Each week, Prudie discusses a tricky letter with a colleague or friend, just for Slate Plus members. This week Jenée Desmond-Harris discusses her response to “Take Me Straight to January” with her husband and fellow Slate staffer, Joel Anderson.
Well, it’s the winter holiday season and I hate it. I am Jewish and really cannot stand the endless barrage of Christmas In America, starting before Halloween. I work at a large organization and am in a leadership role, so I am invited to all of the parties, and that means about 10 parties between now and December 30. I don’t want to go! I have two reasons: The first is that I am highly introverted, and socializing with people who report to me, and with people I do not normally socialize with outside of work, fills me with dread. I just freeze up in unstructured social situations. Second, no one will be masked. How could they be, when there will be food and beverages? As someone who is fully vaccinated and has never had COVID, this situation also fills me with dread. If I don’t go, well, they’ll know me to be the Scrooge that I am. Finally, our organization has offices spread all over the city, so it’s not like I can drop in for 10 minutes and leave; I will have skipped to get to them all, and they will know it. What’s your advice? Thank you!
— Take Me Straight to January
Jenée Desmond-Harris: I chose this question for you for a couple of reasons: 1) I feel like, aside from not being Jewish, we can both kinda relate to this letter writer. Introverted (or is it lazy??) and also still really into not getting COVID, which can really put a person at odds with current expectations for socializing, and 2) I think I missed an opportunity in my response. LW said “socializing with people who report to me, and with people I do not normally socialize with outside of work, fills me with dread. I just freeze up in unstructured social situations.” And that sounds a little beyond normal nerves and awkwardness. I wonder if I should have suggested working to treat social anxiety or develop some coping skills, instead of pushing for avoidance. Anyway, respond to whichever part of that you want!
Joel Anderson: I think the harmless white lie is exactly the right way to wriggle free of your social obligations. And hey, the CDC earlier this week recommended mask use because of rising cases around the country. So your advice is the responsible thing to do: avoiding large social gatherings right now, particularly those where it will be difficult to keep a mask on throughout.
To the latter point, I’d be curious about their leadership position because … doesn’t that often require doing the sort of stuff that requires extroversion? How has the LW managed those obligations in the past? How well do they know the people who are their subordinates? That sort of thing. It’s not like they’re asking the LW to show up somewhere they wouldn’t know anyone.
Jenée: I do think there’s a difference between how I feel (“I’d really rather stay home and be cozy and scroll through social media but I know I’ll ultimately kinda enjoy myself and be glad I went to the party”) versus how the letter writer feels (“I’m terrified! I’ll freeze up!”). If they don’t go, I want them to not go because they’ve made a choice that it’s not the best thing for them (which, yeah, makes total sense given the recent guidance) and not because they’re in a panic about talking to people. Again, I don’t know how intense the anxiety is, and might require professional help. But one super easy thing to make talking to people in social situations easier is just to ask them questions about themselves. (I assume this person isn’t a journalist because this is what all journalists use as a social crutch and when we get together it’s just a battle to see who can ask the most and most interesting questions.)
Joel: Absolutely. I basically interview people in social situations, to keep things moving along. Where are you from? What school did you go to? How’d you end up here? That sort of thing. I’m not saying that it’s made me some kind of social powerhouse, but it’s an effective way to pass the time and has the added bonus of making people comfortable because most everyone likes talking about themselves, whether they admit it or not.
But let’s say these events truly fills the LW with dread, the kind that makes going to parties feel like some kind of torture. If they truly feel that way, they have an obligation to themselves and their mental health to stay home and not fret about it too much but also see if this particular anxiety requires therapy or counseling. If I had to guess, I doubt very seriously that their colleagues will spend too much time thinking about or commenting too much on their absence. Like, just say you’re not feeling well, stay home, and make a point of apologizing for missing the festivities and pretending to care about what happened there at work the next day.
Jenée: Wait, since you’re patting yourself on the back (deservedly, you’re very good at party chat), I just have to talk about the one time you really fell down on the job and just started saying “Whoa! Wow!” and everyone was like “What?” and you were like “I just can’t believe [the thing we were all supposed to be celebrating, which was not actually surprising in any way]”
Joel: Ohhhhh, lol. Well, I remember this occasion and you know how that goes: I blame everyone else, including you, for not picking up the slack. I was desperately trying to fill the awkward silence, of which there was plenty. What was I supposed to do? I was trying to help!
Jenée: You did your best. Which is all anyone can do, and all this LW can do. And if this season, their best equals not being present for the parties, I totally agree that everyone will get over it.
Joel: Unless the party is absolutely wack, they will not and should not notice one person—one of their managers, even!—not being there. Hey, might even be a relief to them if the LW doesn’t show up. (Sorry if that’s true and it makes them feel bad!)
Jenée: I don’t think it will!