Hax: Ignore co-workers’ tales of childhood

The Washington PostOctober 7, 2013 

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Hi, Carolyn: I could use your advice on how to respond to my co-workers, who often talk about their supposedly impoverished childhoods even though, in less guarded moments, they reveal things that make it clear they didn’t really grow up poor. It’s like some weird contest. None of them grew up in worse circumstances than I did and I wasn’t poor.

Usually I ignore them, but I get annoyed when I have to listen to, “You wouldn’t understand, Jane, because you didn’t grow up poor like Mary and I did.” How do I let them know that I know they’re full of it?

MY POOR CO-WORKERS

Why do you need to? Merely wanting to isn’t justification.

There’s also the possibility that they were indeed needy and you’re drawing incorrect conclusions. Not that anything justifies a who’s-the-poorest contest; just being thorough.

To Poor Co-workers: I must say I’m relieved to know I’m not the only one in the middle of a who-had-it-worse competition. It is annoying, and I did go the route of just letting them make fools of themselves.

But do be careful what you mention from your own childhood. I recently said I would love for my daughter to have horseback riding lessons as I did as a child (to one co-worker in a relevant discussion of children’s activities) and now I am the Queen of Sheba. I get comments about my charmed upbringing and how wonderful it must have been.

Why is this a contest? And I can’t tell if I’m the winner or the loser.

ANONYMOUS

You had a pony. That makes you the winner of all things to every overgrown 6-year-old in your workplace.

That does mean, alas, you can’t use the “uphill both ways” deflection, lest you become the office Marie Antoinette, too. But you can respond impassively, “I was lucky in some ways and unlucky in others — like everyone else, I imagine.” And thereafter decline to engage.

Email tellme@washpost.com. Chat online at 10 a.m. Fridays at www.washingtonpost.com.

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