Losing touch with friends: Drama or No biggie: A deliberately controversial post

Occasionally we’ll see a blog post or forum post in which the woman (and it’s always a woman) complains that her friends have lost touch with her and that means they’re horrible selfish people.

All of our really good friendships are ones in which people go in and out with no harm no foul. People get busy, lose touch, and when we reunite it’s like we never left off, even if it’s been 10 years.

We assume the best of everybody we (temporarily) lose touch with and assume they’re assuming the same for us.  It’s just easier that way. If that’s not what’s happening, then no big loss. The only people in our lives who get to act offended and have us take that seriously if we unintentionally ignore them are our significant others, and for #1, my kids (in theory also my mom or my sister, but they’re pretty chill so I can’t imagine that ever happening). I should not be important enough to anybody else’s well-being for me being busy to cause them to take personal offense. It’s not like this is middle school or like we’re living lives of socialites with nothing better to do but create drama.

But I do know from reading the internet that there are people who take strong offense to other people losing touch with them (or not calling, or failing to answer a text right away etc. etc. etc.). Those people are far too dramatic (or, more positively, not laid back enough) to be my friends.  Which is probably best for everybody involved.

What do you think?  Should people take offense if their friends lose touch with them?  Do you?

Can’t vs. Won’t: A deliberately controversial post

One of Laura Vanderkam’s hobby horses is this idea that you should never say you “can’t” do something, just that you don’t want to make those trade-offs.

Of course, usually people are using “can’t” as a short-hand for “could but I’d have to do all these other things I either don’t want to do or I don’t want to tell you about possibly because it’s none of your business.”

The basic idea makes some sense, the idea being that it gives you agency.  It isn’t that you can’t quit your job, you just don’t want to give up the income from your job and downsize your home etc.  From one perspective you can’t, because you can’t without giving up things you don’t want to give up, but from another perspective you’re not really trapped.  Maybe “won’t” instead of “can’t” will help you think about alternative things that will get you want you want.  In my world view you’ve already thought these things through, but I’m not a self-help guru… I assume people are already at their optimum unless they’ve told me otherwise.  Any changes I force on people are going to knock them off their optimum path.  (Though in some cases society may prosper with the change because of externalities, spillovers, and so on.)

But is agency always a good thing?

There’s a couple of books that summarize literature than includes research on the benefits of limiting choices.  Framing something as “can’t” rather than “won’t” means you don’t have to think about re-optimizing every time you’re faced with a choice.  For example, when I had borderline gestational diabetes, I said that I couldn’t have sugars or refined calories.  Now, of course, I *could* (heck someone with celiac can have wheat so long as ze is willing to face the extremely dire consequences), but I didn’t want to hurt the baby, have a c-section (because of my irrational fear of anesthesiologists among other more rational reasons), or whatever.  If I’d said, “I choose not to” (but could make another choice) or “I won’t” (but am susceptible to cajoling) that would have made it much more difficult to resist the temptation I was resisting every time I was offered something that would spike my insulin.  Now that the only negative consequence to eating refined carbs is me getting fat (and some longer-term unproven potential health consequences), it is much more difficult to mentally frame the choice as “truly can’t.”  So I eat more refined carbs, even though I know I probably shouldn’t and in time t-1 would choose to not be offered the potato chips in time t if I could.  Allowing the choice makes it much harder for me to say no when the opportunity presents itself.  Many other reasons how and why arbitrarily limiting choices can help willpower and happiness can be found in the book Willpower by Baumeister and Tierney.

The Paradox of Choice is another great book that talks about the benefits of limiting choice (or rather, the problems with not limiting it). We’re often happier when we’ve made an irrevocable decision and don’t have to think about it anymore, and what is “can’t” other than a signal that we’ve made the decision not to and we’re sticking to it.

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of sociology literature on how people react to “decisions” other people have made.  It turns out that people have much more sympathy towards people when they don’t think a choice has been made and a lot more blame when they think the person made an active choice.  For example, is homosexuality a choice?  Under LV’s definition it is– if only the homosexual person had a different utility function or budget constraint, he or she would be heterosexual!  When experimental participants are primed to think that homosexuality is a choice, they are more likely to think badly of homosexuals and homosexual causes (e.g. gay marriage) than when they are primed to think it is not a choice.  An enormous literature covers this finding across many different areas from obesity to welfare receipt.  Saying can’t instead of won’t is a way that we attempt to protect ourselves from the judgment of others.  So much the better if we can’t because our circumstances are different.  Changing to “won’t” in common parlance may hurt our interactions with other people.

On top of all that (or perhaps negating all that!), the idea that language changes culture is called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and you can read up on how it has been well and thoroughly discredited.  Everybody knows that “can’t” only actually means “absolutely can’t” in certain situations (“I can’t have children [because I am infertile]”) and has the addendum “given reasons I’d rather not go into detail about or are obvious” in most situations (“I can’t have breakable china until my kids are older”).  Most people are pretty good at context and know when they’re using the short-hand “can’t” rather than the absolute “can’t”.  Because the word “can’t” already encompasses a vast spectrum of meanings, only in rare cases could using won’t or don’t instead of can’t actually affect anything, in theory.

And in practice, it’s far more likely that even those rare cases are really reverse causality– a person has a defeatist attitude or just hasn’t thought of all the possibilities and unhappily says “can’t” because of that, not the other way around.  In those cases, the response should not be to use different language, but to think of why the person thinks it’s impossible.  The attack should be on the thinking, not on the words.  That’s not to say that positive restructuring from cognitive behavioral therapy doesn’t work– it does and there’s a large literature on it working.  In situations for which CBT is recommended, anxiety, depression, etc. then changing “can’t” to “won’t” or even “will” may be appropriate and effective, but that also comes with the introspection of what changes can be made.  It isn’t solely the change in wording, but a complete change in mental framing.

Obviously, not having pretty china is not a cause of anxiety or depression for most people.  When someone says they can’t have breakable china because they have small children, it’s pretty ridiculous to suggest that they reframe that, unless the person is really really unhappy about not having breakable china.  And if they are really unhappy about Corelle, they probably actually already do have breakable china or carpeting in the kitchen or what have you.  Because what problem is reframing “can’t have breakable china” as “choose not to have breakable (even though I want it)” solving?  Oh gee, now I have the agency to make different choices about my china than the choices I’ve already made, even though I already knew I was making those choices when I used the short-hand “can’t” rather than “won’t.”

Update:  There were many interesting and thought-provoking comments on LV’s post expanding on her complaints about wording choice but my favorite has to be this one from The Frugal Girl:

I think sometimes these discussions can be like when someone points out to you that a tomato isn’t a vegetable.
Ok, this is technically true, but no one’s going to put it into a fruit salad anyway, so what is the point?

So, bottom-line.  It’s ok to say you can’t do something even if what you mean is you’ve “chosen not to given your utility functions and your budget constraint”.  Only in cases in which you are really unhappy about the choices you’ve made or feel that you’ve been forced into should you go back and think more about how you can change them.  And don’t go lecturing people about their choice to use “can’t” instead of “won’t” unless changing that language is actually going to make them happier.  I can assure you that I derive no additional happiness from being told that I could have pretty breakable china if I just wanted it enough.  And the title, “Things I want but can’t have until my children are older” is much more fun than, “Things I may get if I still want them in the future when my children are older,” even if the latter is framed positively.   Seriously, this blog is called GRUMPY RUMBLINGS.  We have to rumble grumpily sometimes or we lose street cred.+

+Ignore the fact that from a cognitive restructuring standpoint, both phrases are actually positively framed indicating that I can have these things later even if I can’t have them now.  (Willpower also talks about the positive effect of noting you can have stuff later.)  We still rumble with the grumps.

Ok Grumpeteers!  Go!

Are PhDs entitled to tenured jobs? A deliberately controversial post.

We have argued before that academia is just a job.

We have marveled at how willingness to do math opens up a world of opportunities.  (Though not necessarily with a math PhD… but if you’re willing to do the same math as say, an engineer, you’re in better shape.  And hey, you can always take actuarial exams or maybe work for the NSA with that math degree.)

So… does the fact that you’ve suffered for 5-7 (or more!) years in a PhD program and gotten your hood and your diploma mean that you are entitled a tenure-track job?  What about your debt?  Your lost opportunity costs?  Are you entitled to compensation for that?

The fact is, there’s an excess supply of PhDs compared to the demand for tenure-track professors in most fields.  In fields where industry can absorb those extra PhDs at salaries higher than their t-t counterparts, that’s not so bad.  You can cry about your industry job all the way to the bank, so to speak.  In fields where the PhD doesn’t provide many additional earnings opportunities, that leads to a lot of unemployed and underemployed people with doctorates.  We end up with a lot of people being exploited as adjuncts in the hope that if they put their time in they can get one of those elusive tenure-track jobs.  People are willing through their actions to accept very little pay and bad working conditions simply because they hope it will lead to better employment later, and there’s enough of these people that it drives the cost of adjuncts down.

Sometimes you work hard and you take risks and those risks don’t pan out.  It would be nice if there were exactly the number of jobs available for the people qualified for them who wanted them and they matched up perfectly and paid well.   But not only are there differing demands for different skill sets, but some sets at the same skill level seem to be more likable than others.  People like studying the humanities.  There’s not enough demand for PhD level humanities skills to ensure all humanities PhDs a living wage using those skills.

So… are PhDs entitled to tenured jobs?  Is anyone entitled to anything besides life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

The art of learning not to take things seriously: A deliberately controversial post

First a disclaimer:  We are totally AP parents.  If that infant cries, we pick hir up immediately.  We’re also not heartless– if a student’s grandma dies, ze can take time off and turn in assignments late.  And so on.  This post is not about big deals, but about moderating moderate upsets.  End disclaimer.

Sometimes kids get heart-broken over things that really aren’t that big a deal.  Falling down (but not damaging anything).  Dropping a candy (when they have more that haven’t fallen).  Another kid accidentally pushing them (again with no injury).  And so on, with age appropriate examples.

Yeah yeah, some parenting philosophies say you’re supposed to tell kids how they’re feeling.  And some say that you’re supposed to empathize no matter what.  Sometimes we’ve seen this in action and instead of soothing like it’s supposed to, it lengthens the amount of crying and angst.  (Possibly a misapplication of the philosophy.)

We sympathize with disappointment, to the appropriate degree.  Kiss the owie to make it better and go off to play.  (Occasionally a crying jag can be broken if you exaggerate for effect, OH NOOOOO, the world is going to end… that usually gets a giggle.)

It’s important to fix problems (had to take a break from typing this because DC1 got soap in hir eye), but once they’re fixed, they don’t necessarily need the post-game analysis.

Kids pick up on our cues.  If they’re not sure how bad something is, they look to us.  How upset are we?  How upset do we seem to think they should be?  Is this a quick peck and then you run off to play, or is this something that requires lots of sympathy (even if the kid has forgotten which leg got hurt by this point)?

When we make a big deal out of something that isn’t such a big deal, we may be prolonging the angst and the pain that might quickly have been forgotten otherwise.  When we provide too many cushions, we may be denying our children the chance to grow and to find inner-strength.  Bending over backwards as if to keep a delicate flower from being crushed over a small thing may keep that flower from being able to move with the wind.  Our reaction should be appropriate for the upset.

My mom liked to tell me that I was building my character whenever something didn’t go my way.  I remember telling my mom once that my character was buff enough already, thank you.  She said, and I quote, “Oh ho ho ho.  Very funny.”  Ah mom.

But the lesson is a good one.  Yes, we can recover from life’s little setbacks.  We can regulate our emotions.  We don’t always need to be rescued.  We can grow and find our own inner strength, and build that strength.

Spoiler Alert:  I’m currently rereading Foundling by Georgette Heyer, about a little duke who has been coddled much of his life and yearns to break free.  One day he sneaks out, just to see what it’s like.  He spends an uncomfortable time out on his own, but he also grows a lot too.  He comes back with a greater appreciation for the people who love him, but also with his own inner strength.  Life isn’t always about being protected from any potential upset.

So what brings this up?  Mother’s in Medicine had a post discussing whether or not it was ok to keep your kid at daycare if you yourself are on vacation from work.  The original commenter clarified:

This incident stuck with me because the child was very, very upset each morning, much more so than at a regular drop off. The conversation was about making sure you forge a good relationship with your kids while they are little. Perhaps this mother did need a break; however it seemed that perhaps her child needed a bit of vacation then, too.

Assuming that the reason for the kid’s increased upsetness was mom’s being on vacation and not say, staying up too late the night before (because of mom’s vacation) or something completely unrelated like teething, this kind of thing can be a learning experience for the child.

Mom may take a vacation without you.  She may drop you off at daycare and you may imagine that she’ll spend the entire day eating ice cream and going to the zoo without you (more likely she’s going to do boring adult things).  But she’ll pick you up at the end of the day just like always (or maybe daddy will get you like always) and maybe she’ll be relaxed enough that you can do something fun that evening.  It is highly unlikely that a kid is going to be scarred for life by not taking a vacation when he’s supposed to be going to school.  So buck up.  Mom’ll be back and you’ll have plenty of time to have fun again in the future.

And that’s a good thing.

What isn’t good is mom freaking out and feeling guilty.  Because that teaches the kid that this kind of thing is a big deal, which really it isn’t.  Everyone is much happier when we give reactions that are proportionate to events and don’t make a big deal out of nothing.

Ok, Grumpeteers.  Your turn.

Marriage: A deliberately controversial post

Mawwage is what bwings us togevver… today.

With the media surrounding the protection of marriage act or whatever it’s called [Update:  moving this post up from July 10th because DOMA, the “defense of marriage act”, is NO MORE.  YAYYYYYYY!!!!!], several feminist bloggers have been making the argument that marriage as an institution should be thrown out.

They argue it has a bad history in the patriarchy of oppression.  It treats women as chattel, etc. etc. etc.

They say we should get rid of it (but while we still have it, everybody should have the opportunity to use it).

Some, but not all, of them argue that monogamy itself is flawed and marriage prevents polygamous and polyandrous and other types of multiple love arrangements.  Some, but not all, argue that marriage is a way that some women feel superior to others.

We at grumpy rumblings are pro-marriage for those who want it.

Marriage as defined today is a mostly standardized contract that is defined by law, case law, and culture.  For the most part, if you enter this contract in the US, you know what you’re getting into, at least in the state where you’re getting married.

If the patriarchy is overthrown, marriage can still exist. We can get rid of marriage and the patriarchy will still be there.  It might be a step, but then again, it might be a better step to transform marriage from within.  Maybe.

People who want to experiment with different types of [ex. non-monogamous] relationships can (in the US anyway). They just have to enter into different contracts, contracts that aren’t called marriage. That argument doesn’t work as an argument against homosexual marriage– allowing gays and lesbians to get married does not at all change a heterosexual marriage contract (meaning there is no reason for a “civil union” if they can just get married), whereas allowing polygamous marriage under the same license does.

Without marriage, we would need more contracts. And there’s nothing stopping us from having all those more complicated contracts now, but most people are happy with the standard cheap one.

I strongly believe in the monogamous marriage contract and I want mine protected. I don’t really care what other people do with their lives in the privacy of their bedrooms (or lawyers’ offices), but I like the protection of my contract.

As for, “marriage is a way that some women feel superior to others” as an argument, all we can say is Thank God (and women’s rights activists) that (while there is still sexism) women can have education and jobs now and can feel pity for any woman whose only claim to superiority is having a husband.  Because that’s really seriously sad.  Seriously sad.

New research shows that debating, and especially banning, gay marriage makes LGBTQ people less healthy.

We’re also fine with, “Civil unions for everyone, marriage can then be only a religious thing, all couples get civil unions for legal purposes and may then choose to have a wedding ceremony for religious reasons if they wish, all regardless of gender.”  But that’s some ways off.  Separating the legal and the religious is always a good thing.  You could still have a ceremony to socially mark the legal joining, but that would be a civil union.  Civil unions for all!  But again, that’s not today.  For today, marriage for all!

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Do some people *want* to be miserable?: A deliberately controversial post

We’re just curious.

We see some folks do the same negative repeating behaviors over and over again and we don’t understand it.  Complaining about the same things.  And not just addictive stuff.

Sometimes they group together and encourage others to wallow too so there’s a mutual complain and enable-fest.  Sometimes they take turns.  Sometimes they talk over each other.  However they communicate though, it seems to encourage the misery rather than taking it away.

We don’t get it.  When we complain we want to vent and then to find a solution after we’ve calmed down.  We want to be happy.

We all get hit with bad things from time to time, some of us more than others.  But some folks seem to be able to manufacture their own bad luck, or to react incredibly strongly to things most of us are just mildly annoyed by.  How people react to negative events seems really important.

We want to be around people who want to be happy.  We like people who have growth mind-sets.

We understand that sometimes people have chemical depression, and we’re all for therapy and FDA-approved (and psychiatrist-monitored) pharmaceuticals as needed.  Please get professional help if you need it!

#2 would like to note that there is a time and place for shared misery, particularly in grad school and in the early tenure-track.  But there are ALSO times to stop moaning and do your writing.  Structured groups are good for this: first hour bitch-n-moan, second hour hard work, then break for snack, more work, a closing few minutes of social time, etc.  Commiseration is useful sometimes, but it must be backed up with productivity if you’re going to survive.  My good friend in grad school pointed out that we had “a culture of stress” and that it wasn’t necessarily the most helpful.

We gotta wonder though, if you’re hanging out with people who seem to enjoy being miserable, and seem to enjoy encouraging you when you’re making bad choices (that will cause misery down the road) or just being miserable (and discourage you from making choices that could reduce the misery)… why are you doing that?  And can you explain it to us?

Does forcing kids to be bored teach them useful skills?: A deliberately controversial post

Related: does forcing kids to be with sucky people teach them important life skills?

We argue: no

Boredom leads to trouble and increased drop-out rates.   It would have to be an important skill to make up for the negatives.  But it isn’t.

As an adult, you have more control over your environment, so learning these skills (such as they are) may not be as applicable as we’d wish.

Better: give kids skills to manipulate their environment, so they know they can change it.

If they do have to be occasionally bored or to deal with sucky people, why not learn that on the job as adults? It’s an easier lesson to learn when you’re making the choice to deal with it because you’re getting a higher paycheck or other perks to your job.

And nobody should have to put up with a sucky work environment as an adult. That’s why we work so hard so we have options and freedom to change things, even if our parents sacrificed in their own work environments for us.

This post was brought to you by our childhood selves, who were bored as crap in school and got nothing useful out of grades 1 – 8.  [#2 says, except 4th grade with Mrs. A.  She was AWESOME.]

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