#545: My old friend was great when we lived close, but has gotten very mean from a distance.

Dear Captain Awkward,

When I was in university, we had a tightly knit group of five friends, and I’m glad to say that group has stood time and is still together. Two years ago, I moved abroad to a different country and I only see the rest of the group occasionally, around three or four times a year. Mostly, this has worked out well, as we communicate via a group chat on the internet daily, so I feel like I’m in touch with them – and hopefully, they feel the same.

…well, almost everything has worked out well. There is one friend in the group, who I’ve never felt really close to – you know, one of those people who you enjoy being in the same group with but would never go out for a coffee just the two of you? I’ve kept her on the same level as the rest of the group: informing well ahead of time when I’m coming to visit my home country so we’d be able to make plans, asking about her life through chatting, even sending Christmas cards and presents. What I’ve figured out is that she’s really not the most responsive long-distance friend you can get.

The least of the issues I have with her is that she ignores the cards and presents I send her, neither thanking nor replying the gesture. A bigger issue is that she obviously doesn’t prioritize me very high on her list of people she wants to see: when I try to fit the friend group into a very tight schedule of visiting-home-from-afar, she takes her time replying about her schedules, half of the time cancels at last minute (often to spend the evening at home instead), and the other half of the time gives me the impression that she’s not coming to the meets I organize because of me but because of the rest of the group that she wants to meet.

Now I’m an adult. I can take it that someone doesn’t consider me as a very good friend, or a friend at all. I would be capable of ignoring this and concentrating my friendship efforts on the rest of the group if it wasn’t for this: she constantly picks fights with me in the group chat, acts in a way that is disrespectful to me, and is sometimes downright mean. I talked with another friend in the group and she had also noticed this, but advised me to be the “better person” and said that the Problematic Friend is having a really stressful time at work. However, I don’t feel like being the better person anymore. I am so sick and tired that things I write about my day online to my friends can always be turned against me in some way.

I know I should pull away from her and phase her out of my life as she’s currently a pretty big angst factor for me, but this leaves me with only bad options. The group chat is my main communication method with the rest of the group, all of whom are wonderful people but, from my experience, not the best in communicating through for example email. If I was to suggest us to start using some other method of communication without the Problematic Friend, I don’t know if others would react to this positively – everybody knows she is stressed and others are probably more empathic to her than I am – and I’m sure the P.F. would raise a huge fuss about it. Also, I have a long history with being her close-distance friend, and that was actually quite pleasant. She is a nice and supportive person, IN PERSON, so just for that reason I would feel bad for “letting her go”.

“Expat Go Home”

Dear Expat,

This person may in fact be going through a stressful time, but she also is behaving like she actively dislikes you and does not want to be friends. So I think you are very smart to stop trying. Stop including her in invitations and planning around her schedule. Definitely don’t send any more cards and letters. Phase her out of every part of your life except this one group chat where some passing contact with her is the price of interaction with your other friends. She is allowed to feel about you any way she likes, so this is an issue about how she treats you in a group space. Since she is publicly saying mean stuff to you where people can see it (group chat), you are justified in coming right back at her in that forum.

Her: Mean, snide thing.

You: Well, that really hurts my feelings.

See also: “That’s a crappy thing to say”, “Wow.”, “Ouch!”, “That’s pretty mean, don’t you think?”, or “Not cool, actually.” 

Keep it short, don’t qualify or explain, don’t get drawn into a discussion of your friendship dynamics, history, or feelings, etc. Say “Ouch!” when she hurts you, and then continue talking to the people who are engaging with you respectfully and kindly, or, if you need to, bail on the discussion and try again another day. It’s actually on her to apologize, or to tell you what she’s actually angry/upset about if she does have some beef with you, or to stop responding to your chats at all if she isn’t going to be a basic level of polite to you. It’s actually on the other people in the group to figure out how to deal with one of their friends bullying another friend.

If you’re nervous about how this will “create drama” and foment some kind of crisis in how your friend group communicates, you’re probably not wrong, but I don’t think you’re doing anyone any favors by pretending that what she’s doing isn’t a problem. Right now this group chat thing only works if you take her bullying behavior without complaint, ergo, it’s not working. And the thing where your friends ignore it and hope that it will go away on its own is also not working. “Please be a basic level of polite to me in a group conversation” isn’t an unreasonable request. You don’t have to “be the bigger person” by silently putting up with a bully, and you don’t have to solve every feeling that everyone will have about this.


83 thoughts on “#545: My old friend was great when we lived close, but has gotten very mean from a distance.

  1. Ugh. “Be the bigger person.” Whenever anyone tells me to be the bigger person in a situation like this, my impulse is to scream “I AM ALREADY THE BIGGER PERSON BECAUSE I AM NOT BEING A PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE SHITHEAD FOR NO APPARENT REASON. I WIN THE BIGGER PERSON CONTEST BY DEFAULT. BRING ME MY TROPHY.”

    Of course, I don’t do that. Because that wouldn’t be very big of me.

    1. Right there with you. Whenever you are on the receiving end of a Be The Bigger Person Talk, start peering around for a Missing Stair.

      1. I recently got the combination of ‘be the bigger person + I am so disappointed in your lapse in professionalism’ from my boss regarding a comment on my part about an asshole coworker. Immediately thought Missing Stair! So, so right. Spot on!

        1. IMO “be the bigger person” should only be used when addressing all parties and there’s no obvious wronged side. “Everyone needs to improve” is a lot more palatable than “you improve, because I can’t be bothered dealing with that shit head.”

    2. Also? “be the bigger person” irritates me. How does one “be the bigger person”? By making their own feelings and wishes so, so small that they are never brought to light. Be the bigger person really means “your feelings take up too much room, you must make them smaller.” The crappiness of it is tied in with who, in our society, is generally asked to “be the bigger person”. SPOILER ALERT: The less privileged you are, the most likely you will be told to “be the bigger person”.

      1. There’s an idea (a valid one IMHO) that one aspect of having power is the power to be able to ignore an attack against you. I think that’s what is underlying the concept of “being the bigger person.”

        If so, it’s a twisting of the idea, because it doesn’t work for you to =pretend= you have enough power to ignore the attack. If you don’t, in fact, have sufficient (or any) power this tactic is only going to result in injury.

        It certainly helps for onlookers if you pretend you have enough power to ignore the attack, because then they don’t need to worry about caring for you or doing anything about your attacker. They can just pretend, with you, that you are strong enough to be unaffected, and go about their lives unbothered while you lick your wounds in private where they don’t have to care. They don’t have to help you protect yourself, and they certainly don’t have to see that you lack the power to ignore those attacks and help you build it up so that you can be the bigger person in truth, and not merely pretend.

        1. I think this is incredibly insightful, as the request often comes with pointing out the unfortunate circumstances of the person who is out of line. “He’s old, he can’t help it.” “She’s going through a stressful time right now.” However, I wonder how often this request is made of women, about difficult men in their lives. Or of the person with perceived “lower” or “less privileged” status, asking them to feel sorry for their tormentor.”I deem you more capable of taking on the emotional work that has to be done here” is not always a compliment.

          1. Oh wow, great point. (And Dante, I really love the way you put that.)

            I’ve been asked to “be the bigger person” in my relationship with my rude and often cruel stepfather many times, presumably because “he’s doing his best” or “he just has different values and this is hard for him.” But it’s interesting that I, a young woman, am expected to take on the responsibility of being the rational, respectful adult in my interactions with a middle aged man.

            LW, feel free to let this be awkward. You aren’t doing anything wrong. It’s sounds like you’ve made a reasonable effort to be one-on-one friends with this person, and she’s not interested. That’s fine. And she may well be having difficulties in her life right now, and that’s crappy. But regardless of your relationship, regardless of what else is going on in anyone’s life, her behavior needs to be kind and respectful. The fact that that’s not what’s happening is on her, not you. I hope your other friends who might be closer to her are able to step in here and support you. Don’t feel bad about asking for that support directly, too.

          2. In my view, asking the party with the lesser level of power to “be the bigger person” reflects the asker’s … wish? hope? delusion? … that there is no power imbalance at all. When there is an asymmetrical level of power in a relationship (which is essentially always the case in some manner or other) and there is conflict, asking the person with the higher level of power to ‘be bigger than that” acknowledges the power imbalance, whereas asking the same thing of person with the lesser level of power elides it. It’s saying to someone who, factually, has lesser power, “I want you to behave as though you have =greater= power, thereby balancing the scales for me in my mind.” In my experience at least, people don’t like to acknowledge that our everyday relationships contain sometimes-substantial asymmetries of power.

            This is different from the person with the lesser power choosing to cease retaliation out of self-preservation, but NOT different from the person with lesser power choosing to cease retaliation because doing so feels “big.”

            So women are asked to “be bigger” so as to pretend that egalitarianism is really a thing, to pretend that women have enough factual power to have the liberty of ignoring attacks. Groups who experience discrimination are asked to “be bigger” so as to pretend that discrimination is not a thing.

            Note: politics and power are my field and so I tend to see things through power-colored glasses, and ymmv on how valid this seems.

          3. I think it is sometimes true that one can regain power over oneself and a situation by refusing to give an attacker the upset reaction they want even if one is actually upset — and deciding to pretend one is just too grand and important to deal with this shit is one way of doing it. But that generally only works if one has freedom to leave, not if one is forced to deal with a hostile system or individual repeatedly, as is of course the case where privilege/oppression dynamics, or just plain bullying is involved.

          4. Yes. This. Yes. I am so.fucking.tired. of people expecting women to do the bulk of the emotional work. Especially in situations where men have behaved angrily or irrationally.

        2. This is *really* interesting. I wonder how much of the time the person doing the requesting is the one who *actually* has the power to fix the missing stair. In one personal example I witnessed, the boss was asking employee 1 to “be the bigger person” w/r/t the misbehavior of employee 2, which the boss, of course, actually had the power to correct but didn’t want to.

          1. Uuuuuuuuuuuugh, it happens all the time, for various reasons – in workplaces it’s because the boss doesn’t like confrontation, doesn’t actually have management skills, is overwhelmed, is maybe friends with the problematic person, doesn’t think managing people is part of their job, etc. etc. It’s happened in basically every workplace I’ve ever worked in, in large and small ways, for those and other reasons.

            In the LW’s case, there’s absolutely nothing stopping one of her friends from piping up and saying, “hey, what you said to LW was actually not okay,” but instead they’re telling LW to moderate HER behavior. As a fairly compliant, tractable, and even-tempered person with a volatile sibling, I can’t tell you how many times my parents have put the onus on me to keep things relatively calm without addressing my sibling’s behavior, simply because talking to me was easy and talking to him meant an explosion. And we’ve seen this kind of thing in SO MANY letters here, ranging from people in a friend group who are unpleasant to people who are downright predatory, and seen how groups will contort themselves around the person who is causing the problem, rather than ADDRESSING it, because of fear of confrontation / desire to keep the peace / Geek Social Fallacy / systemic disenfranchisement of females in the group / insert your own reason here.

        3. Thank you so much for this comment – this is really what I needed to hear today. I’m going through a difficult time with my older brother, with whom I am absolutely not close at all, who has been lashing out at me. He still lives with my parents which makes things awkward because I want to be able to see them without worrying about being attacked by him, but my parents’ response has been to say that *I* have to “protect myself” by ignoring him/not reading his texts/blocking him/otherwise modifying my behavior even though HE’S the one who is behaving badly.

          And it’s so weird because I pointed out to my dad that we were twisting ourselves in knots to excuse his behavior instead of just having my parents tell him that hey, it’s actually not acceptable to call me in the middle of the day and pick a fight with me for no reason, and I’m not sure why the onus is on ME to manage HIS behavior.

          I think my parents just don’t have the emotional reserves to deal with it and it’s easier to tell me to change because I’m less volatile than he is, but I don’t think they realize that it’s damaging my relationship with them because I feel like they’re excusing what is really inexcusable behavior.

          1. This can be so difficult to navigate can’t it? I’m sorry you have to go through it… I was/am in a similar situation and “being the bigger person” meant letting horrible obscenities be yelled at me, threats, and included a couple of physical expressions of rage. I finally set some very strict boundaries that definitely don’t make my parents happy. And since I still want them in my life, I have to do a lot of emotional work to take care of their feelings (while also setting milder boundaries there as well). But you know what? Since setting those “overreacting” boundaries, my seemingly random panic attacks have pretty much ceased (although I still have nightmares). Apparently a part of me knew I wasn’t really safe all those years…

      2. Hmm.. That’s interesting.
        I always associated “be the bigger person” with childhood dynamics, in the way that the bigger sibling/cousin/etc is usually at least somewhat better equipped to deal with annoying behaviour from the smaller ones.
        Applied to adults, it would mean that “yeah (bad-behaviour person) is behaving like a 5-year-old”.

        Looking at it your way puts a whole new spin on this phrase.

        1. That’s how I always saw it, too. I think it’s partly an offshoot of how we ask children to solve conflicts. I teach 7th graders, and while there’s some legitimate bullying and conflict between people with differences in power, a lot of what I see is just 2 kids in “bitch eating crackers” mode with each other who haven’t yet developed the executive function to be politely indifferent towards people who mildly irritate them. In this case, telling them to ignore insignificant slights, and to “be the bigger person”, is pretty sound advice.
          But that’s basically the only context where that phrase makes sense. It’s pretty messed up that we keep using this phrase into adulthood. It assumes that all conflicts (especially with regards to women, who seem to be on the butt end of this phrase a lot) are caused by adults getting intentionally worked up over insignificant bullshit. LW, you are not getting worked up over insignificant bullshit. So don’t feel like you have to let this go unremarked.

    3. Yes to this whole thread! (Never have I so badly wanted a like button outside of Facebook)

      I don’t know where we got the idea that it’s childish to respond to bullying and disrespect, while all silently allowing the bully to operate however they like. It’s not appropriate even for children really – it’s just a way to make the dispute go away without having to do any more work on it. The aggressor is already causing problems so if you can get the victim to not react you’ve successfully pushed the problem under the rug where it can’t bother anyone. Except the victim.

      And meanwhile we teach everyone involved that the bad behaviour is OK.

      1. This! Yes! The admonition to “be the bigger person” is, I think, also intimately related to another victim blaming strategy: “Only you control how you feel.” It’s true that we have a considerable degree of control over our reactions (although I would argue that we actually have limited control over the emotions we experience–“how you feel”– in the first place). But this old chestnut is usually trotted out as a way of controlling the victim and preventing them from “making a scene” in response to bullying. It gives bullies license to be as awful as they want while putting all the onus for “appropriate behavior” on the victim and, combined with “be the bigger person,” it codes any form of standing up for yourself as inappropriate.

        1. I think it’s a typical good-idea-taken-to-extremes, or maybe a good idea extended so that it gets people off the hook from dealing with any unpleasantness. When someone says something judgmental and shitty to you it’s not Being a Bigger Person to just take it without complaint. Being the bigger person is about not turning around and being shitty right back.

          “Where’d you get that sweater, Goodwill’s discard bin?”

          Being the bigger person: “Wow, that’s a really rude and mean thing to say.”
          Not being the bigger person: “Pretty gutsy to criticize my clothes when you look like Hellen Keller dressed you.”

          There MIGHT be situations where eating shit silently really amounts up to being the bigger person; when speaking up means putting someone else in danger, physically or financially. But for the most part I think when someone asks you to be the better person in a way that translated into being a doormat it’s really about them wanting to avoid unpleasant conflict at the expense of you being treated with respect. That’s a double dose of being devalued and it’s not okay for friends to do to each other.

          1. Very good point! I think it does also carry the meaning of not being shitty back – only as children we’re never tought non-shitty ways to call people out on bad behaviour.

            As a side note, people in positions of power really can “be the bigger person” and ignore insults, they’re insulated by their power and sometimes it really would diminish their status to respond. Think President doesn’t respond to trashy rumour in tabloid, don’t dignify it with a response type situations.

      2. I suspect that if we stopped telling kids to be the bigger person, and to include everyone no matter how nasty and started teaching them genuine age appropriate conflict management we wouldn’t be having so many bullying problems. I also wonder how much of the cyberbullying thing is horrifying adults because now they have to see in writing what was always going on.

        Still remembering the idiot who decided to teach me the bigger person by calling in in front of the class to genuinely compliment the person who had been bullying me for months (since they were aware of the bullying and thought that person would be the hardest for me to compliment) and then inviting the class to critique my compliment.

        1. I cannot describe the amount of “what??” that I feel in relation to your “anti”-bullying experience. What.

        2. I don’t know who that person was, but I want to cover them in bees. Bees that are on fire. FIRE BEES.

          1. Surprisingly, the appalling idiocy of asking the class to critique the compliment “I like your shoes” was one of the best things that could have happened. Although some piled on, others were obviously really uncomfortable, and suggesting that maybe given the girls behavior, that was all the compliment I could give her. I’d taken silence for agreement up till that point; that day I realized that other people were uncomfortable with the bully’s behavior to me, and just didn’t know what to say.

            Teacher still deserves fire bees.

          2. *Quietly adds “Fire bees” to vocabulary*

            Seriously though. I hope that teacher got fired/written up/some sort of backlash for that because that is a special kind of “What? No. Why. Why would you even?”

        3. “Hmmm…. Well, he is always inventive. Every insult is new.”

          “The attention to detail he puts into bullying never
          ceases to amaze me.”

          “My mom always told me that if you can’t say anything nice, you shouldn’t say anything at all.”

          Like, seriously, you want sincere compliments, teacher, that’s what you should expect (from an adult who is not currently being put on the spot by your poor classroom management.)

    4. As a generally patient person who is also fat, I always want to screech “ARE YOU CALLING ME FAT???!~” in the most dramatic way possible and maybe flip a table or throw something that will shatter or splat satisfyingly when I get told to be the bigger person. I don’t DO these things, but man, I generally want to. I usually grit my teeth and comply or maybe ask for some sort of compromise.

      One time the therapist that was supposed to be teaching me to live with some roommates told me that, because I was having panic attacks that were being triggered by a roommate but they “hadn’t grown up in a great home”. That week was special. (They were 32 at the time; that’s plenty of post-childhood years to learn how not to throw shit when you’re angry.)

      1. OMG iliadawry, I would PAY to see someone do that, Real Housewives style, and the mental image has just Made. My. Day. Oh, holy crap I can’t stop laughing. That is going to be my new go-to Scrubs-style daydream to use on people who are pulling that kind of nonsense.

    5. Blergh… I agree. Comes from the same hellhole as “be a good sport”. What it really means is “shut up and take whatever shit I throw at you”.

      It was used in great quantities when I was growing up. Largely due to CA and the awesome commenters I have now, as a very grown up person started using my words to great effect. And walking away helps to, I find.


      Frickin brilliant.


      If I ever need to steal that, I am so stealing that.

    8. Here is your trophy. It is made of self esteem and the knowledge that people probably genuinely want to hang out with you!

  2. I really like the Captain’s suggestions. I have had some success in similar situations being obnoxiously nice. “You are such a delight!” “Ever so many hugs to you, friend!” “XOXO, you lovely dear!,” etc.

  3. Can you block her somehow on the group chat, so you don’t see when she posts something mean or shitty? I’m sure she’s got another way to contact you if she wants to talk about why you’re ignoring her on group chat. This way, at least you’re somewhat insulated from her bad behavior and you don’t have to actively deal. If she’s not an active correspondent with you anyway, I have a feeling she won’t email/Facebook/Skype/dispatch an owl at all.

    If you go this route, though, beware of the Triangulating Friend who may butt in and ask you why you’re ignoring Snarkarella. In my friend group, I had to pull way back on someone (for Reasons mostly), and I had a Triangulating Friend try to insert themselves right in there. Stupidly, I let her, and this just prolonged the whole mess for another six months or so. Don’t let the Triangulating Friend triangulate. It never ends well.

    1. IME that works much less well in a chat among a small number of people because the conversation becomes REALLY FUCKING CONFUSING when you can’t see one of the people. And you start looking very stupid for not being able to follow it, and it becomes extremely obvious that you’ve blocked someone, and that’s just going to cause a lot more drama.

      1. Word. I once blocked two folks who were having a tv-spoilery conversation, forgot to unblock them later, and spent a VERY VERY CONFUSED few weeks of chat before I remembered what I’d done.

  4. It’s also possible that your other friends haven’t noticed just how much she rags on you. If you point out every time it happens, even with a simple “that wasn’t nice,” they may start seeing how big the problem is.

  5. The Captain is right – curt but honest responses to uncool comments are fantastic. They deliver the message that someone has done an uncool thing, without escalation or massive drama creation. Suddenly the spotlight is on the actual cause of the drama – i.e. the insulting person. They get to either back off or double down and either way you win because they’ve either become sufficiently polite to you, or they’ve actually blown up and either said something no one can brush under the rug, or actually told you what’s wrong so that it can be dealt with. It felt a bit weird when I first started doing it, but actually it rarely results in massive drama because in the face of it most people back down. The key is to be short and to the point and maintain a fairly flat, matter of fact tone, possibly tinged with surprise, like you’re shocked they would say whatever it is they said. It works for people who say bigoted stuff not aimed at you as well.

    Honestly though, maybe you just don’t like each other and rub each other the wrong way. You don’t have to take insults, but the whole not sending cards and gifts, sometimes bailing on social events thing can have many causes, not least of which is different ideas of what appropriate behaviour is in such cases. I often lack social energy and bail on things just to stay home, and don’t actually get why people are so upset by this (though I’ve learned that they are and I often make up a more socially acceptable excuse). And sometimes I don’t have the funds to send reciprocal gifts. This last Xmas I didn’t have the money to give anyone anything, and some people sent me really nice gifts. 😦

    If she additionally doesn’t like you much then I’m not surprised she isn’t returning these social overtures. The advice on what to do remains the same of course – stop reaching out and call her on it if she actually says something insulting. She doesn’t have to like you (or you her) but she does have to be minimally polite in social interactions.

    1. This comment is basically what I came here to say but worded way better. The first half of the letter suggested to me, “oh, you’re just not her style and maybe she’s a little lower energy socially.” The first half is all stuff I totally do. Sometimes I lose friends over it, but I guess I couldn’t have kept those friends without changing drastically so that’s ok. But the mean stuff, that is not cool and you don’t have to put up with it.

      1. For people who do honor their commitments to friends, it’s both insulting and inconvenient when someone doesn’t offer the same thing back. The insult part is, “OK, you’re important enough to me that I was willing to come out to this bar even though it’s snowing/I have cramps/I didn’t get any sleep last night, because we had plans–and you’re bailing for a similarly real but not life-threatening reason, so I’m not that important to you.” Like the way the PF often bails just to spend the evening at home. And the inconvenience part is that often if you have plans with someone, you end up turning down other invitations or things you could have been doing instead. Then your friend bails and you’re like, “Oh, ok, I could have been at that cool museum today with Other Friend if I’d known you were going to bail.” But now it’s too late.

        I know that there are groups of friends who do this to each other all the time, so they know that when a friend says “OK I’ll be there” that actually means “OK I’ll be there *if it remains convenient for me.*” If it works for them, that’s great. But it sounds like LW’s group is not like that, and I don’t think you should make a commitment to hang out with someone unless you actually mean it, or unless *they know* you don’t really mean it. It wouldn’t be that hard for the PF to just say “I don’t know if I can hang out, so you guys get together when it works for you, and I’ll come if I’m up for it.” To me it sounds like she is sending a pretty clear message that her time is more valuable than the LW’s time by making LW squeeze her into chaotic visits home and then flaking out for no good reason.

        1. Well hmm – I definitely take plans that can’t go ahead without me more seriously than casual group events, for the very reason you state that people could have made other plans. But it’s not a matter of “I just felt like hanging out at home” – or at least you don’t know how important and serious that can be for some people. I really do have extremely limited social energy. Sometimes the idea of going out feels like an awful nightmare torture session, a horrible experience, like I would feel the same way if someone said “come and sit through 3 job interviews and an exam you haven’t studied for, it’ll be fun!” And unfortunately this feeling can appear suddenly as I’m getting ready to go, so I’ll accept an invite weeks earlier and feel all enthusiastic, and then BAM – I hate the idea. Why did I agree to a dentist visit followed by defending my thesis?

          Large group events can go ahead without me, even on short notice. I’m not talking here about something catered (I often refuse those upfront because I can’t guarantee I’ll show) or an RPG where we all have characters and the GM has a plan – just, let’s all go to a bar, or hang out in a backyard or wherever.

          Does this sometimes irk people? Yes obviously. I don’t do it to irk them.

          And I suppose to explain the gift thing more closely, while I’m cool with at least sending people gushing thanks, I know many people get caught in a shame spiral about not being able to return the favour and don’t respond at all because of it. The JerkBrain is mighty and self defeating.

          1. i sometimes warn people “i will do this if i have the energy; if you need to buy tickets in advance i should probably decline” (or if they’re cheap enough or i think the idea is cool enough, make explicit that i will pay for my ticket whether i make it or not ). at that point, i may say “sorry, i need to stay home and rest,” but i’m not going to bail in order to do something else social. When i give that shape of answer, i accept that they may tell me that they have to take it as a no: they might find it more important not to be spending all weekend alone than to be seeing me specifically: a 99% chance of your second choice can be more appealing than a 45% chance of your first choice, 45% chance of not getting either, and 10% chance of something from the set of second-through-eighth-choices.

        2. For you, this is about honouring commitments to friends which is a pretty judgemental phrasing. For me, it’s about friends who have the empathy to understand that we can’t always meet our commitments and that it’s not a personal slight if we don’t – to also put it judgementally. I’m sure we both understand both commitment and empathy, but we’re putting the emphasis in different places. You want reliable friends, I want laid back and accepting friends. I would also like them to be somewhat reliable of course (I’ve had friends who I considered flaky and difficult to plan around), and I’m guessing that there’s a limit to how much reliability trumps empathy in your circles – say, it would be reasonable for a friend to bail because they just had a death in the family or were an acceptable amount of sick.

          There is a larger problem here though (and why I’ve written a second reply), which is that in our society mental illness is not treated with the same empathy as a physical one. And because mental illness is not really socially acceptable, those people who have depression or an anxiety disorder or whatever may not disclose it. Disclosing it might not help at all in any case. And those are exactly the people who bail on social events just to stay home. I have a friend with a very serious anxiety disorder, and our entire friend circle knows he has it, and some people are still very annoyed with him for not making it to events. They feel slighted, and like the mental illness is “just an excuse” or some kind of attention seeking.

          1. I very much agree with you on the reliability vs empathy front. Everyone falls somewhere slightly different on the scale and neither way is omg meanie pants. Its just different styles. Those different styles can sometime lead to friendship incompatibility, which can in turn lead to hurt feelings, but neither person’s style is Wrong and Bad.

            And people can be friends through those different styles, if they manage it right! I’m super on the “I need to be able to cancel at like a moments notice” and I stand by that because when I need to not go out and I force myself to? Our friendship may not survive the night. My best friend, however, is very, very on the other side. If there is a plan, it is a Plan and the Plan WILL be stuck to no matter what. We hurt each others feelings a lot – “It feels like you don’t respect my time at all and will just throw it away!!! I need to plan things and you act like my needs don’t matter and I can’t even tell if you care when you do that” vs “WHY are you asking me to torture myself and you when i know we’ll just get in a fight because I can’t deal and I’ll just start dreading seeing you?!” and we talked it out and now when we make a plan I give an estimate of how likely it will be that I’ll need to bail and he gives an estimate of how well he’d be able to replan if I bailed and we make sure those aren’t too out of whack with each other, and we each have a safeword of sorts, although we call them Forbidden Spells because we are nerds, that we can say to let the other one know that this time our need is super intense and we don’t abuse the power of the forbidden spells because that is against the rules of magic, yo. So he can use a spell to let me know that he’s spiraling into a depressive funk and feeling unloved and so really, really needs us to hang out and chat and I make sure I can do that, and I can use a word to let him know that seriously dinner with his girlfriend sound amazing but I’ve used up all my social energy dealing with insurance companies and if I go out that day I will, in fact, end up sobbing when the waiter asks what I want to eat, and we both know the other one is acting in good faith.

            (As a side note, and I’m really, really sorry if this is inappropriate to bring up but I’m a little bothered by the way you framed this: “in our society mental illness is not treated with the same empathy as a physical one.” I see these kinds of statements come up in ablism discussion all the time and it just makes it seem like physical disabilities and mental disabilities are in some kind of competition for abled people’s empathy and so physical disability is winning and mental disability is losing when really… both are losing because neither get the empathy they deserve? Because trust me, physical illness is no pass to empathy either, especially the huuuuge number of physical illnesses that are invisible and/or not well known. The problem isn’t that mental illness isn’t treated with the same empathy as physical illness, the problem is that mental illness isn’t treated with the empathy it deserves. As someone with both physical and mental disability, I see this weird competitive thing going on both sides and it makes me feel shitty.)

          2. @anisoptera, I think mental illness is serious. And I apologize that I made it sound like I didn’t. I didn’t actually realize you were talking about mental illness–to me, “low social energy” sounded like just a thing that people experience sometimes, like low physical energy, which is basically just being tired, you know? I didn’t mean that someone in the throes of a panic attack should be gussying up to go to a party just to make their friends happy!

            Of course that’s part of the problem with judging your friends for just about anything. I mean you never know what someone’s dealing with. But I don’t think “honoring your commitments” is an inaccurate phrase. If you say you’ll do something, you’ve committed to it, right? I tend to take people’s reliability as a signal of my importance in their eyes. If they frequently bail because they’re tired or have cramps or anything short of physical or mental sickness, I assume I’m not important to them. But as you mentioned, there are different levels of all this, and you obviously take care not to bail in ways that will genuinely ruin people’s night, which I am sure your friends appreciate.

          3. @rieux
            I’m gonna jump in again here because like I said before, my best friend is closer to your philosophy so I take every opportunity I can to try to figure out ways both sides can understand each other.

            I can’t speak for Anisoptera, but even with those qualifications I’m on the other side. I don’t need to be on the edge of disaster to prioritize self care sometimes. While you get the message of “I don’t care about you” from someone canceling, I get the message of “I don’t care about you” from someone getting pissed at me from canceling. Yup, the exact same message! Because I know myself really well and sometimes when I am tired or have cramps I know that there is truly little to no chance of me being able to enjoy myself that day/night. So if a friend won’t let me cancel and I’ve explained that to them, it feels like they are saying that they don’t care if I’m enjoying myself or not as long as I’m physically present. Now, this is assuming that the event in question is less “only time I’m in the country this year/I want to talk over my break up” and more “I’m in the mood for that sushi place we like/that movie sure had good reviews” on the scale of event importance. And you mentioned frequency which is for sure important – but what seems frequent to one person might not seem frequent to another.

            I don’t think either side is right. I don’t think you don’t care if your friends have fun and I don’t think my friends should just twitter away in the wind waiting to see if I deign to come out of my cave that day. But I think we all need to remember that the messages we get from stuff aren’t universal, so when we feel like that we can’t assume it is obvious and tell our friend how their actions are making us feel and see if we can work it out?

          4. @Sienna – If it helps, I would never try to cajole/pressure a friend into hanging out with me once they’d said they didn’t want to… that’s basically bullying! You haven’t changed my mind about the general philosophy of it all, but 1) I’m going to bow out because I feel like I’m starting to sound like I’m specifically/personally criticizing you and Anisoptera, and I didn’t mean to do that at all but I get a little over-passionate about this issue (let’s just say I’ve had a PF or two who, like the LW’s, did a lot more stuff than just cancel a few times) and 2) side note, I admire the way you and your best friend work to understand each other.

  6. [TW: rape, slut-shaming]

    I think I see Geek Social Fallacy #4 all over this situation.

    The group where everyone is supposed to pretend they love everyone else, no matter how much they don’t, and that nothing has changed, no matter how much it has over the years. And because everyone wants to keep up the appearance because of someone else they don’t want to upset, the honest conflicts never happen.

    I’ve sometimes been stuck watching two once-pivotal members of a close-knit GSF #4-heavy group having a snipe-fest that they were trying to pretend wasn’t a snipe-fest. In the worst instance of being the “watcher”, the person doing the heavier sniping was in my opinion CLEARLY in the wrong, as the sniping included some slut-shaming and comments on how sniper was a better person than snipe-ee because of her lower count of sexual partners (which was lower still than mine, thanks to the sometimes-used rape-survivor coping strategy of “can’t be raped again if I just don’t say no” that I employed in my undergrad years, and I’m pretty damn sure the sniper was aware of this) – and yet most of the remaining group was closer to the sniper than the snipe-ee and pretty much just on that basis they took the sniper’s side. I ended up pulling away from not only the sniper but the entire group (other than the snipe-ee) because of that, and then we ALL moved anyway because our common city had such a craptastic job market. The sniper and snipe-ee used to be best friends and I still see them posting on Facebook odd bits of how much they miss each other every now and then.

    I’ve repaired most of these relationships individually, though I don’t think I’d ever try to hang out as this particular group again. Sometimes I wish we could, but I think that’s more about trying to re-create something really awesome that can’t ever be that awesome in that way again. And it doesn’t even mean that I can only hang with these friends one-on-one – in some cases, they’ve become part of other groups that I’m part of, and a whole new context. Sometimes that’s how things have to end up, even though this often is a mire of miserable suck while in the process of changing.

  7. Why on Earth and Orbitals is LW sending presents and letters so someone who doesn’t want to be their friend? And I must have missed something because I don’t understand why Problematic Friend has to be part of group chats. Does she live with the other friends? Is there some sort of strict chat-schedual? IMHO there is very much a possibility that PF is as stressed out about this situation as LW is. PF was never close to LW to start with, and then LW moved away. But three times a year PF is involved in the plannings and the chattings and the presents. I wonder if LW has considered that the group of closer friends are pressuring PF into participation.

    Honesty has it’s discomforts, but I would rather remove a finger once than live with a nail in my foot for a year.

    1. I think it’s one of those groups where it’s the understanding that we’re all friends here and it’s just traditional that they/”we” chat with each other regularly. As far as I’ve lived in that kind of dynamic, everyone participates alwas if they don’t have anything more pressing going on. Not participating in the group chats would likewise be “weird”.

    2. LW made it pretty clear that she and Problematic Friend are both part of the same “tightly-knit” group of five friends, to the point (I assume) that it would be weird to suddenly start excluding PF. I have not lived in my home country for over three years now, and I have group emails/Facebook threads active in my inbox for various groups of friends I have made over the years. And yes, some of them are not my closest buddies ever, but it would definitely raise some eyebrows if I made the conscious decision to start a new thread in order to exclude a specific person.

      I don’t particularly have much sympathy for PF, suffering through the interminable hardship of being included in plans for thrice yearly meet-up plans and receiving presents! If PF really for some reason does not like LW, or does not feel close to her and feels increasingly awkward getting presents from her, or is only participating because of peer pressure, then the ball is squarely in PF’s court and she needs to deal with her feelings like an adult instead of taking it out on LW with snide remarks. It’s not LW’s job to psychically figure out what’s going on and tailor her behaviour to PF’s hypothetical issues. And it’s certainly not her job to put up being bullied for the crime of trying to be a good long-distance friend.

    3. I was wondering about the presents and letters too. Like maybe the first time you get someone presents for a holiday and they get you nothing, you go, “well maybe they didn’t realise I’d be getting them a present but now that they realise I am, they’ll get me one next time.” and then next year rolls around and you get them a present but there is no present for you. Then, unless you seriously love buying presents and giving them with no expectation of reciprocity (which is clearly not the case here), you stop giving presents to this person.

      Like, yes, it’s rude to keep accepting these presents and not saying thanks or acknowledging, but why keep giving them? After a certain point you know the response you’re going to get so why keep walking up to the Buffet of Disappointment and filling up a plate?

      1. LW here. Yep, it was that “second time” last holiday seasn, after years of exchanging presents with the whole group and still doing that with everyone else. You can be sure I’m not going to continue this habit any longer with PF.

        As for the group chats everyone is asking about, it’s a chatroom that is constantly open, and you log in whenever you feel like it to read the logs and chat with those that happen to be online at the same time (which happens sometimes, but more often our “conversations” last days due to hours inbetween each comment). Those of my friends who still live in the same city use it for organizing their own get-togethers. It is not in my power to ask PF to leave.

    4. It’s also possible that “group chats” are handled in a way that the group is permanently set up, e.g., a FB group. I am in a FB group of 15 or so more or less close friends. There are definitely issues at times, but to ask someone to leave the group would be UNTHINKABLE. A level of sacrilege that could not be discussed.

      So I really feel the letter-writer there, especially with only 5 or 6 people.

    5. As far as Problematic Friend being involved in the group chats, my impression is that it’s an open chat channel that everyone just drops in and out of; short of banning PF from the channel, there may be no good way to avoid being in chat with her, especially if the norm in this group is that people stay signed in to the chatroom even when they’re not actively participating in the conversation.

    6. It says they chat daily, so if both PF and LW want to maintain that level of contact with the others it’s going to be hard for LW to eliminate contact with her completely (she can certainly stop sending cards and gifts, though!) I mean, she COULD say “I want everyone’s agreement to kick PF out of the group,” or “I want to arrange a special appointment for a daily group chat that doesn’t include PF,” but I don’t see either turning out that well, and LW clearly doesn’t either. It’s possible that everyone will gradually take notice of PF’s more unpleasant side and exclude her, but it’s not something that LW has that much power over.

    7. I’m guessing because not sending a gift would basically be ‘proving’ they’re worthy of PF’s scorn and bad behavior. A lot of time people like that are very good at making it your fault no matter what you do.

      I had someone, I said I was going to be in town for other reasons so if we wanted to hang out… they gave a very enthusiastic yes that they would love to hang out! I got there, and radio silence. They wouldn’t answer the phone, texts, e-mail, weren’t signed in on messenger, nothing. I tried a couple times, I finished up my business and went home, baffled. Later I got an angry e-mail that A. They had only said yes in the first place because I was so unreasonable when anyone tried to tell me no. And B. I was too insistent on trying to contact them which put them under too much pressure and if I’d tried a couple fewer times they would have answered me and we could have hung out.

      I quietly ended that friendship.

      1. That B part . . . that makes no sense. How could they have answered you if you’d tried FEWER times, when they didn’t answer you Time 1 or Time 2 or Time 3 . . . Could you have magically rescinded some attempts in a time-traveling sort of way and THEN they’d think, Oh! Duaecat first tried to reach me five times and then tried to reach me FEWER times, so I’ll answer now!

        I do think you’re probably better off without that person. They don’t sound very reasonable.

        1. This situation does sound bizarre yes, and probably these people don’t need to be friends. But there is such a thing as a flurry of too much contact – you know, when you’re 5 minutes late and someone sends you 50 desperate texts and voicemails and Facebook messages and it’s just *weird* and then they’re calling all your friends because they’re “worried about you” but it’s only been 5 minutes… I’m not saying that’s what happened here, probably it was just an entirely legitimate “I’m here where are you?” But too many messages is definitely a real thing that happens. And if it happens in a dating scenario it’s a monster red flag. :-/

  8. I hate when people tell you to be the bigger person…that, to me, usually translates into “No one cares, shut up, we don’t want you to whine anymore but we want to sound like we’re actually being helpful.”

    If she’s being rude and obnoxious to you, by all means cut her out of your life, and in the instances where it’s unavoidable to have contact with her (like in group chats or hangouts) and she starts being rude – don’t just sit there and quietly take it so she can get away with it! Point out what a brat she’s being! “Wow, that’s really rude.” “Why are you being so rude?” “That’s completely unnecessary.” “There’s no reason to be so bratty towards me.” Bring up past instances if you must. Point out that she has been totally obnoxious to you, and you don’t have to take it. Block her if you can, especially in a way so she KNOWS she’s blocked and maybe gets the message. If she apologizes and makes an effort to be nicer, then you can let her back into your life and conversations – if you want to. You don’t owe her a thing.

      1. It’s one of my favourites when I do have the spine to stand up for myself. It is a good way of showing that not only are you not going to tolerate it, but it’s a good way of pointing out the simple fact that they’re being rude for no reason, and everyone can see it.

  9. I’m thinking that ignoring or avoiding this friend might also get the others upset towards LW (which would be very very unfair, of course). And I only say this because I have been the bigger person who quit that task and had to listen to things like ”why are you creating conflicts?” when honestly what I was doing was just not getting in touch with a person who constantly hurted me. So maybe LW could explain to them the reasons for doing what he/she thinks is good for them, without envolving them in the problem? That had worked for me.
    LW, you are doing your best! And from your letter and the Captain’s great advice I’m thinking that this person is not just bad being in long distance relations. It seems the person doesnt want to be friends at all (like cancelling stuff last minute when she/he knows they wont be seeing you in a while…). And you deserve to spend your time with awesome friends who reply to your festivity cards and who really appreciate you!

  10. Just because she’s having a hard time at work, it doesn’t give her a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card for being a complete arse. Plus this excuse might be a little easier to swallow if this woman was being off with everyone in the group, rather than just you.

    1. This is really true, Rowan. LW, I think that you should feel free to time your friends on this. Because if someone is going through a rough time at work for 6 days or even 6 weeks, that’s a rough patch at work, but by 6 months…that person has a stressful job, and they need to recalibrate how they’re dealing with it so that they’re not taking it out on the rest of their world.

      And honestly, objective perspective can be useful. One of the most useful things someone ever did for me was one of my best friends saying to me, “You’ve been telling me that X thing has been getting better since your birthday. It is now after Christmas. That makes nearly six months. What is different about X thing in that time?” In that instance it was a health thing rather than a friend thing. But human brains are appallingly good at filing temporary excuses permanently. It’s reasonable to point that out.

  11. I am totally outa the loop. I’ve never participated in this type if set-up. I have moved countries and within them several times and have managed to keep up friendships so I have a bit of a misunderstanding as to why LW can’t use other means to nurture/sustain these bonds she has–but hey! New generation.

    Just wanted to second the “Was that necessary?” interjection.
    Many years ago a bunch of us guys were around a table and somebody said something lewd/politically incorrect (honestly can’t remember) and one of the more jovial members at the table asked loudly but rhetorically and semi-dramatically pantomime breaking the fourth wall-style: “Now. Was there *any REAL need* for that?”
    And it worked to muffle the irritant and was also not too condemning while at the same time not letting the thing just slide. It was said in such the right way not to be scolding that the situation didn’t arise again (the perp gulped in enough culpable shame) and the mood returned safe space and fun to the room.

  12. I can’t help but wonder if backing on the non-group aspects of that relationship might not solve the whole problem. Both LW and non-friend are clearly feeling a lot of pressure to put work into a relationship that they are not invested in (“you know, one of those people who you enjoy being in the same group with but would never go out for a coffee just the two of you?”) and that can breed a lot of resentment.

  13. This answer is actually just the advice I’ve been looking for in a different situation — how to handle my teenage daughter’s rudeness and meanness to me. We love each other very much, but she is doing the very age-appropriate and predictable rebelling and having angry big feels all the time. It wears me out and hurts my feelings, and what the captain has written here is just what I need to read — she can feel about you (her mom) any way she wants; the issue is how she treats you in a public space, and it isn’t unreasonable to want to be treated with a minimum basic level of politeness on a daily basis. I love this response. Thank you.

    1. I went through a similar phase as a teenager, and it was a combination of feeling like I was trying to drive an out-of-control car or something with all the hormones raging all the time, and being just generally tired and short-tempered. Growing takes a lot of energy and I was in pain a lot of the time because of it. It’s kind of weird, I felt like I reverted to toddler-dom – except now I was bigger and could say meaner things.
      Making sure I got enough exercise, sleep, and didn’t try to do anything when I was too hungry really helped. It’s not an excuse, but sometimes I would forget that yeah, Mom is human, and her feelings get hurt, and even though she loves me that doesn’t give me carte blanche to treat her badly. When Mom saw me getting snippy she would shove food in my hands and she just sort of ignored the random tear-burstings.
      Spending time together in a more positive way helped – like doing something fun outside of the house together – so our interactions weren’t all about chores/homework/what I didn’t do, etc. We could just talk about stuff like two people.

  14. Grrr. During one unfortunate period of my life, I had a tough time a work for an entire year. The worst I did to my friends was complain too much about my job. I wasn’t mean to them. PF can find other avenues for catharsis.

  15. I’ve personally found that ‘What a rotten thing to say!’ said with just the right amount of taken-aback surprise works quite well. It even works on my mother, who is horrible. Also after a few times flatly commenting on how rude/mean she’s being, I’d move on to ‘You know, whatever is going on with your job/work/stressful situation, you don’t get to take it out on me.’ Well, who am I kidding, I’d probably go for that one right off the bat. But I’ve lost patience with mean people (see the above-mentioned mother), so.

  16. My advice would be to meet some people where you are, and enter the group chat way less frequently. You say it’s a daily thing, but that’s a hell of a time commitment to make, probably time in which you could be going and doing an activity or something. I remember that when I used to do daily chats with friends in high school – it was fun, but we also got sick of each other eventually, and it gets to the point where you do it because you do it, not because you like it. The one who’s mean to you isn’t your friend, and your other friends aren’t going to be much help.

  17. Respectfully, gotta disagree with CA on a small point. Don’t say “Ouch.” People say “Ouch” jokingly too often, and it’s too easily to read it as “Ouch (hahaha)” rather than “Ouch, that genuinely hurt. Please stop.”

  18. Late to the party here, but I feel compelled to speak for Bad Friend, because I’m pretty sure I have *been* Bad Friend on occasion.

    I don’t have or particularly want a lot of friends, especially high-contact ones. I have a handful of close friends, most of them faraway, and we talk on occasion. I have work colleagues I enjoy a lot, and we often socialize together. I pretty much have the exact number of friends I want. I guess you could say my Friend Queue is closed.

    Often, I’ll have ephemeral acquaintances who are OK, but whom I really don’t want to cultivate as friends. They’re not bad people. I just don’t click with them. And I’ll often have friendships that are a function of time and place (we work together, we have a mutual group of friends, etc.) that I’m fairly happy to abandon once that time and place are no longer bringing us together.

    I try to communicate this to them without being mean about it. Maybe I turn down their invitations, don’t go out of my way to see them, don’t reciprocate their attempts to correspond.

    I know this is mean in the sense that they may fail to get the hint and wonder what they’re doing wrong, and maybe even read my hints wrong and then annoy me by trying even harder to connect.

    But it feels even meaner to say, “You know, I’m just not that into you,” which is the basic truth of it. We don’t really have a good way to decline the offer of someone’s friendship.

    LW, you two just don’t click. You never have. Don’t try to force it. Back off the cards and letters and invitations, and yeah, if she’s being mean, call her on it. But I’m guessing if you back off and quit trying to force a friendship that’s not meant to be, the two of you can get along cordially when you do happen to cross paths.

Comments are closed.