Here is #1168: “Is it unreasonable to want your friend to feign polite interest in your interests?”
I (she/her) have a close friend (he/they) who I’ve known for going on six years now. We originally met through real life things and bonded over having similar fandom-adjacent interests, although over the last few years our interests have diverged a bit.
Here’s the thing. When we hang out, they talk a lot about whatever they’re interested in at the moment – currently, it’s a bunch of bands. They’re really dedicated to these bands – like, to the point of going to multiple of their gigs all over the state, getting tattoos in the bassist’s handwriting, etc. – and while I personally have no active interest in these bands, I’m glad they’ve found something they like. I listen to my friend talking about them a lot whenever we hang out (which isn’t very often – maybe once every two months) and ask polite questions. They are aware that these bands are not in my wheelhouse, but even though it’s not my passion, I think part of being a good friend is showing polite interest in things your friends like.
However, when it comes to things I’m interested in – currently a Kpop group, a podcast, and my almost-finished medical degree – my friend changes the subject ASAP and doesn’t bother to ask a single question. I understand not wanting to hear hours and hours of talk about Korean awards shows or C-sections or whatever, because I know my interests are quite niche, and I do try to pick stories or topics which have more mainstream appeal and not ramble on too much, but I feel like I can only talk for a minute or two about things I like before the conversation swings back to my friend’s bands again. I’m not asking for them to be fascinated by my obsessions in the same way I am, just for them to return the same courtesy I extend to them – i.e. feigning polite interest for five minutes.
Also, when they don’t just hate my interests for no particularly good reason, they have some excuse about why they hate the thing I like so much they can’t bear to politely make conversation about it for five minutes – like, “someone I hate likes that podcast, so even though I haven’t listened to it I refuse to hear anything about it because now I associate it with this person”.
It’s hard for me to find other topics for me to talk about with them, since I don’t have much time for anything in my life at the moment other than my degree and my interests, and my friend won’t talk about politics or anything else that’s not, like, related to their life or interests.
This is a relatively small problem, but I’m not sure if I’m overreacting/have unreasonable expectations, or if this is genuinely something rude. I know it’s edging into Geek Social Fallacy territory, but I’m not asking for my friend to also be obsessed with my obsessions, just to be polite about them in the same way that I’m polite about their obsessions (which again, don’t interest me)! I like my friend a lot, and I don’t mind hearing them talk about their stuff because it’s nice to hear someone be passionate about something, but this (perceived?) lack of reciprocation is beginning to make me feel very neglected and unappreciated. We both have plenty of other friends, so it’s not like either of us desperately Needs the other person, but I would be sad to lose this friendship.
Should I say something about this to my friend? Should I just suck it up and accept that all our conversations will be primarily about their interests? Should I begin fading out of this friendship?
I Just Want To Be Asked One Polite Question
We’ll call this #1169: “My friend could replace me with a chatbot.”
Long-time reader, thank you so much for the good work you do!
I have a non-neurotypical friend, who I became more close to after he had a falling out with one of his friends. We have a lot in common, including intersectional stuff. He has mentioned being non-neurotypical, and has problems gauging social cues. I have a lot of friends in the same boat. I only mention because it means I try to be more patient with him.
Months back, I noticed that he never asked me anything about myself, and when I’d try to talk he would go off on (only semi-related) ranty, negative monologues. It’s exhausting, and hard to get him to stop, to the point where I have to be careful what I talk about. I was second-guessing the energy I was investing into the relationship, so I carefully used my words about monologue-ing. He apologized, and improved.
Still though, he never says anything positive. We could be having the best time, in the coolest place, and he’d still find something that offends him. I’d be ok if we were discussing genuine hurts, but it’s usually things that don’t affect him at all. Or things that affect me, but not him, but I have to manage his reaction. I’m open to listen to venting (especially important things), but it’s like venting is all he does.
He rarely asks how I am. When he does (twice a month?), I mostly get grunts, or distant/neutral ‘huh.’ Not once, not ever, has he asked follow-up questions. Captain, I’m not boring! He just seems to stop listening. I probably know every detail of his life but I’d be surprised if he knows anything about me, but he’s usually the one to seek me out.
Lately I’ve been avoiding my favourite online videogame because he jumps online as soon as I do, and I don’t always have the energy to hear (negative thing) about (abstract thing). This week, I politely, light-heartedly disagreed with him on a neutral topic, and he stopped talking to me for about 20+ minutes, while playing the game in such a way that guaranteed we’d lose.
So – my experience is that he has improved when I’ve asked him to. But, I’m so drained. My question is: should I have brought up the negativity & the seeming lack of interest in my thoughts on things when I asked him to stop monologuing? Do I bother mentioning that it’s really not cool to ruin someone else’s game? Should I tackle this all bit by bit? Should I throw in the towel?
Thank you for any insight!
From, An Increasingly Tired Human
Hello, “One Polite Question” and” Increasingly Tired,”
I put your letters together because they have different roots but (in my mind) very similar solutions. Also, you both represent a common recurring question in my inbox. Thank you both.
I think that there is unlikely to be a single “let’s approach this problem straightforwardly” conversation you can have with either of these friends that will resolve this.
LW #1169, you tried being direct with your friend.“Please stop monologuing, it wears me out” and you got an apology and some effort, but not sustainable change and you’re still feeling drained by the friendship.
General Community Notice: I’m always very wary of running “This person is treating me badly, could it be because of their disability?” questions and I plan to do it a lot less, maybe zero more times, in 2019 because there is so much stigma around this and topic and the more we associate bad behavior with neurodivergences or mental illness the more we reinforce the stigmas, even when the actual discussions are meant to refute that very thing. I realize that the more neurotypical/more mental health-advantaged folks are asking because they WANT to stay engaged with the people they’re asking about, they want to give them a lot of benefit of the doubt, we’re meeting them when they’ve already tried some things that didn’t work and they are kinda at the end of their rope (nobody’s best self), and they want to double-check with us because they don’t want to be ableist or make things worse, but I think the accumulation of questions and the consistent framing really bum out the excellent, wonderful majority of neuro-divergent readers who are good caring friends to their friends and who do try to take turns talking and who don’t need to read another version of “Is this person behaving like a jerk or is it just that they have (common diagnoses) which, I am wondering, might be a special kind of Jerk Disease?”
So, I’d like to dam that question river a bit. Going forward, if a person in your life is making your life really difficult, and they aren’t responding to your kind and reasonable attempts at resolution and direct communication, instead of asking me “Is this because of their diagnosis?,” try going with “They have x diagnosis” AND “They are behaving badly/not meeting my needs” AND “I need this behavior to change so I can be okay/safe/happy in their company, so I’m going to ask them to fix it/tell them to knock whatever it is off/keep the conversation very focused on behaviors and what I need without trying to link any of it to their brain functions” and see what you get from there. Does it get better? If it doesn’t get better, do you want to keep trying or do you need to bail?
P.S. I made a post and a Venn diagram back in 2013 that should help with the romantic breakup subset of this question. Good talk, everyone, thank you. [/End of Notice]
In the case of the friend in #1169, we could talk about “can’t” vs. “don’t want to”, but while certain neurodivergences make picking up on social cues harder and a tendency toward monologuing more likely, direct requests are wonderful things. Most people who struggle a bit socially do not want to exhaust and drain their friends, even accidentally. They like being told what their friends need so they don’t have to guess and possibly screw it up. They might not be naturally smooth and amazing at all of it out of the gate, they might benefit from some patience and some gentle reminders, like, “Hey bud, you’re doing the thing again” (and my enthusiastic #ADHD ass sorely appreciates these reminders at times!), they might find it harder in times of stress, but if everybody does their best it’s usually fine. Also, EVERYBODY need to reminded about what their friends need sometimes, EVERYBODY needs to work on taking turns sometimes or being more patient and kind and thoughtful or whatever, it’s not like neurotypical people are all awesome at everything to do with human interaction and everyone else is second best – NOT EVEN CLOSE. EVERYBODY needs to be able to ask for what they need and honor those needs with the important people in their lives. Monologuing isn’t inherently bad, and trading monologues can be fun. Nobody has to be perfect or be the friendship tutor when the overall vibe is trusting and pleasant and respectful and caring.
Constantly steamrolling a friend, dumping all your negative thoughts on them after they’ve asked you not to, giving them the silent treatment and tanking a joint game session (a nonverbal social cue…that communicates displeasure) because your friend disagrees with you or sets a boundary, never making an effort to see how your friend is doing or learn anything about them isn’t because of a disability, it’s because of selfishness, maybe intentional, maybe a bad habit, definitely sucky. Letter Writer #1169, maybe your friend isn’t that interested in anything about your life. He doesn’t like being told no. He doesn’t like not having you totally available as his sounding board on demand. He doesn’t like having to think about whether you’re enjoying yourself. He’s willing to sulk and tank your whole time together if he doesn’t get what he wants. If you want to engage with him about this further, maybe try this:
“Friend, I know we talked about monologuing before, and I really appreciate your attempts to do better. But some stuff is still really bumming me out, and I need to tell you that my bandwidth for hearing rants and complaints is very small right now. Going forward, I’d appreciate it if you’d ask if I’m up for hearing about [problemzzzz] before you start the download. And it’s not cool to give me the silent treatment or try to tank our game play if I say no or disagree with you. What’s that all about?”
If. Let’s hold onto that word while I talk to #1168.
LW #1168, you’re still wondering whether to even try having this conversation, but when I think about how dismissive your friend is – changing the subject ASAP and finding reasons to avoid even hearing about a thing you’re interested in every time you bring it up – it doesn’t bode well. I suggest trying to be very direct at least once: “Friend, did you realize you’re monologuing about xyz, but you haven’t asked me a single question? When we talk only about your interests but not any of mine, it really bums me out sometimes. Can you make more of an effort?” See what happens, at least you can tell yourself you tried. But keep your expectations very low.
You mention the Geek Social Fallacies, which remain useful to our general work at Captain Awkward Dot Com Enterprises, but I don’t think they are at play here, though there is principle at work here that could give you an interesting way to push back on your friend’s behavior and see what remains, if anything, to talk about.
Your understanding of reciprocity and conversation and friendship is that, by listening to a bunch of stuff you’re not really interested in, you’ve made a tacit bargain with your friend that they will also do some listening about subjects that they are not interested in, because your interest in each other overrides all. You’re not interested in their favorite band, but you’re interested in them, so you want to hear their take on things. And you think the reverse applies to you (and I also generally subscribe to this theory of reciprocity in friendship, you’re not silly for assuming or wanting this), but your friend is not acting as if that is true. They don’t think there is a bargain, whether by design or obliviousness, and they have no trouble saying “I’m not interested in that!” when they aren’t actually interested in what you’re talking about.
If you decide to keep engaging with this person (and we’ll pin your if next to #1169’s If on the If board), what if you tried paying more attention to your own interest levels and less to what you think of as polite? Not to be snarky or get back at them, but a neutral, “Hey, you’ve talked about that band for a while, and you know, I’m not really interested in that” followed by a subject change to something you are interested in? Do they follow you gracefully to the new subject?
(Based on what you describe in your letter, I predict either a fauxpology that ends with you comforting them for how bad they make you feel OR a weird huff where the person doubles down on why your interests are “objectively” Less Interesting, but you never know, you might get a “Oh, no worries!” and then an enjoyable subject change, and realize, hey, I could have tried this all along. It’s worth a try before you blow everything up?)
Back to those “If” questions:
- Letter Writers, do either of you think your friends think about this problem even 10% as much as you do or try even 10% as hard as you do to be good friends to you? (25%? 50%? 5%? 0%? Other?)
- What do you think would happen to the friendships if you stopped trying so hard to manage your friends’ feelings, listen to their interests, get them to pull their weight?
- How much effort, if any, do you want to spend on fixing or managing this?
Ultimately, this is why I put these two questions together. My recommended solution in both situations is the same, mentioned in another post:
…if there is a friendship or other relationship that makes you feel like a pair of mismatched socks, what if you stopped trying so hard to make it work or fix it? Stop coaxing, stop auditioning, stop trying to convince people of your awesomeness, do other things with your time, see where you are. 2019 is a good time for trying new stuff. ❤
You don’t have to make a tough or dramatic decision to end the friendship forever, or have a big friendship summit and renegotiate things. If there are still things you enjoy about interacting with these people sometimes, see them sometimes And, overall, do much less work:
- You don’t have to argue, or persuade, or call everyone to account.
- You don’t have to fix it.
- Engage when you want to, in small doses.
- Enjoy what there is to be enjoyed, be pleasant, don’t start conflicts.
- Disengage when it’s not enjoyable.
- Listen to and respect your own enjoyment/energy levels. You’re feeling drained? This is not a day to even try engaging with Possibly Draining Friend. You feel drained every time you interact with this person? Maybe they’re not a good fit for you and it’s time to just stop.
- If you stop doing all the work, and the friendship ends due to inertia, oops, oh well!
- If you stop doing all the work, and the friendship ends b/c the other person is mad at you (and unwilling to do any work), oops, oh well!
- Keep your expectations low – you know what these people are like, they are unlikely to change, so don’t be surprised when they behave like themselves. You chose to engage for a bit, so keep your sense of humor and choose to enjoy it. When you stop enjoying it, time to be done with Skype/video games, etc. for the day. Maybe some other time.
- If people cross your boundaries, tell them, as directly and neutrally as possible. “We said no monologuing, right?” “Oh, I’m not interested in that band.”
- Resist the urge to be someone’s “pity friend” or make endless excuses or search for reasons it’s not their fault when someone doesn’t treat you well. Being a jerk, crossing boundaries, never showing interest in your friends and their lives, reacting badly when friends give you feedback about what they need are all actions with predictable consequences (people will want you to be around you less). If these folks have a hard time holding onto friendships, it’s not a mystery why, you don’t have to solve it or make up for a cruel world at your own expense!
- Instead, put your energy into friendships and activities that nurture and feed you in return, with people who understand what a gift they are getting.
Happy 2019. Do less work on being friends with people who are doing zero work on being good to you.