Carolyn Hax: Don’t get dragged into co-workers’ contest over who had it worst as a kid

Carolyn Hax
Columnist October 7, 2013

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Hi, Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

I could use your advice on how to respond to my co-workers, who often talk about their supposedly impoverished childhoods even though, in less guarded moments, they reveal things that make it clear they didn’t really grow up poor. It’s like some weird contest. None of them grew up in worse circumstances than I did and I wasn’t poor.

Usually I ignore them, but I get annoyed when I have to listen to, “You wouldn’t understand, Jane, because you didn’t grow up poor like Mary and I did.” How do I let them know that I know they’re full of it?

My Poor Co-Workers


(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

Why do you need to? Merely wanting to isn’t justification.

There’s also the possibility that they were indeed needy and you’re drawing incorrect conclusions. Not that anything justifies a who’s-the-poorest contest; just being thorough.

These are sufficient arguments alone for not saying anything, but Ms. Shoulder-Devil has one, too: Watching people profess things that you know aren’t true, and that you know they don’t know you know, inspires some of us to make popcorn and grab a seat. Any, “You’re so full of it!” outburst would be counter to your own entertainment interests.

Completely different tack, if you aren’t amused: Interject brightly that you had to walk to school uphill! both ways!, and then leave. That’s universal code for: Be martyrs on your own time, please.

To: Poor Co-Workers:

I must say I’m relieved to know I’m not the only one in the middle of a who-had-it-worse competition. It is annoying, and I did go the route of just letting them make fools of themselves.

But do be careful what you mention from your own childhood. I recently said I would love for my daughter to have horseback riding lessons as I did as a child (to one co-worker in a relevant discussion of children’s activities) and now I am the Queen of Sheba. I get comments about my charmed upbringing and how wonderful it must have been.

Why is this a contest? And I can’t tell if I’m the winner or the loser.

Anonymous

You had a pony. That makes you the winner of all things to every overgrown 6-year-old in your workplace.

That does mean, alas, you can’t use the “uphill both ways” deflection, lest you become the office Marie Antoinette, too. But you can respond impassively, “I was lucky in some ways and unlucky in others — like everyone else, I imagine.” And thereafter decline to engage.

Dear Carolyn:

I’m in a relationship that might need to end. She’s awesome, but I can’t seem to pull the trigger on committing to her for various reasons. One complication is that we are in a long-distance relationship and see each other only on weekends. I feel a breakup over the phone won’t do.

She has different things going on on weekends that I wouldn’t want to spoil by breaking up. How do people time breakups to be most sensitive?

Timing a Breakup

The ideal timing is the overlap among these elements: when you’re sure, can get there, and won’t disrupt something important. As in, a deadline, test, major event. You don’t have to tiptoe around every entry on her calendar.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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