Not Your Mummy’s Advice Column
What should I do?
I get it all day long.
I’m pretty sure the woman who swims laps next to me at the Y is peeing in the pool. What should I do?
It started a few years back, when I began the Social Q’s advice column for the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times.
My boyfriend has an identical twin that I’m strangely hotter for than I am for him. What should I do?
Since then, the questions come faster than a drunken starlet behind the wheel of a speeding Maserati.
My dad seems to have mixed up my cell phone number with the number of the woman he’s seeing behind my mother’s back. He sends her sexy texts that are freaking me out. What should I do?
At the outset, I was afraid that Times readers might play it safe, bringing me their old-fashioned etiquette conundrums or mild “Dear Abby” conflicts: When do I use that teeny-tiny fork? What’s the right paper stock for my wedding invitation?
And it turns out, I needn’t have worried.
My sister goes to work looking like a hooker. What should I do?
From the very beginning, readers set a thoroughly modern tone for my Social Q’s column. They write in from all over—people of every age, gender, geography, and social background. And they stride happily to the very edges of our brave new world: where nonstop technology and never-ending pop culture and the once-separate realms of personal and public space have exploded all over each other, pushing us into each other’s faces in ways that Grammy and Gramps could never have imagined.
Accidental sexy text messages from our father … hello?!
These candid questions demand payback, in spades. So my job is to rush in where angels fear to tread, doling out advice that’s tart but tender—and not above the occasional bitch slap. In short, I try to be the best friend you’ve never met.
The walking wounded must be comforted, of course, and grievous wrongdoers must be spanked. But these are complicated times—and we’ve all done a thing (or three) we shouldn’t have—so I’m not shy about pointing out the good qualities in bald-faced liars. (Maybe they’re lying to save our feelings?) And a Goody Two-Shoes reeking of sanctimony has little to look forward to from me but a Krystle Carrington chop across the cheek.
And that’s how Social Q’s was born, starting with the very first question and answer:
My boyfriend assumed I was Jewish when we met on JDate, a website for Jewish singles. I didn’t correct him at the time because I was afraid he’d dump me. Now, months later, I’m afraid he’s going to dump me because I didn’t tell the truth. I really like this guy. What should I do?
—Christiana, New York City
Listen up, Golda (L)eir. In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s a wee difference between letting an awkward moment pass and masquerading as a Jew for months. Where to next, Gay.com?
I know it can be hard, living as a single in a world full of doubles. But you didn’t just fail to “correct” your beau. You lied, having calculated that he might not like the truth. And that’s a surefire way to sabotage a relationship.
Clear the air as soon as possible: Just sit your guy down and apologize. Explain that you were feeling vulnerable, but don’t let it sound like an excuse—or worse, an attempt to shift the blame to him for making you feel that way. Remember, you’ll be one short step from “freak show” when you finally come clean, and you still have to convince him that your lie was an aberration.
He may be furious, or decide you’re too manipulative to date, but there’s a chance he’ll be flattered by the lengths you went to win him over. And who knows? He may have a whopper to get off his chest too.
P.S. What kind of Jew is named “Christiana”?
Social Q’s: The Book
Here’s the thing: Deep down, we all want to do the right thing. But in this age of texting and tweeting, online dating and “Real Housewives of One Too Many Cities,” things can get complicated—fast. And when they do, or when you can’t even picture what the “right thing” might look like, that’s when you’ve stumbled into Social Q’s territory.
Lucky for you, you’re not alone anymore.
I’ve sifted through years of columns (and thousands of questions I haven’t had space to answer)—hunting for patterns and culling my sagest advice—to help you navigate the horrible range of awkward moments we all suffer through right now: at home, at work, online, and (even more frequently these days) in the crossroads. From hotsy-totsy bosses on Facebook to scorched-earth exes moving in across the hall.
In this book, chapter by chapter, we’ll visit the awkward nooks and crannies of our daily lives, from the moment you wake up (and hopefully, brush your teeth) to your last act of waking consciousness (checking your Match.com mailbox, of course). I’ll give you some tools and techniques for making those sticky situations less so. And in the process, I’ll answer a raft of illustrative Social Q’s from my intrepid readers at the New York Times.
But before we begin, I need to ask a favor …
Starting Principle: Forget Everything You Know!
Well, not everything, just that little thing we learned in third grade about treating everyone the same.
Because that’s crazy talk!
Our country may be founded on the proposition that “all men are created equal,” but that hardly means we’re all the same. Simply put: Handling a stinky boss is just plain different from handling a smelly housekeeper. (I’m sorry, but it is.) And the faster you master the difference, the sweeter-smelling the world will be.
Navigating the Black Forest of awkward moments demands a gimlet-eyed assessment of who we are versus who the other guy is. Angelina Jolie is not the girl next door, and Reese Witherspoon never plays the sexy stripper. Self-knowledge allows them to choose their roles wisely—and figure out how much of their clothing to keep on.
The same goes for the rest of us. If you’re the smartest-gal-in-the-room type, the best response to your awkward problem won’t be the same as for the people pleaser down the hall. Our personalities establish the parameters of our most plausible behavior. Because the Bible was right: Leopards do not change their spots—not without laser surgery anyway.
And who is the other guy, by the way: a microphone-grabbing Kanye West or a poor little Taylor Swift? (Or for the old folks: a booming Barry White or a high-pitched Joni Mitchell, preciggies.) Is your opponent a teeny-tiny Olsen twin, while we tower over her like LeBron James? Or is she the dragon lady CEO, playing against our milquetoast from the mailroom?
Responding to life’s thorniest problems is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. It requires a keen awareness of who we are in relation to other people. Call it contextual IQ. And the more we hone it, the more likely we are to skate over life’s thinnest ice without plunging into freezing water and ruining our makeup.
So armed, Social Q’s will guide us toward our best behavior, helping us navigate the trickiest obstacle courses we can stumble into, and increasing the likelihood of making it through the day in one piece.
Okay, let’s get started. And please don’t forget to turn off your cell phone, pager, and other portable mobile devices.
© 2011 Philip galanes
Taking the “Woe” out of Co-Workers
Just Because You Sit Together Doesn’t Make You Besties
My name is James. I introduce myself as James and sign my name as James. But my co-workers always refer to me as “Jimmy.” I think the nickname conveys an image of immaturity, and is inappropriate with clients and other professionals. How do I get my colleagues to change the way they refer to me?
—James, Long Island, NY
Have you thought about wearing long pants to the office, and maybe leaving that little red wagon at home?
People who christen us with nicknames, on their own steam, think they’re being “regular,” and respond poorly to statements like “Please call me by my full name.” They see their nicknaming as a hearty gesture of friendliness, and take our correction as stuck-up.
Here’s what you do: Simply repeat your name (in full) as often as possible. If your boss introduces you to a new client, “This is Jimmy,” you’ll say, “It’s James” when you shake her hand. Answer your telephone: “This is James.” Repetition is the key. That way, you’re not correcting anyone or acting snooty, just reinforcing your desired result.
If that doesn’t work, choose a new nickname that conveys the professionalism you’re after. (People love to get in on a new nickname.) How would you feel about Spike?
Despite what your mother may have told you and your siblings, everyone has favorites—even her. I know I do. There’s full-fat chocolate ice cream; those Acne jeans I got on sale at Barneys; and my best friend, Chiccio. They’re my top draft picks, simple as that.
Of course, there are many other things in this world that I’m perfectly fond of, especially when my favorites aren’t readily available. Weight Watchers fudgesicles, for instance, if we’re out of Ben & Jerry’s, the jeans I wore before the Acne jeans (if my favorites are in the laundry hamper), and the pals I call when my besties are busy or out of town. These other things are perfectly fine, just not my faves.
Like versus love: not a hard concept, right?
So keep it in mind, because this distinction is going to come in handy when we consider the conflicts that tend to arise between co-workers. The most common troubles in the workplace (or the ones that most commonly find their way to Social Q’s anyway) come from the failure to distinguish between co-workers (whom we like perfectly well) and bona fide friends (whom we actually love).
Think about it: Just because we sit next to someone for eight hours a day—a person, by the way, who was assigned to sit there by our employer—does that make him or her an intimate? Of course not!
It makes them someone we should treat respectfully, but not necessarily someone with whom we should share our marital troubles—or worse, someone whose marital troubles we should take it upon ourselves to diagnose, dispensing unbidden advice as we would with family members or close friends.
I don’t think your boyfriend is good enough for you, for example.
Step back! Before you weigh in on your co-worker’s love life, tell me this: Is she someone you actually care about, or are you just passing the time with her because your real pals are sitting in their own offices across town?
Like versus love, remember?
It’s an understandable error. We’re often bored at work, and we’re social animals at heart, so we delude ourselves occasionally into thinking that we’re “close” with that woman in the next cubicle. We confuse physical proximity with emotional intimacy. And sometimes, if our favorite people aren’t around, we can actually convince ourselves that we’re crazy about folks we barely like. (I can’t be the only one who’s wolfed down an entire box of Mallomars—mostly because they were there—only to realize that I didn’t even like them, can I?)
Well, it’s the same with work pals. Do we really like them, or do we just like them because they’re there? And if it’s the latter, better to back off and not become too embroiled in their lives (or they in ours).
Because here’s the thing: Work friendships are largely geographical in nature. If we didn’t have adjoining cubicles, we’d never know most of our co-workers. And the proof of this is once we leave the company, we rarely speak with them again. Or if we do, it’s strained and uncomfortable, and we wonder how we were ever so close. So try to keep this in mind—she’s the friendly gal at work, not your best friend—and watch your troubles melt away.
Let’s start with an easy one:
A guy that I work with—who seems very nice, but whom I don’t really know—has a habit of keeping his shirt unbuttoned down to, um, there. His ample chest fluff is the first thing that greets anyone who sees him at any point during the day. How can I get him to button up?
Your company doesn’t have a “manscaping” department, by any chance, does it? (Too bad.)
So, what kind of person is this Tom Selleck at the next desk over? Let me give you a clue: He seems nice, but we don’t really know. We’re pretty much strangers who happen to work at the same place. So why in the name of Harry Larry would we tell this fellow how to tend his garden? Are you in the habit of approaching strangers on the street to critique their wardrobes? Just because you receive a paycheck signed by the same guy doesn’t make you any better acquainted.
Don’t get me wrong: It’s better not to be distracting at the office—in what we wear or, more precisely, what we don’t wear. And shirts unbuttoned to the navel, whether on men or women (of the smooth or hirsute variety), do exactly that. Still, this man, who missed a button (or three) is none of our concern. Better to stay out of it.
My best friend at the office always underpays when we go out to lunch. At first, it was just a couple of bucks, but gradually the underpayments have increased. Last time, it was nearly $15. She usually dashes out before the meal is over, leaving me and other colleagues to pick up her slack. How can we get her to pay up?
Have you thought about banging on her cubicle wall? “Hey, cheapskate, you owe me fifteen bucks!”
Now, a “best friend at the office” can mean many things, from “blood sisters” to “the person I loathe the least.” But one thing is sure: This is a person toward whom we have some level of affection. What’s more, we’re dealing with a pretty cut-and-dried issue here—consistent underpayment of the lunch tab—which will not require any wading into psychological territory best left to our shrinks or those annoying trainers on The Biggest Loser.
So hop right in, but gently. Try casting the problem as an honest mistake: “I think you made a math error at lunch.” Remember to show your work. I bet she takes the point—and the problem disappears as fast as that plate of fries she ordered for the table.
Let’s try another:
At fifty-four, I’m the second-oldest person at the school where I work. On occasional Friday afternoons, several teachers get together for a beer at a restaurant nearby. Everybody used to be invited, but in the last couple of years, only the young people are included. I asked a couple of the organizers to let me know when they next meet. They agreed, but I’ve never heard from them. The rejection makes me feel bad. Any advice?
Well, I hate to break it to you, but you’re probably not going to be invited to Vanity Fair’s Oscars party or Malia Obama’s birthday dinner either. We can’t all be invited to everything, and even though it stings, it’s just a part of life.
For the record, I admire your asking to be included, in the first place. Most of us wouldn’t have had the guts for that. But now that you’ve asked, and been refused, where do you go from here?
Well, nowhere. We can’t be everyone’s cup of tea, any more than everyone can be ours. So here’s what you do: Don’t ask again. For better or worse, the whippersnappers are entitled to socialize with whomever they want. These guys are not your dearest friends, who owe you more; they’re just guys who teach at the same school as you.
So how about starting a new tradition instead? Invite all your colleagues—even the youthquake splinter group—for drinks on the last Friday of every month. You’ll be turning the other cheek and bolstering school morale at the same time. Now, that’s a solution everyone can love, right?
Okay, last one:
I recently returned to work from maternity leave and found the office drastically changed. My co-workers are really cold to me and talk about me behind my back, especially about me and an older male co-worker, who’s become a mentor to me. He and I go to lunch every once in a while, and my co-workers are suggesting that we are having sex—and worse, that he’s the father of my child. This is really hurting me. I work so hard and try to be a good colleague. What should I do?
Toxic co-workers! Beware!
It’s easy to be mean, and unfortunately, it’s breathtakingly fun on occasion, which is why we know every stupid thing that Lindsay Lohan (and her mother and her father) have ever done, but next to nothing about the electoral college, say, or the quantum law of physics.
For what it’s worth, gossip always says more about the people trading it than it does about its victims. And my usual advice is to put it right out of your head. But not in this case. The nasty colleagues have crossed a line, and shown themselves to be malicious. Do not engage them directly. Even a calm word could be twisted out of context and fuel even more venom. I’d speak with the boss and ask for help. Speculating about the sex lives of others is never cool, and under some circumstances, can even constitute sexual harassment under the law.
Better safe than sorry: Get help!
Co-Workers and Their Nasty Habits
When You Just Can’t Take It for Another Second!
You know what I mean.
The woman who sits next to me chews like a cow. I can hear the smacking of her lips no matter where I hide. Please help!
The guy who sits in front of me strokes his hair ALL DAY LONG. It is driving me crazy!
Or choose one of the following:
1. My boss whistles until I could scream;
2. My boss hums—off-key, mind you—until I want to die; or
3. My boss’s perfume makes me sick to my stomach. The mere sight of the ugly lavender bottle is enough to make me gag!
They’re the pet peeves from hell!
What can we do about them?
It doesn’t matter whether we like these folks or hate them. We’ve simply got to make this damned behavior stop. (Either that, or be hauled off to the nearest mental institution.)
So here’s what you do. In the calmest voice possible, say, “You know, I have no right to ask, but could you stop [INSERT HIDEOUS HABIT HERE]?” Then add, with a big smile, “For some reason, it’s really getting under my skin!”
It’s debatable, of course, whether the person sitting next to you has the right to chomp his food like a barnyard animal. But why go there? By making believe that it’s your problem—and by being charming about it, to boot—you will be much more effective in stopping it. You avoid defensiveness and even the prospect that there’s something to be defensive about.
And in my experience: It works!
If you have to remind your colleagues a couple of times about knocking off the dastardly habit, that’s okay. Just do it in the same sweet, blame-accepting way.
In the end, who cares—as long as it stops, right?
Okay, now that you’ve got the flavor of the exercise, let me give you one to solve on your own. Once you’ve come up with your solution, turn the page to take a look at mine.
When speaking English with me, a multilingual co-worker pronounces words from other languages in the full accent of the word’s origin. For example, “I’m thinking of going to Barcelona (bar-theh-LO-na) for Christmas (instead of bar-seh-LO-na). Does her technically correct pronunciation trump the fact that I find it rather awkward?
—Debbie, New York City
Awkward? What’s French for pretentious, Debbie?
This sounds like one of those super-fancy French chocolates that are too sophisticated for my Hershey-loving palate.
It would be one thing if your co-worker’s native language were coloring her pronunciation. Accents are sexy; everyone knows that. But this woman seems to be giving you the “ooh-la-la” in many different tongues, as if she were auditioning to be a foreign correspondent for CNN or to do a television spot for General Mills’ International Coffees. (Remember them?)
Feel free to mock her behind her back. Or if it’s driving you absolutely crazy, tell her “Basta!” “Arrêtez!” or “Shimete yo!”—unfortunately, giving her one last chance to correct your accent while showing off hers.
© 2011 Philip galanes