#498: Transitive Opinions, Discretion, and Drama

Dear Captain Awkward:

An ex (X) asked if I had reservations about X hooking up with a mutual acquaintance (A). I told X my reservation/opinion. X then told A what I said. A is angry and upset

On one hand, I gave an opinion when asked based on my knowledge of situations involving A. But on the other, regardless of my intention, A got hurt, and I do not know A that well, so what I said could of course be totally wrong. I wish A had not been hurt, and it was not my intent.

I am thinking it over and trying to figure out if there is something I should have done instead. I am really stupid about human relationships (so often I don’t grasp what people find stunningly simple/common sense), and I would like to know how to address situations like this correctly in the future. Any insight or advice you have is truly appreciated. Thank you.

Honest but Awkward

Dear Honest but Awkward,

You gave someone you were close to an honest response to a question they asked. If X had not asked your opinion, you would have kept it to yourself. But they asked, and you trusted that it was a sincere request, so you were honest. You also, I’m guessing, trusted that X. would not pass these reservations onto A.

I don’t know if your reservations about A. were fair or reasonable or anything about them.  Whatever they are, you can’t unsay them, so if A. brings it up with you, all you can do is apologize. “It was an opinion expressed in response to a direct request from X. I obviously don’t know you that well and could be way off base. I am very sorry that my words hurt you.

Keep it short, keep it sincere, tell the truth, but do not get sucked into discussing it further. If A. wants to know why you had that opinion, or wants to pick at the affair, it’s okay to say “I think enough damage has been done and am not really up for further discussion. I am sorry that I hurt you.” And then end the conversation.

And then you back way off from hanging out with A. and let them make any further moves toward repairing the relationship. Think of A. as a strange cat – let the cat approach you, don’t pull the cat out from under the futon and make it accept your pets.

The person making the trouble here is X.

If you are friends with your ex, it can be a good practice to let them know if you seeing one of their friends (once there is something definite to tell, don’t share fantasies). That’s a shitty thing to be blindsided by. “Just so you know, A. and I went out on a date and are going to keep doing that. I wanted you to hear it from me and I didn’t want it to be a surprise.

It is probably a bad practice to ask your ex for dating ADVICE or PERMISSION about dating one of their friends. You are totally putting them on the spot either to be okay with it or pretend to be okay with it, or, if they express reservations like the LW did, you turn them into the bad guy for having honest feelings. If you are exes who are good friends, chances are you’ve had to put a lot of old feelings and old conflicts aside and do some hard work at focusing on the present. Consulting them too much into your current dating life is like opening the whole can of FEELINGSWORMS again.

I realize there are exceptions and that the poly folk have entire books devoted to this, but if you are asking an ex for permission or dating advice about one of their friends, really examine your motives. Are you giving them a true opportunity to refuse their approval or refuse to comment? Would their refusal really change anything about what you intend to do? Do you already suspect they will react negatively but hope you can push a token “Yay for you? I guess?” rubber-stamp out? Do you need to date your ex’s friend AND feel like a super-swell person who is 100% approved of at all times that badly? Either you’re all adults here and it’s okay or you know some reason that it’s really not okay. Chances are you’re going to do what you’re going to do anyway (the crotch wants what the crotch wants), so politely inform but don’t seek or expect approval.

Letter Writer, if you and X have that kind of friendship where this is okay, then it was in bounds. HOWEVER, I think it is, without exception, bad practice to ask for someone’s honest assessment & opinion of another person and then pass the badmouthing onto that person. This is where X screwed up and made your life super-awkward.  You gave an opinion when asked. X made sure that A. knew that opinion, even though they knew it was negative. Who fucked up here? X.

Most of the time, you shouldn’t say something about someone that you wouldn’t say to them. But between trusted friends, honest references need discretion in order to work.

For example:

“I’m thinking of becoming roommates with Q. You guys roomed together for a while, what was that like?”

If it’s a friend you trust to behave with decency and discretion, you tell them honestly that Q constantly ate all your food and always had the television or radio on and doesn’t understand what dishwashers are.

If it’s a friend you think will go immediately blab to Q about everything you said, you say something like “Hrm, it wasn’t really for me, but do whatever works for you!”

The trustworthy friend will tell Q “Thanks, but I think I’m going to find another situation!” without naming you as the reason.

The untrustworthy friend will blame you as the reason it is falling through and transfer Q’s disappointment to you. Surprise! That, by the way, is the very definition of creating drama. “Someone who is not me totally disapproves of you, listen to what they told me!” UGH.

Not all secrets deserve keeping. Not all peace deserves keeping. But not everyone deserves your full, honest opinion, either, and a habit of passing on hearsay is a quick way to stop deserving it.

Letter Writer, however it all works out, what you can take from this is:

  • Your relationship with A. might not recover. That is mostly not up to you at this point. The words are out there.
  • Your beef here is with X., “Hey, if I’d known you were going to pass that on, I wouldn’t have said anything, so thanks a bunch for making everything super-awkward!”
  • X. is not someone you can trust with your honest opinions, and it is okay to put them off the next time they ask for one.
  • You can do that explicitly – “The last time I told you what I thought, you detonated a giant drama bomb. NO THANK YOU,” or just by refusing to comment at all. “That seems like none of my business, but I hope it works out how you want it to.

I don’t think you’re “stupid about human relationships”, I think you were put in a bad spot by someone with maturity & discretion problems.

43 thoughts on “#498: Transitive Opinions, Discretion, and Drama

  1. Ugh, shit-stirrers. Most families/social groups have at least one. If you can identify who they are, you’re pretty much set. In my family, there’s one aunt who does this kind of thing constantly – she’s got all the gossip and is constantly saying leading things to try and get people to say stuff she can turn around and repeat. My strategy has been to cultivate my “well, what are you gonna do? I don’t know what to say about that” face/body language (closed-mouthed frown, shrug with hands open, palms up), and not to say a word when she pulls out her latest trick. It generally derails her completely.

  2. I had a fling with a guy.. It was intense and fun while it lasted but it never would have worked out long term so we called it quits. A few weeks later a friend asked if I’d be okay with her hooking up with the guy. My friend has some lovely sides to her but also some Single white female going on, and I wasn’t keen on the idea. She had a healthy sexlife with varying partners so it wasn’t like she was stranded on an island with only this guy to get her rocks off. If she could just as well sleep with some other guy, why should it be with my ex, right?

    Cue a few months later when she tells me in passing that oh yeah, isn’t that guy great in bed? While true I didn’t want to compare notes. The reason I was upset was that she asked me about it and knew how I felt and she did it anyway. If she’d never asked, then fine. Not my business. But since she’d involved me I was a little pissed off.

    X asked you, and X is the one responsible for his/her actions. Just like my friend was responsible for hers. All you did was trust a friend. Also, please don’t call yourself stupid. You’re not. Silver lining: now you know you can’t trust X.

  3. Yeah, X has firmly identified himself as someone not to share potentially damaging opinions with, or even really anything that isn’t 100% complete public knowledge. I’d personally start putting some serious distance in there in terms of friendship.

  4. Right on CA. I’d only add; you can often spot the untrustworthy people because they are the ones telling you the “insert bad crap” that someone said about you. Caveat is the friend who tells you about some crap they know is not true and is giving you a heads up that the rumor mill is turning.

  5. LW, you did nothing wrong here! Except put your trust in someone who apparently does not deserve it. CA’s advice to you is excellent. Because you’re obviously a person who cares about other people’s feelings, you’re probably going to feel shitty even though what happened was absolutely not your fault. Remind yourself of all the ways that you’re a good friend (I have no doubt that you are.) Please don’t beat yourself up. I hope that you and A. can move past this – and definitely be careful about interacting with X in the future. Good luck to you! 🙂

  6. On the topic of “examine the motives”: This may be stating the obvious, but I’m wondering whether under the “we used to date and now we’re friends” surface, X is carrying some unspoken resentment about how the relationship with LW ended – but rather than just say so, he’s decided to look for opportunities to create drama instead. If LW puts enough value on the friendship to want to do this, it might be time for a “is there something else we haven’t cleared the air about” chat. Make him put his cards on the table, or find out that he can’t/won’t and file that useful information accordingly.

  7. “Not all secrets deserve keeping. Not all peace deserves keeping. But not everyone deserves your full, honest opinion, either, and a habit of passing on hearsay is a quick way to stop deserving it.”

    I want to print this, make it a magnet and stick it on my fridge! This is an excellent reminder! Great advice, Captain!

  8. Something to remember is that it is okay for people not to like you. It’s okay that you don’t like A that much (or at least to the extent that you don’t think your X should hook up with her). That’s fine! Similarly, it is okay that A doesn’t like you right now. I mean, A just found out you think poorly of her in some way. Of course she’s not your biggest fan today.

    Thing is, that’s okay. It’s unfortunate, and X is definitely the jerk here, but there’s nothing else you have to do. You don’t have to make up for anything to anybody. You didn’t do anything wrong. You and A probably weren’t great friends before, and you probably won’t be great friends after this… and that’s okay!

    You don’t *have* to be friends with everyone. Sometimes you won’t like people, and sometimes they won’t like you, and sometimes that fact will come to the surface. When that happens, we’re often socialized to find that Extra Bonus Horrible How Dare You!!! But truly, it’s okay. It’s uncomfortable for a while, but it’ll pass.

    1. Yes, this. LW is not wrong for having a potentially-unflattering opinion of A; A is not wrong for being hurt by said opinion. It can, in fact, be really freeing to realize that it’s okay to dislike some people–and that it’s okay for other people to dislike you. (Difficult. But freeing.)

      1. I think it’s also important to understand that you can like someone (or someone can like you) and still have unflattering opiniona about one particular personal aspect. For example, I’m confident that 100 percent of my close, long-term, totally devoted, more family than my actual family friends have complained at some point or another about my inability to shut up ever but they do still love me, care about me, respect me, etc.

        1. This. People are flawed, and having an unflattering opinion of them doesn’t mean you can’t like them. I have two dear friends who are witty, funny, all that stuff, and have the most terrible way of dealing with romantic relationships I have ever encountered. If anyone asked me if my opinion on ‘hooking up’ with them, I would shout SAVE YOURSELF and tell them to run away, fast. I’m sure my friends would be devastated to hear this, but it’s the way I feel.
          So, LW wasn’t wrong, A wasn’t wrong, X was definitely wrong, it’s okay not to like people and it’s also okay to like people that aren’t perfect.

    2. Yes. This is the rule that keeps X from tripping the LW up. If you believe that you must always like everyone, then when the shit hits the fan, X can claim that the LW threw the first punch: “Zie was mean, I was just repeating it!” On the other hand, if you believe that you can dislike someone, but not that you can use that to hurt them without provocation, the LW has acted within reasonable bounds: has an opinion on A, will confess it if directly asked by a trusted friend, but otherwise sticks to hir own knitting. X is the one who stirred the shit.

  9. The LW asked what they could have done differently. Here are a few tips on how to respond to questions about third parties not present.
    1.) imagine the person being discussed is standing next to you. You can still be critical, but you also have to be respectful and diplomatic.
    2.) Be as objective as possible in discussing the other person. Talk only about things that other people have observed, or things that have been said by the person in question. “Did you tell X that I was an angry drunk?” “No, I reminded X about the party where you got drunk and yelled at people. That did happen, right?”
    3. If you’re talking about your own feelings, don’t mention anyone else except the person you’re talking to.
    “Did you say X shouldn’t date me because she’ll get hurt?”
    “No, I said I care about X, and whenever she dates, I worry sh’ll get hurt.”

    Someone who wants to manufacture drama will always find a way, but you don’t have to give them any extra ammo.

    1. I would disagree that LW needed to do anything differently. The drama started not in that s/he shared an opinion or even in the way it was shared. Dramz began the minute X broke LW’s confidence by sharing it with A. I also wouldn’t advise LW to engage with A about the conversation, because this constitutes yet another breach of trust in confidence that LW and X were supposed to have.

      I learned this in dealing with my own family. I would share with my sister that mom was annoying me about such and such. Sister, in a fight with mom, would use what I said to gain leverage in the argument (I can’t really fault sister for this; people get emotional and look for leverage; still, she broke my trust). Mom would come to me and say: did you say so and so about me. What I learned to say, to fabulous effect, was: “I like to keep what sister and I talk about between sister and I. That’s a bond that I really value.” No one in my family asks me anymore what so and so said about them.

      1. I don’t think LW was in the wrong either, but I didn’t read RodeoBob’s comment as saying they were. It’s more like: here are some additional tools in your toolbox for avoiding drama in situations where your comments may be repeated.

        If you choose not to use the tools and drama eneues, it is still not your fault, of course. But more tools equal more options, and that could be helpful.

        (I say this because I use the methods mentioned, more or less, in some situations–like if I’m asked to express an opinion about a coworker. It’s still not my fault if someone else is trying to cause trouble, but sometimes I just plain don’t want the hassle even if I’d be blameless.)

        1. Ehhh, not to pile on RodeoBob, but I just don’t like this, personally:

          Here are a few tips on how to respond to questions about third parties not present.
          1.) imagine the person being discussed is standing next to you. You can still be critical, but you also have to be respectful and diplomatic.

          This implies this is the ideal approach, where realistically, there is plenty in between what you would say in front of the person (no need to be needlessly hurtful – plus some people are super sensitive), and being overly harsh just because they’re not there.

          I try to be as honest as possible in my life, even when it’s not terribly popular, but there is a big difference between the way I talk to someone and talk about someone. Doesn’t mean I am OK with being nasty, or letting others be nasty in my presence.

          1. I agree. I think that the ‘never ever say anything bad about someone behind their back’ is a little simplistic for how people actually interact. Sure, trash-talk isn’t ok, but…well, I vent with my best friend, I talk over people with my partner, I discuss motivations. I expect people do the same with me.

            Yes, there are some people who have the excellent talent of genuinely never saying a bad word about someone, but it’s not all that common. Everyone gets frustrated, and I think that being able to determine the difference between “I really like Sara, but her behaviour at board games is not very appropriate–I’d rather not invite her to those. I’m happy to have her over for dinner though.” and mean gossip-spreading is a pretty important social skill to have.

            For another example look at the Creepy posts. If people weren’t allowed to say ‘I find Adam pretty unsettling, he did X Y and Z’ and maybe get more information from other people, that would make it harder to figure out what was going on. Not that one shouldn’t trust one’s own opinion, but–I know I’m not infallible, and I’d like to get an idea of whether other people see Adam the same way as me, or if perhaps his resemblance to a past bad dude is setting me off.

  10. It’s definitely uncool that X spilled the beans, but I also find it super odd that X asked the writer about his/her “reservations” in the first place. “Hooking up” can mean a lot of things, but no matter how you define it, it’s not a decision that a reasonable adult requires permission or a reference from an ex — or anyone else — to make. X isn’t hiring the person, or marrying them, so… how is this different than meeting someone at a bar or whatever, and starting to date? Same risk. X would figure out in short order whether he wanted to keep going, or move on from A, regardless of what the writer might think of him/her.

    Can’t know the intentions of others, but it does seem like X could be trying to get a something else, like the writer’s feelings about him dating a friend. Too bad X couldn’t just be straight about that, or as suggested position it more as concern for the writer’s feelings.

    1. I read that as kind of getting a character reference. My friends and I ask each other: “I was thinking of flirting with Y, what do you think?” “Ooh, bad idea. He acts charming at parties but get him alone and he’s secretly a boring mansplainer.”

      1. Checking in with friends for references is, overall, a good thing! I just question it when it’s your ex or exes are involved.

        Long ago Commander Logic and I, as well as both of her roommates and several other friends were all on OKCupid at the same time, creating some kind of single singularity of sarcastic intelligent brunettes in Lincoln Square. Since we all had awesome levels of compatibility with each other (I think Logic and I were at 99%), if you wrote to one of us, you probably wrote to all of us without realizing you had wandered into the clutches of a Shadowy Dating Juggernaut where we compared notes behind the scenes. There was a little bit of horse-trading – “I really like this one, could y’all hang back a bit until we see where it goes?” and TONS of giggling at dudes who called themselves LoneWolf and wrote the exact same message to every person or whose favorite books were all written by Ayn Rand. We also checked in with each other and protected each other from known skeeveteers.

        Best moment ever was when our friend E. brought her new OKC-met dude to a party at my house and he realized where he knew me from…and then realized where he knew HALF THE WOMEN AT THE PARTY from. A moment that was repeated when I brought Intern Paul to a party at LogicRoommateHouse.

        1. Sounds like good times and good stories. Now I kind of want to hear them all and pretend I was there. Or curl up in my bed with some snacks and read the book or watch the movie 🙂

          1. Now I’m imagining a tv show written by the Captain and the thought is so good that it hurts.

        2. I was recently at a get-together with two bisexual female friends (M and A) and one straight male friend-of-one-of-the-friends (D, who was friends with M), and it turned out:
          (a) all three of them were on OkC.
          (b) The way D knew M was through OkC (an attempted date that turned into a friendship).
          (c) A and M (who didn’t really know each other) had both written to some of the same girls on OkC – and said it was surprising they’d never written to each other.
          (d) Over the course of the conversation, D realized that he’d actually written to A a couple months back. (A immediately went back into her messages, found D’s message, and said ‘how did I not notice this, this is a really good message!’ – but by this time she was partnered.)
          (e) D said that nearly all his female friends in his city were from OkC.

          It was a funnily small world.

        3. I love everything about this post and the situation you have described. Would buy whole book series, A++++++++

        4. I would also buy the book series. And add my the-OKC-World-Is-Too-Small tidbit:
          -Before I met the guy I dated for a few years (M), I went on a few dates with A. We sorta hit it off, but he was looking for something more serious and I, so it fizzled. Then I started dating M. Previously, M had dated T for several years–they were engaged but broke it off. M & T were still good friends, and eventually they decided they should get together for board games together, with their respective significant others. Who turned out to be me and A, who had dated. AWKWARD DATING DIAMONDS.

        5. It DEFINITELY depends on the exes, i.e., why are they your ex, and is the new relationship between the two of you actually truly that chill, or are you just insisting that it is because everyone is trying to be “evolved”?

    2. That struck me as odd, too. It strikes me as the kind of question that can be asked innocently… but usually isn’t.

  11. Another vote for “seriously not your bad.” If t were me, I’d seriously scale back on the friendship with X, and see what happens with the situation. I would also be very careful about sharing opinions with X, as they kind of seem a little eager to lob drama bombs about, especially in an acquaintance circle.

  12. Shout out for “transitive” in the title!

    Somewhat related … most of the people I work with are lovely, but there are a few who just feed a leeeeetle too much into the gossip, and in a couple of cases, this can easily morph into backstabbing. It’s of a nature that fishes for agreement, validation, and escalation. You’ll tell you this slightly snarky thing about this person, I reciprocate with something slightly more snarky, you’ll top it with something worse.

    It is hard to resist. It is usually framed in such as way that you feel as though you’re part of the in-group (and I’m relatively new, too, so that’s seductive), when of course what’s happening is that they’re just as busy badmouthing you behind your back. It contributes to toxicity and is depressing to be around.

    It sounds like X may be doing something similar?

    I have tried (not always succeeded, my bad) to say outright that I’m trying not to say negative things about colleagues, and to change the conversation up a bit. I don’t really want to work in a bully-playground, I had enough of that as a kid.

    1. Yes. If you’ve spent your life losing the game of popularity, being offered the chance to win at somebody else’s expense can be really tempting, especially when refusing to play seems difficult or isolating. Nothing makes people bond faster than a common enemy. And it’s my observation that if you’ve lived with social bullying and now you’re in an environment where you see people picking sides and starting gossip, being alone can practically make it sound like the Jaws music just started up. There’s a strong temptation to endear yourself to some group to get yourself out of the line of fire.

      None of which is to say that violating one’s personal values about gossip and backstabbing is a good choice. Just that it’s a hard one, because it means being acutely aware of the moment and being willing to practice courage in backing away or speaking out.

      1. This is such a wise comment – thankyou staranise. The gossipy kind of bonding is tempting because it can give a short term feeling of having made real friends, but ultimately it’s a very painful illusion, as the group will fall apart under any kind of pressure.

      2. Yup, which is how I got accused by some classmates of having an inappropriate relationship with a TA in a summer course abroad once. Luckily, nobody in authority found out and we were able to peaceably live out the term, but it could have had really serious ramifications. I do understand why the person who spread the story felt such a need to fit in, but it still sucked to get caught up in.

  13. There’s yet another reason X shouldn’t have opened their big mouth. Information of this nature, when passed from person to person, tends to turn into a big toxic game of telephone. An old but memorable example from my own life:

    Me to Z: “Stuff that’s happened between T and me is bringing me down. I sympathize with her position, but I’m also angry at some of the things she said.”

    Z to her boyfriend (who was also friends with me and T): “This is what went down between cinderkeys and T. I think T is weird and unlikable based on what cinderkeys told me.”

    Z’s boyfriend to T: “Cinderkeys thinks you’re weird and unlikable.”

    It took a couple of very awkward, tense weeks to figure out why Z was mad at me. She didn’t want to say what was wrong because she didn’t want to rat out Z’s boyfriend.

    Ever since that incident, I’ve been super careful not to blindly trust secondhand information like that. Even when people are making a sincere effort to repeat the information accurately, they can get it wrong. Problem is, then I’m stuck wondering what the original person really said, as I don’t want to get the disclosing friend in trouble. Ugh. Just … don’t DO this, people.

    1. A: B can’t drink cow’s milk. It upsets his stomach.
      Me: Has he tried goat’s milk? Many people find that easier to digest.
      A: He won’t drink that. He’ll say it’s a poof drink. [“Poof” being a homophobic slur in the UK – don’t know if it has the same meaning elsewhere.]
      Me: Wow. Really? You think he’d say that? That’d be a complete asshole thing to say.
      A to B later: Neddy thinks you’re a complete asshole.

      Thanks A.

      1. I sometimes play that game when all of the parties are in the room together, or at least can all hear each other. A says something. I offer ridiculously extrapolated translation to B. A says “That’s not what I said!” My humor, sometimes it is problematic.

        I try hard to resist the snark/gossip spiral. It can be really challenging sometimes, because venting can be such a relief. But the trick is not to feed off each other. So I usually catch myself and shut things down, but too often not soon enough.

  14. Long-time reader delurking here! Just wanted to say I thought the Captain was spot-on with this, and wanted to add my voice to those saying the LW did nothing wrong and that this is not an example of LW being “stupid at human relationships.” I also have to say that coming from a family with certain members who are masters at triangulation, this set my alarm bells off immediately. I would tread carefully around X.

  15. LW here, thank you Captain, and thank you all so much! I adore this amazing comment space (longtime reader, first time submitter) and yeah, X does not contact me often, but after this last incident, I thought about the unpleasant pattern of our rare conversations and while I wish X and A happiness, I decided I do not need this sort of drama/accusations/weird personal questions in my life. It was a relief, actually.

    I’m very lucky to have found this space and to have some wonderful real life friends who also reassured me that this was an awkward situation, but I did not misstep by giving advice to someone who I thought was seeking it in confidence for his own well-being. Thanks again!

  16. Ugh, this is my family…. It is The Worst. I have one cousin I bond over this crap with, who will message me the latest goss, but otherwise try to avoid the lot, especially around the holidays. (“So I heard you died your hair purple, you’re rebelling against the family (are we the mob?), and dropping out of school to run away to Africa? Your life is apparently so exciting!” Reality: I temp highlighed my hair with my team for a sports tournament and shared cute pics with a relative and got accepted to a prestigious study abroad program in economic development in Tanzania (still regret letting myself be pressured by Family into no going… le sigh) fr a single term. But you know, whatever. REBELLION.)

    The only way I’ve had to fight the crap is to avoid telling people who engage in such behavior anything meaningful about my life or my opinions on anything I care about and. if I hear any gossip about a person or what that person thinks or feels (particularly about me or my opinions), to non-confrontationally approach the person directly to sort it out.

    Well-intentioned people who got caught up in someone’s gossip web generally appreciate it (even if there are hurt feelings to sort out) and it side-steps all kinds of bad blood.

    Passive-aggressive people who are part of the problem can’t handle the confrontation and tend to either a) throw a drama fit at the time, but leave me out of drama in the future because they know I’ll just cut through it or b) deny it and say something nice about {situation}. (In the latter case, I can then use this to cut off conversations later with other drama-instigators–“Oh, X told you I’m abandoning my family in a time of need to run off to another country? Well, X told me she was happy I had this opportunity! Not sure where the miscommunication is, but not my problem! [Subject change + refuse to engage further]” which tends to make /them/ leave me out of drama in the future because I’m no fun. Win win!

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