Hello! Los Angeles trip was great. The Chris Killip exhibit at the Getty floored me. I am home now, under a cat. Let’s awkward.
Dear Captain Awkward,
I have a friend who instantly escalates every interaction we have. Not in a confrontational way, but just that she always wants MORE MORE MORE.
Imagine a scale of interactions, where 1 is equivalent to a nod in the street and 100 is equivalent to a multi-night stay in someone’s home. I might suggest a 30: “Hey! Let’s go and see that new film together!” (Some chit-chat before and after, but most of it is spent sitting silently in the dark next to each other.) She will immediately try to escalate towards 100: “And we could get coffee beforehand! And have dinner afterwards! And then you could come back to my place for drinks! And then we could play this new game I bought!” While initially I was looking forward to 30, I now see that the choice is: stick to 30 and spend the entire time making reasons that I can’t escalate further, submit and escalate to 100 and see WAY more of her than I wanted, or just cancel and return to 0.
She’s part of my wider friend group and in my mind we’re not exactly besties (and she does this to everyone, so it’s not that she thinks we are), but when I haven’t seen her for a while I do genuinely think, “Hey, I wonder how The Escalator is doing? It would so be nice to catch up!” So I enter play with a 25 and then she starts escalating towards 100 and I immediately regret ever having made the effort and frantically try to bail.
The other problem is that she also escalates casual conversation as well as actual plans. You mention a film that’s coming out? She’s planning a trip to the cinema (“with dinner afterwards! And I heard they filmed part of it nearby so we could go there too!”). You mention a new restaurant? She’s whipping out the diary to see when you’re free (“ooh, and it’s near the bowling alley so we could go there first! And it’s next to the rose garden so we could have an evening walk afterwards!).So you find yourself trying to censor conversation in case you ever show the slightest interest in anything or make even a cursory remark about maybe one day in the future just perhaps entertaining the possibility of going to XYZ or doing thing ABC.
I’ve tried to keep things light and enforce boundaries. I really have. I’ve tried not to give actual excuses but just say, “Sorry, I have plans!” But then she just keeps going and going and going to find a date and time when you can make it…and then tries to escalate whatever you’ve committed to. And the constant stress of HAVING to enforce boundaries even when I do it successfully makes it feel like a war zone, not a fun time. And the true answer is not “I have plans”. It’s “I don’t like you enough to want to spend any more time with you.” (Including currently: “I don’t think I can afford to go on a two week holiday with you”, which really means “I don’t like you enough to go on holiday with you, and continuing to push this conversation makes it sound ever more like a living hell…but I do want to go on holiday with my other friends which you will then find out about and be upset about because I booked it after I told you I couldn’t afford to go on holiday with you.”)
I would be delighted to see her every few weeks for a low-level interaction (coffee OR a film OR brunch – not everything!), or every few months for a more intense one (a morning at the museum followed by lunch, or an afternoon the ice rink with hot chocolate afterwards). If we could just do that, I would genuinely enjoy seeing her. But I don’t want to spend every moment parrying yet another attempt at escalation.
By not accepting any intervening levels, SHE is making the choice into 0 vs 100, and I am getting ever-closer to choosing 0 (literally never ever seeing her and blocking her from everything, even not going to wider-friend-group things she is attending, which would suck). Can I make mid-range plans with her in a way that makes it impossible for her to escalate (either on that day or by pushing to make plans for too-soon future days) such that I don’t even need to worry about her trying? Or if I have to choose 0, how can I do so in a way that minimises the effect on my future interactions with our wider friendship group?
More of a ‘Let’s stay on this step of the staircase’ person
You’re already doing the right stuff! There’s probably no comfortable solution with someone who is this incompatible with you but I think you might be able to weather her relentless enthusiasm and still hang out occasionally if you tweak your invitations and responses a little bit and level with her about how her behaviors make you feel.
First, give yourself permission to go a long time without initiating plans with her. If she’s kind of bugging you right now, give yourself a break where you run into her only at wider social events.
Second, here’s an all-purpose script:
- “When I say ‘I have plans’ or ‘that won’t work’ it means ‘no.’ It’s not something that needs solved, so, please put the diary away and let’s enjoy hanging out now.”
Third, here are some scripts specific to arranging vacations/holidays:
- “My vacation budget & time are already allocated for seeing family and plans with other friends, especially people I don’t get to see all the time.”
- “That sounds like a great trip, but you should ask someone else. It’s not for me.”
- “Please stop. You keep bringing this up, and I keep telling you ‘no’ – it’s making me very uncomfortable to have to keep repeating myself.”
Don’t lie about time or money. She will not like hearing any of this, but she is pushing you to the point where you have to say it. That’s not your fault.
Fourth, when you make social invitations, make them very specific and propose the maximum amount of stuff you want to do from the very start. For example:
You: “Hey friend, you want to see [specific movie] at [specific place] at [specific showtime] on Saturday? Let me know and I’ll grab tickets. We can grab a coffee at [specific place] by the theater before the show if you like.”
This is now the ONLY PLAN. You will either do YOUR PLAN, or there will be NO PLAN. With other friends, a “That show doesn’t work for me, but could we do x instead?” or “No to coffee, but dinner afterwards?” could be a pleasant prospect, but you already have enough information that it won’t work with this person. You need to remind yourself and teach her that invitations to hang out with you are yes/no questions.
If the Escalator says that time or place doesn’t work for whatever reason, abort the mission and try another time. You: “Hey, sorry to hear you can’t make it Saturday, but we’ll do something else another time. Have a good week!” Then hang up the phone/walk away/put your texts on silent. Do not try to plan something else right now. End the conversation and all planning. You invited. She can’t go. “Sorry, that’s the only time window I have this week, but I’ll let you know when I’m free again and if it matches up with your schedule, great! I gotta go now.”
If the Escalator says yes? And then escalates? Keep referring back to the initial invitation and also level with her.
Escalator: “Sure and we can….[+ a list of suggestions for the rest of the day].”
You: “Well, my plan is to go see the movie. Do you want to join me for that or not?”
Escalator: [continued negotiations & escalations]
You: “Okay, but the invitation was to see the movie and catch up with you for a little bit on Saturday. I don’t want to do those other things that day, and it bugs me that a simple invitation now feels like a negotiation.”
Escalator: “Why, do you have plans, why don’t we go another day when you can do x, y, and z? I’m just so excited to see you! Let’s get out our calendars and figure something out!”
You: “I am excited to see you, too, which is why I invited you to the movies in the first place. But, are you hearing me right now? I don’t like it when I ask you to do one thing, and instead of saying yes or no you try to add a bunch more things onto it.”
Be honest about how she is making you feel!
If we get past this point in the conversation, like, there is still more talking from her that is not “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to do that. I’ll see/not see you Saturday,” my prediction is that this is now going to become a conversation about What Kind of Person She Is and How You’re Rejecting Her vs. a conversation about a specific set of actions and how they are bugging you. She will be like “I am just enthusiastic! I just want to see people! I love making plans! I just try so hard! Why are you rejecting me?” and you will have to be like “I’m not rejecting you, did you miss the part where I invited you to do stuff? Not wanting to hang out 17 hours in a row is not a rejection. That is unfair.”
The resulting conversation will either clear the air, where she will understand that you have a different budget of social units than she does and you’re doing your best to connect, or it will lead to her avoiding you for a while. Keep this script in your back pocket: “Listen, I like you a lot, but this seems to be an area where we are really incompatible. I know you want to do ALL THE THINGS, but you are stressing me out! I want to keep being able to see you, but I do not enjoy the way we’ve been making plans and I need you to understand that “no thanks” is the end of a conversation, not an opening to negotiate. Respect that and we’ll be fine!” If she doesn’t get it, if she does avoid you for a bit, you tried your best.
Your subsequent script for her and the wider friend group can be the same (true) script: “I invited you to do something, you added a bunch of other events onto it, I told you I didn’t like that, here we are.” (Shrug).
She does this to other people in your group, too, so, this part is very important: Do not invoke the group. It’s tempting to spread responsibility around – “you do this to everyone, you always do this, we all talked and decided that someone should tell you” – but it will backfire 100% of the time. Own it for yourself – “I like hanging out with you, but this behavior bugs me, please stop when you make plans with me.”
I hope things get better.