Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Question: I could use your advice on how to respond to my coworkers, 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?
Answer: 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.
These are sufficient arguments alone for not saying anything, but Ms. Shoulder-Devil has one, too: Watching people profess things that you know aren't true, and that you know they don't know you know, 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.
Completely 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.
Comment: 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.
Answer: 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.
Chat with Carolyn Hax online at noon Fridays at www.washingtonpost.com.