my friend’s work problems are stressing me out, I got accused of trash-talking a former job, and more

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

1. My friend’s work problems are making me anxious

I have a friend who can’t seem to hold down a job for very long before becoming very frustrated with it. Every workplace has an issue: coworkers who are catty, management that isn’t supportive, information that isn’t clear, and demands that are unrealistic.

From my vantage point, they are similar and benign issues that most workplaces have and there are ways around them. But whenever I try to share thoughts like that, she gets mad at me for not being supportive. So I have been trying to just listen and let her vent.

However, now I notice that I am getting very anxious. I fear she is jeopardizing her jobs with her behavior but she doesn’t see it. She needs the job so it’s not like she is trying to sabotage them. She genuinely seems confused about why they aren’t going well and doesn’t see her own role in the difficulties.

How do I best help her here? Is it better to just be the friend who listens or should I try to help her understand the work world a little better?

It sounds like you’ve tried to help her understand what’s going on and she’s gotten angry at you. But that doesn’t mean you need to let her vent to you endlessly either; at some point it’s reasonable to say, “I support you and I know you’re struggling with this stuff, but when I’ve tried to share my thoughts on it, you’ve gotten angry. I’m at the limits of how I can help, so can we talk about stuff other than work instead?” Friendship does not require you to endlessly listen at the expense of your own peace of mind; you are allowed to set limits.

If she’s a very good friend, you could try saying, “I see this really differently than you do, and I think you’re causing problems for yourself that you don’t see. It’s making me worried for you. Would you like me to share my perspective?” But if you try it and she’s unmoved, then you’re back to the above.

Alternately, every time she complains about work, you can try saying, “So what do you think you’ll do about it?” … but if that gets you labeled as “unsupportive” as well, then you’re back to the above too.

2. My manager’s phrasing is driving me nuts

I think I may be overly sensitive on this one, but I need some perspective. My manager has recently starting messaging me saying, “Can we do X?” as a way to assign me tasks. It absolutely drives me crazy. I prefer direct communication, and would much rather she ask, “Can you do X?”

Using “we” makes me feel like she doesn’t respect my contributions and that anything I do is just something “we” have done together. Plus, I worry that the lack of clarity will cause issues down the road — I imagine a situation where she thinks she assigned me something and I think that she is working on it. I’ve started replying with “yes, I can do that” to try to get her to recognize what she is doing without raising it directly. I feel like I’m being too nit-picky with her language, but this is something that really bothers me. Is there something I can do to get her to stop?

I’d recommend trying to let it go since asking her to stop likely will come off as nit-picky and overly controlling. The part of this that you have the most control over is your reaction to it. Can you focus on trying to change that instead?

That said … are you seeing any other evidence that your boss doesn’t respect your contributions and/or takes credit for your work? If so, those are substantive issues and worth addressing (totally aside from the language issue). If you’re not seeing any signs of that and it’s really just her use of “we” that annoys you, that’s all the more reason to try to get past it. We all have annoying verbal tics.

(For the record: Managers shouldn’t do this! If she were writing to me, I’d tell her to stop doing it and to be clearer when she’s assigning work, and ask if she’s using “we” out of a discomfort with authority. But she’s not the one writing for advice.)

3. I got accused of trashing my former company

I left a niche industry over eight years ago. Very dysfunctional, small company, family-run business. I was there more than 10 years. The last several years, it was obvious my boss barely tolerated me. When I finally found a chance to move on and gave my two weeks, my boss barely spoke to me.

Years of gaslighting, inappropriate comments, intrusive questions about personal matters … on and on it went. So I left with minimal contact with ex-coworkers. There was one person I did like working with and I stayed in touch with for a while, meeting up for the occasional coffee.

This past weekend, my husband and I were in a retail establishment, and low and behold next to me waiting to be served was the owner’s son from that job. After a few pleasantries, he went off — demanding to know why I trashed his dad and the company when I left. Totally taken aback, I said, “What are you talking about?” He went off calling me a liar and said, “Oh, so everyone made that up?” I have no idea what I allegedly said, nor did he provide specifics. I’m totally baffled. Furthermore, I would hope that I would have been more professional than that because I know it’s professional suicide to trash ex-employers. I have been racking my brain and honestly nothing is coming to me that could have been construed as badmouthing. And the fact that they waited this long to call me out?

Any advice? I know for a fact It won’t do me any good to try to talk to him about it further.

Leave it alone. it doesn’t sound like there’s anything to be gained from trying to engage. Who knows what he’s talking about — maybe someone there misrepresented your actions after you left (it sounds like the sort of place where that could happen), maybe he misconstrued something he heard, maybe he completely mistook who you are and thought you’re someone else entirely. Regardless, this is someone who thinks it’s okay to confront someone in public eight years after they left a job. He’s not someone whose judgment you should put a lot of stock in.

You’re not in touch with that company anymore or even in the same industry. You don’t need to put energy into sorting out what the owner’s son thinks.

4. My employee is applying for an internal job but doesn’t know I’m on the hiring committee

One of my direct reports, Jane, has applied for an internal open position. This position is in my department but does not report to me.

The trouble is that I am on the hiring committee and I don’t believe Jane knows this. She hasn’t said anything to me about applying. She had a phone interview last week with the committee head (other members were not involved, which is standard) and it wasn’t discussed there either. When I learned Jane had applied, I offered to recuse myself from the search, but the committee head didn’t feel it was necessary.

How should I approach this with Jane, if at all? Mostly I want to spare her the experience of coming for an in-person interview and seeing her boss on the other side of the table.

She might have not mentioned to you because she didn’t think she needed to, but she could also be worried that you’d respond badly to hearing that she’s looking to move on. (Of course, she may or may not be actively looking to move on; it’s possible she’s just interested in this particular job.) So the key thing is to make it clear that you’re not upset that she applied for another job.

I’d say it this way: “I wanted to give you a heads-up that I’m on the hiring committee for the X position so I’ll be in the interviews next week. I didn’t want you to be blindsided by that! I’m excited to talk more about the role with you.” If you think she’s a good candidate, add something supportive — “I think it could be a great next step for you” or “I could see you being really good at this” or “I’d hate to lose you, but I’d be glad the company is keeping you” or whatever makes sense for the context.

If she doesn’t get the job and you’d ideally like to keep her, talk with her about whether there are ways she’d like her current job to evolve. Are there areas where she wants to develop/projects she wants to take on/etc. and are those things you can realistically offer?

{ 336 comments… read them below }

  1. AcademiaNut*

    I firmly believe that when someone says they don’t want advice, just to vent, it’s perfectly reasonable to say “No thank you!” and decline to be their venting sponge. Because extensive listening to someone complaining, while only being allowed to offer soothing noises and agreement, is hard work, and tends to make you feel crappy at the end. When the person complaining has unrealistic ideas about how the world works, or steadfastly refuses to actually *do* anything other than complain, it’s also intensely frustrating.

    In group environments, I tend to deal with this by deflecting. Coworker/acquaintance/casual friend/relative starts whinging on about how hard done by they are and how stupid everyone else is, and I just don’t pick up the conversational rope – don’t offer sympathy or opinions, make a noncommittal noise, and either excuse myself from the conversation or change the topic. They learn that complaining to me doesn’t get them anything, and they look for a more sympathetic audience. For a close friend it’s harder, but honestly, my solution is not to be close friends with people who use complaints as a primary form of communication.

    1. Green Goose*

      Feel this so much. One of my siblings sounds exactly like OP1’s friend and it is so draining being the eternally supportive sponge. I might try the “no thank you!” Or something along the lines of “I don’t have the energy for a vent session so let’s talk another time.”

      1. Expiring Cat Memes*

        100%. It’s e-x-h-a-u-s-t-i-n-g. Especially right now when so many of us are already struggling with the state of everything. I don’t have the mental or emotional capacity to be someone’s waiting porcelain bowl anytime they feel like dumping their crap on me, let alone one with the inbuilt butt warmer some seem to expect. Fine if it’s a once off, but repeat offenders now get a blunt “Nope, can’t do it, I’m already saturated with negative stuff. Next topic please.”

      2. SMH*

        My husband’s daughter is the same way- a job is never right and it’s always someone else causing the issue but she quits jobs all the time. Twenty plus years later she’s never lasted at a job more than 2 years the few jobs she held for 2 years were few and far between. Her personal relationships are the same way and if my husband doesn’t walk on eggshells being careful with what he says she goes off and screams at him about how old she is and everything she’s done and he has no right to judge her. DH isn’t even trying to offer advice just asking about her life and what she’s up to but depending on her mood it’s impossible to talk about anything even the weather without her becoming angry. We’ve literally given up on the situation changing and now we’re watching her kids follow her path into dead end jobs and blaming others. If she were a friend we would have cut off years ago.

        1. EPLawyer*

          Why haven’t you cut her off? She seems to think she is old enough to do what she wants with no input from parental units, so give her what she wants. You are allowed to say “unless you can be civil we won’t be talking to you further” even if its family.

          1. KateM*

            If she has been working for 20 years, she’s no spring chicken whom you need to warm under your wing, either.

          1. Sibyl Rose*

            Not if you’re the stepparent. And I have to question stepparent’s contempt and judgment of someone he/she obviously doesn’t like. Cool it and shut it. That’s your husband’s daughter.

            1. anonymous73*

              Toxic people are toxic people and YES IT IS OKAY to cut them out of your life, regardless of the relationship.

      3. BethRA*

        Yeah, I’ve definitely had to work on getting comfortable with “are you looking for advice, or do you just need to vent?” and “I know you need/want to vent, but I just don’t have the bandwidth for that now.”

      4. Denver Gutierrez*

        LW’s friend sounds so much like my mother. Negative complainer who never tries to improve her situation, expects everyone else to listen and fix things for her (then gets mad when they don’t).

        My mom has never liked a single job she has ever had. Always a reason why the place and people were terrible. Sure, there are definitely toxic jobs out there and most of us end up working in more than one during our professional lives. But the older I got, the more convinced I was that *she* was the problem. She is not an easy person to be around.

        My favorite was when she complained about a coworker, “Janet”, at a job she held when I was a teenager. The issue with Janet? Janet was a negative complainer! Gee, Mom, does that not seem a bit familiar to you?

    2. allathian*

      Yeah, I agree. I’m willing to give good friends the option to vent to me about an issue once, to get it off their chest, and I really appreciate those friends of mine who let me do the same. I can deal with one venting session, especially if it’s a friend who’ll do the same for me. But I no longer have the spoons to listen to anyone venting about the same thing repeatedly and refuse to do anything about it. I’ve dumped “friends” like this in the past, or at least by being unwilling to listen to them vent, I’ve demoted them from close friends/confidantes to casual acquaintances.

      In my 20s, especially in college, I used to hang out with a crowd of people who liked to vent to each other. Thankfully most of those were willing to reciprocate, so that was OK, I guess, but there were a few I stopped being friends with because they were never willing to listen to me vent. But when I started working, I quickly realized that work isn’t college and people don’t like to work with those who complain a lot, so I stopped, and soon realized that life was much nicer without constantly venting. It also helped a lot when I learned to set boundaries and stopped listening to others constantly complaining. The constant negativity was getting me down in a way that I didn’t even realize until I stopped doing it. Don’t get me wrong, I still like to indulge in a venting session occasionally with a good friend when I, or they, need it, but this happens so rarely now that I can’t remember when the last occasion was.

      1. Despachito*

        I am willing to give good friends and family even more options, provided:

        – they vent while actively trying to find the solution;
        – they vent in a situation in which they are powerless but somehow have to endure it (such as dealing with teenage offspring)
        – it is not too often.

        None of these are in a situation where I’d feel the person is a “designated victim” and/or but has most of their problems inflicted upon themselves, but are not willing to admit that the problem might lie at least partly with them. I find this draining and infuriating, and I actually have ended a friendship over that. I have also learned that constant negativity poisons the way of thinking and the relationships, and decided I do not need that.

        To be honest, in OP’s case, I do not think the friend is worth being anxious about. Instead of being grateful to have a sounding board, she gets mad at OP (!) for offering her a different, and very likely much more helpful, perspective.

        If she was my friend, I’d seriously reconsider the friendship (does a person who gets mad at me for being honest really deserve my time and support, or generally me as a friend?), and if the result was it is still worth it, I’d convince myself that the friend is an adult fully responsible of her actions, and if she acts stupid and gets her desserts for it, so be it. I have tried to offer her another perspective, she did not want to listen, so not my circus, not my monkeys. Once I have established that she does not really want my input other than compassion, I’d mostly refuse to talk about the topic, and deflect the dialogue to something more interesting to me. I’d bet good money that she will become much less active in contacting the OP.

        1. Medusa*

          I’m in both situations 1 and 2 right now. I am actively trying to find a solution to a problem I’ve had for quite some time, and am moving forward on those solutions, but so much of it is out of my control. But I will ask if I can vent first. None of my friends have said no, perhaps because they’ve never been in that situation and never will be. If someone doesn’t want to listen to it, they can just say so and I just won’t vent to them, not get mad at them about it.

          1. Despachito*

            As far as I am concerned, this is exactly the situation when most friends are happy to lend an ear, and as you are considerate to them, it will likely remain that way.

            And good luck with your situation.

        2. MissBaudelaire*

          There are people I have cut off because I got tired of hearing The Saga of Friend, How Will They Bravely Struggle On? Especially when all their issues were ones they invented, and the situations were all where they had put themselves, making poor choices.

          Does everyone make mistakes? Yes! Does everyone need a vent? Sure! Should that always be the topic of interest? No. I got tired of every conversation turning to them and their issues. And they didn’t really want help, because most of them knew they were in their situations because of their poor choices, and they were the only ones who could fix it.

          1. Nanani*

            Same – I got tired of hearing about drama I’m not involved in and am not invested in. In one memorable case that meant we were not friends anymore because clearly the drama is more important than everything else we had as friends before the drama started. Sigh.

          2. Anne Elliot*

            Just chiming in to say I ultimately ended a more than decade-long friendship over this. Complicating it in my case was the fact that the other person had long-standing depression that undoubtedly contributed to their inability to cope. But every conversation was a discourse on how his job (actually, series of jobs) was (were) terrible, but none of the problems were his fault, and there was nothing he could do to change anything. Every suggestion was dismissed as impossible, and anything other than full-throated sympathy meant at best I didn’t understand or at worst I didn’t really care.

            I put up for a long time with a connection that did not serve me in any way, just because hanging out was a habit for both of us and maybe him venting to me while I was bored stiff, drinking yet another glass of wine and nodding, was helpful to him. But when I started to deal with low-level depression myself (thanks COVID!) I didn’t have the strength to keep my own head above water while he was tied to my ankle. So I ended the friendship. I wonder if I could have handled it better (probably), and I wish him the best, but I have not regretted it for one minute.

            1. MissBaudelaire*

              It’s always so hard to leave those friendships.

              I ended a fourteen year friendship because it did not serve me, was harmful to me, even. And every time this person was harmful to you (and they were) they flipped it back and demanded that you make them feel better about it. No. I’m not responsible for your feelings, and if you feel bad about how you’ve treated me, examine your actions.

              I don’t wish anything badly for them at all. I wish them peace and joy and to do better in other relationships.

            2. Mr. Tyzik*

              I have also ended a long-time friendship because of this – she was unable to see how badly she needed help with her mental health and how it affected her life, jobs, and relationships. I became tired of being her defacto therapist – and I had undiagnosed issues that led us to feed off each other in toxic ways. Once I sought help for my issues, I began to see our friendship as codependency and eventually ended it.

              It was hard. It still hurts because before we got really sick, we’d had some great times and were really close. But at the end of the day, we have to look out for ourselves.

          3. Joielle*

            Ugh yes. I finally had to put my foot down after years of listening to The Saga of My Mom’s Job, She Is So Put Upon By Her Mean Boss. And yeah, the boss legitimately seemed like a jerk. But at some point… either leave or don’t! But I can’t keep hearing about it!

            1. MissBaudelaire*

              Ugh, right?

              Don’t work there anymore then. I know it isn’t as easy as just walking away and finding a new job. But after years, you’re either going to leave or not. If you’re not, you’re going to have to find a way to live with it.

        3. Dust Bunny*


          I’m fine if friends need to vent occasionally about stuff they legitimately can’t control, or stuff that is temporary (specific project at work, say), or vent as part of the process of solving the problem, but I have limited energy for wheel-spinning venting.

        4. Anon -- former co-workers read here*

          I agree on reconsidering the friendship. Having had someone turn on me and blow up what I thought was a very close friendship over exactly this sort of issue…yeah.

          They were legitimately mistreated at jobs more than once over the years and that was wrong. But they also contributed to their own problems by doing things like being verbally combative in work-related venues, continually reminding their colleagues of their Ivy degree, complaining that their bosses weren’t as smart or cultured as they were…etc. But they refused to take any kind of different perspective on board, to put it mildly.

          At the point where they started bragging that they were rallying other staff against a new boss they didn’t like, I finally reached my limit. All I said was that for (reasons they’d listed about the boss) I didn’t think this was a good tactic to employ and I was opening my mouth because I was worried they’d wind up being fired for it.

          They blew up and began harassing me at my office and at home demanding I apologize for being “cold, cruel,” and etc. End of friendship. And yes, they were fired not that long thereafter.

          OP, your friend’s behavior patterns sound enough like my ex-friend’s behavior patterns that honestly, I doubt you’ll able to change them. I’d suggest drawing boundaries and reconsidering the friendship — especially since they’re making you anxious. You should not suffer for your friend’s poor decision-making.

      2. Despachito*

        And, OP – DO NOT feel anxious about your friend. You are by no means responsible for her wellbeing!

        1. EPLawyer*

          THIS. OP you can NOT care more about your friend’s job than your friend does. It is NOT your responsibility to make sure she keeps her job, can pay her bills, have a productive career, whatever.

        2. banoffee pie*

          If she’s a friend she should be listening to your problems sometimes, not always talking about herself. I used to fall into the trap of thinking friends always had something more important going on than I did. So I felt like I had to do all the listening. Then I realised they were pushing the narrative that their life was more important than mine. For example, they would basically say in so many words ‘I don’t want to listen to you talking about going to live in X country for three months. It isn’t interesting to me.’ But then I would end up listening about their day trip or what kind of beer they liked or something. I caught myself on eventually and stopped listening so much!

          1. Despachito*

            Exactly this!

            My complainer ex-friend almost NEVER asked how I was doing, and younger me felt even awkward to try and talk about something of my own life. I sometimes felt that it wasn’t even important that I, as Despachito, was there – I was just a live sounding board.

            I was probably a bit unfair about never mentioning this and rather ending the friendship, and the older me would probably know better, but at that time I was afraid of creating drama, and was (and still am) doubting whether it would have helped to force this person to listen to me (as I am afraid that even if I did, it would not be with genuine interest, and I think that friendship should be a smooth mutual exchange, not a struggle for attention) .

            1. banoffee pie*

              Yeah I wouldn’t blame you for not mentioning it to the person. I’ve never been able to just say openly ‘listen to me more!’ I just see less of people like that, rightly or wrongly. Sometimes you can make them stop interrupting by just talking on, but you can’t force people to actually listen, even if you force them to stop talking. And what’s the point if they aren’t actually listening/don’t care?

      3. ceiswyn*

        This is actually a major reason I don’t visit my parents much. Not only are we on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but my father’s idea of conversation is him ranting about things that annoy him. Often with questions that are intended to be rhetorical, but that I know the answers to.

        It would be exhausting even if I agreed with any of it. But while he may want to spend his life being angry and discontented, I DON’T. Thus, short, rare visits…

        1. Nanani*

          Just a stranger saying this is entirely legit.
          It would be legit regardless of the degree to which you agree, too. When someone just rants at you with no space for it to be a conversation, when you’re being treated as an audience member or an NPC whose lines only count if they’re the ones the other person chose, then you can nope out.

          Parents, friends, colleagues, NO ONE is entitled to treat you like an audience to talk -at-.

      4. Betteauroan*

        You should send them all copies of Stop Whining, Start Living by Dr. Laura. It really puts things in perspective if you’re a chronic complainer.

    3. Speaks to Dragonflies*

      I can attest to this. My work partner sometimes will go on a rant. He isnt so much looking for support, just venting his frustrations with the world. Everything from politics and government to what our boss wants done and the fact some random person we saw who has a lowered truck. Just a general b!÷€h fest.-_-It…is…EXHAUSTING! Some days I come home and just want to veg out because I just dont have the energy to deal. No talking, listening or giving a crap because I’ve had my fill. Some days its so bad that I didn’t want to be around anyone including my wife. My well of understanding and empathy are drained on those days, but I still need to support my wife. It can be a heavy strain on a relationship and long term can lead to resentment towards others that need and are more deserving of the support that you can offer.
      If OP is reading this, my advice is to either shut this down or break up with your friend. Their one-sided complaining is already taking its toll on you mentally and emotionally, and this can bleed over into other relationships.

      1. anonymous73*

        Have you ever asked him to stop? You aren’t obligated to tolerate that type of behavior if it’s affecting you personally.

      2. quill*

        I have an uncle like this. Nobody talks to him besides his wife, including his own parents and siblings, and my mom has been reduced to saying the word “Divorce” in different tones of voice whenever my aunt calls and mentions him.

        (As to why they haven’t divorced… aunt is a boomer who grew up catholic, also bunch of other more personal stuff.)

    4. Asenath*

      Yeah. I know someone who complained I wasn’t supportive, and really my default response is to be helpful – that means, to me, to give helpful advice. So now I just make meaningless noises, or, if pushed “I don’t know anything about that, perhaps you should ask Professional” (boss, doctor, counselor etc) – even when I did know something about it, like when she was in a role I had held. I don’t want to cut her off entirely, but we aren’t really close because constant complaints that I can’t help address annoy me. I’m so grateful now to a long-ago friend who said to me “I’m so tired of hearing about your work. Let’s talk about something else.”

    5. Nanani*

      Hard agree!
      LW1 might also benefit from the archives of Captain Awkward – similar issues (varying mostly in topic of the vent) have definitely been adressed though I can’t think of which letters off the top of my head.

      LW, you’re allowed to have friendship boundaries and to dial back on how much of your time and energy this one friend gets if its not working -for you-.

    6. Rebecca1*

      Another alternative: I used to live in a country (in Eastern Europe) where venting and complaining was a culturally-accepted form of conversation more than it is in some other places. To participate in that sort of conversation, you just go all-in. Either respond with similar complaints about your own life, embellished as necessary, or hype up the drama from the original complainer as much as possible. “That info wasn’t clear? How awful! Why, you could have taken it as meaning X instead of Y, and then you would have done Z, and then ABC would have happened, and then….”

      In such conversations, this eventually leads to laughter. At least in my experience.

      1. quill*

        I think the goal of group venting is usually to transform it to humor, and reciprocal attention within the group, whereas individual venting that doesn’t eventually run down is securing individual attention.

      2. Despachito*

        I am from such a country, and find it EXTREMELY annoying. Perhaps it is a remnant from the Communist era when people felt – and actually were – quite powerless, and collective venting reinforced the sense of belonging to the same group. I personally consider it a weapon against envy, as if “if I complain enough, nobody will perceive that I am actually quite happy, and will not have someone grate my brand new car with a coin just to wipe off the smile of my face. And we actually have a saying “nothing pisses off people as much as a happy smile on your face.

        I hate it with the force of thousand burning suns, but fortunately, not everyone does it.

    7. Elizabeth West*

      This can also help you weed out people who are just using you. Someone I considered a friend would call me to catch up, and gradually, over time, her calls became an excuse to complain about her relationship. This went on for years, far longer than I should have put up with it. Offering advice proved useless. She rarely listened to me if I had something I needed to talk about. Not to mention I was in school at the time and asked her not to call after 8 pm my time since I was doing homework. She called anyway.

      The last time I heard from her, she’d dumped the guy for another man and moved in with him to get away. I never heard from her again. She’s not online and I have no clue if she’s even alive.

      Maybe she thought of me as a friend once, but over time, I became a coping mechanism instead of a person. Don’t let your friend do this to you, OP.

    8. Alpacas Are Not Dairy Animals*

      I find listening to venting much easier than being asked to give actual advice, since the latter could so easily make things worse. Takes all kinds I guess.

    9. Kim*

      Yes. Same with relationship problems. If you keep having the same issues but won’t do anythink about it, I am not obligated to listen to version 864 of them.

  2. TS*

    OP1, I had (key word had) a friend like this and my number one advice is don’t accept a job working for her under any circumstances, no matter how desperate you are. Because as toxic and exhausting as her venting about how horrible every job she ever was, having to navigate that WHILE WORKING FOR HER and getting a front row seat for how very off base she was, even more than I had ever suspected in the past, was truly horrific.

    1. anonymous73*

      I’m not sure how this would ever be a possibility for the LW considering her friend can’t hold own a job for more than a few months.

    2. Wendy City*

      Oh man, don’t accept a job working /with/ her either. I have a friend very similar to this (loves to vent about work; behaves poorly/makes weird choices in interactions with others) who I recommended for a job because I knew she was reliable and good at the hard skills of the job… but I was not ready for what being her coworker would be like.

  3. Karosyrup*

    LW 2 – I’m with you, “can we…” as a directive drives me up the wall. However, a former coworker used to say that all the time, and when I asked her about it (because I was driven so far up the wall) she said that she feels uncomfortable giving people directions/what feel like orders because she doesn’t want to seem rude and wants to soften the request. That might help to reframe when your boss does this again!

    1. allathian*

      Was your coworker a manager who gave her reports directions? Or was she addressing a peer?

      I must admit that I really appreciate clarity. I’m an experienced individual contributor, and I have a lot of authority to prioritize my tasks, determine which trainings I’ll attend and when, so I really appreciate it when my manager tells me directly that she expects me to do something and that it isn’t optional.

      1. Cj*

        I think there are actually a couple of different issues and in those couple words “can we?”

        One is the use of the word “can”. If it’s not optional just say “I need you to” instead.

        But I think the OP is more annoyed about the use of we rather than you. So even if you put it in the form of a question, they, ad I would, prefer “can you”, not “can we”.

        1. ecnaseener*

          In my experience, “Can you” instead of “I need you to” signals something not exactly optional but not completely mandatory – like, “I want you to do this, but if you’re too busy or otherwise have a problem with it, that’ll be okay and I can get someone else or do it myself.”

          1. fhqwhgads*

            I’d also potentially take it as “I want you to do this thing but if you’re aware of a reason it’s a bad idea, I’m open to hearing that” and with an undertone of “and I halfway expect you to have such a reason that I’ve not thought of”. In other words, it is a genuine question.

          2. LizM*

            This is how I understand it.

            “Can you…” means “I want you to do this if it’s possible. But if you have concerns about the assignment or your capacity to take it on, let’s talk.”

        2. Asenath*

          I’ve noticed the use of “I need you to….” in this blog, and it sounds rather indirect and weird to me, perhaps because I never hear it in my daily life. It’s always “can you” (it’s an order, and there’s no question that I am able to do it, but I think adding the ‘can’ is seen as softening the tone). ‘Can we’ is more unusual, but might be used of a big project, maybe (I have suspected) to make me feel part of the team – ‘Can you finish these reports by Friday’ vs ‘Can we schedule Big Annual Event for the first week in June?’. I always thought these versions were just minor variations and thry didn’t bother me.

          1. Freelance Everything*

            I agree that ‘can you’ is quite common and just meant to mitigate the imperative to appear softer, as you say.

            But I’m not sure how ‘I need you to…’ could ever be interpreted as indirect?

            1. MissDisplaced*

              Can you… also implies a reciprocal answer, “Yes, I can do that this afternoon,” which may help frame the understanding of the task. “I need you to X,” does not.

              Can we do X? Is usually used like “Can you,” but when the person wishes to evoke a teamwork like atmosphere along the lines of “we’re all in this together for the same goal” kind of thing.

              I think it’s just not something to be irritated about unless your boss is disrespectful in other ways.

            2. Richard Hershberger*

              Your use of the the word “imperative” answers your question. Neither the “Can you clean the llama pen” nor the “I need you to clean the llama pen” construction, as a matter of formal grammar, is in the imperative mood. That would be “Clean the llama pen.” We often are uncomfortable with the imperative mood, so those other two constructions are ways to soften it.

              1. banoffee pie*

                ‘I need you to do something’ is a bit softer than ‘do the thing’ but it depends where you live. It would still be harsh to my ears. I wouldn’t say it and I rarely (ever?) hear it here in Northern Ireland. Interesting that it sounds fine in the US according to some people here. Questions are the way to go where I live lol. If I say ‘can you do something for me?’ everyone knows I would like them to do it. ‘Would you do this for me?’ works even better. The other person will say yes unless it isn’t their job or they are just being obstructive etc.

                1. Despachito*

                  It reminds me of the old joke:
                  “Do you happen to have a watch on you?”
                  “Yes, I do.”
                  “And do you know what time it is”?
                  “Yes, I do.”
                  “And can you tell me?”
                  “Of course I can!”

                2. sunflower*

                  This is really interesting! I’m from the Pacific NW of the U.S. and have the same impression as you do about how “I need you to do something” comes across compared to “can you” or “would you.” I think I’ve only had one boss who’s ever used “I need you to do something” with me, and they were from the East Coast of the U.S. and it totally came across as a little bit harsh to me. I’ve always understood “can you,” “could you,” and “would you” to be (nicer) ways of saying “please do X.”

                  But, I wonder if it also varies by industry? I’ve only ever worked at smallish, service-oriented places and mostly nonprofits at that.

            3. Asenath*

              I think it focuses on the boss, not on me, in an odd way. I’m not being told I must do X (which is how I interpret ‘can’), but being informed of the boss’s needs. Why is she telling me she needs me to do X, when all that is required is for her to tell me to do it? At least, that’s what would be running through my head, probably along with ‘Why is she emphasizing her need in such an odd way? Did I forget that she told me to do it once already?’

              1. Nethwen*

                It might come from all those leadership/management/communication classes where people get told to frame commands and requests as “I” instead of “you” because (we are told) that is less aggressive and more likely to create compliance. So, when one finds a customer with his hand down his pants, one says, “I need you to leave,” not “you need to leave.” The instruction is that the “I” framing will make the person feel less attacked and, therefore, they are more likely to do what is asked with less resistance than if the “you” phrase was used.

                In my experience, there are a lot of unspoken presuppositions in those classes, one being that the other person will be resistant to the directive or request. Also in my experience, these classes fail to distinguish between different communication contexts, so the instruction implies that one should speak to the sexually-active customer in the same manner that one asks the office manager to order pens or to tell the child at summer camp that the expectation is that they make their bed every morning.

                The result is people using the “I need you to” format when it feels more natural to say “you need to” or “can you” or any other phrasing.

            4. So long and thanks for all the fish*

              I think it’s more passive-aggressive than indirect. At least, anyone I’ve ever heard use it in my life has definitely had other problems with passive-aggression that this wording seems to fit into. When I hear “I need you to….” To my ears it’s just like, okay, then ask me or tell me to? Why are you phrasing this as a statement of fact rather than an order?

          2. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

            In my experience, when my boss (a most excellent boss) says, “Can you do [whatever]?” means, “I know you have a lot on your plate, but can you fit this in?” and it is a signal to review my task list with her and say if I can take something new on and when I can fit it in. “I need you to do X” means X preempts other tasks and should be followed with a, “Sure, but that will delay Y by Z amount of time. Is that OK?”

            1. Joielle*

              Yeah, same here. I take it to mean that SOMEONE needs to do the task and she thinks I’m probably best suited/have time/whatever but if I’m actually swamped with something else, I should pipe up.

          3. AthenaC*

            I was recently given feedback to cut out the “we” from my requests. So I have.

            That being said, the reasons I used to use “we” are plentiful –
            – Yes it needs to get done, but I will of course help with pieces you can’t do
            – We’re splitting the task anyway and I want to know which pieces you can do
            – “Can we” – it’s a legit question! I know where the project needs to be but there’s more than one way to get there and I’m genuinely open to hearing if there’s an easier way.

            So moving toward “Can you” or “I need you to” or even worse – “Need to” …. ugh. I don’t like it but my workplace isn’t just me, so – okay then.

        3. Loulou*

          Oh, come on. “Can you” is completely fine for giving an order at work. There’s no need to nitpick to this degree.

        4. JB*

          There’s different levels of non-optional, though.

          ‘Could you’ = ‘I’m not sure if this is possible (with our system/procedures/etc), is this something you are actually able to do?’
          ‘Can you’ = ‘this needs to get done and you appear (from my perspective) to be the best person for the job, but I’m aware you may have additional items on your plate that I’m not factoring in. If you don’t have time for this, let me know and we will find someone else or I will help you redistribute other work as appropriate.’
          ‘Please do X’ = ‘I have full knowledge of your workload and the comparative workload of your peers, you are being assigned this item.’

          (I realize I wrote all of the above from first person because it seemed most straightforward, but FTR I have never been in a management position, this is all from my understanding as the person being assigned work.)

      2. Cj*

        I think there are actually a couple of different issues and in those couple words “can we?”

        One is the use of the word “can”. If it’s not optional just say “I need you to” instead.

        But I think the OP is more annoyed about the use of we rather than you. So even if you put it in the form of a question, they, ad I would, prefer “can you”, not “can we”.

    2. LemonLyman*

      “Can we…” seems like a statement starter one would use with children, not adults. I guess it wouldn’t be as bad if it’s used with a group of adults, such as OP’s entire team, and the manager is including herself. Example, “Leadership wants us to track all customer complaints. I created an excel sheet for this purpose. Can we start logging them tomorrow?”

      I’m guessing the “can we” is used to soften a directive of “I need you to…” but I’m not always great with these subtle “softening” cues. I’d probably take the boss literally and think we are both going to be working on the task together.

      1. Humble Schoolmarm*

        I confess: I use we all the time when emailing parents (Ie. we’ve been working on our llama sculpting project for the last two weeks and I’m concerned Fergus is falling behind). Honestly, I did most of my part of the prep work three weeks ago, so using they is much more accurate than we, but saying “we’re working on” feels warmer and more community-minded than the students, the class or the children (not to mention the minefield that is the kids or the kiddos).
        For adult work settings, it does feel like an invitation to collaborate and not a directive, though.

        1. Cj*

          In your case it really is “we”, if it is all of the students, or if it’s just Fergus but you are helping him.

      2. Clisby*

        Or, even if it’s directed to only one person, there might be an implied question as to whether a team can do something. For example, before I retired, I was SME for several legacy systems. If my manager asked “Can we do X?” it would be because he recognized that doing the work would take more than my expertise, but he wasn’t sure what. So I might say, “Sure – we’d need support from the database group and the network people. Depending on how quickly it’s needed we might need a 2nd developer working on it. Want me to write up a general description of what it would take?”

      3. Tupac Coachella*

        I’m actually very intentional with “can we” for exactly this reason. I work with college students, and try to avoid infantilizing language. I feel like it’s important to relate to them as adults. Using phrases like “what approach do you want to take to this” instead of “how can we approach this” is one way that I shift the power to them and respect their agency. “We” aren’t doing anything-they are. I wonder if part of what feels uncomfortable to the OP is the implication that they are expected to Do The Thing, yet aren’t being spoken to as an adult capable of doing the thing-like Boss is leaving the door open to step in if they mess up. That might be reaching a little, but it’s interesting. This is definitely a situation where wording matters, but it matters differently to different people.

    3. BethDH*

      My boss does it, and in part I think it’s because she often does feel like it’s a real question about an institutional thing (my role is much more technical). So it’s a bit “can one do x?” And a bit “what are the implications if one does x?”
      Also, if a reasonable answer would be something like “no, because then Coworker has to do y and she’s slammed this week” then “we” starts to feel like just thinking big picture and not minimizing OP’s effort.
      Obviously I’m spinning fantasy here, but that kind of mental reframing might help.

    4. NOK*

      I will cop to being a habitual “we” user (but trying really hard to quit!) for this exact reason. There are dozens of us!

      1. Student*

        I think there’s a gendered aspect that may not be getting as much consideration as it should as to why people do this.

        I’m a woman in a male-dominated field. I have personally been scolded by multiple co-workers and bosses for NOT using “we” language. It’s multifaceted, but as far as I can tell, it boils down to a few specific issues. My male co-workers don’t like getting bossed around by a woman, to the point of resisting/defying/ignoring/arguing with clear directions I give, but they might do their job if I “ask them to help the team”. I’m a project manager and not a people-manager, so they can organizationally get away with this and I have little recourse other than to pander to their fragile egos. My male co-workers want to feel like they are getting at least a little credit whenever I talk about things that *I* have done, so they want accomplishments phrased as “we” so they can pretend they did something too. My male co-workers start feeling pretty territorial whenever they see a woman taking ownership of something important (again, that they didn’t actually want to put significant work into…), so they want “the team” to own things instead of me.

        I give in and use “we” language, because it’s too much work for very little progress to try to fight the semantics fight they are constantly willing to have with me to try to belittle my role. I’m still ultimately bossing them around, accomplishing things, and owning projects; but they get their little face-saving verbal BS, I get a bit less actual recognition than I deserve for *my* accomplishments, but probably more recognition than I’d get if they all iced me out over their ego issues.

        1. PT*

          I was thinking this too. I’m female and have been a boss, and I’ve gotten lots of pushback for giving people directions in the form of neutral statements, like “The llamas get kibble on Tuesdays, for the vitamins” or “The veterinarian is coming at 1:30, could you please start bringing the llamas in from pasture at 12 instead of 2?” or even “You had a llama training session at 4 but didn’t get started until 4:30. The client was waiting half an hour and was very upset, and I had to issue him a refund. You need to start training sessions on time.”

          And you get coached to pile softeners on top of softeners on top of softeners, until your statements are completely meaningless as direction. “I don’t mean to be a bother, but could we please give the llamas kibble today? It’s Tuesday and we like to give the llamas kibble on Tuesdays so they get all their vitamins.”

        2. KD*

          I also work in a male dominated industry and people have made those dismissive ok you’re the boss type comments to which I now reply yes, yes I am. However I am also the worst for using the ‘can we’ phrasing. Part of it is because I do see every task as contributing to the whole , it is genuinely a team effort, but also recognize that people may feel I’m diminishing individual contributions by framing everything that way. Definitely something to work on.

          1. Despachito*

            “people have made those dismissive ok you’re the boss type comments to which I now reply yes, yes I am. ”

            I was wondering what would happen if everyone did just this – NOT CARE about any dismissive remarks, and by that, I mean really NOT care.

            I think women tend to more often ruminate over whether the author of the remark may possibly be right (and are therefore more vulnerable), while certain men do not give a f* what other people think – and lo and behold, it often works.

        3. Megabeth*

          Hard agree on the gendered aspect of it. I’ve gotten feedback that I was too aggressive at Old Job, and needed to soften my language. It was also a dysfunctional environment that rewarded dude-bros for dude-bro behavior. Now that I am in a job with much less entrenched sexism, I’m having to unlearn the habits of tip-toeing around fragile egos. Saying “we” was a coping mechanism so that I appeared less threatening, and I didn’t realize how weird it sounded until I left the Old Job.

    5. Claire*

      One of my former managers, who was in fact terrible in many ways, used to say “someone needs to do this” but never actually assign it out. It was definitely because she was uncomfortable managing, but a statement like that is just weird! You’re the manager, you decide who should do that and tell them. She had such problems with direct communication.

      1. JB*

        This sounds like an actual nightmare. What would you do then, just decide amongst yourselves who would do the task she had just tossed out into the ether?

        1. Claire*

          I basically used language like what someone else posted here: “Okay, I can do part X. Who will be doing part Y?”. I’m pretty sure she thought that was impertinent sometimes but what the heck were we supposed to do?

    6. RJ*

      Karosyrup, I am 100% sure that is why my former manager did that as well. It had nothing to do with taking credit for my work, she just didn’t like “giving orders”.

    7. Not playing your game anymore*

      I don’t know if this applies to LW2, but I will use “can we” with one particular person. He is the one with the day-to-day knowledge of the system he uses. I had a bit of training, and can fill a request, cover for him when he’s out, etc. I’m not his manager, but am higher on the food chain. I’m also responsible for making sure his system works and plays nicely with other systems. So sometimes I see something that I think would work better, or at least differently, but I don’t have the background to know if something is possible, or practical. That’s a “can we” situation. And it’s honestly a question. Is this an option? and does it make sense? It’s we, because I want it to happen and he is the one that will need to do the research and actually make whatever changes.

      1. JB*

        This is what I was thinking as well. In my most recent former position, ‘can we’ was a common question from our supervisor, along with ‘could we’. My direct coworker and I were specialists, and our supervisor supervised us plus a larger, less generalized team. It was our job to, well, know more about our job than anyone else, and the nature of the work meant we were mostly autonomous.

        So assigning work to us was a collaborative effort since she didn’t fully know what we had on our plates at any one time – she knew when our busy months were but not necessarily what the work rhythms were within that month, which of us was taking on the majority of x task, etc; and she didn’t fully know what our system was capable of; and she didn’t fully know the special laws and regulations that govern what we did. So usually it would start with her presenting what needed to get done (“the higher-ups need a way to measure X”) and then her proposed solution (“can we run some sort of report from Y?”) and we’d work together with her to devise a solution that would solve the problem, that was possible on our system, and that wouldn’t violate any federal regulations, then the two of us would assign/split it between ourselves based on our current workload and how urgent the project was.

        I feel like if the nature of LW’s work was such that this language made sense, though, then they wouldn’t be so upset by it. But maybe they’re overestimating how much their manager knows about their actual job.

    8. Koalafied*

      “We” is used sometimes in my department – a nonprofit marketing team – with slightly better/more general directives, but the we isn’t standing in for “me and you” or “our team” but rather “the organization.” It’s part of a donor-centric mindset that recognizes individual members drive see things as coming from one marketer or one department, they see it as a communication from the brand and feeds their overall perception of the brand.

      So for instance, if my boss sees something on the news she might ask me, “Can we get an email out on this?” Meaning both, “should the Organization communicate with our members about this?” and also, “if so, do you/y’all have capacity to do this?”

      But then when it comes to the specific internal tasks that are invisible to the public, it would be e.g., “Can you get copy to the reviewers by afternoon?” Or “Can you schedule the email to launch in the early evening?”

      1. Sakuko*

        In my company “Can we do X” would mean: Is our product capable of doing this, either as default or with some customizing. If the answer where no, it might get back on my desk later for implementation (after specifying the exact needs), but it would never be understood as a call to action.

    9. Blue*

      I had a boss who would use “can we” for almost everything, and often it was ambiguous which one of us would need to do the item, or sometimes it was a meeting we would need to take together. I started just saying, “sure, do you want me to get the ball rolling or wait for you to tell me my next step on that?” every single time. She did eventually get better at communicating expectations clearly the first time :)

    10. Betteauroan*

      I know, that would really bother me, too. If she’s saying “we” she’s implying she has something to do with the work that needs to be done. And that’s not true. It sounds condescending. It reminds me of the boss in that great 1999 movie Office Space.

    11. LK*

      I admit I’m a frequent user of “can we”, but I use it almost exclusively with people higher up on the food chain than me – so in situations where I either need them to do something or am making a strong suggestion, but definitely don’t have the authority to give an order or to make the final decision. I find it softens things just enough that I don’t come across as overstepping, and usually gets me the results I want.

    12. KiwiLib*

      I sometimes will ask for clarity, eg do you mean me or you? Or just what exactly do you want me to do?

    13. Becky*

      I get “Do you want to…”

      I WISH I got “Can we…”

      Please. You are my boss. If you want me to do something, just … ask me to do something.

      1. Becky*

        And then there’s the next step of abstraction where it’s my coworker who needs to do the task, but it occurs to her (boss) while she’s talking to me. So then it’s “Do you want to ask Fred if he wants to…”


  4. Margaret*

    Op2, any chance she really means we? What happens if you start responding with something like, “that makes sense! Were you going to do that or would you like me to?” If she truly means you every time she says we eventually this will get annoying to her and she’ll fix her language. I say “we” with my direct report when I genuinely want her opinion on if it’s a good/logical course of action for our team, and THEN we (well, I ;) ) decide who will do it, and it’s not always her who does it. If you’re constantly saying you’ll do it before this process she may feel weird saying “no actually, thanks but I’ll do it.” (Which a strong manager wouldn’t, but she might.)

    Of course this could be the wrong read! Just wanted to offer this perspective.

    1. itsame*

      That’s what I was thinking. Responding with “Would you like me to do X task?” after she says “should we do X?” seems like both a good way to clarify for yourself you actually are meant to do the task and it might flag for her that her phrasing is potentially confusing.

      1. TechWorker*

        I also use we in this context. I will take care as I’m sure some of the contexts I use it in could be annoying… but I generally am using it because I mean ‘the team’ (and I’m pretty sure I mostly use it when I’m not in a 1-1. Eg ‘have we tried x yet?’ meaning ‘has anybody tried x yet’ or ‘we can pick that up’ meaning ‘my direct reports will pick that up’. Maybe the latter is also super annoying, idk.

    2. Green great dragon*

      If I say ‘can we’, I mean ‘is this doable/simple/only possible if we drop everything else for a week’ and useful answers would be ‘yes, easy, I’ll do it’ or ‘will take about 2 days, is it that important?’. The ‘we’ is the team, which I see myself as a part of, even if I’m not going to be doing that bit of work myself.

      If the only acceptable answer is ‘yes I will do that now’ I can see it would grate.

      1. Tangentwoman*

        Same here! Usually I’m asking out of true ignorance–like I’ll mean, “Is this something the structure of our website can accommodate?” but I’ll use the shorthand, “Can we do this?” I’m glad this question was raised; it never occurred to me that my team would view that language as either unclear or obnoxious, but now I can totally see it.

      2. Colette*

        Yeah, if my manager asked me “can we do X”, I would interpret it as a genuine question – is this possible to do – and not an indication that I should do it.

        But the OP has been interpreting it differently and acting accordingly, so I assume she and her manager are on the same page about what it means.

      3. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

        Yep. At my job, with my boss, if she uses “Can we” she literally means “Is it possible for the 3 of us to take on something new?”

    3. Caroline Bowman*


      I despise the whole mealy-mouthed ”we” thing that is very often just a thin disguise to ”YOU DO THIS, RIGHT NOW AND FORTHWITH”, but seems to have been adopted as business-speak to sound all collaborative. If it IS genuinely meant as ”let’s together work out how to do this” then clearly that’s absolutely fine, but very often it feels patronising and a bit silly, so I’d go with saying ”sure, I’ll be happy to get on that. What aspect did you want me to do?” Very nicely and with no snark, make the manager spell out whether it’s genuinely we or actually you.

      Now that I’m ranting, another term I despise beyond all rationality is ”reach out to”. It makes my skin crawl. Substituting ”gift” for ”give” just makes me ragey.

      I think it’s just as well I work for myself, by myself. I’d struggle with corporate speak, quite badly!

      1. Filosofickle*

        Genuine question, since I’ve seen this called out before — what would you prefer people say instead of “reach out” ? (Admittedly I’m pretty immune to corporate speak and in fact write a lot of it.)

      2. UKDancer*

        I think we all have words and phrases we find irritating. I can’t stand it when people say “we was” instead of “we were” and I had one colleague who always used the former and it always annoyed me to an excessive amount. But I couldn’t ask him to change the way he spoke. I’m sure I say things that my colleagues find irritating.

        Likewise it annoys me when on the trains the guard’s announcement says “if you see anything suspicious contact the driver or myself.” I so want to correct them as it should be “me” and not “myself.” I don’t because I don’t want to be kicked off the train.

        People say what they say and I think all we can do is accept we have the quirks we have and smile at ourselves.

        1. banoffee pie*

          The ‘myself’ thing drives me mad too! I feel like going into a long boring explanation of the reflexive. But I love it when people say ‘we was’, like in Eastenders. I can’t pull it off. Wrong accent ;)

    4. Person from the Resume*

      My suggestion. Answer “yes, we can.” And then don’t do the task because you were not asked to do the task. You were asked if it were possible and you answered. Communication complete.

      1. Your local password resetter*

        That feels a bit too combatitive. Nobody wants to work with a rules lawyer.

        1. Person from the Resume*

          I feel like you are calling me a “rules lawyer” and “combative” and saying that no one would want to work with me.

          Seriously that response is not me being a jerk. That’s me answering the question asked. A lot of people such as myself are straightforward and will answer the question being asked without reading more deeply into it. It’s not the fault of the listener if the speaker is being vague and unclear. It’s the speaker’s fault for not communicating clearly. If the manager is uncomfortable directing a person to a task (because it feels mean or something), the manager needs to get over that uncomfortable feeling and not create confusion by being vague. A manager should manage and be able to direct their employees to do tasks.

          That said if the LW has volunteered in the past pass on the “can we” then changing her reaction to the question that could be a bit confusing. So I would just ask clarifying questions. “Yes we can do that. Are you asking me do it?”

          1. cal*

            Active listening is an important part of good communication so by deliberately misinterpreting the question, you are showing that you have bad communication skills. It’s also kind of a jerk move.

          2. Richard Hershberger*

            There is a subfield within linguistics called “pragmatics.” This is the study of how language is actually used, which is not quite the same thing as its surface meaning. My standard example is suppose you mention in a conversation “I need a ride downtown.” The person you are conversing with says “I’m going that way.” What just happened? On the surface these were simply two statements of fact, with no further implications. But really what happened is that you asked for a ride downtown, and the other person agreed to give you that ride. Should he go off and leave you, later pointing out that all that the conversation was simply an exchange of information, there are two possibilities. He might be neurodivergent and failed to decode the pragmatics of the conversation, or he is simply a jerk.

          3. EventPlannerGal*

            But I don’t think your first suggested response is very straightforward at all. You (and the OP as well, I think) obviously do understand what’s meant by the “can we” phrasing – it’s a very common colloquialism. You’re suggesting pretending to not understand it because it’s annoying, presumably in the hopes that eventually the manager will get the message and switch to some other, better phrasing. That isn’t straightforward communication at all! Your suggested clarifying questions are a far better way of getting the actual information that’s needed, and don’t sound so much like deliberate obtuseness/game-playing.

          4. Been there, done that*

            Conversational English language is full of idioms and and metaphors and playing a passive/aggressive game of taking everything literally just so you can prove a point (which I don’t even know what the point is) is immature and very unlikely to be effective. If someone REALLY has that big of a hangup over using “we” instead of “you”, then just say so and look petty without all of the games.

          5. sunny-dee*

            Your response isn’t straightforward, it’s passive-aggressive. The manager isn’t being unclear.

            And, if that is how you typically communicate, yes, you are combative and a rules lawyer and I would find it unpleasant to work with you.

      2. Me*

        That’s a good way to get written up.

        Playing passive aggressive games with your boss is never the mature, professional way to handle things.

        1. Person from the Resume*

          AGAIN the poor communicator is being vague and passive.

          A good communicator would be clear that they were directing their employee to do something.

          1. Metadata minion*

            I realize the literal meaning of the statement is just asking if an action is possible, but it’s a pretty well-established idiomatic phrase meaning “please do X”. I understand someone being confused by it the first time, but after that, you’re just going to look like you’re deliberately avoiding work.

            1. Mockingjay*

              The problem with the subtext “please do X” is that it often lacks crucial details. Due date, resources, priority – is the new task more important than current task? And so on. Work would be so much simpler if all managers were direct about what needs to be done, when, and by whom.

              I’ve learned to follow-up with a recap email or chat asking for clarification or approval of my interpretation of the task. “So, the widget stress test report is due in two weeks, correct? Do you want to review the draft or should I send it to Fred first?”

              My supervisor is really good about direct tasking (bless her!). The engineering team lead uses “we” language and no one ever knows who is supposed to work on something. I’ve seen work sit for months because “no one told me I was supposed to do this, I thought Lucinda was working on it.”

              1. Nope.*

                “The problem with the subtext “please do X” is that it often lacks crucial details. Due date, resources, priority – is the new task more important than current task? And so on.”

                When my manager asks me (or “we”) to do something, those are questions I immediately ask as follow up. If you need something, ask for it.

                1. quill*

                  “Can we?”
                  “I think so, but I need to finish glazing the chocolate teapots before I can work on any sugar cube painting. When did you need us to fit in the painted sugar cubes?”

                2. Mockingjay*

                  He does this in team meetings, so it’s difficult to push back then and there. He does it to everyone, so meetings would grind to a halt if everyone asked for clarification on the spot.

                  I asked him once, one on one, if he could be more specific in assignments up front because it would really help me be more effective in my job and I could get things going immediately. *Stares.* “I’m not going to do that.”

                  Which is why I write recap emails describing what I plan to do, how I plan to do it, and when I estimate it will be finished. In essence, I task myself/do his job for him. Sounds great, but he never responds to say that “yes, I’m on track,” or “no, I want you to do Y instead of X and it’s due tomorrow, not next week.”

              2. Nope.*

                Sorry, I spoke way too soon and see you addressed that already, my bad! It just seems so natural to ask those follow ups, that I don’t see how the initial command is problematic in the first place.

              3. Annie Moose*

                Sure, details are good. But the issue isn’t inherent to the “we” construction. If a manager says “Can we get the TPS report done and sent to Joe for review by Tuesday?” while in a one-on-one meeting with you, that’s perfectly clear. If a manager says “Do a TPS report”, then that isn’t clear. It’s about included details, not about whether or not they say “we”.

            2. The Other Dawn*

              I agree. My manager says this occasionally and former managers have, too. I’ve never took it to mean anything other than them asking/telling me to do something. There are times when he says “can we” in other instances, but it’s clear it’s meant as “is this something the department/company can do.” But even then, it usually means I need to go research something.

          2. Loulou*

            The boss is clear that they want their employee to do something! OP knows, they just don’t like the way they’re phrasing it.

          3. Me*

            No. You know your boss is asking you to do something. If it’s unclear WHO then you ask a clarifying question. You don’t play dumb. That is being passive aggressive.

            Hey if you want to act like this at work, have at it. See how well it works for you.

          4. JB*

            You’re going to encounter a lot of people in the world who don’t communicate exactly the way you would prefer them to. Many of them will be in senior or management positions.

            If your first resort is always to interpret only by the words in front of you and never factor in context or ask clarifying questions, you may find that the jobs available to you are severely limited.

        2. londonedit*

          Reminds me of the classic parental retort when a child asks ‘Can I have a biscuit?’ etc – ‘I don’t know, can you?’ (the point being that the polite and correct way to ask is ‘May I have a biscuit’).

          1. banoffee pie*

            That retort always used to madden me! Thankfully my parents never pulled that on me, just teachers. I always thought it was a bit classist because here in Northern Ireland only upper-middle class types would ever say ‘may’. So the teachers were shouting because you didn’t come from an upper middle-class home, which wasn’t your fault. ‘May I?’ is considered so posh here, if you say it to the wrong person it really annoys them. So glad my parents weren’t clueless enough to send me out talking like that and get my ass kicked. ‘Shall’ is even worse. (Don’t say ‘shall’ here lol)

            1. Nobby Nobbs*

              It’s also kind of oblivious, I think, to the fact that below a certain age “can” and “may” are functionally synonyms when you’re a child dealing with adults. Yes, technically you can go to the bathroom, in that you’re physically capable of leaving the classroom, walking to the bathroom, and urinating, but what elementary schooler is going to do that without permission, realistically speaking?

              1. Spencer Hastings*

                Also, it’s extremely rare to use “may” for permission at all in modern spoken English, at least in the varieties of English I’m familiar with. That ship has very much sailed.

          2. quill*

            Yeah that was stuffy, old fashioned, and petty for an adult to pull 30 years ago as well. (I got “hay is for horses, say excuse me / hello” well into the ’00’s but either the pedants have given up or nobody pulls that on you once you’re an older teen.)

            1. banoffee pie*

              Hay is for horses? I just got that as you explained it there! I always say hey or hi, never hello. I’m just remembering people have said that to me in the past and I didn’t have a clue what they meant so I just smiled vaguely. Haha

          3. Spencer Hastings*

            What it reminds me of the most is:

            “Do you know what time it is?”

            (in other words, whoever described it as rules-lawyering was absolutely right)

      3. EventPlannerGal*

        I think that would be a very strange and rude thing to do. It reminds me of teachers saying “of course you CAN go to the bathroom, but MAY you?” to, like, ten-year-olds. Not how adult professionals should talk to their colleagues/boss.

    5. Ali G*

      Yup. I work across departments a lot in my job, but I am typically the most senior person in the group when I do. When I ask “can we…” I mean WE for a few reasons, including, I do not know what else the rest of the group has on their plate and I have a role in the process too. I’ll also ask my direct report things like “what would it take for us to…” etc.
      However, if the OPs boss says we and really means OP, then yeah that would be annoying and not very productive.

      1. Claire*

        There’s a difference. You’re asking a genuine question to get an answer about workloads etc. It seems like this boss is using it as a more specific “Can we give department X report Y?” but means that OP should do that – they’re not really asking a question.

    6. Slow Gin Lizz*

      Yes, I agree that you could act confused about what she really means and maybe she’ll start using different wording. Or maybe you could even say something about it, like, “When you say ‘Can we do X?’ I am not sure if you mean you want me to do X or if you just want my opinion.” But I think just asking her to clarify each time might train her to word things differently.

      1. Chris too*

        I have told my supervisor I’ve identified a new grammatical type of “we.” When he says “we” need to do something, I cheerfully ask if that’s the “regular” we – he and I are going to do it – the “Royal” we, meaning he’s going to do it – or the “our department we,” meaning I’m going to do it.
        We have the kind of jokey work relationship where this is ok – and yes, it’s usually the “our department we.” It does clarify things though!

      2. Betteauroan*

        Asking for clarification isn’t being passive aggressive and it will also bring her boss’s attention to the fact that isn’t being clear.

  5. fiona the baby hippo*

    Oh, I relate to Lw1 so hard. I will say I’m lucky because a lot of my friends in intractable job or relationship situations aren’t actually sabotaging themselves, they just don’t think they can do better for whatever reason. So I try to remind myself that the best thing I can do as a friend is validate them. Offering up all the solutions in the world won’t help (and will just wear me down) if they’re not ready to hear it. So, for example, I get twitchy when I hear a friend say she’s never (!) taken a full week off of work. My impulse is to say, “Wow what if you scheduled something six months out NOW so you’re not ‘unable’ to take time off when you’re burnt out because you’re too busy?” which, of course, she’s not ready to do/hear, so instead I just try to stick with things like “Wow ! that really must be exhausting.” “Ugh,you deserve time off!”

    Now, of course, it’s harder when you suspect a friend is wildly out of touch and is being unfair to her coworkers/boss. But i wonder if there’s some version of the validation tactic i try to take. Maybe it’s like “Yeah it would be hard to work with catty coworkers.” “It must be hard to be stuck in a situation where your boss isn’t helping you.” You’re not troubleshooting for her (exhausting even if she WAS receptive to it) and you’re not getting down in the mud with her and trashing her coworkers, etc. You could always toss in a “Do you think you’ll talk to your manager about it?” sparingly, but just leave it open-ended and mild. I also wonder if being boring to complain to will mean she might find another ear to bend. I also think even if it doesn’t change things for HER, committing to having some kind of mildly validating response like “that sucks!” might make it easier for YOU to deal with. Let her get it off her chest, tell her it sucks, and know you can move on.

    1. fiona the baby hippo*

      Oh some other things I find less exhausting to say to someone who is churning through a problem but doesn’t actually seem able to act productively: Talk about things they can do OUTSIDE of work/the situation like “wow go home and order pizza, sounds like you’re exhausted!” “Is there something fun you can plan this weekend to look forward to in the meanwhile?” It gets them off work and you’re offering support in a way that doesn’t risk offending them. (Hopefully! If your friend is someone who doesn’t want to hear something like ‘take a bubble bath after work and drink some wine!’ then they’re exhausting at levels I can’t even understand)

      1. Ama*

        Yeah I was dealing with some pretty overwhelming stuff at my job for the last year (both pandemic stuff and stuff that would have happened regardless of the pandemic) and my husband finally pointed out to me that when I am anxiety spiraling, I will say the same thing over and over again even if I’ve already come up with a solution for the problem, which is frustrating and exhausting for him as someone who wants to help but can’t. I kind of knew I did this in my own head, but I somehow hadn’t noticed that I also did it when I was talking to another person.

        I’ve since tried to get better about noticing when I’m doing this (although my husband is also welcome to gently say “hey you are repeating yourself again” if I don’t) and try to pull myself out of the spiral by going for a walk or fixing myself a tea or something to get me out of my own head.

      2. Anon Sadsack*

        From the perspective of an “exhausting at levels I can’t even understand” person:

        Am I ever offended by my friends’ support, such as self-care suggestions? No. What I’m frequently unable to do, though, is implement them in a way that makes my friends feel heard. Things at work are overwhelming enough that I’m seldom left with enough spoons left for much in the way of “outside of work” or “planning something fun for the weekend”. I recognize that there’s not a lot of ways to speak honestly to that that don’t come across as off-putting, so it’s just easier to, well, avoid most people for now.

        I’m actively churning through solutions, and some are working, but most are the kinds of things that will take a while to show results. While I don’t think I’m being helpless, I recognize that a friend might not perceive it that way. I’m exhausted, but it’s just the reality of my situation at the moment and masking that is, well, more work.

        I don’t want to risk making a well-meaning friend feel helpless and equally exhausted, so it’s better for everyone for me to isolate myself until I can have a bit more of a balanced life.

    2. Batty Twerp*

      On of the most amazing bits of advice that I came across passively (so I can’t give credit, sorry), is to directly ask “are we troubleshooting for solutions?”
      Note the “we” here – it’s deliberately asking if the person wants your input, or just wants to vent. Sometimes people want to vent and don’t like to say so, sometimes people want solutions and don’t know how to ask.
      It might be that Friend here really does want advice for navigating all these annoyances, but doesn’t want to see herself as part of the problem, so it becomes a venting session by default.
      By asking directly you get to choose whether to participate further – another venting session? No, thank you.

      1. Harper the Other One*

        Yeah, my husband and I have an agreement that we will declare in advance of a moment of venting whether this is an “I could use advice” vent or an “I just need to complain for a minute” vent. But we also try to keep the latter short – less than five minutes of “OMG I’m so sick of X.”

        1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          I think how short you try to keep it is key – everybody at some point needs to vent – but it’s important as well to not just get bogged down in the negative – and keeping it short can help.

      2. ecnaseener*

        That’s good advice in general, but in this case it sounds like the friend has indicated multiple times she doesn’t want advice/solutions, she wants to vent (and get supportive non-advice responses)

      3. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

        On of the most amazing bits of advice that I came across passively (so I can’t give credit, sorry), is to directly ask “are we troubleshooting for solutions?”

        I usually have asked “do you need an audience or a solution?”, but I really like your wording.

      4. Betteauroan*

        If I need to vent, I always ask the relative or friend that I’m talking to if it’s ok for me to vent. They always respond yes, enthusiastically. I don’t vent to any one person. I spread it out so I’m not bogging anyone down.

    3. anonymous73*

      Validation is not the answer. All that does in enable the person to continue their destructive path.

      1. Despachito*

        Yes but sometimes it is the way out for the “sounding board”.

        If you do not want confrontation, a solution is to say something seemingly understanding but noncommital (“yeah, it must be pretty difficult to deal with such a situation”) and let it slide off your back.

        It does not help the venter, but sometimes even the most supportive friend/relativa would not help either. Both approaches are ineffective, but this one does not emotionally drain you.

    4. Student*

      I think part of the question involves the issue of not wanting to validate venting that you think is actually incorrect. If you validate your friend when they are wrong, that’s both exhausting and, while low-conflict for you personally, arguably a disservice to your “friend”. It’s hard to tell a friend they are wrong, and sometimes it doesn’t work. But sometimes, your friend is wrong and needs a kick in the pants, rather than validation, to recognize that.

      Validation inherently tells the other person that they are, on some level, right. It might be low conflict and preserve your relationship, but it is going to encourage the other person to do more of the thing that you are validating. If you validate bad behavior, you are ultimately contributing to and condoning it.

      1. Betteauroan*

        I just had a situation like this with an old friend. She was obsessing over her ex and she found out he was taking another woman as friends on a motorcycle ride. She confronted him at a public convention! I was like what? I’ve never seen this side of her before but I’ve heard she can be like this. I texted her afterwards and told her about herself. She was apologetic and seemed to understand what I was saying. He was no longer her boyfriend and he can do whatever he wants. Now she has no contact with him and has stopped harrassing him. She is in her 50s and her behavior was appalling and juvenile.

      2. Despachito*

        But the problem is that you almost never have the entire picture (and therefore it is sometimes difficult to say “you are wrong”).

        The thing I would personally appreciate, but few people are capable of (Allison and the commentariat here are a rare and refreshing exception ) is to validate the feeling (your boss’s behaviour is not OK and it is understandable you are angry) AND at the same time point out that your solution was not the best one.

  6. RitaRelates*

    LW2: I’m right there with you! My boss uses “we” and it has caused me so much frustration and confusion. She will say “we” need to take care of this or “we” will need to conquer this when it comes to assignments with multiple parts. So, I’m waiting to see which parts she wants to assign me, just to find out by “we” she meant me and the deadline is coming up and now I need to rush to get it all completed because the project was originally assigned to her but she forgot about it/doesn’t want to do it/didn’t look at the deadline to begin with so she assigned it to me last minute but will still be the face of the project. One time, she assigned me something “we” needed to work on and it had 6 parts. She assigned me 5 parts in the system that we use and I completed them. Few days later, she’s asking where the 6th part is. I say, I didn’t have any more parts assigned to me in the system. She goes, these types of projects always have 6 parts, so you should have done the 6. I just bit my tongue and did the 6th part even though her saying “we” and not assigning me the 6th part made me believe that she was working on that part. She’s the type of person that won’t ever admit fault though and blames others for her mistakes. I now accept that “we” means me and ask lots of clarifying questions because she is unclear in her instructions for almost everything.

    1. allathian*

      Ick, that sounds really unpleasant. Oh well, at least she doesn’t seem to get on your case if you do ask clarifying questions to CYA, so I guess it could be worse…

      That said, I guess I’m glad I work for an organization with professional managers, that is, managers are only ever expected to manage, and they aren’t even necessarily expected to be able to do the jobs of their reports. That’s why we have managers with as many as 50 employees, because they never do any of the work that their reports are doing. This also means that they can’t steal the credit, because executives higher up in the org chart know that the manager may have overseen their reports, but the actual work was done by someone else.

      1. LemonLyman*

        Curious how they evaluate your work if they don’t know how to do the job? I’ve never had a job like yours where the boss doesn’t know how to the it.

        1. Green great dragon*

          Hope this isn’t too much off topic but – I can see whether the customer is happy and mistakes in your work seldom come to light. I can see how long you take, and whether your reports are clear and have the right level of detail. I can also ask you whether you followed appropriate processes (sure, you could lie, but processes have purpose so you won’t get away with it for long).

          I don’t have to be able to write code to see whether the computer game I’m playing is fun, well-rendered and without continuity errors. And if I’m supervising 20 programmers, I can compare the speed and style of each.

          As it happens, I can do much of the work my team does. But that’s not how I evaluate their work.

        2. Person from the Resume*

          We’ll if your job is to make widgets that must pass quality checks then your boss doesn’t need to know how to run the machine. He can access your work by your results with the number of widgets and how many pass QC.

        3. KateM*

          Stritcly speaking, allathian didn’t say the boss doesn’t KNOW how to do the work but that they never DO any of it.

        4. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

          I’m in that situation and they evaluate it by: 1) a finished product – they may not know the stats, but they can see my logic and why I recommended A not B; 2) response from stakeholders; 3) if the thing actually works – no expertise needed to know this

        5. JB*

          I worked a similar position for many years. The main ways the manager had to measure our performance was
          1. Feedback from both internal and external customers we had assisted
          2. Results on audits
          3. The fact that nothing was (figuratively) on fire – if our job didn’t get done at an acceptable level, a lot of things would go wrong very quickly.

          However, it did mean that the nuances of performance were more opaque to the management, and I eventually had to clue them in to the fact that the three previous people in my position had all had breakdowns and quit because the singular other person on our specialized team had found a way to take all the easiest tasks, and also gotten into the habit of finding little ways to misrepresent the workload and the quality of work produced by whoever was working with her so that she could undermine the boss’s perception of that person and could continue to be the ‘senior’ team member and therefor continue delegating tasks and keep giving herself the easy stuff.

          It stopped working for her because I came in already experienced in this specialized task and it became quickly obvious that I was as competent as she was, so it started looking very strange to management when she continued trying to pull ‘seniority’ and micro-manage my work.

    2. Rose*

      This is ex’s let why this language is so crappy. It’s not just nitpicking, there’s a huge lack of clarity

    3. Lady Ann*

      I had a boss who did this and it was actually very confusing! I remember one time in particular where I was attending a job fair and she said “great, we’ll contact (people who had all the materials for the job fair) and you’ll be good to go” but what she actually meant was she wanted ME to do that, which I didn’t understand at all, which left me scrambling at the last minute to get what I needed. I agree 100% this is annoying as all heck but also now that you know this is how your boss communicates, you probably just need to work with it.

    4. alynn*

      It seems okay to me to say something the next time your boss uses ‘we’ this way -and for LW2. I would think it would be extremely helpful for a manager to know they are not communicating clearly, assuming they would be open to feedback.

      Something like: whenever you use ‘we’ this way I cannot tell if you mean you want me to do all of it or part of it -and if part, what parts. This directly affects my ability to organize and prioritize my workload.

  7. Aggretsuko*

    LW1: hahahah, I could have written this one. My friend is probably bringing a lot of her difficulties upon herself–arguing with people, standing up for herself, and then somehow her contract ends a lot sooner than expected or someone throws her under the bus and she always hates her coworkers…..Seriously, it’s not my business and I just sympathize and stay out of it. I’m not at her jobs and I don’t work in her industry so I can’t REALLY say what is going on, she doesn’t want to hear it, it’s everyone else’s fault anyway….blah blah blah. It’s not worth it to get mixed up in that drama.
    Also, lord knows I am That Friend Who Bitches About Her Job And Does Nothing About It, so I can’t judge on that topic either :P

    LW5: Happened to a coworker of mine….she did not get the job. I presume our boss was nice about it, but I gather it was awkward when she found out at the interview that had happened. If you interview at somewhere like a university, this can happen to you. Hopefully LW5 will be nice about it, I presume.

    1. JC*

      Yeah I have a friend exactly like OP1- everything is always someone else’s fault- the boss, the coworkers, the clients- and they have had several short term jobs over the years as things never work out and they get let go at the end of the training period. I eventually snapped and told my friend that the common element was them and I highly doubted that every single company was really that bad. I had to cut the friendship as it was so draining to try to support someone who refused to self reflect and take accountability for their combative personality (being rude to coworkers and yelling at the boss is never acceptable).

        1. Rusty Shackelford*

          As do I. She’s lost every job she ever had because people (1) hated her, (2) were jealous of her, or (3) both.

      1. anonymous73*

        I bet she was the same way in her life outside of work huh? I had one of those type of friends and I finally ended it. Best thing I ever did.

      2. Annony*

        Jumping on the me too bandwagon. My friend has been spoken to about their dress at multiple jobs and keeps insisting they are the only one with any fashion sense. *eye roll*

    2. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

      I’m a trained counselor, in the job search industry, and my next door neighbor of 13 years hasn’t held a job for more than a year. She sabotages herself, she gets fired with strange and vague reasons, she dithers around about looking for other positions …

      Recently, she was yammering on about how she had to meditate on what her perfect job would be and then she could look for work. I stopped her right there, told her that her perfect job probably doesn’t exist, and that if she actually wanted a job, she needs to open up the job listings and start applying, ffs.

      I direct all “no one understands me and they’re mean to me” dramas to be addressed in her therapy appointments — “it sounds like that’s a situation you need to build a defense for.”

      I mean, I know what’s wrong … her effective interpersonal coping strategies are locked at the 12 year old level … but I no longer choose to take those challenges on.

  8. Jay*

    To LW#3:
    I expect that you have become the Office Bogyman.
    I’ve heard it from a few folks I’ve known over the years and even been in a workplace that had one.
    Everything bad that happened at that workplace was the fault of the Office Bogyman.
    The Office Bogyman wrights every bad review.
    Every client that gets fed up with their crap and leaves was in ‘reality’ turned against them by the insidious efforts of the Office Bogyman.
    Every economic downturn is an act of sabotage by the Office Bogyman.
    Usually it’s just a way for the people in charge to kick the blame for their own failings onto someone else, especially if that someone is long gone and has no earthly idea it’s even happening at all.
    There really isn’t much you can do about it, and normally it’s not WORTH doing anything about. You can’t really argue with that kind of crazy.
    The only exception is if the people involved are doing real, actual harm to your reputation.

    1. John Smith*

      Ooooh I like this! I am proudly going to add bogeyman to my CV seeing as everything that goes wrong in my office is my fault, even when I’m not there!

      Hopefully if the ex employee is as toxic and dysfunctional as the OP says (and it sounds it given the son’s reaction), it will become apparent. Good escape, OP. Pay no attention to them. They’re not worth your thoughts.

    2. T2*

      There is righteousness in truth. 8 years on the old company does not deserve the space in their head they apparently occupy.

      You owe them nothing. They deserve nothing. So give them nothing.

      I would just tell them as kindly as possible, but firmly “I have no interest in you or your company.” And then optionally follow it up with a Willy Wonka “good day sir!”

      I am curious how trash talking a former employer is professional suicide though. That’s a long jump in logic.

      1. OP3*

        Niche industry, one of those deals where everyone knows everyone else. But yes, an all around gossip filled industry. However, if the old company is ever contacted for a reference I can only imagine what they would say. And I don’t have anyone else in that old industry that comes to mind who would be willing to give me one outside of my old company. Plus it’s just not good to talk negatively about an ex-employer no matter how toxic the place was.

        1. Snow Globe*

          My thought is that in such a close industry where everyone knows one another, people probably know how dysfunctional that place is and are unlikely to put much stock in anything your former boss says about you anyway.

          1. madge*

            This. I’ve been with my current department for more than a decade and only recently found out that we have a reputation for difficult leadership (my boss is outstanding but some of the grands are…not). I can nearly guarantee that other people will feel sympathy for OP and not take any of old company’s trash-talking seriously.

          2. GlitsyGus*

            Yeah, I used to also work in one of those small industries. One of the places I worked for, anytime someone saw it on my resume, they would be like, “oh, so how did that go?” Usually with either a smirk or a very concerned look. That is the upside to that small industry thing. If you get caught up in the nonsense, most people are aware that they are the nonsense, not you.

        2. Cthulhu's Librarian*

          Chances are good that the person who spoke to you overheard family dinner table talk (it sounds like he was a relative, not a worker of the company owner?) – which, with how prone to hyperbole a lot of people are (it makes for a better story), means he probably doesn’t have any real understanding of how the company views you. I wouldn’t let it eat at your mind.

          If old company is contacted for a reference (and they’re smart), they’ll keep things truthful – not doing so is opening them up to way too much in the way of issues. If you are concerned about that, of course, you can always fake have a friend fake a reference check with the company and see what they do say, or call the company and ask for a copy of your personnel file to see what sort of notes are in it (fair warning, most small family run companies like this don’t actually have a decent personnel system, though).

          1. Mockingjay*

            Yeah, agree it was the owner’s griping. When you left OP3, the owners VERY quickly realized just how much work you did, correctly and consistently, because you were two of the legs of the three-legged stool. And because they weren’t good business persons or managers to begin with, they couldn’t rebalance the stool so instead made you the scapegoat, because blame and gossip are far easier to do than work.

        3. learnedthehardway*

          If it is a niche industry and gossipy, like you say, then EVERYONE in the industry knows your former employer was a pit of vipers, and you don’t have to worry. In fact, just be professional when referring to them – even if that means saying “I worked for the company for 8 years, but don’t feel comfortable discussing them”, if asked what you think of them. (That says it all, and isn’t trashing them.)

          What you do need to do is to make it clear that you were not one of the vipers. To do this without trashing the company, talk about how you moved to your next company for the “positive corporate culture / amazing team environment / great people / amazing leadership” and be positive about the other companies for which you worked. Basically, damn the viper’s next with faint praise.

          Depending on how long it is since you left the company, you might not need to even use them as a reference. And since you’re in a new industry, it’s even less likely that this company would be important as a reference. If you do need to use them, it’s okay to pre-warn the recruiter or hiring manager that your departure was taken personally by the owner, and you’re not sure how they will respond.

        4. Betteauroan*

          Thankfully, it’s been 8 years so it’s unlikely a future possible employer would go back that far for a reference, if OP has more recent ones and she probably does. Or he.

    3. Rayray*

      I agree. I think anyone who had worked for a small business where many employees were related to each other or at least have known each other a long time knows this situation all too well. I feel like everything at the small business I worked at was taken super personally and they definitely held grudges. Big time. It was tough on me as a young 20 something and even now I still struggle with workplace dynamics because of it. On the bright side, I learned to put a hard stop to staying out of drama and keeping my mouth shut. On the downside, I worry about the smack talk if I make a simple error or have the audacity to make a well-meaning suggestion to anyone about our workflow. I still struggle to speak up in meetings by just for fear that my ideas will get shut down but that I’ll have a target on my back for daring to “overstep”.

      1. Ama*

        The last university admin job I had I think one particular person probably did blame a lot of stuff on me after I left — she and I disagreed a lot on how I handled my own work projects (to the extent that our mutual manager had to tell her to back off, and that if she was getting the info she needed from me it didn’t matter how I was getting to that point). I have a feeling that if she was involved in training my replacement or just covering some of my tasks after I left she did a lot of loud grumbling about how “Ama didn’t do this correctly” when she really meant “Ama didn’t do this the way I would have done it.” So someone coming in after I left could have easily got the impression I wasn’t the greatest employee if they only listened to that person, but you can’t control that kind of thing and you’ll only make yourself stressed and anxious if you try.

        1. Pippin*

          Also university: My co-worker and I left a toxic boss within a week of each other-we were the only staff members. No one thought to ask us why. OK, whatever. A few months later, I’m introduced to my replacement and we hit it off as friends. The first time we actually had coffee, he told me he wasn’t sure what I would be like. Because toxic boss blamed any and everything that went wrong after we left on us. My replacement also told me that he had met someone on campus who had heard how “horrible” my co-worker and I had been and how we left toxic boss in the lurch. AND he was at a national organization meeting and heard from someone else the same thing. I still have a document on my computer listing the toxic behaviors of my ex-boss (I left the job 5 years ago). Obviously I still have a resentment!

    4. Jam Today*

      Hard agree. It was definitely a bitter pill I’ve had to swallow in the past, but I’ve come to the “acceptance” stage of grieving that when I leave a job, I will be blamed for everything that goes wrong, even if I was the only person (which has been true in two cases) who was trying to stop things from going wrong.

      There’s a management joke about this, that I find very freeing for this reason:

      A new manager starts at a job, after her predecessor resigned. On her first day, she sits down at her desk and sees a letter from the woman who had her job previously. The letter says, “In this desk are two envelopes. When the first crisis happens, open the first envelope. When the next crisis happens, open the second.” Weeks and months go by without incident, and then out of nowhere a crisis in her division happens. Remembering the letter, she finds the first envelope and opens it. Inside, there is a note that says “Blame everything on the previous manager.” She feels a little hesitant about this, but does so and within a couple of weeks the crisis is managed and everyone is happy with her leadership skills. Time goes by, and a couple of years later a new crisis emerges. Remembering the advice, she find the second envelope and opens it. Inside there a note that says “First, get two envelopes…”

      1. Olivia Mansfield*

        Ha we had a new coworker who spent a whole year blaming everything on “my predecessor”; like nearly every word out of her mouth was “my predecessor” did this wrong, and “my predecessor” did that wrong. Finally it was time for her annual evaluation and right before she went in to the dean’s office, he announced in front of everybody, “You’ve been here for a year now, so I don’t want to hear anything about your predecessor in this meeting; I think from this point forward that it’s all you.” She looked utterly terrified as she followed him into his office . . ..

    5. Ray Gillette*

      In Star Trek: TNG, the Klingon Empire did this with Mogh. They figured if they blamed all their problems on someone no longer with them (in this case, because he was dead), they could brush all their problems under the rug and proceed exactly as they had before with no consequences. Of course, they didn’t bank on him having two surviving children who would take issue with this narrative…

      This means LW3 is Worf.

    6. Paulina*

      The Bogeyman interpretation sounds quite likely. Similarly, Alison’s suggestion that OP may have been confused with another departed employee. It’s been 8 years, and both the workplace and most of the coworkers were toxic — chances are someone else left on bad terms and anyone the son recognizes as being a former employee could potentially be them.

  9. Lady of the Lab*

    Wrt LW #2: My old supervisor would sometimes say this (a) as a way of getting me to add something to my plate when I’d already said that I was over committed and sometimes (b) in terms of weather we had the actual infrastructure.
    I could never tell which one it was and it definitely stressed me out

    After about 2 years I perfected the answer ‘I dont think we’d need to buy anything else, but I’m probably the only one here with existing expertise and I won’t have the bandwidth to either do it, or support someone trying to learn how unless X Y or Z are pushed back.’

    Of course if I did have space on my docket I would just say ‘yes’ without the preamble, but we were pretty much always running on all cylinders

  10. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd (ENTP)*

    OP1 (friend venting about jobs) – I’d encourage you to think about where this anxiety is coming from. Would you feel the same way if she was venting about things like relationships and all the [preferred gender] out there suck and are not suitable partners, etc? Or is it just about work?

    I think the difference with a friend in this situation and a partner is that you aren’t financially linked (I assume) with the friend, so jobs not working out etc has no real impact on you other than it will generate more venting…whereas if it was your ‘SO’ who kept quitting jobs due to catty co-workers etc I can see that that would be more anxiety inducing.

    You don’t actually have a duty to support her about all this at all, so if you’ve had the meta-conversation about how this is all very draining etc and she doesn’t change – another option is to pull back on the amount of interaction you have with her. It all sounds very one-way.

    1. Eden*

      It sounds one-was because OP is only describing this one part of their friendship. There is zero reason to believe this is the sum of their interactions.

  11. WoodswomanWrites*

    #1, I knew someone who had been fired and complained about how unfair it was. I gave them resume advice, and did a mock interview with them for a job they were applying for. A response to one of my questions was something along the lines of not liking to be told what to do. Ugh. They got the job and were fired again, and still didn’t get it. For this person, it was indicative of not taking responsibility for their life in general and continually identifying as a victim. When they moved away, I let the relationship end. They moved back to my area a couple years ago and last I saw from LinkedIn, they’re picking up freelance work as a contractor. Self-employment is a much better fit for them.

    1. John Smith*

      I have a friend who was in a similar situation. She worked in call centres and was forever moaning (understandably – call centres are not supposed to be). But it was draining. Eventually after a hard look at her career prospects she left the human battery farms, went to university and got a degree in some sciencey subject. Whilst there she was diagnosed with autism (and a strong introvert), and this explained why and how she couldn’t cope previously. She is a now a happy as Larry head researcher with a completely different outlook on life and doing well for herself. Yeah she moans a little still but only as much as anyone else does. Sometimes it’s not the person, it’s the situation they’re in.

  12. John Smith*

    #2. My sympathies. My boss uses “we” until things invariably go tits up (due to him and his meddling) and then all of a sudden it’s “you” (as in me). When he assigns me a task, I ask what his involvement will be. He can never answer beyond “overall supervision” or similar. So on I crack with the task, he comes along, interferes, buggers it up and asks why I didn’t do what he asked. I’ll respond with what “we” (I) did and what “we” (he) did to mess it up. The baroquean leaps of logic he manages to concoct to excuse himself actually impresses me.

    1. Freelance Everything*

      #2 I’m currently working with someone who uses ellipsis (…) as a full stop.

      Drove me insane at the beginning trying to figure out the tone of their emails

      But then they actually used an ‘ellipsis’ in their work and it was 6 dots (……)

      I’m still utterly baffled by it and wonder how on earth anyone got like this but at this I can judge the tone now…

      1. Hello, I’d like to report my boss*

        This would send me absolutely crazy … It sounds like someone is always trailing off … I’d always be annoyed at how vague and wishy washy they sounded …

          1. banoffee pie*

            It sounds like Lumberg in Office Space… yeah…so I’m gonna need you to go ahead and fill out those TPS reports…

              1. banoffee pie*

                Yeah I know someone who uses two dots at the end of every sentence.. It’s annoying.. Like, I’m not totally sure this sentence is over, so I’m not using a full stop.. But I can’t commit to a proper ellipsis either..

                1. Adds*

                  My husband does this. I find it mostly occurs when he’s using his phone to type and the software automatically inputs a period with a double space after he manually enters one. Still weird though.

      2. alynn*

        One of my previous managers would do this! At the END of an email.
        Eventually, I asked about it and they said it indicated the continuation of the thought -as in the thought was not complete. My mental response was why are you sending unfinished emails.

        No one could ever understand any direction this person sent via email. I had to get verbal clarification every time.

        1. John Smith*

          Ooooh annoying. My boss is the same with directions by email. Here’s a recent example.
          “Boss, do you want me to do X (4 days) or Y (3 days) first?”

          His response: “Yes please. They need to be done asap so if you can do them first as a matter of priority.”.

          “Yes, but which one do you want doing first, X or Y?”

          “If you can do both of them please.”

          “Yes, I will do both of them. But I’m asking which one you want doing first, X or Y? They can’t be done at the same time.”

          “I fail to see what is so difficult to understand about this simple instruction. Please intuit [his actual word] which one you understand to be the highest priority and inform me when they’re done”.

          3 days later: ” boss, I’ve done Y so X will be ready by Friday.”

          “I’m very disappointed you didn’t do X first as that is the one I needed completing most urgently. Im concerned with your seeming inability to follow managerial instructions. We will talk about this in your next review”

          Me:. Laughs at the imbecile. Prints emails as evidence of his incompetence. Thinks about what to have for dinner.

          1. Analytical Tree Hugger*

            Ooooh, that’s awful.

            My rule (when I can make it happen) is, “If it’s still unclear after two emails, I’m calling you.”

        2. JB*

          Ooh I have to work with a higher-up like this sometimes. Getting clear responses from them on anything is like pulling teeth.

          Yes, they’re using it to indicate their thought isn’t finished. No, they see no problem with sending an email full of half-finished thoughts and no complete sentences.

          I tolerate it by reminding myself that not everyone is a good textual communicator. Then I pick up the phone, call him, ask what he meant (he’s perfectly clear when speaking) and then follow up with an email to confirm in writing what he told me.

          He’s very good at what he does in general, which is why he’s high up in the company, but it’s like he has no ability to read back what he’s written and realize he hasn’t communicated anything meaningful.

      3. Olivia Mansfield*

        I’m reading it like it’s The Office: “Oh my god, that’s five dots: Dot, dot, dot, dot, dot!”

      4. Lorac*

        One of my previous managers did this too! It was driving me bonkers.

        Literally at my first week, she sent me an email going “Congratulations on completing your first report…” and I was sitting there wondering if I’d messed up and she was passive-aggressively trying to make a point about something.

        But she did that for everything! “We need to meet after lunch….” “The client emailed me back and told me about XYZ…”

        1. Freelance Everything*

          Exactly! I was so taken aback by the implied passive aggression the first time I saw it.

          ‘Okay great…’

          …is it though?

    2. T2*

      When I first was in a supervisor role in a fast food type joint I picked up this habit. It was based on managerial training that was supposed to make me more approachable as a manager or seem like I wasn’t being demanding.

      Then I had a neuro-atypical person. This person was a really hard worker but did not understand nuance at all. I hit them with a “can we get the bathroom clean?” And he came back with a “are you inquiring about the possibility or giving me a directive?”

      Form him I learned to say, “would you please do X? We need it done by Y. Here are the requirements” Boy he was a hard worker once he clearly understood what was needed , the requirements and when. He had a little notebook where he would essentially write down everything he was asked to do. He was a point and shoot kind of guy. He still works there 30 years later and he still has his notebook.

      After 2 years I saw the wisdom in it and adopted it when I moved on and up.

      Even now, 3 decades later, when someone asks me if we can do it, my response is to clarify what needs to be done, by whole and when, usually documented in writing in my notebook.

      1. JB*

        Ooh I’m glad you adapted out of that habit. In the context you’re describing, ‘can we-‘ from a supervisor comes across as REALLY belittling and antagonistic. They may have told you it was to make you more approachable, but that is not why they taught you to do that.

        I have absolutely no issue with authority but when I worked as a barista I had to bite my tongue every time my manager threw out a ‘can we get X done?’ like we were a class of kindergarteners. It puts you in a position where you can’t say ‘actually, we can’t, the line is five people deep’ without sounding combative.

      2. Summer Smile*

        I used to teach at a high school where it was difficult to find substitute teachers. So, the secretary who was in charge of finding coverage when someone was out used to call teachers on the intercom and say, “ Mr./ Ms. X would you mind covering for Teacher Z during your planning period?” Well, **I** always knew that she really meant, “ This is a directive. Go cover for Teacher Z during your planning period. You do NOT have a choice.” I always attributed the secretary’s communication style to the fact that we live in the South where people tend to be more oblique in their speech in the name of being polite. It’s sort of like a code that everyone understands. The problem arose from the fact that there were some people (um … men, coaches, also from out of state) who pretended that when the secretary buzzed their room and “asked” them to cover for another teacher that they were being given a choice.
        All problems ceased when the principal sent out an email and announced in a faculty meeting that when “asked” to cover for another teacher, that meant “do it.”

        I always believed that the teachers who had been saying, “no” have been purposely obtuse.

    3. Friday is not Monday*

      If my boss asked me “can we do this” I’d assume she was looking for some project-management from me, like, “hmm that’s a tight deadline, I think I can do the narrative piece and maybe Henry or Fred can start on the budget” or whatever. If I was unclear I might respond, “are you asking me to do X and you do Y?” or something. It’s literally an unclear way to phrase an assignment, IMO.

  13. Expiring Cat Memes*

    LW 3: Yeah, definitely leave it alone. This dude is working himself up about imaginary things that you allegedly said, about someone else, 8 years ago? Honestly he just sounds kind of pathetic. Don’t give him any further space in your head.

    1. Zona the Great*

      And when someone hollers and froths and foams at me in public, I simply hold a hand up and say calmly, “Sir, you’re making a fool of yourself.” Repeat as needed.

  14. Avalon Angel*

    LW1&3: Reading those letters made me think of an episode of “The Drew Carey Show,” in which Drew said (if memory serves): “Oh, you hate your job? There’s a support group for that: it’s called ‘everybody’ and they meet at the bar.”

    All joking aside, I found myself in a situation a bit like LW3’s several years ago. I was one of many managers at a largish company. A few employees were having trouble with one of the other managers, “Clara,” and came to me to ask for advice. I had very little contact with this manager and didn’t know her well. I let them vent, and at first it was very routine sorts of things they were complaining about: they felt she had favorites, she was often abrupt with them, etc. But then they told me something I was surprised by: she was extremely short-tempered with a trio of new employees from an Eastern European country, and for whom English was not their first language. I personally had experienced some moments of murky communication with this trio of employees, and while it was obvious they were working hard to improve, they did occasionally need clarification. The employees who came to me said they were uncomfortable and even disturbed by how Clara responded in those murky moments, which ranged from eye-rolling and passive-aggressive comments to outright screaming at them for not immediately knowing what some phrases meant (the one that sticks out in my mind was her calling them “hopelessly incompetent” for not understanding the phrase “low man on the Totem pole.”)

    I encouraged these employees to go to HR. They did, Clara got written up, and she assumed it was the foreign employees that had “badmouthed” her. I actually caught her screaming at these employees for being “tattletales” and then getting further enraged because they had no idea A) what she was talking about, and B) what “tattletale” meant. She was so angry, two of the employees were in tears. I intervened, and she tried to enlist me as a manager against these “unprofessional” employees, with zero irony detected. She was flabbergasted when I took their side.

    HR then arranged a meeting between myself, Clara, the HR rep, and two grandbosses. Clara insisted that going “behind her back” to HR was extremely unprofessional and “should not be tolerated.” She was trying to frame it as a chain-of-command issue, whereas I saw it as her harassing three employees on the basis of their country of origin. Clara was eventually moved to a different team/schedule, which HR saw as the best option available.

    A few years after I left that job, I ran into one of the trio at the mall. She told me that Clara left the company shortly after I did, much to their relief. She then told me she had been on a date night at a restaurant with her spouse when out of nowhere Clara appeared and loudly told her off for “ruining” her career with their “stupidity.” She once again insisted the trio were lying when they told her someone else went to HR. She would not leave this poor woman alone, and was eventually asked to leave by the restaurant manager.

    Some people just love to hold grudges, and nothing you say or do is going to change that.

    1. MissBaudelaire*

      Holy crap.

      That is a bananas story. The fact that Clara would call anything unprofessional when she’s engaging in that kind of behavior is just.. ridiculous.

      1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        Some leopards never change their spots. Sounds like Clara was one of those bullies who wasn’t ever willing to learn to be better.

        1. Mannequin*

          In fact, she reminds me of the LW who wrote in because a girl she bullied in high school was now the rock star employ at a place she really wanted to work & she couldn’t get an interview because of it.

          When they sent in an update, their life had fallen to shambles (partially due to their own bad decisions), they ran into the rockstar they once bullied at a restaurant, where she was celebrating her anniversary. LW drunkenly screamed at her for “ruining her life”.& had to be tossed out of the restaurant too.

    2. The Smiling Pug*

      Whoa, thank you for sharing this story. I’ll be on the lookout for managers like Clara. O.o

  15. Hello, I’d like to report my boss*

    As a very new corporate associate I got genuinely confused when one of the seniors said “Can we do xyz today?” Meaning, “YOU need to do xyz today.” My reply of “if you would do X, I’ll do Y and Z, but it’ll be tomorrow” was not the correct interpretation! At least I worked it out after a couple of times what people really meant.

    1. Hazel*

      A while back, a close friend had an admin for the first time, and she felt weird telling someone else what to do. She asked me about it because I had been an admin for a few years, and I said the most annoying thing for me was when I didn’t get clear instructions. I couldn’t understand why my boss was being weird about telling me what needed to be done. That was MY JOB! It’s much better when the boss is clear, along with being polite and respectful. It’s like they’re thinking that doing the admin job is somehow less-than, and they need to soften the blow. That made me feel like I was making them uncomfortable. Utterly stupid and unnecessary. In the OP’s situation, though, I think I’d inwardly roll my eyes hard every time I heard “can we,” but I don’t I’d waste energy bringing it up.

  16. Freelance Everything*

    #2 I’m currently working with someone who uses ellipsis (…) as a full stop.

    Drove me insane at the beginning trying to figure out the tone of their emails

    But then they actually used an ‘ellipsis’ in their work and it was 6 dots (……)

    I’m still utterly baffled by it and wonder how on earth anyone got like this but at this I can judge the tone now…

    1. SnapCrackleStop*

      We’ve got a couple of folks who use ellipses that way in our office, too. Definitely takes some getting used to, but folks must have learned it from somewhere strongly enough to stick.

    2. Hazel*

      Maybe their keyboard had a problem… (sorry, I couldn’t stop myself!) since their actual ellipsis had 6 dots?

    3. AES*

      You know, I DO use ellipses in email, but it’s generally to indicate “I have other stuff I want to say here but I can’t say it in work email just in case so I’m just going to trail off and let you fill in the ending mentally” (for example, “I know this isn’t the approach we initially discussed, but the client has asked us to do it, so…”) I would be more confused for sure if people just stopped all their sentences like that…

      1. Freelance Everything*

        It’s definitely the latter.

        I send an update/clarification on a project and I get ‘Okay, that’s great…’ back.

        The one time it was a genuine trailing though ‘but that section isn’t finished though……’ <six dots.

    4. Extroverted Bean Counter*

      This is actually a Thing!

      Many people (typically within a certain age range but it’s not strictly a generational divide) see the ellipses as a “softening” of a statement. They tend to be folk who still primarily do not communicate via text platforms and therefore have not adapted to the nuances of shorter-text chatting.

      Eg: I text my mom to see if she’d like to go to lunch. She’ll reply “sure…”

      Which to me reads as sarcastic! But for her she means it as a gentle agreement. A “sure” or “sure.” or even “sure!” reads as abrupt/angry.

  17. Green great dragon*

    #3 – maybe somebody told him that somebody told them that somebody had overheard you saying something to someone… these things happen, and something that started out as a mild complaint can end up sounding like you’re completely unhinged. And I wouldn’t be surprised if current employees used your name as back up (‘Jerome said that there were always problems with this system too’).

    Let it go, he’s probably not going round complaining to third parties about you, and if he is he’s going to sound very odd.

  18. Finland isn't real*

    LW #1: I’ve been the friend who constantly complains about work (and was bringing a lot of issues upon myself and overreacting to a lot.) It got to the point where everyone in my life just started telling me to quit my job every single time I started complaining. Literally along the lines of, “Veronica, you say this literally every day, if you hate it so much, quit or find a way to make it work.”

    The jobs weren’t really the problem though, I was struggling with the worst (undiagnosed) depression of my life and had no motivation at all. That’s what made me so cynical about everything at work. Some sweet friends of mine witnessed a pretty nasty breakdown induced by stress at work and encouraged me to seek help and helped me get set up with a great therapist. I left my job, spent some time in therapy recovering, and since starting my new job I’d say I vent a normal amount.

    If your friend is causing all these problems for herself, it’s worth considering that she might be struggling with more than just being a brat or being clueless. She might be acting sh*tty because there’s some underlying issue there. I was very lucky that my friends (who I am 100% sure were sick and tired of my whining) were kind enough to stick with me whilst I dealt with my problems.

    1. Nope*

      I think this is a great point, but as you’ll see in most of the comments, empathy isn’t really this comment section’s strength.

  19. Mary*

    OP2 this brings back such bad memories of an awful boss, who I’m pretty sure had a personal issue with me. She would use “we” for everything and would do certain tasks I was responsible for, and I thought it was supposed to be that way. Then out of nowhere she flipped out on me (rudely) how she has to do everything for me. But then whenever I tried to get clarification, I would still get the weak “we” and “I’m here for you”, with absolutely no specifics. Eventually I gave up because she was so passive aggressive towards me and would get defensive and nasty when I would ask for clarification on anything. Thankfully she ended up leaving a few months after, but it really took a toll on my confidence and personal and work judgement.

    I now work for a sane boss which has helped lol. Last I looked on LinkedIn my previous boss was failing upwards, of course.

  20. OP3*

    OP3 here. Thank you all for the input. The few trusted friends I shared this with confirmed what’s been said so far that the problem is with how he handled it, not me. Everyone said the same thing, that it was on him if he had an issue with me, and it should have been brought up sooner, and not by attacking me in public. However, the intensity of the verbal attack left me reeling, and very stunned.

  21. OP3*

    Thank you all for the input. The few friends who I have confided in about the matter were just stunned at his handling of the situation. However the viciousness of the accusations left me stunned and the fact that he let it fester for so long.

    1. blackcat lady*

      If nothing else this encounter is solid proof you made the right decision to leave the job. It’s very hard to do but let it go and don’t let the guy have rent free space in your head. You are so much better off today and don’t need to look back and worry about the past toxic job.

  22. agnes*

    OP #4 I find this kind of odd actually. We would not do that in my organization, just to assure that there is no undue influence in either direction (advocacy or blocking). Other candidates could see this as an unfair advantage for your direct report if they are aware this person is in the candidate pool—and they might be. Is it really necessary for you to be on this hiring committee? You would actually be more useful as a reference.

    1. ecnaseener*

      OP4 already offered to recuse themself and was told not to. Do you think they should push it?

      1. agnes*

        I would actually not “ask permission” but just move forward with recusing myself. If my input were really necessary to hire properly for the position, I might interview the other candidates, but not my direct report. I’d provide my insights about my direct report as a reference.

    2. BethDH*

      It sounds like there is a lead on this who has power who is aware of the situation and has said no, and this is not an “all voices have equal say” panel. Presumably the lead can make the call and weight the OP’s comment as needed.
      Why would providing the same information as a reference be any less conflicted? They know what they’re giving the reference for so the same pushing/preventing dynamic would be there if it were anywhere.

    3. MCMonkeyBean*

      If Jane is a good worker and would genuinely be a good fit for the new role, I think it actually seems like a perfectly fair advantage if OP’s knowledge of her good work is part of what helps her get it. It wouldn’t be like giving her the job as a favor or some kind of nepotism–it would just be because of her work skills, which is a good reason to give someone a job! And it seems like that’s generally a major benefit of an internal hire, being able to hire a known quantity.

      1. A Friend Indeed*

        Hard agree on this. By nature of being an employee already, this candidate has an advantage over others because, if all other things are equal, they are already aware of the company, its culture, its ways of working, its processes, etc. If the employee is good, this is a great retention technique and way to honor their talents and skills. If they’re not the best candidate, then all things are not equal, making it moot. The manager appears to be willing to maintain objectivity on this, has already volunteered their recusal and been rebuffed, and can likely offer levels of insight to the committee that is very valuable in both nuanced and general ways.

        As long as everyone is being honest and transparent, this is actually a good thing. Allison’s advice is solid–tell the employee, give them the runway, and try to move forward. Taking them by surprise is a disastrous call. If they are looking to leave anyway, opening communication makes it a softer landing for you and them when they do finally leave, and if they’re genuinely just interested in this one position because of its specifics, it’s a great opportunity to look at growth planning for them, no matter how the position gets resolved.

  23. hlinak*

    Re: Phrasing #2

    I am technically not in management but am the most senior nonmanager in my group and thus get a lot of tasks and do need the junior folks to help out. I totally say can “we” do something rather than “you” mostly because I need their help (and they need to help) but I can’t tell them what to do.

    1. Claire*

      You can still ask them “Will you be able to do this by X time?”

      “We” is fine when you are you asking the whole group or team. But if you mean one person, even if you’re asking not telling, make sure they know you’re asking them specifically.

    2. londonedit*

      I’m an editor, which means I work with a lot of authors to shepherd their book through the publishing process, and I often have to ask them to do things to a particular deadline or chase them for things they haven’t supplied. The relationship is such that I can’t really order them to do anything – they’re the ‘talent’ and we’re working on their masterpiece (a little hyperbolic, but you know what I mean). I still wouldn’t say ‘Can we have the final corrections by Tuesday’. I do often use ‘we’ because I want them to feel that we’re all on a team working together – ‘We need to send the final corrections off this week, because the typesetter is currently extremely busy’, for example – but if I’m asking them to do something it’s ‘Please send me your corrections by Tuesday’, ‘Could you please send me your corrections by Tuesday’ or ‘Would you be able to send me your corrections by Tuesday? Let me know if this is a problem’.

        1. AES*

          Yes. Speaking from experience, very much yes. (Coupled with the fact that heads of academic departments rarely have actual authority to make anyone do anything!)

  24. Cat Lover*

    I sometimes find myself doing the “we” thing… I teach figure skating on the side and I think I picked that up from how I talk with kids. (“Can we please bend our knees when we skate?”). I try not to do it with adults, lol.

    1. Long Time Reader*

      This is so helpful! I’m realizing I do this as well… and that’s after several years working primarily with kids, then being home with my own two for awhile. OP3, your manager may not change but I’m certainly going to pay more attention to this!

  25. Holy Carp*

    LW3: My first guess would be that someone left a comment on Glassdoor or another review site, and they assumed it was you.

    1. Lacey*

      Oh good guess. Or, someone said, “A former employee told me x” and they assumed it was LW3.

      I worked at a place where any number of people have complained about it after – but you wouldn’t necessarily assume they would. I was pretty vocal about things I thought were problems, so I can absolutely see them assuming it was me – even though I have zero contact with any clients now that I’m done there.

  26. The Other Dawn*

    RE: #4

    OP, please tell Jane you’re on the hiring committee so she’s prepared when she goes for the interview. If she’s unaware, it would likely be quite jarring for her to walk in and see you there, which will may cause her to be flustered and not interview as well.

    1. MissMaple*

      I’ve been on the opposite side of a similar situation, and I have to agree. My supervisor was aware that I was applying for a role and we’d even discussed it briefly, so I was surprised when she was on the panel considering she had several chances to mention it. I was worried the whole time that every example and answer I gave that happened while I worked for her would be something that she had a different interpretation of, or had first-hand experience that I didn’t handle as well as I thought I did.

      1. MCMonkeyBean*

        Ooh, wow, that is super weird that they didn’t give you a heads up when you had specifically discussed the role! How would they not think to mention that!?

        1. A Friend Indeed*

          Sounds to me like that manager was sabotaging the candidacy, or at least not very happy to lose the person. Real shame. Total lost opportunity for the organization, and the employee, because honest/transparent dialog was no longer possible and company didn’t get the best opportunity to interview someone that could be a net benefit to their needs.

  27. Lacey*

    I’m kind of amused at how many people have a problem with the “can we…” phrasing. People have done this everywhere I work and I just assume it’s because we are working on this project – even though the people making the request aren’t doing anything with this particular bit.

    For example, I design a lot of ads and when people want to know if an option is possible they say, “Can we put a photo of an elephant in a tutu on here?” And no, they don’t have any part of putting that elephant on the ad, but it’s our ad that we’re creating.

    1. Lynn*

      I agree. I have gotten this from a lot of bosses over the years, and it hasn’t bothered me-the team is working on something, so it is very often “can we do XXXX” or ” should we consider YYYY in our decision.” Then I might have to follow up to see just which part of “we” is going to be doing something. But the wording itself is something I have seen a lot.

      Unfortunately, “we” have never been in a position to add an elephant to any of our projects (let alone one with a tutu), but I’d like to be considered for that particular team. :>

      1. Office Lobster DJ*

        Never thought about it, but I use this going in the opposite direction, to flag things for managers. “Have we considered how X would fit in?” usually means something like “X is going to be a big problem here, let’s discuss” (or sometimes “Are you even serious right now?! How could you forget about X????”)

    2. MCMonkeyBean*

      I think there are contexts where it would make sense and some where it would not. It’s hard to say how weird OP’s boss is being without more specific examples. I do think your example makes sense to say “we”, but can also imagine some people in your position being annoyed by it.

      I agree with Alison that unless the boss fails to give appropriate credit in other ways it’s best to just try not to be annoyed by it.

    3. I'm just here for the cats!*

      I agree. I think it’s a bit nit picky and I don’t see the problem unless there are other factors besides the “we” thing.

      I saw this when I worked in a call center. They Manger would use we “like we are going into the busy season so we can expect a lot more calls this month. So we need to all do X, Y and Z to prepare. ” They didn’t have to do XYZ because they didn’t take calls.

    4. Sara without an H*

      Yeah, I would just chalk this one up to “silly boss tricks,” and leave it at that, assuming the manager is otherwise competent.

      OP#2 should probably make it a habit to ask lots of followup questions, if the manager’s mealy-mouthed phrasing really leaves anything unclear. But otherwise, I’d let this go.

      1. Your retail assistant*

        I think that OP#2 should always interpret “we” as “our team”. So, “can we do xyz” becomes “can our team do xyz”, and it’s about seeing if there’s enough bandwidth in the team as a whole to handle it. (And if it’s a team of 2, just OP and their manager, it’s a little weird but whatever.)

  28. anonymous73*

    #1 I know she’s your friend and you want her to be happy and successful, but this is not your problem to take on and you need to not let it affect your mental health. It’s obvious by her reactions to your advice that she doesn’t want any help, she just wants you to justify her thoughts and actions. In other parts of her life, does she blame everyone else for her problems and it’s NEVER her fault? Does she make excuses for things that she’s done, and never take responsibility for her part in it? I had a friend like this for over 40 years, and finally came to the realization that she was never going to change (she was incapable of having a rational adult conversation – when I would try and explain how her actions made me feel, she didn’t listen, interrupted me constantly, and pointed out every bad thing I’ve ever done in the past) and she was making my life miserable, and I was only hanging on to the relationship because of time invested. And my only regret is that I didn’t end the friendship sooner. I’m not saying you have to drop her as your friend, but it may be worth a reevaluation of it and figuring out if it truly makes you happy. A friend’s problems at work shouldn’t be making you anxious.

  29. Alice*

    OP1, I feel you… I’m no longer on good terms with an acquaintance because I was fed up with his incessant complaining. For several months I’d listened to his tales of woe (all self inflicted) and I’d been trying to hint that it was up to him to make amends. Eventually I told him clearly that, since I disagreed with his assessment that everyone but him was to blame, I didn’t want to discuss the subject any further. He immediately followed up with “you’re wrong and I will now debate you to show I’m right”, so I just stopped talking to him. Being supportive doesn’t mean you need to 100% approve of anything someone says!

  30. OP2*

    Thanks all for your comments!

    To clarify, my boss uses “can we” on tasks that are clearly only for me. For example, she’ll ask “can we add this information to the newsletter” when I am the only one who touches the newsletter and she wouldn’t know how to add something herself. She truly uses it instead of “please add this to the newsletter.” She also uses it in cases that are less clear, but it’s easier to ask for clarification in those situations since I genuinely don’t know.

    Something I should have mentioned is that she is a new manager, and any time I introduce her to someone as my boss, she corrects me and says “no, we are on the same team.” It makes meetings super uncomfortable.

    I really think she is uncomfortable with being a manager. Hopefully this will fade with time.

    1. blackcatlady*

      She is a new manager and trying to find her footing. Maybe with time (and pray for management training) she will change. For now, it might help to try humor. My old boss would say ‘we did, or can we’ when they really meant one of us. It became a joke in the group – boss is using the ‘Royal We’ phrasing again.

    2. JB*

      Oooh it does sound like she’s uncomfortable with managing. The thing where she ‘corrects’ you about being your boss would drive me batty.

      It might help to have a frank conversation with her about how her leadership hesitancy is impacting you – that it makes her communications confusing, makes you feel like she is taking credit for your work, and that she’s unintentionally embarrassing you and confusing other people when she refuses to be called your boss. Only she can really fix this behavior, but that feedback might give her the push to realize she needs to address it.

      1. LilyP*

        Especially not wanting to be called your boss (!!) which is so weird. You definitely need to figure that out with her or other people are going to be really confused. Does she really think she’s not your boss? Would “manager” or “supervisor” or “team lead” be ok if “boss” feels too authoritarian for her?

    3. I'm just here for the cats!*

      Thank you for the clarification OP2. I do still think you need to let this go. If she is saying can we add X to the newsletter she may be asking “Can this go into the newsletter? Is there room for it? Is it possible” My boss does this. For example, I create digital signs that go up in our office and around campus. She will come and ask “Can we do Y thing on the sign” Meaning Is this possible or will the system not allow it. She says this because she doesn’t know how the signs operate but realizes there are limitations.

    4. Marion Ravenwood*

      Yep, I think it’s the fact that she’s a new manager that might be driving this. Can I also ask: is she a similar age to you or younger? And has she been moved into a management role from elsewhere in the business or is she new to the organisation as a whole?

      You’re right that it may be something that fades with time (and training), but I also wonder if there’s an opportunity to say that it is OK for her to tell you to do things. Mid year reviews are coming up in a lot of places – I know a lot of managers ask for feedback from their team as part of this so that could be a way to do it, or if you have regular one-to-ones or similar.

    5. Sara without an H*

      This explains a lot. She may grow out of it, as she becomes more comfortable in her new role. Or you could try saying something like, “You know, I really respect you as my manager. I’m fine with your giving me direct instructions!” (Use a big smile and a bright, cheery tone of voice here.)

      Or you could just ignore it, and ask her lots of follow-up questions in cases when she’s not giving clear instructions. (Hard-earned advice: Be especially rigorous about getting her to clarify when things are actually due.) But stewing and feeling disrespected are not worth the time and energy.

    6. Rana*

      I would really just try not to be bothered by this. If it helps, think of her as giving you space to push back in case there was something she didn’t think about. To me, “can we” allows the “can” to actually mean “is it possible” rather than “can you” which almost always means “please do.” So in your example, saying “can we add this to the newsletter” could be leaving space for you to say “actually, there’s not room for it unless we take out the other article” or whatever. If she’s a new manager, maybe what she’s uncomfortable with is not her authority (though that could definitely be it too, and seems like it’s playing a role based on her comments when you say she’s your boss) but her knowledge and context. Is it possible she’s genuinely asking? In which case the response could be as simple as “yes we can, should I go ahead and do that?”

      But yeah, most likely it’s just a quirk of her communication style and you should ignore it to get to the true meaning of what she’s saying. Ask if you’re genuinely confused about if she is assigning it to you but if you know she means “please do this” then just do it – and feel free to roll your eyes internally :)

    7. Ahdez*

      I actually empathize with your boss, and I think the best way for you to handle it is just try to let it go and hope she grows out of it with time – although I totally get why you think it’s annoying! I think I’ve grown out of it, but in my first year of my role I used similar phrasing a lot with my direct reports. I’m younger than all of the people I supervise, look even younger than my age, and I’m a woman, so I felt some pressure to not come off as too demanding or rude, which led me to “soften” my language. I also felt weird at first giving direct instructions to people who had sometimes decades more experience than I did, so the “we” could be so that you feel like she’s including you in the decision and giving you leeway to push back. Especially if you have experience in your area.

    8. River Otter*

      she corrects me and says “no, we are on the same team.” It makes meetings super uncomfortable.

      I really think she is uncomfortable with being a manager.

      It is also possible that she really does want a dynamic that is less top down and hierarchical where instead you function as a team. What would happen if you also adopted this mindset?

      1. banoffee pie*

        From what you’ve said it sounds like this attitude of ‘not wanting to be your boss’ is coming from a good place. To me it would be better than having a manager who can’t wait to order me around. Unless it’s becoming a problem because she’s too vague and you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing, I’d let it go. It’s up to you of course (am I as annoying as your boss in not wanting to give direct instructions? probably ;)

  31. Dwight Schrute*

    OP3- this would drive me batty! I would have a really hard time letting this go and would feel the need to dig into it to find out what on earth they’re talking about/trying to clear the air. I don’t know that I actually would try to reach out but my brain would certainly be occupied by this for quite some time

    1. OP3*

      Thank you. That’s where I’m at. It was just so bizarre and out of left field. To hold on to a grudge for that long is beyond me

      1. banoffee pie*

        It’s not nice to think someone has been thinking badly of you all that time. But he might be a hot-head and when he saw you, he let loose. It doesn’t mean he’s been stewing about you all the time ever since you left the job. I totally get why you found it very unpleasant though. The aggression is what I find hard to understand, especially in public!

  32. Pumpkin215*

    LW2, I feel your pain. I’ve been at my job for 6 months and my boss uses “we” all of the time.


    At first, I was very confused when she would ask things like “Did we send the email to X?”. My response would be “Well, I didn’t send the email to them but I don’t know if you did”. Not trying to be sarcastic, but I honestly thought she was asking me if I knew what emails she sent. In reality, she was asking if “I” had done it.

    Same deal with “Can we take a look at the TPS reports?”. She doesn’t mean for us to look at them together. I also figured that out the hard way.

    It’s annoying as F, but I’ve deciphered what she wants. Seriously though, if you want me to do X, then just ask. I’ll gladly do it. It kind of reminds me of that scene in The Devil Wears Prada. Miranda keeps calling Andi by the name “Emily”. It is pointed out to her “she means you”. I don’t correct her, I just follow her form of directive.

    “We” means “You”.

    1. JB*

      It is interesting what can cause miscommunications. The examples you gave seem clear to me, but obviously they were not for you.

      I once had a coworker who had a longstanding miscommunication with our supervisor. He saw her as very set in her ways, which had me bewildered, because she was older but IME very willing to adapt and try new ways of doing things. Then I witnessed several exchanges and realizing what was going wrong.

      Boss would suggest a new procedure by asking, “why don’t we do X?”

      Coworker was hearing it as a literal question, so she’d answer, “because we’ve always done Y”.

      He didn’t mean “why aren’t you currently doing it this new way that I’ve just been thinking about” – but that was what she was hearing.

      She didn’t mean “I’m only willing to do it the way I’ve always done it” – but that’s what he was hearing.

      Eventually they’d work their way around to trying the new method, or determining it wasn’t feasible, but there was always this rough patch at the start. They’d been having this miscommunication on a regular basis for YEARS and neither of them ever realized they were misunderstanding each other.

      1. Mr. Obstinate*

        The “why don’t you do X” phrasing is a great example. Many times I’ve been on the receiving end of such a question and felt put into the difficult spot of justifying the existing procedure even if I thought that procedure was flawed — because I interpreted the question as “why did you ever follow the original procedure you were taught instead of creating a better one” instead of as “what do you think of trying alternate procedure X going forward?”

        Especially when the questioner was the same boss who had instructed me to use the original procedure Y a long time before, it felt inappropriate to reply “because you previously told me to do Y” and due to the phrasing of the question I had to come up with good-sounding reasons why my boss would’ve ever thought Y was a better idea. Completely unproductive, and my boss probably thought I either truly believed Y was better than X, or was being obstinate.

  33. JohannaCabal*

    #3 My guess is that someone left a negative Glassdoor review and son’s parents assumed it was you.

    As Alison said, leave it alone. The fact he confronted you in public says everything.

  34. Steph*

    Letter #4 is giving me even more reasons to believe my last job was incredibly toxic if no one is upset the person didn’t tell LW she was applying to an internal position. I was reprimanded for not letting the store manager (my great grand boss) know that I was applying for position at another location (which was considered an internal move). I told my direct manager but since I rarely has contact with the store manager I didn’t think I should jump the chain of command that much.

    1. MCMonkeyBean*

      I don’t think it’s upsetting, but I do think it was not a good idea. It seems like a big risk to apply for an internal job and assume your boss wouldn’t somehow find out and I think it’s almost always a better idea to let them hear it from you (though there are definitely plenty of exceptions, as we’ve seen here in the past). If Jane were the one writing in instead of OP there might be more comments about that.

      Your case does sound different though, I would completely agree with you that you shouldn’t notify that high up the chain. If you told your direct manager it seems like it would be their responsibility to notify higher people if that is information that needs to go through the ranks for some reason.

    2. STG*

      I’ve worked in companies where this was specifically a step on the internal application in that you had to mark a yes or no on whether you told your supervisor. If you marked no, the system wouldn’t let you submit it until you did.

      That has it’s own issues (managers trying to hold good employees back) of course.

    3. JB*

      No, that did stand out to me as well. I’m of the understanding that you’re always supposed to tell your manager that you’ve applied for an internal position. I certainly did when applying for my current position.

      Although in your case it sounds like you did things correctly. Your direct manager would be the one to communicate that to the store manager.

  35. Sleet Feet*

    #2 Is your manager assigning tasks to you this way? Or may she be actually asking if the team has capacity?

  36. ATX*

    Oh wow #2 is me as a manager! I always say “we” because it sounds softer and less demanding but I always mean “you.”

    If you know that she means you, there’s no need to be nit-picky about her wording. As long as the message comes across and you do what needs to be done as a result, I see no problem with this quirk (as I do it myself! ha).

    1. alynn*

      ATX, when you use this in like a group communication, how do do the different team members know who is doing what?

    2. Cj*

      The OP has figured out what their boss means, but as other commentors have noted, when they first started under a manager who does this, they weren’t always sure.

    3. JB*

      You might want to think about the impact this is having on your employees.

      I guarantee your direct reports (assuming they’re all competent, professional adults) do not want you to ‘sound less demanding’. It’s actually very stressful when managers try to act and sound less like a manager, and it’s always entirely about their own comfort (‘I don’t want to sound like a bossy, demanding person!’). This kind of language softening can be confusing, and as LW points out, it feels to her like her boss is then taking credit for HER work. It also makes the direct reports feel like they need to be hyper-aware at all times – they can’t trust that the boss has the backbone to communicate that something is vital and needs to be done immediately, or needs to be done by a specific person, etc. So all the employees are now keeping track of those things themselves, on top of their own work, when that’s SUPPOSED to be your job and they need to be able to trust that you are able to see and communicate that effectively.

      I’m sure this seems like a lot to you. ‘It’s just one word!’ Yes, but it’s a word you’re deliberately choosing to intentionally make yourself a less effective leader, as you just breezily informed us.

      1. Skyblue*

        I’m going to offer an alternative take. I think there are a lot of direct reports who would appreciate the less demanding tone – it’s something I prefer myself (and I believe I’m competent and professional too!). I also think in most cases it’s not confusing at all.

        1. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

          I really don’t want to nitpick here, but I just want to unpack what you’re saying. I agree with you that a lot of direct reports – including myself – would appreciate a less demanding approach. That said, are you sure that the demanding part of the request is in “you” versus “we”?

          To me, it seems as if the difference there is in specificity. A manager is well within their jurisdiction to assign work to their direct reports, which is what the “you” part is specific about. Even if your manager starts with “we”, they’re eventually landing at “you”. Being specific doesn’t mean that you’re closing the door on other ways to be accommodating in your requests, which is really what this is all about.

          I agree with you that “we” isn’t usually all that confusing, but I think that that’s actually what makes it ineffective on another level. Kindness and responsiveness doesn’t necessarily require vagueness, and it’s an association that makes it difficult for a lot of newer managers to effectively manage. And to be frank, dealing with direct reports who you sense have a tendency to conflate nice and vague can make a manager feel as though they’re doing something wrong when they use their authority as intended.

          1. Skyblue*

            You’re right. It’s not all about “we” and “you.” I was just pushing back on the idea I’m seeing in the comments that all assignments should be delivered with very direct language like, “Please do x” or “I need you to do y,” and anything less than that is confusing or problematic. I think there are a lot of ways to authoritatively assign someone tasks.

            If the person’s authority is clearly established, then I think a “can you” or “can we” request is perfectly clear and direct. You raise a good point about new managers having a difficult time with the pressure to be “nice” though.

  37. Anonymous Hippo*

    #1 – I totally feel this, I have the same issue with my sister, in that her work issues seem to stem wholly from her not getting the way the business world works, and so many of them are self-inflicted. I just sympathize, and don’t let myself get emotionally involved.

    #2 – I say “can we do this” but I actually mean it, for example someone may have suggested an improvement or change, and I’m running by my report that has direct hands-on experience with the process. Once we discuss it I always make it clear with “would you handle that” once we settle on what we want to do going forward.

  38. JustA___*

    OP2, could be worse. I had a coworker (above me in the smallish org chart) who would assign work like, “Can you just…” These were rarely simple tasks, and she wasn’t my supervisor, so they often weren’t even really part of my job.
    Like, yeah, I can *just* line up the entire herd of llamas by height. I can *just* redo the layout of the alpaca brochure six times. I know it was a verbal tic, but it was also so minimizing of my work and contributions.

  39. CMBG*

    “Can we do X?”
    “Yes, that fits in the schedule. What should my role be?”

    “Can we do X?”
    “We do have the budget for it. Should I be the one to call Y?”

  40. Anonymous Hippo*

    #4 – This is probably because of the bizarre way my family analyzes interactions, but maybe it would be a good idea for all candidates to simply be given a list of the names and positions of the panel they will be interviewing with. That way they have the information, but without any kind of indication that your boss on the panel might or might not be an issue.

  41. The Smiling Pug*

    #1- I understand this completely. I had to end a friendship like this back in college, because he never wanted to take steps to make his life better. Finding a different job, going to therapy, nuh uh. He didn’t want solutions, only sympathy. Which was fine to a point, but eventually I did have to start phasing out interactions because I just couldn’t deal with his complaining all the time. I used to do that, but I’m trying to start looking for little good things that happened throughout my day.

  42. AlsoAManager*

    I slightly disagree with Alison on LW #2, or have a different perspective. Lots of times I’ll ask my team using ‘can we do this’, for a few reasons.
    1. If its a project I’ve put them in charge of, but that I know involves them coordinating others. In this instance ‘we’ acknowledges the work from the rest of the team(s). It also conveys that I’m asking not just about if they individually can do it, but if the rest of the people that would need to contribute can also do so.
    2. Lots of times when I phrase it that way its because I’m genuinely asking if we have the bandwidth or capability to do something as a team. To be fair though, I also spend a lot of time making sure my team knows they can push back on me and tell me when something’s not possible/would be overwhelming/just isn’t a good idea, to make sure they do push back.
    3. It also denotes when its something we’re both working on – when there’s work I’d need to contribute and work they’d need to contribute.

    I do agree with Alison that there need to be times when its clear you’re specifically assigning work, and in those cases I definitely use the ‘I need you to do this’ language.

    I’m also going to keep in mind how the phrasing made LW #2 feel, and try to make sure I’m not creating that same confusion or frustration with my teams!

  43. Meep*

    What interesting letters!

    Lw#1 – My 62 yo aunt is like that. Her last job was 8 years ago and she quit after two weeks because her boss was and I quote from her “a b*tch”. She has been sponging off her 82/85-year-old parents and her younger brothers ever since. Sadly, she is burning a lot of bridges with her own family. I think all you can do is shrug your shoulders and ask her what she expects you to do. If she just wants to “ham it up” (like me calling my coworker to laugh at our boss who just realized that wireless mice have a spot for the dongle after I keep having to purchase him new mice because he loses the dongle – he is now relegated to wired mice) and knows she is being ridiculous is one thing. Refusing to fix her situation except to get a new job is another.

    Lw#2 – I have a coworker who will tell me to send “fresh copies” of emails that I sent her literally 5 minutes ago. Drives me batty. No, she doesn’t accept forwarded emails. I once watched her refuse to look down 5 emails to click on my email. It had to be “at the top”. On the flip side, my boss hates the use of “we” but I use it because even if I did all the work, “we” are a team. I agree with Allison.

    1. JB*

      Your coworker sounds…unique. That’s someone I’d like to learn more about.

      I have to assume her inbox is full of hundreds, if not thousands, of unopened emails?!

    2. Gracely*

      …”fresh copies” of…EMAILS?

      Wtf. If her physical mail piles up, does she require people send her new mail before she deals with it?


      1. Pobody's Nerfect*

        I have to do this all the time for my boss. They lose track of emails, don’t respond, weeks go by, they then can’t find the original email and ask for me to re-send it, and the process starts all over again. We can go for months like this around and around on one simple task, it’s what I imagine one of the rooms in hell to be like.

  44. James*

    #2: I’ve had a lot of people do this to me. I chalk it up to weird vernacular–it seems more prevalent among us Northerners. Dad used to make a joke about it–“We’re going to do it. You’re going to do it, and I’m going to watch.” I suppose it’s supposed to soften the order. Differences in ways of talking aren’t really worth worrying about; if you know what’s being said, and the boss knows what’s being said, that’s all that matters.

    Like AlsoAManager I use “we” when it’s a team effort. One thing I’ve learned is that the team often doesn’t see everything going on–they see their part, but they don’t see what other groups are doing. Remote work has exacerbated this. So it sometimes sounds like I’m using “we” inappropriately, when in fact I’m being accurate. Something like that may be going on; it’s worth checking before burning this political capital.

    I get that it can be uncomfortable, but the outcomes of bringing it up with your boss are likely going to be more so.

  45. Pobody's Nerfect*

    LW2, I empathize. Even worse are the managers who are even more wishy-washy and say “Maybe we could try to work on the Smith report, you know, just to see what one might come up with, but I know everyone is busy, so let’s just see what happens…” Does maybe mean we can work on it if want to and don’t have to if we don’t want to? Is “could try” code for do something or just think about it for now? Who is “one?” Who on the team does “we” include? When you say everyone is busy are you giving us permission to blow off the Smith report? Makes me want to scream, just be a manager and give clear directions!

  46. Inigo Montoya*

    When I’ve caught myself saying, “We need to do X” to my assistant, I always follow up with, “And by ‘we’ I mean ‘you.'”
    I’m sure it’s because I don’t want to be bossy, but I am, in fact, the boss.

  47. Hudson*

    Such a great answer for #1! I’m in a similar situation with a family member and this is a great reminder to just, disengage if necessary.

  48. Despachito*

    “when I am anxiety spiraling, I will say the same thing over and over again even if I’ve already come up with a solution for the problem”

    I hear you, sister :-) I am doing exactly the same, and like you, my husband is also able to gently point it out.

    For me, it is the perfect solution – having someone able to be listen, but also able to set his own boundaries. I would like to be able to do the same.

    But I think we are also doing our part by being receptive and able to realize where is the problems, own it up and act accordingly.

  49. It's Me*

    Just wanted to comment re: OP #2 that this kind of communication also drives me up the wall, not because of any perceived value slight but because it’s unclear! When my boss says “We should…” I’m always stuck wondering, “Who we? You we? Me we?” I don’t want to jump in and run with a project if she wants to take the lead, but I don’t want to drop the ball if “we” means “you.” Maddening. Managers, please just say what you mean.

  50. Safely Retired*

    Coming in late, as usual. Regarding #2: “Can we do X?” as a way to assign me tasks.
    I would be more upset with the idea that something phrased as a question is to be treated as an assignment. If someone asks me a question I will give them an answer. If someone wants to assign work they should assign it.
    My approach to such ambiguity is to respond with the ambiguity removed.

    “I can do X. It will take Y resources, but probably not impact the schedule for Z, but Q might be delayed a day or two. Are you assigning me to do this, despite that it may impact Q?”

    The “we” is gone. It makes the assignment explicit, not assumed. If there are implications about the impact on other work they are also explicit. And it asks for an explicit response assigning X to me.

  51. JekyllandJavert*

    A little late, but it’s 1:16am where I am and I can’t sleep. LW1, please take Alison’s advice. You are allowed to set limits and expect those limits to be respected. I have been there, and sometimes the healthiest thing you can do for both yourself and the friendship is to set boundaries, especially when they refuse to change or listen to advice.

  52. raida7*

    2. My manager’s phrasing is driving me nuts
    Mate, you said they’ve started doing it recently – so it’s probably a tip from someone, or from training, or they are emulating someone.
    It is not an attack on their natural phrasing and management style to clearly tell them “You’ve started assigning tasks by asking me if “we” can do something. Why is that? I really preferred [previous process] and would like clarity on what the purpose of this change is, so you can know if it’s serving it’s purpose or not.”

    or simply respond to “Can we do this?” with “Are you asking me to do this?” / “Do you want me to do this?” / “We can do it, is it something you want added to my list of tasks or are you going to handle it?”

    The first aims at *understanding* the phrasing, the second jumps to the core issue – it is unclear and needs clarification. Don’t work around this new, silly, phrasing and never let them know there’s an issue, either way.

    I’ve had managers ask like this in the past, and I’ve responded with a confirmation that it is within our team’s skillset and experience. Then later they ask how it’s going and I’ve said “How is what going? You asked my opinion on if it was something we could do. Does [other team] think we’re working on this?”
    They learnt to stop being so mealy-mouthed about INSTRUCTIONS, since the ‘we’ stuff comes from trying to get by in workshops and manager level meetings where they have to look like they’re doing something, but isn’t a practical management of a team.

  53. The Devil's Advocate*

    LW1: Everything that’s already been said is fair. Just to point out another angle, I had a friend like this for a very long time. Over time and through many conversations, I came to learn that because of the industry they were in, these problems *really* existed and really existed to a *much* higher magnitude than the jobs I have had in the past. This helped me be empathetic when dealing with this person. Sometimes people do have 2, 3, 4, even 10 difficult jobs in a row.

  54. Snackie Onassis*

    LW4, I had a similar experience, and Alison gave me similar (useful!) advice:
    Like you, I also wanted to spare the employee from feeling awkward when they realized I was on the search committee. Unfortunately, my situation turned out extremely badly — the employee actually cited the conversation we had when grieving their termination a few months later! But that’s a story for another day. So my advice in addition to what Alison has shared here is to document, document, document. Documenting the conversations I had with the search chair and the employee really helped when responding to the employee’s grievance.

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