my boss wants me to be positive and upbeat all the time … we work in disaster relief

A reader writes:

My new manager started in August. We’ll call him Sam. Sam is quite experienced in the field of government in which our team works, but hasn’t had a lot of supervisory experience to date.

In addition to my regular duties as part of Sam’s team, I get deployed to support disaster response. I report through a completely different chain of command when I’m doing that work. Unfortunately, 2021 was an awful year for disasters. I was deployed on two different disasters for several weeks between July and December, and I was also personally affected by one of the disasters.

I was just starting to get back to regular duties when Sam started to bring up mental health in meetings. When he wanted to discuss it in a team meeting, I said, “It’s been a hard year and it will take some time to recuperate” and thought that would be the end of it. So, I was upset when he brought it up again with me later that week in a one-on-one meeting and suggested that I had Seasonal Affective Disorder and that a light box might help. I told him SAD is not an issue for me.

At that point, I called up Sam’s supervisor (call her Gillian), who was my supervisor for a number of years before Sam and is often on our team calls. I said, “Given that you know me better than Sam, I’m just wondering how I’m coming across in phone and video conferences. Am I sounding more morose than usual? Because Sam keeps bringing up my mental health.” She said I had sounded down for a bit, but she had put it down to the stress of the disasters. She also told me that Sam had mentioned his concerns with my mental health to her, and she told him that I was a bit burnt out and likely just needed some time. I said that I appreciated that Sam was probably just trying to be a compassionate manager, but that the way he was going about it was starting to feel intrusive. Gillian agreed with this, and I suspect that she may have mentioned it to Sam, because he didn’t bring it up for a while.

However, the past couple of weeks, Sam has started to take issue with how I respond when he starts a conversation with “how’s it going?” If I say “good” or “okay,” he challenges me with “just good?” or “just okay?” I was feeling really tired and fed up the third time this happened and snapped back, “Do you want me to be completely manic all the time?” which probably wasn’t the best thing to say, but it did cause him to back-peddle a bit.

I once had an abusive employer who did expect me to be manic all the time and who even gave me a list of appropriate responses and a required tone of voice for responding to his “good morning” so I know I could be being hypersensitive to this. I do feel like I’m being shamed for not being my best self at the moment though. All of us on disaster response are currently getting critical incident support and counselling. I feel that I’m on track with my mental health, and although still very tired and exhausted right now, that I will recover in time. Any advice on how to get Sam to back off and give me the time and space to recover?

Asking “how are you?” and then responding with “just good?” has to be one of the top three most annoying/infuriating responses of all time. What does he want to hear — “truly magnificent”? “Vibrating with excitement”?

You’ve already taken one good step, which is to check with someone else about how you’re coming across. Sometimes a situation like the one you describe can happen because the person is coming across as far more negative than they realize, in a way that impacts the work they’re doing and the people around them. If that’s the case, their boss should address it head-on rather than hinting around with comments about SAD. But managers don’t always handle things well, so it’s smart to do your own reality check … which you’ve done.

At this point, it sounds like it’s time to address it directly with him, especially since it sounds like his boss has already primed him to hear the message. For example, you could say: “I get the sense that you’re looking for me to be more upbeat. As you know, the last year has been an awful one for disasters and I was personally affected by one of them. In my experience, it’s normal in our field to need some time to recuperate; it’s why we have support and counseling. If I am coming across in a way that is negatively affecting the team or getting in the way of my job, I definitely want to know that. But otherwise, I would like to have the space to recover without feeling that you’re scrutinizing my emotional state.”

You could say this the next time you get a “just okay?” comment, or you could lead into it by acknowledging that you snapped at him recently and wanted to explain why.

Since he’s probably already been warned by Gillian that he needs to back off, there’s a good chance that this will take care of it. But if it doesn’t, go back to Gillian, let her know what’s going on, and ask for help.

There’s a caveat to all this, which is that it does feel notable that this is the second time you’re encountering this from a manager. It could be unfortunate coincidence or an occupational hazard in your field … but it is worth looking at whether your responses to the stressful work you do are in line with colleagues’ or if they tend to be more visible to the people around you. More visible isn’t inherently wrong, but it can be problematic if it means that coworkers are afraid to approach you for things they need or that you’re stressing out everyone around you. My hunch is that this probably isn’t the case (if for no reason other than that a manager who dictates your tone of voice in response to “good morning” shouldn’t be a highly trusted source of feedback) but it’s worth making it part of that reality-check step above.

Good luck.

Read an update to this letter

{ 363 comments… read them below }

  1. Sloan Kittering*

    I’m glad Alison put in that last paragraph because I did think, “that’s really quite strange, at least three people (Sam, Gillian, and nasty ex-manager) that are tracking a visible dourness to OP’s tone. I can be a bit down-beat myself, and have sort of “resting grumpy face” when I’m thinking. I have had to work on presenting a more neutral (not chippy and upbeat! Just calm, balanced, ready for the workday) demeanor. Honestly some of the things I did were pretty dumb, like wearing nice earrings and brighter colors, but it seemed to have an effect on my supervisor.

    1. 54354354*

      It’s also notable that OP’s mind tells them, “either you’re morose or you’re manic.” No recognition that it’s possible for a person’s tone to be neutral, calm, content or cheerful without going all the way to be “manic.” It suggests some distorted thinking of the kind which commonly accompanies depression.

      (Actual mania is a far cry from ordinary cheerfulness, but the word choice is just an indication of the dichotomous thinking going on here.)

      1. Super anon for this*

        It jumped out at me too. A close family member had two manic episodes in two years. For their first one, they were indeed a picture of positivity and love. Cheery all around and claimed to be the happiest they’d ever felt! (also not sleeping, eating, or drinking, so the rest of us were eventually able to convince them to get help.) For the next one though, they were not happy and cheery at all, but rather angry and scared. I hate toxic positivity and forced positivity with a fiery passion, but due to these experiences, “manic” is not the word I would ever think of using to describe it.

        No recognition that it’s possible for a person’s tone to be neutral, calm, content or cheerful without going all the way to be “manic.”

        Agree 100%, with the caveat that, for whatever reason, neutral does not seem to be enough to satisfy Sam at this point. (“Just good?”)

      2. Dust Bunny*

        Yeah, this. I mean, I feel like this mindset is not that uncommon, especially if you’ve had people in your life who demand that you be pointedly upbeat all the time, but it’s a good thing to try to unlearn. I wouldn’t say anyone in my office is Upbeat! most of the time but they’re definitely not morose unless there’s a good reason.

      3. So long and thanks for all the fish*

        I think this is a reach. She asked Gillian if she sounded morose given Sam’s reactions to her, and I mean, responding to a boss asking how you are with “good” and getting back “just good?” multiple times does kind of beg the question “how good could you possibly want me to be?!”, and people aren’t perfect with their wording. I didn’t read that as OP having a mental dichotomy.

        Also OP has been involved with two disasters and is getting counseling. It sounds like her mental health, while going through a rough patch recently, is being taken care of.

      4. londonedit*

        I read it more that the OP snapped ‘do you want me to be manic all the time??’ as a bit of an overreaction, not that they actually believe there are only two possible settings when it comes to emotions.

        1. Momma Bear*

          Sometimes people go to hyperbole, especially under stress. There is obviously a middle ground and I hope that’s where OP is aiming. OP can also take this to their therapist because maybe they need more support, especially given that one of the disasters directly impacted them. If (for example) the entire town got flattened and a colleague lost their home, I wouldn’t expect them to be cheerful. Everyone regroups at their own pace.

          I think OP can say, “Yes, just OK, Sam. So did you want to discuss that report now?” At some point Sam’s repeated questioning would be more aggravating than whatever else was going on.

        2. Florp*

          Yeah, I took it more as OP thinks Sam feels there’s no neutral ground between Super Great and Totally Miserable. OP’s whole letter sounded pretty professional and reasonable to me. OP tried to recalibrate by getting their old supervisor’s opinion, and Sam has been told by his boss to back off, so I’m going to take OP at their word.

          Sam must know OP’s getting mental health support through work. Shouldn’t Sam let the therapists do their job, respect OP’s medical privacy, and stop inserting his untrained “help” into the situation? Maybe Sam hasn’t done disaster relief before, doesn’t fully appreciate the personal challenges involved, and doesn’t have the communication skills necessary to learn, but that’s not on OP.

      5. JSPA*

        That’s a pretty strong reading- -“good” and “ok” are both entirely compatible with that middle ground.

        What struck me, rather, is that Sam could be entirely out of touch with the disaster relief component of OP’s duties, have no clue as to the relevant norms, have minimal awareness of the professional mental health support already there (and in use!). Or that Sam could be unhappy with having someone in a split position, want someone who doesn’t also carry out disaster relief (either for practical logistics, or because it bums Sam out to even think of those things).

        I’d suggest addressing that directly. Maybe by email:

        Sam, disaster relief is heavy stuff. But it’s absolutely essential. I’m proud to be a person who can get it done.

        Everyone on that team recognizes the emotional toll, and we all make liberal use of the mental health support services, to keep in a healthy place. But providing those essential services means there will be some days when I’m not a chirping bluebird of happiness. In fact, false positivity is a problematic mechanism that we are warned about. Having to smile and gush (or otherwise perform happiness) to create your preferred emotional environment runs actively counter to the mental health path that our own company’s disaster relief mental health support team are prescribing and promoting.

        Our company is broadly excellent in providing resources. I’m consistently on top of the issue, as a function of my commitment to my dual role.

        I understand your urge to check in, given you know that I deal with things like [general description of various ghastly situations…or something very specific, like “speaking with a client whose spouse and parent and small child and pets, all of whom I have met, were recently roasted alive”]. But getting between me and actual trained support is counterproductive. I’m assured that I do an objectively excellent job of maintaining a calm and professional demeanor, with occasional glints of real happiness. Asking for “better than good” or even “better than OK,” on command, is a bridge too far.

        1. Homebody*

          It struck me that most of the issues here seem to be coming from Sam’s inexperience as a manager, though in disaster response field work is not an evenly distributed thing. Prior to 2020 you could opt to volunteer for most deployments in government, but the nature of things lately has pushed everyone to be more hands-on than usual. Most managers in disaster response I know tend to spend more time in field than employees, since they’re expected to be on-site for critical decision-making. So it’s likely Sam is good at the technical stuff but not the emotional.

        2. Jennifer @unchartedworlds*

          That death example could have done with a content note at the top. Or leaving out.

        3. armchairexpert*

          I am informal to a fault with my managers, but sending them an email saying “I’m not going to be a chirping bluebird of happiness” is off the charts aggressively snarky. If I’m a manager, and I get that email from one of my employees, I am going to be more worried about their mental health. Not less.

      6. Nesprin*

        I think that isn’t quite fair.
        Emotional labor is a term that gets thrown around a lot, but being required to be cheerful and upbeat at all times, in defiance of external circumstances, is incredibly taxing. Being polite, and not the perpetual local grouch is important for being part of a work community, but asking someone dealing with an incredibly stressful, temporary situation, to be visibly unaffected is asking for a lot of labor.

      7. The OTHER Other*

        That jumped out at me too.

        But the bigger issue is the OP is working disaster relief, and has been personally affected by disaster as well. It would actually be strange NOT to be worn down by it, and it’s pretty inappropriate for the manager (who I’m guessing has NOT been personally hit with a disaster?) to expect a cheerful tone.

        Maybe the manager thinks they are being helpful but asking “how are you?” and then challenging their response with “just OK?” Is not helping, it’s obnoxious.

      8. Seeking Second Childhood*

        I think people are reading too much into something that was said off-the-cuff when surprised play something unpleasant that they thought had been addressed before.

      9. laowai_gaijin*

        I don’t read at all that the LW feels they have to be “morose or manic.” When you have someone who’s basically telling you that “good” isn’t good enough, it’s natural to feel like they want you to be manic at them. Being “good” or “okay” is a perfectly good middle ground, and probably pretty decent considering the stresses the LW has been under.

      10. generic_username*

        OP clearly thinks they are neutral/content, but since Sam is reading that as morose/depressed, then OP is feeling pressure to be unnaturally cheerful, or manic. Of course manic is a strong word, but it is absolutely infuriating to have someone keep implying you’re depressed when you’re totally fine. And now you’re acting like this is OP’s problem too… That is Sam’s problem, if it’s anyone’s – he is seeing OP’s “fine” and “good” as not happy/cheerful enough when those are perfectly normal answers!

      11. fhqwhgads*

        Sure but Sam wasn’t accepting “good” as good enough, so that’s a much bigger flag to me that it’s Sam who needs recalibrating.

        1. Curmudgeon in California*

          This. A “How are you?” question should be able to be answered with “Good.” without being considered depressed or negative.

          “Good”, “Fine” and “Okay” are positive responses. “Stressed”, “Bummed”, “Burned out”, etc are valid, albeit not upbeat, answers.

          IMO, don’t ask “How are you?” if you don’t want a real answer.

    2. Smithy*

      Just to add to this. I work for an organization with disaster response work and teams, and I need to work with them semi-regularly as a support function.

      We know those teams are often stretched incredibly thin and really do try to balance our outreach and requests (just as its their job to do disaster response, its our job to know when we really need their input). While many people on those teams are wonderful to work with, there are also those who are really unpleasant and position themselves as “actually providing life saving response” while we are wasting their time.

      Toxic positivity is in no way the answer and it sounds like whatever is going on, Sam could be managing this better. And if the OP’s issue is one where its negatively impacting other internal teams – finding ways to clearly articulate and problem solve that dynamic would be better. But just wanted to give a somewhat larger organizational picture of where this might be coming from.

        1. Dust Bunny*

          I have a college friend who has a toxic positivity coworker. I made her a T-shirt that says “Positivity Bully” on it to defiantly wear under her sweaters.

    3. Observer*

      On the other hand, Sam’s response is objectively bad. I’m sorry, even without the context of the particular workplace telling someone that “good” or “ok” is an insufficiently positive response to “how are you” is pretty toxic. This is not just “not managing a problem well”. This is just not having a clue, at best. It’s bad enough that I simply don’t believe that it has anything to do with what the OP is or s not saying. Same for former toxic boss. Lists of “acceptable” responses and tones are NOT a sign of a reasonable boss.

      The only one I would take seriously is Gillian. And it certainly wouldn’t hurt to check back with her, as well as their team. But let’s not blame the OP for bad management.

      1. Smithy*

        I agree that the OP is being poorly managed, but at least the way I read Sloan’s comment is that just because the management is bad doesn’t mean there isn’t an issue.

        If this is an NGO or multilateral, the fact that management is terrible isn’t a surprise as that can be wildly up and down across the board. Where this can be exceptionally frustrating is teasing out whether two things can be true. Sam can be a terrible manager and the OP’s demeanor is negatively impacting some element of their work. This is where going back to Gillian indeed would be helpful.

        1. Observer*

          That is all good and fine. But there is absolutely nothing in what the OP describes that indicates that they are indeed the problem. A reality check is always a good thing. But that’s more on general principles, rather than based on anything in the letter.

          And to the point about the OP thinking that the choices are “morose or manic”, I see absolutely zero evidence of that. The OP’s comment about being manic came in response to being chastised for “just” being “ok”. “OK” and “good” are NOT “morose” responses to “how are you”.

          1. Smithy*

            The OP calls out not being their best self, being very tired and being exhausted. Gillian also flagged the OP as being “more morose than usual”. So to say that there’s nothing to indicate there’s an issue irrespective of Sam, this may be where we disagree.

            Sam is being a bad manager because his approach is not indicating whether all of the above is connected to work related concerns or personal/work-life balance ones.

            1. skunklet*

              so let’s say there’s an issue with OP – they’re getting counselling, it’s time for the boss to back off and let an actual professional deal.

            2. Observer*

              Actually, no the boss had said that they seemed “down”, which is not the same thing. Also, they say that they are stilled “tired” but that they are doing better. And regardless, they did not snap at Sam. They responded to “how are you” with “Good”. Regardless of how morose the OP may or may not be in general, that’s a perfectly appropriate response! “Just good?” is totally NOT! What it is, is a demand that the OP be “fantastic” or “wonderful” or some other hyperbolic term. THAT is why the OP snapped about being manic.

              If what Sam ACTUALLY meant was “You’re saying that you are fine, but you sound very down”, then Sam is an adult who should use his words and SAY WHAT HE MEANS, rather than saying the “good” is not good enough.

            3. Florp*

              But OP already knows there’s an issue, and they’re getting help? OP says they’re exhausted and burnt out from being surrounded by loss personally and professionally. OP came here for help because their manager, who is not apparently a therapist, is ignoring the existence of actual therapists and the advice of his own boss and diagnosing OP’s behavior in an intrusive and unwanted way. In response, strangers on the internet (with the least possible information in this situation) are…diagnosing OP’s behavior. It just doesn’t sit right with me.

            4. Anonymous4*

              Smithy, you might want to go back up and re-read the letter, okay? It seems that you’re translating what was actually written into something else.

              OP called her grandboss to check in, and “she said I had sounded down for a bit” and when Sam had expressed his concerns to Gillian, “she told him that I was a bit burnt out and likely just needed some time.”

              Sam is being a bad manager because his approach is to demand that someone who’s been working hard at a very stressful job, be all bubbly and effervescent. He may mean well, he may be anxious that OP be doing well, but his actual performance is terrible.

      2. Lacey*

        Indeed. I would be pretty sarcastic with someone who took my response of “good” and tried to turn it into a negative.

        1. DJ Abbott*

          I would say “ what response are you looking for?”
          Partly to call him out and partly because I really want to know. What is he looking for? How unrealistic are his expectations?
          If I/we knew, it would really inform how to deal with him.

      3. Batgirl*

        Absolutely. I also think some people aren’t familiar with how often some people (women) are tone policed. Though it’s also happened to my male partner while he was stressed and busy; one of the office socialites took exception to that, because he didn’t say hello back when he was on the phone dealing with something. Some people, insecure people, all they care about is surface positivity, and they don’t give the actual work any thought.

    4. Divergent*

      My employer (40k people) lent a lot of people for disaster relief this year, and between that and COVID managers were instructed to “talk about mental health with their reports” because I guess talking about your mental health at work is in theory supposed to make your mental health better. But it has led to a lot of this kind of conversation in my organization since supervisors aren’t trained in this stuff. If OP is in my org, it’s not the fault of their behaviour, their supervisors have been instructed to do this and suck at it.

    5. Daisy Gamgee*

      I dunno. People tend to assume that if multiple people see a problem then the problem must exist, but those multiple people may not be randomly chosen or may be influencing each other.

      1. Parakeet*

        Or it can be something kind of orthogonal to what the people who are perceiving a problem, think it is. I had an issue similar to this once (stressful field of work, personal relationship to work-related happenings, people thinking I was indifferent or unhappy in my work when I wasn’t) and a lot of it was about my being autistic in a field where that is quite unusual. Which meant that my presentation was a little different than what was most common, and also that I had been trying to figure what was reasonable to say, about what elements of work and work stress, in different types of meetings, during check-ins, etc (I’d previously been in a field with extremely different cultural/social norms) and not quite getting it right.

        Once I realized what was going on and why, I managed to adjust. Though it was tricky.

    6. quill*

      I would personally discount the nasty ex-manager, because due to the passive aggressive way that he went about giving “feedback,” it’s impossible to tell if he really saw an issue or if OP just didn’t fit his mental boxes for an engaged employee, whether that’s for demographic reasons (Women are often percieved grumpier than men when having a neutral expression, same with racial minorities compared to white people) or because of behaviors commonly assumed to be signs of disengagement that actually have nothing to do with it. (Bad posture, quiet / flat tone of voice…)

      As far as the current situation goes, OP should bear in mind that sometimes a symptom of depression and burnout is anger or anxiety. Also, performative aspects of your interaction with other people tend to slip up: so if you previously had a customer service smile to wear to work even on shitty days and you just can’t deal with it any more, more people are going to notice the change. Do talk to your counsellor about this, incident, OP.

      1. Anonymous4*

        Sam is new at supervising, and he’s not good at either diagnostics or therapeutic approaches. He announced he thought she had Seasonal Affective Disorder, remember — no, she doesn’t. And now he’s decided that if he jollies her into smiling and declaring that she’s just grrrrrreat! (like Tony the Tiger) that everything will be hunky-dory.

        If I were in OP’s seat, things would be neither hunky nor dory. Even if I hadn’t worked two disasters in one year (one of which affected me personally), and I was on the receiving end of poor Sam’s constant nonsense, I’d be annoyed as heck. “I said I was fine, Sam. What more do you want? A little tapdance? I should burst into song?”

        I think anyone would be annoyed by a constant dose of, “How are you?” “Fine, thanks.” “JUST fine?” and I must say that I think OP is showing good sense and balance in checking with other people, getting their take on the situation, and not gonging Annoying Sam with her desk chair.

    7. Green Goose*

      I was wondering about this too because we had two team members in a team of 20 or so that are showing up like this in all meetings and it is hard to get the work done. I’m a pretty empathetic person so it’s hard to go down a to-do list when the other person looks visibly upset when we are meeting. One of the people recently quit with little warning and I’m sort of surprised that the other one has not at this point.

      We usually start the meeting with a “how are you?” which is part of our company culture and my coworker will never say “good”, there will be a huge sigh followed by something negative. Its hard to then jump into a meeting when that happens, at least for me.

      1. Observer*

        I was wondering about this too because we had two team members in a team of 20 or so that are showing up like this in all meetings and it is hard to get the work done.

        This is in direct contradiction to

        e usually start the meeting with a “how are you?” which is part of our company culture and my coworker will never say “good”, there will be a huge sigh followed by something negative.

        The fact that sometimes people can be genuinely negative in a problematic way does not make it OK to hassle someone for being neutral.

      2. Wisteria*

        If you are going to ask people how they are, you have to be prepared for whatever answer you get. If what you really want is to go through the social ceremony where everybody says, “good,” without meaning it, then maybe you need to change how you do things bc your coworker is not on board with the social ceremony.

        1. Momma Bear*

          This. Maybe stop asking questions you don’t want honest answers to. Maybe turn it into “good to see everyone today…so about that TPS report…” and skip the obligatory “I’m fine!” when people are visibly not.

      3. DJ Abbott*

        It sounds like your coworker needs help and is almost directly asking for it. Is anyone helping them? Giving them the number to the EAP, or a counselor or something?

    8. Homebody*

      I work in disaster response, 2020-2021 were terrible, terrible years (COVID, floods, fires, tornadoes, civil unrest, you name it, it happened). We’ve all been working unmanageably high hours and those who have deployment assignments have had it much worse. I wish I could stress how universal OP’s feelings and behavior are to the field right now, and their manager’s behavior is an inappropriate and inadequate response to the amount of stress and trauma that the OP is going through.

      OP, if you can, take some time off and decompress from work and what you’ve seen. Give yourself time to process what has happened and try to set boundaries between work and personal life if you can. I hope the counseling is helping you to recover and that others are being kind to you.

  2. Anastesia Beaverhousen*

    This manager is practicing outside his wheelhouse. Unless he a clinical staff he has no ability to diagnosis mental illness. He could express concern if it is impacting work but he is going about it all wrong. I would probably make statement as such “what background is this diagnosis based on?” and tell him “I’m not comfortable talking about my medical status to by boss, I am sure you understand.”

    1. Heidi*

      Even if Sam is a clinician, it’s not his role to be telling the OP that she had SAD and should get a light box. To me, that’s the major overstep among all the other merely irritating behavior on Sam’s part.

      1. Ann Onymous*

        Yes, I came here to say exactly this. Even if Sam is qualified to diagnosis SAD, he’s got no standing to do that outside of a patient-provider relationship.

        1. I'm just here for the cats*

          plus he’s not going to be able to confidently diagnose someone through work conversations.

      2. Talk is Cheap. Supply exceeds demand.*

        Yes. THIS. I don’t care if he’s a clinician… even if he is a licensed clinician, he shouldn’t be diagnosing a direct report, or anyone else who is not his client, and especially not in the workplace and/or w/o their consent.

      3. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

        My ex-boss from hell: “You’ve got SAD, I can tell” later – “ok I figured it out, you’re ADHD and need meds”, later again – “I’m telling you that you just need to lose weight and you’ll be happy again!”

        Darn near went through everything in the medical dictionary except the things I actually DO have – but will never admit to having to anyone at work ever.

        Did try this line a few times, it might work on a more reasonable chap than that git:

        “I understand I’m coming across as a bit quiet and depressed. There is a reason for this and it’s something I’m working on. But unless my actual work is being affected please just let me be for a while”

        1. Selina Luna*

          The “you’re ADHD and need meds” particularly annoys me. I got my diagnosis at 35 after my husband gently pushed me to talk to my doctor about my inability to focus on many things, combined with my occasionally hyper-focusing on something new for 8-10 hours in a stretch. My doctor agreed and set me up to see a behavioral health specialist (over Zoom, because COVID) in addition to prescribing medication because pills don’t build skills and while medication can be helpful and has helped me, Learning how to bullet journal, starting my homework early (in grad school, where getting the professors to assign work early can be like pulling teeth), and using the Pomodoro method to work on tasks have done as much, if not more, to help me as my meds.

          1. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

            I’m on some quite strong meds for schizophrenia and yep, those only solve a bit of the problem. The rest has taken years of effort and learning with trained professionals.

            Not that I’m ever going to tell a boss or coworkers what I’ve got.

            1. Selina Luna*

              Ooh, especially with the stigma surrounding schizophrenia specifically… I wouldn’t tell anyone either. It’s not their business, and it might cause their dumb selves to look at you differently.

        2. Selina Luna*

          I was diagnosed with ADHD last year. I am now taking medication. And random people diagnosing others with ADHD and recommending medication (!!) really pisses me off.
          1. Not all ADHD presents the same way. In my case, it’s like… there’s a tv in my head and some jerkoff is channel surfing. He’ll pause once in a while on one thing or another, but it’s usually constant motion. Sometimes, he’ll put the tv on one channel for hours at a time, but not always something useful or that I like. The important thing is, it’s impossible to wrest control of the tv away from him. That is until I was able to get diagnosed and placed on medication.
          2. Medication is totally useful and if you try to insult or knock people on meds, you are a special kind of a jerk. However, many folks on medication will tell you: pills don’t build skills. I still had to go to a behavioral specialist to learn some accommodations that were not in place for me before. I learned how to bullet journal, I began to use a “Pomodoro” method to complete tasks, and I have to email my professors and ask them to either post or email assignments a week in advance so that I can get my work done on time.
          3. The boss in this, who suggested a sun lamp, and your ex-boss from hell are the kinds of bosses that no one needs. Bosses should not prescribe treatments for employees, even if they are practitioners, and especially if they are not practitioners.

      4. Lady Danbury*

        HUGELY inappropriate! That was definitely the first thing that jumped out at me and hopefully has been reported to/addressed by his manager. Even if he has the required background, it is not Sam’s role to diagnose his employees. Even worse if he doesn’t have any background/training. At best, he could ask if everything is ok and remind her of any mental health resources available through the job such as EAP.

      5. Librarian of SHIELD*

        This. Even if he is a clinician, he is not *OP’s* clinician, and he has no authority to toss out potential diagnoses.

    2. Sabine the Very Mean*

      I like this. I had a boss who constantly named my feelings and was always wrong. What if OP was neurodivergent?

      1. Susie SW*

        The field of disaster management has been incredibly difficult over the past two years, with many compounding events beyond the pandemic. Many responders have been personally impacted by loss(es) while also caring for the needs of others, and the level of burnout right now is not unlike healthcare workers. Unfortunately, many in the field have misconstrued the concept of resilience (particularly as it pertains to responders) as unending positivity in the face of disaster, which isnt reasonable or human. People have to be allowed the time to process/grieve, but the ongoing stressors aren’t necessarily giving people sufficient opportunity for that. My gut tells me OP’s manager is a bit tone deaf to what people are facing.

    3. Cold Fish*

      Given the type of work they do, I would say that part of being a manager would be monitoring the mental state of subordinates, and making sure they are taking the necessary steps to maintain their mental health. Disaster relief work must be incredibly stressful and hard to deal with (hence the support and counseling being provided). I would think a good manager would be on top of this to minimize burn out at the very least. It sounds more like 1) Sam is a new manager and hasn’t learned how to handle this part of his job yet, 2) Sam and OP’s personalities just don’t mesh well, or 3) both. Rather than OP telling Sam that her mental health isn’t any of his concern, OP should tell Sam that she is taking full advantage of the support and counseling services offered but he is causing her additional stress by not letting her recover at her own pace and that she needs space from his concern.

      1. Daisy Gamgee*

        Rather than OP telling Sam that her mental health isn’t any of his concern, OP should tell Sam that she is taking full advantage of the support and counseling services offered but he is causing her additional stress by not letting her recover at her own pace and that she needs space from his concern.

        I think this is an excellent phrasing, and wanted to highlight it.

      2. Venus*

        I’m not sure if the OP is the only person on their team who does this difficult work. So even if Sam was an experienced manager, if they aren’t used to people who deploy into disaster zones then they can manage the situation really badly. From my experience, people who go into those situations are very likely to have mental health problems for a bit and need some time to recover, a bit like running a dozen marathons and needing to physically recover. This is known ahead of time, and should be planned for. The fact that Gillian thought that OP was down, likely because of the disaster response, shows that OP’s response was likely within scope of what would be expected.

        I think the problem with Sam is that he doesn’t know about any of this, or at least doesn’t understand it in a practical way, and wants to fix things. Yet mental health is mostly about taking time, a bit like how a recovery from a marathon is about time. Also from experience, being around people who give space for that recovery is very beneficial, and people who are in one’s face about it are likely to get a negative reaction, which can result in a loop that ends up causing a much bigger problem.

        The comments above about Sam trying to diagnose in a completely inappropriate way are spot on. The OP needs to politely tell Sam that they are relying on their support network during their recovery time, and Sam should stay out of it unless it affects work.

    4. Mockingjay*

      OP, you mentioned that Sam is a new supervisor. Maybe you can ‘manage up’ to reduce your stress. Redirect the comments into neutral territory and give Sam something to do that is in his area.

      Change the morning greeting. Don’t give him a chance to delve into feelings.
      Sam: “How are you?”
      OP: “Fine, here’s the report you wanted.” or
      OP: “Fine, but I do have a question about the supply list.”

      For meetings, prepare a couple of points or q’s you can ‘give’ to Sam. Keep him busy researching answers. Keep redirecting to work.

      If Sam veers into mental or physical armchair diagnoses, you CAN shut him down. You decide how blunt you need to be:
      “Sam, I appreciate your concern, but I prefer to keep that information private.”
      “Sam, that’s between my doctor and myself, thanks.”
      “Sam, that’s not up for discussion.”

      1. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

        Change the morning greeting. Don’t give him a chance to delve into feelings.
        Sam: “How are you?”
        OP: “Fine, here’s the report you wanted.” or
        OP: “Fine, but I do have a question about the supply list.”

        This is a VERY good approach. One I’m noting down for my own future use too….

      2. Librarian of SHIELD*

        A tactic I’ve used successfully with “just fine?” people is adding a thank you and turning the question back on them.

        Sam: How are you?
        OP: Fine, thanks. You?

        I’ve tried just “fine, and you?” but for some reason it doesn’t work as well without the thank you. I have no idea why.

        1. Heidi*

          Perhaps the “thanks” adds closure to the inquiry before you pivot the question back to them. Or thanking them makes them feel good about themselves for being thoughtful so they don’t feel the need to keep prodding. If someone invites me to do something, I will say, “I can’t go, but thanks for inviting me. I hope you have a great time!” The last bit seems to keep people from trying to convince me to go.

        2. just another bureaucrat*

          Thanks is a powerful tool in your toolkit. It makes people feel heard and it also a social convention of you don’t reject the thanks, you accept it, there are standard responses so shifting out of that pattern is harder and will make people have to pause to think about it. At which point you’re moving past it with the next thing. It’s not that no one will blow past it, but it’s a good tool to try when you’re trying to shift people away from the conversational topic at hand.

    5. Zennish*

      Yeah. I get the idea this manager mistakenly thinks his role is to “fix” the staff, rather than just providing info about available resources, offering reasonable support and leave time as necessary… and otherwise backing off.

      OP could always just answer every “How are you?” With a deadpan, over the top response… “Super sparkly, sir.” “Nearly faint with excitement, sir.” etc.

      1. Librarian of SHIELD*

        I thought that about Alison’s “vibrating with excitement” suggestion. I can absolutely hear the grouchy secretary in a sitcom using those words in a completely expressionless tone.

        1. Jessica*

          I totally picture the receptionist from Ghostbusters doing this.
          Not even grouchy just this total deadpan.

      2. Sabina*

        I don’t know exactly what this means (I don’t think it’s dirty), but an old cop I used to work with had a saying, “I’m great, any better and I’d have a runaway!” Was he talking about a truck? I have no idea…

        1. Anonymous4*

          I have a friend who, in response to, “How are you?” will reply, “Any better and I’d have to be twins!”

          This totally derails people because they usually stop and think about it for a moment, and by that time he’s turned the subject.

          1. Retired (but not really)*

            My one friend’s response is “finer than frog hair”.
            Another friend used to always just say “better”. Nothing more, just “better”.
            My usual response is “fine”, whether that’s really the case or not.

  3. LibraryLady*

    He kinda sounds like a guy who would be like “only truly magnificent?? Not exceptionally magnificent?”

  4. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    Oh boy. Yeah, this is going to be a major downside to the push for employers to pay attention to their employees’ mental health: well-meaning but tactless/untrained supervisors trying to micro-manage the mood of their reports. With the result that they make things worse, not better.

    1. EPLawyer*

      Yes. Oh I’m concerned about mental health, I know I will probe my reports mental health and make unqualified suggestions. If all else fails — pizza party!!!!

      Honestly the best thing this guy can do is back off. OP is getting the help she needs. The counselor she is seeing seems to have expressed no concerns. So just give the OP space. there is ZERO indication that work is being affected at all. Even the mentor said she noticed but was not concerned. Which means while noticeable seems to be calibrated correctly for what has actually been going on.

      1. Aarti*

        Can we just cut straight to the pizza party honestly that would make me happier than trying to manage my mental health.

        1. quill*

          Time during work that isn’t work? Yeah, that would probably help. Especially if the food is free.

        2. Anonymous4*

          Well, yes, but there needs to be something besides just pepperoni. Which is a fine pizza, mind you, but . . . . can we have something besides JUST pepperoni? How about sausage and mushrooms?

    2. ceiswyn*

      Reminds me of the manager I had when I was suffering from depression after I suffered a bereavement during a period of intense stress. When I told him that I was struggling to get into work by 9am due to medication side effects, he suggested I should get up earlier.

      1. ceiswyn*

        (Appparently his ‘logic’ was that if I shifted my work hours earlier I could get an early night. I still can’t even.)

          1. ceiswyn*

            He was actually a nice guy who was genuinely trying to help. He just had NO CLUE and missed the mark by a country mile. (Actually, that describes his management style in general…)

      2. Friendly Neighborhood Researcher*

        Almost the exact same thing happened to me at my last job: when I requested a slightly more flexible start time as an accommodation, because depression was making it extremely difficult to get out of bed in the mornings, the HR person I talked to asked “well, why don’t you just go to bed earlier the night before?”

        1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

          OOf, I hear that.

          A few months ago, I was getting to the verge of burnout after an extra busy period and went to my manager with a request of reducing my hours temporarily. I’m salary, so it’s not necessarily super straightforward. He talked to HR, who questioned whether less time working was the right course of action in this case or if there are other options to handle burnout. My response was basically that time off is the thing that needs to happen to deal with burnout. It’s not optional. In this case, the manager was doing the best he could, but I’m still super disappointed in our HR. Because we’d all be better off if I don’t get burned out and have to go on leave or decide to quit.

          Fortunately, things improved when the work wasn’t so busy and I took a staycation in December, so am doing OK.

    3. NoRealNameHere*

      I am someone who is able to diagnose and treat mental health conditions based on my degree and certification. But, I still don’t do it in the context of a supervisor/supervisee relationship! If I am concerned about a supervisee, I will typically name to them what I observe and then suggest they consider outside counseling – with the explicit statement that it’s outside my scope to be their therapist. They usually thank me a couple of months later for the gentle push they needed to pursue it.

      Concern over a supervisee’s mental health CAN be done well, but Sam is not doing it. At all.

    4. El l*

      Yeah. Plus, while it’s possible this is a prejudice of mine, in my experience overly positive people aren’t equipped to maturely handle negativity in others. They can’t relate…or more likely they’re denying their own problems.

      Some managers are sensitive and can handle it. Others try and can’t.

    5. anon for this*

      I agree with this. There are many things I like about my current boss, but this is his one terrible habit! After a wake-up call in his own life (his then-fiancée had a psychiatric crisis about fifteen years ago), he rethought his earlier (dismissive and victim-blaming) views on mental illness and is now a much better ally on average. However, he still handles these things pretty clumsily. He has helped decrease stigma by opening up some good conversations, but his usual approach to people reporting problems in our organization has been to tell the person reporting the issues to get therapy, which is not usually an actual solution. One time, boss dug in his heels with me, then roped someone else into the effort to get me some help and kept picking at it simply because he was so convinced that he was correct, which was hugely overbearing. There are other reasons why I have started job searching, but this approach – creating problems where there were none, and failing to address real problems where they arise – is part of what is driving down morale in our organization, and I think I will be better able to thrive when I am not being baselessly accused of not thriving.

      1. Anonymous4*

        Wow. If my manager called me into his/her office and proceeded to scold me for “not thriving,” that would definitely cause serious thoughts of resume-mailing.

    6. GlowCloud*

      Yeah, being coaxed into telling your manager about your Mental Health, because they are Concerned For Your Wellbeing, only to have inadequate support foisted upon you or have it brought up later in a stigmatising fashion at every subsequent meeting, until your perceived recovery becomes a performance issue… it’s the kind of melon-twisting Judo Flip that someone in need of MH support absolutely DOES NOT NEED.

      This is why MH “Awareness” is worse than useless without actual effective and compassionate tools to help manage people to achieve their best. My crappy ex manager only ever saw me as a problem, and nothing would change her mind about me, even when I wasn’t ill.

  5. Brett*

    I was an emergency manager for 8 years. It’s a major occupational hazard of the field, exacerbated by long hours and near constant stress when you do long responses (floods and wildfires are the worst, tornados are relative easy despite the initial shock and horror of them).
    I would say any deployment more than 2 weeks or 120 hours is a warning sign that your norms have probably already been altered to the point that you do recognize the effects on your mental health.
    The really bad news? My last two years were particularly bad. Multiple long term responses to flood (where I often worked 100+ and even 120+ hr weeks) and recurring civil unrest responses. In retrospect, it took over 3 years for my mental health to recover from those and I never fully recovered in some respects.

    1. Brett*

      Related to this, I saw nothing about access to an EAP or medical health professionals in the workplace. This is very standard in long term disaster response. On top of our EAP, we had access to a chaplain team that consisted of trained and credential mental health professionals across a huge range of faiths (I think more than 20, but possibly more than 40). Don’t be mislead by the phrase “chaplain”, the team was generally secular. This is the exact same team you would see counseling first responders after responding to tragedies.

      1. EPLawyer*

        It’s kinda far down the letter but its there:
        “All of us on disaster response are currently getting critical incident support and counselling. I feel that I’m on track with my mental health, and although still very tired and exhausted right now, that I will recover in time.”

        1. Brett*

          Ah yeah, I skipped past the counseling part. (Critical incident support in disaster response often means the material resource and logistics support, e.g. food, water, gear, relief, so I probably read past the counseling aspect.)

        2. Momma Bear*

          Since OP did not report to Sam at that time and maybe Sam wasn’t the supervisor at all during these deployments, I’d remind Sam that this was happening. Maybe Sam will back off once he understands and/or Sam can talk to the support people himself to find out how best to support his team without being annoying about it. Maybe mitigate his expectations with info from a mental health expert. I wouldn’t want Sam to talk about OP specifically, but if he manages people who deal with these things, he needs to know how to handle it better and understand their support system.

      2. Anon today*

        I work here too (context clues) and we def have an EAP. Might be worth calling if only to tell the manager she’s done so?

        I’ve also been “deployed” for about a year and a half now (health related event that’s been going on for a couple years ;) ) and with a couple of toxic managers and hooo boy have I lost all sense of workplace and/or life norms

        1. Brett*

          At least for me, I wouldn’t tell the manager about calling the EAP in a disaster response workplace. That’s between men and the EAP resources. Same thing if I chose to talk with the chaplains. That’s between me and the chaplains.
          I’ll add, the chaplains would have stepped up in this case and told the manager to back off. They were a very hard-nosed group and very willing to stand up for people in that respect. Chaplain teams are extremely common in disaster response if a government state or local emergency response agency is involved.

      3. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        So as a person who is in the same situation as OP, if you had a manager who took it upon himself to assess, diagnose and treat you, would you have lost your literal shit? This is what OP’s manager should be doing instead of these daily “quizzes” that OP is destined to fail. “Just good?”
        I think the additional layer of pressure to please my manager or make my manager feel like a success is taking far too much energy from the OP.

        1. Brett*

          Oh, I’ve been there. I didn’t lose my shit. I just told them what I needed (which was time off in that case) and that anything else I would talk to the chaplains. Time off, relief support, and material resources (food, water, cold water gear, etc) are what the managers can provide and what I would have considered inside their role. This manager was going way too far.

    2. Aviation Adjacent Anon*

      It’s amazing how constantly being exposed to the worst can affect your mental health – and sometimes you don’t know it’s happening till people around you make comments about it. I’ve watched it happen with a relative that spent just over six years as an aviation incident investigator (they don’t call them accidents, they are all incidents). Trust me – they started changing, but fortunately realized it and took steps to move to an adjacent part of the industry before they completely burned out due to stress, schedule, and the depressing nature of some of what they saw while on scene. Took about a year, but they moved to something that while it’s still aviation, isn’t as depressing and stressful. Took them about two and a half years to come back to where they are now – but like you said, they didn’t come all the way back.

      (For the record, there are a lot more General Aviation incidents than the general public realizes, because the majority don’t make the news. Most incidents aren’t too bad, they are your landed off-field by gliding down after running short on fuel. The ones that aren’t that though are, not good, and those are the rare ones that make the daily news.)

    3. Just Me*

      I think it’s good you bring this up. In any other job it would be wildly inappropriate to bring up mental health with a report in general unless it was having a big impact on the job, but I think it’s true that in disaster relief employers do need to be responsive to the emotional/mental well being of their reports. I don’t think this manager is doing it correctly, but I’m a little more sympathetic than I would be if it was, say, your average non-client/customer facing desk job. I’ve heard of jobs like this setting up interventions where employees have a group meeting with a counselor to talk about how they’re feeling after working some sort of disaster/accident/tragic event, but the managers to my knowledge aren’t present unless they’re involved and, you know, the employees talk to an actual counselor or psychologist.

  6. Coco*

    I’d be tempted to ask Sam in a neutral tone when he pushes back ‘just okay?’, what response is acceptable to him. Sounds like he’s looking for something specific and I’d be curious as to what it is.

    (Not that you’re obligated to give him what he deems acceptable but he seems to be seeking something. And not good at communicating what it is)

    1. Myrin*

      Yeah, I thought that, and not even in a snarky or exasperated way; I’m truly confused and wondering what exactly he’s looking for.

      1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

        I’m truly confused and wondering what exactly he’s looking for.

        I would honestly tell him exactly this. “Okay” and “Good” are standard answers that I’ve never seen a manager push back on. Sam needs to elaborate on what Sam wants to hear (and maybe spend some time thinking about what it is he wants to hear. Maybe it did not occur to him how abrasive and confusing he is being.)

    2. Rolly*

      I’d give a more frank answer

      ‘To tell you the truth, it’s barely OK. We have budget shortfalls on X, and we’re running out of time delivering on Y. This is a normal level of problems, so not particularly alarming. But the situation is not actually good. That’s how I’m feeling.”

      Then just leave it there.

      Don’t play games with these sorts of people.

    3. Purely Allegorical*

      I do wonder if there’s a social norms thing going on here. Like sometimes my managers will ask ‘How’s it going?’ and if I give a one-word response (‘Good/great/chugging along/etc’) they seem to want more–not because I think they actually care or are worried, but more because it seems like a social convention to follow up with more. So I usually tack on a meaningless sentence to round out the initial one-word response: “Chugging along–the TPS reports were delayed from Team X, but other than that things are fine.”

      It’s annoying as hell to do, but I do wonder if just adding a bit more ‘fluff’ could satisfy Sam. Managers seem to view one-word responses as problematic or even adversarial.

      1. ecnaseener*

        Ah, good point. Like when I was a kid and my parents asked how my day at school was. They’d never accept just “good,” they wanted details.

        If that’s what Sam’s trying to say, that is maddeningly condescending ughhh.

      2. Elsajeni*

        Yeah, I often tack on a one-sentence update on a current project or “working on X right now” or something like that, just because “Good!” by itself tends to hang there in a slightly weird way. I think this also has the benefit, with someone like Sam, that it redirects the topic, so if he wants to comment on your “good”/”fine” he has to sort of go backwards in the flow of conversation — he could still say “Just good?”, but it would be more natural to respond to the most recent thing you said, which was about the Fooberman report or whatever.

    4. ecnaseener*

      I’d be tempted to launch into a monologue about every less-than-perfect aspect of my day. Then my week, month, and year. Since Sam is so caring and all.

  7. C in the Hood*

    The manager responding “Just okay?” and the like reminded me: I had a coworker who would say, “Are you angry?” “You seem angry!” “Are you sure you’re not angry?” I wasn’t angry until she started hounding me about being angry!!

    1. Frinkfrink*

      I hate encounters like this! Especially because, after you get angry at being asked if you’re angry, they take that as a sign you were truly angry all along!

    2. NeedRain47*

      My little brother did this to me when we were adolescents, which is about the level of maturity it’s appropriate for.

    3. kiki*

      My sister is big on this. Even if I were upset, I am quietly working through it on my own– there is no action needed on your part!

    4. UKDancer*

      I had a colleague like this and it’s positively maddening. If you weren’t angry to start, you are by the end. She also really wanted everyone to talk about their feelings a lot which didn’t go down very well with most of the team.

    5. Dust Bunny*

      Or every person who thinks that when [women, mostly] say they’re fine, they’re actually stewing about something they think you did wrong that they also think you should know about without being told.

      No, seriously–I’m fine. If I had a problem with you I’d tell you about it.

      1. Asenath*

        I used to deal a lot with someone who would be obviously upset, and when asked about it, would say something like “You know what’s wrong! Well, you should!” and I would honestly not know. So I learned. If I am upset and want to tell you, I will. There is absolutely no need to think I am silently stewing waiting for you to guess, because I don’t do that. I was on the receiving end, and won’t give it out.

      2. Anonymous4*

        I had a relative like this who, when she became upset about something, refused to talk about it. People were supposed to notice that she was upset and (1) figure out *why* she was upset, (2) realize if it was “their fault,” and (3) somehow divine what it was necessary for them to do before she would decide that their atonement was enough and would quit being upset.

        It was exhausting to be around her. I never was good at guessing games and my mind-reading skills have always been terrible.

        1. JESUS IS THE MAN!*

          I really have to manage my own tendency to be like this. I grew up learning that the only acceptable way to deal with negative/unladylike emotions such as anger and frustration was to throttle them, and that anybody who *truly* cared how I was doing would be able to figure out things were wrong from the clipped way I said, “no, I’m fine, really.”
          I know now that it’s unfair to expect that of other people, but oof, the socialization has been hard to get through.

    6. Salymander*

      My husband used to do this a lot in our first couple of years together. I finally told him that when I get angry with him he will not have to ask. We had our first real argument shortly after that and he mostly stopped asking me whether I was angry after that. I don’t yell or do anything mean, but I make my point very, very clear. There is no doubt. Husband still falls into the are you angry trap when his anxiety gets bad, but I don’t get too upset about it because he quickly recognizes what he is doing and doesn’t make it my problem. If only OP’s manager would recognize that his need to have everyone emote correctly was his own thing, and leave OP alone.

  8. NervousNellie*

    Sounds like “women should smile more.” I suspect Sam is a bit of a jerk, or just straight up a jerk.

    1. Velocipastor*

      Ha! My dad used to tell me to smile anytime he walked into a room and I had a neutral expression. He once did this while I was watching a documentary on Lizzie Borden. So I asked him if he really wanted me to be sitting alone in a room smiling at the thought of patricide and he has never told me to smile ever again.

      1. Salymander*

        What an awesome response! I told my dad the same sort of thing, but I was much less eloquent and hilarious. I just lectured him about sexism for 20 minutes or so without giving him a chance to get a word in edgewise. I think my dad just smiled and told me that he always thought I was a genius, and that I take after him because he is a genius too. I am adopted, so that seems unlikely. And it doesn’t take a genius to see that policing the perceived emotions of other people is really selfish and a crappy thing to do.

        I worked for two doctors who did the sexist toxic positivity thing. They also called all of the support staff and nurses girls, even the ones who were older than they were. And one doctor would comment, “I see you are a Sweater Girl today!” Every time I wore a sweater. I worked there between age 17 to my early 20s, and I didn’t know what that meant (a Hollywood type term for a young woman in a tight, revealing sweater who is there to appeal to the male gaze). When I took a film class and learned what the term meant, I asked him about it. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, and naive me wanted to let him know so he didn’t keep embarrassing himself unintentionally. He responded that I took myself too seriously, and that I should wear more form fitting clothing, because it is important for a girl to please men with her appearance because I only had a few more years until I was too old to be on the market. And then he told me to smile and get him some coffee. Working with these doctors was one of the reasons why I decided that I didn’t want to go to nursing school even though I was accepted. I didn’t think I could work with people like that for the rest of my life without my soul dying inside me.

    2. londonedit*

      That was my first thought, too. I’d be tempted to respond in a neutral tone and say ‘Look, Sam, I’m currently having counselling after my experiences in [X] and [Y]; I’m trying my best, but 2021 is going to take me a while to recover from and I can’t see myself feeling upbeat for quite some time. Of course I’ll carry on being professional at work, but I simply don’t have it in me at the moment to be perky and upbeat every day. I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t keep asking me how I’m feeling or if I’m “just okay”‘.

      1. Anon for this*

        I used to get this all the time when I was younger. I can be feeling fine, but my neutral expression is apparently serious-to-sad. It wasn’t just from men, either.

        I work in a field which can be traumatic. I’ve had my boss remind me a time or two that counselling is available. I don’t see that as overstepping, but I haven’t had to contend with people not taking me at my word if I say I’m fine…

    3. PT*

      Yes this, I was very disappointed by Alison’s response of “There’s a caveat to all this, which is that it does feel notable that this is the second time you’re encountering this from a manager,” because this is screaming sexism right here.

      The reason OP has heard this multiple times from a manager is because OP is female. OP is required to be warm, perky, upbeat, and nurturing at all times or she is not Being A Woman Correctly, and as we all know if you do not Woman Correctly at work, you are likely to face serious professional sanctions for it.

      1. Properlike*

        Yes, I got the sense of this too. While Sam is experienced in this governmental field, it doesn’t seem like he’s experienced directly in disaster response. If he were, then he wouldn’t be bringing up SAD (I mean, I can’t even with that one.) If he IS experienced and he’s bringing up SAD, then it’s a million times worse and he shouldn’t be managing or expressing concerns about OP’s job performance.

        Her former manager, who still works there, did not see anything amiss. Correctly interpreted what it was due to and that it was normal and would eventually abate. As did OP. Who is getting crisis counselling and all the resources they need.

        The only person who hasn’t gotten the memo is Sam Who’s New. Sam is creating the problem, not OP.

      2. Cat*

        Do we know that, though? I don’t recall seeing OP’s gender in the letter, although I may have missed something

      3. Anonymous4*

        I don’t Woman Correctly at work, but I do Engineer quite well. We have a fairly rapid rotation of managers in our department, with a new one every two or three years, and I discovered early that if I subject them to a deluge of Engineer-Speak at our initial meeting, a lot of them are totally intimidated and tend to handle me with considerable care. (“Don’t provoke her or she’ll start going into details about some Reynold’s number. Or the ideal gas equation! I’ve heard her! Gawd, it was awful!”)

        That being said, if someone tried to instruct me to “Smile!” I’d be likely to look up and say, “Let’s do that later, okay? I’m kind of busy right now.”

        But that’s a highly personal approach to the situation and not everyone has the latitude to use those techniques.

    4. Nanani*

      Yeeep. And he doesn’t have to be a concious jerk for the sexist train of “why young woman not SMILE???” to be affecting his treatment.

      Assuming LW is perceived as a woman, anyway.

    5. Y'all Come Back Now, Ya Hear?*

      This was my first thought.

      I’m a woman with a facial difference. In my first teaching job, I was marked down by my principal because “I didn’t smile enough or look happy enough.” I had to explain to him that I had had 18 surgeries and that smiling causes me physical discomfort. I only smile when I have to. That’s the way the scar tissue curves – you can bring it up with my surgeon.

      He marked me down twice more about not smiling enough before I finally had to loop in HR. That finally stopped the comments.

        1. Y'all Come Back Now, Ya Hear?*

          I wish I had the wherewithal as a 22 year old to have had a snappy comeback, but 32 year old me has the same sentiments as you.

          He was a kindly, older principal at a faith-based school, and he taught me a lot about teaching and grace under fire as a Science teacher in a conservative environment, but he very much missed the mark in this regard.

      1. Shan*

        Not nearly as bad, but I will always remember getting a lower mark than the rest of my group during a presentation in a Lit for Educators course in uni because “I looked like I was frowning.” I had a migraine. I’d told her I had a migraine. “Yes, but children will think you’re mad at them!” Well, I’m not teaching children, I’m presenting on a topic in a university class to a bunch of adults. “Yes, but…”

        This was the prof that treated everyone like they were in kindergarten, and would also used weaponized tears. Great class.

        1. PT*

          I’m chronic migraine, and I get a LOT of facial expression policing. I’m sorry I can’t be Camp Counselor Cheerful, my head is too busy throbbing.

          (I consider myself thankful that they are on the mild end of migraine symptoms and I am generally able to suffer going about my daily business with them instead of being bedridden. But still, it is hard to be cheery when you are in pain.)

    6. Aarti*

      My female boss used to tell me to smile all the time.
      I am a REALLY positive person. I am almost always upbeat. I stay cheerful under pressure.
      I just don’t sit in my office smiling to myself all the time. I have a naturally pouty face and when I am concentrating, my neutral face can look pouty.
      But why are you judging my face when I am sitting alone in my office working on my PC?

    7. Cthulhu's Librarian*

      This is exactly how I treated the last request that I be “more positive” in the work place. A long spiel about my professionalism being unquestioned, and a sharp reminder that if you wouldn’t tell one of my female coworkers to smile at the public, you can’t tell me to be more positive.

      I am by nature a dour, introverted person. I can affect to be extroverted or positive, and both of those take significant mental effort. Asking me to do both at once is a quick way to see me run out of steam halfway through the day. If you’re lucky, that means you’ll be dealing with a functional zombie. If you’re not, you’ll kick off a downward spiral that crashes in a very unpleasant location. Only one of the two states is necessary for me to actually do my job (appearing extroverted).

  9. Velocipastor*

    I’d be really tempted to start responding to every “how are you” with a totally deadpan “truly magnificent” but the sarcasm of it all would probably not go over well…

    1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      I’ve posted on here before about a former coworker who always replied to “how are you” with a completely deadpan “Freakin’ wonderful.”

      I loved her. It was indeed truly magnificent to behold each time she said it.

    2. That One Person*

      I like your name – I hear about that movie a lot from a friend!

      I feel like I’d be up that deadpan alley of responses as well, or pointing out how the day was particularly average and okay, nothing of truly extraordinariness to bolster it up to anything past “good” or “okay.” Or maybe I’d start acting exaggeratedly suspicious and asking what he knows that I don’t.

      If he’s not getting the responses he wants though he’d be better off going the direct approach. “Good” and “okay” strike me as norm responses rather than “fantastic” or “amazing” if that’s what he wants, and if he’s worried then he should find something more than a common greeting to probe such as, “I wanted to check in how everything’s going,” or “let me know if there’s anything you need.” Supportive with some directness rather than being a weird roundabout. Really hoping it’s not just a, “Women need to smile so I need to figure out why this one isn’t.”

    3. Ralph the Wonder Llamas*

      That was my thought as well. “Truly magnificent”, “Freaking wonderful”, “Pretty happy to be above ground”, “Moderately ecstatic”, all delivered with a neutral demeanor.

      1. L.H. Puttgrass*

        I used to work with a judge who would say something like, “Still responsive and taking nutrition!” when asked how he was doing.

    4. L.H. Puttgrass*

      Go full Carlin and say you’re “moderately neato.” If you’re feeling particularly jaunty, look them in the eye and say, “I’m not unwell, thank you.”

      1. English Rose*

        I absolutely love all these deadpan suggestions, I am going to adopt them.

        I really enjoy saying ‘Fine’, simply because my psychotherapist friend tells me that in counselling circles it stands for ‘F’d up, Insecure, Neurotic and Egotistical’. I love that my cheery response has this secret meaning!

        1. Imaginary Friend*

          There’s a character in Louise Penny’s series who is a poet, and who titles her latest book “FINE”. In all caps, as a clue that it’s an acronym, but given her personality, it also comes across as “JUST FINE, OKAY?”

      2. Catty Wampus*

        Carlin rocked! I have used the “Not unwell, thank you” response. Seems to confuse people long enough for me to change the subject.

    5. CreepyPaper*

      Don’t forget a Nigel Thornberry-esque ‘Smashing!!!!’

      Bonus points if you do the voice.

      1. Dark Macadamia*

        Yes just lean into the most ridiculous replies you can think of lol. “Groovy, baby” in an Austin Powers voice, a McConaughey “alright alright alright,” perhaps break into singing Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious?

        Oh, channel Leslie Mann after 3 Red Bulls in Knocked Up. “Positive positive positive!”

    6. Cthulhu's Librarian*

      “Better than I could be…” with the unspoken addition of “Worse than I was before you asked that”

    7. GlowCloud*

      I knew a guy who worked in a warehouse job, where “workplace attitude” was something managers would zero in on. Any time his supervisor would ask how things were going, he’d always trot out the McDonald’s slogan “I’m lovin’ it!” The manager could never tell if he was being sincere or not, but it meant that he never got picked up on for “attitude”.

  10. YL*

    Sam is annoying (to put it lightly). He’s not a good manager for prodding you for a better answer to “how are you?” He’s a terrible manager for suggesting you have SAD. Making insinuations about someone’s mental health under the guise of looking out for you and without any evidence is bad up the statements is plain evil, toxic, and bullying. I would see about talking to HR because Sam is not behaving professionally.

    1. Loulou*

      OP said themselves that they think Sam likely has good intentions but is going about it in a wrongheaded way. I’m not sure how it’s helpful to say no, he is actually evil, toxic, and bullying. Let’s take OP at their word.

      1. Metadata minion*

        Yeah, suggesting she has SAD is overstepping as a manager, but “it is winter and my report seems mopey; maybe the dark is affecting her” really doesn’t seem particularly evil to me. I even think it would have been ok if he’d said “y’know, a light box helps me a lot in winter” or something along those lines.

      2. RAM*

        Agreed – this just sounds like he’s misreading the room, maybe that he has poor social or self-awareness skills, not that he’s “evil, toxic and bullying”. He backed off when Gillian (probably) suggested it to him, he backed off when OP snapped. Doesn’t sound like he held it against OP. It sounds like he’d react just fine if OP told him directly how he’s coming off. What he’s probably intending to do, but clumsily, is figure out if there’s anything that he can do to help (and not realizing that backing off is what OP actually wants – which is a hard thing to accept when you want. to. help.)

    2. Salymander*

      Thing is, a person doesn’t have to be really Evil in order to do things that have a very negative effect on others. A lot of terrible things are done by people that are well meaning. The really difficult thing about that is that the people who do those well meaning but awful things think that because they are not trying to be terrible, that makes what they do ok. And bystanders often give them a pass because they mean well and are not actually pure evil. I think Sam sounds really irritating and his behavior seems sexist and like a huge boundary (and common sense) violation. He doesn’t have to be Satan in order to be really unpleasant to work with. Talking about him like he is Pure Evil is unhelpful.

      Sam probably thinks he is being a supportive manager. He almost certainly doesn’t mean to be rude or cruel. If OP confronts him or tries to get manager/HR to confront him as if he is evil and bully, there is a good chance it won’t be very effective. OP should tell manager/HR what Sam is doing. OP should say that, well meaning as he may be, his behavior is unhelpful and has a very negative impact. If OP does this in a very matter of fact way, there is a good chance that useful changes can be made. Talking about what an evil bully Sam might make HR or the manager feel the need to defend him instead of focusing on his problematic and exhausting behavior.

      1. ecnaseener*

        Agreed. Don’t assume evil when incompetence can explain the behavior, and all that.

        Imagine if you assumed every overstepping or incompetent boss was evil….what an exhausting life that would be.

        1. Salymander*

          Not to mention that if every incompetent person were actually just Pure Evil, the world would be a really terrifying place. Even more than it already is.

  11. Talk is Cheap. Supply exceeds demand.*

    Definitely has a ‘women should be perky’ kind of vibe to it, which gives me the creeps. The whole Seasonal Affective Disorder thing really annoyed me too. That sounded like an attempt at a diagnosis which really should never be coming from a supervisor… Sam, get over yourself, dude.

  12. ENFP in Texas*

    “How are you doing?”

    “Well, I *was* doing great, until you asked that question, and now I’m stressed because no matter what answer I was *going* to give it wasn’t going to be upbeat enough for you. So just tell me what answer you want to hear and let me get back to work.”

    I know it’s not the right response, but it would feel good.

  13. Trek*

    We had a visiting VP once on site for nearly a month and he started this type of ridiculous response. How are you? Good how are you? Why are you only good why aren’t you great? I finally looked at him in front of three managers and said ‘Why don’t you answer the question yourself since my answer is never correct.’ He stopped asking or at least commenting on people’s responses after that.

    1. Rolly*

      “Why are you only good why aren’t you great?”

      “Because we have a bunch of potential problems facing us: X, Y and Z.”

    2. Pippa K*

      “Why are you only good why aren’t you great?”

      “Well, there’s this useless stuffed shirt who keeps coming round interrupting everyone’s work with fake-hearty gotcha questions about our moods.”

    3. The New Wanderer*

      “I’ll say I’m great if you give me a raise, what do you say?”

      People who think this is ‘engaging’ behavior need to take a step back. As your response shows, it just makes the other person uncomfortable and prolongs the awkwardness.

    4. Anon because I tell this story in real life*

      I got laid off several years ago, along with all but one other person on my team. Our boss got called into the conference room first and from our cubicles we saw her packing up her office, as HR came to cubicles one at a time saying “please come into the conference room.”

      I was the 5th person to get called in, and there sat the out-of-state director of our department. He had the temerity to ask me “How are you today, Anon?” I responded “considering that you just laid off my boss and several of my coworkers, the answer to that is dependent on what you say next.”

      Before anyone thinks he was just uneasy having to lay people off, he was a thoroughly unpleasant person.

    5. Salymander*

      “Why don’t you tell me the answer you want, so I can say that and you can go away. I have things to do.”

      I have said that, but not at work. It was very effective, as the man I said it to told his equally annoying friends that I was a scary bitch and that they should stay away from me. After that, I really was feeling reasonably happy.

  14. Laure001*

    There is also the problem of efficiency. Let’s say that rightly or wrongly you want someone to be more upbeat… Ordering them to be more cheerful is exactly the wrong way to go about it. You can’t bully someone into joy and enthusiasm.
    If I wanted to cheer up a friend of a colleague, I would listen to her, and then, when I feel she’s ready, I would introduce lighter topics, joke around, I would try to be a fun person to be around. It would work… Or it would not, but my chances of succeeding would be better than with an injunction to be happy.

    1. Daughter of Ada and Grace*

      One of the best things a friend ever did to cheer me up was to listen to me being upset, then later give me a button that said “I hate being cheered up. It’s depressing.” The validation was so much more helpful than instructions about my mental state could ever possibly be.

    2. littleandsmall*

      Exactly! If he’s so concerned, he needs to be offering support and resources. The commentary on OP’s moods isn’t helping the situation.

      1. Salymander*

        Right. His methods are about as effective as if he was just ordering OP to be happy or else. Even if he has the best intentions, he is being totally unsupportive and putting pressure on the person he evidently thinks is having problems with depression to just have different emotions in order to make him feel better.

  15. anonymous73*

    People like this are infuriating. I have RBF and am sure before people get to know me well think I’m always in a bad mood. And I’m not about to fake happiness to appease others. You definitely need to have a conversation with him that is not immediately following one of his prods into your state of mental health. If his intentions are genuine (i.e. he just wants to make sure you’re taking care of yourself) then the way he’s going about it is all wrong and he needs to make adjustments.

    1. Bryce*

      My mom has a bunch of family photo-portraits, so I grew up seeing my same resting scowl across generations. As such comments about my smile or lack thereof hit me the same as comments about my nose or ears or something; unless you have a Potato-Head kit they’re not gonna be any different.

      1. anonymous73*

        Yeah I got mine from my maternal grandmother. She was very even keeled and had a very stern voice. My mom said her friends always thought she was in trouble when she called her to come back home. But my grandmother was cool, just not very expressive with her face.

      2. kiki*

        I have a down-turned mouth. When my face is at rest, my lips slightly curve downward. Even when I smile as big as I can, the corners of my mouth are only raised a bit. It’s a family thing on my dad’s side and generations of women have the same smile. All of us have been complimented on how lovely and unique it is. But that also comes with our signature RBF and I think it’s beautiful

  16. Hills to Die on*

    If you have enough caffeine, you can be vibrating with excitement and still be just ‘good’ or ‘okay’. Just saying.

  17. FedUpMarketer*

    Just reading this – could it be Sam not asking the right question? I’m wondering if he’s trying to find out if there’s something specifically bothering you that he could help with. E.g. Sam- ‘how are you today?’ OP – ‘Ok’ Sam – ‘Just ok? I know the project you’re working on is incredibly tough. Do you need more support with X?’. If he’s new to managing he might not be getting to that second part of the sentence/you’re shutting him down with reiterating that you’re fine.

    1. EPLawyer*

      OP is not a mind reader if Sam wants to know how a specific project is going or if she needs more support or to balance her workload she can have some more downtime to focus on mental health he needs to ask that. Not a general how you doing then bristling that he didn’t get a list of action specific items from her.

      1. FedUpMarketer*

        Yeah I’m not saying OP is doing anything wrong. It’s poor communication on Sam’s part. But it might make sense.

    2. PT*

      IMO, Sam is absolutely not qualified to supervise employees with such high stress jobs, if Sam does not have a) better training on workplace mental health and b) better EQ in sniffing around about it.

      Someone in the position of supervising employees who do disaster response, who as part of their job expose themselves to highly traumatic situations, is responsible for making sure the agency provides adequate mental health services, medical leave, and job reassignment to staff who are struggling and unable to perform at their best as a result of mental injury received in the line of duty. The fact that he has an employee who’s deployed to multiple traumatic assignments and the best he can do is tone police a woman for not Womaning Correctly shows that he is not fit for this responsibility.

    3. kicking_k*

      Yes, I wondered if Sam’s problem with “fine” or “okay” is that it’s short and doesn’t give him much to go on. But if so, he needs to frame his question differently – “How are things going with the X project?” or “How are you finding dealing with Y and Z?”

      “How are you?” or “How’s it going?” are such common social formulae that they won’t always elicit details on their own. Some people are chatty and will tell you, some won’t.

    4. Observer*

      If he’s new to managing he might not be getting to that second part of the sentence/you’re shutting him down with reiterating that you’re fine.

      Please let’s stop with shifting responsibility. If that’s what Sam is after, he should LEAD with that, not with the utterly inane “Just fine”. As for the OP “shutting him down” – What exactly are they supposed to do and say? There is no indication that they are actually interrupting him. And even if they were interrupting him, he could just as easily follow up. But he’s not.

  18. HoppityP*

    OP, I also work in disaster response and geesh, 2021 was excruciating. I don’t have much to add except that I totally understand how you’re feeling. The burnout is very real and you’re not alone.

    1. OrigCassandra*

      This. This is the kind of thing Sam could be saying.

      I send my sympathy also, OP. I can only imagine, and I’m sure what I’m imagining pales compared to your reality.

  19. Shiara*

    I’m wondering if it’s possible Sam is (badly) trying to get a more expansive answer than “good” or “okay”, rather than a more upbeat one. Obviously op is in the best place to interpret it, but I have known a manager who would ask how it’s going and literally want detai

    1. Shiara*

      Woops, submitted too soon.

      To be clear, if this is the case Sam is handling it abysmally. But it might help op to try reframing it that way and see if that produces any better results.

      This all does sound utterly exasperating, on top of how challenging everything is.

    2. Alexander Graham Yell*

      Yeah, but the logical followup there isn’t “Why not great?” it’s, “Okay, anything I can help with?”

      1. Shiara*

        Sure, but “why not great” is nowhere in the letter. “Just okay?” is, and I’ve seen that particular phrasing used as a prompt for more details to literally “how is it going?”. (In that case it was more explicitly “just okay? So no questions about the teapot painting or further concerns with Beatrice being slow?”)

        But even in this likely stretch interpretation Sam is being a poor communicator.

    3. CoveredinBees*

      As someone who has gotten a response like OP’s those people absolutely wanted me to be “excellent” ,”amazing” and more effusive words like that. I would trust LW to have picked up on the tone and other elements that would clarify the implication.

      1. Salymander*


        Btw, CoveredinBees is a great name :)

        If Sam wants more info, he can ask for it. Instead, what he does is to ask for different info, because the info OP gives him is not pleasing to him. And he suggests that the info is not pleasing him because OP has a mental health issue.

        I think some people are feeling like they need to defend Sam because he may mean well. But a person doesn’t have to be Pure Evil in order to have a very negative impact on the people around them. Many of the awful things that are done in the world are done by people who aren’t trying to be terrible. That doesn’t make what they do ok.

  20. srr*

    I’ve working in this field for several years, and I think there could be two things going on. Some people in that field just don’t get affected by disasters the way that others (most) do. They have an almost psychopathic excitement when things go wrong and it doesn’t wear on them like it does most people in response. Sam could be one of those and it could affect his assessment on how the letter writer is doing.
    And, depending on our letter-writer’s gender, tone policing in this highly male-dominated field often filled with former military folks would not be out of the ordinary at all.
    The advice is good, but it ultimately sounds like this is a Sam problem.

    1. Smithy*

      This is far too true – but while it is a Sam problem, if it is that case of someone excited by disaster then it’s worth also considering the management higher up. I used to work somewhere when if there was a disaster we were tracking, the CEO would walk around with all this nervous excited energy about “being on alert to mobilize” and “ready to work 20 hour days!”

      It may just be the case that this is an OP/Manager dynamic – but I’ve certainly worked at places where that’s the tone of the entire organization.

  21. Lady_Lessa*

    To that question of “How are you?” I will sometimes say (light hearted tone) “Reasonable”. That is an unusual answer and may get a different response.

    GRIN, at the first employer where I used in, it was interpreted as I was a little down (accurate there), at my current one, it gets a grin (also accurate)

    1. EPLawyer*

      When we had in person 830 am hearings, my standard response was “I’m here.” Because that’s all you can expect out of me at that hour. The clerks who were the ones asking laughed and said “Same.”

      Yesterday I had to to go the courthouse to copy a file (not a lot of in person hearings right now, thanks Omicron). The security guard at the metal detector asked me how I was doing (he’s a regular, he knows me). I said “I’m still here.” Kinda happy because hey, knock on wood, not caught it yet. He laughed and said “Same.”

      1. JelloStapler*

        I do the same “I’m here.” and usually the other person reacts the same – chuckles and says “I hear ya”.

    2. CoveredinBees*

      OP, you have my sympathies as people have said that to me and it really bugs me. In the short term, maybe find a word that will satisfy your boss without feeling like a lie. I usually say, “Content*.” which seems to throw people a bit but I don’t get the “Just good?” responses that I have before or people wanting to talk about whatever is “wrong”. What is wrong with good?!
      In my mind, it is a step more positive than “fine”, a word that also seems to be suffering under an emotional equivalent of grade inflation. Some of this might be cultural because I come form a culture with the very popular saying “Just be average, that is crazy enough.” People there are still quite happy and usually rank near the top of “happiest countries in the world”. Maybe if people didn’t think they had to be “fantastic!” all the time, they’d be happier.

      *Since inflection matters with this word, I’m saying it with the “happy and satisfied” inflection.

      1. londonedit*

        Yeah, in Britain most people would respond to ‘How are you?’ with ‘Fine, thanks’ or ‘Not bad’ or ‘Can’t complain’ – anything more ‘upbeat’ than that would probably be read as sarcasm. And if someone then went on a ‘Really? Just *fine*? Not more than fine?’ trip it would a) be seen as extremely weird and b) have a non-zero chance of resulting in them being told to piss off. Excessive upbeatness – if that’s even a word – reads as insincere here. It’s all about understatement.

        1. The Prettiest Curse*

          Oh yes, the way that Americans will say “I’m doing great!” sincerely and actually mean it totally threw me for a while after I moved there. British people like us are way too grumpy and sarcastic to successfully pull off that response.
          I eventually did start saying that kind of thing while I was living there just to blend in, but I’m sure it was entirely unconvincing to anyone who heard me.

        2. Katie*

          Do Brits ever really say “can’t complain”? I thought (from years of watching British mysteries) they were contactually obligated to use “Mustn’t grumble.”

          1. Cthulhu's Librarian*

            Anyone who says “can’t complain” clearly isn’t trying hard enough. “Mustn’t grumble” is much better at conveying the sentiment…

    3. Sparkles McFadden*

      I always like to say “Not particularly unwell, thank you.” It takes people enough time to parse that sentence so I have time to walk away.

    4. Cold Fish*

      My go-to response to “How are you?” is often “I’m here.” They can interpret as they wish :)

    5. Ama*

      Last year I went through the most stressful 6 month period I’ve ever been through at work (and the other 6 months weren’t that much better, it just eased up enough I didn’t feel like crying multiple times a day). I deliberately started answering “How are you?” chit chat on internal calls with, “I’m holding it together,” or “You know, it’s just really busy right now” because I just didn’t feel like glossing over everything with even an “OK.” I said it pleasantly enough (and we luckily don’t have any Sams at our workplace currently), but I think particularly my longer tenured coworkers understood the subtext that things were pretty bad.

      Honestly I think it prompted some of them to be more efficient in their requests (get to the point faster and ask me further in advance of when they needed info) because they had in the back of their minds that I had a lot going on.

    6. Elizabeth West*

      I think we should all just say it like, “How’re ya now?” “Good, ‘n you?” “Not ‘sbad.”

    7. Daisy Gamgee*

      To be honest, at least half the time I respond to “How are you?” with “Not dead.” I pay attention to my audience, of course.

  22. Let me librarian that for you*

    Dropping in briefly to say as I have before anyone who is a manager (or really anyone who ever interacts with another person at work) should take a Mental Health First Aid course (probably annually). It is SO helpful for identifying what to do – and what not to do – when you think someone you work with may be having mental health challenges.

    For example: Recognizing you cannot diagnose or treat people. Learning how to talk to people about getting support without being invasive.

    1. Meep*

      This is actually something I am going to look up! I work with someone who loves to actively go out of her way to destroy people’s mental health (it is a hobby of hers) so I get a lot of stressed-out coworkers when she turns her eyes on them. It will definitely be helpful for helping them.

      1. Kristi*

        Yikes. That sounds like going out to buy bandaids because you have an active shooter situation. I’m assuming attempts to get rid of or disarm this person haven’t gone well?

    2. After 33 years ...*

      +1 Yes, they are extremely useful, both from the management and your own personal perspectives.

  23. kiki*

    SAD is a real thing that can affect people’s moods and I don’t want to diminish that (love my SAD lamp), but it’s so insulting to be going through something quite rough, like being deployed to support disaster response, and have people suggest you get a lamp. Like in summer 2020, as a Black person living in Minneapolis and the only Black person on my team, I was having a hard time after the murder of George Floyd. So many colleagues suggested I do yoga. The kicker being that I already do yoga. Give me time off please!!! Offer actual helpful things!!

    1. Rolly*

      Reminded of this from a certain comedian:

      “Dave, I know things are rough, and I can only imagine how hard it is for you, but one thing you’ve got to remember is to keep you chin up.”

      “That’s it mofos??? Keep your chin up? What kind of s8it is this!””

      Look on Youtube for The Secret | Stand-Up Comedy

    2. Florp*

      What the? You mean one person doing Yoga doesn’t alleviate an entire community’s grief and anger over centuries of abuse while also getting the abusers to stop abusing them? Weird.

  24. Amber Rose*

    I’m a naturally low-mood kind of person. I’m not perpetually sad, just a little lower energy. I eventually got into the habit of responding “I’m doing well thank you” because nobody ever says “just well?” Also tacking on a thank you seems to help.

    My coworker uses “living the dream” but that one can be tricky not to sound too sarcastic if you’re not good at affecting a light tone of voice.

  25. Meep*

    So we have not had actual pandemic protocols at any point in the 2 years since it started despite me fighting for it. The biggest proponent against it has (not) surprisingly gotten COVID twice and is ONE of two people in the entire office who has gotten it. She has now started entering the morning meetings with “How is everyone feeling? Happy? Healthy? Enjoying that COVID-free feeling?”

    Dealing with a Sam, the best advice I can give is don’t react. Don’t respond. Do not give them anything. If they want to shove their toxic positivity onto you then brush it right off.

    1. Gracely*

      I’m not a violent person, but if I were in your shoes, I would have to restrain myself from slapping your coworker, so well done. Better to not feed the trolls, but dear lord, some people make you want to stuff their faces full.

    2. HigherEdAdminista*

      Oh my god. It would be a violation of decency for me to say what I hope happens to that person.

      I imagine she is the same type to say everyone else is the ones who can’t let go of the pandemic, when she has made the denial of it her whole identity.

    3. JelloStapler*

      “No, because we aren’t free of it… but I am definitely enjoying my current “Idiot-free” feeling.

  26. n.m.*

    I used to have an acquaintance who would question me about why I’m “only fine” in response to “how are you”. I avoided him like the plague after that interaction, but I suppose you can’t do that with your actual manager. I think my neutral face and tone read as “sad” to some people, but all but that one acquaintance have been able to comprehend that that’s just what my face looks like.

    1. Rav*

      In Spanish, I answer the question with something akin “mostly good, thank you.” For the inevitable question, my answer is simple: Things can always get better, maybe I win the lottery and that can make everything better.

  27. Nanani*

    Is there a possible gender dynamic here? It doesn’t look like LW mentioned their gender but Sam is refereed to as “him”, so.
    It’s not at all unusual for older men, like Sam, to expect constant smiles and overall decorativeness from younger women. He doesn’t have to be actively malicious for this tendency to be affecting his treatment of LW. Even unconscious bias about “young lady should be smiling all the time” can lead to crap like this.
    Maybe check in with other colleagues to see if Sam is also expecting performance of happiness from anyone else, and see if there’s a pattern.

    Hopefully this isn’t a factor but like, we live in the real world and it’s way too common to ignore.

  28. JustA___*

    “Just okay?!”
    “Yes, and my mood declines further each time you approach me with your toxic positivity.”

  29. H.Regalis*

    LW, I’m sorry. That is so fucking obnoxious. Unless the SAD lamp has a genie in it that can prevent disasters “buy a lamp” is pretty useless advice for what you’re dealing with. And “good” is a perfectly acceptable response! “How are you” is not even a real question; it’s basically an interactive greeting.

  30. Rav*

    Considering the last paragraph, perhaps there might be a cultural clash? It doesn’t have to be a large difference to affect perception.

    For example, I’m Hispanic, and among people of similar culture, I can come of as cold and stand-off-ish. The same behavior in an American setting, I come of as warm and walking into others’ comfort zones. But it doesn’t have to be this dramatic. Sometimes there are local differences that people don’t register.

    It’s a weird perspective.

    1. Daisy Gamgee*

      I was wondering much the same. The “RBF” phenomenon, which is much more in the eye of the beholder than on the face of the beheld, is not only levied at women but often also at POC of any gender.

  31. Dork_in_training*

    Manic doesn’t mean happy. I’m bi-polar and when I go manic, I can be either at the top of my game with waaayyyyy to much energy (till I crash) or starting a long descent into a bad depression state. Manic-depressive or bi-polar disorder is not well understood by the general public and for many of us, it isn’t well treated. So just like DX’ing someone with SAD, it’s just as bad to do so for Manic-depressives.

    1. ecnaseener*

      LW didn’t say anything to indicate it was supposed to be the clinical meaning of manic, it does in fact have a non-clinical meaning of “excessively enthusiastic.” It’s really not helpful to nitpick the LW’s wording, especially when they’re just relating what they said in a heated moment.

  32. awesome3*

    I also had to work through a disaster to help people while living through it myself in 2021, and I’m still feeling the physical, mental, and emotional toll. It must be a lot to do that as your job, and if I’m reading correctly Sam doesn’t do that as his job, so it sounds like he can’t relate or doesn’t know how to respond in these scenarios.

    I hope you’re OK OP.

  33. Wisteria*

    “I get the sense that you’re looking for me to be more upbeat.”

    Is he, though? What is that’s not true? OP had a rough year, by their own admission, and acknowledges that they might be sensitive due to past managers. What if OP were to decide that Sam is well meaning (though annoying) and not trying to shame her for her responses? It would definitely improve their mental health to decide that they are not being shamed at work, and it opens up more options for responses. OP could go back to Gillian and have another conversation with her about Sam. It would have been nice if Sam had backed off forever, but clearly there needs to be an ongoing dialogue about what kind of support OP really wants from Sam, including none at all.

    Btw, I responded to someone who asked me “Just okay?” once with “Don’t start with me,” just to give you a sense of where I fall on the “Just okay?” question. That was not a good response, but “Yes, just okay,” is a fine response.

  34. I'm just here for the cats*

    What is with people, especially bosses, who try and act like counselors. SAD boxes are not some magic cure and people should not just use them willy-nilly. There are some meds and such that can cause issues with SAD lights so you should talk to your doctor or counselor first.

    I think that Sam was trying to help but my God he’s going about it all wrong. I wish there was some sort of class that all managers had to take “how NOT to help your staff through mental health issues”. (alison, could you write another book or youtube series or something??) Ever since I started working in mental health I’ve come to realize how messed up so many of my former bosses were.

    1. Daisy Gamgee*

      What is with people, especially bosses, who try and act like counselors. Word. And who not just act like counselors but who try to ‘manage’ their unfortunate underlings into ‘improved’ mental health, like it’s a PIP. So irritating and counterproductive.

      1. kiki*

        Yeah, I feel like the additional awareness around mental health in the workplace has been bungled pretty badly. Instead of addressing systemic issues (e.g. preventing a culture of overwork) and providing support that is actually useful for employees experiencing mental health issues (e.g. financially covering therapy), a lot of bosses now seem to perceive mental heath as something they must micromanage for employees by forcing group meditation or telling employees who seem down to get SAD lamps.

  35. learnedthehardway*

    That sounds infuriating. I get where people are coming from that there could be a real concern about your mental health (although I don’t agree that your nasty ex-manager is a credible benchmark – anyone who gives you scripts for how to respond to questions about how you’re doing doesn’t actually care about your mental health or happiness). However, I would say that the only person out of the three who has any kind of objective take on your state of mind (besides yourself) would be your former manager.

    One of the things you could do would be to sit down for a meeting with Sam and address the issue – but make it more of a focus on “here’s how things work in disaster relief” rather than “here’s how things are with me specifically”.

    Eg. You could say you have noticed that he seems to have concerns and you recognize that he’s trying to be a caring manager. However, in disaster relief, it’s normal and expected for people to respond honestly and not sugar coat how things are or that it would be abnormal to be overly upbeat (or whatever the actual norm is for your function/focus). This is why there are supports such as x, y, and z, which you use as required.

    In my industry, it’s normal for people to be effusive and enthusiastic, and to act as if everything is totally amazing. But in your industry, it sounds like it is not the norm. It’s okay to educate your manager on what the norm is.

  36. Gnome*

    The comment about SAD made me want to punch this guy. I have clinical depression. That comment is so out of line and people make it thinking they are so smart and helpful.

    Forget the layman’s diagnosis AND treatment… You could have something entirely else going on that he just made super awkward (like a miscarriage, waiting for a biopsy, sick relative, or any number of personal things that are not his business).

    That said, it can be worth it to come up with a non-response to “how are you” just for people like this. “Peachy” (my skin color, and I sometimes say this while looking as if I’m considering my arm) is the most upbeat I have, while “well, I woke up on the right side of the ground” is probably my most morbid. They don’t actually answer the question in any significant way.

    1. Lizard*

      Ha! “Peachy” is my most upbeat go-to response too! It sounds positive, but it in no way goes in depth about anything. Frankly, to me, it’s my best non-response that’s still socially acceptable.

      1. Daisy Avalin*

        I’ve used “Peachy keen, jelly bean!” before, usually when the coffee vending machine is down at work, and I’m running on fumes! Something about that phrase just sounds sarcastic, no matter what tone you say it in, and it always makes people laugh.

  37. Gnome*

    Someone just texted me a “How are you?” And I’m now in full-snark mode on this. I replied: Better than Ezra.

    Should have thought first… We mutually know an Ezra. But it was still funny.

  38. LizM*

    I work in disaster response, and the last few years have been brutal. Many of the agencies and organizations in this field are facing a real mental health crisis. Unfortunately, it’s been my organisation’s experience that not all clinicians are trained to deal with some of the unique challenges that come with disaster response, and an EAP referral to a generic mental health professional isn’t always sufficient.

    If OP feels up to it, she should talk to Sam, and be clear about what she needs and doesn’t need. “The last two years have been hard, and it has taken a toll. I am working with the critical incident response team and the counselor they recommended and feel like I’m on track. The best thing you can do to support me is XYZ (give me space, change this part of my workload, allow me to telework, etc.).” You could even say that you feel like there is an expectation of positivity, and you feel like being pressured to act a certain way or talk about your mental health at work is counterproductive.

    If you have the type of relationship with Gillian, it may be worth mentioning that this is still an issue, and recommend that Sam get some training on how to manage employees in high stress environments. I’ve taken several suicide prevention trainings and critical incident response trainings geared towards the specific situation my workplace finds itself in, and it’s actually been very valuable.

    That said, even if Sam is going about it wrong, it may be worth checking in with your own counselor on how she thinks things are going. It’s possible that your way of coping is having ripple effects on the team dynamic. It’s hard to tell from this letter, but it is a dynamic I’ve seen before and the person really wasn’t in a space to even realize how visible their depression was to the rest of the team.

  39. Former Retail Lifer*

    Sam seems like the kind of guy that tells random women on the street they should smile. Cringe. As someone with well-documented resting b*tch face, this happens to me all the time. At work, I’ve had to deal with people who don’t know me well asking me if everything is OK. I’ve gotten better at smiling more when people are talking to me and faking being a super upbeat person while engaging with them so they stop worrying, but you can be assured that I drop it as soon as they walk away.

  40. not that kind of Doctor*

    I had a coworker who always responded “super fantastic!” to any how-are-you type inquiry – though his face often told a different story. Maybe that could work here. :D

  41. Jennifer Juniper*

    If someone required me to be perky all the time, I’d turn it up to eleven.

    Some things I’d do: Belt out something perky, like a summer camp song. My singing voice is loud and sounds like a Siamese cat in heat. I’ve been told I can get a job doing enhanced interrogation by singing to people.

    Smile manically and say, “I’m so glad to be here, because I love to see all your smiling faces and I love to help people.”

    When a disaster happens, say, “I’m sorry that X happened, but I’m so happy and excited because I can help! Go team!”

    The key is to sound as unhinged as possible. I can do this easily and well. Yes, this would be malicious compliance with orders to be more upbeat.

  42. Sparkles McFadden*

    I do understand why Alison added the comment on the OP checking how she’s coming across. I do agree with doing such a self-check (as the LW did), but the fact that two managers commented on LW’s mood/demeanor really isn’t that unusual. IMO, there are two factors at work:

    – As others have already mentioned: “Women should smile more” syndrome. Early on in my career, I had a male coworker comment “If you’re not going to be entertaining company every day, I wish they would have just hired another man.” The mindset of “women should be trying to make everyone around them happy” is still out there and in a pretty extreme way sometimes.

    – Some bad managers believe that the best indicator of their effectiveness is that everyone is happy. Such managers TELL everyone they need to be happier. In a place run by such a manager, people pointing out issues to be addressed are “negative” and asking for additional resources to complete a project is “not being a team player.”

    During my most recent interview, my potential future boss could not answer any direct questions about the job, but informed me on four separate occasions that the most important thing for someone in this position is to be “happy, upbeat and positive every day.” She actually said “Someone who can’t come to work happy and sunny every single day won’t fit in here.” Shockingly, they called and told me I was their top candidate and they just needed to contact my references. I pulled myself out of the running.

    1. Empress Matilda*

      She actually said “Someone who can’t come to work happy and sunny every single day won’t fit in here.

      First of all, ew. But also, it’s a good thing that she said it out loud in time for you to nope yourself out of there! I wonder who they ended up hiring, and how long that person stayed.

    2. Critical Rolls*

      Wow, no idea what she’s doing *and* the definition of toxic positivity. What a spectacular combination. *shudder*

  43. Empress Matilda*

    My entire response to this situation would be “STFU, Sam.” Just one of many reasons why Alison is an advice columnist and I am not.

    But seriously, OP – this sounds extremely annoying. I hope you can find whatever magic formula is needed to get Sam to stop commenting on your tone. And you’re right that 2021 was a tough year for people in your business, so please do take care of yourself!

  44. introverted af*

    There are a lot of better ways that Sam could be trying to reach out and do a deeper check in with OP. Follow up questions on specific work or personal topics would be a better way to keep conversation going. My last manager did a good job of this especially through the initial lockdown in my area, not trying to pry, but just being human and giving me a space to tell him if anything was affecting me particularly and where he could help. We are all well aware of how some managers can be too much and push for more info than you really need to give, but there is a place for a good human dynamic here. Sam needs to learn better questions AND when to just drop it.

  45. Critical Rolls*

    At this point I don’t think any one-line response is going to do the trick here, but I’ll add to the general list of possible responses to this type of intrusive person: “As well as can be expected.” You can get a lot of various applications from it based on your inflection, and it can really throw people off their intended prying course.

  46. Sciencer*

    I’m clearly going to be in the minority here, but I’ve definitely used the “just okay?” response with coworkers and friends in the past when it seemed like something was on their minds. I feel like when people respond with “good” or “fine,” they’re fulfilling the meaningless loop of the interaction and we can move on. But when someone shrugs or says “oh, okay” or something like that, especially in a lower-than-neutral tone, I interpret it as an invitation to… invite a more meaningful interaction? Like they’re indicating that something is up, and it’s my turn to indicate that I’m an ear for them if they want it.

    1. Sciencer*

      And I’m a woman in my 30’s, for what it’s worth. I really don’t agree with the “women should smile more” vibes some folks are picking up on in this letter. Agreed that Sam seems a little pushy, but not in a cringey or creepy way IMO.

    2. Nanani*

      the key here is “coworkers and friends” – sam is neither. He is LW’s boss, the difference is real and meaningful.

    3. Haha Lala*

      To me, “just okay?” means “I don’t trust your first answer as valid, are you sure you really know how you feel??”
      If that’s a frequent occurrence, I’d feel both insulted and disrespected.

      If the response changes to “Is there something else on your mind?” or “What’s going on?” or even “That was a loaded ‘okay’, what’s up?” then it’s a much different conversation. I’d interpret that to be “something seems off and I’m here to help” which is a much nicer way to frame it.

    4. Dark Macadamia*

      Personally, I think the “just okay?” phrasing sounds more like how the LW interpreted it, as an expectation that your mood should be better, rather than showing interest or concern. I’d be more likely to elaborate if someone said “oh, is something wrong?” or “why’s that?” etc instead.

    5. Observer*

      Consider finding another way to put it – I’ve yet to meet anyone who hears it that way. Reactions on this site can be a bit of an outlier, but in this case, it totally tracks with my experience.

    6. quill*

      It really does depend on being on the same level. If a coworker asks if I’m OK and then I pantomime screaming, we both probably have some idea why (and the culprit is sitting in our inboxes…)
      I do not do that with my boss.

    7. Tali*

      I feel like that would be OK as an occasional tactic–coworker looks unusually sad one day–and not as an ongoing greeting response, because then it feels less like an invitation to talk and more like a demand.

  47. Nalgene*

    You could try something like, “I can tell from your previous comments that you are truly concerned for me and I appreciate that you’ve taken this aspect of your role seriously, but I need to take the ball from here. I will let you know if and when I could use some mental health support from you, and exactly what that might look like at that time. Can I trust you to leave it alone until I bring it up again? Great. Moving on, let me give you an update on my current project. . . .”

  48. mlem*

    If I got a “Just okay?” response, I would 100% affect Alan-Rickman-as-Snape for an utterly over-the-top “correction”. “Utterly blithering with joy, sir.”

    1. alienor*

      I joked to a friend a while ago that after hearing “just okay?” one too many times, I was instead going to start saying “I am actively orgasming right now” when asked how I was. Alas, there’s no situation in which that response would ever be work-appropriate, but I can dream!

  49. LMB*

    Even if the LW is being overly negative and even if it is affecting other people’s work, Sam
    is not a mental health professional and should not have suggested SAD as the cause or a light box as the solution. To me this sounds like employer wellness programs and suggesting “self care” like talking walks and drinking water through the pandemic. It’s reductive of what the LW is actually experiencing to take a guess that it’s something simple and can be cured with an Amazon purchase (which is also minimizing SAD). Overall it’s not appropriate for a manager to try to diagnose an employee like that, nor does it seem appropriate for them to be so repeatedly focused on the employee’s mental health when they have already explained the situation and are taking actions to recover.

  50. Hiring Mgr*

    Sam is handling this poorly for sure, but how likely is it that Sam got any actual management training, especially in a field such as this where burnout, etc seems common?

  51. River*

    I’ve been reading about toxic positivity and how sometimes people will act positive all the time or make others act positive regardless of a situation. I’m not saying that this Sam manager is toxic in positivity but in a way, forcing “positivity” all the time has it’s drawbacks as well. You mean people can have bad days? It can result in not acknowledging one’s true feelings, not comfortable in seeking social support which in-turn can result in isolation, breakdown of communication, being labeled as negative if you even talk about something not positive, and overall not living authentically. I try to be positive all the time but we all have our not so good moments in life. We’re human. Not robots. And this pandemic has surely been affecting many, which shouldn’t be a surprise. Hoping you and Sam can mend your professional relationship.

    1. JelloStapler*

      This is so rampant in helping professions- I have experience with leadership (who also seemed to not like any negative feedback) with this attitude as well as an individual colleague. It’s really exhausting, signals a lack of self-awareness, and disallows for authenticity. We need self-care too and we are ripe for compassion fatigue.

    2. LizM*

      Ironically, toxic positivity can actually have a negative impact on people struggling with mental health in the workplace, because it makes it harder to admit that they’re not okay and need help. By not creating that space, the person who doesn’t feel okay feels even more isolated and as though something is wrong with them.

      Like, not everything needs to be doom and gloom all the time, but it’s so important to be able to admit when things are not good. I distinctly remember a conversation with my boss a few months into the pandemic, where I was getting incredibly burned out by trying to work full time with a kid at home with no child care at the height of a statewide natural disaster that had me working 12 hour days. He asked how I was doing, I said, “fine,” and he must have heard something in my voice, because he said “really? because you have so much on your plate right now, and I know you have a ton going on at home. What do you need right now?” I ended up telling him that I wasn’t fine, and if I remember right, ended up crying at one point in the conversation because I was so tired and overwhelmed. He ended up bringing someone in from another region to cover me so I could take a long weekend to try to recharge. Having that space to admit that I was overwhelmed and needed help probably stopped me from having a very public meltdown at work. Had I been met with toxic positivity, I don’t know that I would have stayed in that job through the end of the summer.

      1. Daisy Gamgee*

        Blessings upon your boss! I don’t think I’ve ever admitted to a boss or supervisor that I wasn’t fine and gotten anything but a lecture in return. Well, one time I got a wheelchair ride to the ER from our unit, but I had to faint to get that.

  52. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

    If your boss is asking for a more nuanced answer to “how’s it going?” is he prepared to sit down and have an entire conversation and support session?

    I’ve handled questions like this as “Fine for what I’m doing right now” — if they need something more elaborate than that and have legitimate concerns, the question needs a different setting.

    1. Empress Matilda*

      Yes, this is my problem right now as well. Nearly two years into this @#@%$#! pandemic I am generally, sort of fine – most of the time. And I can say “fine, thanks” in an appropriately professional manner when required – most of the time.

      But the key here is a mutual understanding that the other person needs to take that at face value, and not ask any further questions! Because the minute you put any pressure on that “fine, thanks” – the whole façade comes crashing to the ground, and I will literally tell you EVERYTHING. I am tired, I am burnt out, and I have no filter any more. So if you want to fulfil the polite social convention of asking how I am? Cool, I can deal with that. But if you actually want to *know* how I am, then you better sit down because we are going to be here for a while.

      1. Salymander*

        Right! Asking how you are as a social nicety means that, as a social nicety you can say that you are fine and that is an end of it. You take someone at their word that they are fine, you don’t interrogate them or try to fix them because That Is Rude.

        Instead of following the usual script for reasonably pleasant social interaction, Sam takes things in a new direction. With lots of subtext that OP is supposed to guess. He asks how OP is doing, but what he means is that he wants OP to be feeling a particular way, and that he won’t be satisfied with anything else. OP says “fine” or “good” because that is just What You Do. And Sam responds with dissatisfaction and advice for OP so they can be more like what Sam wants. But instead of just telling OP what he actually wants in plain language, Sam talks about SAD and mental health and medical devices and such. It is all so inefficient that I feel tired just thinking about it. And it is rude! So, so rude. And the idea that Sam probably thinks he is being nice or showing concern would burn just a bit, eh? Like, thanks for nothing, dude.

  53. yala*

    Seriously feels like massive overstep for Same to “diagnose” OP.

    Also, I’d hesitate to say that two managers may indicate a pattern, since the whole “approved list of responses and tone of voice to a good morning” is just…also not a sign of a manager with boundaries, and not someone I would trust to judge another person’s mood. RBF is a thing.

    1. Observer*

      I’d also hesitate because we know that there are a lot of managers who do this kind of nonsense. I suggest that anyone who doesn’t believe me should give a look at the link in the response as well as the “related posts”. And then go down that rabbit hole.

    2. Salymander*

      Yeah this stuff is really common. I know a lot of people like this. They aren’t all monsters, either. Most of them are nice people who just have an exhausting way of dealing with difficult emotions. When my mom was dying of cancer, a lot of the people I knew said some pretty odd things. They weren’t terrible people, but they said some pretty heinous things in the moment. One of them was my close friend, who I had been caring for through her breast cancer. She got heavily into toxic positivity and was absolutely cruel to me. And she totally meant well and was trying to help! But intentions aren’t magic. And otherwise ok people can have an incredibly dysfunctional way of dealing with emotion.

  54. Becca Rosselin-Metadi*

    You had an employer that gave you a list of appropriate responses and the correct tone to use? That’s appalling! Also, thank you for all you do-that is really meaningful work. I would personally just say “yes, everything is great!” And walk away but it’s not always that easy.

  55. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

    I’d be very tempted to respond to “just good” with a matter-of-fact “yes.” And then just stare at Sam in silence. Or, if the silence is too awkward/aggressive, “yes. Did you need something?”

  56. EBG*

    This time, I disagree with Alison. It seems like you work for the US Government. It is completely inappropriate for your supervisor to bring up your mental health (or any health matter). While your supervisor may say the following, they are not allowed to specifically ask about your health: “You’ve seemed like you are struggling a bit lately. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help. In case you need it, here is the contact information of the Employee Support Services. And if you need to take some time off, let me know and we can work out a leave plan for you.” Anything more is inappropriate. Talk to your HRO and ask them to tell your supervisor to back off. If your supervisor does not, talk to your EEO counselor. And, presuming you are a woman, does your supervisor say the same thing to your coworkers who are men? If not, there’s no difference between your supervisor telling you to be more cheerful than random men telling women to “smile” more as it makes them look more pleasing to men. This is a gender-based EEO violation and you can ask your EEO counselor to address this with your supervisor directly.

    1. LizM*

      While I generally agree, I think the nuance here is the disaster response field, where mental health challenges are risks of the job. I’m a Federal supervisor in disaster response, and I’ve had specific training on the occupational hazards to mental health – they’re very real, and they’re killing some of our employees, and the approach you’re describing would not be sufficient.

      I absolutely think Sam overstepped here and approached the situation ineffectively, but I also think that the boundaries are different in disaster response because it’s such a high stress environment, supervisors need additional training to know how to ask the right questions to make sure their employees are getting the help they need. I would never try to diagnose an employee, but if an employee is struggling, it may not be enough to just hand them an EAP brochure, especially given that EAP counselors do not always have the training needed to help with some of the field-specific challenges that first responders and disaster response employees deal with.

      1. Observer*

        I’d say that appropriate boundaries are even MORE important in this context. And putting inappropriate pressure on staff to perform cheeriness is waaay out of bounds. It’s also a major problem, because it forces people to actively hide what’s going on with them, and then everyone loses the possibility of noting problematic signs and signals.

        1. LizM*

          I agree completely that toxic positivity is dangerous in a high stress environment. I posted above about a situation where I was near my breaking point, and my supervisor was able to spot that, and get me the help I needed (in my case, it was someone to cover my role for a long weekend after I’d been working 12 hour days several weeks straight with no breaks). Toxic positivity can be really harmful in those situations. I was reacting to EBG’s statement that it was never appropriate to discuss an employee’s mental health in the Federal system. I think that’s overstating what the boundaries are in this field. Boundaries are important, but they are different than a normal workplace.

  57. quill*

    I have Seasonal Affective Disorder.
    Abbreviated a different way, SAD is Sam’s Attitude is Demeaning.

    (I have a box of light, thank you Sam. So far it has done nothing to the existential dread or the worldwide pandemic, but I AM awake by the time I drive to work when I would not be otherwise.)

  58. alienor*

    Genuine question: does anyone *really* feel more than okay on a daily basis? I ask because I’ve come to realize over the last few years that my default state is “okay.” I do go through temporary periods where my mood is higher or lower, depending on the circumstances, but if it’s just an average day where nothing particularly good or bad is happening, then I’m okay, and that…sort of seems all right? (I mean, I’ll definitely take “okay” over “awful.”) Or is it just me and other people are walking around feeling GREAT WONDERFUL FANTASTIC all the time?

    1. Jaybeetee*

      Naw, “okay” or “neutral” is normal when nothing exceptional is going on – that’s part of why the “Just okay?” thing is obnoxious. Even if OP weren’t dealing with mental health challenges, most people don’t feel exuberant all the time.

    2. Salymander*

      You are not wrong.

      I kinda feel like the expectation that I am supposed to be ecstatically happy at all times is unreasonable. It is an unreachable goal that creates unnecessary stress and a feeling of never being good enough. I have depression, and one of the healthiest things I did for myself was to decide that feeling mostly ok is actually really good.

      I think I read about the World Happiness Index (or something? I forget the name but it was an actual study) not too long ago. Some of the happiest nations on earth were places where people don’t generally expect to feel perfectly happy all the time, and so they are actually happy with feeling mostly ok. Mostly ok is a goal you can reach. Ecstatically and incandescently happy at all times is not.

    3. quill*

      Ask me after the pandemic.

      But yes, I think happiness is often an event rather than a state of mind. Contentedness is probably closer to the mark most days for most people, but when it comes to public perception of emotions, subtlety is not really there.

    4. Daisy Gamgee*

      I have had periods in my life, past puberty even, when happiness was my default. The pandemic has not been one of those periods, to say the least. “Okay” is doing pretty well these days, I think.

  59. Teapot Librarian*

    I am definitely adding “vibrating with excitement” to my stable of responses to “how are you?”

  60. PB Bunny Watson*

    Another response to “just okay” could be to address your default disposition. For me, it would be something like, “I’m pretty lowkey and introverted… so even when I’m happy or in a good mood, I’m not necessarily going to be bouncing off the walls.” The only other thing I thought of is that maybe your manager is trying to make a connection with you. So when they say “just good?”–maybe they are looking for something more like, “Yeah, I’m a little tired, but I’ll recover over the next few weeks like I normally do.”

  61. pcake*

    Sam sounds like a clueless asshat.

    Btw, if I were a client in a disaster situation, the LAST person I’d want to deal with is some upbeat, hyper-happy person. I’d probably be offended enough by their smiles and chirpiness in the face of my disaster to complain.

  62. Erin*

    I once had a co-worker who took any and every opportunity to Brightside any negative or down feeling that someone else on the team was experiencing. It was incredibly irritating, to say the least.

    I was in the midst of a pretty rough break-up when she decided to Brightside me. Instead of brushing her away like most of my team did, I turned up the volume a bit in my voice, and told her something to the effect of “I’m pleased that it works for you to always spin the hardships in life in a positive way, but, I need to feel it to deal with it”

    The phrase “feel it to deal with it” took off, and each time this co-worker would ramp up her Brightsiding, the platitude of “feel it to deal with it” would come rolling in from multiple people.

    I doubt if this co-worker ever realized how annoying her Brightsiding was, but having a catch-phrase that everyone used in order to shut her down was pretty great.

    1. GreenDoor*

      I am totally going to use this phrase with my mom! She’s very much one to deal with the burdens of life by….just looking on the bright side. It is so frustrating to me that some people don’t get it that some of us don’t mind feeling crappy/sad/mad/desperate/frustrated for a bit while we work things out in our head. I like going through my emotions – it’s how I reach a solution to the problem (as opposed to just putting on a happy face to make my problems magically go away).

  63. fhqwhgads*

    I hope Alison’s advice works for the OP, because it should if dealing with remotely reasonable people. That said, just in case, I’ve often found success with the sort of person who says “just ok?” “just good?” and that sort of crap by not using ok, good, fine, well as responses. Instead I use somewhat outdated synonyms. No necessarily terms that imply more pep, but a different enough response that the asker gets, I donno, dislodged? And doesn’t question it. So, how am I?
    Swell, peachy, five-by-five
    I’ve also never personally pulled it off, but I knew a guy who would respond to “how are you?” with “how are you?”, as though they were both saying “hello” back and forth and neither were asking any question.

  64. Delta Delta*

    As a lifetime fan of South Park, I would not be able to resist singing at the top of my lungs, “I’m super, thanks for asking!” As a lifetime Phish fan I would also sing at the top of my lungs, “I’m vibrating with love and light, pulsating with love and light…” (for everyone with either song in your heads now, you’re welcome)

    I think the point is that I’m terribly sarcastic sometimes, I’m not above lying to my boss to make something end, and I also enjoy singing at very inappropriate times. Loudly. Your mileage may vary.

  65. Mrs. Hawiggins*

    I had someone I did not really like – hard to work with, critical of me, toxic, all that give me the “Just ok?” When I responded to how I was doing. I wasn’t in the mood and he’d picked on me long enough that I just whomped out with, “Sh—ty. Actually I am really really sh—ty. But I don’t like to cuss in the office so I keep it at that.” I didn’t scream it or anything. Oh yes someone higher up came and asked me about my mental health and I gave her an example of one of the toxic bullying things he had said in the past that was affecting it. He was put on a PIP. I’ve had pretty down times and down days, sure, but I’ve thanked every star in the world that for the last decade I’ve worked with people who are caring enough to say Hey, not “just ok, be happier, smile more, why don’t you laugh at our jokes that are horrid.” I’m going to go hug my building now.

  66. Koala dreams*

    Your boss was wrong to suggest you have SAD, your former boss was wrong to speculate about you being burnt out and you already know the manic comment was inappropriate.

    So, what to do? A tactic when people say weird things is asking them to explain. Sometimes they catch themselves and realize they are wrong. Sometimes you realize you misunderstood. And sometimes they double down, which is disappointing but also give you valuable information about them.

    I also agree with the advice to talk to your boss again. It can be difficult to know what to say in the moment. When you bring it up later, you can leave the defensive and angry reaction behind and make your point clearly and calmly.

    After explaining, you could also ask your boss to put a stop to the speculations about your health. It should perhaps not be necessary to say that, but apparently your boss needs it spelled out.

  67. Lizard*

    OP, I’m so sorry your boss is putting you through all of that! Having to manage how you come across in daily greetings to your boss sounds exhausting. That whole SAD diagnosis shows just how out of line your boss actually is being about this.

    Please speak with your boss directly, and escalate if the changes either don’t happen or don’t last. This sounds very stressful, and even if you find that your attitude *might* need a recalibration, your bosses’ behavior definitely does.

  68. lockhart*

    I love my boss and have been very open about when I’m going through some stuff. So one day she asked me how I was doing and I was like “ehhhhh” and she was joking like, man, just once I want you to say it’s the best day of your life.

    So now every time I answer “how’s it going” with “best day of my life” and we both get a kick out of it.

  69. pcake*

    My mother’s face naturally fell into a very unhappy expression. She was usually anywhere from content to happy, but people were always asking her what was wrong. Now I’m getting older, my face is doing the same thing, and I’ve noticed that people feel I sound depressed or angry or unhappy due to my facial expressions.

  70. Dana Whittaker*

    OP, I feel your frustration. I work in animal disaster response, and it definitely takes its toll physically and emotionally.

    Sam may have come from a disaster-adjacent role, but he is being incredibly tone deaf. When I started with my org, I had to learn to tone it down when interacting with my field team. They definitely appreciate gentle check-ins a week or so after they return from a deployment. We have had a couple of instances where someone had to leave a deployment for a family emergency, or had to pull out at the last minute, and I have gotten positive feedback for checking in with those folks to see what support the org can offer as well, but not being overbearing or pushy.

    My boss, on the other hand, goes into full hibernation mode once he hits his front door. I will usually hear from him for a wrap-up in 7-14 days, so I just make sure I have everything tied up with a bow on my end for whenever he reaches out.

    Perhaps a direct conversation with Sam: “Have you been deployed into the field, or worked in the EOC during a disaster? I ask because your continuous commenting on my mood seems out of place for someone who has experienced it. I appreciate the concern but having to worry that I am under constant scrutiny regarding my facial expressions and tone of voice for perfectly normal post-incident feelings is unnecessarily stressful, and not productive for the department or organization. Can you limit your inquiries to one a week, and be satisfied with a neutral response?”

  71. Thumbs Up*

    Ugh, I’ve dealt with this before. I started flashing the peace sign or a thumbs up instead of giving a verbal answer. Don’t know why, but it works.

    Things suck right now for so many reasons! I’m sure you’re doing as well as you can considering how much is being asked of you and other frontline workers. Thank you for all that you do!

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