Dear Captain Awkward,
I was recently called out for inviting myself over to my friend’s home to show off my new bike. It didn’t occur to me that that was what I was doing, I was just excited, don’t get to see her much, and the bike shop is close to her home.
I have routinely over the last year asked if she were free for me to drop in for a hug when fetching mail (I receive mail in the same building as her office) and that’s seemed fine. The only difference I can tell between this and the bike incident is that it was about a bike and it would be me dropping by her home rather than office.
I already add a fair number of caveats to my speech, my precise meaning often misunderstood. For example, I often add ‘in the (near) future’, when asking if someone would like to get together as a number of people thought I meant right now. I can’t tell if this is a serious enough thing that I should consider a caveat for this type of thing too.
I’m not sure if it’s germane to this issue, but I considered her until about a year ago my best friend. Even before then she’s become increasingly distant and I’ve been getting the impression that if I’m not in her life in a certain way, she doesn’t have space for me.
Regardless, I’m wondering how big a transgression this is- another blog said that inviting your self over to someone’s home is viewed as rude and presumptuous and should only be done seldom with a very, very close friend. Is this something I should be policing in my speech? I used to, when my father called called me on inviting myself over to a classmate’s home for her next birthday (I said let’s do x instead of y next year) when I was 7 or 8. Moreover, I don’t quite understand what I said wrong (I wish I could remember the exact words I used)
I’d appreciate any words of wisdom you can share.
Dear Moderately Confused,
The etiquette of invitations varies widely as to region, culture, relationship & history, personality, not to mention cellular phone ownership and use, and it’s a particular minefield for people who have anxiety around and/or trouble reading nonverbal or “unwritten” social cues. I also think that Ask vs. Guess Culture plays a part, where Askers figure “Why not, the person can just say no!” and Guessers are like “Arrrghhh how can the person not know better/I find it very difficult to say no to a direct request.” So I’m glad that you wrote in. Maybe by unpacking this for you we can make a lot of people feel more comfortable and less anxious about this.
Speaking for myself, personally, a same day text or phone call that says “I’m going to be in your area, are you free to hang out later for a bit?” from a friend is more than fine but an unannounced and unexpected knock on my door, like, “Hi, I’m already here – here to hang out with you!” is pretty strange. Once, it wouldn’t be a big deal, but if it happened often with a particular friend, I’d have to say “Can you call first” or “I prefer advance planning.” I mean, if my friend really has to use the bathroom, or their car needs a jump or their bike has a flat and their phone is out of battery, without question I’d want them to come to me rather than poop their pants or flounder for assistance, but I am *personally* not one for the serendipitous fun hangout at my house. Asking a little in advance gives me a chance to refuse if I’m busy or say yes enthusiastically (and shame-clean) if I’m not.
Again, that’s just me, now, in a large American city where most people I know have cell phones. In the time before cell phones, or when I’ve lived in more rural settings or traveled outside the U.S., the norms were and are different. It also varies depending on how close my relationship is with someone. Is this someone I’ve invited to my house at one time or another? Has their baby barfed on me/Do we spend a lot of time in each other’s houses? Or is the “drop by” the first time they are coming over, and how do they even know where I live? It wasn’t always this way. In college, in dorms or group housing situations in the early 1990s, friends were like vampires: Invite them in once and then they were pretty free to come and go, and there would always be that one person who doesn’t pay rent but is nonetheless always around. Now that we’re grown? Call first.
I can’t say what’s objectively right, but I can say that I think this particular friend of yours might be somewhat like me in these preferences relative to you and how they see your friendship. “Home” vs. “work,” “surprise!” vs. “planned,” and “you inviting yourself” vs. “her inviting you,” speak to escalating levels of intimacy. Taken together with the overall vibe of your friend drifting away lately suggests that perhaps a mismatch in reciprocity in this particular friendship. Repairing this friendship might involve giving your friend some space, planning things more in advance (“Hey, I’m picking up my mail tomorrow at 2pm, do you have time for a quick visit then?“), and in not going to her house unless she specifically invites you there. Whether inviting yourself to someone’s house is just fine or not okay in general, you have information that dropping by this particular friend’s house is not okay.
As to your other question, about how you and other people in your life seem to interpret time and intent differently around invitations,“In the near future,” “Soon,” “Later,””Sometime,” all mean different things to different people, and this also varies widely as to region and culture. For example, my friend M, told me about a cultural quirk where he grew up in Brazil. Imagine the following conversation happening when two Brazilian friends who haven’t seen each other in a while run into each other in public.
A: “Hi old friend, so good to see you!”
B: “Nice to see you! You should come by the house later!”
A: “Later, I’ll definitely be there!”
B: “You’d better be!”
If I overheard that I’d think that A is surely going to B’s house later that day. But, as M. explained, if there is no specific time indicated, it is not an actual invitation, just an expression of being glad to see each other and intending to make plans to hang out soonish. “Come for dinner tonight at 8:00″ is an invitation, “Come by later” is “Hey, glad to see you, we should catch up at length soon.” I haven’t spent time in Brazil, so I don’t know if that’s a Brazilian thing or a dudes-who-grew-up-with-M-specifically-where-he-grew-up thing but it is a real thing, and M. has had to rethink and clarify it for American friends now that he lives here.
That’s one culturally-specific example, and I don’t want it to create a spiral of you/everyone-who-reads-this second-guessing the reality of everyone’s invitations, but I think there is something that you can adapt from it, dear Letter Writer: If a “soon”/”later”/”in the near future” suggestion by you or invitation from someone else seems unclear, clarify it by suggesting or asking about a definite time and place.
You: “I really enjoyed meeting you, I’d love to get together sometime soon.”
Them: “Sure, that would be great.”
You: “So happy to hear it. I’ll text you early next week and we can set something up.”
Them: “I never get to see you. We should hang out later!”
You: “‘Later’ like tonight, or ‘later’ like, let’s look at our calendars and set something up?”
You: “Great. Can I text you tomorrow?”
Them: “This was great, we should do this again sometime.”
You: “I agree. I’m free next Thursday, if you want to try for then?”
They will say yes or no and you will figure something out. If they are always “too busy,” skip* to the end.
Them: “I want to see What We Do In The Shadows.”
You: “Me too. Any interest in a Saturday matinee?”
Them: “Saturday is bad, but could we do the 2pm on Sunday?”
You: “That works. Meet you at the theater at 1:40?”
CONGRATULATIONS YOU HAVE MADE PLANS TO SEE A FUNNY MOVIE.
I think many of the people in your life will be grateful to you for placing things firmly on the space-time continuum. We’re in a cultural phase where “Are we still on for tonight?” is an actual question people text you 15 minutes before you’re supposed to meet them, and it’s so great to hang out with someone for whom “Come by my place Saturday at 9:30” means I will go by their place Saturday, at 9:30 without any further confirmation or negotiation being necessary. You can find other people who mesh with how you like to do things by being that person and modeling the behavior.
Imagine a group of coworkers or classmates or casual acquaintances you know from your board games group or whatever are discussing their weekend plans. Imagine you are friendly but not close friends with all of these people, and let’s look at what’s good “inviting yourself” and bad “inviting yourself” behavior.
Person #1: “I have my cousin’s baby shower on Saturday.”
Red light means stop. You know this, I’m sure, but do not invite yourself to the baby shower. If you were invited, you’d already be invited. Your script(s) are: “That sounds nice/Are you looking forward to it/Where is it/I hope there are no diaper cakes.”
Person #2: “I’ve got to clean the house, we’re having people over on Sunday.”
Red light means stop. You know this, I’m sure, but do not invite yourself to this gathering. It is at someone’s home, and if you were invited, you’d already be invited, or the person will use this conversation to specifically invite you by adding “If you are free, you are welcome to come.” Your script(s) are “I hope the weather is nice/that sounds fun/Is it for a special occasion or just hanging out.”
Person #3: “I’m doing house stuff, too. Gotta install the air conditioners and figure out how to assemble that Ikea desk.”
Yellow Light. If you are super-handy and you want to help, you could throw that out there, “I love an allen wrench. Do you want a hand?”
If the person enthusiastically responds, like, “THANK YOU, I WAS HOPING SOMEONE WOULD SAY THAT, COME BY AT 11?” then you are invited.
If the person is like “Erm, I think I got it, but thanks!” let it drop. You didn’t do anything wrong by offering, but respect the no and do not insist or continue offering, like, “Well, here’s my phone number in case you get stuck,” etc. Let it drop now, and eventually you may become good friends with this person and have the pleasure of building their KALLAX.
Person #4: “It’s Free Comic Book Day Saturday, so I’m gonna go find a store and pick up some stuff to read.” “Going to a street fair devoted to tacos.”
Green light means go. You could say “I’m going to go to X Comic Book Store that day, want to join me?” You’re not inviting yourself along on their day, you’re inviting them along on yours. You could also say “Want some company for the street fair? I love tacos.” If they say any form of “Thanks, but…” or “That won’t work this time because (reasons)…” or “Aw, I wish I could but I have to…”
This is where it gets tricky.
This is where I, a sincere, gregarious person who did not grow up understanding how invitations or reciprocity works, used to mess it up.
When I really wanted to connect with someone, I used to read the “soft no” as a problem that I could solve, like, “Oh, that’s not a problem, I can come to you instead!” “I will deliver the free comic books to your house, along with ice cream, and that random vacuum cleaner part you once mentioned in passing that you needed!” I looked at the reason for the refusal and ignored that it was a refusal.
“That sounds nice, but I need to find this part for my vacuum cleaner” means “No.” If you get one of these refusals-for-reasons, a good thing to do is to say some variation of “Gotcha! Another time maybe” and then talk about something else. “No” doesn’t mean “I hate you” or “You have bungled this invitation horribly,” it just means they don’t want to hang out with you right then, so, move on and don’t try to solve “no” equations for “yes.”
*Finally, we’ve talked about what to do if someone seems open to making plans initially, but you never actually seem to make plans, and this seems like a good time to review it.
If you try TWICE to schedule something with someone you don’t know very well,
AND they decline both times,
WITHOUT offering up an alternative or making a visible effort to make something happen,
…give yourself permission to stop making an effort to get onto their calendar.
Don’t do anything dramatic, or say “Guess you must not have REALLY wanted to
go[hang] out sometime” or otherwise press the person for reasons or reactions. Just stop trying. You didn’t do anything wrong by issuing invitations, but either the other person isn’t interested enough to make you a priority, or they are interested but don’t have the bandwidth right now to make you a priority. Either way, the fact is that they aren’t making you a priority, so stop scanning “no” for signs and traces of a yes. Then, make a conscious decision to switch your focus elsewhere: on another new friend or date, on a hobby, on a great book you’re reading, on showing up in some way for the people you already know and love. Either the object of your attention will track you down when their schedule clears, or they’ll drift back into your orbit in some serendipitous way a few months down the road and you’ll have the opportunity to try again, or they won’t. If you can learn to be a bit easygoing about this, you will come across as a very relaxed, chill dude[person] who is not afraid to ask someone out[take the lead socially] but who doesn’t hold on too tightly. That’s an attractive quality. It’s also a good way to practice self-care, by saving your time and attention for people who reciprocate.
Intimacy and connection with other people means putting yourself out there, taking risks, and sometimes making mistakes. Letter Writer, I hope this gives you some clarity, and lets you put your dad’s mean voice in your head to rest. You were a little kid. You were learning. Let that one go, ok? The situations in this response aren’t sticks to beat yourself up with, they are ways you can be more confident and comfortable in making plans with others.