Ask the grumpies: How do you steer a conversation away from complaining?

Debbie M asks:

how do you steer conversation away from complaining? I like a good rant as much as the next person, and sadly I also complain as much as the next person. But I don’t like that.

Some negative things absolutely need to be discussed and handled, and some problems need venting. But I don’t want those to be the ONLY topics of conversation for hours on end. Think: complaining about work problems in a very repetitive way. Probably shouting, “You already told me that three times!” is not ideal.

Just three?  You’re lucky!

Not so long ago (before someone switched jobs) I may have asked #2 a “hypothetical” question similar to this one.  She suggested kitten pictures, but I kind of wonder if that’s just rewarding the problem.  (She also got the hint though… especially when my immediate reaction the next time was to send kitten pictures.)

#2:  My favorite topic-changer is to talk about kittens.  No matter what the conversation is about, just start talking about how kittens are great, they are so fluffy and pouncy and cute and they hop and they purr…

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Ask the grumpies: Why is it so hard to stop worrying about what other people do?

Leah asks:

Why is it so darn hard to stop worrying about what other people do? At work, I can’t control what others do. Their choices do affect me, somewhat. But I can’t control it. How do I learn to stop fretting about this?

#1: Heck if we know. I suck at not worrying. I mean, maybe just get older and you care less about what other people are doing? I dunno.

#2:  Getting older helps a lot!  There’s just too much going on to care about other people unless it directly affects you.

I’m irritated that my TA isn’t getting problem sets done on time.  I worry that my students will learn less because of it.  I’m worried that there is something I could do that would make things better but I’m not sure what.  I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with me having those worries.  And maybe fretting will help me come to a solution, I dunno.

Economists tend to really take to heart the idea that we should not fret about sunk costs, but to do cost-benefit analysis for things that we could still change.  If it’s worth it, change it, if it’s not worth it, then you’ve made the decision.  If it’s something you really can’t control, just accept it and expect it because there’s nothing else you can do.  (Serenity…)

But in reality, I dunno.  There’s often just too much uncertainty so you don’t really know what the costs and benefits are and it’s not clear what the effects of any action would be.  People are unpredictable.

So I guess we’re punting this one too (we tend to put the hard ask the grumpies last…).  Does the grumpy nation have any advice?

Ask the grumpies: How to say no to trips with crazy people

For those of you who missed this question and following commentary in the last Ask the grumpies solicitation:

CPP asks:

My parents are very toxic people: judgmental, intrusive, manipulative, and demeaning. They behave very poorly in public, especially when it comes to service workers in restaurants, hotels, airlines, stores, etc, whom they treat like absolute shitte–as if they aren’t even fellow human beings. Because of all of this, PhysioWife and I drastically limit the time we spend in their company. They have gotten used to the fact that we visit their home in a sunny place only once per year, staying for four nights. We see them on average about once per month when they are in their other home in our city, generally spending a couple of hours having dinner.

Here’s the question: They are pressing me about PhysioWife and I going on a trip with them to a foreign country to celebrate a milestone wedding anniversary and one of their milestone birthdays. There is absolutely zero chance that we are going to do this, and I am trying to figure out how to tell them we aren’t going in a way that minimizes the hysterical shitshow they (mostly my mother) will perform.

Obviously, one extreme would be, “We’re not going on this trip with you, because you always behave terribly and it is misery to be around you, and thus we will never travel with you, especially to a foreign country.” Any creative ideas for scripts to make use of? Obviously, I can’t just say, “We aren’t available those dates”, because they’ll just propose other dates. One thing I thought of was, “Oh, it’s a nice suggestion, but we just really don’t like traveling with other people.” PhysioWife doesn’t think that sounds plausible, because we travel all the time with her family (who are totes awesome).

Anyway, any suggestions? I am sort of at a loss, and am feeling resigned to just having to say, “We don’t want to travel with you”, and dealing with the hysterical fallout.

We didn’t have any good advice, but folks in the comments did.  We bet more of our readers will as well!

Perpetua suggests:

There are a couple of other possibilities besides the ones you’ve mentioned. You could cite money as an issue (that is, you don’t have the money to travel, or to travel the way they’d want to travel), and if they’re offering to pay you could say this makes you and your wife feel very uncomfortable and you don’t want to go if you can’t pay for yourselves, which you can’t (either because you have no extra money or, if that’s not plausible, because you’re saving your money for X thing). If the milestone anniversary is one of yours (rather than theirs) you could simply say you’ve decided to celebrate another way – or if it’s theirs and you have a milestone of your own coming up in the next 2-5 years, you could say you’re saving for X special thing for that milestone. You could also develop a work or health related reason why travel in the timeframe they’re wanting to travel won’t work for you and you would be miserable if they postponed their trip because of you. (This kind of thing is one of the rare cases where having kids can be helpful – a handy excuse to get out of things you don’t want to do! Pets might work – my ILs excused themselves from visiting us for years because of their dog.)

to which Delagar adds:

I used a work-related reason when my toxic family wanted our entire family to go on a cruise together for my parents’ 50th anniversary. I was going up for full professor, said I had to work on that. It was even (sort of) true, and it worked like a charm. Don’t you have a paper or something? Could be very pressing!

Becca suggests:

Any chance of saying “Oh, we weren’t planning on traveling there this year, and we don’t want to ruin the romance of your *milestone wedding anniversary*. But we’d like to be part of the festivities by throwing you a small ‘bon voyage’/happy milestones party at our place right before you leave”. This would involve no more than the typical amount of contact with them, with the added bonus of you having the option to have the evening catered so you don’t actually have to go out in public with them if you don’t want to.

Similarly, from Rented life:

“Thanks but actually we had planned something special for you to mark the occasion” and then do nice night out with dinners and show (or whatever is appropriate–small party? Etc.). You’ve marked the occasion, met the family obligation and no one can say you ignored the big deal milestone.

Debbie M. with this advice:

I’m always a fan of true answers, but then I only rarely have to deal with unreasonable people. So the question is how to be tactful. I’m not so great with the tact. The truth you’ve mentioned is that you don’t like to see how they treat service workers, so watching that is something you don’t want to do on your vacations. The tactful route might be something about how y’all might ruin their trip by freaking out about how they treat service people, and you wouldn’t want to do that on their special trip. The best thing about true reasons is if they really do address them, it’s win-win! But they probably can’t treat service people with respect. And even if they suddenly could, I get the idea there are plenty of other good reasons not to accompany them.

I’ve also read many times that “No” is a complete sentence, though I prefer “No, thanks.” In this case, even, “No, but thanks so much for thinking of us. We wish you all the best on your exciting trip.” But don’t people always then ask why? “Oh, we’re not interested, but thanks.”

Bleh. Good luck.

Leigh notes:

One of the best excuses I’ve used is “I don’t have enough vacation days for that trip.”

And Steph points to Captain Awkward, which CPP should probably be reading on a regular basis, since they occasionally deal with questions about highly difficult people:

Captain Awkward might also be useful. The closest thing I could find quickly was this post about not wanting certain family to come visit:  http://captainawkward.com/2015/02/02/655-visits-with-highly-difficult-people/
but her archives are extensive and likely to have something http://captainawkward.com/archives/

Grumpy Nation, what would you suggest?