Something Good #30: Some Good Advice
I have always loved reading advice columns. I grew up with Ann Landers in the Toronto Star (while I had heard of her competitor Dear Abby, I had no idea at the time that the two were estranged twin sisters—a truly insane fact), and later graduated to the immortal Miss Manners, Slate’s Dear Prudence, Savage Love, local Montreal sex and relationship columnists Sasha and Josey Vogels… if they were counselling people on their crazy problems, I was reading them.
It wasn’t so much the advice I came for as the questions themselves. Where else could you get a window into the unfiltered details of ordinary human existence? Like YouTube comments, they offered a view on other peoples’ lives that literature or film could barely equal, unmediated as they were by artistic intent or commercial considerations.
As a lifelong freelancer, I have spent relatively little of my career in traditional offices. I have never been particularly interested in workplaces. Despite that, my favourite advice column—by far—is Alison Green’s blog Ask a Manager. Green started the site in 2007, and it still has that cozy early-2000s Blogspot look. For 14 years, she’s answered questions about careers and office life.
While that may seem like a mundane specialization on the surface, some of the questions she has received are among the wildest examples of human behaviour I have ever encountered. Some of the letters are funny; others are heartbreaking; some are utterly enraging. I suspect that the entire spectrum of lived human experience can be found in Ask a Manager’s archives.
Where do I start? There was the letter-writer who bit their coworker in a fit of pique. The boss who threatened to fire any workers who wouldn’t sign up to be a liver donor for his brother. The letter-writer whose co-worker stole their lunch, became physically ill because the food was spicy, blamed the co-worker for trying to poison him, and successfully got the writer fired. The letter-writer who accidentally insulted her boss’s daughter in a manner so shocking you have to read it for yourself. The co-worker who wanted her colleagues to call her boyfriend “master.”
And then there’s my favourite category: the unreliable narrators. The writers who have no idea that they themselves are in the wrong. The writer who has no idea that her flirting with a young employee has crossed all kinds of boundaries. The manager who will only give her employee the birthday bonus everyone in the company gets every four years, because it falls on February 29.
You come to Ask a Manager for the outrageous questions, but you stay for the answers. Green is wise and compassionate, and treats even the most misguided query with nothing less than kindness and understanding. (She is also, in her understated way, very, very funny). I was thrilled when she agreed to speak with me for the newsletter.
Mark: I’ve always been fascinated with advice columns, and I was wondering if this was something you ever pictured yourself doing or whether it sort of came out of the blue?
Alison Green: I've always loved advice columns. I grew up reading Ann Landers and Dear Abby, and then later Carolyn Hax, but no, it never occurred to me that I might write my own. In fact, when I started Ask a Manager back in 2007, it really was spur-of-the-moment. I was visiting a friend out of town and I had some time to kill. I started it on a whim, which sounds crazy to say given that the site has gone on for so many years.
At the time I thought, “This will be fun to write about. I have some opinions floating around in my head on this topic. I'll get them out there, I'll do it for a few months and then it'll be out of my system and maybe a couple of people will read it and that'll be that.” And obviously it turned out very differently.
I think I had really underestimated how much hunger there is out there for a place where you can go to ask really specific or really nuanced work questions. I mean, there's lots of places you can go for, how do I ask for a raise? Or how do I read a cover letter? But where do you go for, you know, I'm allergic to my coworker's perfume, or I drank too much at the company party, or my boss won't stop hugging me? Where do you go for that stuff?
And I think people were really interested in having a place, not only to ask those questions, but to read about all those weird interpersonal things that come up at work.
M: There seems to be the entire spectrum of human experience in your column.
AG: Yes, and I love that. I mean, I think if, if the questions were all about resumes and salary negotiation, this would have gotten very boring many years ago and I don't think I'd still be doing it, but what is so fascinating is that it's all about how strange humans are, and what happens when you throw surprising combinations of us together.
We're not necessarily around these specific people by choice, and there's conflict and there's awkwardness and very strange things happen. And it's fascinating, and I love it. And I think my readers are probably people who are really interested in that kind of thing too.
M: I'm just always amazed at what people will do in front of each other or what they will say to each other that I can't even imagine doing.
I think this might be partially because I'm Canadian, so the idea of people being really overtly rude is something I almost find intoxicatingly thrilling. Some of your columns, I’ve read them over and over again because I find them so interesting.
AG: I used to think, and this is so naive in retrospect, “Oh, at some point I'll have sort of covered everything that you could talk about for work stuff, and then I'll be done.” But I am continually and constantly surprised by what new, shocking situations come up that I never could have made up in a thousand years. So, yes, I mean, you're absolutely right about the things people are willing to say to each other, or the cavalier disrespect, or just the culture clash. People come into work with different cultural expectations and different norms set by their families, and sparks fly.
M: If you just look at the subset of questions about food stealing alone, I mean it just blows my mind. Why is that such a thing?
AG: I know! I think it might be the tragedy of the commons. I don't know. My hunch, and actually I would love to find out if this is true, I don't know, is that you see that a little bit less in very small offices. And by very small, I mean like 12 people or less, that there's more a sense of personal accountability to each other if there aren't very many of you, but if you're working somewhere with hundreds of people, it's easier to feel anonymous, and like your actions don't really matter, and this person whose Diet Coke you're taking isn't a real person to you. That's just my theory. Yes, the food thefts are very widespread and very flagrant sometimes.
M: You had a recent one about this, about an executive who seemed to pride herself on stealing her employees’ popcorn.
AG: Yes, that was the last week I think! People had confronted her and she just laughed it off, and she was even bragging about her theft. You know, I read a study years and years ago, I might've written about it at the time, saying that people who are in position of power are ruder. They tested this by having a bunch of cookies on this conference table that they had their test subjects sitting around, and people who were in positions of power ate more cookies than everyone else.
And not only that, they ate them more messily! They made loud sounds and they left a mess. So I bring that up in the context of this popcorn-stealing executive, because I do think there's some thing for some people about being in a position of power that makes you kind of abusive towards other people. Sometimes it's in these very small ways, but, I mean, she's stealing food that people spent their own money on. It is abusive.
M: One of my favourite category of questions is the “unreliable narrators.” So it's questions where a person writes in, very haughtily, and are like, “Alison, how do I explain to this person that they're doing something really unprofessional,” but it is revealed in the question that it is the question-asker themselves who is deeply at fault.
And I love the way you handle those.
AG: Those are some of my favourites, and I don't mean that in a sadistic way, but they're so interesting. Because their perspective is so off-base, and there’s that element that you described—you can see that they're writing in really counting on getting a certain type of validation.
They're expecting a different answer than what they're actually going to get. I think it's so interesting. The challenge in those, for me, that makes it interesting is how do I respond to this in a way that they'll be able to hear? You know, you don't want to just berate someone and take them to task and tell them all the ways in which they're wrong.
Sometimes it's tempting to do that, but it's not very kind. First of all, this is someone who's writing to you asking for advice. You've put yourself out there saying, come to me and I'll help you work through your problems. You don't want to just tear people apart. But also it's not useful. It's not productive.
I mean, my hope is always, even if my answer is a little sharper than usual, that it's going to help shift their perspective. And maybe it's not going to that day, because people will get defensive a lot of the time, but maybe in a few weeks or a few months.
And that's the interesting challenge with those. How do I get these points across without pulling punches, but in a way that won't just completely alienate this person and they won't listen?
M: You start one of your responses with, “This isn’t going to be the answer I think you thought it would be.”
AG: I think I remember writing that! I always think like, oh, what is it like to be on the receiving end of this? Like maybe it's someone who's read Ask a Manager for a while and they like the column and they write in expecting to hear something, and then they get the smack down.
I don't want it to feel like that to people. I want there to be some compassion and empathy in the answer. There are a couple of exceptions to that, sometimes something is just so egregious, but those are pretty rare. I mean, off the top of my head, I can think of fewer than five of those in 14 years.
M: One thing you’ve been writing a lot about is how many jobs these days seem to be saying stuff like, “We’re a family.”
But what happens when your family fires you? It really seems like people are left adrift with no way to psychologically deal with that.
AG: The “we're like family thing” I think is so damaging. It sounds so nice on the surface, like, oh, who wouldn't want that? Well, I mean, actually a lot of people with dysfunctional families wouldn't want that. But it's supposed to sound good, and it's so problematic.
It usually ends up encouraging workers to exploit themselves at their own expense and to the advantage of their employer. What it usually looks like—not always, there's very high functioning, healthy workplaces that use that phrase—but more often than not, when people try to frame work as family, it tends to mean we're going to pressure you to work long hours and you're going to feel guilty objecting. You're going to feel like you shouldn't push for a raise if we tell you that we can't give you one. You're going to feel terribly guilty about resigning for a better offer.
I mean, my mailbox is just full of people who feel guilty resigning. Probably that topic more than any other is represented in my inbox.
I don't mean to imply the employers are rubbing their hands together and cackling evilly about telling people that they're like a family. They're not. I think people genuinely mean it when they say it, but as you point out, a family doesn't fire you, a family doesn't lay you off, typically. This is a business arrangement. And that's okay. We can be okay with calling it what it is. It's a team, but it's not a family. People get cut from teams and the dynamic is just different. I want people to be okay with work not being a family.
M: Another thing that's sort of seemed a little tied to that is I've heard stories from friends who have seen a lot of weird pseudoscience woo-woo stuff coming into the workplace, like they're seeing like hiring or promotion decisions being based on zodiac signs or tarot readings. To me it's just insane that you might be drawn into a belief system that you don't even share, and that it’s being used either to make decisions or to justify certain decisions.
Have you seen anything like that in your inbox?
AG: Yes! I've only been hearing about it in the last few years. I don't know if millennials are responsible for this—I don't know what's going on—but in the last few years I have had a wave of letters about zodiac signs being used to make work decisions or hiring decisions, or not necessarily something as formal as the zodiac—I think I did get a letter about numerology once.
But also other things in that general neighbourhood, like I had a letter from someone whose office was really into the book The Secret and they would have all of these meetings where they were expected to talk about work within that book's framework, which I think is quite problematic!
More broadly, there seems to be in some offices a move towards a really strange emphasis on emotions. I think what has happened is that employers have gotten the message they need to have more awareness about how mental health can affect people and how it can play out at work.
That's good. They should have an increased awareness about it, but they're implementing it in a very strange way. I have heard from more than one person whose office has a feelings chart. You're supposed to use little faces to represent how you're feeling that day on a chart that everyone can check. Lots and lots of stuff about meetings that open by going around and asking everyone to share personal highs and lows, which sounds like it might not be that weird if your highs and lows were work-related. But the ones I'm getting the letters about are ones where people are encouraged to share really personal ones from their personal lives, like what's going on in their families or their relationships.
That's not right. And then—I keep thinking of more!—there's also a category of employers where a manager will position themselves as sort of a therapist.
M: Right, or as a confidant?
AG: Yeah. But in a sort of a formalized way, like insisting on either refereeing really sort of nuanced interpersonal stuff that's going on in the team, or demanding that people talk about whatever emotional baggage they might be bringing to their job.
First of all, these are not trained therapists. It's wildly inappropriate. And secondly, this is, these are employers. They're there to get a job done. They don't need to be delving into your psyche in that way.
M: Yeah. And there might be a sort of a real conflict of interest in what they want from you and what is best for your mental health, right?
AG: Yes. And the whole idea of vulnerability, which a lot of this seems to be rooted in—vulnerability is not necessarily good for employees. You don't necessarily want to make yourself vulnerable in front of the person who decides how much you're paid or what promotional opportunities you're going to get.
The other thing is vulnerability tends to be particularly unsafe for people who are different than the rest of the group in some way, whether that's along racial lines or gender or religion. It's one thing to be vulnerable when you share all the same characteristics as the dominant group in your office. It's much scarier when you don't.
And I don't think people are taking that into account.
M: Over the past year-and-a-half, what I found very interesting about your column is that you've gone from giving advice on life and work issues—negotiation, office politics—to all of the sudden having to adapt to a COVID reality where you are, in some cases, giving actual life-or-death advice. When people write in saying things like, “My office is making me come back and I'm at risk and I don't know what to do.” How has that affected you as an advice-giver?
AG: It's been really depressing, actually. I sort of dreaded going into my email all last year.
I used to love going into my email and seeing like crazy situations people would send to me that week. My email was not a fun experience last year. It really changed. I completely stopped getting funny questions. Which is interesting because you know, part of that is so many people shifted to working at home. So they're not dealing with their coworkers doing annoying, amusing things. Lots of people stayed working on-site, but those sorts of questions just came to a complete halt last year.
And my mail just got very depressing. As you say, it was a lot of life-and-death questions, with people who felt like their employer was endangering their lives or the lives of people they lived with. And they had tried all the things that I could recommend that they try to push back and the employer wasn't budging. And they had to support themselves and they had family members to support.
What do you do in that situation? You can walk off the job and then how do you buy food? So last year was just a completely different experience than I'd had previously with writing the column.
It's been interesting this year because the content of my mail is shifting back just in maybe the last two or so months. I will tell you when I first saw a light at the end of the tunnel—and I don't just mean for my mailbox, I mean, I'm not weeping for my mailbox and I'm sure no one else is—but for, for people in general, for the way that work intersects with our lives.
The light at the end of the tunnel for me was about a month and a half ago, I had a letter from someone who was concerned that someone kept farting in these very high-level VIP client meetings.
And I just thought yes, like finally!
M: We should have such problems, right?
AG: Yeah! It was like the dam breaking. And since then, my mail has really been going back to normal. It's nice to see.
This week’s #nojacketsrequired comes via Neil Shurley, who, fittingly, runs the Star Trekking newsletter. Please send your un-jackets to my email at firstname.lastname@example.org, as attachments bounce off Substack’s mail servers.
Every Wednesday I’ll send you Something I consider Good. Huge thanks to Alison Green for taking the time to speak with me; go read Ask a Manager or grab one of her books. If you like this newsletter, please tell a friend. If you’re not a subscriber, you can do so… right… here: