Jenée Desmond-Harris is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Your Wi-Fi sucks: My co-workers are refusing to come back to the office and it’s getting ridiculous. I get it: COVID happened and yes, we “proved” that we can work remotely because we still managed to get stuff done. But that’s just it—we managed. We were not excelling or thriving or nearly as productive as everyone pretended. I’ve had days of back-to-back Zoom calls where someone’s audio breaks up, someone loses a signal, or someone’s husband/baby/dog is yelling/crying/barking in the background. It’s a nightmare. Also, as much as it’s nice to have flexibility, it’s seemingly pretty unhealthy for the team because morale is low and everyone is complaining about being depressed. But they don’t want the 9-to-5 Monday to Friday. I’ve mentioned this to the CEO a ton, but she is loving life and traveling everywhere, while we are holding the world together in the ether. Thoughts?
A: I’m happily typing this from my dining room table. I thank my lucky stars every day that I don’t have to get up, get dressed, and go somewhere only to put on headphones to block out the sound of chitchat and people eating desk salads 3 feet away from me. So I’m biased, I admit it—I think remote work is the best.
But please mind your own business. You mentioned a CEO, which tells me you’re not the CEO. So, this is not your issue to address, you’re not in charge of diagnosing depression among your colleagues, and you don’t have to monitor everyone’s productivity and morale. Let all of that go! Just focus on doing your own work and don’t worry about where everyone else is and how they’re feeling.
The extra noise on calls does sound a bit annoying, and if it’s making it hard for you to do your job, bring it up. Perhaps everyone could use a reminder about the mute button. But other than that, this is your post-pandemic workplace now, and if you don’t like it, you should start looking for other in-person opportunities.
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Q. Distant sister: How can I be a friend to my brother? He’s single, hasn’t worked for 10 years, and is increasingly defensive about his life and choices—a simple question like “What have you been up to?” is greeted like a knife attack. He’s a hypochondriac and into a few internet subcultures, but otherwise we don’t know what he’s doing day-to-day beyond researching health problems. He’s only 45 but I guess he’s retired? (He’s not wealthy but he has enough money to live on.) He’s a good uncle to my kids and I was close with him when I was younger, but whenever we talk these days, he just wants to mansplain my life to me. I feel like he needs a friend right now but I really have no idea how to be one to him.
A: You’re obviously very judgmental of him and what he’s doing or not doing with his life. If I can tell from this short email, he can probably tell too. So when you ask “What have you been up to?” he’s hearing “I can’t believe you haven’t worked in 10 years. What the hell do you do all day?” Because that’s kind of what you’re feeling, right?
It sounds like his unique lifestyle doesn’t hurt you in any way, so what if you try to reframe the way you think of him? What if instead of labeling him as unemployed, lazy, and weird, you think of him as someone who has miraculously been able to support himself without working? What if you celebrate that, despite his unconventional life, he’s a great uncle? What if you just decide to be cool with how he lives his life and give up on the idea that he will change? He didn’t say he needed a friend, so don’t worry about being one—but it does sound like he needs a nonjudgmental sister who accepts him for who he is. Try to be that person. I bet it will make both of you happier.
I have a feeling the mansplaining might be an attempt to prove himself or even the playing field with someone (you) who doesn’t think he has a lot to offer. Hopefully he’ll stop when your relationship shifts. But if he doesn’t, call him out on it every time it happens: “I’ll let you know if I need you to explain something to me, but it feels condescending when I haven’t asked and you tell me what to do with my life. I know you mean well but can you stop, please?”
Q. Paint profits: We have a local organization that recycles toxic household items that shouldn’t be thrown in the garbage. Some of these items are put into their “store” and people can take them for free. I like to get a lot of different colors of paint from there because I like to mix my own colors until I get something I like.
Today I found out that I am technically not supposed to return these colors to the recycling center attached to the store. Right now, I have several boxes of paint cans that I need to get rid of. Now that I know I’m not supposed to recycle them, I’m thinking about selling them. I wouldn’t sell them for much, but these are high-quality paints, plus it takes some time and effort to arrange these sales locally, so I think my time is at least worth something. I’m also really struggling financially. I feel a little bit bad that I got these items for free and am trying to sell them. What do you think? Is it morally wrong for me to sell these leftover paints?
A: Not at all. Sell the paint with a clear conscience. I mean, I guess you could put them up in your local buy-nothing group, but people who want paint for free can get it at the local toxic recycling center just like you did. You’re fine, and I hope the money you make helps a little.
Q. Parental boundaries: I am a 26-year-old woman currently living with my parents, and I’m having trouble setting boundaries. I’ve recently been accepted to law school. My parents have insisted on weekly (or daily) updates on my progress, and express disappointment and shame me when I don’t have enough information to throw at them as proof of my productivity.
What’s more irritating, though, is that they keep offering financial help, but not following through. They’ve offered to pay for application fees, new electronics for school, furniture for an apartment, to help me pay the lien on my car so I can sell it, move-in fees, etc. These are all big-ticket items, and to date, I’ve paid for them all myself after there was no follow-up from my parents, but still a clear expectation of progress.
I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m on my own, but they keep insisting on “progress reports” as if they have every right to be fully involved in every decision, unsolicited opinions and advice included. I’ve made references to the fact that I can afford those big-ticket things, ignoring their offers to help, and they take offense to that. How can I set boundaries with them?
A: Hmm, I wish I knew a little more. Do you think they’d kick you out if you didn’t provide the updates they’re demanding or asked too many questions about money? If I had the answer to that question, it would help me decide whether to tell you to grin and bear it between now and the fall when you move into the dorms, or to really stand up for yourself.
Either way, I think both of your issues demand serious, direct conversations. Not the kind you have in passing as you try to make your way from the front door to your bedroom, but the kind you schedule and sit down for after making a list of points that you want to make sure not to forget. How about something like this:
“Mom and Dad, I really want to talk to you about a couple of things that have been on my mind. I’m interested in hearing what you think. First, you’ve been asking me for a lot of updates about law school stuff and it’s overwhelming because I don’t always have much to say. I know we’re all excited about my next step and I want to make you proud and keep you in the loop, but can we do progress reports once or twice a month over dinner so I have time to get my thoughts together? Also, I want you to know that I don’t expect you to pay for anything. You’re already letting me live here for free, which I really appreciate. But since you’ve mentioned covering move-in fees and stuff, I want to make sure I’m doing my budget correctly. Are you still planning to help out with those costs, or should I go ahead and cover them?”
If the conversation isn’t productive, I think you should make your regular update “Lots of reading! Hundreds of pages of reading! I won’t know how much I’ve retained until after finals.” And make your response to any offers to pay for stuff “Thanks, I really appreciate it!” But roll your eyes internally and don’t actually expect anything.
Q. Re: Your Wi-Fi sucks: Also carefully consider: 1) You’ve had “days” of back-to-back Zoom calls where someone’s internet has cut out and then a baby is screaming and this is a nightmare? How do you function in an office when people are in the bathroom, or on calls, or on vacation? And you have had “days” of this, not “weeks” or all the time.
2) “Morale is low and everyone is complaining about being depressed”—that’s not because they can’t be in the office. It’s because they’ve been trapped in their house for 15 months (possibly with babies, kids, and husbands). Most of them are not depressed because they are WFH. They are depressed because of the PANDEMIC, because of health worries/issues, dead family, nothing to do, tightened finances, no vacations in 15 months, etc.
A: Right. I mean, I think this is a person who is just really unhappy working from home and upset that it might become permanent. That’s fair. But they should focus on making it work or finding a different job rather than trying to monitor everyone else. Which, by the way, sounds extremely exhausting.
And to your second point—exactly. I think it’s more likely the co-workers are depressed because of the pandemic. Being on video calls with someone who’s giving the evil eye and making a report to the boss every time there’s a little bit of extra noise probably doesn’t help either.
Q. Re: Distant sister: The letter writer could also simply ask how her brother is doing, instead of what he’s been doing. Clearly, he’s insecure about people judging the content of his life, so a better approach would be to talk about wellness and feelings about their lives instead of the specifics of what they are each getting up to.
A: Totally. Or even just chat about specific things (the weather, food, and Netflix are always pretty safe) rather than asking any questions that could be perceived as demanding an update or prying.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: OK, that’s all for today! Thanks for the questions. I’ll talk to you next week. Until then, try to keep your fingers out of your mouth before you touch communal food.
From Care and Feeding
I’m almost due with my first, so I’m in that “what if I’m a terrible mother” phase. I don’t deal well with loud noises, and I can have a bit of a temper. I’m mostly just concerned about how to handle the crying-baby phase. Any tips?