thank You I know this is a lot, 

I Just Want to be Able to Make Small Talk Without Invoking the Wrath of God

Dear Small-Talk-Wrath,

Sometimes I’m making my to-do list for the day and have this whole plan and then a letter comes in, and I’m like, HELLO, I LOVE YOU, I HAVE TO ANSWER THIS RIGHT NOW, SORRY/YOU’RE WELCOME. So, hello, I love you, this sounds awful, and I’m so glad you wrote in. I offer both advice and commiseration. 

First things first: Commiseration, obviously. YOU ARE NOT ALONE in having a controlling, authoritarian relative who has embraced cruel, authoritarian ideologies. Listen to this podcast about Fox News and family estrangement and/or read this article. There is a definite Thing happening, where scary authoritarian propaganda and misinformation and conspiracy theories are combining with a failure to govern are combining with pandemic anxieties are combining with white supremacist awfulness are combining with toxic hierarchies in families are combining with… (etc. times infinity) Those links run through some of the whys and possible solutions for what’s happening. 

This isn’t just a 2020 thing or a 2016 thing or a generation-specific thing, or even a Facebook thing, this used to happen with my Grandpa, too, where we’d be talking about something I am an expert on, relative to him, and I’d refute some bizarre genocidal Islamophobic talking point he got from talk radio or Ye Olde Angry Old Man Internet, Home of Weird Animated Flags, ASCII Art Flags, Eagles, Crying Eagles, Eagle-Flags, Racist Flags, Jesus Flags, and Racist Jesus, On An Eagle-Flag, Exploding Out Of The Twin Towers, While (Racistly) Crying. Whenever I’d fact-check the content or push back on the overall theme of Mushroom Clouds + Racist Caricatures + Summary Executions of Abortion Providers/Havers = Patriotism?, Grandpa would say, “You’re very young, you just don’t know the truth of things” and I’d be like, I don’t have the same experiences you do, obviously, but I actually do know some things, would you like some articles? (I ❤ citations) and he’d suddenly need to get off the phone, because nobody in the box marked “granddaughter, woman, young” could possibly also live in the box marked “actual adult, who sometimes knows things.” 

Point being, if you currently have people in your family who cheer on suffering and mass death as long as it’s happening to the “right” sort of people, there’s probably a large overlap with the people in your family who already won’t take your word for anything, including your lived experiences, including your sexual orientation, including your gender and true name, including observations that the sky is blue, including your favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe. These people do occasionally accept corrections or new information, but only when delivered by someone with in-group status that they already see as an authority or peer.When I listened to the podcast I linked, it made me cry when Sarah Marshall described her hunger for her parents to just once believe what she has to say about literally anything, not just politics, because she said it. To take her at her word about a thing she knows, or feels, or something that happened to her, without second-guessing or dismissing her. I’m so sorry to everyone who asks me how to accomplish this with their families, because truthfully, I don’t know. When it was me trying to do the persuading, I failed, and not just with Grandpa.

Whenever Grandpa emailed everyone in my family (CC: all of our elected officials) with truly disgusting, vile rants, which got even worse when he started composing his own, many rolled their eyes and told him not to email them about “politics” anymore, but nobody said shit about the content, except when I spoke up, at which point everybody yelled at me for “antagonizing him” and admonished me to “just ignore it” and reminded me that “he has a right to his opinions” (the “unlike you” was silent but deadly). I do not think anyone in my family agreed with the things he wrote, but the hierarchy of obeying elders, of knowing my place, of “respect” as a thing I owed but was never owed in return, came more naturally than backing me up on “Hey, Grampa, what you’re describing here is war crimes avec un petit soupçon de genocide, actually, so, respectfully…no?” Is it “just an old man’s harmless ravings, ignore them” when our country goes to war(s) over those same ravings, when less than five years later a racist president signs a “No Muslims Allowed” travel ban on his first day at work? That too is white supremacy, deciding that somebody routinely saying violent, racist things is “embarrassing”  instead of dangerous, and only requires a polite subject change because none of it is entirely real to you. If I failed to reach my grandfather with passionate engagement, I’d argue that “just ignore it and it will go away” failed just as much. We lost him long before we lost him. 

“Let there be peace on Earth and let it begin with me” is a song and a way of being that he taught me. I was his favorite, all my life, the first grandchild, his pride and joy, his Scrabble partner and nemesis, the living proof that girls could do anything boys could do that he’d refused to grant his daughters, and I failed. I kept loving him and fact-checking him to the end, I asked him questions and listened to the answers, I tried to see where he was coming from and make allowances for an old soldier’s mind closing in on itself with age and the loss of my Grandma, and I failed. I constructed beautiful, researched, airtight arguments to appeal to logic and our shared humanity, and yet, I still failed. The absolute truth is that Grandpa both fought Nazis in the 1940s and sounded a whole lot like one by the time he died in 2011, courtesy of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and Old Man Memesters, and also courtesy of whatever lived inside him that turned on certain media channels day after day because he just enjoyed his news more when it’s white and hysterical and has suggestions for who to hatemurder. Is that too harsh? The man sent me emails, plural, specifically calling for rounding up American Muslims and placing them in concentration camps after 9/11, in those words. If he were still here, he wouldn’t be a red hat cultist, mind, but he’d be one of the Lincoln Project or Susan Collins-y authoritarians who is like “ugh, so concerning!” while enabling every last vile shred of it. I hate it, and I hate knowing that there would be nothing I could do to change it. 

Letter Writer, you are not alone, the people who wrote me similar letters are not alone, none of us are alone, and nobody can fight or fix this alone by being pure of heart and sure of word, is what I think. We’re going to need sustained, widespread policies and content moderation tools and journalism standards and massive antitrust actions that force lucrative platforms to stop the toxic sludge at the source because it literally gets too unprofitable to be a bunch of fascism-enabling ubrovillains. Some people’s hearts can’t be fixed with better interpersonal communications or the tempting Sorkiny fantasy that, deep down, everybody wants the same things and can be reached with the right conversation, or, in Aaron’s case, stirring-monologue-with-cheesy-music-and-hallway-power-walk. “Everyone” clearly does not want the same things, people are dying, and if our shittiest relatives want us to believe in a shared inherent human decency, I’m all about it, but I’m gonna need them to stop keeping theirs “deep down” next to the oft-mentioned “racist bone” that is 100% definitely somewhere in their bodies. 

Now that that’s off my chest, Letter Writer, it’s advice time! I’d like to suggest a thought experiment/research project: If your mom did outright refuse to pay for college, what would you do? 

If people don’t know, the current financial aid system in the United States calculates college costs and aid based on parents’ income, and has many flaws. One glaring one is that it doesn’t account for financial abuse (not to mention other kinds of abuse). If your parent won’t fill out the form, or decides they don’t want to pay at the last minute, you’re out of luck until you jump through many hoops to have yourself declared independent. If one must have supportive, kind parents instead of controlling & abusive ones in order to access higher education, then it’s not exactly a right, and one way to describe many “left wing” social safety net policies is the belief that nobody’s survival, safety, health, dignity or future should be subject to the whims of their abusers. 

You have this year to think about and plan your future, and I think logistics are a good place to start, because in a situation where you don’t feel like you have any control, nailing down what you can do can be a way to reclaim some agency and freedom. Your choices (hide yourself and continuously find new ways to comply vs. jump out on your own at 18 during a pandemic and burgeoning recession) are not awesome, and they aren’t fair, but the more you understand them, the more choices you actually have within them. Some questions to get you rolling: 

-What are the projected costs of where you want to go to school? What are your options?

-Can you (on a walk outside the house where you cannot be overheard) have a confidential talk with a financial aid counselor at your college about your situation and see what kind of options there are for students who do not have financial support from home, as well as what you’d need to do to document that? What’s on offer may be scant, but knowing is better than not knowing, and you won’t be the first or only person who has needed information about this. 

-What alternate resources are there for paying for school? Think: In-state tuition at the least expensive state school, getting some requirements done at a community college and then transferring, scholarships, grants, student loans (which are not ideal, obviously, but researching federal loans vs. private ones and, again, figuring out what’s possible is a good idea). There are a lot of guides like this one out there that can give you a framework for further research, and the incoming administration is making lots of noises about free or vastly less expensive schooling that may be implemented by the time you actually start. You also need this info in case your mom pays for college in the beginning but keeps inventing reasons to threaten you and yank it away when you’re halfway through. 

-What allies do you have, inside and outside the family? If it came down to it and your mom refused to pay, would your dad back her up, or would he say “That’s ridiculous” and write the checks? What are your grandparents like? Do you have favorite teachers from high school who you’d trust to explain your home situation truthfully and who would write additional glowing recommendation letters for you as you go after scholarships and grants?

-If you had to move out of your house, are there friends or relatives who would take you in for a while? If you had to delay college for a while, could you apply to a program like AmeriCorps or other volunteer service that gets you out of your house, gets you job experience, and (sadly small) college scholarship benefits?

-Is it possible to get copies of your birth certificate and ID documents, vaccination records, and school transcripts and stash them at a friend’s house in case you had to move out in a hurry? 

-What options do you have for earning money and socking it away in a bank account your parents cannot see or access, and/or what skills can you pick up on the fly for free? Can you put the word out in the family that you’re trying to earn some extra money for college next year (which will be handy whether or not your mom comes through for you) and are willing to accept odd jobs?

Ideas: “Cousin-Small-Business-Owner, I will happily proofread and clean up your website if you’ll pay me a little something and be a professional reference for me.” “Aunt Tax Accountant, do you need a willing paper wrangler for tax season? Teach me your ways.” Home organizing, tech support, “For $X plus materials I will scan, print, and label all the family photos into albums and make a digital archive for everyone.” You love cooking, so maybe something like, “For $Y plus $Z for ingredients, I will plan and make you a week’s worth of individually-wrapped lunches you can pop in your freezer.” I don’t know what you should charge for virtual babysitting/tutoring, i.e. “I will hang with your child on FaceZoom and do an activity with them/help them with their homework/read them a story/let them chatter to me about Minecraft or The Titanic for half an hour every day,” but I know that this is a thing that working parents everywhere would throw some money at.

Becoming the family scribe or Meals-On-Wheels service isn’t just about money, it can also be a way of building loving, mutually supportive ties with your elders that aren’t mediated through your mom. She is not the only person in your family, she is not the only person who gets a say in how lovable you are (very!) and who you are allowed to be (yourself, only ever yourself). If your mom has siblings, it’s likely that they know or strongly suspect how she is as a parent even if they diplomatically stay quiet, and if you’ll allow me to be your personal Machiavelli for a moment, if the shit really does hit the fan next fall, your mom’s story about your sullen teen rebellion won’t match the actual bright, conscientious sweet pea who has been cleaning Granny’s house and helping her Zoom into her virtual church services for the past six months. It’s not the worst thing ever if your mom has to weigh “how much do I want to punish and control my daughter” vs. “how much do I care about looking like a huge asshole to everyone else in the family,” and reckon with associated networks of influence and peer pressure before she makes any regrettable decisions.

THIS ISN’T FAIR. You should not have to earn your place in your family and strategically plan your next year like an intergalactic space voyage. Not every parent is willing to pay for college or even can pay for college, lots of families make agreements around minimum grade point averages and timeframes and budgets as conditions for continued support, but there’s a word for using money to threaten your kids and make them walk on eggshells around you, and a word for verbally shaming and berating them every minute of every day, and that word in both cases is abuse. Your mom is making it impossible for you to have a harmonious or authentic relationship with her, and what she is choosing, ultimately, is a future where she is something you have to escape from, keep your distance from, and discuss only the weather (a liberal conspiracy, obviously) with until the day she dies. It is unfair, it is sad, it is not your fault, and unfortunately you are very limited in what you can do to change the vibe (clearly Satanic) in your home while you still live there.

So one way I want to help you is to give you every possible resource and avenue so that if it comes down to it, and your mom says “Do this or I won’t pay for your education” or “Do this or you can’t live here,” and you reach the point where you cannot endure the abuse anymore, you can call her bluff, calmly say “Okay, if that’s what you want, Mom,” quietly pack whatever things you haven’t already stored in a backpack at your best friend’s house, and go. It will never not be scary, but if you have a plan, if you know exactly what your line in the sand is and what it means to cross it, it may also give you courage to endure the situation a while longer and a little more confidence to press your luck with enforcing boundaries while you still live there.

I humbly suggest that your mom has overplayed her hand in more ways than one: 1) If she makes good on her threats, and you still won’t comply with her, she’s going to have to work to convince you to come back under her roof or talk to her at all. Once you call her bluff? She’s done. 2) If everything you say is disappointing, and silence is also disappointing, if there’s no way you can win, then maybe you can stop playing the game so much? She’s going to pick on you because she likes it and she’s decided that’s the best way to command your attention, but you’re not causing that. You know your own safety best, so don’t deliberately escalate situations or provoke her, but if she’s going to be shitty about everything you say, and equally shitty about everything you don’t say, maybe you can say more of what you actually think sometimes and keep on shrugging the rest of the time. 

If your mother really would withhold the educational help she promised you because you won’t crawl into Lou Dobb’s Neckless Hate Abyss with her all day, every day, that’s on her, that’s a choice she is making, to like the racist poison more than she likes you. And if your dad enables her? I guess he can either stand up for you or he can cry himself to sleep every night to the sound of Ann Coulter barking Nazi crap from your mom’s side of the room, which is also a thing he chose to value over his own daughter. Your parents do not own you, and this liminal period of time where you try to go along and get along and  exist politely with them is a grace you are extending to them, not something you owe. 

I don’t write about family estrangement for fun, and I don’t actually want people to have to choose between their families and survival and love and freedom. I know it’s jarring for people who come from accepting families or averagely-annoying families when I’m like “YOU CAN TRY TALKING IT OUT BUT YOU MIGHT HAVE TO REALLY LEAVE, THO,” and it’s heartbreaking for me, too, every time, because as much as possible, I badly want families to figure it out, to communicate, to forgive and trust and value each other, to grow to understand each other and see each other true. So, my dear, Letter Writer, I very badly want to screenwrite the future where your mom says one of the awful-and-yet-darkly-hilarious-because-you-are-a-great-writer examples you provided in your letter, and you say, “Really? Mom, when you say that stuff to me, what is it you hope will happen?” after which you and she will finally have a real, adult conversation where you hash it out, and mutually, respectfully decide that you don’t have to agree with each other in order to be kind to each other.

But in my opinion and experience, family dynamics like yours and parents like your mom do not change unless the power dynamics change, and sometimes the reminder that you could walk away if you really had to is the only thing that makes it safe or even possible to keep engaging. “Deep breaths, I’m going to take it one visit at a time, and if it’s terrible, I’m allowed to leave and try again another time” isn’t “Fuck you, parents, who needs ’em anyhow,” its “I am trying desperately to stay connected to people I love, in spite of everything.” Abusive parents are not created by disobedient children, there’s no amount of love and duty and compliance that turns an unkind person into a kind one, and sometimes there is no safe distance at which you can coexist. This is true in romantic relationships, this is true in friendships, and this is true in families. 

Right now, the bulk of the power lies with your mom. If she has the purse strings, and if she’s determined to use everything she has, including physical violence (past, sounds like, but still possible) and threats, to get you to undergo the Dutiful Daughter 3000 personality extraction procedure so she can finally own everything about you, including your sexuality, body shape, calorie intake, vocabulary, social interactions, political opinions, and frequent reassurances that she is a great mom, there is zero persuading her to behave differently until you have done something to rebalance the power between you. After going to therapy, you’ve already done some things to give her less power over you, but they all involve diminishing yourself, reacting less, hiding your feelings, holding in your opinions, trying to become so small and so harmless so maybe she won’t pounce today. That’s helped, some, but there are limits. You cannot sustainably remain this small and silent, and you cannot persuade someone who corrects every word that falls out of your mouth and every bite of food that goes into it to deliver basic kindness and respect until there is something she wants more than she wants your compliance.

“Please be nice to me because I need that from you, my Mom, a person I love and who says she loves me” = No.

“Please be nice to me because it’s the right thing to do and probably easier than dreaming up new ways to be a jerk” = Not good enough.

“Can we try a thing where you are at least as nice to me as you would be to a random coworker or possibly a houseplant”= Not getting it done, sorry.

I’m going to really try to stick to safe conversation topics and not set her off this time” = She’s going off at least twice a day like clockwork, you’re not the one causing any of this.

“Be a basic amount of nice to the daughter you have, or you’ll end up with no daughter, because I can withstand your disappointment, and I can grieve and survive your absence, but I won’t participate in your unkindness” = That’s a boundary that can’t be threatened or explained, it can only be enforced over time, but once you do start enforcing it, giving her time and attention when she is kind and removing it swiftly when she is not, it might get her attention, even if she never understands it or takes responsibility for what she did to cause it.

Since she wants your attention badly and wants to be seen as a good mom (way more than she wants to actually be a good mom to you, sadly),  it’s hard to reconcile “I am a wonderful mother!” with “Whatever happened to your daughter, does she ever visit?” and once you’ve had a chance to pull away and she learns that visits and phone calls are optional and happen on your terms, she might find that she can make an effort to be a little nicer and more respectful after all. You might be able to rebuild something from that. Nothing close, or self-aware, or real, or relaxing in any way, but something.

If you leave, and she still refuses to grant you the courtesy one would display when renting a car at an airport or dropping a package off at the post office, she can spin whatever story she wants about your sinful gay abandonment (and lots of estranged parents do, claiming they don’t understand what happened), but you – and she, on some level – will always know that the real story is “I threw a wrecking ball into my daughter’s economic future because she wouldn’t obey me, just because I could, and I could probably get her to visit anytime if I’d only apologize, turn off the hate-box, and stop criticizing her for five minutes in a row.” 

In the meantime,  you are very, very, smart to figure out what your boundaries are, to de-escalate and “grey rock” it wherever you can, to hold onto your friendships and support system, to try to have an independent relationship with your dad, and to try to wait it out for now. Beyond that, as much as you want authentic conversations with your mom and would settle for some neutral ones, she is some mix of incapable and unwilling to have those with you. From what I can see, you are already doing all the work you can conceivably do here just to survive another year in this house, and the status quo might be as good as it gets until you can get away. 

Your small quiet room is out there, somewhere, and if you can hang in long enough to find it, I have done my job today. Please know that I’m sending you all my corrupting Satanic influence, communist gay unicorns who hate rules, and proud antifa love.

 



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bibismcbryde
312 days ago
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#1292: “My creep sister is forwarding my queer child’s social media posts to our conservative parents. How to draw a boundary without outing my kid?”

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Hi Captain,

I’m (F) a proud bi parent to an adult queer child in college. There’s been precious little drama about identity except for my kiddo’s coming out, which was much less than ideal.  

When my kid was a very young teenager, my younger (adult) sister spied on their social media and outed them to myself and my spouse without their permission. My sister, like our parents, is much more conservative than me, my spouse and child by far. Words like “phase” and “inappropriate” were flung around, and a lot of drama about how this would break our parents’ hearts as grandparents. My spouse and I threw down a hard boundary. I told my sister in no uncertain terms that outing my kid crossed a line, and that no amount of professing to care about their internet future or our parents compensated for that, and that she should leave the parenting of Kiddo to my spouse and myself.

It’s now some years later and my child’s in college. I’ve come to find out that my sister has been subtly pointing my parents at my child’s social media accounts, when my child hasn’t overtly come out to Grandma and Grandpa. This has happened without my kid’s knowledge or permission, and I found out about it only because my mother asked me before going looking at the “inappropriate” (that word AGAIN!) content that my sister brought up to her privately. My sister’s sole response to early questioning has amounted to the infuriating justification that my child is an adult now, and simply pointing my parents at some posts is not the same as an overt outing. 

I’m threading a weird needle here: I trust my kid to handle their own business, but I feel like my sister has ignored my boundaries and theirs alike, and I could use some scripts to address this ugly situation without overstepping or letting my sister off the hook. 

Thanks! 

Resisting My Sister

Dear Resisting,

You are a great mom and I appreciate the work you do to protect your kid’s privacy and peace of mind. ❤

Before I get to scripts, this is where I’m coming from in the year 2020:

When you disapprove of queer & trans people, when you police their lives, when you surveil them, when you out them to family members, when you automatically categorize anything that pertains to their sexuality or gender as “inappropriate,” when you support and help enact policies that oppress them, harm them, push them out of workplaces and public spaces, deny them resources, and curtail their human rights, not to mention when you create media that demonizes them, that’s not being “conservative” or “more conservative,” nor is it being “skeptical” or “questioning,” it’s bigotry. 

“But God!” these people always say. “God commands it!” It’s not bigotry, it’s religious bigotry!

Okay, I’ll bite. Why is this homophobic and transphobic God so small? Why is He so obsessed with everyone’s crotchward activities? Do people actually think He hath commanded His English-speaking followers to use only gendered pronouns, haunt the social feeds of college students and screen-cap their “transgressions,” and send agents of the state to lurk in public toilets like the Fonz in Happy Days, diligently upskirting people who are just trying to dook one out in peace?

Also, God commands lots of stuff. Is every single human who also lives where your sister lives fed, clothed, safe, and housed? Is every social problem solved there, are all her closets organized, does she live in some utopia that gives her free time to be concerned about whether dorm rooms have too many rainbow flags, in which case, is she actually a stack of New York Times Opinion columnists in a “dapper” trench coat?

‘Cause if I die and find out that it was all real, and getting into Heaven truly requires maximally-oppressing queer and trans people to prove how much I love Him? Feed me to the flames. Grind my bones to dust. Break me on the wheel. Send me to the mall food court where all the food is beans, all the shirts are wool turtlenecks, all the jeans are low-rise bell-bottoms, and I’m the only waitress on duty, and a tourbus of demanding old white people has always just rolled up, and I must make them all happy, forever, while an eagle eats my liver, if the alternative is making myself cruel enough to please some capitalist crotch-sniffing little bigot-God.

Of course, people have a right to believe whatever they like.

*Everyone else* has an equal right to think, wow, that’s some really weird stuff to believe in, are you sure you’re okay? That’s what respect would look like – you do yours, I do mine, if we privately think the other person is weird, so be it, but let’s be nice to each other and go in peace!

But…conservative…people don’t see it that way, of course, especially the conservative Christian majority where I live in the United States. Many – #notall, of course, but enough that my bodily autonomy and human rights force me to pay attention to a thing I would otherwise completely ignore, so let’s agree that it’s a fucking fair number – think that respecting their right to believe and worship as they please without harm (which I definitely do!) means that all their individual beliefs, no matter how harmful or bizarre or extreme, automatically accrue not only deference but power, including deference from the people who are being harmed, including power over nonbelievers.

Alas, I cannot change this power dynamic with verbal skill-building alone, but I can discuss it nakedly and without euphemism, and I can absolutely refuse to grant legitimacy to toxic beliefs such as “I believe that sinful queer people are going to burn in hell after they die, therefore I’m going to do the most to ensure their lives are hell while they’re alive.”

This is why my advice for you contains zero apology scripts, zero appeasement of your family’s “conservative” wing,  and a lot of “Whoa, why are you being so weird about this? You don’t want everyone thinking you’re a creepy bigot, do you? How embarrassing! ”

When bigotry is what’s damaging a family relationship, bigots have a boring and predictable playbook: First they pretend that it’s having a marginalized identity itself that did the damage (how dare you exist), then they blame the marginalized person’s failure to perform sufficient respect, deference, circumspection, and politeness about the bigotry (how dare you not keep it a secret, how dare you expect me to show basic human kindness about it, how dare you persist in existing Like That).  Then theyy traffic in projection, assumptions, and false equivalencies, like, “I looked at your bathing-suit-area when you were an infant and made assumptions about who you would be and who you would love, your refusal to conform to those assumptions is really hurting me, also, I think that people like you shouldn’t be able to have jobs, or children, or any place to live, or medical care, or any human rights, and basically die, how could you do this to Our Family, can’t you see I’m really suffering here, don’t you know how much I love you?” 

Then they act completely aggrieved and mystified when the people they aren’t nice to and think *don’t deserve human rights* don’t want to schlep home to dance attendance on them at every opportunity (Why do you hate faaaaaaaamily? Why do you reject togetherness? You’re the intolerant one, really!)

Because of the automatic power and deference ceded to homophobic and transphobic bigotry when it’s wrapped in religion or “more conservative” ideology, your sister thinks she gets to treat you and your child like y’all have something to be embarrassed about, something that requires “concern,” secrecy, and euphemisms like “inappropriate,” and she thinks you have to show respect and tiptoe around all of this out of “respect” for your parents.

And because you are a nice person who does respect others, and also because you are yourself a queer person who understands the fragility of rights and power structures in your culture and your family, so far you’ve tried to draw the lines around your sister’s concern-trolling as generously as possible, like, this is an issue about your kid’s privacy (vs. your family’s bigotry) so maybe everyone can co-exist under the illusion that you’re all still together on Team Family.

The reason it’s stopped working is that your sister’s bigotry has grown and calcified to the point that she feels empowered to act up again. There your beautiful child is, still living their proud queer life, still not according your sister’s beliefs, still not providing the automatic deference and compliance she thinks she deserves. So she’s calling in the cavalry in the form of your parents, in the hopes that they can prompt the deference and compliance from you that she, as your peer, cannot. She’s hoping that you’ll be so worried about upsetting your folks, and so afraid to actually have the fight that this is really about with them, that you’ll turn around and roll your parental power downhill onto your child and force them to…what, exactly? (I’m not even sure she knows the answer to that, it’s probably worth asking, so if the answer is “not…be…queer…anymore?” you can give it the reaction it deserves).

Resisting bigotry that’s backed up by power and authority means refusing to accept the bigot’s framing and terms. And it’s a hard thing to do when you’ve been habituated to keeping your head down to survive, when you can expect your family (and rando bystanders) to interrogate everything about you, when every reaction you have is treated as an overreaction, because people who believe as your sister does can never say the words “There is a faint possibility that I am the problem here.” So it’s easy for me to say “burn it all down,” but you’re the one who has to live with and interact your family, so you’re the one who gets to decide your risk tolerance for actually having the conversations about who you are and what you believe, you’re the one who decides what you’re willing to tune out in order to maintain a relationship with these people. This is a tough decision, and it is a decision that I think should absolutely be made in concert with your adult child. You did the right thing to shield a young teen from having to worry about any of this, but it’s time for informed consent: If your child knew what their aunt was up to, they might in fact want to lock down certain privacy settings or generally reconsider what they share online, but even more reasonably, they might want to swiftly and permanently block specifically one interfering damp turd from reading anything they ever post again.

So, yeah, tell your child what’s up. “Have you talked to Aunt NosyPants lately? Does she ever say weird stuff to you online?

I found out that she’s been creepily monitoring your public social media posts and has been sharing them with Grandma and Grandpa, who are ‘concerned’ about [gay stuff]. So, before it gets any weirder, I wanted to loop you in. 

I spoke to her about this once before, when you were a teenager, and told her pretty firmly to stay out of your business, and I’ll happily do that again, but now that you’re an adult, I don’t want to do anything without your say-so.” 

From there, some useful messages to emphasize for your kid:

  • Your sister is WAY out of line, and nothing your kid did caused this.
  • You will not out your kid or force them to come out, but if they want to come out to family so the swirling speculation stops and give your grandparents a chance to come correct, you will gladly help and support them with that, and with managing any fallout.
  • If a rift happens once the news is out, that is sad, it’s sad that some of your family members are so homophobic, bigotry does tear families apart, it’s really hard to love someone when they believe such gross and harmful things and act like creeps.
  • You will never force your kid to be deferential to these people, “tone down” their authentic selves, or maintain a relationship with them if they don’t want to. Smash that “block” button without a second thought, friends.

The rest is going to be up to your child, and your family, though I want to include some advice about setting boundaries with someone as manipulative as your sister.

Whenever someone tries to manipulate family members using triangulation the way your sister is doing here, it can be hard to cut through the fog. This is by design. Triangulators (especially concern-trolls like your sister) dress up their personal prejudices and worries as other people’s concerns to make them more palatable and to redirect attention away from their own bad behavior. She doesn’t hate gay people, what, that’s ridiculous, it’s your parents broken hearts she’s worried about. It’s not that she’s being a busybody, it’s that people online might see your child’s posts and get the wrong idea. She’s just the messenger, really! She’s “just the messenger” in a way that puts her in the center of everyone’s relationship with everyone else and makes her important, somehow: She got in the middle of your relationship with your child  when she outed them to you, in the middle of your relationship with your parents (“You don’t want to break their hearts, do you?”), and now she’s trying it with your child’s relationship with their grandparents by passing on their posts.

Four ways to bust (and bust through) a triangulator:

1. Do not take any concerns they attribute to others at face value. If from now on you mentally translate “People might take it the wrong way” with “My sister is taking it the wrong way” and “Our parents will be very upset” with “My sister is very upset,” how does it change your understanding of the situation? 

2. Kick them out of the middle by insisting on direct communication. “Oh, I’ll wait to talk to X myself, you don’t have to run interference.” “Really? Well, X hasn’t brought it up, I guess I’ll worry about it then.” “Oh, I like to handle things like this directly with X.” “Oh, don’t like to discuss people when they can’t participate.”

3. Refuse to keep secrets for the triangulator or be their messenger. “Well, if you’re so concerned, you should probably ask X directly about that! Anyway…” “Oh, I don’t want to be the middleman, this sounds like a You + X problem.” “Seems like you’ve got this handled, good luck!”

Plus, once you initially alert your child to what’s happening, that’s it, you don’t periodically remind them or pass on more bullshit.

(If you really want to see the color drain out of someone’s face when you suspect double-dealing, cheerfully interrupt their spiel with “Oh, let’s go get X right now, that way you can tell them what you told me!” If they’re full of shit, chances increase they will suddenly have a million reasons why the thing they wanted YOU to pass on cannot possibly be passed on while THEY are on the hook for it. The more sanguine and cheerful you are, the faster they’ll backpedal.)

4. *Never* act on assumptions or fill in the blanks for the triangulator. Make everybody spell out exactly what they mean and exactly what they hope you’ll do about it, then decide what action, if any, you want to take. (We had “do less work” as a blog motto for a while, perhaps the next one should be “make manipulative and shitty people do way more work, make ’em really earn it.” ;p)

What this looks like in practice:

Once you’ve talked to your child, one possible script for your parents the next time they bring something your sister shared with them to your attention is: “Inappropriate? What do you mean? I do not understand?” Assume nothing. Make them spell it out and say the quiet part loud. Do this every single time. What’s inappropriate about it? Your sister assumed, you assumed, but it’s time to know. 

If what they spell out is homophobic, you have an opening to say, “Whoa, you sound pretty homophobic when you say that, you probably don’t want Grandchild hearing you talk like that! They love you so much, it would probably hurt a lot to find out that you feel that way!” 

You also have more than one delicious opening to throw your sister under the same Tattletale-Concern Express bus she tried to mow you down with:

“[Parents], don’t you think it’s weird that Sister is hanging out on my child’s social media like this? She knows she can just call [Nibling] and ask how things are going, right? Maybe say…hello? Why so dramatic?” 

Your parents might say, oh, but she’s just so worried about our grandchild! But, isn’t cyberstalking kind of worrying behavior? “Is Sister okay? Has she been getting enough sleep? How’s her [SORE SPOT THAT ONLY A SIBLING CAN POKE] going?”

See also the one-two punch: “Sister has this idea that supporting equal rights for gay people is wrong, and that you would both be very upset and very cruel to [Grandchild] if you found out that they support equality. I’ve told her repeatedly that you both love Grandchild and you’re not bigots about things like that, but she won’t let up. But I can tell Grandchild that there’s nothing to worry about, right? Grandchild loves and misses you both so much, it would be silly to let something this embarrassing worry them.”

Sometimes if you preemptively reward people you have low expectations of for undeserved coolness, you put them in a position where living up to expectations is the path of least resistance, and they have to work extra hard at being uncool. Maybe your parents are committed to doing the work, but two can play the “Oh, let’s not say anything we can’t take back” game.

Which leaves me with possible scripts for your sister:

1) Every time she tries to bring this up, point out how weird it is, refuse to carry water, and make her spell everything out. What is it she expects you to actually do? When she says your parents will be heartbroken, what does she think they’ll do? Why is she so sure your parents are horrible bigots? When she tattles on your child the same way she did when you were seven and you borrowed her Betsy-Wetsy doll without asking, what does she think will happen?

2) We do so much work and strategizing around the feelings of the biggest assholes and bigots we know, what’s the worst thing that happens if you just say the thing? “I told you to stop cyberstalking my child, you utter creep, what the fuck is wrong with you and why are you so obsessed with this?” 



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