Wednesday, January 30, 2013

New home, new friends

Hello Polite Readers!

One of the perils of living in a state with good schools but a horrible job market is that I make awesome new friends, only to have them move away in search of greener pastures. Today's questions come from one such friend who has asked to remain anonymous.
Question 1: I've just moved and am having a terrible time making friends! What do I do? I don't want to seem like I'm imposing on people but at the same time I want to make friends. It's hard  because I can't seem to find anyone who is my age.
Well, first don't worry so much about finding friends who are your age. It is nice to have someone who has similar life experiences and grew up with the same pop culture, but you can also make amazing friends outside your age group. I have a great friend who is 6 years younger than me but at a very similar place in her life, and some awesome friends in their 50s who are endless sources of good advice and fun stories of their many adventures. Place your focus more on people who have similar interests or a personality that meshes well with yours.

For me I've found that it works best to not be too worried about making close friends, but to just get out and meet people and be friendly towards them (which is admittedly a bit of a problem, I'm quiet and introverted so it's hard to start conversations sometimes!). When you're in a group setting like a bellydance class or a club meeting, look for chances to get to know people better. Is the dance class hosting a stitch-and-bitch to work on costumes? Come along and bring a tasty snack! Are a few members of the club going to an interesting event? See if you can carpool.

Social media also makes it a little easier to get to know people. If you add friends from the groups you're involved in, you can see what their interests are and discover things that you have in common that might never have come up in the course of your regular activities. If you see that someone likes the same band as you, or the same guilty-pleasure TV show or has the same obscure hobby, send them a private message or mention it the next time you see them in person. They might not become your new BFF, you might even find that you have nothing else in common, but it's good practice!

Try to attend as many parties and other group gatherings as you can, especially if they involve people from outside your usual group. You may find that your co-worker's wife or classmate's sister is a really fun person to hang out with.

Above all, I think it's important to develop as many casual acquaintances as you can and wait for them to blossom naturally into friendships. It's hard to be patient, I know, especially when you're in a new place and homesick for your friends in your previous city.
Question 2: How do I handle joining a new dance class? I've started taking classes with a certain group and I'm finding them to be very elite-ist. It's hard for me to try and fit in but at this point they seem to be the only group teaching this particular style.
Dealing with elitists is really hard, because the problem isn't with you, it's with them. You're probably doing everything right -- you show up to class on time, you pay attention when the teacher is talking, you don't get bored with the assigned exercise and start doing your own thing because the music moved you. But because you're the new person and you're upsetting the status quo, they snub you.

There's a few things to do. If there are any other newbies, make friends with them. Pay attention to the more experienced dancers and see which ones seem like they're actually pretty friendly, and seek them out. Try to break the ice with the snobbier ones with a compliment here or there... Although if they have that really mean Queen Bee personality type, they might just think you're being a suck-up.

Which brings me to my next point... you have to decide if it's worth it. How much effort do you want to put into winning over these people? Dance class should be a warm and welcoming experience, and instead you're getting the cold shoulder. It's hard to enjoy bellydance when you're not getting the expected sense of community. If they're warm and loving with each other, maybe it's worth trying to break into the clique and then to be the one who welcomes new people in the future. But on the other hand, do you want to be part of a group that has been so unwelcoming to you in the past?

It's something I've struggled with in the past, to the point that I actually gave up on the idea of dance troupes as a great sisterhood, as each one seemed to be a clique that was more interested in hanging out with their old friends than making new ones (amusingly, the next troupe I joined after that ended up being welcoming and wonderful).

If you decide that you really want to stick it out, you may need to talk to one of them about it. Maybe the teacher, or leader of the student troupe, or the one person who has been friendly to you (if there is such a person). Take them aside before or after class and say something like:
I'm really happy and excited to be dancing with you, but I feel like I haven't really been accepted yet. Do you have any advice on how I can fit in? Is there anything I can do to help the studio and the troupe? Are there any upcoming events that I can lend a hand with?
If you focus more on wanting to fit in, instead of feeling excluded, it sounds more positive. You're just a new girl trying to learn the dynamics. Being willing to do something like sweep the studio after class or help fold the chairs after a student recital can go a long way to earning you brownie points and helping the more established students warm up to you. If they see that you want to be part of the community, and you're not just there for classes and nothing else, they may finally be ready to welcome you in.

Are you struggling to find the right words for a difficult situation? E-mail me at and you could be in my next column!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Fragile Friends

Hello Polite Readers!

Today's letter comes from a dance friend and has some dance-related issues in it, but at its heart it's about how to deal with a very specific type of person that we've almost all encountered before. Read on:

I have a Politely Worded request: how/whether to tell someone she's being incredibly clingy. The person I'm thinking of is one of my bellydance students. She's desperately lonely and wants to make friends, but her idea of bonding is to share all the most horrible things that have ever happened to her (including telling near-strangers about being sexually abused) and text you ten times a day.

She's also paranoid about being excluded--one time, she was mistaken about the date of an event, and accused us of lying to her about the date so that we wouldn't have to invite her. On one hand, I feel bad for her; her social difficulties lie partly in the fact that she's on the autism spectrum. On the other hand, it's really very stressful to spend time with her. How can I be kind and yet avoid feeling resentful that she's trying to turn me into her mom?

Oh, and to make matter worse, she's fixated on passing the intermediate test as a sign of social acceptance, but I've been teaching her for most of a year, and she has yet to understand basic posture. wah!

Oh my oh my. Well, I have to admit that I identify with your student in one specific area. I, too, have a certain amount of insecurity about being excluded in my dance community. I once found myself crying in my car because I couldn't find the house we were supposed to have a troupe party at due to a problem with Bing maps, and no one was answering my text messages asking for directions. I convinced myself that they were ignoring me on purpose and didn't want me at the party after all. Of course, when I finally managed to pull the address up on a different map program and made my way there, everyone was happy to see me and they just hadn't heard their phones over the chatter.

When you're socially awkward, it's really easy to work yourself into a tizzy over stupid little things like that. What I've done, and what your student needs to do, is to be aware of the tendency to do that and to catch myself before I go into a death spiral. When I get stood up for a lunch date, instead of immediately thinking "Everyone hates me! Waaaa!" I think about all the more likely reasons. Maybe their car broke down, they wrote the date wrong on their calendar, there was a sudden family emergency. Because you know what? If someone really hated me, they wouldn't invite me out to lunch, so clearly there's some other more logical reason keeping them from meeting me.

You bring up three problems with your student, and each of them could be a PW column on their own, but I'll try to address each of them here.

1. Your student wants to make friends but is really bad at it, because she thinks over-sharing builds closeness when really it scares people off.

Can you meet her for coffee? If not, a nice e-mail or phone call may be necessary for talking about this and also the next issue. Be very careful and positive with your wording -- I say this not just because she's on the autism spectrum, I'd say it about someone who was just a drama queen, too. Start out focusing on her good qualities so she doesn't immediately get defensive and interrupt you. Say something like:

I just wanted to let you know that we're all really happy to have you in dance class. I love how dedicated you are to coming to class, attending events, and making new friends. I've noticed that you're really great about approaching the new students to befriend them! Can I just offer a bit of advice? I think you come on a little too strong with sharing personal details right away. Let people get to know you first! I think if you focus on talking about what you love about dance and what brought you to class and some of your other interests, it will help you and the newbies get to know each other so much more quickly.

2. Your student immediately assumes she was purposefully excluded when she has the wrong date for an event.

One way to prevent this without having to talk to her about it is to try to avoid date confusion in the future. If you don't already, make sure to provide upcoming event dates on a Google calender or in e-mail or as Facebook events. It's easier to remember a date and put it correctly in your personal calendar when you see it written down rather than hearing it. Provide several reminders as an event draws closer... Mention it in class, send out an extra e-mail, send a group text message. Maybe use different media so whatever people check most often, they see it.

Then when you do talk to her, say something like this:

I'm really sorry that you got so upset when you accidentally showed up for the hafla on the wrong day! I want you to know that we would never exclude you like that. In the future I'm going to make sure to be more clear about when things are happening, but if it happens again, please text me right away and I'll let you know what's going on.

3. Your student has unrealistic expectations about her progress in dance class.

Well, it's not unrealistic to expect to graduate to intermediate class after a year of studying, if you've been practicing hard. It is unrealistic to expect to graduate to intermediate when you don't even have your posture right (I assume this means she's also still struggling with basic moves, too). Rather than bringing this up directly with her (because I want your meeting/e-mail to be mostly positive and solution-based), I'd bring this up in class in a general sense. Say something like this:

Hey everyone, don't forget that we're starting a new intermediate session soon! I know some of you are interested in moving up. Remember that to be eligible for intermediate class you have to be comfortable cuing and leading <list of moves here>. The test will be held next Wednesday, so practice hard until then!

Edit as needed to fit your actual situation. This makes it clear that you have specific requirements to move up and that it's not about playing favorites. Of course, this means you have to stick to your requirements and not fudge them. As someone who has suffered through "intermediate" and "advanced" classes full of students asking questions about beginner moves, I strongly encourage you to stand your ground and not give in.

Your student may contact you to ask why she wasn't allowed to graduate and then you'll have to be honest with her. Point out the areas that she needs work, and then offer suggestions for what she can do. If you offer private lessons, suggest that she take one so you can more closely examine what is wrong with her posture and why she's struggling with certain moves. Suggest specific DVDs, YouTube tutorials or Datura Online videos that she can drill along with at home. Maybe suggest which students she should watch and copy in class. Mention other good teachers in the area that she can get some extra training from, if applicable.

But I suspect your problem will soon take care of itself. When she doesn't pass the intermediate test, she's probably going to either take it personally, or decide that bellydance is too hard and move on to the next would-be source of fulfillment. Of course, that could be my natural pessimism showing. I hope that for her sake and for yours that you can get through to her, and she takes this as inspiration to be a better friend and a better student, and works harder. Best of luck to you both.

Do you have an awkward situation of your own to deal with? Mail it to me at and I'll help!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Turning Down Help

Hello Polite Readers!

Today's column is another reader-request topic. My anonymous questioner would like to know the best way to handle unwanted offers of help.

But wait... why wouldn't you want help? Well, there's a variety of reasons. Sometimes you prefer to do things your own way. Every time we visit my in-laws I offer to help clear up after dinner and my mother-in-law always says "No thank you, I have my system" which is really the nicest way to say "I'd rather you didn't get in my way" and honestly, I'm not sure why I'm writing an entire column when her words work perfectly. In fact, since we've got that covered, let's talk about other situations.

There may be times when you really need help, but you don't want it from a specific person. Maybe that person annoys you, or maybe they're really bad with what you need help with but think they're really good -- for instance, you have a band and you lose your guitarist and your friend who can barely play the scales (do you even play scales on a guitar? I'm bad at music) jumps at the chance to take their spot. Oh no! How do you politely say "Actually, you suck at the guitar"?

Unfortunately, as far as I know there's no polite way to tell someone they suck (otherwise I'd be doing it all the time because there are a lot of people out there who need to put more effort into what they do). Instead you have to frame it in such a way that suggests that they're not quite what you need. You might say:

"I don't think you quite fit the band's style."

"We really need someone who already knows how to play classical Spanish style guitar. Oh, I'm sure you could learn but we need a new guitarist right now."

"That's so sweet of you but no thank you."

Oftentimes when you go ahead and accept the offer of unskilled help, you just end up wasting more time cleaning up after them than getting things done. I always shudder when someone says they want to "help" with my jewelry business. If they were good at making jewelry, they'd have their own business. Same for people who have never taken a bellydance class in their life but want to come over and dance with me. In both cases, it's obvious that they want free lessons from me, and that's not happening. Of course, this isn't always how unwelcome "help" works out. Mostly people genuinely do mean well, they're just clueless.

To avoid these situations, be careful in mentioning things that you need help with. People tend to think that a complaint is a subtle way of asking for help. After all, when a friend says "Packing is taking forever!" don't you immediately feel compelled to say "Oh, let me know if you need any help moving?" even though helping with moving is the last thing you want to do with your weekend? Of course you do, because you're a good friend. So just don't mention your home improvement plans in front of your friends who see such projects as an excuse to have a nail gun fight, or the friends who always offer to "help" but manage to show up late, not get anything done, and eat all the pizza.

Would you like to suggest a topic for this blog or see your letter published? Please write me at!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Friends get freebies, right?

Hello Polite Readers!

Today's topic is a reader request... How to deal with the expectation of freebies. This is similar to my early post about charity requests, but this time we're dealing with people who think they shouldn't have to pay you because they're family or friends.

It's so frustrating to me because it feels very one-sided. The usual excuse is "Oh, we're such good friends, how could you charge me?" I feel like a good friend wants to support her friend's business. I am always happy to buy things from my friends and I never expect a discount, let alone freebies.

This happens when you're not in business, too. If you're good at something, as a hobby or for your day job, people expect you to do it for them for free. I have friends who crochet and knit who have been asked to make baby blankets for people they don't even know! And of course, as soon as anyone admits to having a job in the computer industry (in any facet of it), they immediately become the go-to guy for everyone's computer problems.

Much like charity, this is an issue where you need to decide where you draw the line. For me, of course I will make my Mom things for free -- she gave birth to me, she can have some earrings to match her new necklace -- and if she wants to buy something from my shop, she gets a discount. The same for my best friend who lets me crash at her place whenever I'm in Phoenix. She cooks me crepes for breakfast and I make her a custom necklace while I wait. Other family members and close friends get discounts, or extra surprises with their orders. And I usually do a bigger discount on custom work than on things that I had to go to the effort of photographing and listing on Etsy.

So decide who you are willing to work for free for, and under what circumstances. For all others, have a speech prepared. Something like this:

I'm sorry, I can't do this for free. Making jewelry (crocheting, fixing computers, practicing law) is my career and the time that I spend on this is time I can't spend on the projects that pay the bills. Because we're so close, though, I'd be happy to do this for half my normal price (the cost of materials, a 20% discount, in return for you doing my yardwork).

The trade is one of my favorite compromises. Sometimes people genuinely can't afford your work but are willing to do something in return. But only offer this if it's something you really need or want. Don't feel bad turning down trade offers for things you're not interested in -- believe me, you will get a lot of them in your life and soon you are bogged down with weird knick-knacks and IOUs for services you'll never use.

Oh, and what if it's not your career? You can use a few different lines:

I'd be happy to make that for you, but I'll need at least $50 for the supplies. Mohair yarn is just so expensive!


I'm sorry, sewing is what I do to relax after work. If I started taking custom orders it would feel too much like a second job.


I'm afraid I don't have time to fix your computer this weekend, but here's the e-mail address of my friend who does that on the side. He's really reliable and his prices are fair.

Don't get guilt-tripped. There is not a single relationship that requires you to make an Irish lace wedding dress to maintain it, and if the other party feels that way, you're probably better off without them. Only take on the projects that make you happy, thus enriching the friendship for both parties.

Are you looking for the right words for a difficult situation? E-mail me at and I'll help!

PS: Due to low letter volume, I will be temporarily switching back to a once a week schedule until at least mid-February. I will continue to update on Wednesdays.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

How to write a polite complaint letter

Hello Polite Readers!

I have to admit, despite being a relatively complain-y person, I think I've only written three complaint letters in my life, and the letter I wrote this past week was my first time ever writing to a restaurant. Honestly, in Tucson we have so many places to eat that if someplace displeases me, I just snub them from then on. But this week something happened to me that I felt was wrong and could easily be righted in the future. Read on:

Dear Choice Greens,

I'm a big fan of your restaurant. During the summer I love to have a custom salad for an early dinner before dance classes. I also enjoy bringing out-of-town guests to your Speedway location for lunch, as it is pretty close to my house and has something for everyone. I'd say that during the warm parts of the year (so you know, about 10 out of 12 months), we eat at Choice Greens at least once a week.

During the winter or when I am sick, I love to get your grilled cheese and soup combo. In 2011 you introduced the seasonal butternut squash soup and it was amazing! I was instantly hooked and had it every time I went there for as long as it was available. I often chose Choice over other local sandwich shops just so I could have the butternut squash soup. I was sad when the season ended (maybe around March?) and eagerly looked forward to it coming back. When it returned late in 2012 I was very happy and looked forward to several months of delicious grilled cheese and butternut squash soup dinners on those rare cold winter days.

Imagine my sadness when I went into the Speedway location last night and discovered that butternut squash had been replaced by chicken noodle! Now, on the one hand I applaud you for trying out more soup options, as it is pretty hard to get a good variety of soups in Tucson (probably because of our lack of "soup weather") but on the other hand I'm disappointed that the season for butternut squash was shortened so severely! This was quite possibly the best squash soup in town, and available at such a good price. Warming, filling, and delicious! I did try the chicken soup, and I'm afraid I wasn't as impressed by it -- but then again, my experience may have been soured by my disappointment over the lack of squash. I did appreciate the plentiful chunks of chicken and the fact that the carrots were still crisp. It's pretty hard to get a good cup of chicken soup in this town where tortilla soup reigns supreme, and I can see this being a good option when I'm under the weather and want some comfort food.

In a perfect world, I'd see you adding chicken noodle to the permanent soup rotation, and letting butternut squash enjoy a long late Autumn-early Spring seasonal run. If that's not an option, perhaps when it comes back you can post "Butternut Squash Soup -- Only available through December 31st!" so I can make sure to enjoy as many servings as I can before it goes away.

Thank you for taking the time to read this!

-AJ Reardon
Tucson Resident and Squash Fan

Yes, I wrote a complaint letter about soup. In my defense, it was really good soup and due to events beyond my control, I was only able to have it a couple of times before it was removed from the menu. I felt robbed of several more months of soup dinners, and all I wanted was to know this wouldn't happen again at the end of 2013.

This letter illustrates my idea of the perfect complaint letter.

1: Start with some praise (if possible) and your history with the business (whether it's "I've been shopping here for ten years" or "This was my first visit and I'm afraid it made a poor impression).

2: Lay out your complaint. Be polite and stick to the facts. Avoid snide judgements or unrelated remarks about the employee you dealt with (your waitress's pink hair has nothing to do with the fact that she forgot your fries, and in fact, it's a nice color on her and makes her happy, so there).

3: Most importantly, offer your ideal solution. Mine was obviously to offer the soup on the previous several-months-long seasonal basis instead of only two months. Yours might be to reprimand the cashier who wrote a weird note on your receipt or to repair the pothole that damaged your car on the way out of the parking lot.

4: Did I mention to keep the tone polite? Try not to get too rude, offensive, or pedantic. You probably shouldn't break out the Webster's definition of any words unless used for humorous impact. If there was a serious problem, such as insult or injury, you can use a firm tone. Otherwise keep it light.

Why do I recommend polite letters? Because they work. The same day that I sent my letter, I had a response back from one of the co-owners. He had spoken to the manager of my preferred location and they had agreed to provide me with some of my beloved soup to heat up at home. What a sweet and generous offer! Now I can have one last meal of butternut squash soup to tide me over until the next season, and I think even better of a restaurant that I enjoy.

I didn't send my letter because I expected free soup. I sent it because I hoped others would have complained to and this would lead to a longer life for the soup in the future. I also did it because I thought it would be a great column idea. The fact that I did get free soup just helps to back up my argument. Politeness matters.

The news is full of other examples of polite letters winning over the hearts of companies, even large corporations. Over the holidays you may have seen these two:
Hasbro Makes an Easy Bake Oven for Boys
LEGO love story: How one little boy got the toy of his dreams

Do you have your own complaint letter story? Share it in the comments section! And don't forget that you can e-mail your questions and column ideas to

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Caught in the Middle

Hello Polite Readers!

We've all been there -- two (or more) friends, family members, co-workers or other acquaintances are having a fight and they both want you to take their side. Each gleefully recounts what happened, skewed to make it look like they are the wronged party. They might ask your opinion, they might ask you to serve as a go-between in delivering snide messages, or they might even go so far as to ask you to cut off your relationship with the other. It's one of the most uncomfortable positions to be in.

In my youth, I heard a response to this that has stuck with me for my entire life and served me well: "If I'm not part of the problem, and I'm not part of the solution, I don't want to be involved." Treat this as your mantra whenever someone tries to drag you into their fight. Do they genuinely want you to help mediate a dispute? Great, you're willing to help because you want everyone to get along. But if they want you to just join their anti-the-other-guy posse, you don't want any part of that.

I know it's hard sometimes. Maybe you do feel genuinely closer to one party than the other (for instance, it's your Mom vs a distant cousin), or maybe you so desperately want to give in to the human nature to indulge in a little gossip. There have been times when I've wanted to know all the dirty details about a conflict, but I refrained. The problem is that when you get either or even both sides of the story, it tends to color your perception of each person and damages the friendship -- beyond the initial damage done by them trying to drag you into it.

There are a few polite variations you can use that are a little softer than the mantra:

"I'm sorry, I love you both and I just don't want to get involved."

"If there's anything I can do to help mend fences I'd be happy to, but I don't want to hear all the dirty details."

"It sounds like a really complicated situation. I hope you guys can work it out."

As usual, I advise quickly changing the subject before they can say "But just this one thing..." and tell you what horrible thing so-and-so said to them. If necessary, you may even need to walk away if you can. Let me tell you, there are few things worse than being stuck in a car with someone who wants to get something off of their chest. You may need to turn the radio up really loudly (just kidding, that's kind of rude).

Staying out of it will serve you well in the long-run. Ideally, the warring parties will eventually make up, and you won't be left with any awkwardness about things that you said to them during the fight that was never yours in the first place. If they do never reconcile, you can make your own decision as to whether to maintain the two different relationships, or if not, which one to keep, based solely on your own experience with them and not with having been forced to choose by an ultimatum.

Do you need a graceful way to handle an awkward social situation? E-mail me at and I may publish your letter on this blog.