Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: I'm returning to work after a two-month absence. What was supposed to be maternity leave turned into a nightmare - my son was stillborn and I suffered a number of serious complications from a very difficult delivery. I needed the time away from work to recuperate. Although physically I am doing much better, emotionally I am anything but.
I anticipate that some co-workers, although well-intentioned, may ask awkward and even inappropriate questions about my son's birth and death, and my subsequent healing period.
No matter how many times I rehearse a polite "Thank you for your concern, but it's too painful to talk about," I feel like people will no doubt intrude on my space, which will set me off into a crying spell. What advice do you have to pre-empt the questions?
I'm so sorry. Please ask your supervisor to let people know in advance that you'd rather not have anyone approach you at all.
I doubt you'll be able to avoid all crying spells, so don't waste any dread on that. Tears will come, and you'll deal with them, and people in the office will understand. In a way, tipping off everyone beforehand will let them know how they can help you.
Dear Carolyn: I teach at a small high school and one of my co-workers is very nice, constantly thanking people for the everyday things they do. Every day.
Within the thank-you is often a put-down of himself. For example, if he's thanking me for my work with my math class, he will say something like, "Now if I weren't such a crappy math teacher, maybe my class would do better."
What should I say here? I think I know what he wants: for me to say, "No! No! You're wonderful!" So, should I say that? The eighth time, and the 14th, and the 32nd time get a little old.
No, please don't offer up fished-for compliments. It doesn't fix what he's trying to fix, and you'll only sound insincere.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Chat online at 10 a.m. Fridays at www.washingtonpost.com.