Heather Havrilesky Gives Us the Silent Treatment

From relatives who won't stop asking why you're single to party hosts who insist you leave your shoes at the door, the Ask Polly columnist has an answer for it all.

Rico Gagliano: Each week you send in your questions about how to behave, and back with us to answer them this week is writer Heather Havrilesky. Her existential advice column “Ask Polly” in New York fashion blog “The Cut” has guided her loyal readers through tepid relationships, friend breakups, work anxieties, and many more. Browse the archive. You’ll find questions like, “Am I a boring, empty, soulless fake?”

Brendan Francis Newnam: I sent that one.

Rico Gagliano: That was you, Brendan?

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah.

Rico Gagliano: …And, “Why doesn’t anything feel fun?” That was me.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I sent that one, too.

9780385540391Rico Gagliano: We both sent that one. Just go through those. You’re bound to find some sage advice for whatever neuroses you’re navigating at the moment, ladies and gentlemen. Heather’s book, “How to Be a Person in the World: Ask Polly’s Guide Through the Paradoxes of Modern Life,” comes out this summer. You can pre-order it now. And, Heather, it’s lovely to have you back.

Heather Havrilesky: It’s very lovely to be here.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, we have a question for you. Your first book was a memoir called…

Heather Havrilesky: “Disaster Preparedness.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: And in it, you describe your childhood, which is probably darker than most people’s. You and your siblings growing up in North Carolina changed the game of “Clue” such that you were no longer finding the murderer but trying to commit the murder.

Heather Havrilesky: Yeah.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Can you explain that?

Heather Havrilesky: Well, we had a lot of board games that were sort of missing half their pieces, and my brother was a little bit into “Dungeons and Dragons.” He was always the Dungeon Master.

Rico Gagliano: Oh, wow.

Heather Havrilesky: He was a little bit controlling.

Rico Gagliano: I was going to say control freak.

Heather Havrilesky: We decided that “Clue” was kind of boring. So we made up this game called “Cousins,” where we took all the people from “Sorry” — so, there were like, green people and blue people and yellow people…

Rico Gagliano: Oh, like the pieces, kind of?

Heather Havrilesky: Yeah, the pieces, but they’re people. Those are people.

Rico Gagliano: They’re representing people, yes.

Heather Havrilesky: And they were all cousins, and we took the — do you remember the “Bermuda Triangle” game? It’s like, these ships on a board, and then there’s this big magnetic cloud that like, sucks up the ships.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Whoa!

Heather Havrilesky: But we didn’t use the cloud. We used the compass, where you’d spin the compass, and then all the cousins would move northwest like the storm would in Bermuda Triangle. So, like, you’d get your murder assignment — kill Colonel Mustard with a rope in the billiard room — but if there were cousins there, you’d have to chase them down and kill them, too [laughs]. So….

Rico Gagliano: Wow. Was this motivated by a hatred of your cousins or something?

Heather Havrilesky: I think it definitely speaks volumes about how we felt about blood relations, in many ways.

Rico Gagliano: OK. Well, this is exactly why we have you here to offer advice to our listeners and tell them how to act.

Heather Havrilesky: Yes.

Rico Gagliano: Are you ready for these?

Heather Havrilesky: Yes, I’m quite ready.

Getting the hotel room all to yourself

Rico Gagliano: All right, here is something from Michela in Los Angeles, and Michela writes: “My supervisor at work and I are both going to the same concert a few hours away. She suggested in a way that was more than a suggestion that we share a hotel room to cut costs. I don’t want to share a room, but I also don’t want to offend her. I’m a little particular on these matters. How do I get out of this situation or convey this without damaging our friendship or our professional relationship?”

Heather Havrilesky: Well, as a very high-strung human being who always wants things my way — I’m kind of a Dungeon Master, myself, in other words.

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, you’re a Dungeon Master type.

Heather Havrilesky: A Dungeon Master type needs kind of like, a way of pathologizing their own behavior as an excuse for getting whatever they want. So, what I usually say is something like, “I’m so sorry. I’m really just super weird about sharing a bowl of soup across the table with somebody else.”

Rico Gagliano: So, you acknowledge that you are particular, basically.

Heather Havrilesky: Yes, but I also make it sound like it’s a crazy, crazy thing. Like, “I’m sorry, I don’t usually, you know, tongue-kiss people I meet at the grocery store.”

Rico Gagliano: Yes. It’s you that has the problem, not the person that put you in this weird situation.

Heather Havrilesky: Yes, exactly.

Brendan Francis Newnam: But what if Michela’s supervisor is also a Dungeon Master? It becomes a little more delicate because you don’t want to telegraph your crazy to a boss, do you?

Heather Havrilesky: Well, you can also say, “I loooove sleeping alone in hotel rooms so much! It’s just such a rare luxury for me.”

Rico Gagliano: Oh, I see, put it in a positive light.

Heather Havrilesky: Yeah, because I, actually, last year, slept alone in a bunch of hotel rooms for the first time, maybe, in my professional life [laughs]. But it was such a luxury to be alone in like, a nice hotel room, you know?

Rico Gagliano: There you are.

Heather Havrilesky: We literally stayed in $15 hotel rooms when I was a kid. Like, Holiday Inn was high-end.

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, it’s like Super 9 Motel is where you were staying [laughs].

Heather Havrilesky: Yeah, exactly!

Rico Gagliano: All right. So, it sounds like you have two options there, Michela. You can either portray yourself as pathological or just say you really need some alone time.

How to respond to “Why are you single?”

Brendan Francis Newnam: Our next question comes from Melissa in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Melissa writes, “How do you handle family asking, ‘Why are you single?’ Or, ‘How’s the love life?’ I understand asking once in a while, but I have a friend who does so every time we converse or text. I’m in my early 40s, and, frankly, tired of being asked this question.”

Heather Havrilesky: You know, people who are not alone have this strange thing where they have, like, a background buzz of anxiety about being alone that goes on with them at all times like an old refrigerator that’s just humming in the background.

Rico Gagliano: That they could be alone.

Heather Havrilesky: They could be alone at any minute. So, when they see someone who is alone, all they’re really doing is making noise about their own fears of being alone. They’re like, “Oh, my god! You’re alone. Something must be done!”

So, I think that the desire to care for the person who doesn’t have a partner, I think it comes from a very sincere place. So, first of all, you do have to keep that in mind. On the other hand, repeat offenders who continue to point out that you’re alone — not only that, but they want to know, like, “Why are you single?!?” I mean, that’s like, what, you know…

Rico Gagliano: Yeah. “Why do I breathe? Like, what can I do about it? That’s how it is.”

Heather Havrilesky: Yeah, yeah. You want to say to those people, “Why are you married? Like, how’s that going? Is it as good as you thought it would be?”

Rico Gagliano: That’s true.

Brendan Francis Newnam: “Why aren’t you single?”

Heather Havrilesky: Yeah, “Why aren’t you single?”

Brendan Francis Newnam: “How’s your love life?”

Heather Havrilesky: “Are you guys still having sex? Do you remember love?”

Rico Gagliano: It’s true. So, what do you do with that person?

Heather Havrilesky: Lately, I’m a big fan of the uncomfortable silence. If you’ve ever read the book “One Minute Manager,” which… [laughs].

Rico Gagliano: No, I haven’t.

Heather Havrilesky: All it is is when someone, like a subordinate, is not living up to their promise, you go in and you tell them what they did wrong. And then you let a solid minute of silence go by as they squirm uncomfortably in their seat.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I like this. I like this.

Heather Havrilesky: And it’s like, this weird punishment thing.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You just stare at them. If they ask you, “Why are you single?” you just look at them, and then… how about this, Heather? Because I feel like I do something like this. It’s a nuclear option, I admit, but you just stare at them, and then you kind of maybe start to move your head back and forth, left and right, like while making eye contact.

Heather Havrilesky: Yeah, yeah, like, that’s not… you’re making bad choices. Bad choices.

Keeping your shoes (and your dignity)

Rico Gagliano: All right, there you go, Melissa. Here’s something from Diane. Diane writes: “I’ve been invited to friend’s homes who insist that you leave your shoes at the door. I don’t want to take off my shoes! I don’t like walking around barefoot, and more likely than not, the shoes make my outfit. How do I say nicely, I’d rather keep my shoes on?”

Brendan Francis Newnam: I mean, this is… I want to hear what you have to say about this, Heather, because I have the same issue as Diane.

Heather Havrilesky: You know, what’s extra terrible in this situation is when you’re a woman and you haven’t gotten a pedicure. You’re walking around with these terrible, dirty, snaggle-tooth toenails.

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, that’s a medical term.

Heather Havrilesky: Chances are you can get away with walking into the house with your shoes on. If they care enough, they’ll come up to you and say, “Could you take your shoes off? We don’t really wear shoes inside.” At which point, you can just give them the one minute of scoldy silence.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, exactly. Exactly! You just stare at them and move your head side to side.

Rico Gagliano: Wow, you guys really hate taking your shoes off. It’s amazing.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Because in New York, you’re walking around for ten hours. You’re walking around with wet socks or whatever. It’s just gross. It’s just gross!

Rico Gagliano: What happened to you guys’ feet? You got wet socks and snaggle-tooth toes.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I use them. Unlike L.A., we’re not driving from place to place.

Rico Gagliano: That’s true, unlike us Angelenos.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I know you wear just Pri-i on your feet. Our feet are gross, Rico. You don’t even want to see our feet.

Heather Havrilesky: Yeah, my feet are dirtier than the outside of my shoes. Why would you want these filthy, filthy things on your floor.

Rico Gagliano: I definitely am not having you guys take your shoes off in my house. But thank you very much, Heather, for telling our audience how to behave.

Heather Havrilesky: Oh, yeah. I am here as a beacon unto you all.



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