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Hax: 'Poor me' co-workers all protest too much

| Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

HiCarolyn:

I could use 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?

There's the possibility that they were, indeed, needy and you're drawing incorrect conclusions. (Not that anything justifies a who's-the-poorest contest.)

These are sufficient arguments for not saying anything, but Ms. Shoulder-Devil has one, too: Watching people profess things that you know aren't true inspires some of us to make popcorn and grab a seat. Any “You're so full of it!” outburst would be counter to your own entertainment interests.

On a different tack, if you aren't amused: Interject brightly that you had to walk to school uphill! both ways!, and then leave. That's universal code for: Be martyrs on your own time, please.

To: Poor co-workers:

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?

— 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.

Dear Carolyn:

I'm in a relationship that might need to end. She's awesome, but I can't seem to pull the trigger on committing to her. We are in a long-distance relationship and see each other only on weekends. I feel a breakup over the phone won't do.

She has things going on on weekends that I wouldn't want our breakup to spoil. How do people time breakups to be most sensitive?

— Timing a Breakup

The ideal timing is the overlap among these elements: when you're sure, when you can get there, and when you won't disrupt something important — as in, a deadline, test, major event. You don't have to tiptoe around every entry on her calendar.

Email Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com, or chat with her online at noon each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

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