How to fight bad gossip


Cary’s classic column from Tuesday, Apr 23, 2013

People are saying untrue things about me for no apparent reason

Dear Cary,

A few months ago, I got a new supervisor at work.  I was excited because this is someone I’ve known for years, and have even considered a mentor in the past.  Unfortunately, I had a string of personal losses in the past few months — deaths and major illnesses of loved ones, that sort of thing — and I recently realized I was skating the edges of depression and taking it out on my supervisor.  I’ve been working to repair the damage I did, since even though it was inadvertent, it was clearly my doing.  So I was feeling pretty good about that, but then I learned that my supervisor, who is not on Facebook, has been told by others that I’m saying nasty things about her there.  I have no way to determine whether these folks are being willfully malicious, generically shit-stirring, or just very foolish, but in any case, I haven’t said anything at all, bad or good.  So I’m doubly hurt by this, first that some unknown entity would either lie or egregiously misinterpret and assume the worst, and second that my old mentor would choose to believe these stories without even questioning me.  In my head, I’ve run through various scenarios, including printing out my entire Facebook history to show her, and, well, things that are even less sane.  I want to do the sensible, straightforward thing and just tell her it isn’t true, but I’m worried that she won’t believe me or I’ll get defensive and set the relationship back again.  What can I do?

Getting Over Grief


Dear Getting Over Grief,

I think you should just do the sensible, reasonable thing and not worry too much about how she will take it. You cannot control how she takes it or what she believes. You cannot control these other people.

What these people are doing seems strange and doesn’t make sense. But maybe in some universe it makes sense. Maybe somebody believed something and thought about something and felt something and then came to believe that a certain course of action would change how they felt and so set out to … who knows!? There are people who lie and do all kinds of crazy things for their own hard-to-understand reasons. This is one of the great mysteries of life: Sometimes with malicious gossip and lies such as these, even when you figure it out as far as motive, it doesn’t make sense. Once you understand a twisted path of reasoning and misplaced feelings of hurt or threat or fear, bad upbringing, bad examples, all the environmental factors that can lead to some such poor behavior, you also have to account then for simple incompetence — the fact that even if some person did have some reason for doing these things, whatever that person wanted to accomplish wasn’t even done right. Sometimes criminals are interesting that way, for the disasters they can create that in the end have scant relation to their original intent, because they are not only twisted and evil but incompetent. Thus is the world filled with chaos and pain, and many good, puzzled people going, “Wha?”

It’s also worth noting that your recent losses may have left you feeling raw and vulnerable and in need of human support and community. In such a state, you may be especially sensitive to malicious gossip. It will pass. Just be honest with your friend and mentor and do what you can to preserve that relationship.

In such situations, it helps to simply act as sane as you can, yourself, as if you were actually living in a sane universe.

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The workers I supervise are out of control

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, OCT 1, 2007

I am supposed to be managing 15 people, but they are crazy and unmanageable. What am I to do?

Dear Cary,

I supervise about 15 people at my job, 13 of whom are women. I am a man. It is an office environment, not high pressure, with relatively technical work that mostly gets done well and on time. I’ve been in the office for 20 years, rising from the lower ranks to head of the area. My trouble is that I have lost any interest in dealing with the women on the staff.

A couple of them are just not very smart. I can rearrange work to handle that for some, but others are just too aggressively stupid. Most of the others are unbearably irrational. I say, let’s decide between A and B; there are many meetings where A is mutually agreed upon as correct, many documents explaining the whys and hows of A; then comes the time to implement A and there is an outcry that B was not given a fair hearing, that A is hateful and unworkable. There are also constant personality clashes — she said this, so I said that, so she won’t have lunch with her, so I won’t have lunch with them; she does a terrible job and is never reprimanded, while I am working my fingers to the bone with no recognition, and on and on … and on! These people honestly seem to have no lives that do not involve a constant assessment of the faults of their co-workers. If I work at all more closely with or engage in conversation more generally with any of the women who are smart and rational, the others are on the lookout and begin “teacher’s pet” treatment of the offender. I can’t stand them anymore!

The two men and two or three of the women on the staff are not like this, although they are no smarter, harder working or more trainable than the other women. But they are also rational. If I tell them something was wrong, do it this way instead, they say OK, fine. They do not react as if I were condemning them to the eighth circle of hell. They are never in my office crying. They never engage in long, furtive, whispering conversations. They don’t form cliques.

Often I find that something has been brewing for weeks only when it explodes. Since in the past I have always tried to get feuders to sit down and talk to each other or, alternatively, have told them to stop behaving like children, they have stopped coming to me to resolve disputes at the early stages. Either I have an unusually recalcitrant and unmanageable group or I have lost any ability to deal with middle-aged women, and I don’t know what to do about it.

I don’t think this long-running situation has made me a misogynist, although it has probably angled me in the direction of misanthropy. Or maybe that is just middle age. I could throw out the redeeming fact that I have a wife I’ve been happily married to for 25 years and three daughters, all of whom I carry on rationally with at least seven-eighths of the time, which seems pretty good compared to my work life.

The obvious answer is to try something new, but there are a number of reasons, financial and familial, that make changing jobs unfeasible for the next decade or so. I could also work to get some of them dismissed, but I spent two and a half years documenting and insisting that we do just that with the worst offender, and it was like a daily trip to the dentist. So here I am, the supervisor of 10 menopausal nut cases who do not respond to carrots or sticks, who resent me for trying to make changes, who resent me when I bring in human resources to help us assess our workplace issues, who resent things in general. Right now I’ve settled on ignoring them as much as possible, but this won’t do forever. Any advice?

Muddled in Massachusetts


Dear Muddled,

I believe that this kind of group dysfunctionality happens when a group of people is particularly starved of things they need. They feel trapped in a situation in which they cannot get their basic needs met, so they are acting out in strange ways. Their needs differ — some may need power, some solitude, some sociability, some challenging work. But they are trying meet certain needs that have nothing to do with their assigned tasks. And there is a perceived shortage of whatever they need. Perhaps too many of them need power and there is not enough power to go around.

A strictly rational approach might leave one baffled by such a situation. But someone more attuned to emotional and spiritual needs might walk in and immediately see what is going on. I sense that you have abilities in both areas — you would like to approach this rationally, as a grown man, with 20 years’ experience in the business, but your attempts at being rational have been rebuffed. You have some sensitivity as well. It just may not have occurred to you to use it in a consciously structured way.

Basically, I would say open your heart to these people — in a very structured, scientific way.

So I suggest that you conduct a 15-week experiment, one week for each employee. Pick one person each week and study that person. Do not judge or instruct or interrogate. Just seek to understand what that person wants. Look at what she has on her desk. Look at her clothes. Ask yourself, What is important to her? Is security important? Is her family important? Her husband? Entertainment? Gardening? Children? Keep a journal of your observations and thoughts about each employee.

Relate to that person as a person, emotionally. Listen to her or him. Use your instincts for sociability; pretend that individual is a member of your family, or a friend. At the end of each week, ask yourself, What does this person really want? Some answer will come into your mind. It may seem silly. But I suggest you listen to it, strange and nonsensical as it may sound. What comes into your mind? A birthday cake? A trip to Ireland? A diamond ring? To publish a book of poetry? A new car? Some shoes? A new husband?

Write these things down.

At the same time that you are observing individuals, observe how the group behaves. How do they interact with one another? Which ones want to lead? Which ones want to follow? Which ones want predictability and order, and which ones require novelty? Which ones like a quick pace, and which ones like a slow pace? Which ones are morning people, and which ones are afternoon people? Watch to see which ones work hard at which times. When do they make phone calls? What do they like to eat?

As well as studying these people, you must also feed them. They are very hungry. They are spending all day trapped in a place they do not want to be, not getting what they want. Give them encouragement and praise. Give them lots of it. Lavish it on them. Lavish encouragement and praise. Find things they are doing well and praise them openly for it. Start handing out praise all day, every day. Every day walk around and see what they are doing and say, “Nice job.” Say, “Well done.” Say, “I appreciate the effort you put into this.” Say, “I appreciate the long hours you are keeping.” Say, “I appreciate your getting here on time every day.”

You might also pick up some award certificates and start handing them out. Think of things they can receive awards for and give them awards.

Study them and praise them for 15 weeks.

Then use what you have learned.

At the end of this 15 weeks ask yourself a bunch of questions about them as a group. Which ones would work well as subgroups? Which ones work together well, and which ones are in conflict? Can you design tasks so that the ones who work well together can work together? Can you remove joint tasks from those who are in conflict? Who are the leaders? Who are the ones who are most well liked? Who would they listen to in a crisis? What matters to them? Food? The location of desks? Certain assignments? Work hours? What is flexible and amenable to change? Give the leaders some power, however that is done.

This is admittedly experimental. But the way I think about it, you could try all these things, and of all these things, there may be a few things that actually bring some tangible improvement. At the same time, for you personally, there will be a feeling of improvement and accomplishment that comes with simply carrying out a program and acquiring information. You cannot know how it might help you. If you set out systematically to learn about your fellow employees, and to respond to them on an emotional level, you may find out all kinds of things. You may find out that they have skills you were unaware of. You may also find out that they have deficiencies you were unaware of.

Being neither a lawyer nor an employment consultant, I recognize that there may be areas of inquiry you need to stay away from for legal and/or company policy reasons. In fact, this admittedly crazy-sounding idea may fly in the face of everything you believe about how a workplace is supposed to run. But what can be the harm? I cannot imagine there could be anything wrong with simply setting out to learn more about the people you work with and provide them with various kinds of recognition and rewards. It may seem kind of sneaky and cold to “observe them experimentally,” but all I am really trying to say is: Open your heart to these people, in a very concrete way, in order to learn what their needs are and why they are acting out. And then try to satisfy some of their needs.

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I work with a guy I don’t understand

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He’s a gay person of color, but he’s against the minimum wage!

Cary’s classic column from  Sunday, THURSDAY, JUL 21, 2005

Dear Cary,

I have been at my current position as an attorney at a law firm for less than a year. Although I work at a rather typical big law firm, I am a committed progressive with a strong background in grass-roots activism. After paying off a portion of my educational debt, I intend to return to the public interest world. Many of the views and values that I hold are diametrically opposed to those of my colleagues at the firm. I try not to talk about politics too much and keep to myself generally. However, despite the fact that I didn’t really try to develop a strong friendship with anyone at work, I have become quite close to a colleague at my law firm. He is a nice guy who seems to struggle with the same type of issues that I struggle with at work in balancing life and work, dealing with the stresses of being a litigator, etc.

But the more I get to know him, the more I realize that he and I disagree about pretty much everything when it comes to politics and social issues. For example, he believes that racism is not a problem and that people should just ignore any racial differences because human beings are ultimately the same. When I try to have a discussion with him about institutional racism or about the civil rights movement, he and I end up getting into an argument. We end these arguments by saying that we agree to disagree. He has also told me that he believes what the “Minutemen” are doing at the U.S. border is good. He believes that people should just move on from the Holocaust. Oh, and my colleague friend also does not go anywhere outside of the mainly white neighborhoods in the metropolitan area that we live in. I should also add that he recently moved from the Midwest and really believes in small-town living and values.

But what makes me not understand him at all is that he is a gay man of color. When it comes to gay rights issues, he becomes quite militant, but when it comes to issues about gender or race or class, he does not see what the big deal is. I have tried to have discussions with him about critical race theory or about issues of gender and class, but he just doesn’t seem to care. The other day, he told me that there should be no such thing as minimum wages or affordable housing.

And the more I get to know him, the more I’m troubled by some of the things that he does. For example, I have noticed that sometimes he can be very superficial. His conversations and interests really seem to lack depth. He likes to play tennis and work out, play video games and watch a lot of TV, and go shopping for clothes and electronics. He is also rather stingy about money and doesn’t seem like a generous person. He has told me that he befriends people oftentimes because they are good-looking. He pretty much always eats on the firm’s dime and does not seem to like to pay for lunch. What also really surprised me about him is that after a good friend of his at the firm left to go to another state, he didn’t really keep in touch with her or follow up with her or go out for a farewell meal (which we were planning), even though he often used to tell me how it made him sad that she was leaving. All of these things make me not want to be friends with him.

At the same time, though, he has told me that he cries a lot and sometimes wakes up at night crying. He has cried at the firm gym and in his office. I wonder why he cries so much, though I’ve only seen him cry once. And he kind of made it a point to show people that he was crying. I feel bad for him, since he is generally a nice guy, though not the most compassionate or open-minded person.

Also, he seems to cling to me, telling me that I am his best friend at work or telling other people how close we are. It makes me a tad uncomfortable when he does this because I am not sure how I feel about our friendship, though, at work, he is my closest friend.

Having these thoughts about him makes me feel awful, especially because he seems to think we are close friends. I am also confused about my friendship with him. Because I have never been close friends with someone who had such different views and values from mine, I am not sure how I’m supposed to continue in this friendship. I may be leaving the firm, in which case I will no longer have gripes about work — which is the glue that holds us together, I think. What’s more, I don’t like becoming friends with someone just out of convenience. If I’m going to be friends with him, I should be open-minded and listen to what he has to say and accept the fact that he is the way he is. Who says that only people with the same political views and values can be friends? Ideally, I’d like to be able to be friends with someone who has views that are diametrically opposed to my own. But is this friendship possible when I feel like he doesn’t share the fundamental values that I hold dear?

I appreciate that he is there to gripe with about work, but is that a sufficient basis for a friendship? If I am a true friend, shouldn’t I try to broaden his perspective? I fear this latter prospect might be patronizing to him.

I would really appreciate hearing your thoughts on this.

Trying to Be Open-Minded


Dear Trying to Be Open-Minded,

You are describing what many of us would call a regular human being. With this human being you have a congenial but contingent relationship. Such relationships arise when people of contrasting ideologies are thrown together at the same workplace. As you have observed, they provide a rich opportunity for learning about other people. But it’s also just about getting through the day.

Here are some things about other people that I think you should know: People sometimes do things for no reason except they just want to. People sometimes think something and then just say it right out loud just like that. Occasionally a person will do what he feels like doing without considering whether it is consistent with his past actions and stated beliefs. For instance, a person will want an ice-cream cone, and next thing you know he’s walking down the street toward the place where they have the big cardboard barrels of many different flavors and the people behind the counter in aprons. If you ask him if he believes in ice cream, he might claim to have no particular passion or belief in ice cream itself. Nonetheless, he wants an ice-cream cone and so off he goes, jingling the change in his pocket. One day in the future, when sufficient computing power exists, we may be able to say with some certainty why a particular person arose from a desk at a particular time of day to go get ice cream. But until then, we just say, “Oh, Hank? He went to get an ice-cream cone.”

Hear me now: People do stuff. People say stuff. They have feelings and thoughts about things, and not all those feelings and thoughts make sense even to them, much less to anyone else.

While you describe the interaction between you and this other person in considerable detail, you still are standing apart from it, as though it weren’t you at all who was having this relationship, but some laboratory representation of yourself. I would suggest that what you are doing is just what it is: You’re hanging out with a person from work.

While his motives and ideas remain a mystery to you, consider how he might feel about one particular thing. It’s possible, this guy being a gay person of color, that he may be a little bit annoyed that people expect him to prominently display the latest up-to-date set of approved gay-person-of-color ideas and values. He may not even subscribe to the approved set of values — or he may have been a subscriber but let the subscription lapse.

People do sometimes hold political views that are contrary to their own interests. But can you imagine what it must be like to have all the “normal” people around you assuming who you are based on your skin color and your sexual preference and then getting all out of joint when you don’t live up to their assumptions? Wouldn’t that be a little annoying? Might you not even find yourself adopting certain beliefs just to confound people? Not that I’m saying he does — but it would be tempting, would it not?

Anyway, here is one helpful suggestion for trying to fit this relationship into your life. Consider what it is about him that you really like. Do you like his smile, for instance, or his cologne? Do you like the tone of his voice or the way his eyes look, or the way he walks, or the way he dresses? Sometimes we just like people. They make us feel good. We like being around them. It’s not always their ideas we like. Sometimes it’s their money or their nose or their books. Sometimes we just like people. Sometimes that’s enough.

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My boyfriend is my boss

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, NOV 23, 2009

I’m getting sick of being “the editor’s girlfriend”

Dear Cary,

I’m a college student and a reporter for my university’s paper. I’m a good writer — my work has shown up in publications beyond the university, and since arriving here I’ve established myself as “one to watch” in the English department. I really don’t intend to sound cocky, but I’m not affected with false modesty. I have a lot to learn, but I know I have a knack for this.

I’m in a fairly new relationship of about three months, with a boyfriend who so far has been entirely wonderful. We’re both ambitious types with busy schedules and social lives, but we make the time. I think it has been a revelation to both of us just how extraordinary it is to have another person who is truly in your corner.

Here’s the problem — he’s my boss. He’s two years older and is the editor of the school newspaper, while I’m a staff writer. We met outside of the newspaper, and other people are in charge of how much I get paid and where my articles run. We’ve had several serious discussions about ethics, during which we emphasized that I’d never, ever ask him to do me any professional favors, and he would never give me any sort of special treatment. The relationship is more public than I’d like at such an early stage — we’ve both gotten long personal lectures on ethics from the head of the journalism department, and how he heard about us is anyone’s guess.

The thing that bothers me is not the ethical question — I feel like we’re managing that. It’s that I’m entirely fed up with being “the editor’s girlfriend” and not defined as a reporter in my own right. I have never, ever been the kind of woman who would be defined by a relationship — it is extremely important to me that I be defined by my own actions and my own work.

I’ve been doing good work at the paper, and I’m likely to be getting a promotion in the next couple of semesters. But I’m so, so sick of having to hear jokes about my sex life every time one of my stories runs in a prominent place in the paper or I pick up a particularly coveted assignment.

These aren’t serious allegations — the newspaper staff knows that it is not my boyfriend who makes these decisions, and people from outside the staff are only kidding. My friends say to laugh it off, but the fact is that those small successes are things that I earned through a lot of hard work, and the suggestion that I’m somehow trading sexual favors for good assignments truly offends me. I worry that the staff will take me less seriously and that this could endanger my future at the paper.

I know that having a happy relationship and a successful career are not mutually exclusive, but I feel like I’m too young to be dealing with such a minefield. I don’t even know whom to talk to about this — my boyfriend and I are handling it as best we can, but I don’t know how to tell him that although I’m pretty attached to being his girlfriend, I’m getting damn tired of being “the editor’s girlfriend.” I’m not giving up on my work, or on my relationship, I just need to figure out how to reconcile the two.

Her Own Girl Friday

Dear Girl Friday,

I suggest you try to be a little lighthearted about this. Imagine strutting around campus wearing a T-shirt that says, “I’m sleeping with my boss and enjoying it. You got a problem with that?”
Picture yourself walking amid these yahoos with your head held high. Imagine striking them down with wit and glamour and sophistication. Imagine shutting them up and putting them in their place.

Do you feel better?

Keep going with this. Conjure up an image that makes you feel powerful and proud. Make it vivid and real. Draw some cartoons or make a collage. Create the image of the superhero you are. Inhabit her skin. Name this woman. Give her special powers. Keep her image close to you. Appeal to her for strength and guidance.

And know this: Sexism pervades our culture. The assumption that a woman’s achievements stem from her value as a domestic, sexual and romantic companion rather than as a skilled worker is evidence of that sexism.

You know what else exists in our society? Morons. The world beyond your college gates is a nightmare of hulking, mouth-breathing morons. Morons even run newspapers. So be ready. You’re going to be encountering a lot of sexist morons.

So that’s the sociological part of this.

The other part is psychological: By mixing creativity, sexuality and power, you run the risk of incurring deep psychological wounds if things go wrong. By hooking up with your boss, however much you trust him, you have placed your fate in the hands of someone who may damage you, even if he doesn’t mean to.

That is my opinion, but I assume that it is also a fear of yours. If you sense that you are in dangerous territory emotionally, I would agree that you are.

Stuff can happen in such a relationship to shape the rest of your life. Sometimes people make decisions in such circumstances that last for decades. “Oh, he told me I’d be happier if I wasn’t writing, so I quit.” You know, crazy stuff.

How power, sexuality and creativity combine to damage the psyche is complicated. Let’s assume that our emotional responses are rooted in invisible structures formed very early. As a baby, you must be loved unconditionally. You are helpless. You have no vocational skills. You are just a cute, wiggling bundle that eats and shits and throws up and makes noise. You are not a cowboy or a princess. You must be loved and cared for unconditionally. We get older and develop skills, but underneath, our need to be loved unconditionally persists even after we develop great skills and charm and form adult relationships. One area where this need for unconditional acceptance seems to persist most deeply is in the area of creativity. Why is this so?

Could it be because creativity is our one way back to that primal state?

That would be my guess. Betrayal of this creative self reaches beyond personality self into some realm of existential pain and fear that is difficult to find access to. So if you are exposing this fragile, unprotected, raw creative pre-verbal self — the one that cannot protect itself but must be cared for unconditionally — to the upheavals of romantic and sexual relationship, you are in frightening territory. If for instance you were to break up you might feel unconsciously it was because you were not a good reporter. That may sound stupid. But these decisions, we do not make consciously. They are made by this pre-verbal, emotional self that reacts to rejection as if it were an existential threat. So I assume you feel concerned and confused for good reason. You are exposing your psyche to risks that you might not consciously understand.

What can you do? For one thing, you can begin getting assignments outside the school. You can strike out on your own so that there is no question in anyone’s mind how you did it. And  I would suggest, if possible, that you find some ally, a therapist or counselor or older friend, and go through this with that person, checking in frequently, discussing this, asking for protection, watching for ways that you have placed your fragile creativity in danger. If you are in self-doubt, ask yourself why. If you feel like quitting, interrogate your feelings. Honor them but interrogate them. It might be this frightened child who wants to quit. Beware. It’s complex. Keep moving forward.

p.s. You know that Yeats poems that ends, “I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams”? What a lovely and moving poem that is.

Stolen words

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Cary’s classic column from

My boss uses what I write in e-mails as his own. What should I do about it?

Dear Cary,

I’m an in-house copywriter/creative director with a small technical company, working for a boss whose communications skills, to put it delicately, are not his greatest asset. Lately I learned he’s been passing off my writing (not ad or brochure copy, just conversational e-mails on internal issues) as his own. I’ll write him a note on a topic, and later on that same note will land in my in box as part of a forwarded e-mail conversation chain — only now the note has his name on it. It’s happened several times that I know of.

I’ve always thought of him as a fundamentally decent fellow, and I sense he does this more for expediency’s sake (“Why bother rewriting this opinion that I share, when I’ve got this version sitting here?”) than to lay claim to my thoughts and words. Still, they are my thoughts and words, and I worry that by keeping my name out of these conversations he’s limiting my ability to benefit from people’s reactions to my ideas. Besides, I’m a writer: Even within the quasi-professional forum of interoffice e-mails, it feels like plagiarism.

Am I overreacting? And if not, should I confront him?

Accidental Ghostwriter

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Ghostwriter,

Here are some suggestions: Stop giving your boss great lines that he can use and call his own. Do your job on the brochures and the official stuff, but stop giving him stuff for free. If there are people you want to impress with your ideas, send your ideas directly to those people. Or if there’s a discussion you’re having with your boss and you can predict that it’s going to widen to include others, if you suspect he’s going to steal your material, suggest that that you include those people to whom he’s likely to send your material. Ask, what other interested stakeholders are there? You know, act like you care.

Either suggest they be included, or just cc them as though you thought that was the normal thing to do, since you know they’re interested parties.

Don’t be telling your boss not to cop your copy. He won’t get it. He’ll just think you’re being a pain.

You might also review just what you were hired for. Did you get a job description? Did anybody ever tell you what your job was? There is probably some expectation that you provide “other written materials.” These e-mails could be considered other written materials. You just want credit for it, right? So I’d find some way to let others know where it’s coming from — like, by cc’ing them before your boss steals your stuff.

And I would beware of your own personal motives that are tripping you up, too. Hey, I know about this: You want to do a great job of writing e-mails because that’s what you are. After all, you’re a writer. So you could be tricking yourself into giving your stuff away because you’re so damned good and you can’t help it, and you can’t help trying to impress your boss. I know what it’s like to be a writer. It doesn’t matter who the audience is. You’re still going to sweat over a few sentences until they’re perfect.

Bosses in non-media companies are so weird. They have no idea what it’s like to be a writer. They are just so weird. How do they even get through the day without being able to communicate?

Who knows. But they do. I guess they do it by hiring people like you.

Don’t pick a fight with him, but don’t be a sap!


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Doctor in love

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Cary’s classic column Tuesday,  NOV 4, 2003 10:29 AM PST

I had a crush on a colleague, and now she wants to be friends, but I don’t. How do I get rid of her?

Dear Cary,

I’m a Salon reader from Mexico and I enjoy reading your column very much. Now I need your advice.

I am a medical doctor and there is a colleague of mine I had a big crush on, but circumstances have not been appropriate for me to try to “advance” the relationship (she had a boyfriend at first, then she was out of the country for some time).

When I finally started — rather softly — to make a move, she started working with another doctor, 10 years her senior. Obviously he snatched her. Now, I am not really hurt nor do I have any remorse or hatred. It was just a crush. I was not in love or anything. It was not meant to be, and I am over it already. But she wants to keep being my friend. She seems to be completely clueless about my feelings. I don’t want to keep being her friend. I don’t loathe her; I just don’t want to be around her anymore. But I don’t want to hurt her. I don’t want to face her because I know I would end up saying more things than I would rationally think convenient.

I have tried to be evasive, tried to drive her away in a “passive way.” But she is still there. What should I do? How do I get rid of her (in a smooth way)?

Tired of Being Nice


Dear Tired,

When beings are denied privileges solely because of attributes over which they have no control, such as whether they are women or men, or white or black, or human or animal, it is sometimes called “objectification.” What that means, I think, is that the one who has the power is free to act as though no bona fide relationship exists with the other, as though there is no bond of reciprocity, as though the other were a piece of furniture or a magazine, to be used without regard for its feelings or mental processes.

That sort of objectification is what your letter hints at, and it is that habit of being that you need to address. The tragedy of such a habit is that it walls off a rich and rewarding realm of human bonds, in which we trade some of our power and autonomy for a sense of community and trust.

“Obviously he snatched her,” you say. That makes it sound as though women are routinely handed around from doctor to doctor like so many copies of Playboy, to be privately enjoyed and then passed on. If so, there is a certain ethical inequality in your workplace, a kind of gender discrimination. I’m not saying it’s the kind of thing you can fix, but it’s the kind of thing you, as a doctor, should recognize as poison and avoid in your personal dealings.

I think you really did have feelings for her. You say you were not hurt, that it was just a crush. Regardless, you do not have the right to smooth this over and make it go away just because it is inconvenient for you.

You have probably spent most of your youth studying the medical sciences, looking for ways to control disease and analyze chemical and biological processes. So you may not have had much time to study how human communities function. But I think you will be much happier in life once you understand this: You have entered into a relationship with this woman already. In a moral sense, you do not have the right to simply, “in a smooth way,” get rid of her. You owe her the truth: That you were interested in her not as a friend but as an amorous companion, and now that the possibility of such a relationship seems remote, you are disappointed and it is painful to be around her.

What she then does with this truth is her concern, not yours. The reason we tell each other the truth is that we want to maximize personal freedom: The more truth someone knows, the better she can make the best decisions for herself. It’s true in medicine, and it’s true in relationships.

If it helps in preparing your speech, conceptualize it this way: You have some bad news to deliver to her. Deliver it like a doctor. Tell her the facts. Tell her what her likelihood of recovery is and explain her treatment options. Tell her the condition is curable and not fatal.

But please do not tell her that simply because it sounds good. Tell her the truth. And if you should say more things than you would “rationally think convenient,” there’s no shame in that. There’s no shame in having strong feelings for someone, or in feeling disappointed or spurned. It’s part of being a man.


I’m a gay man in a small town working at a gas station. So?

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Cary’s classic column Tuesday, Mar 18, 2008

I have a feeling maybe I should move to the city, but I like my job, I like my town and I like my family.

Dear Cary,

I have several concurrent problems for you. Bet you can’t wait. Firstly, my job … I work in a small gas station as a cashier. My job is like a pair of slippers. It’s comfortable. The pay’s peanuts, it’s easy, the hours suit me and it’s totally unchallenging. Frankly, a monkey could do it. I get on with my boss, I like the banter I have with the customers, and sometimes it’s quiet enough that I can just read a book. But is this reason to stay? I have had some terrible jobs in the past. In fact, virtually all of my previous jobs were awful. I have had so many terrible jobs in fact that I am scared of getting a new one.

Added to that, at 26 I still have no clue what I want to do. In fact I got so tired of thinking about it that I consciously stopped thinking about it altogether about 12 months ago. I got the simplest job I could find and vowed to give myself a break. During that time, I’ve become a different person. I appreciate little things now (like chatting to many different people who pass through while I’m working) and take time to go for walks, write, drive around without having a destination. I get by on little, I am no longer materialistic, and I’ve learned how to live simply. In fact, I enjoy the simple life. It humbles you. I definitely don’t envy my friends in high-stress jobs. However, financially, I probably need to earn more money. That’s if I ever want to clear my debts and find a halfway nice place to live. Somehow, though, I can’t make myself do it. I don’t have a clue what to do next. I can’t think of a single career that I’d be right for. Added to which, I have had a pretty checkered career history, consisting almost entirely of dead-end jobs/career gaps.

OK, wakey-wakey! Problem two. I moved back to my hometown a few years ago, due to financial pressure. However, the longer I’m around, the more I want to stay. This is odd, because I was always so desperate to get away when I was younger. However, as I get older, my family is more important to me, and whereas I was once crying out to get the hell away from them all, now I don’t think I want to be hundreds of miles away. I’m pretty close to them now actually. The only problem with this is that I am gay and this isn’t really the sort of place where you meet any guys. But I just hate the idea of moving to a big city because my sexuality dictates that I must. I’ve never been defined by my sexuality and I ain’t a city person either. I like calm places, nature, landscapes, and I feel at home when I’m close to that.

I realize the answer is simple: Either go or stay and live with the decision. But it’s hard to actually decide. And just to make it all a little more interesting, I’ve fallen for a gardener who fills up where I work. I used to know him a little when we were younger, but it’s not always easy for a guy to ask another guy out, especially in this sort of a place. I have no idea if he’s gay. It all gets me to thinking, is there ever any end to our problems, or do we just replace every one solved with a new one. Goddamnit!



Dear Clueless,

There’s something wonderful about your letter. Partly it’s the tone. It is so quiet. You are not screaming about the uselessness and unsuitability of your life. You are just thinking out loud about the possibilities. You have that same vague unsettledness that many of us have, the quiet restlessness and curiosity. But your nature has brought you to this place. It is not unsuitable. It is your place. There is much about it that suits you. That is what is attractive. You know what you like and much of what you like is here in this town. That is attractive.

There is also the presence, within this balanced situation, of one thing that makes you out of place; there is this one issue, this gardener, and the fact that you are gay.

So we like the setup: an orderly existence with a modicum of tension and a mystery at the center: Who is the gardener? What will he say?

The scene you suggest has a cinematic quality. People drive in slowly and stop by the pump. They get out and pump the gas. They come in to pay or to buy a quart of oil or some gum, or they pay by credit card at the pump and drive off. Life proceeds by repetition. Maybe there is a lull after each fill-up, or maybe the fill-ups go on constantly with a lull now and then. It gets busy and it gets slow. When it gets slow you are behind the counter reading “Madame Bovary,” or some old Tarzan pulp, or a French detective novel.

Now I am adding things. It is your story but I am adding things — because imagining you in the gas station makes us remember things.

As children on a long trip in a car we experience the gas station as a place of peculiar power and mystery.

We have been sleeping; we wake up and look out; the car has slowed down; we are coming into somewhere strange and different; a tattooed young man in tight jeans, a greaser from a small town, comes out to pump the gas. He grinds his cigarette butt into the concrete floor of the garage with his boot heel, walks slowly to the driver’s side window and ask if you’d like him to fill it up; he pumps your gas, cleans your windshield with a spray bottle and a blue paper towel, pops your hood (it makes a squawk because the hinges need grease), checks your water and checks your oil. He says you’re a quart low. You say, go ahead and add a quart of 10W-40.

Sometimes you pull in and run over the bell switch and the gas station attendant does not come out. You sit there in the heat wondering where he is. He might be on the john. He might be eating a sandwich. Eventually he will emerge from behind the garage. Once when I was a child traveling through the South with my parents on a hot Saturday afternoon we drove over the bell switch and sat for many minutes. Finally the mechanic emerged from behind the garage, grinning, and his girlfriend peeked out from the side of the white gas station building as he hitched up his pants, buckled his belt and pumped the gas. In the front seat, my mother looked at my father. The girlfriend’s hair was tousled. Her eyes were bright. The mechanic looked down at the ground as he pumped the gas and raised the hood and checked the oil and water. We were a quart low. He poured in a quart of 10W-40. He did not need to use a funnel. He poured it straight into the crankcase with a steady, grease-blackened hand.

So we have memories of gas stations. Those of us lucky enough to have traveled by road when gas stations were still on small roads in small towns remember the mystery and the quiet.

Imagine, by contrast, if you were to think to yourself, Well, I’m a gay man, so I guess I’d better move to San Francisco and sign up for all the activities.

Imagine giving up your family and the land you love; imagine giving up this life where you enjoy casual conversations with people as they drift through the gas station; imagine taking a new job in a big city and being unable to read because there are all these things that have to be done right now because it’s a big city and it’s an important job. Imagine trying to play a role that doesn’t feel right for you — and imagine choosing to do that when you don’t have to!

I think you summed up the situation nicely when you asked, Is there not ever any end to our problems? We do replace every one solved with a new one. But I must say your problems sound fine. Your problems are manageable and contained, and you basically have an enviable situation.

Sure, you are in some conflict. You cannot know the future or see inside other people’s heads. So you cannot know if you are going to get to know the gardener better; you don’t know if he will turn out to be also gay, and interested in you; you cannot know that. All you can do is get to know the gardener. Get to know him as a friend. Detain him in some conversation long enough to determine what his interests are and so forth.

Basically, I’d just say, don’t muck it up. Stick around. I was watching the waves the other day at the ocean and I thought to myself, stick around for the credits. Let’s stay and see how this turns out. Let the wave wash completely up on shore, and watch how it slowly retreats. Watch it the whole way. Notice the details — the foam, the ripples, the reflections. Here’s another wave. Watch it develop. Watch it unfold. Stick around for the credits.

Enjoy this. Maybe you can stretch it out. Maybe you can be one of those people who actually has an OK life for a while. Change will come. There’s no need to rush it.


I stood on principle and was harshly reprimanded

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JUN 16, 2008

I refuse to apologize for taking a stand that is in the best interests of the company.

Dear Cary,

I am having a little difficulty knowing where the line dividing personal assistant and administrative staff lies. I’ve been harshly reprimanded for questioning or challenging a principal on a matter that I felt was an abuse of company resources and the administrative staff.

After I utilized the open-door policy by questioning said principal regarding a particular task, I was promptly told that I was out of line and then reprimanded by the operations manager, who explicitly said never to question a principal.

That comment makes me very uncomfortable.

As a fellow employee of this company, I assume the best interest of the company should be my first priority. If I believe that a particular task is an abuse of the company or I have a few concerns about it, I should feel free to confront the person ordering that task and ask questions, I think. Am I wrong? They make it seem as if we’re a family in this office and the doors are always open, but that is clearly not the case.

Shouldn’t an administrative assistant, as well as every employee, have the right to question a superior without fear of wounding an ego, inevitably resulting in an H.R. violation — usually “insubordination,” the vague corporate offense that encompasses anything not pleasing to a superior.

Caste, caste, caste … it is everywhere we look. At the grocery store, on the playground and most obviously at work, where you can be reprimanded and even fired for not bending over and taking it with a smile.

I am not apologizing! Maybe it would save me from an H.R. report to do so but I refuse to compromise my integrity. Am I being just as irrational as this jerk with a title? Refuse to



Dear Refuse to Apologize,

My answer to you is a simple thing but hard to grasp. It is abundant, ancient and commonplace but sighted at a distance more often than caught. It is the truth and it is like a fish. There are big fish and small fish, and there are big truths and small truths but there are more small ones than big ones. The biggest ones are mostly mirages sprung from the exhausted minds of seekers who have grown weary, hungry and full of wishes. They see things that aren’t there. If wishes were fishes, as they say … (or is that “if wishes were horses”?).

This is all by way of delaying a small, blunt truth: Companies are made of people trying to get what they want. Everyone you are working for is a person trying to get what he or she wants. You can either stand in their way, in which case they will treat you as an obstacle, or you can aid them in getting what they want, in which case they might treat you as an ally.

So put aside for a moment your thoughts about how the company should be and what the company should want, and ask yourself what each individual with whom you are in conflict wants. There is nothing in the company but that. There is no company God who is going to decide who is right and wrong. There is no company parent who is going to step in and, after hearing both sides, punish the wrongdoer. The people in H.R. are just more people trying to get what they want. If getting what they want means nodding in agreement about abstract principles and then sabotaging you behind your back, then they will do that.

This description of reality may be offensive to you. But I didn’t make this up. I observed it. Maybe you can benefit from my experience by seeing, now, what it took me years to learn.

So what do your co-workers and superiors want? One way to learn what people want is to look at what they have. If your boss has a shiny red sports car, she wants shiny red sports cars. If she has three children, she wants children. If she has a position of power she wants power.

If she wants power and you are challenging her, then you are threatening to deprive her of what she wants, and naturally she will do things to thwart you so she can continue to get what she wants.

In trying to determine what your co-workers want, you must also ask what they want from you. Have they asked you to keep a close eye on them so as to prevent them from going to excess? Have they asked you to police their actions lest they exceed the bounds of their authority? Have they asked you to notify them if you feel they are failing to live up to the company’s values? Ask yourself what they have actually asked you to do. Literally: What have they asked you to do? Then try just doing that. Try doing just what they have asked you to do.

Do they want you to be on time? Do they want you to lecture them on the company’s policies and ideals? What have they asked you to do? What they have asked you to do is what they are paying you to do.

No matter what you understood when you were hired, you are now being paid to do what certain individuals want you to do. If you do these things they will pay you. If you don’t, they will try to make you go away. So try just doing these things and see if you can live with that. It may be that you can’t live with that.

It may be that you want to run things. If you want to run things, then find a job running things. Not everyone is good at running things. Not everyone wants to run things. People are needed who want to run things and are good at it. You can surely find a job doing that if that is what you want. But that does not appear to be the job you have.

If you find a job running things then you will confront a host of subordinates, each of whom wants something. Some of them may want to also run things. If you let them run certain things they will work hard for you. If you hoard all the running of things for yourself, then they will work against you.

You have to figure out what people want. It isn’t complicated. Just look at what they have. Look at what they try to get. The things people have and the things people try to get are the things people want. If you help them get these things, they will be your allies. If you try to thwart them, they will be your enemies. This is a simple and commonplace truth, yet like a fish it can be slippery to grasp.



I’m the Peggy Olson of my office

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Dear Cary,

I work for a small office in a large organization. I like my job and I believe in the work we are doing. The problem is, I don’t like my co-workers. Or rather, they don’t like me.

I work in a male-dominated field, so I’m used to being the odd woman out. That wasn’t a problem early in my career when I was a junior employee working with people my own age. But my work has been good and promotions have brought me into areas dominated by older workers. As a result, the cultural differences have become much more noticeable.

The men I typically work with now don’t really DO anything that I can point out—they just give me a perpetual cold shoulder. Their days are filled with private jokes, communicated via email or social messaging, that I’m not part of. When I make jokes, they fall flat. In some cases, I think these men don’t “get” all of my cultural references (never a problem with people my own age). But sometimes, it feels passive-aggressive. I mean, I don’t “get” their obsession with sports, but at least I’m polite enough to make small talk or laugh at jokes. I don’t stop and stare them into an uncomfortable silence.

After trying far too long to be accepted, I came to believe that these older male colleagues are probably—though maybe unconsciously—uncomfortable with a somewhat younger female (15 to 20 years’ difference) succeeding mid-career at the level they’ve worked their whole careers to achieve.

In other words, I’m the Peggy Olson of my office.

It’s 2014. I’m neither interested nor equipped to spend my life waging office warfare.

Should I stay in this job I like, with these people I increasingly don’t, grit my teeth and wait 10 years until these “old guys” start retiring? How do I resolve this without getting promoted past them—or at least avoid this problem in my next job?

PS: The answer can’t be “talk to the boss.” The boss—whom I otherwise like working for—has made it clear that employee socializing is not his department. He simply expects us to work as a team. If I’m complaining, then I’m the one who’s not fitting in and that makes me the problem. Or maybe he’s right—I’m not sure I know anymore.

Not a Kid, Not a Baby Boomer


Dear Not a Kid, Not a Baby Boomer,

I think you should look for another job.

If your boss wanted to address your grievances it might be different. But look at the situation. Consider the possible ways it might improve and think about their likelihood:

1) Your boss changes and decides to take an active interest in team-building. An outside consultant takes you on a team-building retreat to the Idaho wilderness and your co-workers’ attitudes suddenly shift. They see that they’ve been unfair and realize what a marvelous and talented person you are.

2) All on their own, without any outside consultant or team-building exercises or pressure from management, your co-workers change and make an effort to include you.

3) A catastrophic event pulls you together as a team.

4) You magically and unexpectedly gel as a team for no apparent reason.

5) Your boss promotes you over their heads quickly and you don’t have to deal with them anymore.

Are any of these events likely enough that you would stake the next 10 years of your life on them? The last one is at least something you could work toward. But in none of these cases is there a clear path to an achievable goal. It’s all out of your hands.

Here are two things you can do in the here and now. 1) work to get promoted out of this boomer network and 2) at the same time, conduct a vigorous job search.

Then, when you find something that looks promising, if you still haven’t been promoted, have a frank conversation with your boss. Ask for what you want. If you don’t get it, then take the other job.

Now, on a personal note, intuitively speaking, being expected to work as a team with people who obviously don’t like you, and having no support from your boss will take its toll on you emotionally. You don’t need that. What you need is to feel secure and respected and liked. Furthermore, the higher you go in this company, the more dependent your success will be on the subjective assessments of your superiors. The more important it will be to belong the network. So it just feels like you should get out and seek employment at a place where you fit and are happy.

After all, what did Peggy Olson do?


Why do I argue with this condescending guy?


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Hi Cary,

I have a problem with my disposition. I don’t know if I can do much about it, but I would love your perspective on how to cope with it.

I am a fairly normal, social, functional person. I have several very close relationships, good rapport with people at work, I am sociable, nice, a hard worker, sometimes too amenable to other people’s views.  I am open to other views but when I get on the defensive, I get argumentative. I am insecure about my intelligence, though I know I am intelligent. I can be jealous and kind of spiteful, but I also always feel genuine happiness for people’s success and well-being, and feel genuine sadness at people’s difficulties, and want to help others in need. All in all, I think I’m a normal mix of human qualities.

The problem I’m noticing now that I’ve started work (I graduated this past year) is negotiating the power dynamic with different people, and there’s always a power dynamic with everyone — in the classroom amongst students and teachers, at work, in club meetings, at home. My particular trouble now is at the office. My boss treats me with respect and values my work but I hesitate to contradict her opinions. I’m friendly but very guarded around her, and I suspect she wants me to be more open. It’s a power thing. I’m very conscious of authority and authority figures.

Then there is a colleague, the only one who I’m really friends with at work, who has more experience than I do and is generally really nice but I feel is quite insecure around me, and about himself in general. It shows in his conversational disposition: in nearly every conversation I have with him he criticizes my ideas or thoughts, or tries to disprove them or point out flaws, or temper them, even if the thought, idea or comment wouldn’t normally elicit that kind of response (“I’m a little wary of social media because of state surveillance” will get a biting, weird response about how it doesn’t really matter). I’m not that way, and neither are my friends or people I spend time with so it took me three months to realize he was doing this. I eventually realized that talking to him was grating on my nerves. There’s one way for him to stay nice: if I play to his ego, and let him feel smarter than me. Don’t contradict him, don’t fight him, agree with him. I don’t like doing that, but if I do choose to disagree with him he will. not. back. down. until I really stick it to him. I don’t like arguing over pointless things, and oftentimes his gripes are pointless, so we’re okay for the most part. But he condescends to me constantly, and I often take it because I just don’t know how to respond professionally in the moment to it.

Then there’s our intern. She’s the only employee that I’m technically ‘above’ in the organization. She does basically what we need her to do. I’ve tried to make our relationship as equal as is reasonable: she’s a smart girl who works hard, and I want her to feel like she’s growing and benefiting from this work so I include her input a lot. I call her out on it when I think her work is shoddy, and compliment her when her work is good. I tell my boss when she deserves a shout-out email, and encourage her to follow up on her ideas, and not to conform to my ideas. She’s a self starter, so she does well. The thing with her is that she acts with a kind of irreverence to authority that I don’t have; she is argumentative in a way that is sometimes rude (she said she thought one of my colleagues’ opinions on a serious issue was ‘silly’, when I’m sure she could have found a better way to express her disagreement), I’m pretty sure she once said the way my eyebrows were threaded was weird (to which I laughed because I brought them up myself, but found a little odd) and looks over people’s shoulders at their computer screens. I actually had to tell her that i didn’t like her doing that for her to stop. Short story: she is a little odd, not entirely respectful of authority, but while I don’t appreciate it sometimes, I also like that she’s not afraid or intimidated by positions of authority. I am, and it shows in how restrained/unnatural I am around them. I think she needs a lesson or two in etiquette, but don’t mind her otherwise. I am fine with our relationship.

Where my own approach to people is concerned: I realized when I moved back to my country that people might be insecure about my qualifications. I also knew I had lots to learn, so my approach to every conversation has been to listen and try to make myself amenable to other viewpoints even if I don’t particularly agree.

I know. It sounds bad. It kind of stems from not liking conflict, from needing people to like me, and from not wanting to appear arrogant which I think stems from my parents. In college I realized my parents never praised me for my achievements growing up, thinking it’d go to my head. Just as an example, my mother’s words on my graduation card were ‘don’t forget the oppressed in your success’ (the only words on the card) and when I topped the world in a high school exam once, my dad asked me to find out how many other people had taken the test because his colleagues weren’t impressed. I used to feel terrible when my mom would say I was arrogant when I’d get into fights with her, but I realize now that I never have been, and that she said it because she knew it’d hurt me. It doesn’t anymore, but you can imagine how that kind of childhood and adolescence hurt my confidence. My parents warned me about being too arrogant and didn’t realize the sad fact that I’d never built up the self esteem that arrogance requires. In humbling me, they also hurt me.

Being away from home for four years made me realize this. I’ve been fortunate to be around professors and incredible friends who are similar, as smart and smarter than me; it’s helped me gain confidence even as it has increased my insecurities. I’m comfortable telling my mom, my sisters, my close friends etc. exactly what I think when I’m annoyed or uncomfortable with them (including the graduation card and their treatment of my achievements). And I had a sit-down with said insecure colleague when I felt he was really out of line. I don’t run away from conflict because I don’t like people taking advantage of me, but it’s not in my natural disposition to fight either. My natural instinct when it comes to conflict with someone I’m not reasonably close to is to curl into a ball and hide, and it takes effort fueled by anger to fight that instinct. Dealing with this colleague means being on my defensive, ready to argue back, ready to push back, all the time, and dealing with the fallout after. I don’t have that kind of natural fight in me, and not for a job that I’m not all too enthusiastic about, and that I’m only in for another 9 months before grad school.

I’m in an odd position where I’m not confident in myself, I’m not arrogant, I know I am intelligent and have things to offer, and yet feel powerless among other intelligent people, or figures of authority, or generally people who think they are smart and assert themselves, even if I know I can do better than them. I don’t want people to dislike me, so I don’t disagree with them unless I really disagree with them, most times I just stay quiet instead of dissenting. I don’t want conflict on a daily basis, and yet I don’t want to feel unappreciated or condescended to. I don’t want to live a life of insecurity and yet I can’t seem to shake this disposition, or decide if I should: is it just in my nature? Would it be silly to fight it at this point? How do I push back against condescension, how do I build confidence?


Courage the Cowardly Girl


Dear Courage the Cowardly Girl,

You say, “When I get on the defensive, I get argumentative.” How about doing this: As soon as you realize what you are doing, stop and say, out loud, “Why am I arguing with you?”

This will do several things. It will stop your behavior. It will raise an interesting question. It will change the subject. And if he is original and quick-thinking he may say something surprising.

One interesting thing for him to say would be, “I think you are arguing with me because I’m a stand-in for somebody else in your life that you’re going to spend your whole life arguing with unless you figure out once and for all that what they think doesn’t matter any more because you’ve moved on.”

But maybe he will say, “Duh, I don’t know why you’re arguing with me.” At least you’ve stopped doing what you were doing, and you’ve stopped doing it without pushing him away, and you’ve made yourself vulnerable but not in a manipulative way, though you may appear to be flirtatious.

I wonder if there is a problem with seeming flirtatious. There might be. It’s great when people can be playful in the workplace but when a woman is playful she may seem flirtatious and then she must deal with what men think she means and what they think they should do about what they think she means and since they are often wrong it can get confusing and of course you might say that’s because of the regrettable gender-based power differential and what the hell do you care and why must it always be the woman who manages this host of annoying possibilities, to which I would reply Heck if I know, it certainly isn’t fair but who else is going to manage it?

By the way, are you actually arguing with somebody who isn’t there — your parents, perhaps?

Just asking.

Now before leaving I would like to make a general observation. You seem to feel anxious and unsure of yourself, and you bear some emotional scars from not being treated with ideal kindness by your parents. But you don’t sound anxious or depressed. You just sound like you haven’t figured everything out yet.

That is a common problem.

The problem of not having figured everything out yet will probably persist for your lifetime. Working with others in harmony is an art you practice every day. The more skills you acquire, the better you can do it. But it is an art. Good luck. Keep practicing!