miss manners: government shutdown edition
October 10, 2013 12:57 PM   Subscribe

How can I, a government employee, tactfully field ribs about being furloughed?

I'm a relatively new federal employee (< 2 years) and am furloughed, living in DC. I am planning to visit family for a gettogether over the long weekend (we would have had Monday off) and am expecting some ribbing from relatives who are in another part of the country and unaffected by this, and from initial conversation, not really fully aware of the situation. And knowing my family I i fully expect bipartisan ribbing about "enjoying my vacation" and "oh you'll probably get paid later anyway" -- we're probably 50/50.liberal and conservative.

I'm getting depressed about the situation here. I dont mind thw time off to work on my apartment, and work out, and do some reading, but i am sad that my job now feels meaningless. i questioned taking angovernment job in the beginning andnthis is making it worse. I am PhD trained in a technical science background and have moved into a very policy wonky kind of job, so its hard to explain as is to people (although the larger mission of the agency is relatable I think)

Anyway, as much as I want to let them know that this is seriously crappy, i don't particularly like getting into arguements or political debates with my family, and easily get teary/emotionally overwhelmed in debates of the nature so any 'talking points' or suggestions on how to deal with this are appreciated. Thank you in advance.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (38 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Generally, the best way to respond to good natured ribbing from people who do care about you and don't know how else to broach the subject is to 'steer into the skid' i.e. continue the joke and own it (if you can). If done well (and I am not real good at it) it becomes the start of a real conversation about the situation without being pedantic, or hostile. However it isn't an easy skill and requires quick thinking and cleverness.

BTW, this whole thing sucks and hope you (and several of my friends and family) get back to work soon. We (and I am local government employee) need those jobs done.
posted by bartonlong at 1:02 PM on October 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

long silence, change subject
posted by thelonius at 1:03 PM on October 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

You're in a shitty situation and I'm so sorry about that.

First, call family who is local, your Mom or sister or something and ask them to tell their idiot relatives not to be insensitive about it. You may still have to deal with some wit trying to make a joke though, but you'll cut down on the folks who are mindlessly babbling for something to say.

If someone does say something, a good response would be, "If it weren't happening to me, I'd think it was funny too. So...how 'bout them Dawgs?" Or: "I'm kind of depressed actually, but you don't want to talk about that. So...how 'bout them Dawgs?"

Personalize it for them, then change the subject.

I am hoping every day that y'all get back to work, what you do is important and there's a real void in the world right now.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:10 PM on October 10, 2013 [13 favorites]

I was furloughed from a public university job in CA (we were not shut down, but my pay was decreased significantly and i got a few unpaid daysoff). My family is conservative and thought this was hilarious liberal fuckupery (although we had a republican governor and house and Senate at the time).

When they attempted to rib me, I simply stared at them open-mouthed and silent and looking incredulous until it got uncomfortable, usually about 3 minutes, then replied, "actually, i wish i could be doing what i trained to do, helping educate students, and i wish my work would respect the contract we both signed. How bout them $local sports team? What a game last week! Did you see it?"

worked for me, YMMV.
posted by holyrood at 1:11 PM on October 10, 2013 [11 favorites]

Fellow Fed here. And I'm with you - this isn't funny for anybody.

If you can't joke around or just give them the death stare and move on, there are I think things you can talk about. Without getting preachy, I think it's okay to talk about the real, bigger-than-just-us, no-kidding bad things that the shutdown means. It means not only that lots of civil servants aren't getting paid, but that the people they'd be giving downstream custom to ALSO aren't getting paid. Not the street food vendors, coffee shops, gas stations, restaurants and other service industry folks who rely on feds.

As someone in a technical field, you're certainly aware of the fact that a lot of the scientific endeavor in the country is currently idled as well. NSF grant apps? Not getting processed. NIH research, influenza monitoring, clinical trials that can be the last-gasp for some cancer patients and other terminally ill? Shuttered.

I'm sure you could go on as well as I could, and I think a little righteous anger is okay. Most of the civil servants I know just want to do the jobs they signed up for, because that's what we do, even when it means we could be making significantly more money in the private sector. It's a shitty thing to do to hundreds of thousands of families, and it damages us all as a polity, I think; certainly as participants in the economy.

Yeah, sorry. It's not funny, and I'm sorry you're idled. Best of luck with the family and hopefully everybody's back at work sooner than later.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 1:12 PM on October 10, 2013 [19 favorites]

You can do one of two things. 1) You can change the subject and not engage at all: pause, stare at the person just a tiny bit uncomfortably long, and ask them if they saw the football game or to pass the salt or whatever, or else actually tell them you don't want to talk about it. Or 2) you can exaggeratedly make the point that this actually sucks for you: "Yep, it sure feels good to have to empty my savings account just to make rent. What feels even better is being told I'm not an essential worker -- that really helps me want to do a good job when I DO go back to work."

I don't necessarily recommend this, but I suppose you can also try 3) outright hostility if 1 or 2 doesn't work: "Hey fuckface, every time you open your goddamn mouth you make everybody who hears you a little dumber. If you have to keep talking at least stick your head up your ass so you don't get any more bullshit all over this nice dinner." The calmer you can say this, while maintaining solid, laser-like intense of focus on the person, the better. Then you ask somebody else if they saw the football game or whatever. I don't love this approach, but I have relatives who literally won't respond to boundary-setting at anything less than this level.
posted by gauche at 1:12 PM on October 10, 2013

"Haha, yeah, crazy, right? Anyway, it's kind of a sore subject for me at this point, so let's talk about something else."

If they keep it up:

"It's actually really depressing for me, in all honesty, so please, drop it, OK?"
posted by Rock Steady at 1:13 PM on October 10, 2013 [14 favorites]

"This has been a rough situation and I'd rather not talk about it. Thanks for understanding. So, [BRISK, POINTED CHANGE OF SUBJECT TO SOMETHING THEY LOVE TALKING ABOUT]"

I'm really sorry this is happening, too, and hope you're back to work ASAP. What you do is vital, no matter what a gang of anti-governance nihilists would have you believe. *hugs*
posted by scody at 1:15 PM on October 10, 2013

Yeah, it's sort like being given a involuntary leave of absence from your employer due to no fault of your own.
posted by goethean at 1:19 PM on October 10, 2013

If it were me, I think I'd go with something like, "Whatever you're reading about it, it's not a situation I'd wish on anybody. It's better for me to not get myself all wound up about it, because it gets kind of upsetting, and I'm trying not to get ahead of myself. What's up with you?"

There are lots of things I'd try to deflect by going along with joking, but I don't think this would be one of them. If you encourage them to think you feel like you have a sense of humor about it, they'll just keep it up and you'll feel more stressed.

If needed, throw in something like, "To be honest, the absolute last thing I want to do is talk about DC politics," and keep the "[with you]" silent.

And if worse comes to worst, don't be afraid to say, "I'd really rather not dwell on it, okay?" And if necessary, cut your visit short.

Be honest; your feelings are totally reasonable. Give them a chance to give you space, and if they don't, then tell them you need it, and if they still don't, demand it, and if they still don't, just take it.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 1:21 PM on October 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

Just say "I'd rather be at work, but thanks" and move on. Why would you invite people to engage in a debate about your job??
posted by DarlingBri at 1:27 PM on October 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

Everyone I know who is a federal employee (myself included) is flipping out about not getting paid, not having savings, and keeping their kids and pets fed and their house from going into foreclosure. It is serious and it is very scary for a lot of people. Even if that isn't your situation, it might be a helpful reminder to folks in your family that even though the politics is snark-worthy, the consequences really are not.
posted by likeatoaster at 1:29 PM on October 10, 2013 [7 favorites]

"Yeah, um... about that... could you spot me a hundred bucks? I don't know if I'll be able to make rent this month."

Put them in an uncomfortable position, and see how they like it.
posted by Faint of Butt at 1:36 PM on October 10, 2013 [27 favorites]

"You know, it probably seems funny to people who aren't going through it themselves, but actually it's pretty stressful. So, how about those Red Sox?"
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:40 PM on October 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

"I wish. I'm actually quite frightened, and it's a job I miss going to. I hope this blows over soon."
posted by mochapickle at 1:42 PM on October 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Put them in an uncomfortable position, and see how they like it.

I don't know about this. Things seem to go easier if you offer people a graceful out, like telling them honestly that it's a scary time for you and your colleagues.

That said, I live in an area that's a big red spot on this map (18.8% federal workers). No one here EVER jokes about the furlough because it affects the livelihood of our whole community. If your family's from one of those dots, you may be pleasantly surprised by how genuinely concerned people are.
posted by mochapickle at 1:48 PM on October 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

: "Anyway, as much as I want to let them know that this is seriously crappy, i don't particularly like getting into arguements or political debates with my family, and easily get teary/emotionally overwhelmed in debates of the nature so any 'talking points' or suggestions on how to deal with this are appreciated. Thank you in advance."

Echoing the advice above.

Confide to a couple of people that you're worried about there being ribbing/joking and that you're really not up for that right now. Ideally, this will be whomever you're closest to and/or whoever is the host (or another relative who holds a position of authority in the family) who will have your back if people press the issue.

In the moment, I wouldn't bother trying to explain, it'll just give argumentative people an opening to debate with you. I like Rock Steady's script, "It's actually really depressing for me, in all honesty, so please, drop it, OK?"

Anyone who goes on past that gets a sharper look and a reminder that you just said to drop it. (Also, by now, your ally should be speaking up with "no seriously WTF.")
posted by desuetude at 2:06 PM on October 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

When people are being jerks - and having a good laugh about your circumstances is being a jerk - I just give them the dead-eye stare until they sputter.

It's not your obligation to make them feel good about mocking you and your employment circumstance. Gracious outs are always given for accidental gaffes. If they poke at you deliberately, then you don't have to make it easy for them.
posted by 26.2 at 2:08 PM on October 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

"This is really too personal for me to really appreciate any humor in the situation. Can we talk about something else?" Lather rinse repeat.
posted by phearlez at 2:09 PM on October 10, 2013

"So before we even get into joking about this, you need to know that this whole deal is causing me very real pain, and I don't appreciate my family making fun of me for it. And if my telling you that makes you feel uncomfortable, imagine how uncomfortable I feel about actually LIVING in this situation?

"And then having my family mock me for it?"
posted by scaryblackdeath at 2:16 PM on October 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

This great Ask a Manager post addresses what not to say to furloughed workers. Maybe share it on your Facebook/Twitter/social medium of choice?
posted by dayintoday at 2:17 PM on October 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd start with "You know, the shutdown's been on my mind eight hours a day for the past week, as you can imagine. I'd love to not have to think about it today." Direct enough, but with lighthearted framing, and it avoids mentioning your feelings (in case you're talking to the kind of person who doubles down with "aw it can't be that bad" or "can't you take a joke?").

If someone presses on, be more direct with an "actually, I find it stressful and I've heard all the jokes"-style answer.

If you have to say it a third time, heaven forbid, say simply "I don't want to talk about it." Repeat until it sinks in, or leave the conversation.
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:23 PM on October 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

As far as your own growing ambivalence to your job, I was a contractor for a long time FWIW and my opinion is that policy development and the slow, long-term, behind-the-scenes work done by technical people, subject-matter experts, and "bureaucrats" in general is ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL to the continuing progress (currently stumped though it may be) of this country. The government has been behind every major technological development, every cure and treatment, every workplace health & safety development, etc. that this country's residents & workers currently enjoy. Everything isn't a smashing success and some developments are used for evil rather than good, but overall, and in the windowless offices and cubicles, people who work for the government are doing important work that WOULDN'T GET DONE by any private company anywhere in the world because there's no profit built in to it.

Bureaucrats & policy wonks get a bum rap. They're like poor people: an easy target that doesn't comprise a single strong voting bloc. But don't believe for a minute that you're "non-essential." I hope this ends soon and I hope you do get retro pay (if only every business & worker affected could be compensated in that way!), but in the meantime tell your family this is your livelihood and whether you work for the government or the private sector, people's livelihood isn't something to joke about.
posted by headnsouth at 2:33 PM on October 10, 2013 [9 favorites]

Very, very good answers above for shutting the ribbing down and standing up for yourself. If that's what feels right in the moment, it's absolutely what you should do.

If you find yourself wanting to keep it lighter at any point, here's how I'd approach it:

(1) Hear joke.

(2) Restate joke (or a small part of the joke) in different words. Keep smiling while you do this. I find that if I can retell the joke in a funnier, tighter way, it helps me to feel on top of the situation, but don't struggle for that. Just go for the first thing that comes to you. That'll probably be the funniest, anyway.

(3) Let everyone have a second laugh.

(4) Keeping it light, still smiling, say something along the lines of "You know what though? This is actually completely @#$& miserable." Make sure to keep the register casual/slangy. To assure that this lands, a light touch on the arm or shoulder would be good. You should get some nods, affirming grunts, etc.

(5) Give an additional concrete detail about what's so unbelievably awful about this, preferably from your own experience. (Kids not getting into drug trials; CDC not being able to follow outbreaks; coworkers risking foreclosure; etc.)

(6) See where that leads the conversation. If it goes somewhere interesting or useful, great! If not, extract yourself from the interaction if you like.

If this goes right, your relatives should walk away from this educated rather than defensive, and you get to feel like a like a social ninja.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 2:34 PM on October 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

I would be honest about it. "The past few weeks have actually been very depressing, and I'm a little hurt that you think it's okay to rib me about it. Could you take a joke furlough, please?"
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 3:08 PM on October 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

I always respond with a story about a coworker who is concerned that they won't have enough money to eat. It brings the mood down, but I really don't give a shit. As a contractor, there is zero chance my folks are going to get back pay.
posted by Lame_username at 3:29 PM on October 10, 2013 [6 favorites]

Lame_username: "I always respond with a story about a coworker who is concerned that they won't have enough money to eat. It brings the mood down, but I really don't give a shit. As a contractor, there is zero chance my folks are going to get back pay."

If any of them are small business/retail/customer service, maybe add in about how worried you are for X the barista you see because most of the customers are furloughed and so the cage might go under or whatever?
posted by geek anachronism at 3:56 PM on October 10, 2013

Hmm. Rib them right back for having elected leaders that decided to shut down the government? Seriously, this is a classic example of something that needs to roll straight off your back like raindrops off a duck. Do you feel personally responsible for the government shut down? If your family is confused on this point, you can let them know you weren't involved personally in the negotiations, and I would think that would be sufficient.
posted by mermily at 4:06 PM on October 10, 2013

Another furloughed fed here, and boy do I feel your pain.....

There are basically three ways to go about this, depending on the joker and their intent:
1. Level one: gentle, basically non-political ribbing. For this, I just give a weak smile, like they just told a well-meant if not-to-funny joke.
2. Level two: the well-meaning but clueless. Repeatedly toss it back at 'em, make them break it down word by word: "Excuse me? Could you explain that please? And what did you mean by x?"
3. Level three: dang near evil cackling from tea-partiers making fun of yer useless job working for that there librul un-patriotic un-'Merican Kenyan. Two choices here: a stony stare and total silence, held for at least 10-15 seconds, then turning your back on them without further comment; or else a sharp, clear "Don't talk to me like that again."
posted by easily confused at 4:51 PM on October 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've been going with one of two reactions, depending on whether I think they're trying to laugh with me or at me. If the former, if the joke feels like an attempt at sympathy or even just innocent small talk, they get, "Hey, DC doesn't have any votes in Congress, and all of you in the rest of the country are the ones who elected these dummies. Please stop sending us such morons, and then maybe we can get some work done for you."

If it feels as though the joke is at my expense, however, they get a pointed stare and, "Imagine if you were told that you couldn't do your job, but also that you couldn't make plans to do anything else because you might be needed to do your job tomorrow, but maybe not. Imagine being told that you may or may not eventually get a paycheck, but with no indication of when or for how much, and trying to budget based on that. I am very worried, both because if this goes on for much longer, I won't be able to pay next month's rent, and because the combination of boredom and anxiety has been very bad for my mental health. My whole life is on hold right now, and I hope that you care about me enough to try to understand just how stressful it is."
posted by decathecting at 5:32 PM on October 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

"oh you'll probably get paid later anyway"

If someone keeps bringing this up, ask if you can borrow money and pay it back as soon as your late paychecks come in.

They'll shut up about it right quick.
posted by yohko at 6:14 PM on October 10, 2013 [9 favorites]

Yohko has the right idea!

I live in the DC area too, and it pains me to read all the nasty remarks about the situation from Facebook friends who do not seem to be affected at all. When I have been in similar situations with tea party family members, they really have no sympathy.

Use some of the other techniques to laugh along with or try to own the joke, but if they keep on going seriously asking them for money usually shuts things down fast.
posted by bessiemae at 6:32 PM on October 10, 2013

Whatever they say, act as if they're serious. Take them literally, and give your actual response. If they say you should have a sense of humor about it, explain that it's actually a serious problem for you.
posted by John Cohen at 6:33 PM on October 10, 2013

I think being "real" might work, like some of the above responses: "It's really sad, and sort of upsetting. I'd so much rather be at work." Stated levelly, seriously.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 7:19 PM on October 10, 2013

When the last government shutdown happened, I was in high school and had no idea about the human cost of the political drama. Now I have a number of friends working in the government.

I don't think you have to "own the joke." Basically tell people how it's affecting you -- it's demoralizing and hard on your finances. This doesn't have to be a political debate.
posted by leopard at 7:57 PM on October 10, 2013

In addition to "this is upsetting and affects me personally," you might (depending on the context) try a sarcastic "ha ha, right because why do we want to be [monitoring infectious diseases] anyway!? If [the plague breaks out,] we'll figure it out eventually, right?!" If you can keep the tone light, that can go over well, because it's a format others can riff off of.
posted by salvia at 9:09 PM on October 10, 2013

As the wife of a civil service employee, there are two types of 'jokers'--the first is in the same sinking boat we're in. I can live with their jokes. Being in an area where the DoD has a large impact on the economy means that most of the population is sympathetic. The only 'jokers' that set me raving are the ones that support the layoffs and seriously discuss how a furlough is necessary for the good of the country. I derive a great deal of satisfaction from being as rude as possible and/or telling them to go to hell.

Hard to do that with relatives, so my suggestion is to enlighten them a bit. Ask them how it would impact them if they were restrained from going to their job and had to give up their paycheck. Seriously, don't let them give you the 'take a vacation' BS. Make them think. It might even chance their politics a bit. Or not.
posted by BlueHorse at 9:23 PM on October 10, 2013

Them: ha ha ha, omg ha ha ha furlough

Me: Forgive me for not laughing.
posted by honey-barbara at 9:36 PM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

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