The Awkward Human Survival Guide

The hardest thing in the world to do is to deal with people. But we all have to do it, because the world is made up of people and relationships and the difficulties they bring. Learning from your mistakes is effective, but learning from someone else’s mistakes is much easier.

A new book called The Awkward Human Survival Guide: How to Handle Life’s Most Uncomfortable Situations by Adam Dachis and Erica Elson offers advice on making your way through delicate and not-so-delicate situations with family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers, authority figures, complete strangers, and society in general. Topics covered in the book include disputes over service transactions, financial negotiations, dating and sex, expressing your feelings, recovering from mistakes, holding your temper, and avoiding unpleasant people.

Neatorama is happy to present three situations from the many covered in the book and how they might be handled with the least amount of misery.

Managing People with No Boundaries

Most humans have a sixth sense that allows us to see these invisible things called boundaries. Said boundaries prevent us from taking a dump on our co-worker’s desk, stealing our neighbor’s collection of decorative spoons, or throwing bagels at innocent passersby. Not all people possess the ability to see the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behaviors, but a little coaching can teach them all they need to know.

Ben got a job just out of college at a tech startup with a business-casual environment. His former classmate and friend Arlo lived at home with his parents and spent most of his days only eating, pooping, and downloading seventies-era glamour shots of Lynda Carter. After a messy breakup with Samantha, his girlfriend of two years, he sent Ben an email titled, “Does this look like her?” While in a meeting, with his computer visible to the crowd, Ben opened it. Inside he found a picture of a naked woman, reminiscent of Samantha, using a spatula for a decidedly sexual purpose. Ben quickly grabbed the computer and threw it across the room. Nobody saw the pornography. Well, no one other than his boss.

Arlo rarely thought through the impact of his actions. He’d proposition women in a park while they played with their children. He’d call his friends repeatedly and leave messages about his impending suicide just so they would call him back. Arlo worked at a fast food establishment and his daily routine included saving at least one mostly-beef patty to mail to PETA at the end of the workday. He didn’t fully comprehend the ramifications of his behavior. He only imagined the immediate effects of everything he did, acting completely on impulse and obliterating boundaries at every turn. Still, while this kind of person may seem hopeless, a little guidance often does the trick.

We often regard our own boundaries as common sense and fail to understand how others don’t automatically know when they’ve acted inappropriately. When it comes to behavior, you should always assume that you are the only one who knows the rules in your head. If you consider common sense—the behavioral rules we ought to discover naturally through prolonged existence—it’s kind of ridiculous. Common sense can’t exist.

Sure, most of us know in a general sense that we shouldn’t kill other people, but you’ll find plenty of disagreement on that point when it comes to, for example, capital punishment. A lot of people would execute a terrorist, or feel rapists deserve death rather than rehabilitation. If you put a group of people in a room—even if they grew up in the same home—they’ll disagree on a variety of subjects when the details come into play. So how can you have common sense when all humanity can’t even agree on something as simple as murder? You can’t, and so you shouldn’t ever expect anyone to respect your boundaries if you never make them known—regardless of how obvious they may seem to you.

When Arlo sent porn to Ben’s work email, he couldn’t have known Ben would open it in a meeting. Nevertheless, most of us know not to send inappropriate imagery to the office because doing so creates so many opportunities for a problem. While common sense might dictate that Arlo should have known to share the photo another way—or not at all—he’d never spent any time in an office and had no context for the issue such an email could cause.

You should never assume someone understands the rules of your world. Instead, look out for signs that point to this fact. Hopefully said signs won’t include an embarrassing moment for you, but regardless you need to use them as teachable moments. Relationship and family therapist Roger S. Gil explains how best to approach the problem:

Boundary declarations are best made with clear statements that identify which behaviors are “too far,” communicate how they make you feel, state what behavior changes you would like to see, and what course of action you’ll have to take if the behavior persists.

For example, “Tom, I know you’re only joking when you talk about my mother’s morbid obesity, but I seriously don’t like it when you do it, so please stop or else I’m going to have to back off.”

Most friends will apologize when they breach a boundary. We all have them and we all overstep from time to time because our boundaries vary. If your friend cares about you, he will feel bad if he hurts you. So long as you don’t put forward any accusations and, rather, explain how their behavior affects you, they shouldn’t want to continue acting that way. Maturity levels will dictate how quickly friends learn your boundaries, so don’t expect immediate changes in everyone. If someone important to you needs a little more effort, stay patient and give him a chance to adjust. While we can’t have common sense, we can have our own common behaviors. Changing them takes more work than pointing out the problem, so don’t discount the effort of a boundary-breaching friend.

Dealing with a Deadbeat Roommate

Sometimes you move in with a best friend. Other times you go to Craigslist and end up renting a room from a sixty-five-year-old woman and her six very fragrant cats. When you need a place to live, you can’t always pick and choose from the best roommates. But when you sign a lease with a turd of a landlord, you’ll need to find a way out.

Claire needed a roommate quickly and rushed into a lease with Chlora Schlotsky, a nymphomaniac in a constant state of heart failure. Chlora brought home a variety of men for vigorous intercourse while she remained connected to a small heart regulator next to her bed. Perhaps due to a combination of her charm and pity for her condition, she managed to acquire a large rotation of casual sex partners. They came in the late evening and early morning with greater regularity than her dysfunctional heartbeat. With rattling beds at all hours, Claire found little opportunity to sleep. Furthermore, sex made Chlora ravenous. Many nights, Chlora would find her way into the refrigerator and eat through Claire’s stash of cheese. Combined with alcohol, this often led to violent vomiting. Sometimes Chlora made it to the toilet, other times she just made it to the couch. When you sign a lease with another person, you can’t always know what problems he’ll bring. You may not succeed in getting rid of a terrible roommate like Chlora, but you can try.

Whether your roommate is too loud, leaves bodily fluids around the house, loves heroin, doesn’t pay rent on time (or at all), or you just can’t stand each other, you’ll need to first discuss the problem so you can find any possible solution. People like Chlora, who have loud sex, sometimes don’t realize what kind of impact they have until the drywall starts to crack or someone actually tells them. You may have a crazy roommate, however, and get absolutely nowhere with a conversation. Regardless of the outcome, you need to start talking, otherwise you won’t know whether to take extreme measures or not.

Most leases make both roommates liable for the entirety of the rent, but some don’t. You should review your lease because you may have the right to move out if you find a suitable replacement—one who doesn’t mind the sounds of a wall-pounding orgasm instead of an alarm, of course. When scanning through your lease, look for the terms jointly and/or severally liable. Jointly liable means you and your roommate bear the responsibility to pay the full rent even if one of you comes up short. For example, if Chlora missed a payment due to eternal penetration, Claire would get screwed in the process. Severally liable, on the other hand, means you only have to pay your portion of the rent. If your roommate doesn’t pay, she’ll get in trouble and you won’t. Some leases include both terms—joint and several liability—which still require you to pay the full rent if your roommate does not but allows you to sue said roommate for her delinquent amount. For the most part, these terms only help resolve monetary disputes. That said, you may have an easier time leaving before your lease ends if you are severally liable.

If you can’t stand your roommate and want out, you can talk to your landlord about finding a replacement for yourself. Explain your situation and your landlord may let you out of the lease if you can obtain another co-tenant that meets his standards. Sometimes you can’t get into the details. You wouldn’t tell a landlord you want out because your roommate won’t stop having sex, eating cheese, and vomiting all over the couch. When your circumstances are more delicate, just say you can’t get along and need to go. Several liability will make it easier to negotiate this because you and your roommate have, for all intents and purposes, separate contracts. Joint liability, on the other hand, means your landlord must draft a new lease to replace you—something he or she probably won’t want to do. Nevertheless, a kind landlord may help and you won’t know unless you ask.

While you may not get out of your lease, before you try you need to have a plan for where you’ll live next. You don’t want to end up with another shitty roommate, so start looking for a new one in advance. Before you sign a new lease with another human being, set ground rules. Talk about potentially awkward subjects in advance so they don’t turn into huge dilemmas like Claire and Chlora’s. Not only will this help you avoid future problems, but you’ll get to know your new roommate a little better before you move in together and—hopefully—find a friend instead of an enemy.

Managing an Office Affair

Sometimes you kill time at work by thinking about what you want to do that night. Other times you think about who you want to do that night. If you’re lucky, there might be someone in your office who fits that description. Even if you know he’s single and of the appropriate sexual orientation, it’s hard to find out if he likes you without calling attention to it at the office. Play your cards right so no one gets flushed.

Hector was a copywriter who loved trying new food and going to the gym. The combination made him fun and fit so he had an easy time getting the girls he liked. This changed when he started a new job and met Selina. There was instant chemistry between the two of them, but she was ten years older and his supervisor. He didn’t want to risk his job or their work relationship. They exchanged their favorite novels and slipped notes inside with their comments on the book. Hector never shared his true feelings for her, worried that she would laugh in his face and tell him he wasn’t mature enough for her.

One day he mustered the courage to slip a survey into one of her books. He hand wrote several questions like, “What did you think of the war metaphor in Chapter 3?” but also, “Do you have feelings for me?” and, “Would you like to get a drink one night?” A few hours later, Hector received an email from Selina. In it she explained how inappropriate his questions were and wondered how he could possibly have thought a romance between the two could work. Hector sat at his desk in silence, wondering if she had reported him to HR and if he should start packing his things. Five minutes later, he got another email that said “I’m kidding!” Selina was messing with him and had been romantically interested the whole time. They went out for a drink and cleared everything up. While things worked out for Hector, they don’t always. Take precaution when thinking about screwing your colleagues.

There will probably be a lot of work crushes you don’t want to pursue. You may know they’re not interested, not available, or just not worth it. You may also not want the complications of dating someone you work with. When you meet someone you want to date, try to think ahead a little bit. Do you like this person enough to work with him every day, go out with him, and not get sick of him? Would the two of you be able to remain professional in the workplace? If things went sour, would your former lover turn against you professionally and try to get you fired? It can be tempting to throw caution to the wind and have a one-night stand, but if you haven’t done it yet it’s probably because the risk is too high. Sleeping with someone you work with isn’t the same as meeting someone at a bar, and if you value your job, it’s not a decision you should make lightly.

Before you mix business and pleasure, try to gauge if your coworker has any interest in you. Start by asking him to lunch or to a party with other work people. Once you know he likes you as a human, ask him out on a date without saying it’s a date. If he’s not into it, he can say no without overtly rejecting you. If he is, you can make a move at a safe distance from the office or at least talk about your feelings for each other.

Every office is different. At Hector’s, it was okay for his relationship with Selina to be out in the open and for his boss to make jokes about it. At Tessa’s more conservative office, anyone who was discovered to be in a relationship was automatically fired. If they brought it up with HR before anyone found out, one half of the couple would be transferred to an office in another building. Even if you work at a more casual office, you don’t need to tell your boss the moment you kiss a coworker. Figure out if the relationship is going anywhere before you add the pressure of other people knowing about it. It also helps to subtly find out about your office’s policies before you declare the relationship. Hector and Tessa’s offices are two very different places to have an office romance, and the rules of the work place will affect how you deal with the situation.

Eventually you’ll want to disclose your relationship and follow whatever procedures your company has. Whether you need to speak to your boss or HR , the sooner you feel comfortable doing this, the better. Your supervisors will feel better knowing you came to them right away and didn’t spend months having a clandestine office affair. The latter may seem exciting, but if you’re concerned about your job security you should play it safe and be as open as soon as possible.

While you should be concerned about remaining professional at work, you shouldn’t miss out on a great relationship because you’re worried about what will happen if it ends. Hector and Selina flirted innocently for months, but it could have been years if Hector hadn’t done anything about it. Take a chance on love; just not too big of a chance.

The Awkward Human Survival Guide by Adam Dachis and Erica Elson is on sale now at Amazon and at a bookstore near you. It would make a great graduation gift!

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