Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Case of the Bad Friend

As often happens in Ask Polly columns we do not know enough about the letter writer to offer an intelligent, well-reasoned response. This never deters Polly herself, because she prefers running off at length about herself… about which she thinks she knows a great deal.

Today’s letter writer, Bad Friend, is wondering whether she is an asshole. She has many friends and seems to be likeable and outgoing. Yet, she does not to make plans to see her friends. She wants to be alone. Apparently, she has a Greta Garbo complex and wants to be left alone.

As it happens, she is married to a woman, with whom she presumably lives. Whether her spouse, who plays the extrovert to her introvert, leaves her alone… we do not know. Extroverts are not known for leaving you alone.

The writer merely wants to do her work, but we do not know what her work is. All we know is that she does not like to make plans.

We would love to know whether she has always avoided making plans or whether she used to make plans, only to have people cancel on her. Obviously, the point is relevant. We do not know anything about it. Bad Friend seems to think that she possesses a character flaw. She ends her letter by saying that maybe she is just an asshole.

Here are some excerpts from the letter:

I love my friends. I know I’m fortunate to have people in my life whom I care about. Most of the time when we hang out, it’s fun. My secret is: I never want to see them.

Here’s how it goes: A friend texts me “Dinner Tuesday?” but Tuesday doesn’t work for me, so it turns into a spiral of scheduling that slowly sucks my lifeblood away, takes me to a dark and twisty GCal hell, and makes me wish I never met this person in the first place. I wish there were a way to say “I like you, but I do not want to make a plan with you. I don’t want to do it Tuesday, I don’t want to do it a week from Tuesday or a month from Tuesday. I want to continue to be friends and not make plans with you.”

When I get a text or an email from a friend asking me to get together my stomach drops. Not because I hate them, but because I don’t want to make a plan. Once someone suggests a Plan, you’re hooked: I can’t say “No” without suggesting another date, I can’t suggest another date without triggering a scheduling vortex, then I look ahead at my calendar and it’s all booked up with Plans with people I don’t even really want to see, and I can’t do my favorite thing, which is to be alone….

I don’t want to lose friendships. I just don’t want to have to be watering them, constantly making plans, in a state of constant social activity. I just want to exist without disappointing anybody. I want to love people but not contort myself to satisfy their arbitrary and inflated expectations of what a “social life” is.

Am I an awful person? How do I manage others’ expectations of me? Most important: How do I say no to drinks without offering an alternate date for drinks? How do I say “Can we not make this plan?” without sounding like an asshole? Or am I an asshole? Should I just accept that I’m an asshole?

Actually, she is an awful person. Or, at least, she is acting like one. We will consider her an awful person until we know more about how reliable her friends are. Conducting friendships and having a social life inevitably involves making plans and coordinating schedules. So does doing a job. Living with another human involves developing couples routines, a division of household labor, and extensive cooperation. If you are living with another person and are marching to  your own drum, you have a problem. And your relationship is in trouble.

Naturally, Polly feels oodles of empathy for Bad Friend. It beats analyzing the issue and groping toward a solution. Polly’s non solution is to be open and honest with her friends, to tell them that she hates to make plans, because they are far less important than her personal solipsistic Self. As Bad Friend knows, and as Polly does not seem to know, if she follows this course of action she will quickly find herself with fewer friends.

I have no real sympathy with someone who is likeable, who is friendly with other people, and who consistently disappoints them by refusing to make plans. 

Yet, you might have noticed that she is living in a one-directional world, where people reach out to her and she refuses to reach back. That is, she rejects their advances. One imagines that some kind of trauma is involved, because refusing to make plans is not normal.

How can she solve this problem, which is an extreme form of social anxiety? How about reaching out to some of these people, becoming the person who is initiating contact rather than the person who feels put upon by people who want to spend some time with her. It beats her current solution: serendipity and a throw of the dice. Someone who does not  want to make places to see friends is, properly speaking, a bad friend.


Ares Olympus said...

Asking "Am I an awful person?" seems to be fishing for validation, that she's okay as she is, while her social conscience is telling her she needs to do more. Gender also matters here, and women seem to have higher expectations about friendships, about sharing, so if you don't know or don't care about the latest trials and tribulations of your friends, then you're not a good friend.

Perhaps male introverts have it easier since we're not expected to be constantly social. Men can not see friends for weeks or months, and its all okay. If you have common interests, just ask, offer, be asked, answer, tell the truth. We won't take it personally, they won't take it personally. But women also have a bigger problem saying no, so they say yes to things they'd rather say no.

For me the real question is, if she could do anything she wants to do with her time when she's alone, what would she do, and then she can look if that's actually what she is doing when she is alone. And if she's not, that's a sign she has other anxieties that need attending and she's using her self-judgments about friendship to avoid something else that's important too.

Sam L. said...

I'm amazed she has any friends. Or should that be "friends"?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I notice that younger people like to be less-planned and more spontaneous. Drives me crazy. It works when you have no commitments in life. I don't think that's what Bad Friend is saying, but I can't rule it out, either. Bad Friend might schedule something on an ongoing basis, such as every Tuesday with three friends, given that everyone can't make it every week. Or an activity that they all tend to go to when it's happening, such as open mic or garden club. Or scheduled brunch once a month with a particular friend. That communicates an ongoing relationship. If she doesn't want any of these things, then I agree she does not actually want friends.

Advice columnists tend to have this fallback "Oh golly, if you just talk honestly to them it will all work out, you'll see." I'll bet not.

jaed said...

Mrph. Bad Friend talks about how much she hates the process of making plans, but she nowhere says she actually doesn't like doing things with her friends. She may want to ask herself whether she enjoys it when a friend does prevail upon her to go to dinner. Is the problem the back-and-forth of the planning process, or the socializing itself?

Ares Olympus said...

The funny thing is planning is easier than ever, especially things where attendance is optional. And if you want to be social in a general sense, in cities there are always more things going on than anyone with responsibilities could do. On ease of planning, like I setup a 5k running group as a Facebook group, and with minimal effort I can get 1-5 other runners to show up twice a month. The only downside to socializing by activity if you get injured, you lose your "friends" as Sam might call them. The loyalty is to the activities, and you may miss people if they disappear and reach out or not. Still wider or deeper bonds can form from the humble beginnings of common interest.

Anonymous said...

I think she's just HSP (Highly Sensitive Person), which is not a pathology. Planning and socializing can be exhausting for such people.

Ares Olympus said...

Anon @7:59am, could be. HSP is now apparently called SPS, Sensory Processing Sensitivity. A long while ago I had a friend who self-diagnosed as HSP, and it gave her comfort for a while to hear that the way she was wasn't just wrong or bad.

Anonymous said...

I'm not much for king of the hill, but for the sake of anyone suspecting they are HSP who may, in the unlikely event, see this, I will respond this once.

The above comments about HSP are negatively framed for the comment's author's reasons. But if you are HSP, you already noticed this.

If you suspect you are HSP (been called "too sensitive" all your life?), try googling HSP. What you find will explain a lot, and you will discover a community of people with similar traits and consequent experiences. The relief is palpable. Ideas about HSP seem not to have made strong inroads, so a professional diagnosis is unlikely. But who cares? You will see yourself in a positive way for once, and although the challenges remain, this will last. The combative among us will resist this interpretation of life's experiences, but they are likely part of the majority that is not HSP. It is difficult to understand what we are not.

American culture (I cannot speak for the rest of the west) does not value this trait. Asian culture is said to, and this is half true. Because they are valued, Asian's are generally socialized to have many HSP behaviors. But even HSPs risk being looked at askance if they display their traits too much. Nevertheless, Asia is a nice place to be for HSPs.