my manager keeps exaggerating about my stress level

A reader writes:

I’m in a new position, which I enjoy. Of course, no job is perfect, and there’s a curious issue I’m not sure how to handle: What do you think is the line between exaggerating and lying? And, when does it need to be addressed in a “managing up” situation when it’s a direct supervisor doing it?

Some of my manager’s exaggerations are not work-related. For example, my supervisor said, “G. ate FIVE cupcakes!” when I ate one. I blew it off with a smile and something like, “They were so rich, one was enough.” I’m a healthy, average weight, there were plenty of cupcakes, and no one asked. I can’t imagine why she made that comment.

When the exaggerations are work-related, a common theme is my stress level. I’m relatively calm (other people would say this, too) but do, of course, have complaints and frustrations – a software update that kept me from completing a project one afternoon, a customer who can’t be satisfied, etc. When I’ve expressed such frustrations, she turns them into comments like “G. HATES the new software!” I’ve learned to be neutral about problems or say nothing if possible; however, I do have to report issues to her and can’t frame everything in a positive light.

I can ignore the personal comments, but the work-related ones bother me, because they seem to have some impact. Though our department head once made a offhand comment about my supervisor’s tendency to exaggerate, she still asks me questions that seem to imply she takes the exaggerations seriously (e.g., “I heard you were really upset about the software update. Do we need to meet with IT to set up training?”).

Most of the time, I’m caught off guard and don’t say anything unless my supervisor repeats the comment. At other times, I try to address it calmly, as with the cupcakes. But when our department head brings concerns to me based on the exaggerations, I’m not sure what to do. Do I trust that she will recognize I am handling my duties and not overwhelmed/stressed out/etc.? I’m uncomfortable stating a version of “That’s not what I said,” but maybe that’s necessary? Or, maybe this is one of those issues that seems like a bigger deal than it really is?

If it were just about cupcakes, you could write it off as a weird eccentricity. But because some of your manager’s hyperbole is work-related and giving people an inaccurate impression of you, I think you do need to say something.

The next time your department head comes and asked you about one of these exaggerations, set the record straight. And I would be fairly direct — as in, “Hmmm, I’m surprised Jane said that; I wasn’t upset at all, and I told her that the software update would be fine.” I’d also be ready for an opening to say something like, “You know, I’m a pretty calm person and don’t get stressed or upset easily. Should we try to figure out why things keep getting relayed to you that way?”

Even if you’re not comfortable with that last part though (and whether you are will probably depend on your dynamics with the department head), definitely do calmly and matter-of-factly correct the record when she brings you these inaccuracies. If you don’t, you’re allowing her to continue on with the wrong impression, and there’s no reason to do that.

Also, I’d strongly consider saying something to your manager — either case by case or about the broader pattern. Case by case would sound like this: “Lucinda came to me and said she’d heard from you that I was really upset about the software update. I was a little alarmed that she thought that and I want to make sure you know that I wasn’t. Did I do something that gave you that impression?” Broader pattern would sound like this: “Lucinda told me she’d heard from you that I was really upset about the software update, and I’ve noticed that there have been other times when you’ve told others that I’m stressed or upset about something when I wasn’t. I’m actually generally a pretty calm person and have an even keel; it would be unusual for me to be very upset. I’m concerned that there’s something I’m doing that’s giving you the wrong impression, and so I want to correct it so that you know going forward.”

If you address it head-on, it should be pretty hard for her to keep telling everyone how stressed and upset you are. But, frankly, she may continue anyway because hyperbole sounds pretty second-nature to her.

If that’s the case, keep in mind that exaggerators often exaggerate not to intentionally deceive, but because they’re dramatic story-tellers, and exaggerating lets them tell a more exciting/dramatic/interesting account of something — and they tend not to think about how their exaggerations may actually cause problems or misunderstandings. Of course, it’s possible that your manager has some other motive here (like that she’s the one who was annoyed by the software update in your example, and she’s using you as a proxy to relay her own concern), but because the pattern extends to non-work stuff, I think she’s just a lover of hyperbole.

You’re right to be aware of it and to minimize the chances she has to exercise it where you’re concerned, but I’d also expect that she’ll continue finding places to do it, and you’ll just need to manage around it and address it head-on when it’s important to correct things.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 161 comments… read them below }

  1. KathyGeiss*

    I am an exaggerator. I like to tell engaging stories and sometimes I tweak the truth to make things more interesting. It’s nearly entirely sub-conscious. I see it less as being an exaggerator and more of being a good storyteller. But! I do that in social situations with stories that are just stories. At work, I am very clear in my communications and work really hard to relay things accurately.

    All this is to validate that this is a legit issue and to confirm that even habitual exaggerators have the ability to be accurate when necessary.

    1. Lily in NYC*

      I was going to say something similar – OP, does your manager speak like this in general? Some people just speak in hyperbole but I do think it’s problematic because it’s giving the wrong idea to the big boss. Does she talk about other coworkers in a similar manner?

        1. Rex*

          If she’s not new to this office, I think chances are pretty good that everyone has figured out or will figure out that this is the way she is. That said, I don’t think there’s any problem with calmly correcting as Alison advises — it might help speed this realization for some people.

    2. Ann O'Nemity*

      Can I ask why you feel the need to embellish your stories?

      I have two chronic exaggerators in my life – one personal and one professional. Their habit of tweaking the truth makes it hard to trust anything they say because I never know where the reality ends and the fiction begins.

      1. fposte*

        I think Mallory Janis Ian gives a good account below–there are people who are culturally storytellers, and people who are culturally reporters. It’s not about a need to embellish any more than a novelist or comedian has a need to embellish–it’s about prioritizing the story.

        1. Cat*

          Heh, I was thinking that my family was on the extreme end of the just-the-facts side, read your comment, and thought oh, I guess being raised by two journalists might have something to do with that.

        2. Mallory Janis Ian*

          I still use a lot of phrases around the house that my husband considered hyperbolic and emotionally weighted, but they aren’t necessarily meant to be a factual report of what literally happened; they are meant to succinctly convey my emotional perspective on a matter. I, apparently, use many such phrases. “Jabbed up in a hole” describes how I thought I would feel about getting into the tiny hole of a kayak (versus the larger opening of a canoe), “grabbing and snatching” to describe what I don’t want people doing to the snacks in the kitchen right before I’m about to call them to the table for a meal, “flung all over hell’s half acre” to describe the state of people’s socks over the living room floor when I come home from work and observe the situation with a calm, neutral eye . . .

          1. Vicki*

            The nice thing about these phrases is that they appear to be special phrases (some well known, e.g. ” all over hell’s half acre” and so out of whack with obvious reality that it’s very clear that they’re in the story for effect.

            It sounds like the OP’s manager, unfortunately, is using words that have a more standard recognized meaning if shared later by a third party.

            Jane hates the software comes off as, well, Jane hates the software.

          2. KH*

            My father and I used to have this argument all the time. One of his big complaints was “Throwing your towels all over the bathroom floor”. To me “throwing your towels” indicates blatantly, intentionally throwing towels on the floor in order to purposely cause someone else to be inconvenienced. Vs just “leaving your towels all over the floor” or “dropping your towels all over the floor” – which is still an exaggeration when it’s one towel, but it’s less emotionally loaded. It doesn’t imply malice of intent the way “throwing” does.

            I can see accusing someone of “flinging” their socks all over the place probably could have the same implication of malicious intent, vs. “leaving” their socks all over the place.

            1. Mallory Janis Ian*

              Yeah, I think that my husband thinks that words such as flung, jabbed, grabbed, snatched, etc. sound accusatory and emotionally weighted. Which I guess they are, because when I’m saying those words I don’t feel neutral about the state of the living room floor; I feel like I’m about to float away on a sea of socks. I can have an emotional perspective and that comes out in my word choices, much to the consternation of some people. I do try to choose less weighted words if I think first instead of blurting out what first pops into my head.

            2. Rovannen*

              “Malice of intent.” Thank you! I have long searched for words to explain to my coworker why some phrases she uses just fan the flames.

      2. AMG*

        This. I appreciate a good story and interesting party guests, but I dislike so much more not really knowing whether I can trust people. If I’m out with a storyteller and something innocuous happens, and I going to be embarrassed by their version of things later?

        Not trying to judge; I don’t think it makes someone a bad person, but personally, it turns me off to people like that because I don’t want to be fodder for the next embellishment.

        1. KathyGeiss*

          Yeah, exaggerating about people to make fun of them or make them embarrassed is a crappy thing to do. Nearly all of my exaggerations are about me personally (or my sister but she does worse to me so we have an understanding)

        2. hbc*

          I think the difference between being a good story teller and being an annoying liar is whether it matters if the listeners believe you. If you’re telling a friend about how your unnamed employee was rending garments over a 15 minute software update, no biggie. If you’re telling your boss that employee G is super stressed about the new software, that’s huge.

          Maybe the intent is the same in both situations, but the latter is a menace, well-intentioned or not.

          1. Helka*


            Most of my friends are storytellers to some degree — comes with being LARPers and improv actors. There’s an art to presenting hyperbole so that you aren’t misleading people; it’s totally possible to do it in a way that clearly labels itself as hyperbole for the sake of entertainment.

            1. INTP*

              Yes, that’s my issue with the embellishers in my life. Instead of employing true hyperbole, they take facts and exaggerate them just slightly so that even people who know them (but aren’t close family members who are used to being lied about) believe it at face value. Even when it’s mundane and seemingly harmless things, like when my stepdad says I was really into a song that I have never talked about at all because it gives him the chance to make a specific joke, it creates weirdness when done all the time.

        3. OP*

          “fodder for the next embellishment” – This is exactly how I began feeling and why I now limit what I share.

        4. Vicki*

          We experience the flip side of this with a friend of ours. His version of drama & exaggeration is to assume that everyone else is pulling his leg. Constantly. Every. Single Time.

          It reminds me of something Scott Adams (Dilbert) wrote once about how some people expect him to be funny. (e.g. “Sorry I was late; there was an accident on the freeway on my way here.” is responded to by “Oh, ho hoho! What’s the punchline?”)

      3. Bekx*

        I can’t speak for KathyGeiss, but when I’ve done it it’s to make people more engaged or interested. Or, I’ve felt like I’m not getting the reaction I’m seeking so I add something.

        For example of what I’ve done recently. I was trying to find a parking spot near a bar. There were two women walking into the parking lot located across the street from the venue and it was night out. I was trying to look for a space in that lot and ended up driving slowly behind them. I circled around twice when they stopped by their car and then decided to just do valet. I ended up driving slowly behind them as they crossed the street and went back to the bar. They looked back once or twice maybe. I thought to myself that I must look creepy tailing them like this accidentally.

        When I told the story, I think I said they “kept looking back, like five times” and that they probably thought I was creepy for driving behind them. If I were to embellish it further I might have said they were whispering or something. But with what I said, my friends laughed and we made some comments about how scary I must look in my Toyota Corolla with a Queen Elsa keychain hanging from the mirror.

        I used to exaggerate a LOT more when I was younger (teens, early 20s) but lately I’ve calmed down on it. Mainly because I realized that I ramble and that’s why people aren’t that interested in my stories…but also because I’ve been caught in bigger embellishments before as a teen. It’s definitely an attention thing for me. Blame my theater hobby or my only-childness.

        1. Rebecca*

          You sound exactly like my theater-oriented only-child friend who always has a lavish story to tell. Are you her? ;-) I think it’s cool that you are self-aware enough to admit this.

      4. KathyGeiss*

        I think there are levels. I don’t exaggerate to the point of lying and if it is lying, i make it super obvious it’s an exaggeration (eg: the steak cost a million dollars!?!?). My exaggerations are more for storytelling than anything else. e.g. I fell down the stairs and went a$$ over teakettle and nearly broke my toe! I didn’t actyally do a flip down the stairs but I did fall face first and did nearly brake my toe. Adding the a$$ over tea kettle part just lets me use my grandma’s favourite phrase.

        I have friends that exaggerate to the point of lying and that is super irritating.

        1. Stranger than fiction*

          I totally get what you’re saying. I kind of do the same thing just to try and be funny. For example, using the cupcake thing, if one of my coworkers took the icing off hers because she didn’t like it I might say out loud to the group “everyone give any extra icing to Jane she loves it!” But the fact that the manager is taking Op’s supervisor seriously on some work related stuff, that needs to nipped in the bud.

        2. hermit crab*

          I also try to make sure that my exaggerations are really obvious. Words like “gazillion” are really useful for this! I suppose someone might accidentally take me at face value if I say I’ve eaten 15 cupcakes, but it’s pretty clear what I mean if I say I’ve eaten 15 gazillion cupcakes. It’s especially good because if you catch yourself going into exaggeration mode, you can append “gazillion” after you’ve already slipped up and said a number.

        3. OhNo*

          I do the same thing. The best example I can think of is the story (that I love to tell) about how my brother once set himself on fire. Of course, he didn’t actually set himself on fire – just got way, way too close to something he was setting aflame that kinda-sorta exploded, but starting the story off with “My brother once set himself on fire” is a way to get people hooked and gauge their interest in hearing the rest of the story. Like you said, it works just fine if it’s used as a storytelling device. I think most people can acknowledge that they’ve done this at least once or twice, and most people will recognize when you are using it within the context of a story.

          But using it at work, where the focus should be on facts and not framing everything as a fascinating tale of intrigue and woe, is weird and inappropriate. The OP’s manager definitely needs to knock it off, because it could have a real negative effect on how people view the OP (and it kind of sounds like it already is, if the boss is coming around to ask about these things).

      5. F.*

        A close colleague at work does this. I have gotten caught assuming he was telling the actual truth and repeated or acted on what he told me, causing problems a couple of times. I finally sat him down and told him that, while my BS meter is pretty good, that he caused me embarrassment when I re-told his telling of a client-related incident, and that he needs to be sure to tell me only the unvarnished truth about work situations. If he is telling me an embellished personal story, I can usually tell when it’s BS.

        In his case, he is a born storyteller. He is also somewhat insecure in certain areas, and I notice his stories usually make him look better or contain statements and comebacks that he *wishes* he had said. When I pointed this out to him, he agreed. We know each other well enough to call each other out on things like this. I don’t necessarily recommend this type of bluntness with your manager.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Yes! I used to work with someone exactly like this. He was a lobbyist and I’d hear stuff like “(contact at allied group) is freaking out about X and thinks it’ll be a disaster” or “(staffer at congressional office) loved our meeting and is pumped to author legislation” when he really meant “(contact at allied group) expressed mild concern about X” and “(staffer at congressional office) politely expressed enthusiasm.” I assumed he was being precise with him language, and responded accordingly — thinking we needed to calm someone or we had more commitment from a congressperson than we actually did. I had to sit him down and tell him that he needed to be literal and precise with language in work-related situation because it was causing problems.

          1. Artemesia*

            I have had subordinates like this. ‘Artemesia was furious about X’. I had expressed a request to do X slightly differently i.e. to do it as we had always needed it done, but this employee twisted any direction into crisis. It is extremely corrosive in the workplace. I have literally never yelled at a subordinate ever and have always been tolerant of mistakes, just requested doing X differently going forward. Being portrayed as a loon is generally not good for your career. The OP needs to nip this one in the bud and if the supervisor continues to at least make it super clear to the boss that the supervisor is prone to embroider things about her. The 5 cupcakes story might actually be useful here in establishing a pattern about her behavior in an amusing way.

          2. Office Drone #845*

            I think at that point you just know that that person overreacts, but it does take down their credibility a bit. It’s like “The Boy who Cried Wolf” – you never know if its actually a disaster or they’re just freaking out.

    3. Mallory Janis Ian*

      I come from a whole entire family of people who exaggerate for storytelling purposes. Anyone in the family would tell a story in which someone “threw an absolute hissy fit” about something, and we all subconsciously knew that the level of an “absolute hissy fit” was not that much. Then when I married into my husband’s family and would tell stories that way, they either literally believed it, or thought I was lying. In my family storytelling tradition, I was *not* lying, I was simply doing everyone the courtesy of not boring them to death. But I had to learn, for my husband’s family, to stick more closely to the literal truth. In my family, when we tell stories about people, we do their voices and their facial expressions and mannerisms along with an exaggerated parody of what they said.

      1. Mallory Janis Ian*

        That being said, I only do the stories this way when I’m in social mode. I don’t do it at work about work things (unless it’s a group of coworkers over lunch venting about some common frustration). In communication at work, both parties need to understand exactly what is being communicated, and there is no place for exaggeration that harms another person’s reputation or colors them as someone who can’t handle routine office happenings.

        1. Doriana Gray*

          This. I’m the same way, and I too keep my storytelling out of the office for that reason – I don’t want to inadvertently make someone look bad or relay inaccurate information that someone else relies on which then gets them into a bind.

      2. Sigrid*

        Same here. My mother is a chronic exaggerater — it’s not malicious and is actually probably entirely unconscious, but she always wants to tell a THE BEST story, so facts get manipulated so the story turns out better. Growing up with that, I developed something of the same habit. It’s not the extent of my mother, but I do often exaggerate when I tell stories. It’s something I’ve been working really, really hard to stop doing since I left home, but I’m still not completely successful. It often takes conscious effort not to embellish.

        That said, I’m usually pretty good in a work context. Not 100% — and believe me, I’m trying really hard to get to 100% — but I am better at not exaggerating in a work context than I am in a social context.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          My mom is like this too. I’ll hear “your sister is really upset about X” when she’s mildly annoyed, and she hears the same about me. It definitely comes from the glee she takes in telling a more dramatic story.

          1. Liz T*

            My mom too! She does it in both directions. I told her, “Fiancé’s work threw him a little surprise shower thing at work, we had cupcakes, it was nice.” She told Fiancé, “Liz said you had a SPECTACULAR party at work.” I did not say that; cupcakes in a conference room are in no way spectacular. That’s why the word “nice” exists.

            Some people only know Absolutely Horrible and Totally Incredible and get bored with anything in between.

      3. Rex*

        Oh my God, my in-laws, don’t get me started. Off-hand comment becomes total drama. I have to be really careful what I say.

    4. A Dispatcher*

      I do this with the word yell. Partly I think because I’m so, so quiet that a lot of loud and/or abrasive speaking does comes across to me as yelling when it wouldn’t to most, but mostly just out of habit I suppose. At first people tend to get very defensive, but once I explain my weirdness they usually just learn it’s more about me than them.

      But like you said, this is an issue I know about myself, and one that only comes out in my personal life. I know to be very careful about it at work and would never throw around the word yell regarding a coworker/manager/etc because clearly that could be very damaging.

      1. Nethwen*

        I feel something is “yelling,” too, when others probably don’t even register the increased volume.

          1. Serin*

            I do the same thing. I’ve finally learned to translate when I’m speaking to others — if in my head I’m thinking, “Don’t yell at me,” then what I say out loud is, “Don’t use that aggressive tone of voice with me.”

      2. Rachael*

        Yeah. My ex-husband had that issue. He would say that someone “screamed” at him when all they did is maybe said something aggressively or related irritation. I would find out from others that he told them that I screamed at him over something when all I did was tell him something that bothered me. It really would anger me because it painted me as a shrew and I actually rarely raised my voice when we argued. It would make me REALLY wanted to scream…Haha…

        1. Artemesia*

          when my daughter was very young I was displeased about something and corrected her; I had laryngitis and could barely whisper. She said ‘stop yelling at me.’

      3. INTP*

        Yeah, I might be guilty with the word “yell.” To me, any sort of intentionally (or unintentionally, but very clearly) aggressive tone of voice is “yelling.” I think a lot of people use it that way, though – if someone tells me they were “yelled” at, I assume that they were spoken to in an overtly confrontational manner, not that they were screamed or shouted at. It also goes along with a certain emotional state – even if they’re not screaming and screeching, they’re in an irrational state where they can’t be reasoned with and are trying to intimidate or upset you.

        I’m from an environment, both family and culture in general, where people don’t really literally yell. If a stranger literally yelled at me I’d be terrified that they had totally lost it and were about to shoot me or something (and I would describe it as screaming or shouting, not yelling). Maybe in other communities, people are more likely to use “yell” in a literal sense?

        1. KH*

          I use “yell” interchangeably with “fought” or “got in trouble” or “heated emotions”. It’s something I have to be careful with because it’s definitely a cultural/family use and it has gotten me into some mis-communications with other folks.

          For example, I might say “Dad yelled at me for leaving the garage open overnight”. He didn’t actually raise his voice, but he was angry and scolded me.

      4. Elizabeth West*

        From someone who has in the past been accused of yelling when she wasn’t, I appreciate that you are careful with it. Saying someone yelled or screamed at you can get them in HUGE trouble. And if they say they didn’t yell, then people always think they’re lying.

      5. Vicki*

        Spouse uses “yell” this way. I’ve mostly convinced him to use another word. I may have raised my voice but I’m not yelling (trust me, if I’m yelling, people across the room will look up). He is more likely now to say “bellow” and I know I’m not bellowing. So I can accept “stop bellowing, I can hear you” without being upset.

        An exaggeration needs to be Very Obviously an exaggeration.

    5. Rachael*

      I am also an exaggerator. My family is from Upstate New York where it is common to “spin yarns” and everyone sits around and tries to “out funny” a person. However, when I exaggerate I only exaggerate MY own thoughts and actions. I relay the other’s narrative accurately because I do know that when you alter someone’s reactions or words it IS lying. Now, myself…that is another story.

      So, it is not uncommon for me to poke fun at myself and to say “a million” when something only happened three times or act like I fell off a cliff when I lost my balance (when it was only a stumble). But, at the end of the day, I am entertaining people who know full well that what I’m saying is for comedic effect and not a face value thing. That being said, I did learn as I grew older that I should be careful how I represent myself because other people who don’t know me well just might think I am a moron the way I talk about my adventures.

      1. Biff*

        I actually tell “Biff is a Moron” stories. Because I really am that unaware/dumb/clumsy sometimes. I definitely ham them up, but not too much. If people think I’m a moron… well, they might be right.

    6. INTP*

      One of my parental figures is like that and it drives me nuts, to be honest – specifically, when he’s exaggerating about me, or flat-out making up little anecdotes about me to suit his rhetoric. It’s just awkward later when people think I’ve had these experiences that I haven’t actually had, listen to music that I don’t actually listen to, said things that I wouldn’t actually say, and so on. I know that it’s subconscious and not done with remotely bad intent, but it can just create weirdness for the people that you exaggerate about.

      I can be pretty hyperbolic in speech but it’s more that I use more intense words than the situation warrants, rather than exaggerating the facts in a way that people might actually take at face value, and I try not to bring other people into it. (I.E. I’ll say “It was literally the most hideous thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life” rather than “Jane said it was totally hideous.”)

      1. Artemesia*

        My mother was like this. We were always bursting into tears or whatever in her anecdotes. I remember when my brother and I were kids 7 or 8 years old and we bought hot dogs at the Goodwill from their little stand while shopping there. We joked about ‘used hot dogs’ and when we were grown my m other loved to tell that story but it was ‘and when Artemesia said they were probably used hot dogs, Emilio burst into tears and refused to eat his hot dog.’ Whole cloth except for the joke which at that age we thought was hysterical.

    7. Minion*

      I exaggerate, and so does my husband, for the purposes of storytelling. Sometimes, “I slipped and fell down,” just isn’t as funny as, “I slipped in a small puddle of water, grabbed the first thing I came in contact with on the way down and brought the whole grocery shelf down on top of me and there I was, lying on the floor under a mountain of crushed cereal boxes as the cleanup on aisle 6 announcement rang through the grocery store.” The truth may be that I knocked a single box off the shelf and spilled a little cereal. My goal is to make people laugh. I’ve always enjoyed that, so my stories often carry a bit of embellishment. My husband is the same way. But we know where the line is and don’t do that other than to make a story more entertaining or funny.
      I wouldn’t do it in a work setting, however, or bring a coworker into it. Not in that way, anyway. I hope OP will take AAM’s advice and address it.

      1. Rusty Shackelford*

        Interestingly, this example doesn’t say “embellished to make it more entertaining” to me. It says “completely made up.” Perhaps this is my own hot button, but when every story you tell should be prefaced with “wouldn’t it be funny if…” then I don’t really see the point of pretending they happened to you at all, and I stop finding them entertaining. But again, maybe it’s just me.

        1. Minion*

          Oh wow.
          I made up an extreme example to illustrate my point. Which you have, apparently, taken issue with.

          I don’t pretend things happened to me when they didn’t. If I actually fell, pulled down a box or two of cereal that spilled, I may say something like, “There was cereal everywhere! I was picking cereal out of my hair, hoping I wouldn’t hear the dreaded ‘Cleanup on aisle 6’ over the loudspeaker!”

          So, I don’t completely make things up to tell my friends or pretend that something happened when it didn’t. I take something that happened, find the funny in it, highlight and exaggerate a bit and, there it is. There’s a big difference between an embellishment and an outright lie. I know the difference. But thanks for pointing it out anyway.

          1. Amy*

            To me, and probably a lot of other commenters, you saying there was cereal everywhere and you were picking it out of your hair when you simply knocked over a single box IS an outright lie. I think that is the cultural line here, where people from different environments see this differently. You should try to be cognizant of that rather than being sarcastic when someone points out that saying something that didn’t happen did happen is, in fact, a lie.

      2. Serin*

        I see a pretty clear line between “Oh, this person is playing up his/her own klutziness” and “Wait a minute, if that had actually happened I’m pretty sure I would have seen it on the evening news.”

        1. Minion*

          My embellishments don’t generally go to “evening news” proportions. I used a bad, extreme example.

      3. Boop*

        I agree with Rusty. Your imaginary story would make me ask questions about if you were injured and how the store dealt with that much wreckage. You’d be forced to either admit the falsehood or make up more lies at that point.

        1. Minion*

          Ok, I chose a very poor example. I made the example extreme on purpose to illustrate my point, but I have apparently struck a nerve.
          I have not used the story in my example, nor have I ever fallen and pulled cereal down in the grocery store, it was meant to be an illustration of an extreme nature, but I have apparently given everyone the idea that I just go around making up crap that never happened.
          I take something that actually happened – like a trip or a fall, then I just make it a little funnier by adding that extra little detail. The detail was already there, generally, I just exaggerate it.
          I once fell down some steps and I landed on my hands in a position that suggested I might be about to do some pushups. I thought that was hilarious when I was telling my husband about it later, so I played up the pushups angle. I didn’t make anything up, just made sure that little detail was in the front and center and that he knew I was there, at the foot of the steps, in business casual looking like someone had just yelled, “Drop and give me fifty!” In front of the Executive Director, who was my supervisor.
          That’s an example of a story I actually told that actually happened. As you can see, I didn’t make anything up, I didn’t lie, I just made it a little funnier than, “I fell down the steps today and hurt my hands when I landed on them.” I don’t remember exactly, but I may have said, “When John asked if I were okay, I thought about saying, ‘I’m fine, just doing my afternoon pushups!'” I didn’t actually think about that when he asked if I were okay. What I actually thought was something along the lines of “Oh my god my palms are on fire and I think I’ve broken my wrists and I really wish everyone would stop staring and asking if I’m ok, please go away and leave me alone.” etc. The other way just seemed funnier.
          So I apologize for my extreme example. It was just an example.

          1. girlonfire*

            I’m a pretty literal person, but I don’t think either your real example or your cereal example are even close to lying. Certainly things read differently in text than when we’re telling a story, laughing at the exaggerations. Context is a big key. I would definitely enjoy hearing your embellished stories!

        2. Mallory Janis Ian*

          Well, for those of us accustomed to the storytelling cultural orientation (versus the reporting orientation), to borrow from fposte’s distinction upthread, you can tell when someone is telling story versus genuinely reporting the facts by their demeanor. When it is a story all in good fun, they will be animated and genial with a twinkle in their eye; if it is a more serious story, they will have a more earnest demeanor. It’s more about knowing and reading the people than in the literal words that they say. I can see the drawback in that method of discernment, though, for people who aren’t accustomed to it or who don’t know the storyteller well.

        1. Mickey Q*

          That doesn’t make it right. Look at the grief it’s causing the coworker. She’s going to get a reputation for being a drama queen. It could impact her career.

          1. fposte*

            But that doesn’t mean it’s evil for somebody to say “I texted my friend a dozen times” when she really did it twice. Overliterality can be a problem too.

          2. Lily in NYC*

            Oh come on. Every single person in this thread lies, including you. There is a big difference between lying to cover your ass, a white lie so you don’t hurt someone’s feelings, and a story embellishment. It is not your job to tell people how to behave.

        2. animaniactoo*

          Oh, you’ve met my dad… who decided that it was MUCH more entertaining if he combined 2 separate incidents from our childhood to have us stuffing my youngest sister full of black jellybeans and then sticking her in the washer so she could revolve around spitting out the jellybeans…

    8. NJ Anon*

      My mother told me a million times not to exaggerate! But seriously, I had a co-worker do this to me all the time. She would ask my opinion of someone or something. If I wasn’t overly enthusiastic in a positive way, I “hated” said person/thing. I just corrected her right on the spot. But of course, she wasn’t my manager.

    9. TrainerGirl*

      If my mother wasn’t retired, I’d think this was her. She does this every. time. she. tells. a. story. I’ve gotten used to it and usually don’t react anymore, but I can only imagine what a problem this is in a work environment.

    10. Sketchee*

      Same here, Kathy! I’ve learned to hold back my hyperbole in my current job. I used to work with journalists and writers who knew I was just using figurative language and would laugh. It’s not fun when others aren’t laughing with me! At first it was shocking, like I could not believe that certain coworkers would think I was serious. The best change is when we change ourselves, because that’s all we can control. So I just stick to the facts at work and save the figurative language for my friends and family

      1. Mallory Janis Ian*

        That’s how I felt when my husband’s family thought I was either yelling the literal truth or that I was lying — it was shocking to be misunderstood that way when everyone I’d known had always been able to tell that I was being figurative. It was my first experience of a group of people who didn’t live in the culture of figurative language, storytelling, and hyperbole.

      2. Sorry, anon because juvenile records are sealed!*

        Yeah, I once actually got myself into serious trouble as a teenager: I told a counselor something about feeling alienated (because, teenager) and managed to phrase it in a way that left her believing that I was delusional and believed I was an actual space alien. My mother had to come down to the school and explain about figurative language.

        That said, I do the exaggeration thing, I think, and it occupies a separate space in my brain from “lying”–it’s mostly self-deprecating (like the stories above) and I always assume that people understand I am for entertainment purposes only. I don’t embellish about things that matter, and I kind of don’t do it on purpose, it’s just “Storytime? Storytime!” It’s definitely a family and culture thing, and probably a “scary family situation, child learns to attract attention onto herself and away from bad stuff” thing, too.

  2. AMG*

    Ugh–I hate when my mom does this. It ends up changing the entire meaning, intent, or interaction. Set the record straight and stay very calm.

    I don’t think your manager realizes how much this will harm her credibility, even over small things. I’ve seem people get ‘cut out’ of participating in the communications/feedback process over this. I personally do. I need facts, not a story.

  3. Biff*

    Erugh. Have dealt with this kind of person before and while it’s occasionally funny, it’s usually not. Especially if it’s impacting your work relations AND the exaggerations seem believable on some level. An exaggeration here and there is not a huge deal. This many is problematic.

    Personally, I’d brush up resume and start looking — my experience is that when confronted with the impact of their stories, people like this don’t handle it well.

    1. AMG*

      right–you ‘freaked out’ and screamed at her for one tiny little thing–be prepared for that to go all over the office.

        1. SRB*

          I mean, it *could* turn out alright. But I also wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t. I’ve never worked professionally with anyone like this, but it sounds like my mother. And she wonders why I don’t tell her much and why I don’t trust what she says much.

          When I tripped on stage in elementary school play -> “She led the whole line of performers off the stage and into the orchestra hahaha!”
          Dog does well at a Frisbee tournament -> “All the judges said he was the best dog they’ve ever seen!”
          (3 years post divorce) Dad is dating someone -> “He must have been cheating on me the whole time!”
          “Can you stop exaggerating everything so much?” -> “You’re mad at meeeeee you must hate meeeee!”

          1. TrainerGirl*

            Other than the “you’re mad at meeeee you must hate meeee!” this is my mother to a tee. If I did something once when I was 2, it was my whole childhood. Thankfully, she’s gotten a bit better about it, and I didn’t even cringe when she met my boyfriend and told him childhood stories about me. They were about 60% accurate, which is a miracle for her.

      1. OP*

        It’s interesting that you say that, because she told me another person in the office “went off” on her. I was surprised, but looking back it was likely just a disagreement or something.

      2. INTP*

        Yup. I can’t tell if this manager is a good natured exaggerator for dramatic storytelling effect, or if she is hypersensitive to any sort of negative (or non-super-positive) energy around her and overreacts to it (maybe as a subconscious way to make other people keep their energy and comments to themselves and stop stressing her out). If it’s the latter, a discussion won’t go well. If you can’t even be annoyed by software without stressing her out, you certainly can’t have an honest discussion. If it’s the former, chances are better at it going well, but I still wouldn’t bank on it. My stepdad is like this and if I confronted him on one of his made-up stories about me, I don’t see him acknowledging that he said something untrue and made things awkward for me, just getting defensive and arguing that I’m remembering incorrectly.

    2. Doriana Gray*

      That’s my experience too, Biff. My current manager does this, and when I’ve calmly called her on it, I was suddenly “angry” with her. Ugh.

      And then a lot of her exaggerations about people at work veer into outright lie territory. That was one of the many reasons I started looking for a new job.

  4. Cat*

    The cupcake thing would actually have been my breaking point, to be honest. Unless your work environment is exceptionally toxic, I think that kind of non-work related exaggeration is the kind of thing you can and should push back on too. (And if it is exceptionally toxic, get out!)

    1. Sadsack*

      Yeah, for something me reason this was the strangest part to me. Why say something like that? I just don’t get it. Was it to get a rise out of OP so she’d come back and say no she did not eat five cupcakes? Just for some banter? What is funny about that?

      1. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

        I have *huge* food issues (ED recovery) and having someone say I “ate five cupcakes” would have me crying in the bathroom, so that one really would have been my breaking point too.

        I agree, I really don’t see what the point of that exaggeration would be :(

    2. Anna*

      The cupcake thing does feel pointed. I get exaggerating for story telling reasons but there the cupcake thing seems mean for some reason that I can’t put my finger on. Maybe because food is a really personal thing and it’s so tied up in morality in our culture (fat = bad person/failure, if you’re poor you can’t have treats, etc.) it strikes me as intentionally crappy.

      1. TrainerGirl*

        Yes, that one is particularly out of bounds. What could she possibly gain out of telling coworkers OP ate 5 cupcakes other than to shame or embarrass her? To me, there’s no dramatic advantage to telling something like that. It just seems pointedly mean-spirited and unneccessary.

  5. sam*

    it seems like, from your examples, that manager is this way in many areas, but could it also be her way of deflecting her own issues? for work related stuff in particular, could *she* be aggravated by the software update, but views it as somehow better if it’s not her complaining about herself but her “team” or a third party?

    Don’t get me wrong, it’s still wrong and annoying either way, because she’s making you essentially her patsy, but I wonder if this is part of where it’s coming from?

    1. Coffee Ninja*

      That’s where my mind went at first, too, that the boss is projecting onto/scapegoating the OP. I wonder if she does it to anyone else in the office? If so, that would help, because eventually everyone would realize what Boss is doing.

      The whole cupcake example makes me wonder if Boss has some kind of personal issue/dislike of the OP.

    2. INTP*

      I thought the same thing. She is overwhelmed, she hated the software, she really wanted to eat 5 cupcakes (that’s the weirdest one to me), etc., but she doesn’t want to be the “complainer” that voices these issues.

  6. Michelle*

    There is a manager at my current employer that is like this. I let her say what she wants and then say “No, your exaggerating. What I actually said/did was…”. So she pretty much leaves me alone now because I was correcting her every time she exaggerated a situation.

    1. AMG*

      This is good, too, but only if it’s NOT someone further up in your chain of command. If you call it out on the spot, you could have to be prepared for backlash.

      1. Sadsack*

        Maybe soften it a bit? Instead of, “You’re exaggerating,” say, “That’s a bit of an exaggeration. What I said was…”. Not sure how anyone can argue with it either way, really.

        1. Doriana Gray*

          When my manager does it, I just say, “That’s not what I said,” and then repeat what it was I actually said so there’s no further confusion.

        2. Kyrielle*

          I like Doriana Gray’s formulation, but if that’s tried and the manager reacts poorly, softening it with “There seems to be some confusion” or “There seems to be a misunderstanding” first (and then saying “What I said was….”) might work.


      2. Michelle*

        She has pretty much given up with me. I just simply state the facts with no emotions involved and it has worked.

    2. Maxwell Edison*

      What’s the manager’s reaction to the corrections? Back at my old ToxicJob, correcting a manager would get you slapped with “insubordinate” in your next review.

      1. Michelle*

        Basically, she says nothing. Maybe “oh” or “I guess I misunderstood” and then she leaves me alone. Since I had do it so often, she has mostly quit with the big, public exaggerations towards me.

        She’s not my manager and after the first few times, I actually spoke to my manager about it and he said “Yes, she does tend to exaggerate at times”. I asked if it was ok to keep correcting her or should I be doing something differently. He said if I felt it was necessary and as long as it was done in a non-adversarial way. So I keep my tone neutral and just state facts. Bonus is because I don’t get all emotional about it, it drives her nuts and makes her look like the drama queen she is.

      2. Michelle*

        Also, I think the company has put up with because she’s been with them so long and she’s close to retirement age. I would say she’ll most likely retire in the next 3-5 years.

    3. Beezus*

      I would do this.

      I think there are two problems – one, she’s exaggerating, and two, she’s depicting practical problems as emotional ones. When the problem is stated as “OP is SOOOO FED UP with this software,” it’s too vague to act on, and opens up the possibility that OP is the problem (maybe needs training, doesn’t learn new software quickly, doesn’t react well to change). When the problem is “When OP tries to execute Process X in the software, A is supposed to happen, but B is what’s happening instead, and she can’t proceed with work on the Axis Project until she gets A from the process,” you have a clearly stated specific practical problem with enough information to get the right people working on a solution. OP’s boss is getting the information in the first example and turning it into the second example. Honestly, in that situation, I’d speak for myself as much as possible.

      1. Beezus*

        Ohh, not her boss.

        Yeah, I’d keep her in the loop only when necessary and when explaining a problem, I’d be careful to have already worked to address it first and lay out how it’s being handled, so it’s clear she has no reason to address anything. “I’m having the A/B problem with Process X in the software again; I’ve already filed a ticket with IT and I’m following up with them at 2:00.”

      2. OriginalEmma*

        depicting practical problems as emotional ones.

        Beezus, I like this concept and your explanation. I’m wondering if practical problems often get transmogrified into emotional ones because it’s typically easier, simpler and cheaper to blame the person than the technology.

  7. Sadsack*

    What do you think could be the motivation of OP’s manager stating that OP ate five cupcakes for apparently no reason? I am having trouble figuring out how exaggerating that detail seemingly out of nowhere would be funny.

    1. Biff*

      I’m thinking it’s a context thing. We had a running joke in my office that Fergus was a breatharian because Fergus was on a really weird diet and couldn’t really eat anything during our group lunches (not for a lack of trying to find options. I think it was some sort of weird macro diet.) Anyway… one day someone brought in something Fergus COULD eat, and we were surprised, but we definitely hammed it up. I can see in this scenario the joke being that even Fergus, who doesn’t eat anything, had to eat five cupcakes they were so powerfully good.

      1. OP*

        This makes some sense to me in that maybe she sees something about my food habits that I don’t. I think I’m pretty healthy, but maybe I seem “really” heathy to her, so she thought it was funny that I ate any cupcakes…

        1. LCL*

          My boyfriend will say things like your boss does. He is a wonderful guy, but he will do that weird thing. Example-him-want some meatloaf?
          me-no thank you
          him- LCL hates meatloaf
          In my experience it is a kinda clumsy way to get an emotional response, or a way to be argumentative while seeming nice and friendly, or both. I have met his family and know that’s where he learned it! Does your boss also make sarcastic comments in such a soft voice you can’t quite hear them?

          1. a*

            My brother does this. With him, he’s not trying to be argumentative. He just thinks it’s funny. Sometimes I’ll say something similar to him (not to other people, though) and he’ll roll with it. “Yeah, meatloaf is the worst.”

  8. voyager1*

    I am a little confused but is the Dept Head and Manager different people?

    My first thought is the Dept Head is comming to you to confirm the story that Manager said because she knows Manager likes to tell a tale and wants to see where the legit issues start and the tale ends.

  9. Tiffy the Fed... Contractor*

    I would be worried that if LW talks to her manager about the issue it’s going to turn into another exaggerated conversation with the department head no matter how calmly she approaches it.

    I’m not saying the LW shouldn’t talk to her, but that might be something to be aware of.

    1. Anonymous Educator*

      Yeah, I can see talking to the manager about this only backfiring. If you “hated” the software update, you will suddenly be “hating” the manager. This could definitely spiral out of control.

    2. Shannon*

      This. The OP tries any of the tactics here and suddenly the OP is “humorless,” “can’t take a joke” or “oversensitive.”

    3. Not me*

      I agree, and I’m wondering if OP’s polite, frank correction of any of the manager’s stories could become “yelling” that “totally blew up at me” and so on.

      My advice is to correct the manager in front of other people if you can pull that off politely. Hopefully the same people that the manager enjoys telling stories to.

    4. Shell*

      Yeah, I agree. I think mentioning it frankly and honestly to other people (e.g. the Department Head) is a good idea, but I would try to blow off the exaggerating Manager before I try addressing her directly. Frank conversation seem very likely to get blown up into “OP was soooooooooooooo mad at me!!!1!11”

      So for something like the cupcakes, when Manager is embellishing how many OP ate, it’d be easiest to just laugh it off and contradict her: “5 cupcakes?! Oh man, I wish, but my metabolism is not what it used to be! I only had 1.” It’s pretty hard for the manager to read a jokey, offhand comment like that into “OMG OP was soooooooooooo mad at me” but it makes clear that Manager is embellishing her reports.

      Of course, if you can’t catch her in the moment, this will be harder.

  10. Jake*

    I struggle with exaggeration all the time. The higher my stress the more I exaggerate.

    For reasons this post clearly demonstrates, I’m trying not to do it at work.

  11. Caffeineaddict*

    It sounds like your manager is trying to undermine you, to be honest. Either out of insecurity or because they’re just that way with everybody. Eating 5 cupcakes? Stressing out excessively over a work change? They know those depictions paint a person in poor light. The good thing is you’re now aware of it and the Dept head is coming to you to verify. That way you can keep your guard up.

    Unless they’re also exaggerating praise for you e.g. client X said OP was the best consultant ever! In which case I’d take back my comment.

    1. StarHopper*

      Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. In the examples that people are giving upthread, habitual exaggeraters seem to exaggerate both good and bad things. All the stuff OP mentions are negative things, which I think points to undermining.

      To be honest, it would irritate the crap out of me to work closely with someone who talks like that. Say what you mean!

      1. Shannon*

        In fairness to the exaggerating boss, negatives tend to stick out a lot more than positives do.

        On the other hand, the exaggerating boss telling her boss that I was a lot more upset about an update than I was (if I even was) would be enough to have me looking for a new job. That behavior is undermining. Obviously, we can’t speak to whether or not the boss intends this behavior or not, but, the end result is still the same; my trust in that person to handle anything sensitively or discreetly would be wrecked.

        1. OP*

          This is a good point – there’s exaggerating both ways, though on the positives, it’s more of fluffed up compliments than an overstatement of my abilities or knowledge. She applies this to a lot of things – someone is either THE BEST or THE WORST.

  12. LQ*

    I have a boss who does this but often in the other way, and I’ll admit it hasn’t bothered me at all.

    “LQ can have X big project done by the time I’m done explaining it!” Not really, but I will get it turned around quickly.
    “I’d ask you to do Z but I figure you’ve already done it.” Not most of the time (but it has actually happened more than once that it was true- just my super power of anticipating things kicking in).

    This all to say, some people can use hyperbole for good and not evil. These examples are nearly always extremely obvious that they are a joke, but also reinforce positive things. I know that he does this with other staff as well.

    1. Random citizen*

      I have a coworker who basically tells clients that I know everything, can do anything and am never wrong. It’s amusing, since it’s obviously an exaggeration, and I am somewhat flattered, but I never know how to respond when he says it to clients in front of me. Usually it ends up something like, “Random Citizen knows everything!” Me: “Haha, not quite.” Or “Well, I know how to use Google. (smile) What can I help you with?”

      1. videogame Princess*

        There’s actually a big difference between Random Citizen’s and LQ’s situation, in that LQ’s boss isn’t use the exaggerations to gauge other people’s expectations. She is only using them as compliments to the person, not talking about them that way to a third party. Random Citizen’s coworker is more putting her on the spot.

  13. CM*

    I have somebody like this, but luckily not my boss! Sounds like OP is trying hard to stay neutral, but you can’t avoid ever expressing an opinion about anything. I think others in the office probably know of this tendency of your boss, so if somebody brings up an issue where you were so upset or angry or something, you can matter-of-factly say, “No, I wasn’t upset. I just mentioned that there was an issue with the software upgrade to explain why my report was delayed.” With a faintly surprised look/tone, as if to say, wherever did you get that idea? (I totally agree with others, too; it’s worth having a conversation with the boss, but be prepared for stories that you yelled at her and stormed out of the room.)

  14. That Marketing Chick*

    This drives me nuts. STOP exaggerating. Find a better way to get your point across…or maybe the point is that you don’t have a point and you just want some attention???
    At what point would you call it lying or compulsive lying? Stop with the drama…you will eventually get the opposite effect you are looking for, as OP has demonstrated here (frustration, probably lack of trust now and a tense working relationship).

  15. hbc*

    Personalities and relationships matter so much here. If your department head knows you otherwise respect your manager, you can pull a “No, I’m fine, I think that’s just the [Manager] exaggeration factor on the normal issues I had during the last update. The learning curve is pretty much as expected.” But even if you can’t reference Manager’s issues with accuracy, being as precise and unemotional as possible in response is the best way to go. “Nope, we had a minor hitch in the plan, I revised the plan, we moved forward. SOP.”

    Same goes for dealing with Manager. “As long as we’re making me look piggy, why not say 15?” or “Hmm, I only recall one” or something in between, depending on your rapport. Either way, start calling them out individually. A Big Talk about how she’s undermining you is a lot harder than a bunch of little corrections in the moment.

  16. LQ*

    “I know how to use Google, Google knows all, so yeah basically.” (Almost exactly a thing I’ve said before and is sort of my go to when people say things like that about me.)

    I think it is way better than “Well LQ knows quite a bit about SharePoint, but she only has some experience with creating workflows using the designer, but she does a lot with InfoPath and Nintext. Now let me tell you about her experience in Other Thing.” It is a you’re in good hands with this person kind of a comment, especially when given to a third party. The problem with being exact over being general and sometimes giving a bit of hyperbole, is often people don’t know exactness. If my boss had to tell someone what I did he’d fumble around. If he can say “LQ is awesome and knows all the computer things.” I can go from there. Do I actually know all the computer things? Of course not, but it is flattering and supportive and I don’t think it is bad.

    (Also there is an odd thing with comments today for me (Chrome). It is leaving the comment box at the bottom even when I want to respond to someone’s comment above. It is also showing which comments are new, which is fantastic!)

  17. L McD*

    I had nearly this exact problem, but it was just another symptom of a very dysfunctional relationship with my manager, in my case. Luckily, everyone knew she was nuts so nothing she said about me actually reflected on me directly. But it was still incredibly stressful. She’d also come back to me with exaggerated reports of things other people had said about me – same deal – “oh, Margery says you can’t STAND working on teapots, she said you were telling her how much you HATED it, she told me I HAD to find a way to get you off teapots!!!” When the actual conversation with Margery was something like: “How are you?” “I’m okay, didn’t get much sleep last night.” “Yeah, coming it at 4am is rough.” “Tell me about it!” Since my teapot position required me to come in at 4am, I guess it was implicitly a teapot-related complaint, but hardly on the level that my boss elevated it to.

  18. A Non*

    I had this issue with a coworker, who expressed sympathy over how HARD my work situation was and how severely stressful it must be and she had a lot of empathy for what I was going through. Um, I was stressed but handling it. Quit trying to undermine me.

    Fortunately the boss was not amused by her drama-spreading, and she is no longer a coworker. Yay for good bosses.

  19. Terra*

    In defense of people who exaggerate it can be a symptom of anxiety and related issues especially when it comes to reading/identifying emotions. I’ve had this problem where because my anxiety is bad I read someone who is upset as being angry and report it as such. I may also read someone who’s very pleased as just being polite. It’s not an intentional deceit or trying to make the story more interesting as much as it is my brain automatically putting a more negative spin on an interaction. Unfortunately when it comes to your impressions of people it’s hard to avoid issues like that since there’s always some degree of subjectivity involved. The best way I’ve found to handle it is repeating exactly what the other person said (or as close as I can) and then offering my opinion on what it means.

    The cupcake thing is still super weird though and makes it seem like there’s a bigger issue that needs to be addressed.

  20. INTP*

    I know a lot of people exaggerate subconsciously, but I’m wondering if the manager either
    a) has such a low tolerance for conflict, complaint, and general non-rosiness that she overreacts to every little complaint (maybe, subconsciously, to stop people from saying things that stress her out). It would explain the fixation on the OP’s stress level, because just feeling a little stressed is stressing her out big time so she has to make a Big Deal about it, or
    b) she’s using the OP to make her own complaints without having to be seen as the complainer. That doesn’t explain the cupcakes, but maybe she hates the software, is super stressed by the workload, etc, and thinks she can voice her grievances without being associated with them by blaming them on OP.

  21. irritable vowel*

    I like to tell a good story to entertain people, and sometimes that involves exaggeration. I also come from a cultural background where taking the piss out of people is used for entertainment value, and it took me a LONG time to realize that in the US that is often seen as being mean. I’ve trained myself to dial it down a bit so I’m not hurting people’s feelings, and to not do it at all at work. It sounds like your manager might be tone-deaf, not realizing that using you as the focal point of her exaggerations is making you uncomfortable. To me it doesn’t seem like she’s deliberately undermining you; it’s that you’re someone in a position of less power and it makes her feel good to talk down about you a bit. That sucks, of course! If you try the straight-man approach (“Why would you say that? I only had one cupcake.”) and it doesn’t work, just be direct with her (“Jane, I don’t like that you’re telling everyone that I had a major freakout about the software upgrade. That’s just not true.”) With any luck, she’ll get the message. Maybe especially if it comes from the department head, too.

  22. Jessie*

    I’ve been dealing with something similar where a senior person in my department (who’s managing a project I’m working on) keeps exaggerating things about me and then acting very patronizing about it. “Sally was really confused about this before but now she understands it better than anyone!” (when the “really confused” part was a very simple email I sent asking for clarification on the way he worded something.) The problem is, it’s hard to correct the record when it’s something he says in the middle of a meeting. It’s not exactly professional to derail the meeting for the purpose of correcting someone’s rude comment. The one attempt I have made to discuss this kind of thing with him afterward only caused a similar result: he overreacted to how bothered I was by his comment by repeatedly saying things like “now, I want to make sure I’m not offending you” during the course of perfectly mundane and non-offensive conversations in the following weeks.

  23. KH*

    Huh. I guess I’d be likely to handle it more directly than Alison advises, but of course it’s all to your comfort level and the how your company works. I could see myself doing something like this:

    Manager: KH ate 5 cupcakes!
    Me: *blank stare* Why would you say that? I had one, like everyone else did.

    Dept Head: KH, Manager says you’re very upset over the software upgrade do we need to schedule training?
    Me: *light chuckle* Oh you know how Manager likes to exaggerate things. I was mildly irked last week when the upgrade delayed a task I wanted to finish, but it really wasn’t that big a deal.

    If Dept Head kept coming to me concerned about my stress level, I’d say something like “This is starting to become a concern to me. Manager has a tendency to exaggerate for effect as we both know. She is exaggerating and conflating minor, normal frustrations to make it appear that I am stressed out and incapable of handling my job. What can we do to make sure this doesn’t continue – because this is a greater stress to me right now than anything that’s going on with my day-to-day duties.”

    Depending on the circumstances, I might say something like that to Manager before I said it to Dept Head, but given that Manager might then go to Dept Head with “OMG KH went off on me about her stress levels” it might be best to just nip it in the bud with Dept Head first.

  24. Anonymous Educator*

    Though our department head once made a offhand comment about my supervisor’s tendency to exaggerate, she still asks me questions that seem to imply she takes the exaggerations seriously (e.g., “I heard you were really upset about the software update. Do we need to meet with IT to set up training?”).

    Honestly, this, to me, was the most disturbing part of the letter. I get that some people are prone to exaggeration. But others around them who recognize the tendency need to, frankly, take everything they say with a grain of salt (or a whole shaker, in this case).

  25. Kenzie*

    I had a manager like this in the past, and it turned into a “boy who cried wolf” scenario. Other managers, directors, even staff, completely stopped listening to her and actively avoided her because of the embarrassment, false situations, and other drama that was caused by her over-exaggeration of things. It became a running joke that even if Susie wasn’t in the meeting we could be sure that to her everything was a disaster/everyone hated it etc.

    I doubt your manager realizes the effect her exaggerations are having on her credibility OP. Just try to correct her, clarify if other people come to you, and hopefully it will get better!

  26. Xanthippe Lannister Voorhees*

    So the difference I’m seeing between my fellow exaggerators in the comments and the boss in the story is: Those of us who exaggerate for storytelling purposes tend to make it about us. What this manager is doing is exaggerating in areas that are none of her dang business. If she were talking about how stressed out the software update made her, the manager, then whatever.

    It’s not cool to embellish the lives of other people without their permission. Unless they’re that asshole who cut you off on your morning commute- then they’re fair game.

    1. Wanna-Alp*

      That’s part of it.
      The other part is that we want to know how to interpret what you’re saying, even if it’s only about you.

      As far as I’m concerned, so long as it is absolutely crystal clear in the moment that it is spoken that it is an exaggeration, for effect, that’s fine. Exaggerations are easy to flag up if you make them so distorted that they can’t possibly be true, but adding embellishment details are problematic for us non-exaggerate types. We have no idea where the truth ends and your embellishment details begin, and we wish we could trust your words more, but we can’t. (That’s general “your”, not specifically you.)

  27. Argh!*

    The part of this letter I find disturbing is the boss’s boss taking her at her word. If she exaggerates habitually, then the OP writer shouldn’t take it personally but I would think the coworkers & top guns should know to fact-check. If the exaggeration is only regarding the OP writer then there’s a serious one-on-one problem, like discrimination or trying to undermine performance.

    I would try to brush off comments like “oh you know how she is. I only ate one cupcake, and my teapot report only had one error in twenty pages, not twenty!”

    Apparently this is a common thing in workplaces, as Monty Python demonstrated:

  28. Argh!*

    The part of this letter I find disturbing is the boss’s boss taking her at her word. If she exaggerates habitually, then the OP writer shouldn’t take it personally but I would think the coworkers & top guns should know to fact-check. If the exaggeration is only regarding the OP writer then there’s a serious one-on-one problem, like discrimination or trying to undermine performance.

    I would try to brush off comments like “oh you know how she is. I only ate one cupcake, and my teapot report only had one error in twenty pages, not twenty!”

    Apparently this is a common thing in workplaces, as Monty Python demonstrated:
    (Search “Buying a bed” or “Mattress skit” on youtube)

    1. Argh!*

      (whoops double post because I thought the youtube link made my prior post unpostable. Carry on. Nothing to see here)

  29. Angela*

    After reading all these comments, I am actually wishing when I had a manager that was an exaggerator that I had the context of this being more of a cultural norm for some people as storytellers. My coworkers and I are much more literal and could not understand why we’d all get an email to format a report slightly differently (for example) and manager would go on about how angry person was that the report was WRONG. When it was not wrong, and they didn’t even seem annoyed, they just had a different formatting preference.

    Looking at it through the lens of “dramatic storyteller” would have definitely made for a less stressful working relationship than being continually baffled as to how I could read the same thing and not have anywhere close to the same interpretation.

  30. animaniactoo*

    I think the key here is actually training the department head and those around to be able to evaluate how much of manager’s relay is exaggeration and how much is real. So I would go with something like:

    “I heard you were really upset about the software update. Do we need to meet with IT to set up training?”

    “I think there was a misunderstanding here somewhere. I was annoyed because it kept me from doing X for awhile, but nothing that I need training for. Thanks for asking.”


    “I think there was a misunderstanding. I wasn’t too happy about it at the time, but nothing that needs that level of attention. Thanks for asking.” (which will likely bring up “why weren’t you happy about it?” “because I was locked out of being able to work on my presentation to Teaspouts while it was updating.”)

    Eventually, there are enough “misunderstandings” it either becomes a situation in which the dept head (and others) assume that this is another one. OR the manager starts getting pressure over the number of “misunderstandings” in what she’s hearing and what she’s reporting. Meanwhile, you’re not saying “That’s not what I said”, you’re just saying “Oh, what you heard isn’t as bad as it seems.” leaving room for the idea that there was a kernel of truth in there and that you appreciate whomever looking out for you if there was an actual issue that needed to be addressed.

  31. Ultraviolet*

    I suggest the OP point out to her boss and/or department head that the exaggerations are making it difficult for her to report problems to her supervisor because doing so tends to result in unwarranted damage to her reputation. Best to do that after checking with the boss about how she’s giving the impression of being really upset, as in Alison’s script.

    1. Ultraviolet*

      And it might also be worth mentioning to your department head that you hesitate to have conversations like the one I’m suggesting above (or the broad-pattern ones Alison suggests) because you anticipate she’ll exaggerate them to others in ways that make you look unprofessional. That’s assuming you do think that’s truly likely. I see in another comment of yours that she once told you a coworker had “gone off” on her and that surprised you. You could mention that incident to show that your fears of her exaggerating the conversation are well-founded.

  32. Chickaletta*

    OP, if you are there when your manager makes an exaggerated comment, can you just ask her why she used the exaggerated word? It worked when someone called me out for exaggerating. I used to do that a lot in the past because it made my story feel more interesting which made me feel like a more interesting person. One day I told a coworker that so and so was livid about something. She said, “Really? They were livid? Why?”. It was an ah-ha moment for me because I realized that my exaggerations were communicating the wrong information and that other people were noticing; it was making me look bad. Now I’m much more careful to talk about things in a way that describes what actually happened.

  33. Cassie*

    I’ve noticed that there is a lot of opportunity for mis-interpretation at my workplace, so I try to just report the facts and not get into storytelling. For example, Prof. Higgins asks why we didn’t have cookies at the meeting. To me, the fact that Prof. Higgins asked about the cookies means that he was somewhat mad/upset enough to ask, but I think that comes down to the whole “guesser” vs “asker” debate. Some people just ask questions and make small talk. Other people will only bring up something that they care about.

    So instead of saying “Prof. Higgins got really mad there wasn’t any cookies at the meeting”, which could be spun into Prof. Higgins starting screaming and yelling about the lack of cookies, I’d just say “Prof. Higgins was asking why we didn’t have cookies at the meeting”. Whenever someone tells me someone got upset or mad, I always ask what did they say exactly.

    1. KH*

      Why would you jump immediately to mad or upset? If there were cookies in the past and there weren’t any this time, I’d likely ask “no cookies this time?” That doesn’t mean I’m mad or upset, just curious. I’d be really concerned if someone took an innocent question and immediately jumped to “MAD” about no cookies.

  34. OP*

    I’m so glad I asked this question.

    Addressing the exaggerations/lies on a case-by-cases seems most feasible for my personality. I also think having witnesses is a good idea. I can’t get a read on whether our department head has fished for clarifications, as suggested by a couple readers, or believes my manager. Right now, I feel like talking to the department head or with my manager in a separate, focused conversation may brand me as a problem employee.

    I think there are aspects of all of the input here. My manager is definitely “a lover of hyperbole.” She can be very funny, but the exaggerations do increase as a story gets told or in successive tellings. It’s part of her nature and not solely directed at me, which is good to remember. I do agree there is also an aspect of undermining, though.

    I had never thought about a “cultural” difference, but that seems right on. I’ve learned to “react” in life generally, because my natural inclination is pretty mellow and people have taken this for indifference.

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