Tell Me About It: Use boss to avoid painful moments

Posted: May 20, 2013

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Question: I'm returning to work after a two-month absence. What was supposed to be maternity leave turned into a nightmare - my son was stillborn and I suffered a number of serious complications from a very difficult delivery. I needed the time away from work to recuperate. Although physically I am doing much better, emotionally I am anything but.

I anticipate that some co-workers, although well-intentioned, may ask awkward and even inappropriate questions about my son's birth and death, and my subsequent healing period. My nerves are raw, and the last thing I want to do is discuss what happened with people I hardly know.

No matter how many times I rehearse a polite "Thank you for your concern, but it's too painful to talk about," I feel like people will no doubt intrude on my space, which will set me off into a crying spell. What advice do you have to pre-empt the questions and conversations?

Answer: That's horrible, I'm so sorry. Please ask your supervisor to let people know in advance that you'd rather not have anyone approach you at all.

I doubt you'll be able to avoid all crying spells, so don't waste any dread on that. Tears will come, and you'll deal with them, and people in the office will understand. In a way, tipping off everyone beforehand will let them know how they can help you, since no doubt that's all they'll want to do - help somehow.

Question: I teach at a small high school, and one of my coworkers is very nice, constantly thanking people for the everyday things they do. Every day.

Within the thank-you is often a put-down of himself. For example, if he's thanking me for my work with my math class, he will say something like, "Now if I weren't such a crappy math teacher/coach/whatever, maybe my class/our team would do better."

What should I say here? I think I know what he wants: for me to say, " No! No! You're wonderful!" So, should I say that? The eighth time, and the 14th, and the 32d get a little old.

Answer: No, please don't offer up fished-for compliments. It doesn't fix what he's trying to fix, and you'll only sound insincere.

It might help you figure out what to say if you keep firmly in mind that, beyond being a bit of a nuisance, this guy's problem isn't really your problem. Not yours to solve, certainly, be it by giving him the coerced compliments or by trying to get at the deeper insecurity.

One thing you can offer, as a kindness to you both, is a verbal mirror in which to see himself, if he's so inclined. When he puts himself down, respond by pointing out that he'd probably flag it if a student talked down on himself or herself that way, right? So why would he want to model it?

If he persists after you've made this point, then you're free to brush it off with an "I thought we talked about this self-deprecation thing," or, "There you go again."


Email Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com, or chat online at noon Fridays at www.washingtonpost.com.

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