update: new manager keeps telling us we’re frustrated and defensive

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Remember the letter-writer whose manager kept telling her and her team that they were frustrated and defensive, when they were simply trying to answer questions and provide context? Here’s the update.

I don’t have a solid update, though there has been some progress. This is largely because Alex and I rarely directly interact with Kelly (more on that later) but Kelly is slowly starting to recognize unreasonable attitudes.

For example, last week we had a question from the President about a report from many months ago. Kelly needed my help, as I’d been the key person on that aspect, and was, quite understandably, stressed about being unable to provide a complete answer when we could not locate one of our sources. The conversation was a little tense and repetitive, as Kelly kept pushing me for an answer I could not provide, and seemed to think I did not understand the importance of the question. I reiterated all the steps I’d taken in search of the answer, and later, Kelly came by to apologize for taking her frustration out on me.

I took your advice about talking to the CEO. She was aware of some of the issues, and advised me that she has been actively coaching Kelly on personal interactions, will continue to do so, and asked me about issues that Alex had also raised. She brought Alex in to the conversation, and we confirmed they were the same sort of issues, which helped define the scope of the problem. Since then, Kelly has been moved sideways, so that it’s clear Alex and I report to the CEO instead.

I have been using some of your language when talking to Kelly, mainly “When I’m trying to explain a work situation or give context for an answer, you’ll frequently tell me I seem frustrated or defensive. To be honest, the only thing I find frustrating in our conversations is being told that I seem frustrated! It’s strange to be told I’m feeling an emotion that I’m not feeling.”

I was also given additional verbiage from an HR person: “You’re confusing my desire to finish my train of thought with defensive explanation.” I had to use both of these at least twice, but the need has been lessening.

Unfortunately, the underlying problem is still enough that Alex and I try to keep our distance, which left holes in a high-profile project. Under normal circumstances, we would both stop by and chat with the person doing this sort of work, ask how they got those numbers, ask about the criteria, and generally collaborate in a collegial way. We don’t feel comfortable with Kelly and are still on guard because of her manner, so that doesn’t happen. If asked, we give our honest answers, but we are not proactively interacting.

I know this is a flaw which I must overcome, and I acknowledged it in my review, but in over 15 years working for this company, I’ve only had this sort of problem with 1 other person (who was a customer, not a colleague, and therefore only had to work together occasionally).

I hope that as our department grows, we will all find a more comfortable solution, but am resigned to work with Kelly just being awkward in the immediate future.

{ 80 comments… read them below }

  1. Bazinga*

    I’m glad it’s getting at least somewhat better. It sounds like you’ve been handling it well. This must be so frustrating!

  2. Annie Porter*

    Sometimes I think “you seem frustrated” or “you’re being defensive” are (shitty) tools people use to ensure whoever is on the receiving end of the comment becomes frustrated, or to marginalize the answer (defense). There’s nothing more frustrating than having emotions assigned to you, and that way the reactor is seen as the unreasonable one or the problem. I had a boss who routinely said I was “being defensive” when I cited reasons why X and Y were a problem (the tech person assigned to X didn’t actually know how to do it, so his progress was slower than we’d hoped, or the person responsible for Y had been suddenly pulled onto another project by the CEO, etc.) Even if I provided updated timelines and proposed solutions, nope, I was being defensive. Once I got frustrated with being told I was defensive, I was told I was … frustrated! So, my boss never had to address the actual problems, because I got to be the scapegoat. That job was so fun.

    1. YesToThis*

      I agree with this and it does seem that this is what Kelly is doing to the OP and coworker.

      OP: keep practicing and repeating the needed statements, and I hope it gets better in the new year and your team does grow and things work out.

    2. LGC*

      True – I’ve experienced that myself. Although I’m not sure if it applies here, since Kelly did course-correct after being told to. (On the other hand I’m not sure it DOESN’T apply!)

      1. Lance*

        Honestly, whether it is or isn’t the case… the plain and simple fact is, even if she starts making changes (as it appears she has), Kelly has already damaged her relationships with her behavior. Some introspection on her own part might help going forward (if she hasn’t started doing so already, at least in some part under the CEO’s coaching), but she’s ultimately created this situation for herself.

        Here’s hoping things can work out in the end, but it’ll be a rough road.

        1. LGC*

          I’m in agreement with that as well, but I really meant to say that it seems to me like Annie is assigning motives that might not be there.

          But then again, it doesn’t matter whether she’s clueless or malicious if her actions are coming off that poorly. (Like, if ignorance can’t be distinguished from malice, does it REALLY matter?)

    3. AnonEMoose*

      You said it so much better than I could have; this is exactly when I was thinking. So often, “defensive” seems like it’s used to avoid dealing with what the person is actually saying…and in experience, that, along with “emotional,” is often used against women. Even by other women. Not exclusively, but too often.

      1. TardyTardis*

        Tell me about it. When I ask my daughter for a favor, I’m told I’m being passive aggressive; but when I ask right out, it still doesn’t happen. What she wants is for me not to ask her anything, which is what she’s getting.

    4. Alienor*

      I’ve had some success in the past by saying “Okay, I want to help and I don’t think I’m doing that right now, so can you give me an example of what you would consider a non-defensive response to this question?” They almost never can, because there isn’t one and they’ll take anything I say as defensive. You have to know your audience, though; some people will just get angrier if you make them confront how unreasonable they’re being.

    5. Archaeopteryx*

      A terrible boss used to take any explanation longer than one sentence as defensive. He just didn’t like listening to people who weren’t him for too long.

    6. Emily K*

      Agreed – it’s often employed as a strategy to discount the content of what you’re saying by impugning the motivation behind why you’re saying it.

    7. Burned Out Supervisor*

      Word. This happens in my personal life too…like stop treating me like I’m mad at you for something when I’ve specifically told you I’m not mad…

    8. Avasarala*

      I would much rather someone validate my feelings with “I know this is frustrating” or “I don’t mean to put you on the defensive”.

  3. 0.0*

    I keep being told not to be defensive when I’m trying to explain my thought process.

    At home.

    This has me rethinking those arguments…

    1. Parenthetically*

      Yikes. Yeah, this is a red flag in professional relationships, but it’s straight-up gaslighting in interpersonal relationships. Projecting an emotion onto a partner in order to invalidate their perspective is way up there on the list of Shit You Don’t Want In A Partner.

      1. Jaybeetee*

        (Ugh, switched to my phone because after FIVE TRIES, the browser page kept crashing and refreshing while I typed).

        Yes, this. I have A Certain Ex who used the words “emotional” and “defensive” to describe me early and often. Long story short, it went on a few years and it was a Very Not Good situation.

        If anyone reacts to your bringing up concerns (or gee, reacting defensively when they act offensively), that’s a bad sign. A romantic partner in good faith takes you seriously, even if they disagree with you.

        1. Emily K*

          “Yes, I didn’t show up for dinner with your parents, but I calmly explained to you why watching the playoffs was important to me. Now you’re getting all emotional about something I explained perfectly well.”

          These are also the type of partners who convince their victim that they can’t break up unless both parties consent to the break-up.

        2. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

          Ex-husband and I went through a relatively short (year or two) phase in our marriage where any criticism from me of what he was doing or not doing well as a husband/parent (he really wasn’t good at either, I’ll be honest) was met with his “Why are you saying this? Are you tired?” or “Are you hungry?” “Did you not get enough sleep?” Used to drive me up the wall; further proving his point that I must just be tired/hungry and making things up to be mad at him about.

          He stopped doing this, also very early in our marriage. Don’t get me wrong, the marriage wasn’t great and eventually ended, but even he realized that he was going way too far with the “are you tired?” line. It is a really bad sign, have to agree with everyone else here.

    2. AKchic*

      Oh no. Hayull no. That is a straight up gaslighting tactic. Please look up emotional abuse. Consider therapy for yourself to fortify yourself for what may come later, or at the very least ask for couples counseling. That ish needs to stop immediately.

      1. 0.0*

        I am starting with a new therapist this afternoon (and getting a rec for couples counselling — that he wants too).

        After 24 years, it’s like we don’t know how to talk to each other any more.

        I appreciate everyone’s feedback on this. It makes me feel slightly more sane.

      2. 1LFTW*

        Individual counseling yes, couples counseling not so much. Not with a gaslighter, or with any other type of abusive dynamic. Couples counseling with an abuser just gives the abuser ammunition.

        I’m sorry you’re going through this, OP of the thread.

  4. Database Developer Dude*

    It is a flaw, OP, but it’s NOT your flaw. Too many times, when someone acts unreasonable, the other person gets the blame.

    1. AnonEMoose*

      Or gets told/asked to accommodate the unreasonable person, because it’s easier to ask someone reasonable to put up with bad behavior than it is to address the bad behavior. So I’m glad to see in this update that the CEO is actually taking action.

      1. Flash Bristow*

        Oh yeah. This. So much.

        OP – I won’t pretend I can put myself in your shoes, but thinking back to my own past where someone wanted to push… push… & PUSH me, on something I’d already covered, explained, and tried hard to move on from… Well I do understand how all that person will originally achieve by practically dancing around declaring “you’re frustrated, aren’t you? Oh g’wan yes you are!” is that yes of course it will lead to frustration in the end. Argh!

        [In that case I held firm, the other party hid in the toilet crying for over an hour, and of course that meant she got all the pity while I… continued on with stuff, because that’s just how I manage emotion.]

        So as stated by Database Development Dude, it IS a flaw, but not yours; I send huge empathy; well done for where you’ve got to and that others are on your side too (yay!); And fingers crossed that things get all the way better from here, whatever that ends up looking like!

        Thank you for the update OP.

  5. Lalitah28*

    Glad to see some progress on this front.

    It’s a good anecdote for a manager to read when considering promoting an employee to a supervisory position, because it illustrates the pitfalls of putting someone who doesn’t communicate well in a position where they will not do well.

  6. RabbitRabbit*

    Especially with the interruptions from the initial letter, this sounds like someone I know (personally, not professionally). She pulls the “you seem grouchy/frustrated/etc.” move a LOT. Plus if you’re talking about something that happened, frequently she will cut in and basically say a worst-case scenario outcome for what you were talking about, when you weren’t even hinting that anything was wrong. Like I was talking about how I’d transferred into a new position and she jumped in and said something to the effect of ‘and they’re really awful and work you long hours, I bet?’ and I had to say “…nooooo, it’s really working out well?”

  7. Circle*

    Am I the only one who read the original letter as the OP not respecting the new, younger, female boss and her experience? It sounds like he or she talks over Kelly when she asks follow up questions and insists on making a point even when Kelly is ready to move on. It also sounded like OP went over Kelly’s head when she asked them to use a more respectful tone. None of the examples of business speak were actually business speak and certainly weren’t valid cause for this level of frustration. (Because it does across that way, honestly)

    And now this update shows that OP is withholding information they normally wouldn’t in spite of knowing it causes problems. I can’t image doing any of these things at work, especially to a manager.

    1. AnonEMoose*

      It seems…kind of uncharitable to the OP to read it that way. I think that, if the OP were the only one experiencing things the way it was laid out in the letter, I’d see more support for your perspective. But that other employees have apparently reported similar things, and that the CEO is coaching Kelly, seems more indicative that Kelly really is the issue.

      1. Circle*

        Work clicks are a thing.

        My reading could be wrong but I didn’t get the impression the OP was going out of his or her way to work with the new manager. And talking over your boss is really never okay.

          1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

            If OP, OP’s teammate Alex, the HR, and the CEO (who are all on OP’s side in this) were all part of one clique, OP wouldn’t have had the reason to write in to AAM to begin with.

            I guess we have two versions of what is going on. Either Kelly is talking over OP, not listening to the information given to her by OP that *she asked for* and then asking for it again and again, making humiliating comments that minimize things OP says to her in meetings, such as “you sound defensive” and “you sound frustrated”, hopefully out of lack of management experience rather than malice. Or, most of the senior leadership at OP’s company are out to get Kelly for being a young woman. Based on the information we were given (as one example, that OP has (legally) recorded his conversations with Kelly and showed them to a third party asking to point out his, OP’s, mistakes and opportunities for improvement; HR and CEO are working with Kelly and Kelly is showing improvement; etc) I’ll go with version number 1.

        1. fhqwhgads*

          When OPs don’t, the comments end up full of people “wondering if the boss in question is older/younger, male/female/neither, and if the age and/or gender may be xyz factor in the interaction. When OPs do provide that info, people are curious why they brought it up, often in a somewhat accusatory “this isn’t relevant so your bringin it up may have nefarious root causes” tone, so there’s kind of no winning here.

          1. Persephone Underground*

            +1000 – I feel like this answer should be clipped and re-posted every time this comes up. Or added to the chat rules to avoid this particular derail.

            Because while I totally get the thought process behind wondering why it was mentioned, people trying to frame a story usually include details to help others picture the people involved. And as stated in another comment recently, the LWs aren’t professional writers, and writing clearly and avoiding different readings is totally harder than it appears.

    2. Lance*

      I’m really curious: where are you getting this suggestion that OP is talking over Kelly? It directly states in the original letter that Kelly is the one doing the interrupting, and we’re expected to take OP’s at their word. Even if that wasn’t the case, however, as Dasein9 pointed out, Kelly receiving coaching from the CEO and being laterally moved away from managing OP and Alex points very much to Kelly being the issue here.

      1. AnonEMoose*

        All of this. Circle, I really think you may have misread who was the talker-over and who was on the receiving end, here, and formed an impression based on that misinterpretation.

        Yes, work cliques are a thing, but I don’t see any indication that they are a thing in this letter or in the update.

      2. Lance*

        Also: more respectful tone? Telling someone they sound/not to be frustrated/defensive is not asking them to use a more respectful tone; telling someone that is, to me, as thoroughly unhelpful as ‘calm down’.

        1. Circle*

          But what if the OP is coming across as frustrated? It’s perfectly reasonable for a boss to ask an employee not to do that.

          This is annoying if the employee wasn’t frustrated, but it sounds like they were insisting on finishing their answer even Kelly was ready to move on.

          1. Phoenix Wright*

            You seem really eager to paint OP as the one in the wrong here. This is definitely reaching, and I can’t understand why you’re doing this.

      3. Circle*

        From this: “A typical scenario: Kelly asks a question, I start answering, Kelly interrupts me to ask another question, and when I try to finish answering..,”

        Sounds like the OP insists on finishing his first question. Not saying Kelly isn’t interrupting, but I would never respond that way to a manager. This makes me think the OP never actually respected Kelly in the first place.

        1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

          Oh wow.

          They are having a work-related conversation. Kelly is at the end of the day a coworker, not a drill sergeant out of a movie. The level of obedience you are implying is not in OP’s job description. She is asking for work-related information, not obedience. If she didn’t need the information OP was trying (unsuccessfully) to give her, she wouldn’t be asking for it again later.

          1. Circle*

            Try to imagine the original letter from an older man in a male dominated industry towards a younger female boss. I promise you will read it differently.

            No one is talking about obedience here.

            1. Dasein9*

              The OP’s letters don’t tell her gender.

              Alison refers to the OP in the third person as “her.”

              (And we don’t know Alex’s gender.)

              1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

                I actually did slip up and refer to OP as “him” a few times on this thread, because I guess Circle’s narrative of “an older man giving a young woman manager no respect” must’ve gotten to my subconscious, lol.

                The CEO is a woman, per the original letter.

                1. Circle*

                  I referred to the OP as they or him/her every time I made a comment. I was careful to do this since the the OP doesn’t specify their own gender.

                  Please make sure you’re not projecting your mistake onto me.

                2. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

                  You sound frustrated. /s

                  “Try to imagine the original letter from an older man in a male dominated industry towards a younger female boss.”

        2. AnonEMoose*

          And maybe the answer to the second question wouldn’t make any sense without completing the answer to the first? That’s not the OP showing a lack of respect. That is the OP trying to get Kelly the information Kelly asked for.

          It can happen in my own work that people ask me what they think is a simple question, and for various reasons, the answer is more complicated than a simple “yes” or “no,” because one or two details can change the whole situation. Or there is context around the situation that complicates things. Multiple policies in play, different departments with different versions of a story or pieces of information…and a lot of time it’s my job to try to figure out what’s actually happening.

          That’s not me being difficult or disrespectful, that’s me doing my job. Now, my boss and I have a strong working relationship. So I can say to him, “It’s complicated/there’s history/it’s one of those – how much detail do you need right now?” And he will tell me, and we go from there. Or “I need to do some digging – something’s odd here. How soon do you need it?” At that point, he’ll take my word for it and give me a timeline.

        3. Observer*

          No, it sounds like Kelly is not affording basic respect and courtesy the people she is supposed to be working with. When you ask a question, it should be for the purpose of getting information you need. If you realize that you asked the wrong question or that you’ve actually gotten sufficient information for your purposes, you SAY THAT. You don’t just ask a new question mid-answer while interrupting the person who is talking.

          Also, what the OP is doing is NOT “talking over”anyone. They are simply trying to finish their answer to provide the information that Kelly ACTUALLY NEEDS.

          1. Pomona Sprout*

            This this this this this this this. SO FM.

            I don’t understand this insistence on trying to make the OP and Alex (and the CEO and HR person, too?) into the “bad guys.”

            And to answer your original question, Circle: Yes, you DO seem to be the only one who read the letter the way you did. At the very least, you seem to be in a minority here. Of course, we all read these things through our own personal filters. Personally, if I had such a drastically different take on this (or any other) letter, I think I might spend some time trying to figure out why my filter seems to be set to such a different focus. Just something to think about, maybe….?

              1. Circle*

                Can I ask why you let other comments stand that were posted after making that request? There’s quite a few left that attribute motives to me that I don’t even remotely have. You seem to be fine with pile-ons but not single commentators pushing back on said pile-ons.

    3. LGC*

      But like – as a younger guy who routinely gets…pushback from older employees, even if that is the case Kelly was handling it terribly. Kelly is allowed to feel whatever she feels inside (because she’s a person and managers have feelings too), but telling someone that they’re acting frustrated and defensive usually escalates the situation.

      Even if I did agree with you, I don’t think it makes what Kelly did appropriate.

      (As for the last bit – that, in AAM parlance, is really uncharitable to the OP. By which I mean – OP actually recognizes their own bad behavior in that case, and at least in their framing, it’s more like they’re wary of working with Kelly because of the bad history between them and they say they’re making efforts to work on it.)

    4. ArtK*

      While sexism, ageism and cliques are all issues that can arise in a workplace, they aren’t always the source of problems. Going there without a lot more evidence is unfair to the LW. Let me talk about my situation where none of those things applied.

      Me: Male in his late 50s. My boss: VP/CTO, male in his mid-50s.

      My boss would ask for things that weren’t possible (or were possible, but in an unacceptable time frame or impact.) Whenever I tried to answer the request, he would interrupt and re-emphasize the request. Often leaning on the urgency or importance. Very much in the way that the LW describes Kelly’s behavior. I would become very frustrated since there are a limited number of ways of saying “ain’t gonna happen.”

      Another stunt was to ask for some very vague thing (“build me a portal”) and would balk when I asked for even the most general of information (“who will be the users?” and “what will they do with this portal?”) He’d accuse me of being uncooperative and even told people I was incompetent.

      Another instance: He: “We’re going to do X, Y, and Z.” Me: “X and Z are fine, Y has a lot of issues and we’d be better off doing Q.” He: “When we do Y we’re going to…” In other words he completely ignored my input.

      The issue with my manager was that he wasn’t listening. He had no patience or interest in any answer other than “yes.” As soon as the answer veered away from “yes,” he’d interrupt and try to get that “yes.” One of my biggest issues in working with others is not being heard. I’m ok if someone disagrees, but let me deliver my explanation and make it clear that you heard and understood it.

      I think that Kelly was doing exactly what my manager was: Not listening. Listening can be hard to do, but it’s a critical skill in a manager.

      So, no sexism or ageism here. No cliques here, either. Well there were, but the VP/CTO was part of the biggest and most aggressive one.

  8. Dasein9*

    I don’t see that. In the original letter, the OP specifies that Kelly keeps asking the same questions over and over again because she’s interrupting the very people who are trying to answer them. In the update, OP specifies that Kelly doesn’t seem to be able to tell the difference between the OP not having an answer and the OP not understanding the importance of the question. Furthermore, it does look like others are seeing the same patterns and are coaching Kelly. Ergo, this looks like a lot more than failure to respect a younger, female boss.

    This is creating a problem: the people who could help avoid holes in the project aren’t comfortable being available to do that because their contributions get misunderstood so much. It sounds like the OP is aware of this and is willing to make an effort to improve. Having support from higher-ups will no doubt be really valuable for this.

    1. Lord Gouldian Finch*

      There are lots of reasons why a person can’t answer a question about their own report. That doesn’t mean the report writer has done anything wrong. I see this along the lines of Kelly asking “How much would it save us to produce widgets in Ruritania?” and getting an answer along the lines of “I tried to determine that but due to issues like frequent tariff changes and the potential for a widget export tax in Ruritania after their next election…” and Kelly not being able to understand that sometimes “I don’t know” is the only answer you can get.

    2. Jennifer Thneed*

      > But the OP can’t answer a question about their own report?
      A report where they’d been “the key person on that aspect”, but OP wasn’t necessarily the main or sole author.

      > Why not?
      Because it was (in the update’s words) “about a report from many months ago”. I can’t give you details on something I did several months ago without going and looking at it again. I suspect most people couldn’t.

      Look, if you just don’t like the OP, I get it. Some OP’s annoy me too, or remind me of someone specific from my past. But you’re really just grasping at straws here, trying to point out something, anything, the OP did wrong. And now – and this is a little obnoxious of me – I’m going to pre-emptively assume that you’re experiencing some holiday-related stress right now, because when I have trouble letting go of an argument in this way, that is why: stress about something unrelated. Maybe take a minute for a cuppa tea? And then just walk away from AMA for a few hours.

      1. Jennifer Thneed*

        Whoops, AAM, not AMA. (Although, Alison, if you ever thought about doing an AAM AMA that could be fun.)

      2. Circle*

        Why does everyone on this site insist on saying I don’t like the OP?

        I have no personal feelings about the OP.

        And now you’re saying *I’m* frustrated, which apparently everyone on this site thinks is an egregious, unforgivable offense.

        You can’t make this stuff up.

        Just to clarify, I have the day off today and am not stressed at all. What a bizarre inference.

        1. Fikly*

          People are saying you are frustrated because you find the OP’s behavior in response to being told the same thing unreasonable. It’s picking flaws in your argument, and treating you the same way the OP was treated.

    3. ArtK*

      The CEO’s request wasn’t unreasonable. Your disdain for someone who couldn’t locate a source for a months-old report was unreasonable. Sometimes stuff gets deleted or moved and there’s nothing you can do about it. Kelly didn’t want to hear that, even though that was the reality. This wasn’t insubordination or rudeness on the LW’s part.

  9. Fikly*

    It drives me up a wall when people try to tell other people what that other person is feeling. Unless someone has told you what they are feeling, it is completely impossible to accurately know what someone else is feeling.

    So one, it’s usually wrong! Two, it’s derailing, and thus not helpful. And three, it’s inherently invalidating, because it invalidates what the person is actually feeling, and if the person says they are not feeling x, the other people almost inevitably comes back with why that person is actually feeling x, when they are not.

    1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      It is. And I think it also invalidates anything else that is being said. If my “here are the numbers on our widget production in Ruritania” is suddenly met with “you sound frustrated”, 1) this changes the whole conversation away from the widget production in Ruritania (which is the information we need to do our work) to my real or perceived feelings (which we don’t). 2) I am going to really wonder if the other person heard a word I just said about Ruritanian widgets.

    2. Circle*

      Kelly didn’t say the OP “felt” frustrated. She said the OP “sounded” frustrated. This is a perfectly fair thing for a manager to ask an employee not to do.

      1. Kendra*

        Eh, maybe; I’d never tell any of my reports that they’re not allowed to feel or express frustration (partly because that’s completely unrealistic, and partly because it can derail the conversation). If it’s not excessive, and isn’t interfering with their ability to get the job done, it’s just a thing that happens sometimes. I’d much rather they vent it out a little bit while talking to me than have it leak out while talking to a customer!

      2. Fikly*

        Actually Kelly did, which you’d know if you’d read (or retained) the original letter.

        “as Kelly calls us out for acting/feeling/looking frustrated, hostile, or defensive. It’s not an exaggeration to say this occurs every other meeting.

        A typical scenario: Kelly asks a question, I start answering, Kelly interrupts me to ask another question, and when I try to finish answering, she asks why I’m “frustrated.””

        That’s Kelly calling her out for feeling frustrated, and asking someone why they are frustrated is ascribing the feeling to them.

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