can I put up privacy film at work, how to explain my dead-end job, and more

It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. Can I put up privacy film on a window to block an annoying exec from watching me?

I work on the executive floor of a traditional office building as an executive assistant. The floor is set up so that the hallway is lined on one side with executives’ offices, and each executive has their respective admin sitting directly in front of their office to allow for gatekeeping. For privacy, there is a two-thirds wall in front of each admin’s desk with a small window in the middle that allows people to see through to check to see if the executive is in their office.

The issue is that it also allows anyone walking by to see what the admin is doing, and herein lies the problem. One of the executives on the floor likes to walk by and peep into the window to see what other executives’ admins are doing and will slow down, sometimes commenting, if the admin is on their phone, especially if the admin’s executive is away. We are salaried and often I communicate with my executive via text message.

This behavior is driving me nuts. I usually respond that I’m sending my executive something. I’ve spoken to my executive about this behavior. I’ve been told to ignore it, but it’s just a water torture kind of thing for me. Would it be acceptable to put up a privacy film on the window in front of my desk? People could still check in to see if my executive is there by walking past my wall and looking into my executive’s work area, or would this look passive aggressively unprofessional?

I’m in a political situation in which I can’t speak directly to the peeping executive, so I’m trying to quietly find a workaround.

This dude sounds like a huge tool, but don’t put up privacy film, at least not without checking with your boss first. It’s too likely to look like you’re flouting the norms of your office to try to hide something. If you feel strongly about it, ask your boss if she’s okay with you doing that — or if she’s willing to ask him to cut it out because she trusts you and doesn’t want him implying otherwise. But really, your best bet here is to internally roll your eyes at this guy, know that your boss isn’t concerned about his weird reports, and ignore him.

2. How do I explain why I work a dead-end, minimum wage job?

I am in my 30’s and work a dead-end minimum wage job. Not McDonald’s exactly, but basically McJob. This is because I have severe invisible disabilities and this is all I can manage to do. Very few people with my condition are employed at all, so I am proud of myself.

However, I find myself at a loss at what to say to people when they want to know about my career path. I don’t want to disclose my disability except to close friends.

I used to have a barely paying side hustle that was a bit more respectable and my story was I did that and the other job was just for extra cash which made sense to people. But that story is wearing thin now it’s been a few years since I did the side hustle.

What do I say to explain my job, my career path or lack thereof? I’m done with the side hustle story and ready to get a new cover story. And yes, I do find a cover story is necessary, I can’t just say, “‘I work McJob because I enjoy it” because no one is buying that anyone would choose this job at this age. I need something to brush people off in a way that satisfies them when they ask.

I know I could just politely say “none of your business,” but then people will just think I’m a failure. I’m trying for an explanation that doesn’t make me look bad but also doesn’t require me to go into details about my health.

How about, “For a bunch of reasons, it works best with my life right now”? Or “Long story, but it makes sense for me right now.”

I’m a little squeamish about using “right now” in both of those responses because it implies it’s temporary and that no one would choose it permanently. You could leave that part off, but including it might make it more likely that people don’t continue to push with follow-up questions. Of course, some people will push no matter what, and if they do, you can say, “Eh, it’s a long story but tell me about (subject change)” or “it’s some health stuff I’d rather not get into” (if you’re willing to share that).

Also, though, the more you feel this is something you have to explain or need a cover story for, the more other people will probably pick up on that. The more you can be matter-of-fact and “so what?” about it, the more inclined other people will be to follow your lead.

3. My boss asked someone else to do a project I’ve been working on

I work in academia for two bosses who more or less share office space and a handful of other staff. One of my bosses asked for some raw data files from me last week, and after clarifying the purpose of me sending them to her (“just to take a look”), I sent them over. Then, this week I started receiving emails about the files. It became apparent very quickly that she had forwarded the files to a collaborator at another institution and was having them replicate the work I had been assigned to do on the files. The emails this week were asking about some anomalies that I was already aware of and was planning to work through this week, and about fixes for the anomalies and how can I help this collaborator with the issue. This process is consisting of the collaborator emailing my boss asking a question, then my boss forwarding the question to me, then my boss forwarding my response back to the collaborator, and so on — making not only more trouble for me but for herself. And all of this is distracting me from doing my actual work that I have been assigned to do!

I’m presumably moving a little slower than this collaborator because I’m balancing two workloads and this is in a coding language I haven’t used in several years, so I’m re-familiarizing myself as I go. I’m frustrated that this is happening in the first place, because it makes my doing this project feel meaningless, and I have no idea what her purpose is in this either. It feels very nefarious to be lied to about the reason for me sending her these files. Is there a way for me to either push back or just ignore these emails until I get to the appropriate point in my project where I can answer the questions? Is there a reason that this would be appropriate that I have missed?

Is your boss conflict-avoidant? Have you seen her avoid delivering messages she worries someone won’t like? My guess is that she wanted faster progress on these files than you’ve been making, but rather than talking to you about that, she pulled someone else in to help. Or, who knows, maybe the collaborator has some need for the files themselves.

But that’s just speculation. You should ask your boss! It’s totally fine to say, “Can you tell me what’s going on with Jane’s work on these files? I hadn’t realized she was going to be doing XYZ with them, and she’s duplicating much of the work that I’ve been doing or planned to do. If she’s taking over the project, I’d be happy to answer her questions directly, but I wasn’t sure exactly what was going on.”

If your boss’s response to that seems vague or evasive, then ask directly, “Was my pace with the files causing issues? It crossed my mind that you might have brought in Jane because you needed them done more quickly.”

But you shouldn’t just ignore the emails until you’re at a point in the work where you can answer their questions. In fact, that would be adding to the lack of direct communication here, when the situation needs more of it.

4. My new job’s mission is a perfect fit, but the office culture is not

I’m really early in my career — I graduated from my university three years ago. I’m in the nonprofit world and I love so many things about my current job. I left another good job in my home state to move to a new region and join this field, and I love what I do! I am super connected to the mission, I feel like I’m contributing to the world positively, and it’s extremely relevant now more than ever. All of that being said, the office culture is SO SERIOUS. People don’t chat and laugh and enjoy the work. It’s so serious all of the time and I feel like I’m becoming someone who isn’t really me. I like to work really hard and be productive, but I feel a lot of tension at work because the culture is so uptight. I kind of feel like maybe it’s a regional culture difference, because I’ve had a few different jobs in my home state where it was so much fun to go to the office and be around my coworkers, but this dead-serious culture brings me down! What can I do? Should work be strictly serious? Am I the one off-base?

I’d assume it’s this particular organization, not an entire region. If you’d had a bunch of jobs in the new state and they were all like this, that could point toward a regional difference, but this is a sample size of one! It’s almost definitely just something about this particular org.

Sometimes you can love the actual work of your job but still find that you’re in an office where you just don’t like the culture. That can manifest in all sorts of ways — a culture that’s faster or slower paced than you prefer, or one where everyone’s a workaholic, or one with heavy drinking, or where everyone’s bitter and cynical, and so forth. It’s possible that you can find a smaller subculture of colleagues in your current organization who are more fun/less serious, but it’s also possible that this office is just not culture fit for you. That’s no one’s fault if so; it would just mean you’d have to decide if you want to continue to stick it out there, knowing this aspect of it may never fulfill you in the way the work itself does. (It’s a perfectly good reason to look around though, if you can’t see yourself working in this environment long-term.)

5. Should my resume note what my college degree was in?

I got laid off 2.5 weeks ago, so I’m looking for a new job. My old company gave everyone who was laid off a time-limited membership with a career coaching company. They looked over my resume and most of their suggestions made sense to me. I wasn’t sure about the last one: to add what my degree is in. I don’t have the date on my resume, but I graduated in 1985, and I’m not working in a field related to my degree, which was in political science. What do you think about adding the degree subject to a resume?

Yep, you should include what the degree was in — not because it’s necessarily relevant but because it’s so much the norm to include it that it looks a little odd not to. No one is going to reject you if you don’t, but it definitely won’t hurt to include and it’ll make your resume feel more complete.

(If you had just graduated and were seeking work in a totally different field, employers might be more likely to ask about it, but it would be bizarre to get questions about why you’re deviating from the degree you got 35 years ago. And really, people pursue different paths from their undergrad degrees all the time … maybe even the majority of the time.)

{ 407 comments… read them below }

  1. The Original Stellaaaaa*

    OP2: There is dignity in all types of work. But why not just say you’re a server “at a little place downtown” or whatever? I know a lot of people who never really recovered from the last recession and find no shame in admitting that they’re bartenders or servers. Because there’s no shame in it! But I understand wanting a story that makes you feel more confident.

    1. Blue*

      The average minimum wage earner is 35 years old. A LOT of people the LW’s age are in these types of jobs, whether by choice or due to lack of choices. Of course I can understand being unsatisfied with one’s circumstances, but I hope the LW will have some self compassion to stop disparaging themself (and others).

      I’m response to the judgmental people questioning them about their job, I think a quick subject change can go a long way.

      1. sunny-dee*

        Average is a bit deceptive; median would be a lot more accurate. The plurality (43%) of minimum wage workers are 16 – 24 — they’re students and / or entry level workers. It drops off a lot after that (a quarter are 25-34 and then everyone else is less than a quarter of the population). It is atypical for someone to be working a minimum wage job during peak earning years.

        However, atypical doesn’t mean bad. It just means atypical. There are all kinds of reasons someone would choose to work that kind of job — work-life balance, you like what you do / your coworkers / the location, it allows you to pursue hobbies. Ultimately, I find it weird that culturally we focus so much on “career” or “vocation.” I think it’s okay to work just because you want to pay bills and fund your life. That’s why I work. I like feeling productive, and it funds my life. I don’t need to find spiritual meaning in it.

        Also, I think it’s awesome that the OP is putting out the discipline and dedication to work when there have been so many obstacles. So many good vibes your way, OP.

        1. A Non E. Mouse*

          Ultimately, I find it weird that culturally we focus so much on “career” or “vocation.” I think it’s okay to work just because you want to pay bills and fund your life. That’s why I work. I like feeling productive, and it funds my life. I don’t need to find spiritual meaning in it.

          I’m in this camp as well. Yes, I have a career I’ve made good progress in – but I only work because I get paid, and I need money to do life.

          If I won the lottery, I’d leave – with generous notice, because I like the people I work with – but I feel no actual need to *work* except for the money it brings me.

          There’s no transcendent experience here – just a mutually beneficial financial arrangement, where they get the stuff I produce, and I get money.

          1. Spencer Hastings*

            These feel kind of like straw men to me — I don’t think *anyone* is having spiritual or transcendent experiences from their office jobs or food service jobs or what have you, or that anyone expects to.

            I actually find that having the structure of a day job gives me more motivation and ability to do the things that give me meaning and joy, not less. (At least, before the coronavirus happened.) Having a lot of unstructured time makes it easy to fill it up with stuff I don’t really care about, but if I have limited time, I have to plan it out and it becomes easier to stick to.

            Another thing that might be mistaken for “living to work” (which I don’t think anyone actually does) from the outside: by necessity, I spend a lot of time at work. So I figure, why not expend effort to get better at it and learn new things? It’s certainly less boring that way (which compounds itself when I get good enough at what I do to get new types of assignments, also making it less likely that I’ll get bored). You might look at me doing that and say “oh, she lives to work, what a sucker”, but that’s a textbook example of the actor-observer effect.

            But all of this is totally irrelevant to the LW, who’s said that her health prevents her from making that choice.

    2. 867-5309*

      This is such an important message not just for OP but for everyone: “There is dignity in all work.”

      I posted my job in 2008 and tried to freelance but had no idea what I was doing… I cleaned my parents house for money. When I lost a different job a few years later, I went to work at the front desk of a gym part-time while starting up my freelance work again.

      This is a play on what I used to say: “I like not having to take my work home with me and it covers my needs.”
      Them: Don’t you want more from a career?”
      You: “I like my life and my life isn’t my job.”

      1. Rebecca*

        I also have an invisible disability. I have a lot of days where I think my life would be a lot better if I dropped “down” to a McJob.

        I’ve heard career advisors say you can work to live or live to work. Right now, I am keeping up at my job, but I definitely live to work. It’s pretty all consuming and exhausting. I think you could dismiss eye rolls pretty quickly with the one-liner “I’d rather work to live than live to work.” People will get it, fill in their own assumptions, and move on pretty quickly to the other aspects of your life that you’d rather talk about!

        1. Rachel in NYC*

          I sometimes feel this way- particularly with my family. I don’t have a McJob but when you have a JD, no one expects you to work what is basically an admin job at a university. But I need the sick time flexibility (yay, unlimited sick leave!) and a 9-5 job is really important for my health.

          1. Tidewater 4-1009*

            I had a neighbor who was an attorney and hated her job. She got an interview for a 9-5 job as an attorney and really wanted the move to a lower-stress, nicer environment. They didn’t hire her because they thought she was overqualified.

        2. The Rural Juror*

          There’s something to be said for a job that you can leave at the office (or restaurant, or store, or whatever). I waited tables for a long time when I was younger and I miss each day or shift having a definite ending and leaving it all there when I went home. I like the job I have now, so I don’t mean to complain about it, but I definitely find myself thinking about projects or my to-do list in my off hours. I’ll be brushing my teeth before going to bed and thinking about what I need to accomplish the next day at work. That’s not exactly a relaxing way to end the day and go to bed! That’s not to say that waiting tables was easy or stress-free, just that the stress was different and a lot easier to compartmentalize.

          If working a job that comes with a lower stress level and fewer responsibilities is better for someone’s health, they shouldn’t be made to feel like it’s somehow not good enough. Hell, they shouldn’t be made to feel like it’s not good enough for ANY reason, but unfortunately that’s not how society tends to work :(

      2. wittyrepartee*

        There is dignity in all work- but all your worth as a human is not tied to your employment either. Many people’s most important roles in the world are not paid ones.

      3. HR Exec Popping In*

        Yes, I don’t think anyone should every be embarrassed by their work. OP is working and the job is what they want to do for their own reasons that are nobody’s business.

        OP, do not let other people’s bias make you feel that you need to explain why your life doesn’t fit their expectations for what is normal. When people ask you why you are doing McJob, I would simply something like, “I really enjoy my job.” And to respond to what your long term plans are I would stick with that by saying, “I don’t have plans to change jobs anytime soon as I really like what I do.” And mean it! The more you are apologetic or act ashamed of your job the more people will question it. No job is beneath anyone. If you want to be a janitor, work in a coffee shop or be a grocery clerk, be proud of the work and service you provide. That fact that you are working when others in your situation are not is a great thing to be proud of – own that! People don’t need to know why you are proud of it, but you should absolutely show your pride in your work!

    3. AnonAnon*

      Agree whole heartedly.
      I have friends who are in their 50s who wait tables or are receptionists, and friends who were killing it as lawyers, business owners, whatever at 29.
      And you know what, they each have strengths in some areas and deficiencies in others.
      Anyone who would judge someone by their job – which is only one slice of the balanced life pie – is not someone you should worry too much about their opinion anyway.

      1. Picard*

        ALLL this.

        My favorite line – consider the source and give their comments the credit they merit.

        I’m going to taker what my dad says about my job much more seriously than what some rando person I knew 40 years ago in high school.
        Shrug. But I also tend to give a rats ass what people think, so there is that!

      2. Dagny*


        Like a lot of people, the recession hit me hard. It got really, really uncomfortable in social situations, because some people have no manners. Some people see a subtle dismissal of the topic (“I am doing this now. So what do you think of the canapes?”) as an invitation to go for the jugular.

        Those people are tools. The only thing you can do is to have a few lines ready to get them to clamp it. I can be rather blunt, and I think I’ve said something like “I’m here for a birthday party, not for you to play career counselor.” Smile, shake hand, and walk away.

        If you don’t want to go that route, then you need to learn to “block and bridge.” Here’s how it works:
        Rando: What do you do?
        You: I’m a waitress at the deli downtown.
        Rando asks those questions that make you uncomfortable.
        You: My career path is rather boring. But let me tell you, what’s not boring is the customer I had on Tuesday. (Launch into pithy but amusing work horror story.)

    4. Nessun*

      Agreed! One of the women I consider a mentor and a role model in my life has never worked a job other than “fast food”. She is amazingly good at what she does – she exemplifies professionalism, grace under pressure, and intelligent problem-solving. She works those types of jobs because she enjoys getting to know regulars, providing excellent service, and to her it’s low stress (she’s good at it, it pays the bills, and she can do it anywhere/for anyone). She takes pride in her work, and she isn’t ashamed to say where she works or for how long. She exudes an air of “you don’t know me, you can’t judge me”, which I also adore.

      OP, I encourage you to find pride in your work, and not to be afraid to own it. You do it, you do it well, so why shouldn’t you keep doing it – people should acknowledge that and move on; your reasons are your own.

    5. Op 2*

      There’s no shame in any work, it all has inherent dignity. I like my job. I should have said in my letter I live in a country where an older educated person doing minimum wage work is unusual. My job is mostly done by students, immigrants and people who grew up in poverty and didn’t get a good start at life or SAHM looking for a bit of extra cash. I have no kids.

      I know in America it is more common to see people with a good college degree do a job like serving. I stand out more here.

      The issue is my situation raises the question – why? Why this job? In your circumstances as a seemingly able and educated 30 something? People are not saying it’s shameful, just odd.

      And I want to lead them away from the real answer of my illness because my illness is private to me. I’d rather give them a different ‘story’ so they don’t probe into my health, which can lead to discrimination and hurt further employment chances and other practical things as well as just being really personal.

      I know I can say ‘none of your business’ and so on but what happens is some of my friends are lawyers and doctors (and many are also waiters and cleaners) and I’ll be at an event where every person is a highly skilled professional and in small talk they are like – what’s up with that job? I just would like a neat little small talk way to deal with those situations without being at a party having a stranger either think I’ve screwed up or know something is not right with me.

      1. Myrin*

        I’m not in the US, either, so I can relate to that although I obviously don’t know if we’re in the same place (I’m in Germany, so if that happens to be your country, too, I might be able to give more tailored advice). I’m also highly educated (regarding formal education, I mean – I worked on my dissertation until last year, when I left all of that behind me) but work two part-time jobs which have nothing to do with my actual field whatsoever. My plan when I ceased my dissertation was to just do these two jobs until February 2020 or so, which was a good few months where I would take the time to just let go of all that previous stress and recalibrate my life according to these new parametres. And, well, now it’s corona time and any hiring-related things will have to wait a little longer still.

        But the thing is – I really love one of my part-time jobs. (I’m fine with the other and enjoy the work but it brings with it a unique kind of stress in certain circumstances which I’ll be glad to be rid of.) It’s shelf stocking in a drugstore. I enjoy it so much. I would do nothing else for the rest of my life if it didn’t pay minimum wage and if I didn’t need (and want!) more money than that.

        So I can totally relate to your conundrum here, albeit without the medical angle (although I have to say that I always share all kinds of medical stuff about myself so I personally would totally milk the illness angle, but I 100% understand that I’m a bit of an exception there). I’m very confident generally but I still know that feeling of “Ugh, why do we have to talk about THAT now? Can’t we talk about literally anything else already?” where you’re quite happy with yourself but where others aren’t and that’s the problem.

        And my small talk solution for that is to really lay it on thick how much I enjoy my job (which is very true in my case but I think that would be my tactic even if it wasn’t). I always very cheerily tell anyone who will listen how I stumbled into it by chance and found out that I really, really love it. And I have honestly yet to meet someone who continues to be negative or judgy about it in the face of my enthusiasm (although that’s never a given, of course) – it’s very hard to grumpily rain all over someone’s parade when that person is clearly happy with their own choice.

      2. Asenath*

        When I don’t want to give a detailed answer, I do as suggested. I practice giving a vague reason in a cheerful matter-of-fact manner. I find that then promptly changing the topic by asking the other person something they have to respond to really helps. I don’t really like sharing my personal life with acquaintances, and before I developed these skills, I was sometimes so startled by what I thought of as rude or nosy questions that I would answer automatically. Now, I’d say something like “It really suits me right now.” And follow it with a question suitable to the situation that the other person feels obligated to answer. In my area, the weather is always a good option. or “What do you think about ?” Or “I haven’t seen your cousin/daughter/partner in ages. How are things going?” Or even “And you work for X Company, don’t you? How are they as an employer?” although I think in general turning the conversation to non-work is better.

        1. Joielle*

          Yep, I was coming down here to suggest that if you don’t want to answer a lot of questions, it’s best to make a prompt subject change or ask the other person a question right away. I’ve been on the other side of situations like that, where the conversation turns to everyone’s job, and it’s clear that one person is a bit embarrassed to still be in school, or working a low-wage job, or staying home with kids, or whatever. But if you just say “I work at McJob” then people will continue that line of conversation to show interest in you as a person. It would be rude if someone just went “Huh, ok. Bob, what do you do?”

          So if you’d prefer to move the conversation along, I’d go with something like “I work at McJob. It’s not too glamorous but it gives me time for [hobby]! I recently [details about hobby, change subject].” Then people have a way to continue the conversation without prying into details you’d rather keep to yourself.

          A thing I’ve learned the hard way as an awkward conversationalist is that generally, people will only pick up the conversation that you put down, so if you want to talk about something, or DON’T want to talk about something, you have to take the lead.

      3. Carlie*

        I like “It gives me the flexibility I want and enough time to enjoy life”. Throw in that it’s low stress and people will envy you! Or simply “I didn’t want a job where I always take work home with me”, or any of those variants on work to live, like “I only need to work enough to support my (hobby) habit”. Say it with a practiced dismissive shrug, and nobody will think twice and you can shift the conversation to something else. Ask them something about themselves and they will completely refocus! I had an assembly line job for awhile and while the work itself was physically terribly hard, I could take a day off whenever I needed to and the hours always fit my schedule, and so overall it was a great job. It’s not always about advancement and prestige. It sounds like you’re still partly embarrassed about it; it’s a good job, and there are real aspects of it that make it better than the fancy jobs your peers got.

        1. EmmaC*

          All of this. There is no shame in honest work or in taking care of your physical and mental health. Those are great suggestions for the OP to say about having flexibility, low stress, and not taking work home with you. When I was in a similar situation, I would just smile and say, “You know what, there’s something to be said for clocking in and clocking out. And the only time I ever hear from anyone is an email with my schedule.” And it’s true. When I was off the clock, my time was my own. There are times I really miss having a stress free part time job like that. And some of the snotty people who act like it’s not prestigious enough are usually office drones who spend half their two week vacation time on their iPad screaming about how much they hate their boss and company.

        2. Matilda Jefferies*

          This is exactly what I was going to say. Tell people what you love about your job – and for most people in jobs like yours, the thing they love is the flexibility to enjoy other things! Hobbies, family, whatever it is that you like to do.

          Also, think about what you love about *this* job. I know you have to have a certain type of job because of your disabilities, but there are lots of other jobs that you could have – why this one in particular? Why do you like minimum wage llama grooming better than minimum wage rice sculpting? That’s another way you could have the conversation without getting too personal.

          Most people are just making conversation or trying to get to know you – 99% of the time they’re not quizzing you about your job specifically, they’re just looking for something to talk about. So it’s okay if you don’t answer their exact questions – just use them as a starting point to talk about something that’s comfortable for you. Good luck!

      4. Miss Pantalones en Fuego*

        What about a breezy “it might seem odd but I enjoy it and it works well for me! How have you been?”.

      5. Princess Zelda*

        This might not be directly applicable, but: when I dropped out of college and started working in a retail store, plenty of Nosy Nancys had strong opinions on this state of affairs. I already felt a lot of guilt and shame about my situation, and having them beat the drum of “But you’re so smart! How could this happen! (Is there something wrong with you?)” was distinctly unhelpful. One thing I found derailed them a bit was to pick a thing I liked about my job (or could plausibly lie about liking about my job) in advance, and have it ready to go.

        A conversation might look like:
        Aunty Nosy-Nose: “Why would you work at Store instead of continuing your education? You have so much potential!”
        Me: “Well, I like being able to work fixed hours, and I’m learning a lot about retail operations and store management. Enough about me, how’s Uncle Minds-His-Own-Business?” (Absolutely true, even though I had 0% interest in going into management. Learning what not to do is learning.)


        Former Classmate, Who Is On A Trust Fund: “You work in Store? But… why?
        Me: “I need money to live, and I like this better than my previous job at Restaurant. What about you? I heard you got an interview at Fancy Place?”

        They don’t need to understand — they just need enough information that they leave you alone, plus a subject change. People usually like to talk about themselves, and people who don’t are usually happy to talk about their pets or family or something else.

      6. JaneDoe73*

        As someone whose husband has not had a job* in over a decade due to a disability, I recognize both how common it is for people to fall back on work as a (somewhat bland) conversation topic, and how hard it can be to give an honest response without derailing the conversation into topics you don’t even want to discuss.

        The “side hustle” thing does seem to be the most pleasant way of dealing with these questions. Have you considered picking it back up, or finding a new one? From an outside point of view, this probably sounds like an over-reaction, but I think it might be worth it just for giving you a way to participate in work-related conversations more enjoyably.

        * I wonder, is there also dignity in being unemployed?

        1. Asenath*

          Is there also dignity in being unemployed? Sure. All honest lives have dignity (I know many people who lead dishonest lives might disagree, but that’s another debate). You find your dignity in doing what you can do well, even if you can’t do anything “productive”. You can still be as decent as you can to those around you. Depending on why you’re unemployed and whether you have physical or mental limitations, you might find helpful and maybe productive things to do with some of your time, even if you’re not paid for them. Dignity is rooted in your own attitudes and reactions to what happens to you, not to how much money you can bring in.

          1. Wandering*

            This ^.
            Dignity comes from how we live our lives, and do whatever we do, not from a title, employer, paycheck or trust fund.
            We choose what we respect, and the current circumstances have caused many to review what they value. Maybe we’ll even see some “essential” workers get full time jobs making more than minimum wage, now that the larger culture has seen just how essential they are.

        2. Elizabeth West*

          I wonder, is there also dignity in being unemployed?

          Judging by what most employers and staffing agencies seem to think, no. You’re a useless blob if you’re unemployed, and forget about ever working again, even if you can. /s

          Of course this isn’t true, but it’s a very common prejudice that needs to end.

        3. nonegiven*

          If your husband will probably always be out of work because of a disability, can’t you say, “He has retired.”

      7. animaniactoo*

        Part of the real issue here, which we’re seeing highlighted by the current situation, is that we severely undervalue the worth of basic, essential work.

        The question in terms of worth of contribution should not be “How many people can do this job relatively well and therefore how much can we force them to compete against each other to accept/offer the lowest “bid” for the work?” but rather “How well can the business run if there is not SOMEBODY doing this work?”

        So another avenue might be to defend it “You know, somebody needs to do it. I’m good at it, it pays the bills, and that works for me.”

        1. Dust Bunny*

          This. My first job after I graduated from Fancy Pants College was cleaning kennels at a vet’s office alongside a guy who–and I mean this, I am not being sarcastic–probably had a two-digit IQ and couldn’t spell his own name consistently. But those kennels were spotless. If a client wanted a tour of where their pet would be kept while it was in the hospital, my bosses didn’t have to hesitate because those cages and dog runs were pristine and the pets that were staying in them were under constant supervision. So, maybe I was theoretically underemployed, but I was also the best goddamned poop-scooper that place ever had and nobody ever sat on a damp pee pad on my watch. I mean, do you really want lazy, careless, people watching ailing or post-surgical pets?

        2. HQetc*

          I think this is probably a good option. I think sometimes you could go even shorter and vaguer with something like, “hey, it needs doing, right?” *smile, question about them, the weather, wolverines, w/e.* It has that quality of seeming to answer the question, but not in the way it was asked, which can put people conversationally off-balance enough that it disrupts the script of “we talk about work because that is the conversation you have in these situations” (something I myself am super guilty of).

        3. Gazebo Slayer*

          YES. I’d personally like to go a bit further – something like “Someone’s got to do it. You [eat/shop/whatever] – why do you look down on the people who make that possible?” Return that judgment right back to them. I mean, this might not be a great plan for people you’re going to see a lot more of, unless you’d like to see less of them, but it might be good for shutting up nosy randos at parties and whatnot.

      8. PX*

        I think this is a classic case where you need to be really confident in your answer, and also practice my favourite politician trick where you simply ignore questions you dont like.

        So come up with a simple answer about what you *do* like about your current job, and then either immediately follow that up with a question to other person that moves the conversation along. If they try to follow up with “But why do you do this seemingly low paying job?” – simply repeat the first statement about what you like about your job, or use a *second* pre-canned statement about what you like about your job.

        This is one of those conversational gambits which (to be fair, depends a bit on where you are and the culture there) tends to work quite well. Answer the question *you* want to answer, and people will move on.

      9. kt*

        This is a very not-AAM answer, but… if you’ve got the right personality for it, it could be fun. You need to be working on an artistic project. Perhaps a philosophical project. But one you can’t reveal too much about. Cultivate your hint of mystery, your eccentric creativity. Basically, you need a big red herring :)

        “Oh, I want a job that allows me to focus my genius on the really important things in life.”

        “You know, I felt that (other path) really distracted me from being able to think about the deeper issues. Being a (lawyer, doctor, whatever) one can get so caught up in the details of doing a good job that one can lose sight of… the Big Picture.” (then you need to make slightly over-intense eye contact… well, depends how you want to play this role)

        Anyhow, whether you go the crazed genius route, the eccentric creative route, or the holistic thinker route, you can quickly shift the conversation to the Bigger Issues that you care about, whether that be re-imagining the world’s dependence on electrical power, or a Mary-Oliver-esque poetry side passion emerging, or an interest in watching kitschy movies.

      10. CaVanaMana*

        If you’re talking to someone who thinks what you do defines who you are and you feel they think it odd that you haven’t done more, then you have more information about them than they do about you.

      11. IHerdCatsForFood*

        Sure there’s no shame in having any job, but if you have a college degree and potential you should be using it. When you’re 50, 60 ,70 what do you want your life to look like? How are you going to pay for your retirement, if you can retire at all. Is your health going to hold out so you can still be working at age 70?

        1. buffty*

          This sounds like exactly the line of questioning that the LW wrote in to try to avoid.

        2. HQetc*

          Dude, her health isn’t “holding out” *now,* that’s the whole issue. And basically the crux of this situation is that this line of thinking can be pretty judgmental and unhelpful, and assumes you have a lot more information about the situation than you actually do.

        3. Mid*

          OP2 also doesn’t live in the US, so they probably have access to healthcare and retirement without relying on the luck of getting the right job.

            1. JKateM*

              That’s not necessarily true. SOME countries have better health and retirement situations than the US but that is not true for the majority. There is a lot more to the world than North America and Europe.

            2. pope suburban*

              Even here in the US, I think that’s an unkind line of questioning that places the burden of systemic failures on individuals. Many white-collar jobs no longer offer retirement, having been transitioned to contracts or gigs or part-time (as in, just sub-full time hours), or they do not pay enough for people to avail themselves of such benefits as they offer. I have a degree from a very good school, for example, and I have worked very white-collar jobs since graduating into the last recession (Law firm clerk, HR assistant, report production in environmental protection/compliance, bookkeeper, public servant), and I have only notionally had access to benefits at two of those jobs. One underpaid so severely that I would have had to skip groceries to pay into the 401(k). The other, my current job, pays me fairly but requires me to be part-time; I had just reached the point where I could invest when CV-19 hit and scrambled both my hours and my agency’s future. While I am using myself as an example because, well, I know the most about that situation, I also know that I am not alone. My peers are working the gig economy, or accepting low pay because they need to survive while trying to look for that next step- and people older and younger than us are contending with the same forces.

              I think that generally, we live in a country that no longer values the social safety net, and doesn’t feel any particular need to pressure employers to do the right thing and take care of the workers who took care of them. My employment landscape does not resemble that of my grandparents or my parents. I have more in common with a fast-food worker than I do with the full-time employees in my own office, and I have the same concerns about retirement and older age. That’s not a problem that I created, or that service employees created. That’s the result of systemic failures in companies and government that treat people like replaceable, disposable widgets. I’d like to live in a world where someone passionate about retail or cleaning or food service could do the job they love and excel in, without spending the winter without heat and aging into bankruptcy without even accessing decent medical care. Dignity isn’t earned, it’s something that all human beings have, at least in my estimation. But pushing college as a panacea doesn’t work, nor does it eliminate the need for all the “McJobs” that we now have to know keep our world running smoothly.

        4. Gazebo Slayer*

          Did you miss the part about “severe invisible disabilities” which mean the job is all OP *can* do, or do you just enjoy lecturing OP from your lofty position of “superiority” about how they can just Overcome Their Disability or something?

        5. biobotb*

          I’m very sincerely curious as to whether you actually read the letter in question?

        6. On a pale mouse*

          Seriously? This is exactly the kind of judgmental attitude that’s giving OP trouble. They don’t have to explain their choices to you (although they already did and you apparently missed it) or to anyone. Signed, a person with a CS degree and a JD who works at the grocery store and is totally over this kind of attitude.

        7. New Jack Karyn*

          This is really not helpful to OP. Do you think she hasn’t considered these questions?

      12. AnotherAlison*

        I had a friend who had been an air traffic controller, then a stay-at-home mom. Her husband was an ATC, too. She went back to work when the youngest was ~13 at Chik-Fil-A. It seemed like a weird choice, as she had a degree and experience in a high paying job. She couldn’t go back to ATC, but after ~5 years, she got an office job for the government, which would have allowed her to finish up her years of service and get a pension. I don’t think she lasted a year. She quit, went back to Chik-Fil-A, and after their daughter finished grad school and her husband retired, they sold their house and moved to her rural home town.

        I’m not sure anyone ever asked her why she was doing what she was, but it was just so her that it seemed obvious. She was a little high strung and the chaos of the restaurant and bossing around teenagers was perfect for her. If I were in her shoes or your shoes, OP, I think the right answer is just that this job suits what I need right now.

      13. Babylawyer*

        OP2, I’m guessing the culture of the country where you live might be a little different than the US. While the strategies I’ve seen listed would likely be effective in the US, I don’t think they would be as successful in a country where the communication is more direct and people aren’t shy about questioning people in a way that makes them uncomfortable.

        I think what you are looking for might be an excuse or even a lie that resolves their questions without you admitting that you have an illness:

        Maybe saying you’re looking to work your way up to management, if that seems credible?
        Maybe with people you don’t know as well, you could say you need your free time to deal with things your family is going through? (This one is true, it’s your illness, but if they press more you could make up an aunt or uncle or parent.)
        Make up or exaggerate a hobby–you’re trying to write a novel, you’re learning to play the guitar, learning to code, etc. (I like the novel idea because novels genuinely take years to write, so it would buy you a lot of time)

        To be honest, though, the easiest to sustain longterm is going to be a genuine claim that you like your job. I know you say no one would believe you genuinely like/love the place you work, but I think most minimum wage jobs have something to love about them (I love talking with people, I love not taking my work home with me, I love being around coffee, I love the people watching, etc.).

        Good luck, OP2.

      14. Mary*

        Hi OP2 – when I’ve been in this situtation, my best option was a diversion tactic! Just move the topic onto something else. It sounds like that’s how you used to use your side-hustle, but you can use any topic you’re interested in to do that.

        This may vary by culture, but IME most people asking you, “What do you do?” aren’t hugely interested in the specifics of your job unless you’re at a professional networking event (which I’m going to assume you’re not)–they’re just looking for something to hang a conversation off, and in a group of assumed-middle-class-professionals, people tend to assume that starting with your job is a good way to do that. If you offer them a clear alternative hook, most people will grasp it. So something like, “I work at McDonald’s, but that’s just a job. In my free time I grow aquilegias! I have sixty six breeds and I’m working on a sixty-seventh.”

        If you don’t have any activities / activism / hobbies etc that feel suitable for that audience you’ve got –like, if you don’t want to say, “I have 50k followers on my TikTok account!” or whatever– try and think of things you are comfortable discussing (asking them questions about their work? the recent German court decision about the supremacy of the ECJ? the iniquities of the one-way traffic system in YourCity?) and figure out how to divert onto that.

        And sometimes, it’s just not going to work and they’re not going to pick up your conversational handle. It’s OK to assume that means they’re not your kind of person and peace out!

      15. schnauzerfan*

        I like the “work to live” line and I’d combine that with something else. Oh, McJob is OK. The hours are good (or whatever) and it gives me time to …. (meditate, collect sea shells, read all of x’s works, raise orchids, stargaze) then launch into as many details as you like about the passion project.

        My cousin got his first job cleaning motel rooms as a 16 year old. He loved it, and was good at it. Worked various jobs in various motels all the way through college. Went to work for a chain you’ve heard of, worked his way up to where he supervised the setup of new motels, was involved in hiring and training staff all over the world. 2 months here 8 months there. Did quite well with it. Then he developed some health issues, didn’t want to be a nomad anymore and went back home to do part time work mainly cleaning motel rooms. He still loves it. Oh he’ll cover the front desk if need be, does simple handyman type stuff, step in to do bellhop duty. But he tells people he cleans motel rooms cause it leaves time for his real job as a fisherman… then he’ll tell you way more than you ever wanted to know about what’s biting where, or he’ll tell you about getting off in time to go to the Cardinals games…

      16. GS*

        I use the phrase “it takes all kinds” with a bit of a rueful smile when people ask me why I moved 900km away to a very rural area and started raising pigs. It implies that it’s a choice particular to me, but doesn’t give any detail. It might work for you? Especially if you follow up with a question about their career path like “did you always know you wanted to be a lawyer?” or something.

      17. sofar*

        A good friend of mine works a service job (coffee chain) for similar reasons. She has a health condition that makes her struggle with many other jobs. And her current job provides her with some health insurance benefits (even when working part-time), flexibility in hours, and even the ability to take leaves of absence when needed. She’s not wealthy, but she keeps her cost of living down. And, ultimately, staying at this job is better than constantly getting fired from “better” jobs that she wouldn’t be able to do for long.

        She also gets asked CONSTANTLY why she works where she does and when she’s going to “put that accounting degree to work.” People constantly offer to help her network and improve her career path.

        Her go-to (and I’ve seen her use it) is, “Well I’m sure you have reasons for doing the job you do. And I have my own reasons for doing mine.”

        On another note: She works a job that people rely on in their daily lives. It drives me insane that anyone would expect her to explain why she does what she does when they THEMSELVES rely on that daily coffee run. It’s so messed up how our culture views service industry workers.

      18. Michelle*

        OP#2- I have a 26 year old son who is working a “McJob” and he still lives at home. He, too, has an invisible disability that prevents him from working full-time, as well as chronic health conditions that require 6 pills a day. He would like to work full-time and move into his own place but the cost of healthcare, medication and basic bills (car, insurance, phone) makes that impossible. He would not do well in a roommates situation, either.

        My son is not a failure. If people get nosy, he says “Why do you ask/care?”. That makes most nosy people back off. That may be a bit adversarial, but he only uses it with the people that will not stop with the “But don’t you want to live alone, etc.?’. He once told a very nosy person “Yeah, I’d like to live alone, not have a disability, not have chronic medical conditions and win the lottery. So unless you have a cure for what ails me or the winning lotto numbers, it would be best you stop before I say something to hurt your feelings”.

        It would be much better if people would stop judging others because until you have lived their life and dealt with their challenges, you do not know. If the “McJob” people were not there to do those jobs, how would people get their burgers or how would those shelves get stocked? Who would clean up behind them when they go in to try on clothes or shoes and leave a mess? People who look down on “McJob” people need to realize that life would be a lot less convenient without them and just let people be.

        1. Elizabeth West*

          All of this. I am so freaking tired of trying to tell people what dyscalculia is and why I can’t do certain higher-paying jobs. Since so many people dislike math, they misunderstand and don’t listen. You want to know how many people on Earth don’t listen when other people talk? If I could math, I could probably tell you!

          I don’t even know why people are so insistent on defining a person by their job. In today’s world, upward mobility is no longer a thing unless you’re rich enough to buy it, and everybody knows someone in a role that has nothing to do with their degree because they need to eat. It’s really not anyone’s business why they’re working at McJob. WHICH, by the way, should at least have a living wage, but that’s a rant for another day.

      19. Sacred Ground*

        I’ve dealt with rude acquaintances of means who make backhanded comments about my dead end jobs by point blank asking if they’re hiring. Shuts them right up.

        1. old person*

          I have a full time job and two part time jobs and the comments I get at my part time jobs can sometimes be annoying. I have ended up telling people who want to give me job advice that I have blessed their hearts. I was working as a security guard at a rave once and this nearly naked girl (wearing a g string, taped nipples and sneakers) who was higher than a kite came over to say that she would pray for my soul because of my job, and I just cheerfully said that I would pray for her soul too.

          1. JSPA*

            sounds more like that was a dig at you as an authority figure / presumed anti-drug and anti-personal-freedom enforcer, rather than for the paycheck or job status, though.

            Pray for you = I’m sorry for you. Pray for your soul = I think your job requires you to do something evil.

            Plenty of jobs trigger some level of moral qualms in some people; they don’t particularly align with low vs high pay.

      20. JayNay*

        I’ve noticed there are groups or parties where “so what do you do?” is an automatic question, and I hate it too. Almost by design, it makes you feel bad about yourself if the answer isn’t “I’m thriving in my exciting job!”
        I sometimes pre-empt the question with a different question of my own. Such as: Have you read anything interesting lately? Oh, I heard (host) really likes (new hobby), have you done that too? Also great: If you were in a heist movie, what would your plan be?
        There are so many things that are better conversation starters than “how are you doing in this capitalism thing we got here?”

      21. Annony*

        If it’s a stranger, I think you can get way talking about the side hustle if you want. They won’t know the last time you had a paying gig. Alternatively, you can redirect. When someone asks what you do, you can say something like “Oh, it’s pretty boring. What is it like being a doctor at clinic X? I bet you have some interesting stories.” Most people will either be able to interpret that as you not wanting to talk about your job and/or get sidetracked talking about their jobs. When you get the chance, redirect conversation to hobbies. This is small talk. It would be really weird for them to keep trying to ask you about your job if you are talking about something else.

      22. JSPA*

        “you’d be surprised how well it works for me!”
        “It fits surprisingly well with my life!”

        Basically, you’re taking their surprise, naming it, and handing it back to them as if it were information. Interestingly, when you do that, most people will accept it at face value. Because really, 95% of the time, this sort of question is really about their own surprise, or about them trying to make sense of the world, more than it’s about them caring exactly why you do what you do.

        Well, unless they’re hoping for a juicy story (but there’s no reason you need to supply one) or a chance to commiserate (ditto).

      23. Junior Dev*

        It may not apply and you shouldn’t feel obligated to start a hobby or side project if you can’t or don’t want to, but is there anything else you do that you’re passionate about, where you could present it as “this job means I have the flexibility to (work on my art/volunteer/babysit my nieces and nephews/moderate the Wikipedia section on llama grooming/work on my novel)?” Then you have the double advantage of giving them an answer and shifting the topic to your hobby, interest, or family connection.

        If you don’t have anything like that because of your disability, I can relate, there’s definitely been times in my life where managing my health problems was effectively a full time job. But it’s an option if you do manage to spend some time on a hobby or passion, even if it’s not actually done for enough hours in the week that most people would think it “justifies” structuring your work life around.

    6. Tate Can't Wait*

      I wouldn’t recommend side-stepping the issue. People want to know the business, not the location. I once dated a woman who worked at a drug clinic in a big city nearby and when people would ask her where she worked, she’d say, “Oh, in old city on 5th and Arch.” All it did was make people wonder what she was hiding and ask again, and then she’d tell them where she actually worked. Things got awkward.

    7. Grey Coder*

      How about “it means I have time to focus on (hobby)?” Even if hobby is “meditation practice” and there’s an unspoken “for pain management because that’s what gets me through the day”. I know you (OP2) said you’re no longer doing the side hustle, but is it plausibly something you could do for fun?

      But yeah, this is not something you should need to justify. Sorry that people are giving you grief.

      1. Impressive-Sounding-Ambitious-Career-Track-Job in Cool-Sounding-Industry*

        I was once going to a creative writing retreat and decided to carpool with another attendee, whom I didn’t know, but who lived nearby. The inevitable what-do-you-do conversation could have turned awkward, because I have an Impressive-Sounding-Ambitious-Career-Track-Job in Cool-Sounding-Industry and she was a Walmart cashier. She didn’t love everything about her job (honestly, who does? I don’t love everything about my job either), but it gave her time and plenty of inspiration for her creative writing hobby and it fit with her family schedule demands (son with some special needs).

        You absolutely do not need to justify what you do, but saying it gives you time for a hobby is a response that might feel comfortable in most situations, even if it isn’t 100% true. It can also help shift the conversation away from job and more on hobbies, which might feel more comfortable.

        I also believe that we all, including people with Impressive-Sounding-Ambitious-Career-Track-Jobs in Cool-Sounding-Industries, but really everyone, can do our part to minimize the potential awkwardness of this question. Maybe it’s looking for another phrasing of the question, but more importantly, it’s about not shaming or judging the other person’s response.

    8. Seeking Second Childhood*

      I suggest a friend’s phrase: “It pays the rent and buys the kitty kibble.” I’ve also heard them say “I work to live. I don’t live to work.”

    9. UbiCaritas*

      You could be writing the Great American Novel. When I see interesting things at work, I always think “that’s one for the book!”

      1. Quill*

        A friend who’s been a custodian for 30 years always claims to be writing the next “great american novel” because one of her daughter’s professors couldn’t imagine any other reason why she’d be a custodian at a school. (Previous teachers, in the district, have known better – you don’t mess with Jenny!)

    10. Moocow Cat*

      The OP could use the story that they just like talking with people. Since they’re looking for an explanation. At my local convenience store, there’s a guy who used to work in international finance. It was a horrible job with lots of stress. He quit the job to work basic retail because he wanted to connect meaningfully with other humans. And of course there is dignity in every job. The OP has every right to feel proud of their employment history.

      The OP could also go the humourous route. They could claim that the Basic Job is just a cover for their real mission to Take Over The World with an Army of Battle Zebras.

    11. Batgirl*

      I come from a working class background where no one gives a crap what you do for money, so I honestly get really perplexed when people are ashamed of doing honest, useful work. OP, just tell people the job suits *you* and you’re not clawing at the escape hatch…..because it suits you! No one needs to know why, because it’s just a job, not a mission to find the meaning of life. Sure, some minimum wage jobs are a hell on earth you want escape from – but not all; many are satisfyingly straightforward and there are benefits to them even if you’re not disabled, like you might not want to spend all your valuable energy on a Jobs-ian search for elevated meaning in your work. I remember when I got burned out in my profession and my colleagues couldn’t find a way out, as no competitors were hiring; I got a job on the bars of a cruise ship. It was bloody hard work but it was satisfying and I got paid for every minute of overtime with money instead of being paid in experience and career credits. My professional friends were aghast, but the people I grew up with saw the sense immediately.

    12. Cj*

      If the person the letter writer is talking to picks up on their perception of the job, it’s probably quite natural to ask her about her career path, since he can tell she doesn’t think where she’s at is a place where people would want to be. Their question is probably more like, so what would you rather be doing? I would lose whatever defensiveness she has any answer she does give.

    13. Bella*

      this letter reminded me of my brother who LOVES Walmart. Half his status updates are about Walmart or Sam Walton (Walmart founder).

      He got a job there in college b/c he loves the place so much, then got a weekend job after college (even though he now has a desk job) because he really… loves that place.

      People find happiness in all sorts of places.

      1. LunaLena*

        For realz. I knew a friend of a friend who worked for Merrell one day a year at one of their big events, just so he could get an employee discount on their shoes. In college I worked at a concert hall that elderly upper-class ladies seriously fought to volunteer to be ushers for, simply so they could get guaranteed seats at the shows for free. There could be all sorts of hidden perks and reasons to enjoy what most people would consider a non-prestigious job.

        But honestly, “it pays the bills, I enjoy the work, and it’s working out so far” should be a good enough reason for anyone.

    14. Happy Pineapple*

      I couldn’t agree more. All jobs are meaningful (if they weren’t they wouldn’t exist!) and you’ll find people who make lifelong careers out of them for a variety of reasons. There’s a bagger at my local grocery store who’s been there for 72 years! That woman is the institution as far as I’m concerned. But I completely understand that people can be nosy. Try using any of these:
      -I like the flexibility it gives me.
      -I enjoy the stability.
      -I know I’ll always be employed!
      -I have great coworkers.
      -I have a great schedule.
      -I love being able to leave work at work at the end of the day.
      -It gives me time to focus on what I care about [volunteering, family, art, etc].
      -It works well for me.
      -It fits my lifestyle.
      -I’m quite happy there.
      -The corporate world isn’t for me.
      -Never a dull day!
      -It’s very low stress.
      -I like not being part of the ladder-climbing rat race.

    15. Abogado Avocado*

      OP2: The key to dealing with those unimaginative questioners who ask about career trajectories and all that is to secretly assume the identity of your favorite enigmatic character (e.g., Greta Garbo, The Saint, Tom Ripley, Jessica Rabbit, etc.), take a sip of metaphoric absinthe, and say: “My work is just work. I seek adventure elsewhere.” This will be such a tantalizing response that no one will be want to follow up about your job; they will want to know about the adventure you seek. Which can be whatever you want it to be: bungee-jumping off your friendly neighborhood water tower, traveling without hotel reservations to a destination, or reading mystery novels. And should someone persist in wanting to know why your work is just work, again, assume your favorite secret identity, and lob the conversational ball back with: “My interests are so much broader than my work.”

    16. Anon a moose*

      Yes, I love this answer! I was going to say something similar. I recommend the book Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar. It totally changed how I view life/work/what’s important and why we shouldn’t devalue what works and bring meaning to other people.

    17. Mama Bear*

      The answer might depend on who the person is and if it will matter in 5 minutes. “What do you do?” is smalltalk. “Oh, I don’t like to talk about work. How’s…?” might be a good deflection.

      I agree that there’s all kinds of work and if the pandemic isn’t proving that some “low level” work isn’t very crucial right now, people aren’t paying attention. If the person matters to you and presses for info or downplays it, you can say something like, “I actually like this job – it provides flexibility and (if true) benefits and it’s a good place for me.”

      1. Prof. Space Cadet*

        I agree. A vague answer along the lines of “I work in the restaurant idustry. It pays the bills!” and a quick topic change would be my suggestion as well.

    18. Free Meerkats*

      In a cheerful voice, “It pays the bills while I work on my passion, Interpretive cat ikebana!” Then change the subject.

  2. nnn*

    For #1, to avoid looking like you’re trying to hide something, maybe an option would be to block the window with an object – like a potted plant or something, depending on the set-up. (I’m not sure if I’m visualizing the set-up properly from your description.)

    You could even be seen to try placing the plant (or whatever camouflage object you go with) in different places throughout your workspace over the course of several days, before concluding that the place that just happens to obscure the window is the perfect spot where you can enjoy looking at it but it isn’t in anyone’s way.

    1. Seal*

      That was my thought as well. You could also try putting up a coat hook and hanging a jacket or sweater in such a way that it “unintentionally” covers most of the window.

    2. Casper Lives*

      I don’t think covering the window will work in the office. There’s a good business reason that people are using the windows for – to see if the executive is in. It’s faster to look through the window than try to email or call the busy exec, or interrupt the assistant many times per day to ask if executive is in.

      OP would be going against the culture of the office. I wouldn’t do that unless my boss backed me 100%.

      1. allathian*

        Yeah, this. If the OP’s boss is ignoring the weird “she’s on the phone” reports, I think the OP should try to do the same. I don’t get the vibe that this is harassment, though. My answer would be different if this were a floor-to-ceiling window and the desk was set up so that anyone walking by could see under the desk, and potentially under the skirt of the person sitting at the desk. I would hate to have to sit cross-legged all the time…

      2. Lilyp*

        OP says that people could still see into the exec’s office if the window was blocked, I guess by looking around the wall entirely? (I’m also having a hard time picturing this setup…why have a wall for privacy but then put a window in to look through). So I don’t think it would be that disruptive

        1. Seeking Second Childhood*

          It’s a design thing. Claims to blocks sound, but keeps the “look & feel”. I temped a lot in the early days of open office and saw a lot of variations… I am not a fan.

        2. Peeped EA*

          Op for #1 here.

          That’s correct. The wall is essentially pointless because it takes only 2 additional steps in order to look around it. The building was built in the early 90s when the cultural norms were different. We were still using typewriters when we moved in, and the executive who is doing the peeping still has a mentality dating from back then. Our office issues us work cells in order to conduct business, so it’s not unheard of to see many of the admins communicating as I do with mine. He hasn’t allowed his admin to have an business cell because he doesn’t see the business need.

          But, I digress. My point is that, yes they could still see my executive by taking two additional steps down the hallway if I were to somehow block he window. A plant, however, won’t work. The admin desks were built with a place specifically for potted plants.

          1. Shirley Keeldar*

            Sounds like your workplace has some very specific ideas for how they want the physical setup to look. That makes it tough. Maybe just wave and smile enthusiastically every time Tom peeps in? (I once defused an aggressive neighbor by being annoyingly nice to him–smiling and waving and chirping a perky “hello!” when I saw him. Honestly, I was trying to be a bit irritating. Turned out he was an angry man known to threaten people with guns for parking in front of his house–true story–but he never did anything to me.)

          2. Door Guy*

            I have a work issued cell phone too, and all but 1 of the owners calls me on it directly or I call them directly when we need to talk. I’ve got the problem of my receptionist telling callers that I’m on my personal phone (not okay to say even if I was on my personal phone) even when I’m very much on a work phone making a work call.

            (I’ve had lots of issues with this receptionist, and all complaints seem to fall on deaf ears and a “Well, no one’s perfect, and they are worlds better than anyone else we’ve had in that chair.”)

        3. lindrine*

          What about a strategically based plant that blocks partially? Do you don’t have to see him looking so easily?

      3. Not So Super-visor*

        I agree with Casper Lives — there’s a reason that there’s a window there. When we moved to our new office building, the HR person giving the tour was quick to point out that none of the offices (not even the president’s) has a completely solid door and all of them include large windows. She mentioned that this was to prevent inappropriate behavior from occuring in any office since anyone could witness what was going on. I don’t like the way that she phrased this, but the company also dealt with a lot of sexual harassment claims in the 90’s.

        1. That Girl from Quinn's House*

          I worked at an organization that had youth programming, and most of our offices in new buildings were designed to comply with the child abuse prevention policy- even if there was no expectation of children ever being in that office. Open sight lines were just baked into the culture.

    3. AnonAnon*

      OP1: can you rearrange your work space for better privacy? For example, could the computer monitor be placed to partially obscure the corner of the desk, and provide a little nook of sorts? It’s hard for me to picture how the space works.

    4. RB*

      Yes, good idea about the plant but if that doesn’t work, are there other creative solutions you could try? What if you taped a couple of postcards to the window? Even if it didn’t cover the window, it might be enough to discourage the peeper or obscure their view. Or a couple of photos or a drawing from your child, something along those lines…

      1. Lisa*

        Would it be possible to slightly alter the wording of the response so that it was more “you are stopping me from doing my job”. E.g. “Oh sorry Mr. Turnbuckle but I’m in the middle of taking care of something for Ms. Montgomery!” Or if he’s just making a snide aside and not actually trying to interrupt you, then something like “On your phone again Ms. Cumberpatch???” “Yes Mr. Turnbuckle, texting with Ms. Montgomery!” Just something to shift it away from defending an accusation and more towards just “yes, of course, this is my job, and you are interrupting me from doing it!”

        It just seems like there are two underlying issues here, one that spying guy is nosy and playing gotcha, and the other that spying guy has that weird assumption that smartphones are toys and can’t possibly be used for work purposes.

        1. Miri*

          Yes I was thinking something like that! (former exec assistant so I unfortunately get the political aspect). Replying every time with “Just a minute, I’ll be right with you…” while finishing texting (or sending the cute dog picture or whatever – no one has to be on every second of the day!), then “What can I help you with?”. If he’s just ribbing you about “being on your phone”, it might feel odd enough for him to repeat it that he’ll stop, and if he doesn’t you can say something like “Oh, just taking care of something for Michelle – now what can I help you with?”, ad infinitum. Redirecting him by pretending to assume he’s got an actual work reason to interrupt you, in short.

          1. Colette*

            Yeah, this is where I fall. Show no guilt for using the phone, and don’t explain, just ask him what he needs.

        2. Seeking Second Childhood*

          This. “Hello Mr. Turnbuckle. I’m on deadline for Ms. Montgomery. Do you need something from me?”

          1. Peeped EA*

            That type of redirection could work! I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. My boss and the peeping executive are colleagues, so he couldn’t question that response. I’ll have to give that a try, thank you.

          2. Mary*

            Yes, I was thinking something like this–basically, rather than trying to ignore it, “what is a professional and polite sounding response that makes this encounter awkward / more trouble than it’s worth for Peeping Exec?”

            Maybe even try and do it proactively–every time you see him coming, call out, “Hi Joe! Can I help with anything?” or “Hi! Sally’s not in right now, is there anything you need? I can take a message if you like?” The ideal outcome is that you’ve done nothing wrong, but he’s a little flustered and on the back foot, and has to go, “Oh no – no – nothing, thanks!” Give it a couple of weeks and hopefully he’ll be actively avoiding your eye as he passes.

            1. AKchic*

              “you always seem to be looking for her… are you *sure* you don’t want me to let her know?” *innocent blinking* *wave the cell phone casually* “I can text her real quick, we’ve been discussing the report due tomorrow”

              Watch him slink away.

        3. LifeBeforeCorona*

          OP added that Mr. Turnbuckle doesn’t see the point of having a business cell for his admin person which adds to his belief that phones are toys. Op could also add, “I’m talking to my boss right now, is there anything you need to tell him?”

          1. Marna*

            On the other end of the spectrum, and if you can get away with it, there’s always “Mmmmm.” Possibly best used in combination with the other.

            “I see you’re on your phone again.”
            “Yup, busy week!”
            “I don’t see the point of admins having phones at work.”
            *typing away* “Mmmm.”.

            1. leapingLemur*

              I’d suggest “I’m texting with my boss – that’s why we find the phone useful”

              1. Rescue Dog*

                I don’t know if another commenter has suggested this. I hate texting on a phone, so I do it on my computer using my keyboard when I can. Then the nosey nincompoop would never see a phone in your hand and you’d be free to do your job in peace.

          2. mlk*

            I like the earlier suggestion of “May I help you?” or some variant. If you have a personal cell phone as well as a work one, you could make a production of retrieving your personal cell from a desk drawer or pocket or wherever while saying something like, “I’m asking Boss a question on my business cell. My personal cell is put away, of course!” Extra points if you have a bright-colored case or stickers on your personal cell.

            Your company doesn’t have any stickers, do they? If they do, slap one on the work cell.

        4. JSPA*

          This is way too much brain space given, though. I’d manager if it’s OK to not only ignore the comment in the sense of “don’t let it bother you,” but ignore it in the sense of, “pretend to not hear it / don’t respond even by looking over, let alone saying anything.”

          You’re not a dog. You’re not automatically expected to drop what you’re doing, anytime someone whistles or calls you by your name.

          If you were able to respond, I do think you’d first have to say, “John, when there’s nothing pressing I’m supposed to be doing for you, could you please leave me to do my work in peace, even when I’m working via my cellphone?” Then go with the snub, if he didn’t stop. But if he’s commenting to others in a way where you’re not supposed to hear / not allowed to respond, then…give no sign you’ve heard it. Even if it’s more tempting to flip the bird.

      2. paxfelis*

        I would be very tempted to paste a pair of Halloween decoration eyes onto the window, but that’s me. Or a mirror.

        There are reasons I don’t work in an office.

    5. Iron Chef Boyardee*

      I’m also having a hard time visualizing the setup described by the letter writer. Maybe someone can provide a link to an image? Or if it’s possible, add an image here?

      1. Peeped EA*

        Think of it in this way; my desk is a U shape in which the short part of the U is the wall with the window, there is another 3/4 wall with cabinets that make up one of the long parts of the U, and my desk is the other long part of the U. My executive’s office faces the short part of the U to allow a straight view into her office through my window. Her office’s front wall, the one that faces the short part of the U, is made primarily of a window.

        It’s an odd setup, honestly.

        1. Anononon*

          If they can still see into the office either way, would covering the window make a difference?

          1. Batgirl*

            Because he’s not using it to look ahead into the executives office – he’s using it to look down and spy on OP’s desk which is in front of the office.

              1. Anononon*

                No, I mean, can’t he still see what you’re doing if he looks around the wall? Or are you blocked from that angle?

                1. charlatan*

                  If the current line of sight is blocked, I wouldn’t be surprised if he opted to come further into Peeped EA’s space to spy on her anyway. I think it would be even more intrusive/annoying than the quick drive-by he’s doing now.

        2. Batgirl*

          Is the peeping executive at your back then? That is very disconcerting. In a similar situation I used a mirrored picture frame and a mirrored vase so I could see people approaching me from behind. It made me feel less spied on if people couldn’t sneak up on me.
          Something else I have done is to stand my very large, rectangular satchel on the foreground of my desk. Then if I need to check my phone, I do so behind the satchel. There’s nothing wrong with my doing this, but my students aren’t allowed phones even on break and I don’t think the optics of them seeing me with one is great if they walk in.

        3. mlk*

          This may go into the moderation queue because of the link to an Amazon listing. I think it looks something like this:

          Except the “back” wall has an inset/window in it. Someone walking by could walk a little further and see whether Peeped EA’s boss is there.

          Here’s a panel with a full-width inset/window:

  3. Diamond*

    OP2 could you just vaguely say something like “oh, various reasons” and then change the subject? Are people really pushing you to give a Proper Reason? That sounds really rude of them. If you brush it off and move on *most* people will just move on with you.

  4. 867-5309*

    OP1, I’m not sure I would take this to your boss again as Alison mentions. They’ve already said you should ignore it and I’d worry going back to them could look like you’re making too big a deal out of something.

    1. EPLawyer*

      This is where I land. This is the Exec’s problem that he doesns’t get modern offices. If he is not actively interfering with your job and your own boss ignores the reports, you need to make like Elsa and let it go. After work go home, have your favorite beverage and laugh about what an old fuddy-duddy Mr. Peeper is. Use Alison’s standard advice when dealing with someone’s quirks, think of yourself as a scientist doing research on people. Just laugh at the absurdity of human nature. Once you reframe it in your head this way, it will probably stop bothering you.

    2. StrikingFalcon*

      I would pick the blandest possible response you can think of, like “yes, exec prefers I text her” and repeat it verbatim every single time he asks. Keep your voice completely neutral, like nice-weather-we’re-having neutral – you don’t want to give him any fodder for thinking he “caught” you not working. Yes, the whole thing is stupid and pointless, but your boss asked you not to push back, so try making the conversation as boring as possible for him.

      1. Joielle*

        I like this, with a neutral tone or even kind of confused, like, “yeah, I’m texting… Michelle…?” The tone and facial expression can convey “I’m obviously working, do you really not understand that?” But with polite words.

  5. Ashley*

    OP 2: I hate intrusive questions from strangers. When I started my last job, after introducing myself to a coworker we made small talk. Two minutes into the conversation I mentioned my husband and she asked if we had kids. I said no and she asked why? So weird.

    I have a habit of being sarcastic when people ask me uncomfortable questions and I know it won’t always be appropriate but at times you may want to just give a flippant response and say something like, “I use to sell crack but that didn’t work out too well so now I’m at McJob.” If you say it with a straight face most people will laugh, feel a little uncomfortable, and then drop the subject.

    1. Eliza*

      As someone who used to be in a position very similar to OP2 and is still in a line of work that a lot of people don’t think of as a “real job”, I found the thing that worked best for me when people just wouldn’t take the hint to stop asking about my job was ironic self-deprecation. If people try to grill you about why you’re working where you are, and you say “I guess I’m just not a very useful person” with a smile and a shrug, hardly anyone is going to agree with you; they’ll either try to come up with compliments about your positive qualities or awkwardly change the subject. The trick is to say it in a tone of voice that makes it clear that you don’t believe what you’re saying but subtly challenges the other person to either admit that’s what they were thinking or backpedal.

      1. FaintlyMacabre*

        Yes! Back in the day, when dudes at work would say things like, “You’re too pretty to not have a boyfriend,” (yeah, it was not the best workplace), I would breezily say something along the lines of “Well, I must have a crappy personality!” (Did I mention this wasn’t a super professional place?) The tone is the thing. Even if it bothers you, just keep it light and then move the conversation elsewhere.

      2. Liz*

        I used to do this pretty much entirely by accident! I was long term unemployed for a host of reasons, but people would casually ask me “what I did” and then push for information as to WHY I had been unemployed for X years and HOW I could have been out of work for so long (you’re so clever, you did so well at school, etc etc). I would respond with a cheery monologue about every misfortune that had befallen me since finishing university, all delivered in an “oh well” tone. Return awkward to sender.

        Obviously this is the opposite of what OP is trying to achieve. It’s tricky to find a balance because not mentioning the job at all if asked will look cagey, so I guess giving a broad title or industry might be helpful. Then if anyone gets nosey afterwards, just shrugging and saying “you know how life goes” or something similar to deflect. And don’t be afraid to actually bail on the conversation if people are making you uncomfortable.

      3. nonegiven*

        The problem is, too many people look down on McJobs but what would they do if nobody did that job? McJobs are useful, that’s why people get paid to do them.

    2. Kiki*

      Yeah, it depends on the situation and what the LW is comfortable with but I feel like one of the best ways to avoid a question without getting follow up is: 1) small smile 2) jokey response 3) ask a question about the other person’s life.

      I know the LW said they don’t work at McDonald’s, but if they did they could say something along the lines of, “I’ve gotten hooked on the free McFlurries and very few jobs include that in their benefits package. Did I overhear you say you’d gotten into cartography? What kinds of maps are you into?”

      I want to add that there is dignity in all work and anyone who treats you like your job makes you less worthy or hounds you for the reasons you have the job you do is a jerk. And sometimes jerks have cool jobs or do things that society puts a disproportionate amount of value on, but they often are not particularly happy or doing as well as they act like they are.

    3. Cj*

      My husband and I don’t have kids by choice, and I’m pretty open about that. However if somebody I just met ask me this in such a nosy fashion, maybe really tempted to tell them about our infertility struggles, my multiple miscarriages, two premature babies that died. None of it true, of course. And this kind of person would probably just ask for details anyway.

  6. nnn*

    For #2, for the “what do you do?”, an effective way to achieve the desired results might be to be vague and forgettable. “I’m in food service” or “I’m in retail”, followed by quickly switching to asking them what they do. That somehow sticks in people’s heads less than “I work at McDonald’s.”

    If people you already know are asking you why you *still* work at this job, you can shrug your shoulders and say “This is where I was working when the pandemic hit.” (Also, “why are you *still* working at that job” is a weird question, and you can look at people baffled and say “That’s a weird question”)

    Also, I agree with everyone upthread that you have nothing to be ashamed of and don’t need a cover story. I’m providing ideas in the spirit of answering the question being asked.

    1. Avasarala*

      Agree that “retail” or “food service” sounds better because it’s not cultural shorthand for “unambitious loser” the way “flipping burgers” is.

      If you can say some variation of “Actually I like it! It works for me/Who doesn’t like waffle fries/I like helping people find what they’re looking for/I’m really good at folding shirts now” or something positive, it would steer the conversation in a positive direction, not look like you’re ashamed or hiding something, and cue others to follow your lead. The most someone can say to that is “well *I* wouldn’t like that” or something and you can reply “It’s not for everyone. What do you do?” or similar.

      People may be looking to commiserate with you, so if you can indicate that you’re actually OK with the status quo, they may still look down on you but should have the good sense not to say it. (And if they do, well, there’s no magic phrase to stop people being jerks)

      1. Tate Can't Wait*

        I think this really is the best way to go. Most people aren’t fooled by the clever answers and quick subject change – if anything they’ll just go along with it and stop asking questions because they sense you’re not comfortable with giving a straight answer, but that kind of avoidance can lead to other issues down the road.

        Plus, every time you duck the question or create a cover story, you’re reinforcing to yourself that there’s something wrong with your job. Own it, and give a real answer as to why you’re actually working there. If you give an answer you believe in, most people will respect it and move along.

    2. Liane*

      I prefer what Miss Manners has been suggesting for years: Answer the question with what you do when you aren’t at work or when you have a choice. Miss Manners (the First, not sure about the next generation) is very much against crossing the business and social streams.

      1. Cj*

        The letter writer says this happens “events”, where it is all all professional people, so I’m thinking these are professional, not social gatherings. So all I think your way of answering would be appropriate, at work actually go against Miss Manners advice not to cross a social and professional streams

    3. Retail not Retail*

      “Why are you still at this job?” “Why do you ask, do you know of a suitable open job?”

      (I used to want to say that to people when I didn’t drive. If you’re not going to offer to teach because you know it’ll be terrible, then drop it!)

    4. Resting easier now*

      I have a friend who washes dishes, by choice, after a life of running her own business and raising kids. She answers the ‘what do you do’ questions with her current hobbies (reading up on X, trying out all the recipes from Y, learning about flight dynamics, reading back issues of scientific magazine, gardening, learning to knit socks, etc). The hobbies are interesting, and provide fodder for more conversation and very neatly sidestep work. (Not that she’s ashamed of her work, she really isn’t, she just wanted to slow down her life considerably and has accomplished that admirably).

  7. Maxie*

    That exec sounds creepy. I am sorry your boss does not have your back on this. I thought of two things:
    1. Pretend you think Creep is there for a legitimate reason and each time he comes, say, “Exec is out of the office today. Is there something I can help you with?” Do this every single time, but never defend how you spend your time.
    2. I bet Creep is doing this to lots of people. Check around and find out. I don’t know your gender, but if he is doing this with female employees only, you’ve got more leverage. Alison always talk about power in numbers. Each of you can go to your boss and say that Creep is doing this with everyone or with all
    Will you send us an update?

    1. Peeped EA*

      It’s hard to call it based on gender because all the executive assistants, and I do mean ALL, are female, but I do know he does that with all of us, and I know it irritates all of us except his assistant. She’s always been a bit skittish about pushing back on anyone as a matter of course for her personality, so she just rolls with everything.

      Right now, everyone is working from home, but, once we get back in the office, I’d be happy to send an update. Here’s hoping that happens (safely) sooner than later!

      1. Jennifer Thneed*

        There is software that lets you send texts from your computer. I don’t think it works universally, but it does exist.

        This won’t affect the basic jack-assery of that exec, but it will give you fewer instances of “looking like you’re not working”.

  8. Confused*

    Ok, so I’m going to be up-front and say that I’m totally aware this is just me, but I have the hardest time understanding why so many people need the amount of privacy that they do. It seriously blows my mind, because I will tell just about anyone anything they want to know about me. I was diagnosed with an invisible chronic illness last year, and EVERYONE knows it lol. (I’m a teacher, and I always tell my students my age and my first name too- other weird privacy things I don’t understand). I feel like a significant amount of problems on this site would be solved immediately if people would just be honest about what’s going on with them, but it seems like most people in the world have a real issue with that?? I struggle with empathizing with so many LWs here because of it. Can anyone who is one of these intensely private people explain why they feel so strongly about strangers and acquaintances not knowing details about their lives and backgrounds?? Beyond topics that are clearly not appropriate for work (sex, divisive political stances), this has been impossible for me to understand the entire time I’ve been following this blog and I would love to have a little insight!

    1. Eliza*

      The short version is that I can’t trust people to treat me fairly or decently if they know my background. There are a whole lot of people out there who hate me for existing and I’m not always in a position where I can afford to just avoid or ignore people who do that.

    2. Rebecca1*

      I hope this never happens to you, but over the decades, I have experienced a fair amount of discrimination for invisible illnesses. Hiding it is sometimes a good idea in order to avoid discrimination, at work or otherwise.

    3. Avasarala*

      For some people, especially illness, opening up the conversation there seems to indicate it’s OK to give advice or talk about other private topics. “Have you tried putting magnets on your wrist to help with your sprain??” Uh, no I haven’t, and you’re not my doctor…

      Personally I think I’m a fairly private person. It’s the information version of what you wear to the beach; some people like to wear bikinis and that makes them comfortable, and some people prefer to wear a t-shirt and shorts. There’s no right or wrong, unless you force someone to be more or less open than they’re comfortable with. There is a lot of power and comfort in controlling what others know about you.

    4. Kathlynn (canada)*

      It’s called discrimination. I have both invisible and sort of visible illnesses, and am not straight. I have been discriminated against for all 3 things. And I’m also really open about my health issues. All that invites is more judgement and people cursing me out for being less able.

    5. AnonAnon*

      A multitude of reasons.
      I’m not a private person. But –
      I don’t talk about my miscarriage bc it’s too painful for me to even think about.
      I don’t talk about a health condition bc I’m not really even ready to admit it to myself.
      I didn’t talk about my ex who tried to strangle me and left scratches on my neck bc I’m ashamed.
      I don’t talk about my depression/anxiety bc I don’t want judgment from others to hold me back in my career.

    6. Gingerblue*

      If someone is pretty private, it’s often because life has taught them that it’s safer or pleasanter not to share things. Why don’t they talk about their interests? Well, they had a lousy parent who made it clear their interests were boring and stupid. Why not tell people when something is bothering them? Because decades of bad classmates taught them not to tell people how to bother them more. Why not admit when they’re having trouble with a task? Memories of the teacher who publicly ridiculed students who asked for help. Why not talk about their age? Because of the colleagues who wanted to make a big deal of how young and inexperienced/middle-aged and boring/old and out of touch they were. Why not talk about their health? Because it’s been an excuse for discriminating against them. Etc.

      If none if these things have been true for you, you’re very lucky! But different lives make for different people.

      1. allathian*

        Teachers should be paid more. That way, one would hope more decent people would be attracted to the profession. Being ridiculed for asking when you don’t understand is uncalled for. Teachers who do that are neither competent nor professional, but sadly many schools have to settle for what they can get.
        That said, there comes a time when people need to realize that they don’t have to carry all the bad lessons from their childhood into adulthood. But that takes self-awareness, and many people aren’t self-aware enough to reject the bad lessons of their childhood. The successful ones who manage to live well in spite of a bad childhood have worked hard to do it and to break the cycle of abuse.

        1. Avasarala*

          Woof, I think it takes more than just self-awareness, especially when that mistreatment continues in adulthood.

          People are not stupid for realizing that they can avoid potential pain and humiliation by being discreet. In fact this is a sign of clever self-preservation.

          If we want people to trust us with their sensitive secrets, we need to be more open and forgiving, not shame them for not trusting us.

          1. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

            Yeah. Sometimes self-preservation is more of a priority than striving towards being your best self, especially when your environment disincentivises the latter.

        2. Iron Chef Boyardee*

          there comes a time when people need to realize that they don’t have to carry all the bad lessons from their childhood into adulthood. But that takes self-awareness, and many people aren’t self-aware enough to reject the bad lessons of their childhood.

          Easier said than done.

          I’m very self-aware of my strengths, weaknesses, faults, etc. But that hasn’t helped me shed the baggage that I’ve been carrying around all my life. One of the readers here at AAM once posted in a comment that their parents had eroded their self-esteem to such an extent that they were paralyzed. I feel that’s true in my case as well. Even now, I feel that I still need “permission” and “approval” to do things, as if I were a child – and I’m old enough to be a grandfather!

          “Rely on your inner resources,” some might say. But that only goes so far.

        3. Gingerblue*

          You seem to be having some sort of pre-recorded argument only tangentially related to what you’re replying to.

        4. Sylvan*

          You don’t have to disclose things you’d rather not to break the cycle of abuse?

        5. pancakes*

          I agree teachers should be paid more but the point of raising wages is not to buy a better set of personalities. That’s not how people or wages work.

          1. Kiki*

            It’s not exactly how people or wages work, but I do think a lot of people who would be talented and compassionate teachers are dissuaded from entering the field because the compensation is so abysmal. And right now where I live, there’s not a lot of competition to get a teaching role, so I know quite a few people who really didn’t care about teaching who kind of just ended up being teachers because it was a relatively straightforward option. Some of those people certainly grow into the role, evolve, and become great teachers, but based on my own high school experience there are a lot of teachers who, like, majored in English and didn’t know what to do next and ended up being a teacher despite really hating children.

        6. Le Sigh*

          “That said, there comes a time when people need to realize that they don’t have to carry all the bad lessons from their childhood into adulthood.”

          Except some of the bad people from their childhood show up in adulthood in the form of crappy bosses or others in their life. So there are times where that self-preservation instinct remains necessary. It’s not like crappy people teaching crappy lessons only exist in childhood. The world isn’t very nice and as this thread demonstrates, some people experience much harsher lessons in that than others, so they develop the skills and instincts to protect themselves.

    7. PollyQ*

      First off, I don’t think most of the people writing in with issues like this are “intensely” private — I think they’re pretty much in the middle of the privacy bell curve, so “averagely” private. And as other commenters have said, there can be real world consequences to letting everybody know everything about you — discrimination, subtle or not-so-sutble judgment, outright criticism, “helpful advice”, office politics & gossip, etc. etc.

      But ultimately I think very few people, at least in modern America, are going to have your take on what’s reasonable to keep private vs. what’s safe to be public about. So if you don’t get it, you don’t, but there is a tone of judgmentalism coming through in your attitude. Just because people have a different barometer from you doesn’t mean they’re wrong, or that you’re wrong. It just means they’re different.

      1. Rusty Shackelford*

        First off, I don’t think most of the people writing in with issues like this are “intensely” private — I think they’re pretty much in the middle of the privacy bell curve, so “averagely” private.

        I agree. I think the typical stance on privacy feels extreme to you because you are very, very far along one end of the spectrum.

    8. Princess Deviant*

      I have not been treated fairly if I have disclosed information about myself, in fact I’ve been discriminated against and bullied. I need to trust that the person I reveal info to will honour the things I’ve told them as a genuine attempt to get to know them.
      I have real trouble understanding people who disclose everything to others!

    9. TROI*

      I was stalked by a coworker at my first job and it made a lasting impression on me. I was naive, friendly and trusting, then everything I had revealed about myself became ammunition to this person. I’m weirdly private about myself at work now, though I am trying to loosen up a bit (more than 20 years later!).

    10. allathian*

      Oh, there could be any number of reasons why people want to keep some things private. I come from a culture where teachers are addressed by their first name from daycare onward, and my son’s 4th grade class has a class WhatsApp group with the teacher as admin (we live in a reasonably well-to-do area, so all the kids in my son’s class have a basic smartphone), so that means private phone info is shared with parents and kids. Luckily my son’s doing well in school and we have a professional relationship with the teacher, so I wouldn’t even dream of contacting her outside school hours. Given how crazy some parents can be, I can fully understand that in less secure areas, teachers and coaches want to keep their private info private. Coaches have been shot by parents when their kid didn’t make the competitive team, but not in my country, thank goodness.
      For people in office jobs there are all kinds of reasons to keep health issues private, including discrimination and a fear of not being considered for promotion. Even if firing someone for being pregnant is technically illegal, it still happens. Not to mention that in some parts of the world or even the US it’s still perfectly legal to fire someone just for being gay, for example.

    11. Anon for this one*

      Thank you for asking this question! I really enjoy getting a deep understanding of why people do what they do (and am an open book myself, like you), so the answers sparked by your question gave me deeper empathy for why people may not wish to share things.

      (Not directly related to this subthread, but in a similar vein: I also went to a fancy school and have worked in jobs that people might consider prestigious, and frankly, part of me would is inclined to think less of someone who’s working a McJob. That’s an attitude I do a pretty good job of hiding, cuz I’m not a jerk, but it was really helpful for me to get a deeper reminder that people have different strengths, weaknesses, priorities, and life situations, and someone could be working a job very different from mine and still be an amazing person who is living the life that is best for them.

      I’ve gotten a lot out of AAM over the last few years, but this is the first time I’ve come away feeling like a comment thread has made me a better human being!

    12. misspiggy*

      I’m open where I have enough protection and privilege to challenge discrimination or exit safely. So I’ll be mostly upfront in the UK, because I can walk away/afford a lawyer/ditch this job/safely call the police. I want to be visible with my issues, in the hope that it normalises difference and makes the environment better for others who can’t yet be open.

      I’m much more careful on my travels, often damaging myself by not using physical aids until I get to know colleagues better. I would never disclose my sexuality in a lot of places, as that would put my life at risk.

    13. Op 2*

      Because of discrimination mainly. And also because of lack of knowledge of the conditions I have. It’s like you know when you have your period and your man says to you – you’re just mad because you have your period! But you have a legit complaint?

      It’s like that. “You’re just being x because you have y!” said by someone who is not a doctor.

      The other reason is it’s painful and personal. I don’t really want to explain painful parts of my life to a stranger or acquaintance. It hurts. I am happy to tell close friends.

    14. Laure001*

      Hello Confused, thank you for this question, this is the kind of discussion that fascinates me.
      I am not that private a person, but I can be in some circumstances, and this is why:

      – my mother and my first/ex (obviously) husband used everything I said against me. Doubts, fears, weaknesses, were used to ridicule me, to forbid me to do stuff (yep even my husband) or to argue to death if I tried to refuse to do something.

      – now things are great. But I can be prudent with some people who will use any confidence to become a fountain of advice – advice that I don’t really want… Then they will try to guilt me if I don’t follow said advice.

      – being vague and discreet is a lifesaver against pushy people, even good people. I avoid unwanted invitations, clients that I don’t want to work with (I’m an independent so I get to pick and choose) by saying “I have too much work” (which by the way is true). If I said things like “I am out of town till Wednesday but after I want to focus on work on Thursday and Friday” pushy people will cheerfully say, oh then you can come to dinner Friday night! And be offended when I say no.

      In short, reasons to be private :

      – bad people will categorize you : you’re the weak one, you’re the forgetful one, etc.

      – bad people will use the info you gave to try to get power over you: you told me things were slow at work and that you were worried, and now you want to refuse that client I sent you? You are weak /lazy etc.

      – good, normal people will shower you with advice and weirdly unpractical help… And you love them and don’t want to hurt them by rejecting it entirely, so it’s a lot of diplomacy and emotional work for something that could have been avoided altogether.

      – good, normal people will unwittingly use the info you gave them “oh so you’re here on Friday? You can take a break and meet me for lunch then!” with the best intentions.

      Voilà! :) :)

    15. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

      So the age and first name thing with teachers and students is partly a generational and cultural thing rather than being entirely about privacy – the whole “children are not supposed to know anything about adults” thing is less common now than it was 30 years ago, and less common in North America than it is in some other places. But everything else you’re describing is a different can of worms.

      The big difference between the teacher/student examples you’re talking about and some of the privacy concerns that LWs ask about is power. Depending on the ages of your students and their discretion, them knowing certain things about you is pretty unlikely to hurt you, and in some ways might actually benefit you because those kinds of disclosures can build rapport with young people who don’t get a lot of openness from the adults around them.

      A peer or superior knowing a sensitive something about you, though, is a totally different ballgame because they are in a position to potentially discriminate against you or simply find it more difficult to relate to you because of that something. I want to emphasize that that’s not a take that necessarily means that people are distrustful of others; it’s often as much a reflection of the kinds of risks they face from disclosing certain types of information, as well as their inability to mitigate those risks. People who have the ability and resources to challenge or walk away from a bad situation can often afford to be more open about things in general.

      The other reason that comes to mind is that for many people, details about their lives and backgrounds don’t fit all that well with “positivity” culture. Health issues are one type of detail that can fall into this category. There are a lot of environments that aren’t really accepting of people whose lives don’t appear “easy”, and it can be very isolating and socially limiting to have other people define you based on the “difficult” parts of your life.

      1. That Girl from Quinn's House*

        It’s also a class thing. When I worked in affluent neighborhoods, the children addressed their camp counselors and teachers by their first name, as equals. When I worked in poor neighborhoods, the expectation was that the children respect authority figures, and addressed their teachers as Mr. or Ms.

        It extends into adulthood: affluent children will need to be comfortable being on even footing with authority figures, to land top jobs; poor children will need to be comfortable being deferential to authority figures, lest they be arrested for grocery shopping.

    16. SS Express*

      I’m a pretty open person usually, but my reasons for being “intensely private” about health matters are:

      1. Most people don’t enjoy hearing about them. While I’m always happy to listen to someone who needs support, I find people who provide constant cheerful updates on this week’s health problems very tedious and try not to inflict that on others.
      2. I don’t enjoy talking about them. I’ve had some traumatic experiences; there are things I can’t do and will never be able to do; it’s not much fun to think about.
      3. Some people are very unkind and judgemental. They think mental illnesses are made up, invisible illnesses are greatly exaggerated, and visible illnesses are my fault for not eating better/exercising more/whatever.
      4. Some people are very kind but thoughtless. They “helpfully” offer obvious solutions, not realising how upsetting it can be to spend years trying every treatment under the sun for a debilitating condition only to have a well-meaning person act like it’s a minor illness that I could easily treat if I only had the common sense to buy some aspirin.
      5. Discrimination is a real thing. Some people don’t want to hire/promote/work with someone who has a particular health issue. Many are subconsciously biased: they’ll find out someone has a mental illness then start perceiving that person as harder to get along with at work, or they’ll assess the performance of someone who “misses so much work” for medical reasons more harshly than the work of someone who actually takes more time off but isn’t perceived as constantly sick. Others will go the opposite way, singling staff out in an effort to be accommodating or withholding opportunities because “you have a lot on your plate” or “I thought you might not be up to it”.

      I’m honestly surprised you find this hard to empathise with. There have been quite a few letters here from people who’ve been judged or discriminated against due to health issues, as well as from people WANTING to discriminate against someone for a health reason. (This site also has plenty of anecdotal evidence that people are treated differently at work due to other aspects of their personal lives too – religion, relationships, hobbies, finances…)

    17. Xavier Desmond*

      A few people have said they are private about disability/health issues because of fear of discrimination which is absolutely valid. I would add that almost as bad as discrimination or people being dickheads about it, is the fear of being pitied by people you don’t know very well.

    18. Drag0nfly*

      I agree a lot of problems would be solved if people just bothered to say what they want, or what’s bothering them, and so forth. I don’t get the idea that people are supposed to be read your mind and just automatically know. I’m saying this as a person who is private, perhaps even *intensely* private, and I had a happy go-lucky childhood.

      I sympathize with your anthropological bent, so I hope you’ll return the favor and answer the flip side of your question: Do you have *any* sense of discretion?

      One person here said she wouldn’t tell random people about her miscarriage. I respect that, this seems sensible to me. Sensible people don’t tell other people things that are not their business. Especially if the other people are strangers who have yet to show you their character.

      What baffles me are people who *do* insist on telling me their deeply personal problems when I barely know their first name, and I couldn’t even guess their last name. They don’t know me! They don’t even know if I like them! I’m merely friendly, cheerful, and polite, but that doesn’t mean I’m their friend. Let alone their *best* friend. Friends know each other’s names, for heaven’s sake. The oversharers are seriously lucky I’m not vindictive or mean.

      You have trouble empathizing with private people, but *I* have trouble empathizing when oversharers are “betrayed” by a stranger they foolishly confided in, because their plight was so easily avoided. Don’t trust strangers with secrets. Don’t trust friends who are gossipy blabbermouths, because tigers don’t change their stripes for *anyone*.

      In a personal context, I would never dream of trusting oversharers with sensitive or personal information, because those people don’t have sense enough to establish that someone is trustworthy *before* they start blabbing sensitive secrets. In a professional context, if a position required a person to have discretion, as well as exercise good judgment in general, an oversharer is the *last* person I’d place in that role, because they’ve shown me they’re deficient in those traits.

      What you see as people being intensely private, I see as people being discreet and wise. People with visible disabilities are discriminated against, and people who have invisible disabilities are frequently assumed to be liars who are “faking it.” There are people in this world who like to feed people things they’re allergic to, because the poisoners don’t believe allergies are real. Someone with an invisible disability may experience a variant of that behavior. You haven’t experienced that, perhaps, but it’s not unlikely that someone else has. Imagine if you needed an accommodation and it was denied because “you don’t look sick”?

      Also, think of how exhausting it would be to *constantly* try to determine if the person you’re dealing with is neutral, or a “poisoner,” or a cluelessly-destructive-but-well-meaning, or actually helpful. Sometimes it’s better to sidestep the issue entirely.

      1. Kathlynn (canada)*

        As an over sharer of personal information? I don’t generally talk about other people’s information. And if it’s something I don’t talk about, I really don’t like it when other people talk about it. Also, I know the biggest reason I over share is from a bad coping method to receive validation. Because family culture twists everything. And I have high anxiety, which in this instance means I constantly doubt my view. (I do try not to vent or share. And sometimes I’m really good at it, then I stumble and have to start over).

        I’m not saying everyone is like this. I would say “watch what they are saying about other people vs themselvs”, I think it’s more telling what they will say about other people then themselves. Because they have their own permission to tell, they might not have the other person’s. And online, well there’s the base assumption of being anonymous. There are things I will discuss where people I know offline aren’t connected to, that I wouldn’t if they were in that group.

      2. Thankful for AAM*

        This! Dragonfly is exactly right.
        A few years ago I could have written the letter about why all the privacy.

        And I will tell you all, that is exactly because I had no sense of discretion. And because I was not paying attention to what anyone else thought but me. I was me-centered. And no sense of discretion meant no sense that others could not be trusted with any information at all bc I never imagined how info could be used by others for their own agenda.

        I saw the world like a giant soap opera where everyone is unhappy becaue they just missed the love of their life or they opened a door to see an embrace that was not really an embrace and everything would be solved if people just knew the truth. In case you were wondering, the world is not like that!

        I’m not sure any one used the phrase unconscious bias but that is important to recognize.

        And finally, total openness can reflect immaturity (it did for me). It is a holdover from childhood when we are expected to share all with parents and it reflects a lack of nuance. As I and others said, you cannot trust everyone so you need to use discretion, and you need to have respect for the point of view of others who might not want to know the info you are sharing about yourself or others (that last is a shout out to my last boss who told me all the things about all my coworkers).

      3. Rusty Shackelford*

        Also, please accept that a lot of people DO NOT WANT YOUR PERSONAL INFORMATION. Are you sharing because people ask? Or are you bringing it up yourself as a topic of conversation or as a way to bond with people or whatever? If the answer is B, and people aren’t sharing this same type/level of information with you, please consider the possibility that you are sharing more than they want to hear.

        1. Kettricken Farseer*

          Very, very much this. I used to wonder if I had a “Tell me everything about you” sign over my head. It makes me deeply uncomfortable when near-strangers tell me personal information that is too intimate for a conversation with someone I barely know, but those people are out there.

    19. Misty*

      ” I feel like a significant amount of problems on this site would be solved immediately if people would just be honest about what’s going on with them, but it seems like most people in the world have a real issue with that?? ”

      This may have already been said by someone else but I used to be very open about what was going on with me… until I realized that not everyone is trustworthy. Gossip is real. Discrimination against health and mental health problems is real.

      I’ve found it smarter to not trust everyone and not to be honest with my health problems unless they were close friends or someone I already knew was trustworthy.

      Especially in a workplace environment.

    20. Asenath*

      It used to bother me deeply when I knew that others would be gossiping and speculating about my personal and private life behind my back. I’ve gotten better at ignoring it by realizing that the worst gossips eventually moved on to someone else, but when it happened, it felt like my most intensely personal struggles – and me, personally – were put on display for others to pick at like vultures for their own amusement. Dealing with that feeling of exposure distracted me from my own efforts to deal with whatever the issue was. Moreover, I saw the same process from the other side, when I’d be in a group that was talking about other people’s personal issues, and I knew how fast such talk started turning speculation into rumours, rumours into “fact” and “fact” into downright slanderous assumptions about the other person’s character and abilities. Being exposed can make you very vulnerable. Over the years, I’ve learned to handle such situations, and I can both share more when I think it’s appropriate and shut up or ignore the inappropriate expectations of sharing I sometimes encounter. But I remember that expecting someone to discuss personal issues like illness with me is inappropriate and often makes matters worse for the other person.

    21. Half-Caf Latte*

      I think others have done a nice job covering this, but I’ll add that I think it’s totally normal for kids to be curious – hey teach how old are you?, but this is a wonderful opportunity to teach kids that your curiosity about me doesn’t obligate me to answer you, and I think teachers having private boundaries can be good.

      I also have teacher friends who have had parents of students use their age against them – she’s 23! So young! Only 5 years older than my kid! I’m old enough to be her mom she should listen to me and do as I say in her classroom! Etc etc.

      1. Lady Jay*

        At the same time, I’ve disclosed my age to establish ethos. If I tell my college students that I’m in my 30s and have been teaching for 10 years, they’re more likely to trust that I know what I’m doing in the classroom. So it goes both ways.

    22. Sylvan*

      I get you; a lot of problems could be solved by just being honest. On the other hand, I find talking about my own medical stuff pretty boring and uncomfortable. I’m not likely to bring it up unless I have to.

    23. Peeped EA*

      I work with sensitive material that is often classified under my company’s standards. Often, my need for privacy stems from the fact I could lose my job if my work was leaked to those who shouldn’t be aware of the information on my screen or in my text messages. Also, my private life is private because it’s no one’s business at work what I do during the hours I’m not being paid to be there. The risk of discrimination and basis is much too strong in the workforce even still for me to want to be out and open. That risk is too high to my welfare and financial safety.

      1. nonegiven*

        >my need for privacy stems from the fact I could lose my job if my work was leaked to those who shouldn’t be aware of the information on my screen

        Now, there is a reason to cover the window. Is the Peeper cleared to see everything on everyone’s screens. How about anyone else that may happen by?

    24. EmmaC*

      It’s called having boundaries and that not everyone needs or deserves to know everything about you. And the older I get, the less I share with just anyone.

    25. LifeBeforeCorona*

      The year long gap in my resume and life is because I fell into a severe depression that left me hosptialized, bankrupt and homeless. It’s been years and the only person who know the full details is one sibling. If anyone asks they get the vague one sentence explantion. That’s it.

    26. JB (not in Houston)*

      But why should someone have to justify their need for privacy to you? Are you usually incapable of empathy for people who aren’t like you? Can you not just accept that some people aren’t like you and don’t want to share everything with everyone and that that is a perfectly legitimate point of view even if you don’t share it? Lots of people will have feelings about matters that aren’t the same as yours, and they shouldn’t have to justify that difference to you for you to ever feel empathy for them.

      1. juliebulie*

        This is what I wanted to say. Often someone will disagree with an OP’s position because, basically, they have not experienced what OP experienced, or did not feel what OP felt. And they not only disagree with OP, but judge them for it, as if OP’s experience/feelings aren’t valid.

        You don’t have to empathize with OP if you don’t understand, but can’t you please take their word for it?

      2. Le Sigh*

        Yeah, a lot of commenters have articulated a number of very good reasons people might be private. But at the end of the day, no one should have to justify it and they don’t need anyone to agree with their need for privacy — just to respect it and accept that everyone is different. You don’t need a history with discrimination or a tough childhood (though that’s understandable) to prefer more privacy!

        I can wear my heart on my sleeve with my emotions, but there are just some areas of my life I choose to keep to myself because I prefer it that way. I may have reasons for that and I don’t need anyone else to agree that those reasons are valid. It’s just how I feel about things. Are there times where people not sharing things creates problems? Yes of course, and it’s important people develop good communication skills to avoid hurting themselves or those in their lives. But that’s not the same as insisting we all just share everything cause that’ll make it all better.

        Also, going back to the letter writer — feeling spied on would drive me nuts. I hate people reading over my shoulder (or just standing too close to me) and I hate the feeling of being watched and monitored. I like personal space and I like the mental freedom to feel like I’m in my own space. It would interfere with my focus to feel like I’m being treated like a kindergarten student by some nosy executive.

      3. Mobius 1*

        Holy catfish, man, put your fangs away before you talk or people are NOT gonna want to pay attention to you.

        1. Mobius 1*

          I should clarify that I’m not actually accusing anyone of being a catfish. I just say “Holy catfish” as an exclamation a lot IRL, and did not think through how it reads on paper.

        2. Phoenix Wright*

          This is completely rude and uncalled for. JB’s reply is fair, and they are addressing the things Confused said in their original post, such as struggling with empathy and the need of a proper explanation for wanting privacy.

    27. Moocow Cat*

      Because sharing the information (whatever that is) has been used against us. Take mental health for example. I’ve seen people (appropriately) share information about their mental health. A manager then used the information to fire that person. You can bet that the employee was very private about their headspace after that experience.

    28. Kiki*

      There are definitely occasional letters and comments that come through Ask a Manager that do strike me as intensively private (“I don’t like it when people ask how my weekend was! None of their business!”), but this letter is really not one of them.
      Strangers and acquaintances don’t always handle information well and often their reactions become a burden for the person who has revealed information. Like, it would be great if LW felt comfortable talking about their disabilities and everyone they told reacted well, but that’s just not how the world is. People ask invasive and hurtful questions, people read online that apple cider vinegar heals X and think you should try chugging it three times a day so you can become an investment banker like them, many people are biased (knowingly or not) against those with disabilities, and some people may not believe LW really has a disability. People can be so terrible and sometimes it really just isn’t worth sharing and risking having to deal with negative repercussions.
      I would consider myself an open book in most ways, but there are definitely some things I keep more private. I am very private online and don’t have LinkedIn or any sort of real, public online presence with my name associated because I’ve dealt with stalking in my past. I’m was private about some of my health issues because I worked on a male-dominated team and my issues were those that cis-men tend not to encounter or be knowledgeable about. And I liked my team and didn’t think any of them would be jerks about it, but I still just didn’t feel 100% certain I could trust them not to be weird about it in some way.
      There are all sorts of reasons to be private. I agree that it can be frustrating to not know what’s going with someone when you think if you knew it would make things better/relieve tension/make their issues more understandable, but I think that’s part of the reason it’s important to lead with compassion and empathy. It’s not always our place to know exactly what’s going on with our coworkers, so recognizing that we can be proactively compassionate and understanding is important.

    29. Jedi Squirrel*

      I’m a white-passing biracial POC. I’ve been in situations where people have assumed I’m white and treated me one way, but when they found out I was POC, they treated me differently.

      Honestly, I like to test the waters a lot before I let people in on personal stuff. It’s a trust issue.

      If you have never been discriminated against because of who you are, you are very fortunate indeed.

    30. rabbit*

      Depending on the condition, being open may lead to A LOT. OF. QUESTIONS. that you don’t feel like answering every time you talk to someone new. I have a variant on a chronic condition that lots of people know the name of but don’t know anything about other than “holy *@#$, that’s really bad!” Except that my variant is mostly not that bad, unless it transitions to the bad version someday, which would still leave a lot unanswered because there’s a lot that’s unknown about this condition. So the handful of times I’ve mentioned my condition, it ALWAYS leads to the other person mildly freaking out, being confused about the explanation, and asking a bunch of follow-up questions about what I can and can’t do and my likely prognosis. I’ll have that conversation with family and close friends, but not coworkers or acquaintances or the nice lady who’s just trying to make conversation next to me at the volunteer gig. (And if it’s someone you’re going to see regularly, there’s a decent chance they’ll start to check in regularly with meaningful “so… how ARE you these days?” follow-ups, which is a kind impulse but I’d rather not deal with that from a bunch of people. I have that conversation with my parents often enough!)

      1. Library Land*

        This is what I was thinking too, Rabbit. Keeping things private will often negate the demand for instant education, as you’re doing here Confused. You (Confused) don’t understand so you’re expecting everyone else to take time out and explain. While you’re question was not that harmful, persons who start with these questions often go into arguments and whataboutisms to try and invalidate a person or their conditions. Plain and simple: it’s exhausting and degrading to continually have to educate people who refuse to do even a simple google/wikipedia search.

    31. Privacy is My Right*

      Because it’s my choice what I want to disclose. If I want you to know, I will tell you.

      This isn’t being snarky. This is simply being respectful of personal boundaries. I have a family member with a mental illness with a horrible amount of stigma. It’s an exhausting condition that affects every moment of our lives. Quite frankly not discussing it at work is a relief.

      I’ve never bought into the Talk Show mentality of sharing all aspects of life with total or comparative (in the case of coworkers) strangers. If that’s what you want to do, have at it. Don’t include me.

    32. Ariana Grande's Ponytail*

      My first thought is about the two major health issues I’ve had during my current job: I had a period that lasted for an entire month, and I’ve had 2 major bouts of IBS and a few minor flare-ups in between.

      Both of these made me feel physically terrible, but it can also be embarrassing to talk about. I don’t need to discuss my flow, my IUD, or the status of my bum with anyone I work with. What’s funny is that I am perfectly fine, in fact probably TOO fine, discussing this with family or friends.

      Another reason for privacy at work is that I’ve been through some really awful stuff — assault, bullying, discrimination, witness to abuse — and it doesn’t always seem worth it to share personal details with people I don’t know and trust yet. I’ve learned from these experiences that people can and will take information you give to them in a friendly way and use it to take advantage of or harm you. And I just don’t want that in my workplace. I also happen to work in one of those lovely environments where about half the people truly have work at the center of their lives, and the other half of us are expected to have work at the center of our lives. So it can be hard to share about the non-work parts of my life without worrying someone will translate that into being less focused on my job or whatever. At the end of the day, it’s easier for me to be professional and cordial and stick to safe topics than it is to trust people to be decent. I just want to show up, do my job, and go home and live my life.

    33. Anon Anon*

      Discrimination. And it comes in many forms.

      For example, I recently had a baby. Upon finding out I was expecting a baby, my boss and our HR director thought I’d want to take a step back once the baby was born. The intention was actually pretty well meaning, but I don’t want my boss or the HR director deciding the direction of my career simply because I had a baby.

      And keep in mind not all of us are protected by things like FMLA, the ADA, or a union. Especially if we work in small businesses.

    34. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      It’s also important not to conflate “open” with “honest.” A person can be honest and still exercise discretion over what they share, and people who are “open” can say things that are not entirely honest.

      As others have noted, we often can’t predict or control how other people respond to us. There are all sorts of practical and personal reasons to moderate how much information we share about ourselves and to whom. And there are many situations in which brutal honesty is not a kindness.

    35. Anya*

      I am not a very private person either. However after i had to deal with some chronic illness and saw my brother suffering through his much worse i just don’t like to be asked for example are you feeling better? The answer is NO and probably will remain so for some time. Incidentally i do yoga and meditiation but none of that will heal Chron’s for example. I will just have good days and bad days and i m tired of justifying my ( often weird ) food choices.

    36. Sled Dog Mama*

      I wrote out a long reply to this and my device picked right when I hit submit to fall off the network and lost it, so here’s a more succinct version.
      For me it boils down to the fact that I have worked with (and have some family members who) have no boundaries or inappropriate boundaries, and if it would feel uncomfortably intrusive to me.
      I have one coworker who is known to cruise by other staff members homes or places they are thinking of purchasing/moving to just to “check them out and make sure they are ok.” She has done this multiple times (both to multiple people and multiple times to a person). That person gets a seriously restricted amount of info about me, and is definitely not getting my home address, because she has shown she has poor boundaries.
      There are other things that I firmly believe are no one else’s business (or at least not the business of any of my coworkers), this includes things like, (all real examples of things I’ve been asked by a coworker) my reproductive plans and/or the contents of my uterus, the value of my home, the balance of my bank account, what I paid for my dog, what my parents paid for their home, and if I ever cut my hair (it’s waist length).
      Sometimes it’s not so much about being intensely private as the other person having inappropriate boundaries with coworkers.

    37. RussianInTexas*

      Mostly because I don’t want people to judge me.
      But also. I am not that interested in them, so it’s weird to me they are so interested in my stuff. Why? I am not your close friend or family, why do you even care?

    38. Lynn Whitehat*

      As I’ve moved up in the office hierarchy, I’ve gotten to a point where people sometimes look at me to set an example, or see what is expected. I go out of my way not to over-share, even in areas where I don’t really care if people know that thing about me, because I don’t want to create a culture where people feel pressured to over-share.

      Last year, we had a new thing that was ready to be released to customers. It so happens that we wrapped up testing, sales training, etc, right before Easter and Passover. So someone would have to be available at that time in case things didn’t go well. But I didn’t want to make everyone sit around and discuss what their religious and family obligations are or aren’t. Because people *know* they may be judged for all kinds of things. Being too occupied with church stuff, not occupied enough with church stuff, being a minority religion, being estranged from family, whatever. It’s not fair or right, but it happens. So I made sure not to ask people what their plans were or mention mine, I just told them we were delaying a week because I know a lot of people have personal obligations that week.

    39. Kit*

      A LOT of people are saying they fear discrimination and I just wanted to provide another perspective: I am not especially afraid of being discriminated against as I am fairly privileged across many axes, and I think being private is just a part of my personality and/or a cultural norm for me.

      As an example, I am currently 5 months pregnant. I have told my family and my boss and the coworkers whose desks are nearest mine, but I haven’t told anyone else because it feels very awkward to bring it up. It was hard to tell the people I have told because it felt like an inappropriate overshare. I feel this way about all medical information, basically. It doesn’t get in the way of sharing info that needs to be shared, I just hate doing it every time.

      Basically talking about health problems feels about as inappropriate to me as talking about sex. It doesn’t matter that I know other people don’t feel the same way.

      1. LavaLamp*

        Because a lot of people are assholes.
        Sometimes I have to be upfront about my disabilities. That person who had to show her surgical scars is not an outlier especially if you don’t look like you have health problems.

    40. pleaset AKA cheap rolls*

      I find it odd when people say they don’t understand something like that. I mean, I understand your feeling privacy is not important to you, but literally not understanding why other people care about it is strange to me. I understand many things I don’t feel myself. I listen to what those people say and accept what they say as meaningful to them.

      And on this one, I’ll use the analogy of food. Some people don’t like the way garlic tastes. I like it. They me they don’t, and that’s enough. There might be even stronger reasons – perhaps allergies or other issues. But if someone desires privacy, there is not necessarily anything to understand other than that they desire privacy.

  9. Avasarala*

    #4 Oh man I could have written this letter! I totally get that feeling of “why so serious?” all the time. I’ve actually grown to really like my workplace and here is what I recommend to make it work–I think you can!

    – Lean into the parts you really like, and learn to see the positives in your serious office. My office is super quiet, which means it’s easy to focus and I don’t have people jabbering on the phone next to me all the time. Nowadays it is so nice to have focused short meetings (instead of my husband who has 3 hour chatty meetings multiple times a week that I also have to listen to).

    – Recognize that the culture may be there for a reason. If your mission is stopping abuse or something quite sobering, it may feel weird for colleagues to jump from helping a client on an emotional phone call to joking with a colleague. Your coworkers may be doing a lot of focused work and not have time to joke around. Your office might have happened to attract the quiet people from every office and put them in one place.

    – Recognize that you and your coworkers have many facets to them–some serious and some silly. You may become more serious at work, but this is not “becoming someone you’re not”, it’s just stepping into a different persona for a bit. Like wearing a suit, it might be uncomfortable at some point, but you won’t forget how to wear pajamas or jeans.

    And your coworkers are the same! They have silly and kind sides to them as well. How are they when you interact one-on-one, or outside of the normal element? Do you ever have after-hours parties or fluffy meetings? Alcohol helps, but what helps more is the change of scenery and psychological cue that you can “let loose” a bit. How much do you know about them personally, and can you draw that out? You can have strong relationships with your coworkers without joking around all the time.

    – Don’t try to change the culture–you can’t–but change your goals to maybe, make one silly comment per meeting (or something appropriate). Even something barely silly, like “OK!!! (Sorry too much coffee)” and if they crack a smile, or respond otherwise at all warmly, you’ve succeeded. You don’t want a reputation for being the silly one but it might help you feel more like your usual self.

    1. Kiitemso*

      Good tips. My job’s office culture really changed when we got a new CEO and about a year later we switched office spaces. The new office floor had better break spaces/coffee spaces so people would bump into each other more, chat more, joke around more. And the CEO was much more jovial so the office style changed from stuffy and on-our-toes to more relaxed and fun.

      1. OP 4*

        We are moving offices soon and the layout is a lot more collaborative an open – so I’m hopeful that will shift some things!

        1. RussianInTexas*

          See, I moved from an open floorplan to an office where I can close my door and see no one and I love it so much better.
          I don’t want to bump in to coworkers outside of the morning coffee run and occasional lunches, and I am perfectly fine collaborating over slack and never have after-work occasions, never ever.
          So people like different office styles, and that’s fine.

      2. HR Exec Popping In*

        Yes, the leaders in an organization influence culture a huge amount. But cultural change is slow because every single person in the organization owns it/creates it. OP, I would recommend that you think about if you can be happy and satisfied in such a conservative and serious culture as you can not count on it changing anytime soon. I have found as I have changed companies over the years that I am fairly adaptable. I have managed to “fit in” in both very corporate/serious organizations as well as more goofy/fun loving ones but I’ve learned I’m happier when the cultural vibe is a little looser where a good sense of humor is valued.

    2. Rhymetime*

      #4, I can also relate to the culture fit thing. The nonprofit I joined a couple years ago is more serious overall than anywhere else I’ve worked over the years. It was uncomfortable for about the first year. Like you, I questioned whether I was the right fit for the culture even though I loved the work itself.

      Although it took a while, as I eventually got to know more people individually, I figured out who had a more playful side to them. It was a lot of trial and error but it worked out. If I joked with people, I noticed who seemed to be responding nicely just to be polite and who smiled with me. Now I seek those people out and vice versa, and we laugh together.

      I know how difficult it was for me for at first. I get the impression from your letter that you may not have been at your place of work for very long. If that’s the case, I’m hopeful that things may unfold in a similar way for you over time as they did for me.

      1. OP 4*

        Thank you all so much for the comments. And Avasarala, your tips sound exactly right! The work is extremely sobering, but to me, that’s all the more reason to have a laugh every now and then or it can become overwhelming! But you are also right about finding people who have a playful side, and I’ve started to focus on building those work relationships so I have people to joke with/have lunch with. We don’t really have after hour parties or get togethers (well, they’re extremely infrequent), and maybe post-COVID I can take the initiative to coordinate some. Your list of tips from your experience really helps me, and if you have more I’m all ears!

        1. Avasarala*

          Best of luck! I initiated a virtual after hour party when no one else did, but I threw it out there and 3/15 people expressed interest so I figured it was enough. We had 7 people show and it was a good time!

          You really have to recalibrate your expectations so you’re not disappointed by people not expressing active enthusiasm, and you don’t get resentful about having to “do everything yourself”. You’re translating responses and building relationships so it’s more rewarding for you, not giving yourself extra homework!

          Good luck, get what you can from this company professionally so you can land an awesome next job that’s a better culture fit!

      2. OP 4*

        It’s such a large organization that there must be others who have more of a playful side. It’s almost been a year so that makes me feel better than I will adjust! Thank you for commenting!

      3. Jane Plough*

        This is my experience as well, having joined a nonprofit which was extremely formal compared with the places I had worked previously (universities). It took me a similar amount of time struggling against what felt like strictures, and now (2+ years later) I feel very at home here and appreciate the culture as respectful and warm (even if it’s not necessarily as fun or friendly as I’d like). Of course it may be a bad fit for the op, and that’s fine, but I totally agree that they should also try and see the positives and use as an opportunity to learn about the pros and cons of different types of workplace.

        1. OP 4*

          Thank you – and I agree. I would also say that my workplace is really formal, with lots of policies and traditions that it’s hard to break from. It’s not bad enough that I’m considering leaving, so I’m grateful to hear all of these tips and ideas for making the most of it. I’m glad you feel at home now after a couple years and I hope the same will happen for me!

    3. OP 4*

      Oh, I also want to say thank you for affirming that I’m not actually becoming someone I’m not…as a new professional person, I’m trying to embrace that my work is not necessarily all of me and it was important for me to read that.

      1. Diluted Tortoiseshell*

        It’s pretty amazing how different departments at the same org can be. As for the regional differences, I would not use work as an example. Are people warm and friendly when you go shopping? That’s more indicative of the culture.

        1. OP 4*

          To be honest, I moved from an extremely warm and friendly community (TOO much so at times to the point of being unproductive), so my sense of what’s normal may be off. But I do find the culture of my new city to be a lot less friendly and more competitive than where I moved from, and even in social settings I find myself in, people talk about work most of the time (as well as who they know, how important they are, etc). I’m just trying to focus on finding ‘my people’ amidst this strange place, because there are different kinds of people everywhere and I know I shouldn’t generalize based on my initial experiences. Maybe I’m just hanging out with the wrong people and need to branch out more!

          1. Malarkey01*

            I was wondering about this. I LOVED a previous team I worked with and had the best time at the office. Looking back with my experience some of those fun times were really unproductive and sometimes unprofessional. Not saying there isn’t room for fun and casual times in an office, but it did give me a very skewed view on professional office norms. It worked out, I was able to adjust, and although I think you should want to me at work and enjoy your coworkers, I’d hesitate if work starts to be “so fun” and “we all have fun hanging out” (I said the last thing, and was talking about during work and not after hours. If your work day feels like hanging out that might be a sign).

            1. OP 4*

              This is such great insight! That’s why I have a sense that I might be off base…I also don’t want work to be my core social group and source of fun. When I’ve had that before, I wasn’t as productive, we encouraged negative habits in each other, and it was really difficult to create boundaries. But I do feel like I’ve swung to such an opposite situation that maybe I need to reset and adjust expectations.

    4. Abogado Avocado*

      OP4: I’m sorry your office culture is way more serious than you’d like. I don’t know if this helps, but there might be things you can do, short of leaving the job, to leaven your place of work. The key is that you have to take these actions in your own office/cube/space. This will cause people to stop, laugh (ideally), and comment. And it’s via those comments that you’ll know whether they appreciate a lighter atmosphere. For example, I: used an idea from here and posted googly eyes all over my office for several days (and then I took them all down) that caused great laughter — and requests for googly eyes; regularly post non-partisan cartoons (the New Yorker is a good source); and created a “historical marker” to memorialize my ability to learn how to use our ridiculously complicated phone system. This has led to another colleague recently hosting a Zoom meeting with himself on one camera and his dog on another, and yet another colleague creating humorous medals to present to colleagues for overcoming obstacles (“best hair”, “best background staging”, “most creative dress from the waist up”) while working from home.

      All of which is to say: don’t give up yet. I suspect if you start to show your silly side in small ways, others will start letting loose.

      1. OP 4*

        This is such a fun idea! And it will also help me identify potential work friends who might also be feeling like they need some laughter in the office! Some of these seem so bold compared to where I’m at (such as having a dog on the other camera, that’s amazing), but I think I can start doing little things here and there.

    5. Circe*

      I feel you, OP4. I’ve spent four years in a job I really like in a culture I really don’t. But even though I’ve interviewed for other jobs, the job is worth putting up for the culture. I know this is cheesy, but I try to name and focus on what works about my job instead of dwelling on what doesn’t, and acknowledge that no job is perfect and every job has its problems.

      I get through it by focusing on the good things about the job. I ask myself if I could have the same impact somewhere else. I ask if the new managers would be as supportive of my professional growth. I look closely to identify potential culture pitfalls.

      I’d also suggest talking to your manager. It can be really hard to break into a super serious office and they might be able to create opportunities for you and your teammates to connect informally or outside your day-to-day routines.

      Ironically, the thing I hate most about my office culture is that everyone works from home 2-3 days a week, and I HATE working from home. JOKE’S ON ME!

  10. AnonAnon*

    A multitude of reasons.
    I’m not a private person. But –
    I don’t talk about my miscarriage bc it’s too painful for me to even think about.
    I don’t talk about a health condition bc I’m not really even ready to admit it to myself.
    I didn’t talk about my ex who tried to strangle me and left scratches on my neck bc I’m ashamed.
    I don’t talk about my depression/anxiety bc I don’t want judgment from others to hold me back in my career.

    1. Sally*

      I don’t talk about my age or my mental health issues because I also don’t want my career to be negatively affected. I know I’m capable, but people have all sorts of notions and prejudices, even if they’re not aware of them.

    2. Anon Anon*

      I underwent fertility treatments for years. Multiple rounds of IVF. I never told anyone I worked with. Because I emotionally couldn’t cope with the questions that I knew would be asked.

  11. Tiara Wearing Princess*

    OP1: I get that your boss said to ignore it but I also get why you’re annoyed. Alison is right – the guy sound like a huge tool. The problem may be that this poster is worried that he’s telling people ‘she’s always on her phone’

    1. Princess Deviant*

      I don’t think there’s anything in the letter to suggest that the executive is a man and that the LW is a woman!

      1. allathian*

        No, but that’s the more usual setup, because there are so few male admins. I’m pretty sure there are more female executives than male admins, relatively speaking. It would be interesting if the OP posted about the genders involved here, because like it or not, it’s relevant. A woman is more likely to get weird looks and accusations of being on the phone all the time, than a man. I don’t like it, but that’s just the way things are at the moment in many organizations.

      2. Myrin*

        I don’t really think it matters in this instance but regarding Tiara, I’m sure she’s just using Alison’s labels, and regarding Alison, she (and many others on this site) usually refer to OPs as “she” unless stated otherwise and then often uses different pronouns for different people other than the OP to make it easier to distinguish them.

        1. Princess Deviant*

          Right thank you, this makes sense.
          I was wondering because it’s a sexist default to assume the person higher up the chain of command is a man etc etc.

          1. Myrin*

            No problem, you wouldn’t know that unless you’ve been reading for a long time and pretty regularly at that!
            And yeah, that’s why Alison usually has an OP’s boss be female, as she has here, too – the tool-y exec is a “he” most likely so he can be easily differentiated from OP’s-boss-the-exec (although I personally also imagined that person as a man, but I’d assume OP was deliberately neutral), but using only “they” can be quite confusing in answers with multiple different people.

      3. Peeped EA*

        It is a correct assumption, though. I am a woman, and the peeping executive is a man.

        1. Princess Deviant*

          That was lucky for us that we assumed right, or did Alison know?
          And he does indeed sound like a creep, who is very rude.

          1. Peeped EA*

            I think Alison had a lucky guess, but it is true that not enough men are admin/executive assistants and not enough women are executives. We have one male admin assistant in our entire building, which is wild to me.

    2. Lauren*

      I’d talk to the boss again, and say that – you think you aren’t being trusted based on this exec’s reports. Since all execs are essentially your boss, that its getting to the point where you are so paranoid that you want to know if you should be looking for another job. Nothing like freaking out an exec (your boss) into thinking they are losing their lifeline. If the boss balks and says – no no, he is a tool – you are valued. Then you ask your boss to expressly tell him to cut it out because you have no idea if he is spreading these ‘reports’ around the office – which may affect your standing in the office. Also, if boss says – i’ll protect you. Then ask if they are the only one who decides her raises / promotions or does it need further approval? What if boss is hit by a bus? The only other voice in the office is telling people that OP isn’t doing her job. End with – I can’t keep having panic attacks every time, exec walks by. Please talk to him and shut him down – because i’m feeling harassed. (harassed even tho not in the legal sense, definitely will get the boss to act now).

      OP – Do not feel bad about playing your boss this way. This works for some. You may be able to ask outright, but I find that never works. In fact, you already tried that and you were told to ignore it. When you are the damsel in distress though – suddenly bosses get spines to literally do something vs. avoid confrontation.

  12. ElenaA*

    OP 3, Yes, please talk to your boss! I was in this situation as a “Jane” while working in an office years ago as asummer intern. I didn’t realise it at first, but I was basically copying the other intern’s work. I was given additional sources to double check the work and add some details, but I still don’t know, why they wouldn’t just offer that same info for the other person… Maybe it was some twisted way to boost my confidence or put the other person down, I don’t know…

    Anyway, I became so frustrated, when I realised what was going on, that I just couldn’t perform as well as I used to. It made me question everything about the company and really gave a bad taste in my mouth. I was so happy, when summer ended and I got back to school. BUT I also must have left a bad impression there, since I became so bitter and frustrated. I would think that if I just asked my boss about it, it would have been much better and I would have been able to do my job with some peace of mind and also keep the relationships at work much better.

    1. OP3*

      This is a really great perspective to have, thanks! I’ve been wondering how aware our collaborator is and thinking that she must be frustrated to be passing questions to me through my boss.

  13. Kathlynn (canada)*

    LW2. except for the side hustle, I could have written your letter. I’m dead end retail, don’t want to be (and probably couldn’t handle) a manager, with the ridiculous requirements retail management can have (we are talking 12-16 hour days every day). So, I’m going to [delete vent] and wish you luck and hope you do find a path that is good for you.

    Besides, we need people to do those jobs we don’t value enough to pay well. else we wouldn’t be able to buy food, gas, etc.

  14. OP #5*

    Thanks for answering my question! I was so sure you were going to say to leave my major off the resume :-) I’ve never had it on there, so I’m not sure of the formatting. Would it look like this:
    College Name, AB, Political Science
    Would my two minors go on there too? If so, how would they be formatted? And one last question: Is it clear that “AB” – what they call it at my alma mater – is the same as “BA”?

    1. AnonAnon*

      FWIW, this is how I have on my resume:

      XX University, City, VA
      Bachelor of Science, magna cum laude, in Mathematics, June 20xx

      I was going to say that you should list bc you never know when it might catch someone’s eye. Maybe the person looking at the resume had the same major, or whatever. It’s either neutral or helpful, so better to list.

      I personally would not know what am AB is. I wrote out “bachelor of science” (and juris doctorate, etc), so maybe that would work if you have space?

      1. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

        An AB would probably be recognizable to folks who recruit Ivy League* grads, and is also a subtle signal to people in-the-know that you went to one of the handful of prestigious colleges that still award AB rather than BA degrees. However, you’re going to have the name cred of that institution on your resume anyway, so I’d just go with writing out “Bachelor of Arts”, particularly if you’re applying to places outside of the Northeast*. Less confusing all around, and no risk of someone confusing it for some type of associates degree.

        *IIRC it’s mostly an Ivy/Seven Sisters convention, but Google tells me there’s a handful of public universities with AB degrees

        1. OP #5*

          Thanks for your comment – I’m going to follow your advice and write everything out. I certainly don’t want my resume to be confusing or unclear!

          I actually didn’t go to an Ivy League school, and it’s not on the east coast It’s a good school and well-respected, but it’s also pretty small, so I’m not sure if most people would be familiar with it. So that part made me chuckle a little.

          1. PollyQ*

            My concern with an “AB” is that people who are skimming might read it as an “AA”, i.e., a 2-year associate’s degree.

    2. londonedit*

      I have 200X-200Y, University of Teapot City, BA (Hons) Llama Literature, 2:1 (that’s how our degrees are classified here, it means an upper-second class degree).

    3. Ivy*

      I would spell it out as Bachelor of Arts, especially if you’re in a region where it’s much more common to refer to it as a BA instead of an AB. I even work at a university where they issue AB, SB, etc, and get tripped up from time to time – when I started, I was very surprised by all of our alumni who had associates’ degrees! (until I looked it up and realized what I was looking at ;) )

      And regarding having a degree that has nothing to do with your field? I work in higher ed fundraising. From the fundraisers to the programming group, barely anyone has a degree in a related field. Heck, I manage the data entry group, and my degree’s in theater! I’ve hired colleagues with degrees in public health, English, political science, biology, and law. All that to say, experience and adaptability matter much more than direct educational experience. I do use things I learned in theater school at work, mostly around keeping projects organized and moving along, and motivating my team.

    4. Ravenclaw Shorts*

      This is how mine is listed on my resume:
      University, City, LA
      Bachelor of Arts, English: Literature and Language
      Minor: History
      Cum Laude

      FWIW my degree has absolutely nothing to do with my field. I work in oil and gas.

    5. Canadian Yankee*

      Include your minors, especially if you’re not working in the field of your major – it shows that you’re not hyperfocused on one thing and that you were motivated enough to take extra courses. I’d recommend that you use “BA” even if that’s not what’s on your diploma. I also have a “non-standard” degree that I change for my resume – I earned an MPhil, but I write it as MS (or MSc in Canada) because no one knows what an MPhil is (they’ll usually assume that I studied philosophy, but I didn’t – the Phil in MPhil is the same as the Ph in PhD and can be in any field).

      1. pancakes*

        I don’t think it’s good advice for people to change their degrees on their resumes in anticipation of not being understood. I think it’s a terrible idea. If the person reviewing your resume is baffled by an unfamiliar abbreviation they can always look it up or ask the candidate, but if they try to verify your degree and find a discrepancy it’s going to look terrible.

        I don’t think an undergraduate minor shows noteworthy motivation, either, but I say that as someone whose undergrad school does have majors or minors so maybe I’m out of touch on that.

        1. Yorick*

          Showing the major and minor isn’t about motivation, it’s about having some expertise in that topic.

        2. LJay*

          This – I could see saying Master’s Degree in Environmental Science rather than MPhil in Environmental Science, but I would’t change the degree type.

          My undergrad offered the same major in different degree types for some majors, so you could get, say, your BA or BS in a lot of science fields. The you took the same core classes but different requirements for your other classes (the BA version had a lot more general gen-ed requirements and a language requirement I think while the BS version required more science and math courses). Generally the BS was looked at as the more vigorous degree by the departments. So lying about which degree type you got would have been flagged by the school and taken seriously as lying.

        3. Mockingjay*

          It’s better to spell it out for recognition. “Bachelor of Arts” is pretty clear. People reviewing resumes will skip over something they don’t know. They’re not going to google an abbreviation.

          Most institutions will confirm degree inquiries with varying wording. I have a BA in English Language and Literature with a concentration in Natural Science. If an employer calls my alma mater to verify that I have a degree in “English,” my college knows I’m not trying to “change” my degree.

        4. OP #5*

          I’m asking about “AB” because earlier this week during a phone screen, the interviewer assumed I had an Associate’s degree.

          1. Lynn Whitehat*

            Yeah, that would be my first assumption too. The abbreviations I’m most familiar with (AA, AS, BA, BS, MA, MS, even MBA) all put the level first, other than PhD and MD. So I would assume Associates of… Business or something.

            1. Imtheone*

              At schools like Harvard, the degree is A.B. – Artium baccalaureus, according to Wikipedia.

        5. Canadian Yankee*

          My concern with my MPhil is having people never even bother to interview me because they don’t recognize it on my resume as sufficiently technical because they think it’s about philosophy, not science. And in my university’s case, the MS is a subset of the MPhil (there’s exactly the same course requirements for both degrees, but the MPhil also requires the same qualifying exam as a PhD).

          In the OP’s case, unless I’m incorrect the AB and the BA are the same degree – it’s just that AB is in Latin (“Artium Baccalaureus”) while the BA is English. So it’s not really changing the degree at all, it’s just translating it into English (and making it sound less like a Hogwarts spell).

          1. mlk*

            Do you not include your major/focus? If you write:

            MPhil in Biological Sciences, MyUni

            then there shouldn’t be confusion about whether it’s a Philosophy major.

            1. Canadian Yankee*

              I find that doesn’t work. If I write, “MPhil, Physics”, then people ask why I studied “the philosophy of physics.” Maybe this is because physics is one of the most abstruse of the sciences, but if the choice is between (a) “Wow, physics! You must be smart!” or (b) “Why did you study the philosophy of physics – that seems like it has no relevance to anything?” then I definitely want interviewers to be in the (a) category.

              1. mlk*

                Hah! I have a Physics degree but a bog-standard BS. I’ve never used the degree and followed it up with an even more obscure MS degree that even many people in my field don’t understand.

          2. fhqwhgads*

            I think it depends on the perspective. If they wrote “BA” when the institution does not issue BAs, if either the hiring person knew that or contacted the school to confirm it, it might give the wrong impression that the applicant is “lying” or otherwise doesn’t know what degrees the school confers – even though the appplicant could explain they just used to more common term to avoid confusion – it still might be suspicious to some. On the flipside, if they write AB, which is literally true, and the hiring person didn’t know what they meant and didn’t look it up (or just misread it and/or assumed it’s an associates degree), then they might get dinged for the misunderstanding. And there’s no way to know in advance if you’ll end up applying to one of those two types, or someone entirely reasonable who actually discusses it with you if they’re unclear on what it means.

      2. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

        Yeah…I dunno about changing an MPhil to an MSc because they’re two different types of degrees in the UK, so you could run into a potentially weird situation where it looks like you’re misrepresenting a research-based masters as a course-based masters. That could look really bad if your alma mater does in fact award both MS and MPhil degrees in the same discipline. Whether that matters for the jobs you apply for is another matter altogether, but it’s something to be mindful of.

        1. Canadian Yankee*

          If I were applying for a UK job, I would use the MPhil because it’s much better known there. In North America, it’s much rarer and, while my university did indeed offer both MS’s and MPhil’s, the course requirements were the same and you could in principle file the paperwork to get your MS along the way to getting your MPhil or PhD.

    6. Lake*

      OP#1, there are some tech options that allow you to send and receive texts from your computer.

      Whether that’s worth it might depend on whether 1) you just want to stop having this conversation with him and it doesn’t feel like giving in to his expectations 2) you have a business phone # to text from so you’re not giving up your privacy on personal texts 3) you need to access your phone at work anyway even if not texting, and thus it would only reduce his comments, not eliminate them.

    7. Anononon*

      If your major was poli sci, I think it’s even more of a non-issue to leave it on. It’s a very generic major (says another poli sci major) where most people don’t go into that field.

    8. Fabulous*

      Mine takes up a bit more space, but this is how I have it listed (and I’m not working in this field either):

      Bachelor of Arts, Theatre
      Minor, Business
      College Name
      City, State | Graduation year

    9. Frankie*

      My resume has the following:

      Name of College, Location, May 20XX
      Bachelor of Science in Theater with minor in Anthropology (magna cum laude)

      I work in a wholly different field now, so it’s usually a bit of smalltalk in the interview about how I got into the industry. I’ve got a cute little story about it that I can tell in a few sentences, so it’s a good way for me to build rapport!

    10. Deanna Troi*

      My resume says:

      Bachelor of Arts, Puppy Cuddling, Minor in Kitten Massaging, State University of Pet Affection, Year, cum laude

      I would also assume that “AB” means associates degree, so I think it is would be better to write “Artium Baccalaureus.” Also, I have done a lot of hiring over the past 30 years in both private industry and government, and I don’t recall ever seeing a resume where the major wasn’t listed. If it wasn’t on there, I think I would wonder what they were trying to hide. And I think political science is a great major, because it shows that you probably have critical thinking skills, so you should want to highlight that. Good luck in your job search!

      1. Sally*

        Thank you! And thank you for reminding me what AB stands for; I couldn’t remember. :-)

        1. Sally*

          Oops, that should be “OP #5.” Oh well, I don’t mind if you all know that Sally asked this question!

      2. Canadian Yankee*

        Why write “Artium Baccalaureus” instead of the English translation? My husband’s university called his degree a “Степень магистра”, but his English-language CV says “M.Sc.” because he doesn’t expect most people to be able to read Russian.

        1. Deanna Troi*

          I think the difference is that your husband received his degree in another, non-English speaking, country. OP#5’s degree was obtained in the US from an English speaking institution. Even though I would automatically assume that “AB” is an associate’s degree, I recognize “Artium Baccalaureus” as being a bachelor’s degree (partially because baccalaureate is a commonly used word in this country). In my opinion, she could go either way with it, either using the English translation or the original Latin.

    11. Megan*

      You should also include your minors. Depending on how much space you want to allocate to this, it can be one or two lines. Something like this:

      Option 1:
      Full Name of College or University, Your College at the Univ or dept your major was in, City, State
      Type of Degree spelled out (ex. Bachelors of Arts) in Major, minors in ____ and _______

      Ex. University of Minnesota, Carleton School of Management, Minneapolis, MN
      Bachelors of Arts in Business Administration, minors in Marketing and Analytics


      Grove City College, Dan O’Brien School of Business, Grove City, PA (1985)
      Bachelors of Science in Exercise Science, minors in Coaching and Nutrition

      Option 2
      Bachelor’s of Arts in Political Science, University of Wisconsin – Madison, Madison, MN, 1985

      You can use italics or bold or bullets or spacing etc to format it so it is easy to read. Format the date the same as you did for jobs on your resume or leave it off entirely since you graduated a long time ago.

    12. Raia*

      My major is actually my fave part of my resume. Interviewers see my clear data science accomplishments, get to the bottom of my resume and go… Music!?!

      It opens up to conversation to show I’m a dedicated hard worker and I have overcome some things to get to where I am. If you structure your story telling this way, the interviewers are almost always impressed.

  15. mystery bookworm*

    Op #1 – this dude is an ass! I’m sorry that office politics don’t allow you to set firmer boundaries with him.

    But based on the behavior you’re describing, I think there’s a very good chance a privacy screen would make things worse, and you might wind up with him checking on you even more proactively. The screen might inadvertently validate his belief that people are trying to shirk work and he needs to monitor.

    I think Alison is right, best bet is to ignore. But I’m sorry this is happening! I would find it so distracting and belittling.

  16. Pam*

    LW 3, I’m wondering if your boss is using you to do her work- she is supposed to be collaborating with Jane, but is having you di it secretly.

    1. AnonAnon*

      Interesting theory. Or, a little less devious – she is delighting appropriately, but she wants to be the face of the project, wants the exposure to the other contact, whatever. Also possible that she didn’t say why she needed files bc she wasn’t sure at the time bc it evolving.
      Agree with Alison that the best approach is just to ask, and works on the communication here

    2. TooLostForWords*

      From my experience in academia I would guess that my boss forgot that I was also doing that work! Or maybe that the collaborators said that they are going to be doing something different but that the initial steps are the same. Either way, I would check with my boss.

    3. OP3*

      I can affirm that this is not the case! My boss is literally too busy to do this work and to date has not figured out how to open the original files that we are using, so luckily I at least don’t have to worry about that.

    4. Lynn Whitehat*

      I’ve supervised a lot of interns. It can be really hard to find enough work that is straightforward enough for them to do! I wonder if it is as simple as that. Maybe the manager ran out of intern-appropriate work and just assigned the same work twice. Maybe she even knew it would be disappointing, and was hoping the two interns wouldn’t find out about each other.

  17. Princess Deviant*

    Re 1: the executive is incredibly rude to interrupt the LW while they’re on the phone.

    Btw, I can’t find any language in the letter to say that the LW is a woman and the executive is a man! Have I missed this?

    1. Avasarala*

      Alison’s response addresses the exec as male. And many default to LW as “she” but we have no evidence of that.

      Alison’s response also addresses LW’s exec boss as female.

      1. MayLou*

        Which works very well, as there’s no confusion about pronouns: “you” for the OP, “she” for the boss and “he” for the nosy exec. Alison’s use of pronouns is often on point but this was a really good example of how to make writing clear without proper names.

        1. Princess Deviant*

          Yes, but my point was that Alison (who might know something about their pronouns, which is why I asked) and lots of the commentators are making the assumption that the executive is a man and the admin is a woman. Without knowing what they actually are, it’s depressing that the default is sexist.

          1. WOE*

            It is not sexist to assign pronouns. It is not. This is a way to make a narrative clear when talking about multiple unarmed parties. Goodness. Or do you need every single letter to use they for everyone? Or to every single time make all the bosses female and every non exec male? When people don’t specify, Alison mixes it up constantly.

            1. Archaeopteryx*

              +1 and mixing it up when the info isn’t given can also help preserve anonymity.

          2. LQ*

            No, she made the assumption that one exec was a man and one was a woman. There are 2 execs here. Splitting them up and not saying “she” for both execs just makes it more readable. And then I usually assume that if Alison makes an assumption about the OP pronoun it’s with reason.

          3. MCMonkeyBean*

            Alison’s response refers to one admin as a woman, one executive as a woman, and one executive as a man.

  18. cncx*

    another poli sci (technically IR) grad who graduated a couple decades ago- i leave it on. i also work in a completely different field and what i have found is that employers who have commented on it mention it in terms of it being a positive for soft skills like cultural literacy. I do sometimes get asked innocently why i didn’t do a masters. in twenty years i’ve gotten either no comment or positive comment, but never negative. I agree with AAM that leaving it off is more weird.

    1. OP #5*

      Thank you and everyone else who commented on my question! I’ve been reading AAM for several years, and I thought I knew everything by now (ha!). I was planning to send out my resume to my contacts today, so I’m really glad that I got Alison’s answer and everyone’s comments before I sent it out. I’ll be updating it first!

  19. Alison (not that one)*

    #1: Two jobs ago, I was on the Saturday shift in the warehouse of a small company and a higher-level employee whose office was directly over the warehouse demanded to our supervisor that we be fired because, and I’m not making this up, “I see them every Saturday around noon sitting in the park across the street and eating for half an hour!” Obviously my supervisor laughed him off, but he just kept complaining up and up the ladder until he made enough of a stink that my supervisor discontinued the Saturday shift and put us all on weekdays only, then laid most of us off over the next six months, claiming that the weekday shifts were now overstaffed. So, my advice to #1 is never underestimate the vindictiveness of a petty dirtbag with a little power – and to start polishing that resume.

    1. Iron Chef Boyardee*

      a higher-level employee whose office was directly over the warehouse demanded to our supervisor that we be fired because, and I’m not making this up, “I see them every Saturday around noon sitting in the park across the street and eating for half an hour!”


      Personal to the higher-level employee: it’s called a “lunch break.” Or do you think lower-level employees aren’t entitled to them?

      1. Delta Delta*

        I worked for a guy who actually said to me “I don’t know why the staff thinks they should take a lunch break. I never do.” So yeah. There are people who actually think this.

        1. TechWorker*

          This attitude also comes along with having never worked or having forgotten working a job that requires you to be ‘on’ the whole time. I rarely take ‘breaks’ during the day (I do take lunch) but I’m not answering the phone or running machinery. You bet his days without lunch often include some downtime or zoning out in a meeting – and if he’s high level and in demand enough they literally don’t then I’d bet he’s earning a hell of a lot more…

    2. EPLawyer*

      that wasn’t because of the vindictive dirtbag. That was the higher ups who refused to shut him down by pointing out — LUNCH BREAK. It was also on the rest of the company for not finding a better solution. That place had horrible management. I think the layoffs were inevitable even without the guy complaining.

  20. Birch*

    OP3, are you working for my former supervisor? I really hope not, but you need to step back and take a hard look at the situation. Do you trust this boss? Has she said or done other things in the past that have shown to be untrue, or seem unusually defensive or possessive over work? Do you feel like you’re getting your work acknowledged appropriately and with credit to you? Does she change her mind halfway through a project and “forget” about the work you’ve already done? Does she set reasonable deadlines, or does she not seem to understand how much time work takes? Does she expect perfection from you, or levels of expertise that don’t make sense based on your training and experience? Does she seem to trust you and your work, or does she often have people redo work that others have done? Has she ever before walked a thin line at IP, showing people your work without your consent, or using her position to claim ownership of all IP in your team?

    If ANY of these is true, tread lightly. What my former team found worked best was to refuse to play the mind games. Be straightforward, professional, and disinterested, and make sure you outline task responsibilities immediately and revisit them often. Repeat back things she says, “to make sure I understand.” Put everything in writing–best if you can get it in writing in HER words, not yours.

    I know that sounds dramatic, but “I just want to take a look” or “Jane is just going to help out a bit” becoming “we have to redo all of this work because of massive communication and management issues that I refuse to acknowledge or change” was the first red flag in a situation that turned really bad, really fast. As in, students being abused, threats and political campaigns against other professors, IP stolen, credit stolen, vacation time stolen, 5 years on a grant with no publications because work was trashed multiple times, lies, personal insults, abuse of vulnerable community members, and no support from department heads because apparently you’re immune to everything if you (inexplicably) bring in grant money, even if you can’t live up to the terms of the grant.

    I really hope your boss is just not great at communication, and I hope you find success in your position!

    1. Lora*

      Sadly I know multiple PIs like this… one of the reasons I wanted exactly nothing to do with academia after grad school. The big thing for me was really credit stolen and publications scooped, because if I could have just gotten the credit, done the publications and gotten the heck out, I could have put up with the other stuff temporarily – but if you’re not getting credit, why are you there?

      Blessedly, my first job out of grad school actually fired people who didn’t give credit to everyone who participated on a project. They had one lady who had done three publications quietly without crediting her colleagues, and when senior management found out, she was fired and given a bad reference. We may have had 20 friggin co-authors on every publication for Joe’s Journal of Molecular Stuff and obscure poster session, but you got CREDIT for your $0.02 worth!

    2. OP3*

      What a wild ride! I think my situation is a mix between some of the weird specific-to-academia stuff that you have described, and having a conflict-avoidant boss who prefers to micromanage everything and keep team members in the dark. I’m not sure if the second part of that is intentional or not, but most of the time I perceive it to be a complete lack of understanding of teamwork, how to foster a positive team environment, and the basics of managing. It can be really hard to get her to be straight with me in a way that has made me reconsider my fit for the role and academia in general. This and more academia BS have brought me to the realization that I’d prefer to be somewhere a bit more collegial and less cutthroat. The stories I could tell!

      I appreciate this warning and the advice to look a bit deeper, because I think it rings true. I don’t want to say too much about that because I could dox myself, but from what I’ve seen it seems like it wouldn’t be difficult for anyone to be taken advantage of.

      1. PostDoc*

        Also from academia…as soon as I read the title of this letter, I knew it was our lovely little work world.

        Forgive my pessimism, but the other piece of this is to remember that no project is officially yours until it’s in press. Projects can and will be redelegated to someone younger with less experience but fewer competing priorities, or someone who’s been previously trained when learning this thing was part of your training plan. A grad student from a competitor’s lab reaches out and asks for your PI to cosponsor a project, and your PI decides that the networking value of keeping that competitor close outweighs the value of taking away your half-time project.

        Don’t just ask about things to take a look. Talk ownership, talk authorship, talk about the roles in the project as explicitly as you possibly can with your PI. And then trust that none of it is actually binding, but if your PI just suffers from general academic BS (conflict avoidance, no interest in management, wrapped up in their own terror), instead of truly pathological jerkitude, you’ll at least have an idea of where you stand.

      2. Lora*

        I feel like the deal with academia is this: the whole point of it, is to put people with NO management training and NO management aptitude (but loads and loads of technical skills) into management (especially financial management) positions and telling them, sink or swim, and offering them exactly zero support or help, but also completely ignoring their screw-ups and leaving the rest of the world at their mercy with no real recourse if they turn out to be appallingly, horrifically bad at managing. See: all the people who get cited on Retraction Watch, amongst numerous and sundry other scandals.

        Literally, the reward for being an AMAZINGLY GOOD analytical thinker and technical expert is…we’re going to put you in an office to write grant applications and sit in committee meetings. Forever. With no supervision or guidance at all. No more doing what you’re actually good at and had world-class training in how to do. Best of luck!

        Why would ANYONE think this would turn out well?!? I’m shocked it turns out even OK as often as it does, which is not very often at all.

      3. Birch*

        OP, sorry to come back to this so late, but I’m so sorry to hear about that. Your situation sounds a lot like my former one. The bits about micromanaging and keeping people in the dark are really troubling. I ended up in therapy because my PI’s gaslighting made me doubt things that were in front of my own eyes–and it didn’t help that the higher-ups let her sit there and do it in front of them, too.

        Have you tried talking to higher-ups yet? Your department head? Is there an HR advisor (I know HR is not for this, but in my uni there actually was a member of HR devoted to helping staff with these kinds of issues), or a professor you trust that you can talk to? Have you talked to anyone else? I don’t mean that you should go around spreading gossip, but what happened with us was that the team was effectively only 1 student when I arrived, we both suffered in silence for a while before talking to each other, and then I found out that others had had issues before me. By that time the team had exponentially multiplied, the problems had also exponentially grown, and we all felt trapped and paranoid because some people were being targeted more than others. I don’t know what the right thing to do is in that situation.

        I really hope you can protect yourself. The best advice given to me was, if you can find a way to get the work done so it’s not all for nothing, do it. But once there are too many missed deadlines, you have to judge whether the management issues are preventing you from getting the actual work done. I made that call and left, and I wish I would have left sooner. Not everywhere in academia is like that, but many are, and these places can really mess you up. Best of luck for your next place and I hope you can find a job with that collegial atmosphere!

  21. Koala dreams*

    #2 It’s fine to answer “I’m proud of my job.” If you want to add something, you can give a short explanation: “It might not be glamorous or fun, but it’s still a job.”

    Sadly many people in low wage jobs get those kind of questions, as if people never noticed that you can have a low wage job at any age. It’s not specifically people with disabilities. Some people are just oblivious, and ask thoughtless questions.

    1. NightOwl*

      Koala dreams, I like this response. I am currently unemployed (got out of a horrible work situation and then “life” happened, cross-country move, etc.) and I’ve been applying to countless jobs. I’ve had some interviews but one stands out. It was a second interview and the final question, almost flippantly, was “Why the gap?”. I’ve been employed since college, this is the only gap in my resume, and I’ve held pretty high titles. Now I think that hurts me because interviewers can’t understand why I may want to make a change, *gasp* not wan to be a director of llamas again, or may be trying to find something I actually enjoy.

      I’ve never understood why people may be ashamed of honest jobs and I’VE never treated anyone differently (I realize not all people are like me). I’ve been temped to find something in retail or fast food because I love people and don’t want a job where the stress kills me. But yep. I’m nervous about how I’ll be treated by others. I have known people in jobs like the OP has, and they have said they really like their jobs because of the people interaction (or other perk) and I’m so happy for them and to hear that yes, people are proud and find joy in all kinds of things. The only “right” career path doesn’t always have to be advancing into management (or achieving higher degrees, or…).

  22. Disabled ace*

    Hey, OP2. I’ve recently gotten on disability (the can’t work at all and never will kind) and thus don’t work. I’ve got visible and invisible disabilities, but the reason I can’t work is because of the invisible ones.

    When people ask what I do for a living/in daily life/etc (my age bracket is ‘maybe works, maybe goes to college’), I usually answer with ‘Not much at all – my health isn’t great’.

    I have over the years started checking myself when someone assumes, or might assume, I have an intellectual disability – I used to pre-counter that assumption by saying something witty. A disability rights blogger, Dave Hinsburger, was talking about internalized ableism and the ‘disability hierarchy’: the notion that disabled people who can work are better than disabled people who can’t and that people with physical disabilities are better than people with intellectual disabilities. Which is all nonsense, because we’re all people, and we all have worth.
    There is dignity in work, whether you’re a CEO or a grocery bagger.
    There is dignity in living, whether you get out of bed in the morning or whether you smile at the people who bring you breakfast because you can’t get out of bed.
    When someone assumes that you work your McJob because you lack the intelligence to work a ‘better’ job – maybe you do lack that intelligence, maybe you do not, but is that even relevant? If the other person thinks you are worth less if you aren’t intelligent, they are ableist butt-holes and maybe their opinion doesn’t matter. The problem isn’t their wrong assumptions (regarding your intelligence), but their wrong judgement (regarding the value of a person with low intelligence).

    There is value in all work, except for calling old ladies to get their social security number.
    It consistently surprises me that a pharmacist is seen as better than the pharmacy tech, and the tech as better than the pharmacy janitor. All three are necessary for the smooth running of the operation. I’m not talking about pay disparaty here – that’s a result of scarcity, not necessarily of value – but in regards to ‘social capital’ or ‘what job is better’ and ‘who is worth more, who is more valuable, who is more necessary’.

    Google “Why Garbagemen Should Earn More Than Bankers” The article – it’s not behind a paywall – is a delightful comparison of what happened when a city’s garbagemen went on strike for nine days, and when a country’s bankers went on strike for six months.

    1. Anono-me*

      This is a beautiul thoughtful, thought provoking comment. It articulates a bunch of vague thoughts and feelings that I have had but never really put together in a clear and cohesive way (like you just did.)

  23. Green great dragon*

    #4 – I worked in a team like that. It’s tough. I kept on making the cheerful comments (and chatting to friendly customers/colleagues in other teams) and after a few months a couple more people joined who were not so serious, and the three of us – well, we may not exactly have turned the culture more generally but 3 people in a meeting is plenty to change the tone.

    It really was just that group of people (and especially that boss). The next team I moved to – in the same dept of the same org – was completely different, so I wouldn’t draw broader conclusions.

    1. OP 4*

      Thanks for commenting! I collaborate with many different times at my work, and the general vibe is quite serious, but I’ve been able to find a few that are more playful. I work at an office that has a pretty rigid hierarchy (which doesn’t really bother me) and a culture of perfectionism, so I wonder if that plays into it?

  24. So Not The Boss Of Me*

    #2 kudos to you for recognizing that you need to work the job that fits your life– for whatever reason. And kudos for being able to handle working with a disability that usually prevents it. I’m proud of you too! Now go out there and tell ’em you’re doing what works in your life and stare down any attempts at prying. :)

  25. Betty*

    #2: The lighthearted “Just passing the time of day” tone is CRUCIAL here. I would go with: “Oh, I freelanced in X a while ago but I didn’t find it suited me. I got a job at [wherever] just to pay the bills and get out of the house while I looked for my next thing, and found it gives me a lot more time to do [literally anything else that you would rather talk about]. Fixed hours and it can’t follow me home – so I decided to stay and I guess I’m still there!” Saves face because it implies it was only ever temporary but you’ve chosen to stay even though you don’t have to because it brings something positive to your life… And then you can move on to enthuse about the literally anything else!

  26. Lemonwhirl*

    OP2: I think Alison’s answer is great and if there are any follow-up questions that seem judgy or intrusive, you can seem slightly baffled and say something like “That’s kind of a personal question. Why do you ask?” A lot of times, when you push back gently like that, you either get the person to state biases out loud or you make them stop and realise just how nosy they are being. In the first case, they’ve now told you everything you need to know about them. In the second case, you might have very gently helped them learn a lesson about minding their own beeswax.

    I am constantly amazed by the questions that people think are perfectly fine to ask and that with these sorts of people, it’s usually the ask-ee who ends up flustered and embarrassed. Nope….it’s the ask-er who should be embarrassed here and sending that embarrassment pie back on them is righteous work.

    1. Peeped EA*

      I must admit that I was having an off morning a few months’ back, and was a bit vindictive with him, which is what made me start thinking of ways to sidestep the issue completely. A close family member was very sick, and my boss was aware of the situation. I was texting more than usual in the morning before my boss arrived because I was trying to make some much needed arrangements, and the peeping executive stopped to make a comment after passing by my desk a number of times as he was “going for coffee.” After he asked if I was “busy,” I glanced up at him and replied, “Yes, [close family member’s name] is unexpectedly in the hospital, and I’m here trying to make arrangements so that [my boss] is taken care of before I leave to address my personal issues. Do you need something right now, or can you wait until someone who isn’t busy can help you?”

      He left me alone for a month after that. I guess he assumed a month was a good amount of time for my family member to have healed up.

      I did tell my boss about the interaction. She laughed it off and told me that my response was fine, though harsher than it probably should’ve been.

      1. Jennifer Thneed*

        This is a really telling anecdote! (Also, you replied to a comment left for a different poster, fyi.)

    2. nonegiven*

      >“That’s kind of a personal question. Why do you ask?”

      I like, “That’s a pretty invasive question. Why would you ask about that?”

  27. Miri*

    OP3 – is there anything in office culture or other context that would make it difficult to email or call the collaborator and check in with what they think they’re doing? It doesn’t have to come across as confrontational – it’s a situation where your remit and theirs isn’t clear, so it makes sense to clarify. In my office, something like: “Hi Sam, I wanted to check in on this work – I thought I was covering it in full, but it looks like you’re picking parts of it up too. Shall we have a conversation about what we’re both doing so we’re not duplicating work?” would be totally acceptable (and not checking in when something confusing like that happened would be the odd thing!).

    1. OP3*

      Thanks for this idea! I think what’s hard is that this collaborator works for another institution, and so I’m not sure how much they are being assigned work vs doing this as a favor, which in my mind changes the dynamic around a bit. I also haven’t previously been looped into conversations with them about this, so I’m not sure how my boss would take it if I went around her to talk to them. If it was a coworker from my office, I would absolutely have no problem doing this!

  28. XF1013*

    OP1: Can you find your SMS provider’s web interface? That way when you need to text your boss from your desk, you can do it on your computer. I do it all the time with mine. (If you can’t access your account, like it’s a work phone and it’s locked down by IT or something, you could also use a forwarding service like Google Voice and send texts from their web interface.) There’s more to your rude jerk problem than just the texting, but maybe this will help a little.

    1. Peeped EA*

      I wanted to do that because it’s a brilliant idea. Unfortunately, both my phone and work laptop are locked down by IT to a point where I can’t use either service.

  29. Duck Rover*

    OP2: I met someone once who responded to the “what do you do?” question with “I’m a Barista at Big Global Coffee Chain. I work at the coffee shop over on ABC Street. Did you know it’s actually the busiest one in the whole country? So it’s super wild over there most days!”

    So instead of there being an awkward conversation about career goals (which maybe he had but what if he didn’t and I ended up making him feel bad by asking?) we ended up talking about what it’s like to work in such a busy and high-energy environment. So is there some way you can pivot the conversation by sharing something about what you do, what you like about your role, the location where you work, etc?

    To be clear, I think you should be able to say “I work a McJob because it’s the kind of job that works for me” and that should be sufficient. I certainly wouldn’t judge or interrogate you for that. But if you want to head off awkward follow-up questions, offering your own pivot point first could be a good move.

  30. Caroline*

    I moved across the world and took a huge pay cut last year because of an invisible disability. Nobody knows about it apart from my doctor, so people think I’m crazy – and like to tell me – for leaving beautiful Australia for gloomy England. I’m completely happy with my decision and I tell people that. They may disagree with my decision but they can’t disagree with my emotions.

    1. Xavier Desmond*

      As an Englishman, if I ever lived in sunnier climes I would definitely miss the grey gloominess of the UK.

      1. NightOwl*

        Grey gloominess?? Can I move there? I love gloomy weather and usually get some strange looks (especially since I moved to a very sunny state in the US recently – I live for the gloomy days) :)

  31. Roscoe*

    #4. For me, office culture is almost more important than the actual work and is one of the biggest things I look for. Its nice to enjoy what you do, but I’d rather be “meh” about the actual work but enjoy going into the office. Of course none of that matters at the present time. But whenever I go back, that has a lot to do with my job satisfaction. Everyone is different. Even on this site, many people fully believe that work is just to go, do a job, and leave. People have no desire to really have more than an exchange pleasantries relationship with their co-workers. And that is fine. But for me, those type of offices suck. So unless you don’t really have to be in the office much to do your job, if you are already this unhappy, it will likely get worse. I’m not saying “Run now” or anything. But based on what you are saying, this may just not be the best place for you.

    1. OP 4*

      Oof, thanks for being so direct. For me, the mission and work itself is the most important thing, but I also want to balance hard work with a really fun and positive work environment. I’m hoping to find a small circle of coworkers who want to have more of a friendly relationship, that would make all the difference to me!

  32. Amy Sly*

    LW2: My first steady job after graduating law school was selling shoes at the mall closest to my hometown. As such, I ran into more than a few friends from high school who were flabbergasted that I was still working retail. My phrasing was “Meh. I declared ego bankruptcy a long time ago, and this pays my bills.” And frankly, if I hadn’t had law school loans to pay back, I’d probably still be selling shoes because I enjoyed the work so much.

    And to echo others: People will take their cue from how you react to the question. What you say is fundamentally less important than saying it with a breezy, confident, “I’m fine with doing this for the rest of my life” tone.

    1. Jennifer Strange*

      Nah, he’s not an executive anymore. He drained everyone at his old job and started at square one with a new company.

  33. Essess*

    For OP#3, I would have responded to the follow-up emails with a response (including a cc to the boss) that said something like “Thank you for your questions. However, the files you are referring to are currently in progress and are not ready to be disseminated or analyzed yet. I will be happy to forward you my completed files once my in-progress work has been completed and the file is ready for use. ”

    If your boss is truly having someone else work on them, then your boss needs to tell you. It is possible the other person also just “wanted a look” and is now taking it upon themselves to do work that they don’t know is still ongoing.

    1. Deanna Troi*

      This would not fly in my office. The data and files are not your personal property – they belong to your employer, and you don’t get to decide who seems them and when. It is the prerogative of your boss to do whatever they want with them (unless it is illegal, and even then, your boss is ultimately responsible). The territorial response that you have suggested would likely tank your career growth in my office. As Alison advised, OP#3 needs to ask their boss, in a non-accusatory way, what is going on.

  34. StatManager*

    LW #3 – it’s not uncommon, especially in academia where you could be publishing with these data, to have a full validation of code and any work done to raw data files. I lead a stats group where for nearly every number that goes out the door, a two programmers have independently coded the data and estimate, and they agree at a predetermined tolerance (usually 0.001). It is not uncommon to set up a coding team this way, and is actually good practice. What IS uncommon is keeping you so far from your counterpart that you all can’t coordinate on expected timing and resolution of any differences found.

    1. OP3*

      Thanks for this response! I considered this as a possibility, but like you, I thought it would make more sense to have the two people both be aware of what’s going on and coordinating on timing and methods. Part of the issue I’ve run into here is that me and the collaborator are using different methods (both valid, just different), so all of these questions are comparing apples to oranges right now. I really appreciate your perspective on this! Setting up a coding team this way makes sense, especially as a person who is a data department of 1.

      1. StatManager*

        Thanks for the reply! I have a team of perfectionists that second guess themselves and it is so very nice to have the validation process to say when Sansa is unsure about a result, that Arya also got the same thing so Sansa can have more confidence. Definitely a luxury that you don’t get on a data team of one. I’ve been there, and the challenges that come with not even having a code review are rough. I totally understand that not every project can support two coders, but have made an effort to move to larger projects that can.

        That being said, is there something about this project that’s larger / higher profile / etc than your other work? Your boss might be trying to introduce more QC and just fumbling through how to do so (especially if they aren’t a data person). I think your best best is to allow the collaborator to do a code review. You’ll need to spend the time going over their comments, and make sure your code is tidy enough to share. “Hi boss – if sounds like you’d like another set of eyes on this coding, And I totally understand that’s needed sometimes. It’s just a slowing me down to be interrupted mid-task. I’d like to focus on the coding through xx date and would be happy to provide the code to you for a code review after. Can we plan a call to go over any issues with the code or approaches so that I can address them efficiently?”

        I do tend to think the best in people though, and if you’ve seen other evidence that your boss is shady and/or unreasonable then you might have to take a softer approach.

  35. Penguin*

    OP 2, you might consider something a mentor of mine pointed out to me: that leaving such a position on short notice is far less likely to impact your career than doing so from a job in your field of study/choice would be, so it makes a good choice for a job where you want the flexibility to leave immediately for a more relevant position. (Obviously don’t burn a bridge unnecessarily, but sometimes that’s the least of available evils.)

    Also, if there’s something that you could/would want to do as professional development (even if it doesn’t pay) as a replacement talking point for the side hustle, maybe that would help you.

  36. Anono-me*


    This is such a weird Behavior. I can see why it would be incredibly frustrating for you. I don’t know if you ever watched the American TV show called Bewitched but it sounds like this executive is kind of acting like the character ‘Mrs. Kravitz’ a nosy neighbor from across the street.

    Could you in all kinds of sincerity express your concern to your executive that peering executive is damaging his or her own reputation by behaving this way. I can see this odd over the top behaviour becoming an office joke. Even if the peering executive is also a expert llama whisper, being known as the ‘Peering Executive’ rather than the ‘Llama Whisperer Executive’ will not be good professionally. (I mean you could point out that ‘some people’ think his behavior is odd enough that they are comparing him to Mrs. Kravitz, and that’s not a nickname anybody wants, especially in a professional situation.) I know that you’re concern is the impact the behavior has on you and not on what it is doing to the the peering executive. But the goal is to stop the behavior. And sometimes people only stop irritating behavior when it is in their personal best interests.

    1. nonegiven*

      I’d probably be going to HR about creepy guy watching me and encouraging other admins to do the same.

  37. Blanche*

    Q2: Maybe a way of addressing your job in a way that doesn’t sound apologetic could be something like, “I like a job where I can clock in, clock out and spend the rest of my time taking care of myself and working on projects that are important to me.” That is often a genuine benefit of hourly work and it’s focusing on self-care/having enough spoons to take care of yourself without disclosing your disability.

  38. Chronic Overthinker*

    #2; I needed the reminder that every job deserves dignity. After graduation from tech college where I got an associate’s degree I tried looking for jobs related to my field. No such luck as I was a small fish in a big pond. Then I tried jobs that I thought I would love, not necessarily related to my career path. Those didn’t work out. So, I took the closest job offered at a quick service chain that has many locations, but isn’t really considered “fast food.” I wouldn’t say I loved it; but it was a good, steady reliable job that I didn’t bring home, well, other than smells. It was within walking distance so my commute was awesome and I was an extremely reliable employee taking on other shifts and working overtime as needed. The only thing was I was in my 30s and when I would go to gatherings and people would inevitably ask “what do you do?” I would answer honestly and I would get looks of disdain and then the subject was changed. Ugh, that was a rough pill to swallow at the time, but I was satisfied for the time being.

    Now I work for a private firm making much better money and in a role better suited to my degree. Don’t let anyone tell you that what you do doesn’t matter. If you are in the service industry, work manufacturing, have a labor/factory job, it doesn’t matter. People are always going to judge so you just have to know that whatever works for you is the most important thing.

  39. bananab*

    OP3, the only time I’ve been in a situation like this is when I was being replaced. Not saying that’s what’s happening here, but having an unseen “collaborator” effectively duplicating your work isn’t great.

  40. OP3*

    Thanks Alison for your great response! As a micro-update, I did end up responding the next day after my emotions had cooled a bit. I expect to finish my assignment today or Monday, so hopefully I can just put this behind me, although perhaps there is still room to ask questions as you suggested. As you suspect, my boss is conflict avoidant and this is not the first time she has avoided giving me feedback or given my work to someone else without explanation or notice. As some of the commenters so far suspect, she does indeed change her mind partway through projects quite often, and then reassigns the work or changes the project direction completely, nullifying the work I’ve done up until that point. I’m taking all of this as a sign that I am not meant for academia and hopefully will have an update soon about that. I’ll do my best to reply to comments throughout the day!

    1. Submerged Tenths*

      As I have to frequently remind myself: “I am being paid hourly (or salaried, doesn’t really matter) no matter what sort of b.s. I am being asked to do.” In other words, the boss gets to use my time, for which they are paying me, however they choose, even when I see it as a ridiculous use of said time.

    2. Another worker bee*

      OP, this is exactly why I left academia. Boss was constantly pressuring me to do work faster and then would intermittently take parts of the project out of my purview and give to someone else. When that happened it was inevitably more complicated than they thought and I’d get pelted with questions every day and end up doing most of the work anyway. I can say that research and coding skills are highly compensated in the private sector while having a much better work-life balance and generally I do not regret my decision.

      Just a comment, in the private sector, specifically software/data science, we actually do a lot of meta-research – research about R&D and time estimates on tasks, etc. It is very much a given here that things always take twice as long as you thought they would, and no one considers this a failing of the person doing the work. It took me years to un-learn that shame.

      1. Sally*

        Your situation and that of the OP sound like nightmares! I could not deal with academia. I’d get fired or arrested for my reaction to this kind of crap.

  41. Radiant Peach*

    OP5: For some perspective, I graduated in 2016 with a PoliSci degree, worked in secondary education then financial services now higher education. No one has ever questioned what I got my Bachelor’s in! Like, not even once. Although the social sciences/the humanities are definitely more flexible vis-a-vis career path than, say, accounting or nursing.

    1. Jedi Squirrel*

      OMG! Please tell me how you managed to pivot career paths like that! I am trying to do the same and it is super difficult!

  42. Anono-me*

    Op 2

    I am getting the sense that you just want ‘Something’ to tell people who are on the periphery of your life so that they stop pestering you. It doesn’t so much feel like you want to change the world to make it less judgemental about work value.

    If this is the case, please get out a nice thick notebook. On the very first page please write. “Untitled/The Worlds Greatest Novel” and under that write “It was a dark and stormy night. He….” Congratulations you are now a ‘struggling aspiring author’ and can forevermore use that as a social deflection anytime anyone asks you why you’re working your McJob. When people ask you about your writing, you say it’s going well or you’ve hit a tough patch, but you don’t want to talk about it and pivot to a new topic. And and because you’re only able to write around the edges of your pay the bills job, it is going to take you forever (or atleast until the end of your working career )to get your book done. And then it has to be edited, you have to find an agent, then it has to be shopped around to the publishers, …. etc.

    (To be clear I have a great deal of respect for people who are writers and authors. But our society is weird in so many ways, including how it treats people who say that they are writers and authors. And I think that this weirdness can be useful for OP2.)

    And just something to consider, often times McJobs are much harder and more valuable than most people want to acknowledge. And I think one good thing that might come out of all of this C19, is a perception shift on the value of everyone’s work. ( I really don’t like Undercover Boss, but I do think it clearly shows how difficult and demanding a minimum wage / McJob really can be.)

    1. AngelicGamer, the Legally Blind Peep*

      As someone who is disabled and attempting to be a published author, this advice is so true. When I was back in retail and then unemployed with no chance of getting back in the job market, saying “I’m writing a novel to be published someday” helped SO MUCH.

      However, if you don’t want to do that… just say that it’s the right job for you due to your circumstances. The truly pointed people will push and you’re allowed to return the awkward to sender by laying out that you have invisible disabilities. As someone with a visible disability, it took me a very long time to get comfortable in my skin as I was diagnosed as a teenager. It didn’t help that I was bullied and called fake as I went from not disabled to disabled over the summer break of my sophomore to junior year of high school. A big part of what helped was laying out, in detail, how I was legally blind and watch them squirm a bit as they realized they were rude. Let them squirm, I say, and realize that you are doing what is right for you. The hell with all the rest.

    2. Anono-me*

      I hope that I didn’t give the wrong impression. I am all in favor of OP saying “I do job X instead of job Y, because of medical condition Z. And by the way, you’re an ill mannered dumb donkey.” whenever OP wants to. But since it’s nobody’s business and especially since OP is concerned about discrimination, I also support OP’s (an anyone’s) decision to give a less informative answer and move on.

    3. JSPA*

      Or even more generally, “I actually appreciate a job that lets me spend more of my time and most of my mental energy on thinking and hobbies and web-activism, as the urge strikes.”

      Unlike being “a writer” or “writing poetry” or “doing art,” you’re talking about the process and mindset, not about the product, which means nobody’s going to put you on the spot, asking to see what you make. Sometimes, your hobbies will be, “getting healthier” and “sleeping more” and “hoping to feel good enough to go for a walk.”

      As a bonus, this tends to prompt, “what sorts of things do you like to think about / what hobbies are you thinking of trying” type questions, which are great real-friend-maker questions, except from people who are in life to be judgmental or who pick their friends by guesstimate of net worth (in which case–double win, you’ve weeded them out before they got closer, and took a dump right next to your self-esteem).

  43. FuzzyFuzzyCat*

    I would NEVER ask someone *why* they are in a certain job in way that implies disapproval. The types of people that *would* ask this type of question are super rude and do not deserve to get access to your rationales for decisions anyway. Easier said than done, but you don’t need to explain your life to anyone! You’re an awesome person! I think I feel strongly about this because people can be so nosy and judgmental. Don’t change who who are and don’t explain yourself to people who are not in your corner!

    1. MCMonkeyBean*

      Yeah I’m a little baffled at the idea of having to explain why you do your job at all if we’re just talking basic social interactions here. My conversations on the topic usually don’t go further than “what do you do?” “I’m an accountant.” The end. I’ve never told anyone *why* I’m an accountant (other than in a job interview of course) so I’m not sure why you would need to tell anyone *why* you work McJob? Are people really pushing you on it regularly, or do you just feel your own need to justify it? If it’s the latter, I would honestly recommend you just stop trying to justify your job because there is nothing that needs to be justified!

  44. KayDay*

    #4 – I’m in a similar situation. Overall, I like my job itself, but the culture of my workplace is driving me crazy. Like…really driving me crazy. I think my personality has changed, I’m often very stressed out and angry all the time. It’s definitely taking a toll on my mental health, I’m worried it might also be taking a toll on my physical health.

    BUT…I still do like my job and feel like I have room for professional growth. Most importantly, I feel like I am respected by (most) of my colleagues. Those two things are what I hold onto and what keep me going in my current job. Also, I have/had a couple of like minded colleagues, which really helped. Sadly one of them has left for greener pastures. I think if the other leaves there is a good chance I would leave. I’m also keeping my eyes peeled for other options, but I’m not desperate to get out because I am able to focus on the couple of very positive aspects of my job.

    I realize that isn’t super helpful. I wouldn’t stay with a culture you can’t stand just because there are a lot of little things you appreciate, but for me, having a few things that are very important to you and difficult to find (in my case professional respect and room for growth) might make it worth it.

    1. OP 4*

      I totally agree with you! I’m not at all wanting to leave because there is so much more good than bad, and I really respect my coworkers. It’s just being so serious all the time is kind of draining, especially in a high pressure work environment. Someone wrote a few excellent tips above that really helped me, and I hope they help you too! Best of luck out there!

  45. drpuma*

    OP2 I wonder if you can respond with a values-related positive redirect about why you do your job that is true and doesn’t disclose your disability (unless you want to). I’m thinking something along the lines of “I work at McJob, I like it because there’s plenty of time for me to be active in X cause” or “I work at McJob, the location is super close to my extended family so I get to see them a lot.” Now you’ve given the other person something they can ask follow-up questions about, if they want, that you’d be more interested in sharing.

  46. Camellia*

    OP #1: You say the exec slows down and is commenting…what kind of comments? Are they directly asking you what you are doing on your phone? If so, maybe a puzzled, “Why do you ask?” would help jar them out of that habit, because I doubt they would say, “I suspect you of not doing your work.” even if that’s what they are thinking. Or if it is something like, “Must be fun to have time to play on your phone!” you might try a HUGH smile and a chipper “Yes, it is! I allocate 47 hours a day for that!!”, or some such, to clearing indicate that you are joking, of course. Or, as suggested, simply boringly repeat, “I’m texting my exec.” Every. Single. Time. With no smile or other softening gestures or comments.

  47. CupcakeCounter*

    My BIL is in a position than many would consider a step-down and he loves it. He was a highly skilled welder – he got into it for fun during high school and had a talent for precision work so the school worked to get him into a training program and he did very well. Got a job right after graduation as an apprentice and then worked for 10+ years at a local automotive supplier – excellent pay and benefits and job security since his job was to fix what the robots did wrong. It was also incredibly physically demanding and mentally draining and since he was the only welder to work 3rd shift, he had tons more work to do than the other welders. Well he got hurt on the job after working hundreds of hours of overtime including multiple 7-day weeks (I think he’d worked 21 days straight of at least 10 hour shifts when it happened). His employer contested the workers comp because his injury was cause by “inattentiveness” or poor posture or something. He eventually won the case but it took a long time and lots of bills piled up. Once he had fulfilled the requirements of the WC settlement, he quit that job. They had treated him very poorly and he was exhausted both mentally and physically.
    He took some time and then walked into an employment agency and asked for a general assembly role at one of the local manufacturing plants. It was about a 50% pay cut and technically “unskilled labor” but they have treated him really well. Please ask all the time why he didn’t go back into welding – he was so good and it is such a better job. His response is always that he can have a life now – when he was welding he did nothing but work and sleep. Now he can spend time with his wife, cook, do some projects, spend time with his family, etc… He is proud of the decision he made – he put his health and life ahead of money.

    1. NightOwl*

      I like your BIL and am happy he found work and a work/life balance he enjoys. Unfortunately, his story of his previous employer is all too common and it’s sad.

  48. Retail not Retail*

    Oh OP2 – I’m in your position at 31 and a sporadic work history currently working not a McJob but a low paying manual labor one. Most people in the area do not know it’s low paying, if they care to think about the back of house crew at all.

    I’m lucky – it’s full time and while the insurance premium could always be lower, it is still a real plan. I also work some place really cool! Even when I worked retail, I’d answer a follow up work question with some wild customer story or that time a bird got in.

    When I did retail, I always looked at the most negative person and said nope! That is not the attitude I will take. I will be happy I can hike and I read a great book and look at my dog! Now I don’t hike (flatlands), but the books and a different pooch are still a part of my life. Again, I work somewhere really cool, and I told myself if I ever ignored something we’re known for, I’d truly pack it in and throw myself into a job hunt.

    People who know my back story and my mom’s are like that’s cool you can work there and help her out! I have severe mood swings, depression, anxiety, whatever. She has epilepsy.

    I want to virtually put my hands on your shoulders and look you in the eyes and say we got this. You got this. We can kick ass and take names. And we have TWO NEW (redacted) hoofstock they’re so cute!

  49. Ann O'Nemity*

    #1 Peeping Exec

    I would be so tempted to say something to the creeper. Like an exaggerated startle when he interrupts my work, saying, “Oh, Exec, you startled me! I didn’t realize you were watching me work. Do you need something?” Then the next time, “Exec, you’re watching me work again. Is something wrong?” Then the next time, “Exec, I’m sensing a pattern where you frequently watch me while I work. What’s going on?” See what he says. Maybe he’ll realize he’s being creepy and knock it the hell out.

    Of course, there’s some risk with this approach, given the power imbalance and the advice from the OP’s boss to ignore it. Maybe it’s not worth it, and this is just a part of the job you have to put up with.

  50. CyndiLou Who*

    #1 – I once had a job where there were windows into the hallway that was next to my desk. I had a perfect view of the men’s room door, and would often see the man from an office down the hall exiting the men’s room adjusting his pants, belt, etc. Long story short, my boss let me put up privacy film. (The man down the hall actually popped in and commented on the new privacy film. I played it off as the opposite – me being uncomfortable being looked in at.)

  51. WMM*

    I hope LW4 can understand that the dichotomy is not that either the workplace is wrong or she is wrong: “Should work be strictly serious? Am I the one off-base?” Lots of different people actually LIKE lots of different things that you find dull/boring/scary. When your wants/needs conflict with something around you, consider that your fit together can be the problem, and neither you nor the thing you don’t fit with are wrong. This doesn’t matter if it is a workplace, friend who pushes your boundaries, romantic relationship, or anything else in the world.

    1. OP 4*

      Thanks for this thoughtful comment. Because I’m so early in my career, I only have a few experiences to compare and I’m not always sure what’s generally normal and appropriate and what’s unique to a specific workplace. I wouldn’t want to leave a workplace to find out that a high standard of seriousness and professionalism is necessary to be productive. And knowing that no job is going to be perfect and check every box, is it okay if things are mostly awesome but a few things aren’t quite right? Maybe?

      1. WMM*

        Alison has discussed multiple times that only you can decide the tradeoffs that you make. I wanted to point out that it looked like you were thinking either “I are wrong” or “they are situation wrong”. Neither of you have to be wrong to be a poor fit, so what can you live with? Even the best jobs have downsides, and we would all do things to feed our families that we wouldn’t choose to do otherwise.

        Just for perspective, a friend had a new job this winter that started off feeling ‘serious’ and within two months she learned enough to realize that the manager was a micromanager who wouldn’t tolerate any level of small talk or ‘thinking’ time. When she left at 3 months, she still didn’t even know if any of her coworkers had kids or hobbies. So, sometimes workplaces ARE toxic. But that’s one of many possibilities.

  52. mf*

    OP 1, I have a few random suggestions, some of which may not work for you…

    1. Can you get a large office plant to cover the window where the Exec is looking in? If anyone asks, you can say that read some research that office plants are very good for your health and wellness (pretty sure I’ve seen this research somewhere).

    2. Can you tell your boss you feel like you’ve been put in an impossible situation that’s affecting your professional reputation? Boss wants you to text him/her, but Peeping Exec is being weird and judge-y about it and may even be telling others that you’re not working hard. That’s not a fair situation for you, and maybe hearing it posed that way would make your boss more open to other forms of communication.

    3. When Peeping Exec stops by, make sure you mention that you’re texting your boss. “Are you looking for Boss? I’m actually texting her now since she’s not in, but she’ll be back after 3 PM.”

    4. Do you have a headset for conference calls? If you keep it on, people tend to assume that you’re on a call. It makes you look busy even if you’re not.

  53. NotAPirate*

    For LW1 I had great luck with putting a messaging app onto my computer so that I could reply to texts from my desktop. It’s a lifesaver for copying links from emails or maps into a chat. Just make sure you get the settings tweaked so that you don’t accidentally get the friend chat complaining about your boss popping up onto the work computer!

    To be clear though, you shouldn’t have to change how you do your job to please creepy exec. Especially since your boss doesn’t care how you do it.

    1. WorkingGirl*

      I know this is a thing for iPhones/Macs, but is there an option for non-Mac users?

  54. Twiggler*

    About the “dead end job”:
    I’m in my late twenties and work in retail. It’s not a career path many people respect, but I really don’t care. The times I’ve gotten flack for it, I just tell people the truth: I love it. I love my collegues, I have great hours (33/w), get more than enough to support myself (I’m european), I get to talk to people all day (extrovert), I never bring my work home with me. I’m happy all day (99 of 100 customers are super nice). I know this isn’t the case for a lot of people in the service industry, but not all of us are unhappy with our employment.

    Are there other reasons why I work there? Sure, but honestly they are nobody’s buisness.

    I guess I just hope that no matter what other people think, I hope you are happy where you are. That you find pride in the work you do. Career, money, status might bring joy, but it’s not a guarantee. Money does not equal happiness. Find joy in the work you do, we all bring something to the table.

  55. Cleopatra, Queen of Denial*

    OP1: Do you work in the office from the movie 9 to 5? :D I totally get what you mean about water torture. It has to wreck your thought process!

    Also, I can see why your boss would rather you just dealt with it instead of addressing it with the offender since I’m not sure how you could approach it with the other exec without making it awkward. That doesn’t mean you can’t make it a tiny bit awkward for him yourself.

    Personally, I would feign exaggerated surprise next time the guy does it, and say, “Oh goodness, you surprised me! I’m actually texting with Boss right now, perfect timing — what can I tell him for you?”

    If he doesn’t have anything to say, act confused, and say, “Oh, what can I help you with then?”

    Lightly: “Well, if you see me texting, I promise I’m doing it for business! Is there anything else I can help you with?”

  56. Eve Polastri*

    On the data sharing to another institution….that is generally not legal to do without a data sharing agreement.

  57. No Name*

    Attitude is all Op2. I would go with “meh, there are worse jobs. It pays the bills, the hours are flexible and it gives me plenty of down time to read”(or other preferred hobby in your off hours). If people push, just jokingly ask “what is this? 20 questions?” You are not embarrassed or justifying your employment. It’s just a job and it is convenient for you.

  58. KJB*

    #4, I had the same situation. I’d lived in a dozen regions/cities, and then for my SO’s work we moved to a new, fairly famous US city, and everyone was super uptight and took things extremely seriously. At first, my SO thought I was overthinking things, or being negative because I didn’t like that we’d moved, but they’ve now had to admit that there is a difference in the “vibe” of the whole town. We are moving back to our home state, and I’m delighted, but in the five years we’ve been here, it *has* damaged my mental and emotional health.

    Here are the two things I’d suggest you look at. Do other people from your home region also comment on the difference in this location? And/or, is this a well-known phenomenon that people joke and/or write about? If so, get out.

    In my case, I found that I’d stopped making eye contact. In my home region, everyone would make eye contact and smile, and here, they just dead-eye you, and it felt like someone punching me in the stomach every time my smile was ignored/not returned. I also lost some of my ability to carry on a conversation, because here they aren’t interested in hearing any of your “stories.” Since I work in a customer-facing field, with clients from all over, this started to materially damage my ability to provide good customer service.

    If you really feel that you need to stick it out because of how much you like your job, I’d recommend finding other people from your region and arranging a hefty amount of coffee and lunch meetups with them, where you can all joke and laugh and relax.

    1. OP 4*

      Um, did you move to and from the same places? Because I feel like we are having the exact same experience. The eye contact, friendliness, warmth is absolutely missing and I do feel out of place! We are now planning on moving back to our home region in a couple years, but will try and find some others in this area who match our vibe in the meantime!

  59. Sharon*

    I graduated in 1995. I leave my BS degree field off my resume. I work in finance but my undergrad degree is in criminal justice / sociology. After working dead end jobs for 2 years, I got an MBA. 10 years after the MBA, several jobs in finance later, I was looking for a new job and an interviewer really had a problem with my undergrad degree. We spent most of the interview with me highlighting ALL of the relevant finance related experience I had, my MBA, etc, etc, but she just couldn’t get past that BS degree in an unrelated field. Ultimately, the job probably wouldn’t have been a good fit, but it just doesn’t seem worth it to have to navigate around that.

  60. Malty*

    OP2 just jumping in to say I see you – in a very similar situation myself and the majority of scorn I receive actually comes from my coworkers who are young teens and see the job as something they’ll move on from. I used to get tied up in explaining but the longer I’ve been there the more I realise it’s really not about me, and I don’t have to justify myself to anyone. I hope that helps in some way. So many people will just never get our lives, you don’t owe it to them to explain if you don’t want to.

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