Surely this has been asked before, but I can’t find anything this straightforward in the archive. What do you say when someone wants to be your friend but you just don’t like them?
I feel like at any given time there are a few people in my life who really want to be my friend but who I just don’t find all that interesting or fun or my cup of tea. Usually they have done nothing wrong and are in no way offensive; I just don’t like them. Usually they pursue me pretty hard, inviting me to things and politely but persistently trying to schedule friend-dates. Usually we are socially connected so there’s no ghosting on them forever (also that’s mean), and also it means bearing the burden of showing up at a real friend’s party and having not-my-friend be super excited to see me and be all “it is so awesome to see you, we need to catch up!” Ugh.
I sound like such a jerk in this email. I don’t want to be a jerk! I also don’t want to spend time with people I don’t like, and I don’t need new friends badly enough to give these folks a chance, and inevitably they are the sort of people who stubbornly refuse to notice that their invitations are never reciprocated. I also wonder why I seem to attract oblivious quasi-groupies when I am definitely not the cool one in my friend group and also I am really not that nice to people I don’t like. Like, I’m not an asshole (I hope), but no one could claim that I lead these not-friends on; it’s not like I say “omg we def need to catch up but I’m just soooo busy rn,” I’m more like “sorry, can’t make it! EOM”.
Got a script for saying “no I don’t want to hang out with you and it’s not that I’m busy, I just don’t want to” without making it a Huge Deal? Or for telling a new acquaintance that no you don’t really want to get coffee some time or friend them on Facebook? Also what’s with people friending folks on FB who they met once for like a hot second and then being offended that you don’t accept the request? Hi I don’t know you so I definitely don’t want to see your vacation photos nor you to see mine.
Maybe I am just a jerk.
Oh lordy these people probably write to advice columnists about me.
Not Your Friend
Dear Not Your Friend,
If you check the “African Violet of Broken Friendship” tag in the archives, you’ll see a wish for a ritual whereby one can send a plant and a card that says something like “Sorry and thank you for the good times we’ve shared, let’s not be friends, though.” We have clear scripts for “I don’t want to date you” or “We are broken up now” with romantic partners but not “We are friend-broken-up or never-friends in the first place.”
Why African Violets? They are lovely plants with no hidden “I don’t like you” meanings as far as I know, I just have a terrible personal history of getting them as a gift from my green thumb mom or grandma or aunts and then killing them stone dead. They are fiddly and require too much maintenance (for me) to keep them alive. If you wanted to take that route you could use the “I don’t like you” plant or flower of your choice.
To your question:
A) For unwanted Facebook requests, delete them expediently and without guilt or discussion. If someone asks you “why?” remind yourself that it’s not actually a mystery: If someone deletes or ignores your friend request from you, they don’t want to interact with you…on Facebook. Back in the days when social media was called LiveJournal, I used to have this in my profile: “‘I like [person]’ is different from ‘I want to read [person]’s every waking thought and share all of mine with them.'” That still holds true!
Not accepting a friend request (or following back) doesn’t mean someone hates you and it’s not a mean or cruel thing to do. Some people have a “no coworkers, not ever” rule. Some people have a “no family, not ever” rule. Some people have a “No one who is even remotely connected to my toxic ex even if they have no way of knowing the history” rule. I have a “no students while they are still my students,” “no dudes where I can’t immediately place how we know each other” and “no ‘but shouldn’t it say ‘all lives matter?’ people” rule. Some people see Facebook as a very loose and casual way to stay connected with everyone and anyone they know, so, why not accept every request? Some people make an art of accepting every request and then using filters and the “hide feed” button to create the illusion of connection. Some people want to rigorously cultivate their internet gardens. Let them.
B) For unwanted social invitations, try replacing “Sorry, can’t make it” with something closer to “No thank you.” “Sorry, can’t make it” when translated through the Wishful Thinking Generator can mean “Sorry, can’t make it….that specific day!” and can start the enthusiastic person down a problem-solving process of finding the day you can make it. See if you can circumvent that process a little bit.
Them: “So nice to see you! We have to catch up sometime. Want to have coffee soon?”
You: “No, thank you!”
Does that feel harsh? Readers, did anyone have an instant “Oof, I could never actually say that to someone’s face, though!” reaction? Women are super-socialized to care of other people’s feelings and be indirect in our refusals. We are socialized to see saying a simple “No” to something we don’t want to do as possibly “being mean.” It actually takes practice and effort to get past this socialization.
Some other ways to say a direct “No thanks:”
- “Count me out for coffee, thanks” + [subject change]
- “I’ll have to pass on coffee” + [subject change]
- “Thanks for the invite, but no” + [subject change]
- “I don’t want to have coffee, thanks.” + [subject change]
- “I’m not interested in coffee, thanks” + [subject change]
Do not say that you just don’t have time. Do not imply that you’d love to but you can’t. Do not plead a prior commitment. Don’t use the word “sorry” anywhere in the sentence. Save the “I’d love to get together but I can’t, maybe another time!” responses for the people where you’d actually love to get together another time.
Being told “no” is not mean. It’s certainly not persecution or bullying. It is direct and truthful. We’ve got to be able to say a clear, direct “no” and we’ve got to be able hear it when someone says it to us. It’s something that definitely becomes more pronounced along power lines, for example: Men have got to learn how to hear it from women. White women have got to learn how to hear it from women of color. Entitled customers have got to learn how to hear “Sorry, we’re closed” or “That coupon has expired” from retail employees.
You’re not a robot and socialization runs deep, so it’s okay if psyching yourself up to say “no” and/or hearing “no” to an invitation stings your feelings, as long as you understand that it’s your job to manage your own hurt feelings here. An invitation is not a command — it’s not, like, harming you to be invited to something even if it’s something you don’t want to do, so, say your “Count me out for this one!” without assigning a bunch of extra anxiety and subtext to it. If you’re doing the inviting and getting turned down, try as much as you can to see “no” as permission to stop trying where this person is concerned. You’ve made a nice overture, it’s been refused, if further connection is going to happen, the other person will be the one to initiate it and at that time you can decide if it’s worth it to you to engage. You didn’t do anything wrong by asking, so, for now, accept the “no thanks!” tap out, disengage, and put your energy into relationships and connections where people say “yes!”
For a lot of us, it takes practice to unlearn or overcome socialization. I grew up in a house where “I feel sad today” or “I don’t like egg salad” was immediately met with “No you don’t” and “Of course you do” or “Don’t be ridiculous!” and I had to completely learn “No” from scratch as an adult. I definitely went through a phase of over-justifying and over-explaining every potential point of conflict that is so tell-tale in my fellow survivors. As a result, some nice therapist gave me this exercise and I’ll pass it on to all of you:
As an exercise, not just for the Letter Writer, what happens if we try to make our “No thanks!” or “I prefer not to” responses super-brief and simple this week, without apology or justification? (If this is too difficult or daunting, start with being more assertive with “yes” and expressing positive preferences, like, “Yes, I would like my bagel toasted, thanks.” Work up to “nope!” over time.) Start with low-stakes things, keep track of how often you say no (or yes!), how it feels, what you feel like the pressures and worries are, and what actually happens when you do.
Also as an exercise, what happens if we pay attention to the times we’re told “no”? How do we react? Do we accept it at face value? Do we expect the other person take care of our feelings? Do we bite the heads off people who tell us “no” or decide we hate them forever? What gender, race, class, or other power dynamics are at play in how we react?
I strongly believe that the easier we make “no” on ourselves and other people, the more we make room for “yes.”
C) For people who are persistently trying to friend you up, you might need to have an explicit conversation about that. Right before I started the blog there was a very nice woman that I knew through mutual friends. She was smart, cool, polite, interesting, friendly, generous, a great cook, really social, and I just…didn’t feel it where she was concerned. She put a lot of effort into friend-wooing me, inviting me to stuff all the time, and in at least one case sending surprise baked goods to my house (unfortunately right when I was leaving for a long trip away, so the “didja get the package yet? how ’bout now?‘ messages were extra…extra). I never invited her to a thing and I don’t bake or send care packages, but her kind overtures kept on coming. Sometimes I would try hanging out but when the day came I was never looking forward to whatever it was and mostly I felt guilty for not returning her friend-ardor.
Right around my Grampa’s death it came to a head, where her expressions of sympathy were sweet but whenever I’d see a(nother) “How…are…you?” or “Thinking of you!” message from her it would actively make me angry, like, ugh, we are NOT close, you didn’t know him, stop smothering me in your sympathy, I do not have the energy to feel guilty for declining one more brunch invitation! Not her fault at all, there was literally nothing wrong with her! But I felt how I felt, and I finally cut the cord with a message similar to this:
“Hello, you are very kind and you haven’t done anything wrong, but I can see you trying very hard to be my friend and I just don’t feel the same way. I wish you well, I’ll be happy to catch up with you at [mutual friend] events and I promise I’ll do my best not to make it weird, but I don’t want to be friends.”
And then she sent back such a cool “Hey, obviously I’m bummed but I get it, thanks for telling me” message that I almost, almost regretted my decision for a sec. Her cool reaction is one of the things that led me to start the blog, as in, hey, maybe it doesn’t have to be so hard if people can just be honest and give each other space and the benefit of the doubt.
Letter Writer, if you choose to go down the road of “Ignore request” or “Pass on the coffee! I like that color on you. Have you seen [Real Friend]?” and/or “You are very cool but I don’t want to be friends, can we just run into each other every now and then without the pressure to ‘catch up’ or be closer? Thanks,” you may deal with some people thinking that you’re mean or a jerk. I will now tell you the #1 secret for successfully extricating yourself from worrying about this:
Let them think you’re standoffish, or a snob, or a jerk, or “too good” for them, or full of yourself, or whatever. Let them think whatever they want. You don’t want to be friends. You don’t like them. If they don’t like you in return, that’s actually a victory and you know they’ll stop bugging you to hang out. So let go of the need to be liked by people you don’t like, let go of the need to justify yourself or appear as the “good guy” in the story, don’t try to manage their feelings or their good opinion of you. Be a basic amount of polite when you do see them, understand if they want to avoid you for a while, and enjoy your them-free life the rest of the time.
Sometimes this will ripple through the social group, where the people you’ve turned down for coffee will say something to one of your actual friends and that person will say something to you. In that case, be as brief and direct as possible – drama thrives when it’s fed, and you want to starve it. Try:
- “There’s nothing wrong with X, but s/he was very enthusiastic about us being friends and I didn’t feel the same way“
- “I know you like X a lot but I just didn’t want to be connected on Facebook.“
- “X kept inviting me to coffee, and I never wanted to go, so finally I said something so we’d stop the cycle of me turning it down every single time we ran into each other.”
- “I don’t bear any lasting ill will, I certainly don’t want to influence your feelings about them or continue to hurt their feelings, I just wanted to disengage a bit.“
Don’t apologize for refusing to get closer, but also do not get drawn into lengthy recitations of how much you dislike the person that could be repeated back. Your whole goal was to let it go, so, let it go!
Edited to Add: Thanks commenters, for bringing to light an important point that I forgot to address.
If you tell someone “Newp, don’t wanna be friends,” you are effectively severing that connection. You don’t get to hold that person “in reserve” for later. Leave them alone! Don’t try to spackle it over with jolly wishes, don’t be up in their social media business with your “likes”, don’t be sickly sweet to them when you do see them, don’t (true story, someone did this to me after dumping me as a friend) email them a year later about a job lead where they work or (true story, someone did this to me after dumping me as a friend) to ask if a mutual acquaintance is single. (Answer: 1) Hello, you should probably just email it directly to HR 2) Hello, you should probably just email it directly to that dude.)
I don’t think this is a problem for the Letter Writer, but it’s come up in comments enough that I think it’s worth making things clear. If you aren’t feeling it now but want to leave open the possibility that someday you will feel it (someday if you have more time, more emotional bandwidth, more open friend slots, someday if you get to know them better), use “soft” refusals forever and bear the intermediate passing discomfort unto yourself.