#1209: “Is there a way to get good at setting boundaries that isn’t so situation-specific?” (Boundaries School!)

Hello, Captain!

Could you talk about how to be good at setting boundaries in a non-situation-specific way? You get a lot of letters from people who are having trouble with someone else not respecting their boundaries, and obviously that is not the time to say “are you sure you really communicated what you meant?” But I (she/her) am someone who is GREAT at respecting “no,” but really, really bad at understanding deflection and being ‘politely’ ignored. I sometimes worry that people may generalize your excellent advice for a specific situation –

1) Express boundary
2) Hold firm on boundary
3) Minimize contact

to –

A) Gently hint at boundary
B) Gently hint at boundary again
C) Walk away.

Because that is definitely a thing that has happened to me. Not all friendships/relationships are meant to be, of course, but I really enjoy being able to be friends with people who see the world differently than I do, even when it requires a little extra communication work. So I’m wondering what you think the best way is to check in with oneself early in a relationship, when things are just barely irritating (when you, Captain, are very unlikely to be getting letters), about whether the actual, literal word “no” (or “stop”) has been said and ignored? Because I’m also pretty sure I’ve been on both sides of this, because who loves provoking conflict? Not me!

A Libra Who Doesn’t Really Believe in Astrology Except For That Balance Thing Which Is Awesome

Hi Libra Friend!

Thanks for the interesting question and opportunity to think about process.

I would love to be able to write about boundaries in a general way (the book proposal would immediately get a lot easier), but what I’ve found over time is that I can’t define a universal constant of how to set boundaries that is guaranteed to both work and make sense to everyone involved, because so much of it is about paying attention to our own needs and applying those needs in different contexts. Needs are so personal and subjective, they adapt based on context and the stakes involved, and we ourselves adapt over time in how well we express them and stand up for them.

While I try to suggest scripts that can be adapted to multiple situations, subjectivity and specific context matter so much that even if a situation:

  • matched a past letter from the site perfectly,
  • and one party read out my suggested scripts word for word,
  • and the other person replied word for word with the things I predicted someone might say in that situation,
  • and everyone acted in good faith and tried their best,

…there would still be a ton of factors up in the air about whether the conflict would be solved or the relationship preserved.

I’m not sure I fully grasp the problem we’re trying to solve today. Is it that you’re meeting people, everything seems to be going fine at first, but then they drop you as a friend, and you don’t really understand what happened, or you wonder if they might have (incorrectly) assumed that you wouldn’t be willing to put in a little more work, but you totally would have been willing to do it?

Or is it that you’re worried that you’re being too hasty by making decisions to withdraw based on “gentle hints” not working, and you’d like a way to know for sure that you didn’t need to give it one more try?

Yes? Either? Both? Something else?

Because if we decide that the problem is that the more “generalized” boundary-setting process in your example means unfairly or incorrectly or too-hastily converting the process from:

1) Express boundary
2) Hold firm on boundary
3) Minimize contact (Let’s call this Strategy A from now on)

to –

A) Gently hint at boundary
B) Gently hint at boundary again
C) Walk away. (aka Strategy B)

…I immediately have a few questions.

The first being, why…is the Strategy B..less good? Especially since we’re specifically talking about “early in a relationship, when things are just barely irritating (when you, Captain, are very unlikely to be getting letters)?”

If someone I recently met is irritating in small doses, why would I want bigger doses? Or any doses, including smaller doses?

What’s the actual difference between Strategy A and Strategy B as described? “We have a direct discussion about boundaries, and as long as you respect the boundary, I agree retain you in my life as a small-doses friend” vs. “I float a couple trial balloons and if it doesn’t work, sorry, have a great life?” We’re not talking about the time two kindred spirits failed to click, if these were important, amazing, sustaining, enjoyable friendships, we’d know because they’d still be happening. What if your Truest Friendship North is in the direction of more direct communicators who don’t leave you guessing?

More questions:

What if the kind of friend I need is someone who will hear & respect the word ‘no’ the first time? Do I have to say it just right, make sure I spell it all the way out, and give it a set number of tries before I’m allowed to bail on someone I’m just getting to know?

What if the boundary is so important to me, so tied up in questions of identity and safety, that I don’t want to risk being more explicit if the subtle hints don’t get it done? Think of the transgender person trying to figure out whether it’s safe, literally safe, to disclose their identity to a new person. Isn’t it smarter to float a few subtle comments  and walk all the away if the person’s response sets off any alarms, vs. sticking around and explaining more?

What if I don’t like the person enough to work at it any harder than I already did? (I don’t say this to be mean, I say this because that’s a valid question when a relationship is a struggle for you: “Wait, do I even like this person that much?” and this is a valid question when a relationship doesn’t latch: Maybe it’s not that you did anything wrong and need to fix it or understand it, just, not everybody has to like each other, and that’s okay, let people who don’t like you all that much go and focus on the ones who do.)

What if you “really enjoy being able to be friends with people who see the world differently from you” and I…don’t?

‘Cause how differently are we “seeing” the world, exactly? You’d rather go to an arcade and I’d rather do karaoke? Or you think people who have abortions should be put to death and now I’m gonna have to find a different karaoke bar from now on in case I accidentally told you where mine was? What if all of my “Fraught Discussion Friend” slots are already occupied by people I’ve known forever or can’t avoid being around, and I don’t feel like convincing a whole new person that Vaccines Are Good, Actually?

What if you’re in a place in your life where you’re very interested in making new friends and willing to put in whatever work or make any allowances that might be required, and I’m in a place where I am struggling to make time for the people I already like? And it’s not even about liking you/anything you did wrong/safety/worldview,  it’s about, at this moment I have limited energy and limited time and the good fortune to have surplus social connections, so if I have one open evening to hang out with friends this month, who am I calling: The trusted, close person I already adore and never get to see enough of, or the person I’m just getting to know, with whom I’ve already had two awkward ‘btw my boundaries are over here‘ conversations that didn’t quite sit right, yaaaayyyy, time to schedule a third?

[I have a theory that many ‘Missing Stair‘ connections have been grandfathered into social groups from a time when the other members did not feel they could afford to be so choosy, but actually if you look back, these people were a lot of work and gave off a lot of signs of trouble right from the start.]

To that end, I think “no” is an incredibly useful word and the earlier in a relationship you deploy it, the quicker you find out if this is going to be a safe/healthy/comfortable fit for you. Predators and manipulators and energy vampires and other kinds of boundary-crossers (even non intentionally malicious or predatory boundary-crossers) tend to test people’s boundaries a lot when they first meet, because they’re trying to find the people who have a hard time saying ‘no.’ So what if we could test for the people who can’t hear a no? And give ourselves permission to disengage and not put in the work if it seems risky or annoying?

We started talking about boundaries, which suggest a line in the sand or a protective fence that can’t be crossed, but what if I have higher standards than “can be trusted not to do the one thing I told them not to do, after I patiently informed and explained it bunch of times?” Maybe we should talk about needs instead of of fences, and think of boundaries as instructions: “Here is how to be good to me.” 

Needs are subjective. I have my own particular set of needs, likes, preferences, and affections. So do you!

Needs are adaptive. I have different needs and expectations for different people and different environments. Probably so do you!

Needs aren’t about fairness. Will I cut more slack or work harder to engage with someone I have a closer or longer connection to, or just plain old like better than someone I just met or don’t feel a strong connection to in the first place? Probably!

Will I tread more carefully with someone I cannot easily avoid [coworker, family?] Probably!

Do I sometimes have to tread more carefully with certain people than fairness should dictate b/c of power differentials or fear of consequences? Probably!

Different needs have different stakes: Safety vs. annoyance/preference vs. ethical stuff vs. baseline standards vs. “In a perfect world, it would be nice to have…”

Maybe my strong preference is way more important to me than your slight preference is to you, so it’s easy for you to give way or for us to figure out a compromise, or we like each other so much that we decide to live with imbalance.

Maybe your middling preference is more important to you than even my strong preference is to you, maybe our connection isn’t important enough to make it worth doing a lot of work to figure this out, and we will experience each other best in very small doses.

Probably, your safety is way more important than my comfort, I think that’s a very good starting point for figuring out human relationships, and I’d like us to lean into that way more. By contrast, possibly my comfort is more important than your slight preference, but maybe not. It depends on who we are to each other, and sometimes literally who we are. Let me be blunt: I would never give blanket advice about balancing safety vs. comfort vs. preference without strong considerations about power and privilege and who historically gets to think they’re allowed to unquestioningly value their own comfort and preferences ahead of other people’s safety, and how those hierarchies are enforced.

To build on this point, you raised a question “about whether the actual, literal word “no” (or “stop”) has been said and ignored?”and I’m trying to find a way to end this sentence that isn’t just the word “Yikes.” If you said ‘no’ too softly or indirectly for me to hear it and as a result you think I deliberately ignored it, your boundary still exists right where you need and want it to be. If I crossed it, even unknowingly, then I still crossed it and you get to be the boss of how you want to handle that, including not trusting me anymore.

That’s why my advice so often comes down to this:

You can’t control what other people will do or how they will feel about you, and just when you think you’ve found the script or strategy that will solve other people, a new person will come along and fuck up your algorithm by having a different set of needs and a different skill set (in some cases a much less skillful skill set).

You can’t necessarily convince other people to like you, respect you, love you, stay with you, sleep with you, stop trying to sleep with you, hire you, befriend you or otherwise give you what you need. If you need something and didn’t find exactly the right words that would sell another person on respecting your needs, maybe (probably!)  the problem isn’t you.

So what can we control? I think we can get better at knowing what our own needs are. I think we can practice expressing our needs in ways that include both hints and more direct language and find our own sweet spot. I think we can also get better at paying attention to how others react to us and to how we feel about our interactions with others. Every promising new friend or date that fizzles probably isn’t because we bombed an audition, and maybe being fair and making sure that every unpleasant haystack doesn’t actually contain a shiny needle inside it is less important than valuing our own pleasure and what we want from others’ company.

[I think there’s this very human thing, not an inherently bad thing, but definitely a real thing where we want others to trust and honor and respond to and forgive our intentions, even if the effects of what we did are not great, but we judge others by their actions. But then we’re also told to forgive people who hurt us, that it’s our job to find the good intentions inside the unfortunate actions. But what if we thought more about the effects our words and deeds have in the world and realized that our intentions aren’t magic, and others can be asked to forgive but not expected to? And when someone has a bad effect on us or people we care about or the world, what if we paid attention to that instead of jumping to solve for the secret redeemable heart inside everybody who hurts us?]

Getting comfortable with our own needs, getting comfortable with being allowed to take up space, getting comfortable with the idea that having different needs from other people is okay, getting comfortable with the word ‘no’ – both hearing it and saying it – are steps to getting Good at Boundaries. The situations where we work this out are always going to be very specific to us and the people we know.

Going back to the strategies of relegating people to small doses vs. walking away after a few tries that you worry people are mixing up:  I don’t want people to think the only two kinds of people are “KINDRED SPIRIT FRIEND OF THE HEART” vs. “TOTAL ASSHOLES WE SPEAK NEITHER TO OR OF,” there’s a lot of in-between and “small-doses”( or maybe a better term is “situational friends” or “mostly pleasant people I like but do not have time to prioritize as I or they might wish”) can be good friends!

But I actually do actually want people to feel like they can just walk away from relationships that feel like too much work without exhausting all of their options or feeling pressure to find the perfect way to make ourselves understood. The blog motto for 2019: DO LESS WORK ON RELATIONSHIPS THAT MAKE YOU FEEL BAD, including:

  • Do less work on relationships that feel unworkable, so that you have more energy for the ones that delight you.
  • Don’t work at anyone who isn’t also working at you.
  • You don’t have to work at anyone just ’cause they’re willing to work at you.

I hope that helps, or at least clarifies?

Readers, do you have One Foolproof Trick For Seeing If A Budding Friendship Is Actually For You?

Edited To Add: MODERATOR NOTE! Can we keep discussion to NOT-SEX-NOT-ROMANCE sort of relationships and interactions? Dating red flags, emotional abuse in romantic relationships and rape culture problems are well-covered on the site. Thank you!

Edited to Add: Bonus content!

365 thoughts on “#1209: “Is there a way to get good at setting boundaries that isn’t so situation-specific?” (Boundaries School!)

  1. No bulletproof advice, but it’s taken me decades to un-learn my mother’s rule that having long-lasting friendships is more important than having good friendships. “Listen to my gut” works well when I follow it … I ignore it just often enough to remind me why I should always walk away from anything that feels icky at the start.

    1. This might be silly, but I can usually tell by having one meal with the person. From how open minded they are about tryng a new-to-them, probably ethnic focused restaurant, to how picky of an eater they are, to how well they keep up dinner conversation (including topics of conversation, giving me equal talk time, and the nature of the back and forth). Over dinner conversation, their sense of humor will hopefully emerge and I may even get hints about their religious or poltiical beliefs – and how open or closed they might be to differing views. (Or if they spend the whole time checking a phone or staring at the TV in the bar instead!). I see how they treat waitstaff, including how generous or stingy they are with a tip, and how they may interact with or talk about strangers around us. Do they want to linger with me….or do they want to jump up and rush off? You can learn a lot just from just one meal with someone!

      1. *winces*

        I mean, this could very well be good advice for finding friends that you, personally, like, but just keep in mind that this approach basically means you will be rejecting people with food allergies, texture sensitivities, and other eating issues. I’m autistic (texture sensitivities) and have a shitload of food allergies, so you bet your ass I’m a “picky eater”: I’ll spend the next 24 hours vomiting if I’m not.

        1. Wouldn’t you explain that you have diet issues and have to avoid x, y and z though? There’s a big difference between saying you can’t eat certain foods for health reasons (totally reasonable!) and rejecting all restaurant/food suggestions without explanation (being a picky eater).

          1. For me, ‘I can’t eat x’ is enough of an explanation in itself. I don’t actually need to know whether someone avoids a food because of a traumatic experience, allergy*, the texture, or a medical reason. In fact, a lot of these are things I don’t expect people to disclose to me because it’s none of my business, and having to justify yourself over and over again is tiring. If someone says they don’t eat x, I believe they have a good reason.

            And, actually, not wanting to eat something because you don’t like it and you want to have a good time when you go out and spend your hard-earned money on a meal sounds like a perfectly valid reason to avoid certain foods and types of food.

            [*] If you have an allergy, I prefer to know so I can make extra sure that I don’t cross-contaminate or lead you to a place that’s dangerous to you.

        2. True, so probably the right approach for a Green Door + [Person With Food Sensitivities] compatibility friendship getting to know each other is Green Door says “Hey, want to come to dinner with me at x?” because that’s a thing they like to do and maybe [Food Sensitive Pal] says “Oh, thanks, but I’m kind of a picky eater, but I want to hang out – can we do [non-food thing] instead?”

          If they already like each other enough based on initial interactions, hopefully they will find a way to hang out and build a friendship that works from there.

          If Green Door is like NO, THE EATING OUT TEST IS THE MOST IMPORTANT TEST,” and the Sensitive Eater is like “OK BYE” it’s not that the theoretical Picky Eater “failed” the interaction, it’s that they are not compatible around this. From the Picky Eater’s perspective, Green Door failed the accommodation/flexibility test.

          If Green Door were HIRING people I’d be like “no, this is incredibly unfair discrimination, don’t make people do this on a job interview ever.”

          Since we’re maybe talking about “we just met, I like you, do you and I like to do the same things for fun/can we find a way that we are compatible” I’m not going to make a strict “fairness” case about that. Like, does every first friend date suggestion have to run through all fairness cases, or do we get to tailor stuff to what we like and negotiate from there? I would argue that Picky Eater isn’t a pejorative, it’s a value-neutral thing to be, people get to decide what goes in their face and not be shamed about it, so maybe rethink that attitude. But “It is impossible to make plans with x person b/c everything I like they hate and everything they like I hate, so seeing them means being far outside my comfort zone, maybe it doesn’t have to be this hard” is a perfectly good reason to Not Be Friends.

          1. Right, agreed. If that’s a deal-breaker for someone, fine; deal-breakers don’t have to pass The Committee of Fairness!

            Just, you know, be aware that you’re filtering your friend circle in a way that excludes a lot of disabled / neurodiverse people and if that’s NOT a deal-breaker but was instead just a sort of Nifty Lifehack To Finding Friends, you might want to recalibrate. Or not! Up to you!

          2. Entirely fair/constructive and I do appreciate your initial point! And, quite subjectively, as someone who is 100% GOING TO TRY TO DRAG/ENTICE/INVITE/CONVINCE/BETRAY? SPECIFICALLY YOU TO A FACE-TO-FACE HANGOUT next time I’m in your area, this is all quite good to know. 🙂

            What I passionately want is for neurodiverse people (including your ADHD hostess, i.e. me) to recalibrate our perspective from “am I constantly failing at people by being different and needing what I need” to “maybe this specific person is being bad at ME or unable to do what I need” and sometimes part of that recalibration is that subjectivity about needs from people who espouse more dominant narratives also gets reinforced along the way.

          3. >> “maybe this specific person is being bad at ME or unable to do what I need”

            YES. We’re allowed to have deal-breakers, even if they’re not stamped with the social approval of neurotypicals. It took a long time to give myself permission for this, too.

            (I joyously await my own kidnapping at your hands, haha.)

          4. It involves a bookstore with a wide selection of beverages, a porch, and multiple exits.

            The other thing involves a lot of unlearning and reframing, like, hey, bro, nobody’s going to make you be attracted to fat chicks, in fact, we’d like you to stay far away from us since fat chicks find you extremely undateable too. The power and status don’t flow equally enough for that to actually be fair or feel fair all the time, but I can think of an acquaintance who is the parent of a kid with SUPER intense dietary stuff going on (think: can eat only fat basically, macademia nuts are the sole safe snack) who might, when meeting a brand new person, thinking “all I want are some fucking tapas and booze” and then having a real “oh no, not you too” reaction. Like, she’d probably keep it all to herself, she’d probably rally and be MORE likely to accommodate a new friend with severe dietary issues, but that first minute of “oh crap, oh crap” is gonna be REAL. And if the potential new friend is already a “eh, I don’t know” person for other reasons? This one might not launch, and that’s okay.

            I think a lot of us have been taught to settle for a lot of displeasure for a few morsels of pleasure, and also been told that we are a burden that people struggle to put up with, and letting go of that framework can be freeing but not always pain-free or simple. I ❤ you a lot.

          5. FWIW, as a picky eater (and not even for any ‘good reasons’ such as allergies or neuro-atypicality), I would not, and rarely do, turn down a restaurant invitation, even if there’s literally nothing on the menu I find appealing. I’d show up, sip water, and make transparent excuses about having an unconventional schedule and mealtimes resulting in my actually not being hungry right now – because for me the point of the outing is more about having a chance to see the other person than acquiring nourishment.

            So the invitation itself wouldn’t work well as pre-screening (again, at least not in my case), because GreenDoor wouldn’t find out until too late that I’m one of Those People, and we’d end up wasting an evening with them feeling disgusted and me feeling pressured anyhow.

            Not to take the conversation too much into romance territory, but since there really isn’t a prospective-friend analogue, I actually appreciate dating profiles that specifically mention they judge picky eaters. Bullet dodged for both of us.

          6. To add to Ana’s comment: we poors can’t always afford those restaurants. It’s not that I’m picky or don’t like a wide variety of foods, it’s that I literally cannot afford t.o pay those prices. Months go by between restaurant meals for me; I make things from scratch at home.

            There is a whole class of people you are leaving out of your friendship database with this methodology

          7. To which I will again say, YES, AND…

            FRIENDSHIP IS NOT A DEMOCRACY. If a poster who likes restaurants meets another [not liking restaurants for whatever reason] person that they really click with, they will find a way to meet! Fairness is important in the world, affection > fairness in personal relationships, and trying to lobby for fairness when there is not enough affection in the first place is so very doomed.

            A stranger we don’t know (and will likely never meet) who likes restaurants isn’t hurting *us.* I appreciate people pointing out the blank spots in that kind of strategy, but honestly – “I’m looking for a new friend who likes to do the same thing I like to do and I want it to be kind of hassle-free if possible” isn’t being an a-hole. People can opt out from the other direction, too, like, your restaurant preferences won’t work for me. It’s not a failed audition or discrimination if two people…don’t make friends.

          8. This reminds me of when I was single, I had a couple good dates with this dude, but he always wanted to start dates super late (like 8 or 9 pm on weeknights), which was incredibly inconvenient for me due to where I lived and worked. When he asked me out for our second or third date, I said “hey, you know, it’s really inconvenient for me to start my night that late, could we get together a bit earlier?” and his response was “No, we should probably just not date then, because that’s the only time I want to go out and it seems like it doesn’t work for you.” My first reaction (and usually the first reaction of anyone I tell this story to) was “what an asshole!” but now I’m actually super grateful he was just able to be so upfront and nonjudgmental about it. He didn’t make the case that I was wrong, that my needs weren’t as legitimate as his, he knew he’d never be able to meet them properly and allowed me to find someone else who would do that. Lots of people might say he should have met me halfway, but why? If you legitimately don’t even want to go halfway, why are you bothering that person?

          9. I had a “no suburbs” rule. Like, you must be reachable by transit, otherwise I am never going there.


            But also…worked for me!

          10. Uh…what does “green door” mean? Unless we’re talking about the general contractor, psychedelic rock band, or Netflix original film by that name, Google has failed me.

          11. It’s the name of the commenter who originally brought up eating out together in the thread.

        3. I was thinking along the same lines; my SO is autistic and practically mute in unfamiliar social situations but you can tell he has it going on if you pay attention and I was raised in the midwest on a diet of pot roast and mashed potatoes that I never outgrew, and am very social and interested in people. I don’t see the need for gathering clues, why not live life out loud and discuss political, religious and cultural points of view from the beginning? That’s a conversation.

          1. “I don’t see the need for gathering clues, why not live life out loud and discuss political, religious and cultural points of view from the beginning?”

            Well… because for me that’s an intense conversation that involves bringing a lot of brainpower, emotional focus and effort to bear, and if it’s with a near-stranger that means everything about it is fraught? Like, it can be incredibly rewarding too! And I’m not saying I’ve never gotten into that kind of conversation with someone the first time we’ve met, because I definitely have. (And usually it drained my social batteries for a while, but that’s worth it, sometimes.) But more often I just want to have a low-stakes hangout and test the waters with easier conversation to see if we’re compatible enough to get into the intense stuff, you know?

            Which, clearly, means that your definition and mine of “easier conversation” versus “disproportionate effort” is very different, and that’s fine! Neither way is better than the other. Maybe it means we wouldn’t be compatible friends if we met, and that’s okay — or maybe we’d click enough to make it work and find middle ground that was comfortable and rewarding for both of us, or something in between. I’m just saying, there are many kinds of things that are a conversation. The trick is finding people whose definitions of a rewarding conversation mesh with yours.

          2. “why not live life out loud and discuss political, religious and cultural points of view from the beginning? ”

            Because that’s only easy when your views are more or less mainstream?
            For a lot of us, those discussions come with a very real risk of harm.
            We need to establish common ground, basic respect, and SAFETY first, that’s why not.

          3. “Everything that @ wordswords said.

            “That’s a conversation.” To you..

            I agree if that’s you then great, it’s a perfectly ok way to be, but that’s not going to be everyone. Not everyone will be comfortable with that kind of discussion, particularly with someone they really don’t know well, and some people don’t really want to get into HeavyIntenseDiscussions™ with people they are not otherwise already close to.

            Some people struggle just to join in on social things (my good friend pried me out of my house for coffee yesterday..good visit, but after an hour and a half I was so done) and having anything other than non in-depth conversations is seriously draining.

            That’s not to say we should only talk about Care Bears (though Care Bears are still awesome), but maybe we just want to hold off on the deep philosophical difference in the approaches of Freud and Jeung while we’re at a wine tasting party…yanno? And that’s ok too.

        4. This is interesting. I do feel like for me finding out how other people handle food is a very important investigative tool, but it’s pretty advanced — not so much for people I’ve just met. I’m fat and very anxious about food in general, and for a relationship to get past a certain point I need to know whether another person is going to be judgy/weird about my food choices. I can be shallow/small-doses friends with people who have unhelpful things to say about the fact that I eat only potatoes for the dark months, but probably not much more.

          In my experience, the “bad picky” are people who can’t understand why you eat what you eat — e.g. people who get really hung up on the fact that I don’t like breakfast food for breakfast. I do love to be able to cook for people if possible, so if I can work with whatever they’ve got going on vis-a-vis food preferences that’s ideal, but for me that part isn’t vital.

          I will say that — while I will eat most things people serve to me — someone making a point to serve me food that actually works with my textural/taste preferences is a BIG OLD GREEN FLAG.

          1. “Bad picky” to me are people like my ex, who not only had a very specific list of things he would eat, and hated trying new things, which in and of itself I could mostly work with…but he ALSO made fun of other people’s food choices. Like if he was eating a burger and someone else was eating falafel, he would be telling them that their food looked like disgusting crap, using those specific words, as they were trying to eat it. It was mean, and rude, and for someone who already has food-based anxiety, it didn’t help. I try to be understanding of picky eaters, but whenever someone describes themselves as such I always expect them to start being an asshole to me about something as innocent as gnocchi or mushu chicken.

        5. I’d also like to advocate for picky eaters in general.

          I mean don’t be a jerk about “I don’t like this, and this, and this…” because ok you don’t like it. No big deal.

          But I will pick out every dingle pea from an otherwise awesome pot pie because AFAIC peas can all die in a fire and never return.

          I don’t complain about them, I don’t make a production/issue about them, but if someone negatively judges my otherwise awesome self for that…ok then. It doesn’t mean that non-allergy/sensitivity picky eaters are bad people.

          Likewise lima beans. Ick.

          1. As far as I’m concerned, the phrase “die in a fire” can die, in some other way, and never return.

        6. For me food and eating culture is important. It’s ritualistic, it’s a sense of camaraderie, its both primal and decorum, intimate yet guarded, a shared adventure, a celebration of life. Point being food and more importantly eating culture is important to me.

          As such we wouldn’t be compatible as friends. And that’s alright. Not everyone has to be compatible for friends. Not everyone’s personal screening method has to be approved for everyone.

          This is example of the captains advice up above! greendoor is allowed to “do less” and not worry about the boundaries dance, and you are also allowed to “do less” and not worry about the boundaries dance.

          1. Yes, I feel a bit that way too. Some of the people closest to me eat significantly different foods than me and we find a way. By focusing on foods we both like while we’re together, for example. But cooking together and eating at home together is an important bonding thing for me. And restaurants aren’t something I enjoy doing very often. When traveling, sure, or every once in a blue moon.

            So I can easily have friends where we just don’t eat together all that often, and I can have friends where we eat different foods but have similar rituals around food (cooking at home, eating together at a table, finding foods we can cook for each other), but when I’m making closer friends with people, our ways of eating do sometimes come into it.

      2. Like dating for friends 🙂 Not that I mind if someone doesn’t like the same food as me, in fact I find it odd when people ‘insist’ I should/will like something. We all taste things differently, but a sense of humour about it and enjoyment of new things makes it fun.

      3. I am not picky at all about cuisine style. I and very picky about specific foods. I have been able to retrain my palate for most raw vegetables. I am trying to be more adventurous about food. I have a serious food allergy. I also have texture issues. Do you hold that against potential friends?

        1. Speaking for myself, I am really not interested in what is on someone else’s plate. And if I suggest a get-together and the person says, “I have food restrictions,” I’ll say, “Cool, where’s an easy place for you?”

          But if I have to hear an itemized list of their food restrictions and why, or their story about said issues becomes a major topic of conversation?
          When we just met?
          Or if I’m supposed to try to play 20 Questions and find something to suit them?
          Yeah, we’re not going to be big friends. Because I truly am not interested in whats on someone else’s plate (unless it looks delicious and I want to order the same.)

          1. I think this is a good illustration of differences in food preference vs. irreconcilable personality differences. Like you, I don’t care if I have to accommodate someone’s food restrictions. I *do* care if food restrictions are their entire personality, dominate all of our discussions, and/or prevent them from ever taking my preferences into account.

            That doesn’t make them a bad person—I’m sure there are great people out there who would happily discuss gluten with them for hours—but it does mean that we are not going to get along (for reasons that have nothing to do with their actual food habits).

          2. It was on this blog that I finally understood why my husband wants to explain why he doesn’t like certain things, including many foods, to me. Someone said something about children growing up in abusive homes have to justify their reasons for everything.

            It makes perfect sense. My in-laws were alcoholic jerks.

            I tell Marido over and over that I don’t need to know why he doesn’t like bananas. (I also don’t care.) All I need to know is that he does not. I will not try to make him eat bananas. I won’t try to sneak them into his meal. His life can be one big banana free zone. It’s enough information for me that he doesn’t want them. He does not owe me an explanation of why he does not like them.

        2. I’m another neurodiverse designated Picky Eater from birth, and the residual shame has left me with so many food issues that I can hardly bear to cook in the same room as anyone else. If someone comes up behind me to look at what I’m cooking (my dad, allllll the time), my shoulders go RIGHT up around my ears and it is all I can do not to scream.

          My sister is the exact opposite of me. When we go out to restaurants, she always makes it a point of ordering the thing on the menu she’s never tried before. We took my dad out to the same restaurant for his birthday two years running, at which point I was like (internally) ‘Oh, yay, we’re forming a nice comfortable tradition, where I don’t have to worry as much about there being anything I can eat on the menu!’ Whereupon my sister, of course, declared that we needed to find somewhere new to take him because we’d been to that restaurant too many times.

          What I hate is the implied moral superiority. My sister definitely does this but it’s not just her, it’s societal. Trying new foods is ‘adventurous’ and shows that you are cultured, sophisticated, interesting. Sticking to the same foods, ordering the same thing every time you go to a restaurant, liking simpler flavours or foods that are associated with childhood, shows that you are immature, unadventurous, boring, childish and unsophisticated. If people enjoy, say, mac and cheese, there’s a social imperative to refer to it as ‘comfort food’, as though you can only admit to enjoying those things in moments of emotional duress.

          It’s even worse if you fail, as an adult, to like certain things that it is effectively mandatory for adults to like. I hate the taste of wine, champagne, cider, and basically all alcohol that cannot be effectively disguised by an ingredient I do like, such as fruit juice. This is unacceptable to 95% of adult society. EVERYONE tells me I will ‘grow into it’. EVERYONE is convinced they have ‘the one’ wine, cider, or whatever that will somehow unlock my latent wine-loving brain. If I’m at an event where only wine or champagne is being served, I usually tell people I don’t drink, because for some reason that is more socially acceptable than telling them the truth. Because apparently not liking wine means I’m not a ‘real adult’.

          Why am I a lesser person because I prefer mac and cheese to some elaborate artisanal salad? Why is my adulthood and maturity contingent on enjoying the taste of weird, sour grape juice? Why does what I like to eat have any bearing on who I am as a person?

          I’ve started recently, and I’d like to encourage other people to do the same, to try and mentally remove the labels from the food I like, and the food I don’t. I try not to think of my sister as ‘adventurous’ when she orders the obscurest thing on the menu, and not to mentally refer to it as ‘kid’s food’ or ‘comfort food’ if I decide to make myself mac and cheese. There’s nothing inherently superior about being ‘adventurous’, or any choice of food, as long as you’re doing your best to eat ethically and sustainably.

          1. Not everyone likes the taste of alcohol. I don’t drink as a general rule.

            Whiskey is nasty, as is rum, gin, vodka (and I don’t care what anyone says regular non flavored vodka does too have a taste to it), beer, cider, and so on. I am ok with an occasional glass of a sweet (sweetISH, not syrupy sweet) red, and only red wine, and an occasional margarita, but since I don’t like being drunk, high, or even slightly buzzed…I see no real point.

            Ergo my default is “I don’t drink,” and let people draw their own conclusions as to why. The thing is, I’ve talked to people who “don’t drink” over the years, and my completely non-scientific stats say probably 95% of *them* say it for the same reasons you and I do…they just don’t like alcohol and “I don’t drink” is the path of least resistance.

          2. You put that really well. I could totally get chicken nuggets with you and hang out no-shame. When I am around new people I often try to dance around things I don’t like, so they don’t add them up and accuse me of being picky. I have also been known to order orange juice at weddings then mix it with the champagne toast myself so I would have a thing to drink.

          3. I very much feel you; I have a specific eating disorder related to this and I get very tired of dealing with food when there are other people (almost always family) making judgments about my food choices.

          4. “What I hate is the implied moral superiority.” YES. I am the kind of person who orders something new, and actively seeks out new places to eat, I want to try *all* the things, but I am married to somebody who (for reasons we both understand, but understanding is not magic) has huge issues with new foods. And yet ironically he is the best cook/chef I have ever met personally. Miles better than I am, and I’ve learned so much from him! His menu is small and he has *perfected* it. We had better steak earlier this week than you can get anywhere except a $50 a plate high-end establishment, it was *amazing*, with an absolutely perfect noodle side.

            Every time I hear somebody sneering at “meat and potatoes” and calling somebody a child for having a narrow diet I kind of want to slap them upside the head on my partner’s behalf? He’s not a child. These days he’ll take a bite of nearly anything I order, even, he’s willing to give things a try. But he likes what he likes, and he’s confident in that, which sounds like the opposite of childish to me.

            And sometimes people’s standards are so far off from reality anyway. My toddler takes after her dad a lot. I’m hoping to *not* give her the mental complex he has to go with his physical problems with new foods, so we don’t pressure her around what she eats, she gets what she asks for except I do say no when she asks for chocolate chips for breakfast. 😀 But she’s definitely new-food averse, even though she’s reaching an age where some kids start coming out of that “no new foods” stage. She’s in a developmental assistance program and they did a food survey, filling out a bit list of every single thing she’ll eat. The teacher took one look at it and went “She eats really well!” She said that since the kiddo will eat something in the protein category, and something in the fruit/veg category, and some grains, and plenty of dairy, that this looks like a super healthy diet, even if there’s only one or two items on each part of the list. (Her meat items, funnily enough, are hot dogs, (all beef franks only,) and her dad’s sous-vide rare steak. Nothing else, just those. Lol.)

            Anyhow, if you’re not giving yourself beri-beri or some other nutritional disease, which is really hard to do unless you’re single-food restrictive (beri-beri comes from eating just one *kind* of rice. Not “just rice” but just one specific kind of rice!) then your diet is not remotely inferior or superior based on how “adventurous” it is.

          5. More solidarity; I think the thing that put my hackles up slightly about GreenDoor’s post was that non-pickiness was listed as being analogous to ‘not being an asshole to the waitstaff’ in terms of being a decent-person litmus test, and…okay.

            I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to drop the term ‘comfort food’ completely, because there is the rampant (but generally innocent!) question “What’s your favorite TYPE of food?” and I’m stuck replying with either that or ‘diner-style’.

            (I also don’t drink, although for other reasons, but it is a relief to not have an entire other category I need to have taste opinions about.)

          6. I can totally see that. I wonder if in this context, “fussy” would be more accurate than “picky”. People choosing whatever they want to put in their own bodies is fine, but someone who spends the whole meal finding things wrong with the food might not be a good match for some people. I don’t mean finding things wrong like “I think this might have gluten and I don’t want to be poisoned,” I mean finding things wrong like “the salad dressing is too sweet, and the pizza doesn’t have enough cheese, and they put too much/not enough ice in my glass” and not being able to let it go enough to still have fun.

          7. I really hope you reach a point of self happiness and acceptance that you are happy eating and consuming what you want with out fearing judgment. But also not applying that same pressure and loaded judgment on to others. Sisters can be Problematic TM, so there could be a long history of hurt between you two, but just as much you view eating at the same place as a joy, your sister views eating elsewhere as a joy. And there’s nothing inherently bad in either of your choice, and it will only do you good to remove that added expectations and labels that you hold against other people’s eating choices.

            I can tell you are on your way there 🙂

          8. People can be nasty if you don’t drink, or even if you rarely drink For me ‘are you going to be a jerk about my turning down alcohol’ is a thing I notice very much that influences how close a friend someone may end up being. It may mean someone becomes a small-doses, situational friend, it may mean they get bumped down to an acquaintance or less.

            I have noticed an interesting pattern where some of the people who are jerks about not drinking became less jerkish when I switched from ‘I don’t drink at all’ to ‘I don’t drink much/today’. As if even admitting when directly asked that I didn’t at the time drink at all was automatically me being rude, judgemental, superior, etc etc towards them…

            Also for me I get a much friendlier reaction if I say it’s because I don’t like the taste. As far as I can tell it’s because some of those people who are jerks to non-drinkers are so because they see someone not drinking in their presence as a personal attack on them, and not liking the taste reassures them more that I’m not judging them.

            (What complicates things is that I actually don’t really enjoy being around very drunk people a lot of the time. But that is something to be extremely careful about revealing to the wrong people as it can set you up for a lot of hostility).

          9. In my experience a lot of “picky eaters” are not dealing with allergies or medical sensitivities, but expressing a thinly veiled xenophobia. “That food smells weird.” “Don’t they have any normal food here?” “Do they have, just, like, chicken?” = “People who eat this food are weird.” I see it all the time and I’m not about that.

            Other than that, I agree that there is nothing inherently superior about eating one kind of food rather than another. But for me and some other people, trying new foods is how we express values of curiosity, international exchange, being adventurous, and love of life. What a gift it is to have an appetite and be able to enjoy delicious food and drink and find new ones! I’m sorry you’ve felt judged and I hope we can continue to express this value of love of life in our different ways.

          10. I am allegedly a “supertaster” and don’t like several “adult foods” like wine, beer, coffee, mushrooms, some vegetables, because they are extremely bitter and unpleasant to me. (FWIW, I don’t like a lot of extremely sweet foods either.)

            I just don’t. I have drinks I like (vodka is not too offensive to me, but I mix it with other things), but I can do without. I don’t mind ciders or hard lemonades much, but I’d prefer regular fruit juice, cider, or lemonade and they are a lot cheaper. I am slightly resistant to alcohol anyway, in part because I am tall, and when I finally do manage to get tipsy, I skip over the happy-fuzzy feelings alcohol allegedly brings straight into sleepy, sometimes with a side of hangry.

            People who make a big deal about whether I drink certain things get my hackles up. In the past, it was usually some man trying to encourage me to drink more to “loosen up” my so-called inhibitions (I’m not inhibited, I just don’t like you, dude). Or it was friends who didn’t like it that they acted out while drunk and I didn’t join in and act out, too. In the present, people assume I had an alcohol addiction issue in the past (nope, but I’ve been friends with many people who have, and have no problem being a sober buddy) and I honestly don’t care if they think that, as long as it won’t, IDK, have an impact on me earning an income in some way.

            Food and drink are such loaded topics because everyone is different and we get bombarded with conflicting messages about what we consume and imbibe, and advertising has a lot to do with it. The diet/nutrition people are all fumbling around trying to figure out just one rule that will prove universal for everyone, and there are really very few “absolutely everyone should do this, no one will ever have a bad reaction or aversion to this” food rules. There are people allergic to water, for Pete’s sake (aquagenic urticaria).

            I agree with you. Just because you can eat and enjoy a thing doesn’t mean other people who don’t or can’t are inferior in some way.

          11. I don’t drink. A) I’m a presumptive alcoholic (all first-order relatives are alcoholics, and I Just Don’t Want To Go There. And B) the vast majority of alcoholic drinks taste terrible to me. “Spoiled grape juice,” indeed. I’ve encountered a very few cases of alcoholic beverages that taste…not bad…? Which scares the bejeebers out of me—see point A. Knock on wood, I’m so matter-of-fact about it that I very rarely get any pushback, though I’ll occasionally get a question. I’m also pretty agressive about getting a non-alcoholic drink on the rare occasions I’m at a function where that’s a question.

            Also, I’ve discovered a drink I love, which is 50-50 pineapple & cranberry juice, over lots of ice. So if I’m at a bar, I have a drink in my hand, and that seems to serve the required social function. (It does really need a cherry & a silly umbrella, though.)

            As to what the people around me are drinking—it only becomes an issue when it starts to impact their behavior.

          12. I tell people “I won’t touch it unless it has more sugar than alcohol.” For a while, I was on a medication that contraindicated drinking alcohol. Also, I mention “the only time I’ve been drunk was from a piece of Italian rum cake when I was 9. My mom couldn’t wake me for school the next day. Granted, I weigh more than I did then. I wouldn’t want to miss out on the party/event because I fell asleep.” Nobody has pressured me about drinking more/different things after those explanations.

            I have been able to change my palate about bitter vegetables (broccoli, kale, chard, mustard greens, etc.) I started mixing them into my salad in small amounts, chopped up fine, with a sweet salad dressing. Now, I enjoy or am neutral about them. I like using them in my salads for variety in color and texture.

          13. The alcohol comments reminded me… My friends groups had some shuffling recently, and something awesome has come of it: a group where people run the whole gamut of food and drink preferences without judgement. At the last party the were people not drinking at all, people drinking lots, people sampling fancy craft drinks, all getting along fine. There were vegans and omnivores and people with allergies all enjoying the BBQ. There were even pets and a baby. The was music and there was conversation and sitting-quietly. It was wonderful. 🙂

            …and then I went to a different group, mentioned something about a hangover and got a comment to the effect of ‘I thought you’d grown out of that’. :/ Welp, I know which group I’m prioritizing for a while.

          14. “a group where people run the whole gamut of food and drink preferences without judgement” The full description following this warms my heart. My friends group is like that. We have drinkers and non-drinkers, gf, vegetarian, pescetarian, non-spicy, and a whole array of specific allergies from dairy to strawberries and it’s just not a big deal. The total omnivores will have more choices, there’s just no way around that, but everyone can always get the same basic level of food, whether it’s an appetizer and a dessert or a substantial meal. No one is getting by on bread and water while everyone else feasts.

        3. That’s the thing – I can find something to eat at most restaurants that aren’t exclusively seafood and enjoy a variety of ethnic foods. Unless you are ordering my food for me (which would be the hardest NOPE to a friendship ever) it would probably take you several meals out with me to realize i’m a picky eater. Not to even get into how my moods super affect what kind of food I want to eat that day. Somedays you could talk me into anything (except seafood) somedays I would be the one who tries to convince because my god I really want pizza today.

          1. I’m really curious about how you define a picky eater. For me, the fact that I can find something I’m happy to eat at almost any restaurant (there are some exceptions) means I don’t consider myself picky, even though I also have enough specific dislikes that it’s not worth listing them to someone who wants to have me over for a meal: I just tell them no tofu assume it’s unlikely that they’ll be serving eggplant and melons and okra all at once. Of course, how you describe yourself is totally your choice; I’m just interested in how people choose their labels.

          2. @Kacienna. Not the one you’re replying to, but I consider myself a picky eater because there are a few whole genres of food I won’t eat barring narrow exceptions (no sandwiches except pbj and my own grilled cheeses made only by me myself, no sushi) and some specific ingredients/textures that seem to be fairly common that I can’t do (no ground meat, no lettuce/leaves, no mushrooms). That, and I prefer to see the menu ahead of time if I’m going to a new restaurant with other people so I can figure out how it works for me and plan in case I’m going to have to psych myself up to deal with something or only have one option.

          3. I don’t have the sandwich thing, but I also don’t like sushi. It’s rarely an issue because most sushi places also have noodles or tempura or something, but I’m not likely to go to a sushi party. One of the hardest things for me is dim sum because I don’t like most of the soft textures. After a couple times getting by on the greens and the two or so crunchy things, I turn down dim sum invites unless there’s a pressing reason for me to be there.

          4. It would be easier for me to list the foods that I eat than the foods I don’t (won’t, can’t) eat, but almost every restaurant has some form of chicken or one-to-two ingredient dish. But like Shad, I go ahead and if we’re going to a new place check out the menu beforehand so no one needs to know that, if I cancel, it’s because it’s the rare place where I didn’t find something on the menu I do (would, could) eat.

          5. I think of myself as a picky eater primarily because pretty much every person in my life who was aware of my food preferences has called me a picky eater. Pretty much every place has a simple chicken dish of some kind that I can eat, or a pasta, so it’s not hard for me to find something usually (excepting seafood places, I am allergic and if a place is 90% seafood then the possibility of cross-contamination goes up too much to risk). And I’ll tolerate something I am not crazy about if I have to, rather than raising a fuss, which does come down to a lot of shame that’s been instilled in me about being a picky eater. Anyone who eats out with me frequently can pretty much look at a menu and pick out what I’m gonna order though.

          6. @kacienna I don’t identify as a picky eater, but people have called me one since I was a small child. It turns out that I’m allergic to some broad categories of food, in addition to just absolutely HATING a few other things.

            I’ll google anything and make sure it doesn’t fall into the categories of food I can’t eat, and if I can I’ll give it a try, but people are often surprisingly shitty about me whipping out my phone to make sure what taxonomic family the plant that grows this edible bit belongs to so I know if it’s safe to put in my mouth. I have eaten a really wide variety of animals, and I’m always excited to try a new animal, since my animal allergies are pretty much on lock. Some of it I like and some of it I don’t (emu is delicious, I don’t know why I don’t eat it all the time, but I’ll never eat another raw oyster) but I’m so skilled at ordering around my allergies, and so unobtrusive with checking ingredients, that people often forget just how much I can’t eat.

            What gets awkward is that my broader set loves to go out for southeast Asian food (mainly Indian, alas) and I can’t eat any southeast Asian foods except Vietnamese, and even then I really only eat pho and banh mi. I can’t risk Thai anymore. When I want tom kha I have to make it at home. I’ve eaten nothing but naan at more Indian “dinners” than I’d like to think about, because nothing in the whole freaking restaurant but the naan is safe for me. When I say “no, I won’t go to that Indian restaurant, can we do something else”, I see it on people’s faces “Ugh, Novel is sooooooo picky” and it’s obnoxious as hell. Yeah, Novel’s really freaking picky about not getting sick, thanks much.

        4. “Do you hold that against potential friends?” If I’m looking for a food/wine/dining friend, then yes. Although I take issue with phrasing it as “holding it against” someone. I really like dining out and I really like wine and I’m at the age where I have the time and the extra money to enjoy fine dining and learn about different foods and wines and I like nice restaurants (especially while travelling) and telling the chef “we are in your hands” and just seeing what comes out of the kitchen. Someone who for whatever reason is only ever going to order cheese pizza, or who literally will pick the peas out of dish (not picking on another poster, just using that example), or just eat bread and water, is not going to be my dining-out friend. So if that’s the kind of friend I’m looking for then, yeah, that’s probably not you. Maybe you can be my “book club friend,” or my “ice skating friend,” or my “meet after work over drinks and bitch about our boss”friend, but you’re not going to be my dining-out friend. I think (I hope) that what the Captain is saying, is that that’s okay for both of us, and isn’t a criticism of either of us.

      4. GreenDoor: There are accessibility issues with this.

        For example, for me to be able to go to a restaurant I need:

        1. The restaurant to be near a train station;
        2. The restaurant to be wheelchair-accessible;
        3. The restaurant to not be playing loud music (I’m hard of hearing);
        4. The restaurant to not be full of incense or air freshener [migraine triggers];
        5. The restaurant to be able to accommodate my food issues [vegetarian; cinnamon genuine-allergy; chilli food-intolerance]

        You are allowed to have whatever preferences you want, just be aware that you may be filtering out Disabled/Invisibly Disabled/Chronically ill people.

      5. Yes, I have a similar view. Eating a meal with someone gives many useful clues. I also appreciate the responses downthread.

        I think it’s all a spectrum, and I am great friends with a VERY picky eater who owns it and someone who has so many food allergies she can eat only food she’s prepared herself. I have also filtered out people who say some really awful coded or blatantly racist things about restaurants I suggest. And! I have filtered out adventurous foodies because they judge my restaurant choices, judge what I order, and won’t shut up about how the week they spent in Vietnam has taught them e-ver-y-thing about that country’s “food culture” and annoy the eff out of the wait staff by trying to show THEM how much they know about THEIR food.

      6. Add me to Team Counter-dealbreaker! Partly because I’m one meal away from hitting the highest frequent diner category at my favourite meat and potatoes restaurant, but also, I have social anxiety. And, I mean, I can’t control whether someone’s going to judge me for some not-objectively-bad thing I said or did or some non-earth-shattering faux pas I made during one meal (and the stuff the Captain has said about that has brought me a lot of peace) but if a potential friend talks about screening people in that much detail, there’s a decent chance I’ll decide that that’s too much stress and self-select out.

    2. I hear you. My parents sometimes asked me, “what, do you think friends grow on trees?” when I was considering fading a friendship. Like, I KNOW they don’t, and I KNOW I have frequently had difficulty making friends, but that also doesn’t mean I deserve to be treated like crap or betrayed by anyone, right?

      1. Ha, my parents are THE WORST at maintaining their friendships, so they basically have nothing to say to me about how I do mine.

      2. Wow, what unhelpful parent advice!

        Interestingly, a somewhat opposite observation helped my a lot. The author Rahul Kanakia once wrote something like, “when I stopped hanging out with people whose company I don’t enjoy very much, I had a lot more free time to spend finding people whose company I enjoy quite a bit.” That’s a paraphrase, but that was the gist of it.

        Reading that quote helped something click into place for me. Friends don’t grow on trees; it takes time to find and cultivate good friendships. So why waste the time on people who’ll never be good friends to you?

        1. I don’t recall getting any parental advice on friendship, but my best friend’s mother specifically sat her down to tell her, “Your friendship is a precious gift. You don’t have to give it to just anyone.” I really admired that.

        2. My take on friendship is life is too short to spend with people who make you feel like shit. The level of shit is, of course, entirely up to you.

      3. It’s so ridiculous right? “You should let this person treat you like crap because no one else will be your friend.” My mother’s understanding of friendship and mine are vastly different and once I figured out my own approach, I had far fewer friends – and each one is fabulous 🙂

      4. One of the most important revelations I ever had came after I ghosted a toxic friend of mine. He’d been my “best friend” by default for years because I didn’t have any other friends, and for a long time I was so afraid of losing him. But after I finally did stop hanging out with him, I realized that, even though I now literally had no friends… I was still happier and less stressed for having dumped him. I learned that I can enjoy my own company and do fun things on my own and don’t have to put up with bad behavior just to have someone to hang out with. (“My Friend Will Be Me” by Of Montreal became my personal theme song for a while.)

        I figure toxic friendships count for negative friend points, so moving from that to having zero friends is actually step up.

  2. “But I (she/her) am someone who is GREAT at respecting “no,” but really, really bad at understanding deflection and being ‘politely’ ignored.”

    Libra Friend, you might benefit from some other excellent advice from the Captain: Treat anything other than an enthusiastic “yes!” as a “no.” Will that result in you doing less cool stuff? Maybe. Will it result in you not accidentally going past someone’s boundaries? Probably. Will that help you recalibrate your responses from “auditing for the yes” to “accepting the non-yes”? I hope so.

    You sound like someone who wants to do the right thing, but I’m also reading your letter a bit like this: “Dear Captain, why don’t other people just tell me no more clearly, in a way I would better understand? And then I would totally respect it!” And of course, you can’t change how other people communicate. You can only change how you participate in the exchange of communication.

    1. Yes, that jumped out at me as the crux of the question – “how can I tell when someone’s just deflecting?”

      LW, Wulfwen’s suggestion is excellent: treat any waffling as a no. Accept it and move on. People who are excited about an idea, suggestion, activity, etc will express that, and if they don’t – well, again, you can only change your own communication.

      (This is not entirely unlike men who ask a woman out and she says “oh I think I might be busy that night…” or “I’m not sure….” if there’s no firm yes! or “I’d love to but how about X instead” then the answer is no and you should stop asking.)

      1. I was truly busy for the first two dates my now husband suggested when he called to ask me out for the first time.

        You’d better believe I made sure he ended that phone call knowing I was interested in an alternate date!

        Though he did say, after the second, “Oh, shoot, I already have plans for that entire weekend,” “Should I take this as a hint?”

        Boy, did I make sure he knew!
        (“Some other time” doesn’t count; “what about the weekend after that?” does.)

    2. “You can only change how you participate in the exchange of communication.”

      + all the 1’s to this

      If you’re having trouble with the soft no’s change how you communicate to give the other person an opening to clearly state what they want.

      I used to be (still kind of am) like you. Good at respecting “no” but not very good at understanding hints and deflections. I would eventually get them but it took awhile.So now when I’m not sure where a persons boundary is, I ask.

      An example: I had a friend in college who like to cook and have dinner parties. Unknown to me at the time, she was very particular on how the dirty dishes got stacked and leftovers were put away. First time I was invited, after dinner, all the other guests (who had all been invited before) went to do “activity I’m not fond of” (this should have been my first clue, but I just thought they were rude) while my friend started to clean up.
      Me : ” Oh here, let me help you”
      My friend: “Oh thanks, but you don’t have to do that. You can go do (activity)”
      Me: ” that’s alright, I don’t mind helping” proceeds to help

      Repeat for the next two times I was invited for a dinner party. And then….I wasn’t invited anymore. We still talked and did stuff together, she just never mentioned dinner parties.She used to say the parties were for her closest friends, so when I realized I was no longer invited I was devastated. I heard through the grapevine it was because I had insisted on helping and steam rolled right over her boundary. And that hurt even more, I made all sorts of excuses (to myself thankfully) about how “it wasn’t a big deal, I was helping, I didn’t break anything or make any messes, I had made her job easier, WHY? WHY would n’t she have just said something? I wouldn’t have done it if she had said she didn’t want help. She had been so vague, how was I supposed to know!!” A few months later, a new friend joined the group and deiced to have a dinner party. After dinner, new friend started to clean up and instead of jumping up and starting to help, I asked ” Is there anything you’d like me to help you with?” Which gave new friend an opportunity to say ” No, I like doing it myself, I’m pretty particular about how things get stacked, cleaned and put away”

      1. I do agree that your second method of offering help worked out better for you, but in your defense, there are definitely cultures out there (in the US at least) where the “polite” thing to do is for your friend to have refused your help initially when she really did want the help, and your behavior would have been the “polite” response.

        1. In grad school, I hosted a weekly dinner for 5-8 people, and one of my friends REFUSED to leave until he’d washed every single dish. I appreciated it, but he was JUST AS INSISTENT if it was a party that went into the wee hours of the morning and all his hosts wanted to do was disappear into bed.

          Context is key, I guess!

          1. Argh. Context is definitely key in those situations, yes. And I have to admit, I’d be wildly uncomfortable with a guest (especially a male guest!) INSISTING on doing the dishes and refusing to leave until they personally had done those dishes/until they knew the dishes were clean. Like – yes, helping with cleanup is Good and Nice, but refusing to accept ‘no’ is…nnnnot so much. I suspect that at some point (especially if it was a party that’d gone late and I was tired), I’d get snarky about it and end up saying something like “what, you don’t trust that they’ll get done if you don’t do them yourself?”

        2. Yeah, from my own cultural background, I would definitely expect some back and forth like that — “oh, you don’t have to help!” “no no, it’s fine, I want to!” “no, I’m fine, feel free to join the others!” — because I was raised with the conflicting expectations of A Host Doesn’t Make Guests Help Clean Up and As A Guest You Should Politely Pitch In, and there’s always some polite tug-of-war as everyone tries to figure out who cares more and just how much clean-up there is.

          But, that said, if I actually didn’t want other people to help clean up, I would say so. “Oh, no, it’s honestly easier for me to just do it; I know where everything goes and I’m kind of picky about dishwasher arrangement. Thank you so much for wanting to be helpful, but I’d rather just do it solo.” And I’ve had other people say things along those lines to me before, and happily acceded.

          So, yeah, there’s cultural variation as well as individual here, but even within a “no no I insist” Guess/Offer culture (I much prefer Offer to Guess) there are ways to make your preferences clear. It sounds like Fae’s college friend hadn’t worked that part out yet, which is too bad, and makes the whole thing more stressful for everybody involved.

          1. Yeah, I am halfway honest about this: “No, I know how I like to do it, so really, I don’t want help,” is what I say out loud.

            What is unsaid is, “After two hours of socializing, I have got to be alone, even if it’s just for the 20 minutes it takes to get the kitchen in order. I DO NOT WANT COMPANY.”

        3. Patty Mayonnaise, that’s actually the culture I was raised in, which is why I blew off her comment. But looking back on it, there were other signs she wasn’t happy. Little sighs and tight smiles whenever I grabbed something, rushing over and grabbing things from as quick as she could. I never noticed ANY of that at the time. I was completely oblivious. And sometimes I still am, I miss the little things in the moment and only after going back and thinking over something can I go “oh wait, person was giving me hints about there unhappiness with my actions, better stop”. Of course sometimes, that leads to me over-analyzing an interaction and convincing myself the person was “so upset” when really it’s all in my head. So asking for me is usually much better. Barring those people who say no when really they meant yes because they want you to insist and if you take their “no” at face value they get mad at you. But I’m trying to get those people out of my life because they’re just to stressful.

          1. As someone who would never ever expect a guest to do so much as clear their own place setting, I nevertheless feel the need to at least offer to help clean up, even though that seems kind of wrong as well.

            Because of that I tend to have these kinds of conversations. It 1) offers help, 2) gives the back and forth thing with offering a second time, and 3) lets them know that I’m fine respecting their no, but letting them know that I’m close by, and sincere in my offer of help if they change their minds.

            “Is there anything I can help with?”


            “You sure?”

            “No I’m good.”

            “Ok well if you’re sure then I won’t get in your way…last chance though (smile, small laugh…optional)…”

            “Nope, I got it”

            “Ok then I’m gonna go do X…but seriously, call if you need anything.”

            ::exit stage left::

      2. Wow, that was extremely rude of her, but also of the other friends for not cluing you in to her foible! Jeez.

    3. Yes! I’m like this too. I find deflection frustrating. Eventually I started shifting over into assuming anything except “hell yes” was no. I did mourn the loss of what I felt was potential (surely some of those were shy yesses) but ultimately, I’m most compatible with people who are up front and have no problem expressing their enthusiasm (or their dislikes!).

      1. “I’m most compatible with…”

        It really is about compatibility.

        I’m so talkative, it’s almost a disability. And I find that I am MOST comfortable, and I treasure, the friend who will just chatter away themselves. Who will interrupt me to tell their view on a story. Who will TAKE the conversational ball I toss them (when I think to) and run with it.

        That’s who I’m most comfortable with.
        The people who don’t, who get offended that I don’t ask them about themselves (well, I ask, but they don’t expound much) or leave room for them in the conversation–they’re great people. They’re probably morally more superior to me.

        But we are not a good match.

        1. I get this! I’m not exactly the same, but one of the big determiners for whether I’m compatible with someone is how many conversational gambits I have to try before we get into a solid back-and-forth where-did-the-time-go conversation

        2. I hear this so hard. I similarly need a fellow-interrupter (or, I guess) someone who wants to be entertained by the Me Show. I’m like, congenitally uncurious, although not uninterested–questions don’t really occur to me like they do to other (more polite) people, I guess? But I will happily listen to your stories! You just gotta jump in there!

          1. I’m not incurious or uninterested, but I have a lot of social baggage around etiquette/politeness in re: not wanting to pry or be nosy. I’ve never been accused of either thing, but I have been on the other end of a barrage of hard-to-deflect prying / nosy questions and found it uncomfortable and the questioner disagreeable and taking advantage of my desire to be open and honest. So I err on the side of not asking a lot of deeply personal questions sometimes.

    4. This so much.

      Might be uncharitable but Libra’s letter had a big old whiff of looking for a way to blame boundaries? this site? other people for HAVING boundaries? While convincing themselves that they are doing things right and are never at fault and would totally listen if boundaries were communicated better r if other people would just giive mee another chaaaance~

      Like I said, probably an uncharitable reading, but the potential for Yikes is real.

      1. This is what I thought too. Unfortunately, I think the only real answer is that the LW has to get better and seeing and respecting hints/deflection/polite refusals. If you think someone might be hinting at a boundary, you can nicely ask. Something like “I feel like I’ve asked you to hang out a few times and I don’t want to be a pest! I’ll stop asking, but if you do want to hang out sometime, please let me know – I’d love to.”

        Or, perhaps the LW will only become close friends with people who are comfortable being pretty blunt – which is not necessarily a bad thing. Some peoples’ personalities just work better together! Personally, I usually don’t end up being close with people who are really shy or hesitant to give an opinion. Nothing wrong with them or me, I just find it hard to maintain that kind of friendship and I’d rather focus my friend-energy elsewhere.

    5. This is totally incompatible with the way some cultures communicate. Some cultures (including part of my family!) have a “say no twice to be polite, then say yes when they ask the third time” rule. I find it as obnoxious as the people who can’t just say “no” (it means I have to say “no thanks” about five or six times before they believe it), but the bottom line is, since we’re just talking about platonic relationships, I don’t think “only an enthusiastic yes!” makes any sense, if you’re interacting with people with diverse backgrounds.

      People need to be explicit in a pluralistic society, and the “enthusiastic yes” concept isn’t helpful here IMO.

      1. But if someone from that culture is interested and you believe their first ‘no’, they can then come look for you or issue their own invitation. They already know you’re interested.

        The only way we can get people to take ‘no’ for an answer is leading by example, I think. ‘Yes’ is meaningless if you won’t accept ‘no’ as valid.

        1. “But if someone from that culture is interested and you believe their first ‘no’, they can then come look for you or issue their own invitation. They already know you’re interested.”

          This is not always the case in very “guess” guess cultures. In my husband’s culture, if you offer something and you believe the other person’s first “no,” the other person thinks you didn’t really want to offer the thing in the first place, and the matter is never discussed ever again.

          1. That’s true! If I were working in that kind of culture (translator/interpreeter & teacher here), I’d brush up on my intercultural communication skills and engage with clients/students in their preferred style. For friends, though? I use the “1 question + 1 are you sure” approach and let it go. For me to make a friend from a heavily guess culture I’d need someone willing to go out of their comfort zone a bit, or at least able to explain to me how they operate. Otherwise, it is way too much work for me, and I won’t do it for someone I’ve just met.

          2. Yeah, one side of my family is like that as well. With the dishes example, I could very easily see someone (especially a younger family member) leaving after the first “oh no, it’s fine!”, only to find that they were perceived as rude and lazy for not helping out. Because you’re not supposed to accept the first no.

          3. Yes, people from cultures that expect multiple ask/refusal cycles may think that people who take them at their word the first time are rude. That’s okay? Let them think that. They’re not compatible with people who do say exactly what they mean up front, both because they won’t get what they actually want and because they’re extremely likely to continually push against or even violate the boundaries others state. So they think someone like the LW – or me – is a jerk and avoid zir, which is better for everyone involved because they’re not socially compatible.

            There are situations where it may be advantageous for any of us to adjust to a conversational style that is not our default/preference, whatever that is, but in many cases, opting to simply not pursue a relationship with someone incompatible is a perfectly good choice.

      2. Well, yeah, if you know there’s a cultural rule like that in play then the rules change a little bit.

        But since that mechanism isn’t universal, if I don’t know someone well enough to know their background, I’d rather err on the side of accepting ‘no’ the first time and letting people seek me out if they actually want the thing I’m offering than stomp over someone’s genuine ‘no’ even once. In one of those scenarios, the worst case scenario is that someone misses out on a thing they actually wanted. In the other, the worst case scenario is that someone I like no longer feels safe around me–a far more severe consequence.

        1. This. No actually means no and if someone is from a culture where it only kinda sorta does and only in some situations, that’s fine within that culture (cultural relevancy and all) but if one is not part of that culture they can’t be expected to know *the rules.* Moreover if it’s someone you don’t know well it’s kind of a lot to be expected to know how their culture operates socially.

          1. (It looks like I might have reached the limits of nesting, so I want to make clear that this is a response to auntimimi.)

            “No actually means no” is just as culturally-based an approach as “no means maybe”, “the first two no’s are pro forma, and the third answer is the one that counts”, and “it is never okay to say the word no, so use soft no’s instead”. Pretending that your culture is “normal” and other people are supposed to know your rules while also not expecting yourself to know their rules is, at best, privileging your culture as being neutral while viewing other cultures as being deviations from that neutral center. That’s not how culture works.

            When you first meet someone whose cultural rules about no are different from yours, why is it okay for you to expect them to intuit that you are from a direct culture, but not okay for them to expect you to intuit that they are from an indirect one? Would it not be wiser to treat “how do we each handle no and is there a way that we can handle it together that works for both of us?” as a question that is important to you to figure out?

            This is about compatibility. If you need people to meet you on a cultural ground where no means no, that’s a fine thing to know about yourself. But it’s not an objective thing where people whose approach to no differs from your are cultural outliers. It’s just as fine for them to need people to meet them on a cultural ground where no is not handled as directly as you want to handle it, and just as human for them to find it “kind of a lot” when you expect them to know how your culture operates socially.

            And as the comments in this thread make very clear, people constantly encounter other people whose ways of dealing with no don’t match theirs. This happens at work, in social groups, and in the early stages of friendship. It’s a lot easier to avoid stubbing your toes on cultural differences when you understand that your approaches are *also* a culture. In short, “culture” is not something other people have while your approaches to these things are somehow neutral and not cultural.

          2. So well said. Wild applause.

            And it goes back to affection/connection/desire/want.

            People who want to get along with each other will connect in spite of not matching exact cultural preferences and histories and styles. You can’t try to match every person’s case study or find a universal way, so behave with integrity and lean in to where you find acceptance and a willingness to listen and adapt.

          3. sorchaeri, I definitely agree that there is no normal/obvious/default culture and we’re all acting from our own cultural scripts. I’m really curious, though, how people from less direct cultures hash out cultural differences. I’m fairly direct and would find it okay to say “I think we’re using that word differently; what do you mean when you say it?” or “It seems like I upset you when I [did what seemed to me like taking statements at face value]; how would you like me to handle those kinds of situations?” and then try to switch into a more indirect style for that person. How do you negotiate cultural differences when two people are from different indirect cultures?

          4. To build on what Sorcharei so eloquently says, I think there’s a sense that the “cost” of pushing through someone’s boundaries is worse than the “cost” of not meeting their needs (eg by failing to intuit that their first “no, no, it’s fine,” was just politeness and they did actually want help). That might be true in some/a lot of cases but I think it’s also not true in some/a lot of other cases. To use the dinner party as an example, you could end up with a group dynamic where one person does all the clean up work on an ongoing basis even though they don’t want to, because their expectation is that you offer help enthusiastically unless there’s some really serious reason you can’t pitch in. From that person’s perspective, it would be rude and perhaps even a boundary violation to ask for help from people who have indicated that they can’t by not preemptively offering. We can approach that as, “Well, that person should have made their expectations more explicit,” but it’s also true that those who are not helping out could have done more work to communicate and check in with the person doing all the work that they’re actually happy with the situation.

            Of course, this absolutely is about personal preference and compatibility. Maybe the person doing all the work at my hypothetical dinner party says, “Enough, going forward I only want to be friends with people who are really pro-active about checking in with each other and help out without being asked,” and finds a group of friends they find it easier to communicate with. Maybe I decide that I mainly want to pursue friendships with people who are good at stating their needs and boundaries up front, and that figuring out what people really mean when they’re not being direct is too much work for me. Maybe two people at different points on this spectrum can compromise and find a way to meet in the middle. It’s not wrong to decide that you, personally, are more comfortable erring on the side of “respect people’s no immediately and without question,” and want to associate with others who feel the same way. It’s just not a universally applicable moral stance that could never have an unintended bad outcome.

            Tbh I would argue that “Listening to people’s words is not a substitute for also paying attention to their unspoken cues as best you can,” cuts both ways – when someone is saying yes but giving indications that what they mean is no, but also the reverse as well. If we’re talking about sex then yeah, I can’t think of a case where it’s not safer to assume that any hesitance in word or action should be treated as an unequivocal no. In part that’s because we’re trying to combat a culture that leans the other way, to dismiss hesitance and push for a yes however you can get it. A big reason is that the consequences of disregarding someone’s no are incomparably worse than disregarding someone’s yes, when it comes to sex. But that’s not necessarily true for all social situations. With that in mind, everyone is going to calibrate their yes/no sensitivity slightly differently depending on what’s most comfortable to them, and there’s a lot of room for variations that are still within a range that I think is reasonable. As long as everyone is acting in good faith there’s probably room to make mistakes and apologise and try again (or to realise that you’re incompatible and Try Less, as makes sense to each of the totally subjective individuals involved) without it being a comment on anyone’s worth or morality.

      3. Huh, one side of my family has that type of culture, but that really only applied to offering favors. Like you might offer 2-3 times to send someone home with the leftovers even after a couple nos. But if you offered once, the person said no, and then you were like “okie dokie suit yourself!” there would be no harm done, no boundaries trampled. A reasonable person of that culture wouldn’t be mad that you didn’t offer a second time. And for social invitations, there’s no expectation of offering several times.

        So in my experience, if the LW’s primary worry is crossing boundaries, it would still be perfectly safe to focus on enthusiastic yeses as a general rule.

        1. then there’s the problem where you ask a few times, and they give in because itseems to matter so much to you, and then you think that they’re from “guess” culture or are hesitant to impose.

    6. “And of course, you can’t change how other people communicate. You can only change how you participate in the exchange of communication.”

      This is really the answer to OP’s question, I think. OP, you can’t make people communicate their boundaries the way you want them to. All you can control your own behavior–you can study up on nonverbal communication so you pick up on less direct boundary-setting better, you can change how you interpret ‘maybe’, you can start asking directly instead of waiting for others to communicate their boundaries, you can decide that you’re going to intentionally prioritize bluntness as a trait you want in your potential friends, etc.

    7. The “enthusiastic yes!” advice is so great. Another really great rule I’ve used is the 3-outreach attempts rule. I look back at my text conversation with someone. And if I’ve reached out three times in a row about doing something, and they’ve said no/maybe/deflected and NOT suggested an alternative for getting together, I move on. Sometimes they reach out months later, and we pick things back up. But it’s a nice, solid, clear rule that’s saved me tons of time.

  3. My Captain, I am adopting the blog’s motto for 2019 as my personal one for ever, because your wisdom knows no borders (it does know boundaries very well, tho). Thank you very much for that.

    As for the question, I am a Blunt Person. I like my noes spelled out, both saying and receiving them, but even so, I know I don’t waste a tough “this behaviour is hurting me, you need to stop” on people I have reason to believe won’t take it well or won’t appreciate the effort. Likewise, I’m way too dense/blunt for the needs and tastes of some people, who have consequently given me the cold shoulder, and with time I learnt to accept that this is fine. If we don’t enthusiastically like each other’s quirks, no harm, no foul; I’d much rather have 100% enthusiastically consensual friendships, or else be alone.

    What’s helped me in sussing out wether the potential friendship deserves the work is, as the Captain says, getting very comfortable with owning and expressing my needs and also becoming fluent in other common styles people use to express disinterest: indirectness, hinting, maybes… The way of the soft no feels alien to me, but I do my best to engage with it so I can respect people better. I say what I need as clearly and kindly as I’m able to. I ask questions when I’m not sure how to treat someone, even if it’s awkward. I do my level best to engage with indirect communication styles, and let people know I am not good at subtext. And then I let the other person react how they will, and then assess if I like that. If they try to disengage, I let them go.

    In summary, I put myself and my needs out there and work from there. But I think that’s all you can do, LW. Relationships take more than one person, and so the rest is out of your hands. That is OK, but sometimes, I believe we have trouble with letting it be OK.

    1. That’s a lot of work you’re doing, and I applaud it. It’s so difficult sometimes to learn “alien” ways. 🙂
      I especially like your point of saying what you need as “clearly and *kindly*” [my emphasis] as you’re able to! That’s tremendous!

      1. Aw, thank you! That’s a very kind thing to say 🙂
        It’s a work in progress, sometimes I definitely mess up, but the improvement I see in my relationships with others who prefer other communication styles make it worth it.
        Plus, I’m profesionally interested in how humans communicate (translator and teacher by trade), so there’s a nice positive feedback loop when developing this skill in other areas 😀
        If anyone is interested in academic studies on this, look up “intercultural communication and mediation”. The info on how politeness is expressed across different cultures can often be extrapolated to individuals.

  4. Based on this: I (she/her) am someone who is GREAT at respecting “no,” but really, really bad at understanding deflection and being ‘politely’ ignored.

    …I wonder if LW’s question is less about setting her own boundaries, than about her own ability to recognize when other people set boundaries. I feel like she’s worried that she might be missing important social cues that maybe everybody else understands. Maybe she has been surprised by a friendship that has ended suddenly, when she thought everything was going well?

    If that’s the case, LW, I’m afraid I don’t have any answers for you! I tend to take things very literally, so I also have a hard time hearing a “soft no.” If you tell me “sorry, I don’t actually want to hang out with you any more,” – it sucks, but at least I can understand the message. But of course nobody ever says that. Instead, people say “I don’t have time, maybe another time, I have plans that night, sorry I’m so busy lately,” chances are I’m going to take that as an invitation to keep trying. Not because I’m deliberately ignoring their boundaries, but because I genuinely haven’t noticed that they’re trying to set the boundary in the first place. It’s frustrating for everyone. :/

    1. I try to use the practice of two invitations before the ball is in their court. If I ask someone to spend time with me, they won’t forget that I asked and am therefore interested in hanging out. Then I put it out of my mind and happily accept if they come around.

      Even with genuinely busy people, at a certain point it IS your responsibility to contact your friends when you do have time for them, they can’t guess. And I don’t want to be friends with people I have to chase down, so even if the “I’m busy, maybe later” is genuine, it’s still their job to make the next move if they want something to happen.

      You don’t have to feel responsible for the whole friendship. This is part of what the captain means by not working on people who don’t work on you, I think.

      1. I agree. Chasing someone down makes me feel unwanted and may make the other person feel harried, so it’s better for me to look for balanced friendships. If the other person doesn’t respond to my overtures or suggest alternative plans, I give myself permission to stop trying. If they come around, as you say, it’s a pleasant surprise 🙂

        1. I wish I’d learned this one much earlier than I did. I might have learned it too well, because at this juncture I genuinely don’t have anyone in my life I can consider a friend – there are people I regularly see at events and thus with whom I’m friendLY, but I’m wary of explicitly trying to deepen those connections. At least I’m introverted anyway so I don’t feel the lack as much, and I still prefer this state of things than ever again risking the realization I’m the annoying clinger someone’s been trying to shake off.

          1. I feel like I’m in the same place you are, where I learned the “don’t chase after people” lesson TOO well and now I’m pretty much alone. I wish I knew how to get out of this place, or how to become comfortable with it, because my experience has been that literally all friendships require me to do the bulk of the chasing. I’ve never had a friendship in which I wasn’t responsible for 90% of the Golden Retrievering, as the Captain puts it – the texting first, last, twice and three times, the setting up plans and making sure they happen, the remembering what someone said yesterday and actually being interested enough to bring it up again, anything that could be covered under the umbrella of “emotional labor for friends.” It seems like if I don’t do it, no one will, and if I’m waiting for a friend who will do that for me, I will never have any friends again. It seems like the only solution is “stop needing that.”

      2. “Even with genuinely busy people, at a certain point it IS your responsibility to contact your friends when you do have time for them”

        This! There are periods in my life where I’m genuinely swamped. In those moments, if a friend is trying to arrange time, sometimes I have to say no even though I’d love to see them. But I don’t usually just say “Sorry, I’m busy” and leave it at that! I say “I am swamped right now, but I’ll be a lot more available next month–can we put something down for then?” or “I wish I could but I gotta power through this deadline, rain check?” And then I follow up when I can, if we didn’t schedule something concrete. I expect the same from my friends, and generally get it, because they genuinely do want to spend time with me when they can and they make it a priority once they have some time.

        1. At this point in my life I’m scheduling hangouts with a minimum of two months advance notice, which is tiring but necessary. So I’m with you there!!

          I try to make a point of offering those rare free days to my friends when I have them, even though looking at my calendar is often itself stressful. LOL

      3. So this exact thing recently happened to me with a sibling.

        My sibling has literally never initiated contact with me, but for 6+ years they responded enthusiastically whenever I did. It was a pattern that I did all the initiating, and we always had a great time. I knew my sibling was one of those people who wasn’t great at keeping up with the work of relationships, so I didn’t mind initiating all the time. Over the last two years, the response changed to “I’m too busy” to 80% of my invites. We went from seeing each other 4-5 times a year to just once last year… but that meeting was as joyful and affectionate and fun as ever.

        Cut to three months ago, I sent another invite and my sibling exploded at me, saying that my invitations were pressuring, bullying, and not respecting boundaries. I said, “Whoa, where is this coming from, I had no idea you felt this way!” This response was apparently invalidating and dismissive and disrespectful, so now my sibling doesn’t speak to me anymore.

        Now, I can (and have!) completely accept this new no-contact boundary. I’m working on my own and with a therapist to get my head around what happened. It’s clear I never had the sibling relationship I thought I had, etc. It’s hard and it’s been hurtful, but it is what it is. I’m good.

        But wrt to this thread, my story illustrates that it is possible to enforce one’s boundaries in hurtful and irresponsible ways while still technically doing nothing actively wrong (according to the prevailing sentiment in communities like this one). IMO that’s what Libra was trying to express in the original letter.

        We examine certain aspects of relationships and boundary setting/respecting in great detail here, and the lessons we gain from such examination are wonderful and so valuable. But there are unaddressed, ignored areas in this conversation which would also benefit from the same type of nuanced examination.

        For instance: What is the due diligence we must do in order to set our boundaries in a responsible, respectful, and (dare I say it) kind way? I think this is an important question.

        Nuanced answers are possible. If we fear for our safety, we don’t owe the other party anything at all. But what if the reason we hesitate to set clear boundaries and communicate them well is because we suffer from social anxiety, or we feel it’s easier (note: not talking about when it’s safer!) to ghost, or we want to avoid an uncomfortable conversation? Are there ways this community can support us in having the difficult conversation anyway, in the name of personal integrity and of treating other people with respect even when it’s inconvenient for us?

        I really think there is a conversation to be had here.

        1. I think nuance comes in when the relationship has existed for a long time, and is (or used to be) emotionally close. Relationships take work, and the work is likely to be less worth it with a casual friend or a friendly coworker than it would be for a close friend, and moreso for a family member or spouse.

          The most work is owed, ethically and morally, to a child who is dependent on you– to the point that child neglect and abandonment are crimes. The potential for psychological harm rejecting a relationship with your child is extreme. To dissolve a parent-child relationship in court is an absolute last resort, and it happens only when the harm the child is causing is truly significant (usually the child is abusing another child in the home; or, the child is a teenager who could, in theory, live on their own, and they’re the one initiating empancipation proceedings).

          Whereas the potential for harm gets smaller the less emotionally close and less dependent (physically, financially) one person is on another. So, from a moral perspective, the less serious harm ending a relationship is likely to cause, the less painful a relationship has to be to justify ending it (as you say, it doesn’t have to rise to the level of a safety issue) and the less responsibility someone has to mitigate that harm.

          Does that make sense? It’s like ‘with great power comes great responsibility.’ With great power to harm someone by an action, there’s a necessarily great responsibility to try to choose that act rarely and to mitigate the harm if possible. With little power, there’s much less responsibility.

          It’s hard to get any more specific than this though, because it isn’t useful to generalize the power one person has over another’s heart in any given relationship to any other relationship between two different people. There are ways to mitigate harm– ways to choose to be kind, to give someone the benefit of the doubt, to be more direct if indirectness could lead to harmful confusion, to sandwich the criticism of boundary-drawing in the bread of compliments, to prioritize positive reinforcement of respectful behaviors and focus on redirecting the conversation or gaining the emotional resilience to not take rudeness personally.

          The thing is, outside of a parent-child relationship, there’s just no way to generalize what responsibility a person really has to someone else in a relationship. Sibling relationships, friendships, co-working relationships, marraiges, these all differ too greatly. And in a situation like yours– where your sibling hurt you and acted like they owed to nothing, made no effort to mitigate harm at all– I don’t know if concluding that your sibling did something unethical will help you heal. I mean, maybe it will? Maybe it’s useful to be able to say, “my sibling neglected their responsibility to our relationship; my anger and grief makes sense because I was wronged.”

          But maybe it won’t help. Maybe it’s actually easier to heal and move forward if this isn’t about right and wrong. If it’s about misunderstanding on both sides, if it’s about a mismatched relationship that only began by happenstance, or if it’s about how crappy it is that a deep love and affection can be unrequited in such a way that your sibling didn’t feel moved to try to work on the relationship while you did: it’s heartbreaking without it being anybody’s fault.

          For what it’s worth, I know I don’t know you in real life, but I am sorry for your loss. It’s really, really hard to lose this kind of relationship. It’s so rough. You deserve compassion for what you’re going through💜. And, heck, if being angry at your sibling’s irresponsible treatment towards your heart and your relationship helps you heal, or even if anger is just what you have to work with right now, you have every right to that. You can choose this ethical precept for yourself; you can choose to judge others who don’t abide by it (or not, and only judge it in yourself.) You can honor your anger as righteous, or you can let it go. Or you can honor it as righteous for now, and then change your mind later– believe now that your sibling was irresponsible and unkind, and perhaps later come to think they tried their best, and your love was just fated to be unrequited.

          You do what you gotta do. If this heartbreak compels you to resolve to make kinder choices around boundaries, as a means of doing right by your other relationships, then that’s a lovely outcome of a painful parting. It’s good even if it’s just you who chooses it– even if other people never agree on what a given relationship is owed. You don’t have to persuade other people to make the same ethical choice; you choosing it is enough. 💜

        2. I grew up in two different Guess/Offer cultures and am generally a pretty intuitive person who likes to hang out with people who hear and understand soft “no.” (I have friends who are more blunt and need bluntness from me, but hanging out with them takes more energy and I love the blunt friends I have right now, so I’m not in the market for more currently.) I say all this to put the following in context: I know what you mean when you say that sometimes people are bad at enforcing boundaries in a way that would be understandable to anyone other than themselves, or their boundaries are incompatible with most people’s idea of a reciprocal, healthy friendship.

          I have a relative who is like this. As far as I can tell, her boundaries appear to include “Never say no to me” and “Do not criticize me for any reason, even when I have said something hurtful or biased.” She has a tendency to save up years’ worth of grievances and email people about them, seemingly at random. From her perspective she’s enforcing boundaries and sticking up for herself. The rest of us are pretty confused and hurt. She doesn’t tend to keep friends around and is estranged from a lot of her other family members.

          Yes, she could enforce her boundaries in a way that was more legible and made it easier to keep friends and family around! I can’t do anything about the fact that she doesn’t. She certainly wouldn’t take advice from me and I doubt she’d take advice from this site or even recognize herself in this description. It sounds like it is bothering you that this site reinforces the notion that people get to set their own boundaries and you can’t do anything about it, and talks about that in a value-neutral way. The thing is, the Captain has never pretended that enforcing your boundaries doesn’t come with consequences (and that sometimes includes negative ones). Boundary-setting is a tool like any other. Sometimes if you enforce a boundary and another person doesn’t like how you did it, that person is free never to hang out with you again. If you don’t like how your sibling enforced the boundary, if they ever get back in touch with you again, you can tell them so and make being treated differently a condition of your new relationship! That’s a boundary YOU set. They can go along with it or not, and if not, they lost out on a good relationship with you. That’s the only way I’ve been able to make peace with my relative’s behavior. She reaps her own reward.

        3. I think the point the Captain is trying to make is, sometimes you do everything in your power to be respectful and say what you need out of a relationship, and still the other person may not want or be able to give you what you need, and at that point it’s ok for you to stop trying, *for your own wellbeing*.

          The point is not to teach others to express boundaries in ways that work for you (everyone needs to learn that one at their own pace), but to learn what you need and want out of relationships and look for people who mesh with that.

          Of course, that doesn’t preclude messing up, hurting each other, or coming across jerks or people who don’t know yet more effective ways to assert their need (expecting others to be mindreaders tends not to work). But we can only do our best. That’s enough.

      4. Yep.

        I have a friend I’ve known for 14 years. We go long stretches with minimal contact but then pick back up again, get together a few times, say “we should do this more often!” and then… fade out again.

        I know she doesn’t hate me for something I did, I know she’s the mom of a toddler who keeps her on her toes, every so often I put a feeler out and if nothing comes back – that’s ok, we’re still friends, she’ll reach out when she’s able.

    2. This is something that happened to me in high school. I got “dumped” by my best friend of 4 years, with a note, on the last day of high school. In the note, she listed off all these boundaries I’d crossed, things I did she didn’t like, all the reasons she said I was a bad friend/person. I was absolutely flabbergasted, because from my perspective our friendship was fabulous. She never once told me directly that she didn’t like something I did/said/didn’t do/didn’t say, and I wasn’t picking up the hints she was putting down. It’s clearly for the best, I wouldn’t have wanted her to stay in a friendship that wasn’t working for her, but damn if that wasn’t a huge blow to my confidence.

      I like to hope that I’ve grown since then and I definitely focus more on trying to pick up on the subtle cues rather than waiting for something direct.

      1. There is also the transparency illusion: we tend to think that others are better at reading us than they really are. So depending on how subtle her hints were (vs. how subtle she thought she was being), she may have unintentionally been expecting you to do something impossible!

      2. I think the best we can do is check in with others when we sense something might be off, and trust that they will give us honest answers. Sometimes they don’t, and the relationship suffers. But that’s not a failure if you’ve done everything you could to clarify and address an issue – it requires their participation, too.

      3. Yeah, no, that was shitty. She was being a bad friend, not you. Storing up grievances (or pseudogrievances) for four years and then putting it all in a comprehensive nastygram to dump on you on the last day of high school (which? should be a good day?) in a manner that allows you zero opportunity to respond or contribute to the conversation…that’s shitty. That’s shitty, controlling behavior. It isn’t something you do to someone you respect or care about. Your friend was being a jerk, either because she was too immature to talk to you or because she was kind of a bully or both. That was not Teenage Tiffany’s fault.

        And like…I think the advice here about compatibility is really valuable. Meeting friends is like dating. It’s not only about judging whether someone is a good or trustworthy person. It’s also about compatibility. Vibe. Do you like the same things, do you have the same interests, do you have the same communication styles, do you like biting ears/having your ears nibbled? And if you aren’t compatible, you should probably find other people you are compatible with.

        But! There’s a difference between “not compatible” and “bad.” And while hint people and direct people may want to flock together, and while it is totally valid to feel uncomfortable around someone who can’t take your hints…many people aren’t good at perceiving things like “irritation” and “disappointment” and “building rage.” It’s actually very common to not know what someone is thinking until they tell you. (It’s also normal to guess that someone is sad or annoyed and be completely wrong – people do this to me constantly, even people I know well.) That makes you average. This is why people can have secret crushes: we’re often not transparent to each other.

        And so like…I think it’s a good idea to be aware that people have different communication styles, and to be as conscientious and self-aware as possible, especially with new people you don’t have much frame of reference for. But I also don’t think you’re insensitive or uncaring if you need someone to actually tell you how they feel. Assuming your friend wasn’t just trying to make you feel bad, it would have been a lot more effective for her to tell you what she needed instead of stewing in silence for years on end.

      4. I think this was what OP was trying to get at – like, how can we be responsible/clear in setting boundaries? It would be good to have discussion around that topic, and even vague/nuanced guidelines would help because currently there is a vacuum. All we have right now as a response to situations like yours is, “You didn’t do anything wrong, the failure was not yours” but it would be so much more constructive if we could say, “Yeah, in general, if you have boundaries, try to ______ or ______ to make sure you’re communicating them to people, barring safety issues.” Clearly it is possible to have/enforce boundaries in irresponsible and hurtful ways. We should talk about that!

        1. I think there’s the issue here that there are kind of two things implied here. There’s lot of advice on this site about communicating boundaries. So if your question is, “How do I communicate my boundaries so that I don’t wind up blowing up at someone?” there’s a lot of advice that can be given.

          But what I’m actually reading in a lot of these comments is, “I was hurt by someone enforcing their boundaries in a hurtful way. How do I get other people to be better at this?”

          And the answer is, you can’t? You can’t change other people. You can model your own boundary-setting, you can practice setting boundaries, you can look for friends and acquaintances who are good at communicating boundaries. But you can’t change other people.

      5. Oh man I just had a bad dream that my friends gave me a list of everything I have ever done wrong and how I can’t be their friends until I make emends. So yeah can’t imagine going through it in real life not just in a dream.

        1. Solidarity and Jedi hugs (and virtual purrs from my cat) if you want them, Ruler of cats. That sounds like a really scary/painful dream.

      6. I’ve been there. It sucks, it hurts, and it seems like it comes out of nowhere. The only way I’ve been able to make peace with it is a. clearly she was unhappy and this was the only way she could figure to communicate it, and I’d rather not be friends with someone who’s that unhappy with me, and b. for the things that make no sense, that says something about them and I’m trying not to spend my limited time trying to puzzle that out.

        Do I wish it had been done more kindly? Of course. But it is what it is, and when I’m able to, I wish her happiness. (When I’m not, I just kind of go, “Yeah, that was upsetting, I guess I’m gonna be upset for a while” and try to steer away from thinking badly of her. We both did the best we could, it just wasn’t enough.)

    3. This? Me.

      I’m autistic. I need words to mean things. Not allude, not hint, not obliquely suggest. Because after mumblety years on this earth I miiiiiiiiight have developed a mental menu for the particular situation in which a person is trying to use conversational aikido on me…but I have specific menus for every subtype of situation and while I have been able to categorize some of them and see the patterns, that’s not a guarantee. If I’m not in the moment, I might be able to lean back, think about it, and realize that what they’re saying to me fits the pattern labeled Soft No, but I can’t do that instantly. I can’t intuit this stuff; I have to think about it. At slower than conversational speed. Which gets…messy.

      IOW I’ve had some awful, sickening shocks when I realized that my “friend group” was really in a spotlight of contempt. Or, I thought I’d made a connection that I was supposed to maintain (because if you say a thing then I acknowledge the thing you said and say a thing in return…right?) and no, I was being socially burdensome.

      I have noticed some patterns, and in some situations I am actually better at noticing patterns than the average person. But it’s spotty. I really need people to stand up and use their words.

      “I think…y’know…we don’t really have anything in common [anymore/at all], do we?” [So why hang out?]

      “I have a pretty full schedule [with no room for you in it]. If [not when] something comes open, I’ll call you.”

      “Joe and I need to finish this conversation.” [Without you.]

      I get that kind of subtext. But it’s not the kind people usually use.

      (TBH it’s so exhausting trying to produce the correct Things One Says and avoiding the Things One Does Not Say and decoding other people’s camouflaged social signals and noticing when is too early to end the interaction and when is too late and and and…that I just don’t get out much.)

      1. This hit home for me. I’ve gotten such weird looks from people when I explain that I have “subroutines” for conversations, that I had to develop a lot of my emotional and social understanding from… idk, call it anthropological observations. And I’m still not great at it.

        I’m honestly not sure whether it’s a blessing or a curse that I can pass for neurotypical pretty easily for short stretches, especially if I’m excited about something. My husband, boyfriend, and best friend can watch me go from “extemporising on [topic of interest] and engaging with anyone” to “out of service, do not approach the introvert” in the blink of an eye and understand that either a) I ran out of mental/emotional spoons or b) I encountered Something New and am working out how to process it. If Something New is simple or similar to something I’ve dealt with it might happen pretty quickly — there are times I’ve managed to drop out of a conversation, process, and manage to be far enough along to rejoin when it’s my turn — but sometimes it’s more like “okay, excuse me, I need to go ponder, cry, have an existential crisis, get paranoid about my limited social skills, maybe get stoned and sleep, dont worry I’ll be functional again…at some point.”

    4. This is SO hard – I am almost always someone who prefers clear direct communication, and I really am pretty far to the “ask” end of ask/guess. Except for the mismatched friendship thing – I am not talking about people who have done Something Wrong but more people who I just don’t care for that much, but don’t want to go scorched earth – or people who I actually DO like, but in a casual see-in-big-groups way – maybe we did the one on one hangout and it was…fine? but I am not really excited to see them. It feels way way too cruel and bridge burning to say “I don’t like you enough to want to make time for you.” Like, people often say they want to hear this, and maybe a few do, but it’s basically going to be seen as completely bridge burning. And just…not something I think is necessary most of the time. I have been on both sides of the friendship mismatch and it is really not that much fun on either side.
      I am really good at setting boundaries about specific things, but a more general “I don’t like you that much” feels super cruel and is something I just don’t think many people would be able to actually do unless pushed *very* far.

      1. “a more general “I don’t like you that much” feels super cruel and is something I just don’t think many people would be able to actually do unless pushed *very* far.”

        That makes a lot of sense. I wonder if this is where “That doesn’t/won’t work for me but I’ll see you at [next group thing]”, offered on repeat if needed, would work for a clear, neutrally expressed boundary (i.e. not cruel as mentioned in some comments above), or if it’s still too subtle?

      2. This is my conundrum too. I have recently asked a long-standing friend to give me some space and basically made up a reason why (“busy busy busy”) because the reality is I honestly feel like we don’t have much in common anymore and I don’t enjoy spending time with them any longer. So by “some space” I mean that I am ending the friendship and I am 99% sure they have no idea that is happening or why. So I am really struggling with just fading away and leaving a decent person baffled and hurt, versus articulating “we don’t have much in common anymore and I don’t enjoy spending time with you any longer” and leaving them clear on my reasoning and for sure hurt, possibly very hurt. I don’t know what the path of kindness is here (maybe there isn’t one?) and so I’m struggling. I think I’m a nice person and I also think I’m not being nice to this person right now. But I also know this friendship is no longer serving me and I don’t want to be in it any more.

  5. If you are getting the sense that you are crossing people’s boundaries a lot, either because it seems like people are hinting at discomfort and then drawing back, or because you’re hearing “no” a lot, I think it is worth thinking about the general pattern. Everybody’s needs are individual, but there are things like “don’t ask acquaintances very personal questions” or “stating an identity is not an invitation to debate that identity” that are good rules across a lot of situations. I would focus less on “am I sure this person is saying no?” and more on “why am I hitting boundaries so often, and how do I stay at a comfortable distance when I’m getting to know people?”

    1. To be fair, some people (me in the past) hold themselves to too high standards, inevitably fail, and then get very anxious about “why am I constantly failing?” When, the truth is, I wasn’t constantly failing to _______ (in this case, respect people’s soft no’s and boundaries). The number of cues I was missing was probably in the typical range. It’s just that the times I missed cues became exaggerated embarrassments in my head, and I desperately wanted a way to either:

      1. never fail in this specific way again or
      2. alleviate the embarrassment

      Obviously, option 1 is impossible. Eventually I figured that out.

      But, sometimes, when I pursued option 2, I sounded a bit like Libra. I wanted an objective reason I could reassure myself with, proof that I wasn’t a failure, so I tried to advocate for a hard set of rules that would precude me failing, at least in this specific way.

      The problem was, of course I can’t get others to agree to the rules of conduct that alleviated my embarrassment as being the objctively right way to interact. I had to, ultimately, figure out other ways of alleviating my embarrassment when I “failed,” and practice seeing fewer things as failure. I think CA outlines a good way to do that.

      So, ah, short version: maybe Libra is inadvertently crossing common boundaries a lot, in which case figuring out how to better abide by typical boundaries is a good idea. But, it’s also possible that Libra is only crossing boundaries a more-or-less normal amount, but those incidents frustrate them disproportionately.

      1. This hits home. Add in Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria and it can take me from “I’m ok” to “why am I such a fuckup?” in about 2 seconds flat.

  6. I usually agree wholeheartedly with the Captain, but I think this is maybe a little harsh on Libra here. I have both been and had a number of friends who are shy/timid/have been burned in the past, and we wound up in this situation a lot before I worked out how to be super clear. Things like:

    ME: Do you want to do X?
    MY FRIEND, thinking: No.
    MY FRIEND, also thinking: If I say no, they won’t want to be friends anymore because I am a terrible no fun awful person. (Yay depression and anxiety.)
    MY FRIEND, out loud: Oh, that might be nice, I’ll see if I have time.
    ME: Okay, let me know.
    MY FRIEND: [doesn’t say anything about it for the next two weeks, quietly hoping it will die in the background]
    ME, with no clue whether they were trying to let me down easy or if they genuinely forgot about it because we are communicating over text and both busy: So, you wanna do X?
    MY FRIEND, thinking: Oh god, if I say no now they’ll know I was Lying because I am the Worst Person on the Planet.
    MY FRIEND, out loud: Ummmm maybe, let me check if [some other conditional].

    And round and round we go. Swap around actors as desired.

    This is not either of our fault! Neither of us are mind readers and both of us are being reasonable according to our life experiences. The solution here is to just straight up say something like, “Hey, I’m cool with it if you don’t want to [whatever] and in fact I’d really like it if you said so immediately, because I don’t like making you feel bad. Please tell me, because I can be a little oblivious sometimes. It’s okay if you change your mind, too, we can find something else that’s fun.” And then, you know, back that up. We like spending time around each other — the friend I’m channeling in the example above is my brother in all but blood — but sometimes coping strategies collide.

    Be kind, make sure they know that you want to hear their no, actually listen when that no shows up, and don’t penalize them for it when it does, even inadvertently. Sure, this won’t work for everyone — like the Captain says, boundaries are very specific to the people and situations involved — but it can help a lot, and it’s something YOU can do that doesn’t create a lot of extra work for the other person, who probably has very good reasons for being circumspect. In the meantime, you can work on getting better at hearing “no” subtext, since that is an actual useful skill when talking to acquaintances, etc, who don’t want to be rude.

    ETA: the people above are right, too. When in doubt, assume no. Of course, the failure mode for this is that both of you are doing the same thing, so you never talk about it again and miss out on something that would be fun for both of you, but that’s still less bad than the other way around.

    1. I did this too, then realized (thanks to this blog, actually) that I was making more emotional work for people than if I just said “that’s a really kind offer, but I just don’t want to do X lately. If I change my mind, I’ll tell you!”

      So far no one has unfriended me and several people seemed relieved to have a clear No instead of an unclear Maybe?

    2. Yea that’s a good idea. Honestly its a good way to get past am I pestering them vs am I not following through dilemma. I think another thing you can do is put the ball in the other persons court out loud.
      A. Do you want to X
      B. I don’t have time right now maybe some other time
      A. Cool let me know when its a good time.

  7. The ‘gentle’ no versus the ‘hard’ no distinction is something I’ve noticed people can use in ways that make it impossible to actually ‘win’. A ‘gentle’ no isn’t considered a ‘real’ no, because you didn’t say it strongly enough, or you didn’t seem like you REALLY meant it, or they misread what you were saying. But if you give a ‘hard’ no, then the response is that you’re being too dramatic, too serious, and why didn’t you say something earlier if it meant that much to you?

    The real issue being that they want it to be impossible for you to say ‘no’ in any fashion, so you never are really ‘allowed’ to say no. Because you never said it the RIGHT way, so it makes you the bad guy.

    This is something I’ve had to struggle with, and still am struggling with. Currently, I have a toxic relationship with my brother, and in one instance, I begged and pleaded with him to stop doing something that was bothering me because it was literally giving me anxiety attacks. In complete fairness to him, he DID stop — but not after a long lecture about how, the other times I had asked him to stop, I hadn’t REALLY been telling him to stop, that if I want him to behave I need to actually REALLY tell him to cut it out in a way where he’ll actually listen. I held my tongue because I got what I wanted, sort of, but it still sits with me as an example of ‘you will never actually be allowed to win if you enforce a boundary with an unreasonable person’.

    1. I’ve known this sort of person! This tactic, where everything would have been cool if you had just said the “right” no, is particularly insidious when it comes to the bystanders, because they’ll often see the abuser’s side as reasonable and then give you heat for not being more calm/outspoken/whatever. When really, you have to be privy to the full context, that there’s never any acceptable “no.”

      1. Oh yeah, and that part of it is INFURIATING. Because bystanders don’t know about prior conversations or the thousand tiny boundary oversteps that preceded, especially if the boundary-violator acts shocked or hurt at what’s happened. The advice always comes down to “Be more direct!” or “Be nicer!” when there is no way of winning when the goalposts are constantly moving.

        1. Oh yeah. Despite years of experience, one of my relatives *still* contends that I could get along with Difficult Relative if I could just find those special magic words that would allow him to pay attention to and respect my boundaries without him being offended because I was too assertive. Um, no. The Venn diagram of those things is two non-overlapping circles.

          1. Other person: “But she’s your sister…!”

            Me: “Do you know our history?”

            Other person: “Well no…”

            Me: “Then butt teh fk out.”

            Of course I’m kind of “mean” like that.

    2. Yeah… this has happened to me even without any toxicity involved. A friend of mine was super hurt when I told her directly to cut it out, and she said I didn’t have to be so mean about it. Then I went back and pointed out the several times when I had tried to say the same thing gently and she thought I wasn’t being serious. (This was over text, so it was all still in the conversation history). This kind of interaction happened several times, and eventually I put the ball in her court: I said YOU have to give ME a way to tell you no, a way that you will take seriously and that won’t lead to a fight. She understood that she had to do some conscious work in leaving me that window, and it hasn’t been a problem since.

      1. Husband: You pushed me!
        Me: You were snoring!
        Husband: You could have been more gentle.
        Me: I was. You kept snoring.

        As in, sometimes the pushing or yelling is the only message they hear.

  8. I am a person who likes to fix things, to smooth the path, to remove obstacles.

    Other people don’t necessarily like to have their things fixed and their paths smoothed. Unaccountable! But true.

    I spent an embarrassing number of years — decades! — pushing back against the particular ways that people say a soft ‘no’ to offers of advice and thing-fixing. “But if I did that, then this other thing would happen,” they’d say, and I would say, “Not if you do this too,” and they’d say, “But if I do that, then I can’t do this other thing,” and I would say, “Hm, then how about if you do this?” and everybody’s annoyance level would be ratcheting up until it all ended in frustration and anger.

    And I finally figured out that my own frustration and anger were the information I needed. If I couldn’t see the boundary that was being gently asserted, then my frustration and anger were my signal that I was blowing past it.

    So, Letter Writer, you say you are “really, really bad at understanding deflection and being ‘politely’ ignored.” How about if you notice how deflection and polite ignoring make you feel? And then when you feel that, say to yourself, “Is it possible that this feeling signals that I am persisting in something and the other person is trying indirectly to make me stop?

    1. And on the side of someone that really doesn’t like to fix people’s problems (I’m learning to de-parentify myself), I can tell if someone is actually interested in Thing To Do if they offer an alternative date vs letting a “sorry, busy…” be the end of the conversation.

    2. This is an extremely helpful way to think about it! (So much so that I wish I could get other people to internalize it, as I’m more likely to be frustrated by other’s attempts to help than I am to help myself.)

    3. Yes! This is how I learned to start noticing when a conversation (especially, say, work email discussions) is going way off the rails. This person is saying things and responding to me in ways that just DO NOT MAKE SENSE but I already explained it so, what other explanations might there be for their reaction? Might they be frustrated, trying to find a way to get me to back off without having a fight / saying no directly, feeling overwhelmed and don’t have the energy to figure out what I am actually asking for, unwilling to write down an answer if they are uncertain…? Might the question I am asking have an answer that’s more complicated than I was expecting, and I should go have an open-ended discussion with this person to understand better?

      In the case of email conversations the frustration is a clue to back off, and think differently about the situation rather than keep hitting my head into the wall. Rather than perseverate on the issue in the same way, it’s a signal to give us both some breathing room and approach from a different angle.

    4. My MIL is also a fixer. All the hinting in the world could not get her to stop trying to give me advice for my hair/social life/clothing/vacation plans/choice of doctors. Me saying, “No thanks, I love my doc!” or, “I have very thick curly hair, brushing it will never make it straight and smooth” or, “Hmmm that dress won’t look good on me, it’s pretty, though!” would just encourage her to give me other ideas or arguments. This would devolve into her getting frustrated and us both feeling weird about each other for the whole weekend visit.

      This whole experience, strangely, has given me more really great practice at giving a strong no. Things that once seemed so alien and rude to me now come out of my mouth naturally around her — and around others: “I don’t want to see that doctor. I will not see that doctor. I will continue to see my doctor.” “I don’t like that dress. I will not wear it.” And … my MIL just shrugs and moves on and seems to appreciate the bluntness.

      This has helped me keep the people who are pushy and fixy, but respect firm no’s, in my life. And it’s also helped me weed out people who are pushy AND get overly sensitive about clear and blunt no’s.

  9. What I have found to work far better for me is to invest more time/energy on me and less time/energy on finding an appealing middle ground. By doing what I enjoy in a friendship – be it activities/social media/texting – and less time trying to coordinate with new people I think are cool, I find that the folks destined to be friends are much easier to tease out.

    If I’m sending out invites to do the things that I think would be fun – then I’ll get back from folks who like doing what I do. Similarly – maybe they’ll only actually want to see me once every month or two – but I’ve found that far easier than going down a road of “Hey – want to hang out sometime next week? What day? Doing what?” Rather, the more I do – “hey, I like seeing movies on the night they open and sending the occasional Instagram animal video while I’m at work – you down?” – it’s less time both chasing people and having anxiety of if they actually like me. Maybe over time, we might like each other – but if we don’t seem to want to do anything together and struggle to communicate…..that’s a lot of work. And lots of people really are not looking for their friends to be a lot of work.

    I also think it’s worth flagging that trying to make friends – much like dating or searching for new jobs – has a very genuine risk of rejection. And because friendships are often perceived as lower stakes, soft no’s, ghosting, and fading away are used far more often than direct no’s and direct dumping. So generally acknowledging that making friends is a risk and as you get to know one another better – incompatibility can be identified by ether party and may result in disappointment is also helpful. Not that it always makes it feel better – but I find that being honest about that risk at least doesn’t make friendships that don’t work out as I’d like feel as surprising.

    1. This is how I’ve been running my social life for 20 years. It mostly works if you can really let go of the Social Fallacies, and accept that as people get older, they get busy with different things. However, I have to be the one organizing / communicating, and that can get a little tiring.

      I do make exceptions for three people who don’t fit my normal social mode (eg, introverted friend without similar aged kids and with an early-morning job) and try to find something to do with them specifically a few times a year.

  10. In this context, I’m not sure what the benefit of “objective” standards for setting boundaries really is. It seems like it would only be useful as some type of yardstick with which to measure if someone is being “fair” in how much effort they want to put into the relationship. Does the LW want to be able to definitively say that these potential friends are being unfair to her by choosing to seek friendship elsewhere?

    The Captain is right that “fair” doesn’t really have anything to do with it. People are allowed to not be your friend for any reason, even if it’s something that you don’t personally agree with. It could be that the LW is crossing a boundary, but it could also just be that these potential friends are choosing to maintain a distance for other reasons.

    I love that the Captain included some instances where hinting at a boundary might be a reasonable, logical course of action. There truly isn’t an objective metric. Even if you tried, it would be something vague like, “Be as clear as you feel you can be / Hold firm for as long as you want to / Reduce contact to an amount you are comfortable with, even if that’s zero.”

    “But I (she/her) am someone who is GREAT at respecting “no,” but really, really bad at understanding deflection and being ‘politely’ ignored.”
    Without any details, my advice to the LW is to try to seek out people who are able to give her the communication that she needs. She can try to find people who are blunt and capable of being as clear as she would like them to be. She’s allowed to look for people with sharp verbal communication skills, just like other people are allowed to look for someone who is more intuitive and in tune with them.

  11. Dear LW

    If you’re saying that you feel like other people don’t hear your soft noes – the Captain has given a wonderful pep talk. It’s fine to not engage with folks who don’t engage you.

    But I thought you were also saying that your feared you didn’t register other people’s soft noes, and you were hoping for a rubric.

    As the Captain has often said (including today), it’s not possible to control other people’s methods of communicating. There is a rule that might help, though : everything but Yes, please! That’s what I want! is a no.

    I think if you listen to people you’ll hear strong, clear yeses sometimes. Maybe, at least for a little while, try to socialize with those people.

    Good luck.

  12. Hey, Moderator Note: I’ve sent a couple “heterosexual dating/romance/sex” negotiation comments to the trash. I’d like to keep this as a friendship/acquaintance/overall social interaction discussion.

    We’ve all met the entitled cishet man who can tell when a cat doesn’t want to be petted and when another car is going to turn left in traffic and parse that when his male boss’s casual observation that a certain piece of work might best be handled by someone over the weekend it means “You, specifically, please do this over the weekend!” and figure out which objects in the background of a new video game are likely to hold cool Easter Eggs and explain in detail what a character’s tone in the line delivery of a favorite film means for the story but becomes totally mystified by the suggestion that when a woman he’s interested in never answers any texts or calls, puts on headphones whenever he approaches, refuses all his social media friend requests and lets his IMs just hang there, or leaves any room he walks into it *might* mean she doesn’t want to bone.

    We’ve also covered all of the speculations – such as ‘THE THEORETICAL AUTIST (always a man, whose posited existence means that no man can be expected to understand any social cue ever, otherwise, discrimination!)’ – and I’m a bit burnt out. We know why this sort of person “can’t” take hints that he doesn’t want to hear (it’s misogyny).

    Since this (as well as dating red flags = people who react badly to the word ‘no’ are unsafe to date) is all well-covered territory on the site, can we stick with NOT SEXUAL RELATIONSHIPS case studies in this thread?

    Thank you!

  13. LW: Let me give a real-life example of why someone might do two gentle boundary hints then run away rather than stick around.

    About a year ago, I had my 18 month old son in parent-baby swim classes. I was totally clear on what I wanted from the class – a fun, light-hearted time with my son who had had a lot of medical issues and needed a lot of developmental therapies. I wanted to splash around in a pool with my kid and enjoy listening to him squeal with pleasure as we chased rubber duckies around the pool. Because of that, I picked a pool that advertised the Red Cross style swimming classes that start with infant/toddler comfort in water and educate parents on how to prevent drowning because babies and toddlers are clueless.

    For most of the classes, we had an instructor I liked. She had an elementary school aged daughter who had been an early preemie herself, worked in the medical field and was quite mellow in terms of goals for the babies like “Babies will have fun and spend time with parents! Also, baby swimsuits are adorables!”.

    For the last two classes, I had an instructor who was hell-bent of selling the idea of ‘drown-proofing’ babies and toddlers by teaching them to roll to their back and relax. My first problem was based on the fact that I don’t believe that drown-proofing is possible for pararescue-jumper level swimmers let alone babies and toddlers. My second problem was visualizing my son in a drowning situation without an adult was f-ing terrifying for me. My third problem was that training my son to be drown-proofed was exactly like the 9 million other things I was spending my days teaching him to do by approximation – and it was NOT FUN for either of us.

    Class One:I participated in the drown-proofing curriculum for about 10 minutes. My son was freaked out and I was feeling frustrated and exhausted so I explained politely that it wasn’t working for us and we were going to chase a ducky around the pool and play with toys that stick to the walls. The instructor was not thrilled at our choice – but didn’t really have time to deal with us so we had a good 20 minutes until my son was cold and ready for a hot shower.

    Class Two: We were the only parent-baby pair present. I explained that I took the class for my son to feel safe in a new environment and to have pure, goal-free fun with a baby who had plenty of people setting goals for him on other fronts. The instructor was a bit disgruntled, but seemed to agree that my goals might be reasonable – but tried to work in lots of “hey, let’s flip your kid over on his back and see if he’ll float” into our pool time.

    At no point did I say “Stop or I will quit your class” – but I’m not required to do that. I let the pool that my son has lessons at know that I would not be attending lessons with Instructor 2 again because she was using a different curriculum that I found problematic and that I loved Instructor 1’s methods.

    Why didn’t I stick around and slowly draw Instructor 2 over to my way of thinking? Because in the previous 18 months, I had developed a life-threatening pregnancy complication that knackered me, delivered a micro-preemie, had him in the NICU for 4 months, was the primary caregiver for a medically complicated/fragile newborn who had his own machines for 4 months, spent 9 months with him in modified isolation to protect his lungs at home, watched my husband’s family farm structure implode under the resulting stress, helped my husband extricate himself from said family farm, re-entered the workforce part-time while my husband struggled to find work, and figured out the logistics of all of this plus three therapy sessions a week for a toddler….and a swimming class that was supposed to be for fun!

    I have no hard feelings towards Instructor 2 – and didn’t at the time either. What I didn’t have was the emotional energy to give to wait and see if Instructor 2 would ever agree to honor my boundary.

    1. This is a fantastic real-life example. I really appreciate the details you shared regarding what you did and did not have the bandwidth to address, and how some things don’t have to be fully addressed. You can decide ‘nope’ and that’s that. You just clarified for me what I’ve been feeling about something in my own life but couldn’t put my finger on.

      I hope you and your family are doing better and I wish you all the very best going forward.

    2. And here I am beating myself up for also taking Strategy B, when only a few days ago I was deep in unexpected spoon debt… Thank you for reminding me that there are reasons for this, and that it’s okay to pick your battles!

    3. Let me also thank you for sharing that, and I hope things are getting easier for you and your family now. I have a similar situation just now with a language class I’ve just noped out of, and I was kind of having that feeling of “oh no! You quit! Never quit!” and your post reminded me that it was fine – I wanted a class where we could chat and practice conversation, the teacher does a very sort of rote learning book-based lesson, she’s in her 70s and been doing it for years and she’s not going to change, and both of those positions are fine.

    4. This seems slightly different than the other examples since you and instructor did not have a friend/friend relationship, but a customer/instructor one.

      It’s 100% right to inform the pool that you wouldn’t be taking the class due to your discomfort about the lesson plan. It’s on them to figure out the best instructors/curriculum that will make their customers happy. Maybe they will make their ‘course’ descriptions clearer so customers have the chance to self-select out.

      But I don’t think it’s always reasonable to expect the actual instructor to accommodate “it makes me uncomfortable” when they may have been hired to demonstrate and/or were specifically trained for those specific instructions.

      1. She didn’t expect the instructor to accomodate her. She dipped. That’s the point.

        1. Her last line says “What I didn’t have was the emotional energy to give to wait and see if Instructor 2 would ever agree to honor my boundary.” which to me implies that if she had the emotional energy, she would have tried to get the instructor to accommodate her.

          1. Yeah, if this were about academic credit or certification, I could see your point, but not so much in this case. Letting the instructor in a leisure class know that you prefer not to participate in a particular activity is very reasonable and should be respected without sighs and frowns. The point here is that, even though Mel(Cow Whisperer)’s boundary was very reasonable, she still chose to dip out of the situation instead of pursuing the issue. The LW seems to be asking for perspectives on why people do this, so Mel(Cow Whisperer) provided hers.

          2. “Accommodate” is being used very loosely here. Mel wanted the instructor to leave her alone and let her get into the pool and have fun with her baby! She wasn’t asking the instructor to get there early or run the class so that there was no drownproofing involved or anything else. She was asking for the instructor to let her do her own thing that she was more comfortable with in a way that didn’t disrupt the class. She wasn’t asking for accommodations – it’s a freaking non-credit community class! As long as she wasn’t disruptive then she should have been free to do whatever the hell she wanted without those nasty little passive-aggressive moves by the instructor.

    5. I’m so sorry that happened to you. I have taught that exact Red Cross parent-child class, and I can tell you that the actual curriculum instructors are supposed to follow literally emphasizes “there is no way to drown-proof your child.” I’m irked any instructor thought to push the backfloat in that very aggressive way. Yes, we will practice with kids on their backs (held closely by the parents, very briefly, and certainly not if a child with special needs can’t do it!) but my goodness, the very idea that forcing it can “drown-proof” a toddler is nonsense!

      I think you handled it more than appropriately. I’m glad you let the pool management know about your experience, though, because that instructor absolutely needs retraining at the very least.

  14. When I read the letter, I immediately thought of a whole bunch of letters Allison gets at Ask A Manager, where people write in to say things like “my coworker has this annoying habit and I have done EVERYTHING I CAN THINK OF to get them to stop,” and it turns out they’ve never tried saying “hey, that thing bugs me, can you not do it around me?”

    Like, I think the examples in this advice are definitely things that happen and things it’s important to be firm about, but there are conflicts that are MUCH LESS important and that can be very easily adjusted as long as both parties know what’s going on. For example—Friend A likes going to sports events and Friend B doesn’t as much. A invites B out to a game and B says “no, can we go to a cafe instead?” and means a permanent no. A hears it as “no for today” but not forever and is confused and hurt when, the next time A invites B to an event, B is annoyed and evasive and cuts off contact. A WOULD be perfectly happy to go to cafes instead, so it’s not an insurmountable problem, just a communication issue.

    My interpretation of LW’s question isn’t “how do I violate my friend’s boundaries because they are my friend and i’m Allowed?” but “how do I check in with new friends and get a sense of their boundaries without sounding needy or pushy?”

    1. Someone who prefers directness might have luck checking in directly about boundaries, while making it clear they’ll abide by them.

      Things like, for example, “Can I hug you? It’s cool if not; I know not everyone’s into hugs.”

      Or, “Was that too personal a question? I know sometimes I’m nosy about stuff that’s not my business, and I can be clueless about it. If I cross a line, please just tell me to back off and I definitely will!”

      Or, ideally, before asking a personal question, “Can I ask you a personal question? You can say no and tell me to myob if you want to– I know people have different levels of what they’re comfortable talking about with people; no judgement either way.”

      Or, if asking a favor but you’re not sure if your relationship is close enough to ask for it, “Do you think you could help me with (x)? If not, that’s cool, I can probably (ask someone else to do it / figure it out myself).”

      Or, if you’re not sure if someone who keeps rescheduling or cancelling hang-outs is super busy right now or if they’re trying to slow fade, “Hey, I know you’re busy lately. Should we take a break from trying to hang out for now, and I check in in a month? Or would you rather call when you know you’re free?” (if they’re trying to slow fade, they’ll just never call, and that’s fine).

      Basically, use your own directness in your favor! Be direct about the fact that you won’t judge someone for having boundaries. State that you respect boundaries and that you understand having different boundaries is normal. Make it explicitly clear that nothing bad will happen (to them *or* to you) if they say no.

      They still might not give you a direct / hard “no,” but at least you’ve made it as easy as possible to do so.

      1. Any time I try to talk like that it comes off sounding like I belong to a cult. I am a fan of the old Human Potential Movement and they all wanted us to talk with this sort of encounter group deliberation and when you try it on people who are not followers things get awkward so quick. But I appreciate where it’s coming from.

        I can’t do small talk so it’s heavy subject matter all the time but I have a cheerful light energy, and what I try to do is let people know I am self-aware, and I believe that is sufficient. If I’m overstepping boundaries it’s up to them to step to me and I’ll be curious and want to know what’s going on. And if they’re psychologically encroaching on my sense of safety, I might calmly start a conversation with something like “Can we talk about something that’s been pressing on me?” Of course, this is an ideal scenario, my best memories based on self-reporting, with all that inherent bias.

        1. Tone is definitely important, for sure. It can make someone feel more comfortable saying no, but sometimes if Person A is direct about respecting boundaries in this way, it reads as anxiety to Person B. And, in fairness, sometimes the making of these ultra-specific statements does stem from anxiety– fear of missing social cues and accidentally trampling boundaries. So there’s a chance that Person B will just pick up on / mimic Person A’s anxiety, and they’ll feel less free to say what they really want rather than more empowered.

          Otoh, I still really appreciate when people say things like this to me, even if their tone seems anxious or therapist-y. There’s a degree of “treat others how you wish to be treated” in it for me, as for a long time I was so nervous about saying “no,” I appreciated any sign at all the the person I might have to say no to wouldn’t judge me or try to punish me / exclude me for it somehow. Most people communicate whether or not they’re trustworthy around boundaries non-verbally, which can be misinterpreted if you’re anxious, so the people who verbally reassured me that they wouldn’t judge were hugely helpful.
          I guess I try to pay it forward now. I can see how it could get annoying for people who are already confident or aren’t afraid of being judged, though. It’s just…extra unecessary words in that case.

    2. This is very much how I read the letter as well. I do think the Captain’s take that sometimes people aren’t compatible and that’s OK still works in that situation. But I’m also someone who’s happy to adapt to other communication styles in a relationship (especially a fairly low-stakes friend one), and that’s what I thought the LW was asking – is there a way to encourage someone to clue you into their subtext so you can make adjustments (assuming you want to do that)?

  15. I don’t think there is a way of getting good at boundaries that is not situation specific. You get good at them by practicing setting them and respecting them over and over in different situations.

  16. I’m a conflict-averse person who hangs out with other conflict-averse people, and this has been a Problem all around. I – and the people I’ve hung out with – have all been more inclined to quietly fade out friendships than discuss or address problems as they happen. And as CA says, sure, some of those friendships were probably better off ending anyway. But I can think of a couple instances where maybe going, “Hey can you please Stop Doing The Thing?” might have actually been effective and preserved the friendship. I also found myself living in fear that I could be inadvertently annoying the hell out of people and I’d never know until they stopped talking to me.

    Libra, what I’ve found helpful is getting better at my own assertiveness (actually speaking up when I’m bothered) and also straight-up TELLING people to let me know if I was doing something irritating. And for the friendships I have now, that works well. It doesn’t have to be some big angry argument either – as I’ve said here before, literally a “Dude, chill with XYZ” can go a long way.

    As for other people’s boundaries, as other commenters have said, your best rule of thumb is that “anything not a yes is a no”. If there’s honestly a logistical issue for why they can’t Do That Thing At That Time, people will often tell you, and propose an alternative themselves. “I can’t meet you for coffee on Sunday because I’m visiting my grandma. How about tea after work on Tuesday?” If all you’re getting is the decline without any other suggestions, assume it’s code for “I don’t wanna hang” and go on your way. If they want to see you, they know where to find you.

    1. also straight-up TELLING people to let me know if I was doing something irritating

      I’m glad this worked for you. It wouldn’t with me and here’s why.

      If someone told me : “Just let me know if I do something that bothers you” I’d hear a silent “Because civility and observation are emotional labor and they don’t interest me”

      I suspect this is an Ask vs Guess divide. I’m a “Guess” on this one.

      1. It is possible that Ask vs Guess personalities often don’t ‘click’. I know my closest friends are all mostly Ask , though it’s fun to watch the guy whose Dad was Ask and Mom was Guess try to parse questions.

        We hold the ‘anything not a yes is a no’ pretty highly in general.

      2. THIS, good gravy. “Just let me know if I do something that bothers you/talk too much/interrupt/etc” drives me utterly bananas, because that’s exactly what I hear — a dodge away from any responsibility for reading the room, paying attention to the person they’re inevitably talking at rather than to, and so on.

        1. Whereas for me, as an autistic person, saying “let me know if I do something that bothers you” is actually a request for a minor accommodation to my particular neurodiversity. I literally DO NOT notice a lot of social cues unless I am concentrating so hard on monitoring for social cues that I can do nothing else. It takes every single ounce of brain power I can muster, and it is exhausting. Also, even when I’m doing my level best to read the room, pay attention to the person I’m talking with, and so on, I will still miss social cues, no matter how hard I try.

          It’s a big part of why I don’t go out that much, and why most of my socialising is done online through textual sources, rather than face-to-face.

          (and I’m going to stop there, because I’m too angry to continue).

        2. …What megpie said.

          Honestly, if that’s your comfort level, that’s your comfort level – it probably is a good idea for you to socialize mostly with people who feel and behave similarly to you, so you can all be comfortable together.

          But neurodiversity aside: not everyone is like you, and for many people, this is actually a well-intentioned and respectful request for information about what you need in order to be comfortable. I don’t think it’s reasonable, therefore, to assume that it is actually selfishness, even though it may feel uncomfortably like selfishness to you.

          Personally, I tend to have to work harder to get along with “guess” people, not only because their approach can be subtler in some contexts, but also because a lot of guessing is just…guessing, and trying to figure out what someone else is feeling can become projection. It’s well-intentioned, but it isn’t necessarily any more effective than “ask” techniques, and it can incorporate just as much insensitivity and self-centeredness.

          1. My experience has been that people who use that phrase will not actually change their behavior when I speak up about how it bothers me.

            “Hey, you just interrupted me, can you not do that please?” gets me an insincere apology and another interruption within 5 minutes.

            If you genuinely do change your behavior when told it’s a problem, then awesome! I surely have not met everyone in the world who says they need their bad behavior verbally pointed out. But in my life, it has been a reliable indicator of people who will not respect boundaries when stated, and are only paying lip service to the notion that other people might not enjoy their soliloquies.

            I have my own neurodivergences and life baggage, and not all ND needs play well together.

          2. Yeah, I am *very* good at reading the room, intuiting people’s emotional states, etc., and I still use this just to be on the safe side. I have quirks and blind spots just like everyone else, and I really, really don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable by accident.

          3. I think it comes down to how the person responds when you tell them they did something that bothered you. I’ve definitely known people who need everything rude/offensive they do pointed out, and always find a reason why they don’t change their behavior, and need to ask you 500 more questions to understand why you have a boundary, and then explain why your boundaries don’t make sense and are so confusing.

            It can be hard to tell the difference between an Ask person and a fake Ask person, at first blush.

        3. This whole thread made me incredibly sad — I had no idea that there are people who hear “please tell me your boundaries/needs/preferences/etc” that way. That’s one of the major tools in my arsenal, because otherwise I’m likely to veer wildly between “missing every hint bc HINTS” and “reading into literally every micro-gesture because I know just how bad I am at reading other people sometimes.”

          It never occurred to me that people might take “please give me the following data so I can do the appropriate emotional labor to not make you uncomfortable or unhappy” as “give me the cheat sheet so I dont have to do any emotional labor.”

          1. The thing is, the people in this thread who don’t like your way are not a) EVERY PEOPLE b) They don’t know YOU c) Their preferences don’t mean you’re getting it Objectively Wrong d) if it’s working for you, keep right on doing it – you’re not being EVIL or MEAN, the people who know and like you get that you mean well and are taking care of yourself and others.

            Possibly someone would hear this from you and take it the wrong way. Possible!
            Possibly they would react in a way you don’t like!
            Possibly you will be incompatible with some people!

            It doesn’t mean you are bad and wrong and that you have to accept some kind of collective internet judgment.

            “You look nice today” can be a compliment or an insult, depending on the context.

            My whole point, entire point, was, don’t try to find the perfect way to communicate, go where you feel happy and safe and trust other people are, too, and if you unintentionally mess up, so is everyone else.

          2. Whoops, I didn’t mean for that to get interpreted as I’m trying to find the perfect way to communicate or whatever. Just expressing my surprise — I’d never realized that (nonspecific) people might interpret a request for boundary data as dodging emotional labor. It probably explains a few past interactions, come to think of it.

            (Not sure why it wouldn’t let me reply to your actual comment captain. If I wasn’t supposed to, sorry, feel free to delete.)

        4. I think it can really depend on phrasing, at least in terms of how I interpret. “Just let me know if I’m doing something that bothers you” can definitely come across to me unpleasantly in those ways. On the other hand, in Jaybeetee’s comment, I interpreted it as possibly being shorthand for a way of expressing a similar idea that could convey to me something like, “I will make an effort to be aware of where your boundaries might be based on non-explicit cues, but I recognize that I am a fallible human and will occasionally miss things and I want you to know that you can tell me to knock something off if I don’t notice it bothers you,” and that is honestly more reassuring to me than someone happening to not cross any of my boundaries the first several interactions without us directly communicating about it—because then I don’t have as clear of an idea how they would respond if I did have to set a boundary.

          Yes, I know there are ways to test out setting boundaries with people in a low-stakes way, and I don’t immediately trust people to respond well to my boundaries just because they tell me they will, but it’s a relief to me when someone demonstrates that they can handle that kind of metacommunication.

        5. I usually just say no I’m sure you’ll monitor yourself like a normal adult so I’ll never have to police your actions for you. Blunt as hell but it works. Never had to say it to a woman, just men. Always men.

      3. As a person who is often clueless about things that I do that bother others, despite making an effort to pay attention to others’ needs- if someone is doing a specific thing that bothers you, especially if they went out of their way to say that they’re bad at noticing subtler hints, TELL THEM WHAT IT IS. Then you can figure out whether they’re willing to do the work of accommodating others by how they incorporate your feedback into their future actions.

        There are various neurotypes that have difficulty picking up on social cues, body language, or indirect language, who definitely need this type of feedback if you actually want them to change what they’re doing, but even in the neurotypical world, the ways that people express discomfort, and the list of things they think it’s reasonable (and therefore a thing they’d be checking for social cues about discomfort about) about feel uncomfortable about, can vary more between different cultures (including regional, ethnic, professional, and SES-based cultures) than people realize, especially if they’re used to being in a homogeneous, or socially dominant, or majority, or privileged position where they haven’t needed to pay attention to how other groups do things before.

        For instance, to use a pretty concrete example, the boundaries about who can touch which body parts ever/with permission/if they’re close friends/if they’re acquaintances/just after meeting vary. If you’re from a culture that kisses to say hello to people you just met, and you’re introduced to someone from a culture that doesn’t even shake hands, it would be very easy to accidentally make someone uncomfortable if you don’t establish how both of you are going to greet each other.

        Life is much easier (and other people are more likely to change what they’re doing) if you just tell people what’s bothering you instead of hoping they’re good at guessing.

        1. But part of the Captain’s point is that it’s not as simple as TELL THEM WHAT IT IS. There are a whole variety of reasons that she lists why that might not work for someone, and while they shouldn’t like, go around behind your back gossiping about you or quietly resenting you and hoping you change, they’re also allowed to decide that they would prefer to simply not continue the relationship. And that’s ok! Some styles mesh better than others.

          I have a job (social worker) where I am constantly doing emotional labor and upholding boundaries, so I really need my friendships to be easy and low stress. That means different things for different people, but for me, it means my closest friends have a high degree of emotional intelligence and similar communication styles to me. I need my friends to be the people I don’t have to frequently explain myself to.

          1. I have a job (social worker) where I am constantly doing emotional labor and upholding boundaries, so I really need my friendships to be easy and low stress. That means different things for different people, but for me, it means my closest friends have a high degree of emotional intelligence and similar communication styles to me. I need my friends to be the people I don’t have to frequently explain myself to.

            + 1, but also more generalising. When you are moving beyond situational friendships, then you’re moving into the territory of limited time, and quite likely other limited resources, too. If I’m looking for a friend to go cave diving with, then it doesn’t matter how great Person with claustrophobia and middle ear issues is, they are not the friend I am looking for. And for cave diving read relax in the park and chat/drink coffee/drink wine/have intense political debates/have heart-to-hearts about difficult personal issues/communicate in similar natural ways/whatever.

          2. @anonyish – you had me at ‘cave diving’! My favorite thing! Fire at Cathy’s! Hanging with Edd! Peacock and Ginnie and Hart and Carwash! My son’s middle name is Karst!

            We now return to our regularly scheduled discussion.

      4. I mostly agree here. I was socialized in the nicey-nice Midwest, where confrontation is death and politeness is worth more than your immortal soul. Now, I take that to an extreme due to brain stuff, but I really super do not enjoy conflict. If I feel like another person’s way of being in my space demands that I constantly risk conflict because I have to repeatedly tell them “no” or push back on my boundaries, I am probably not going to hang out very much with that person, because it stresses me out. For me, directness is something reserved for my very close friends and family.

        (There are always exceptions — if I recognize that the boundary I have is set in an unusual place, I may be more comfortable speaking up about it. e.g. the other night I was at a dinner where people started talking about astrology, which makes me very anxious, so I declined to have my chart predicted.)

      5. I totally agree. I hear “Tell me if I do something that bothers you” as “I’m not going to pay any attention to you or moderate my behavior in any way. If I do something that upsets you, it’s your responsibility to get me to stop.” I hear it that way because that’s how it has played out in my experience.

      6. I use that sort of sentence sometimes, but not as a replacement to reading the room – I’m actually really big on overthinking and reading into the slightest shifts in tone and posture, so it’s mostly a way to reassure myself that I’m not being horrible.

        Maybe it’s an obnoxious habit of mine (hey, we all have dislikes, that’s completely fair). But it’s not perfect, but sometimes I feel a lot better if I check in with a light-hearted “By the way, if I’m rambling, you can tell me and I promise I won’t feel bad!”.

        I guess the key here is that I’m still doing my very best to be attentive and not like… delegating the responsability of regulating myself to others.

        1. I do check in A LOT with the other people in the room (which I think is okay-ish, though obviously there’s going to be people who are annoyed), but I try to do it for fairly specific parts of the interaction — “do you mind if I ask you a question about that,” or “do you mind talking about this topic”, etc.

        2. I’m with you here. Asking is part of my plan to be attentive regarding things I know I’m prone to overlook. It is part of my emotional labour, it isn’t an abdication of it.

          I don’t work well with guess culture in general and this is one of the ways I attempt to bridge that divide, so having a silent rudeness ascribed to something I am doing entirely on face value in addition to my own self-monitoring feels unnecessarily uncharitable. As other commenters mentioned, there are a lot of reasons preferences may differ – my friend group loves talking over each other, for instance, and see it as enthusiastic participation. So if I’m trying to translate a behaviour that is usually well received into something I shouldn’t do around a new person, I’ll watch for it, but I’m less likely to notice it to the extent that someone who dislikes it would prefer.

      7. “Because civility and observation are emotional labor and they don’t interest me”

        Wow, that is a really great way of expressing something I have often felt (and acted on) but not been able to put to words. Thanks.

        1. Whereas if I say that, it means “I’m having a really hard time reading you and want to make sure you have an out if I miss a cue.”

          My best friend can have a tiny twitch of a corner of her mouth and I’ll know she’s irritated and why. We can have private side conversations nonverbally, while in a group conversation.

          But if I’ve just met someone, there’s no way I’ll pick up on all their cues. Sometimes I can tell someone is feeling something and I have no idea if they’re irritated with me, thinking deeply about their response, or just holding in a particularly forceful fart. If I spend enough time with them, I’ll figure it out, but it does take time.

        2. Whereas for me, I used that to mean “I can’t read you and want to make sure you know you can say something.”

          My best friend can twitch three facial muscles and I’ll know exactly what she’s feeling and why. We can have whole conversations without speaking and zero miscommunication.

          But if I’ve just met someone, there’s no way I’ll pick up on all their cues. Sometimes I can tell someone is feeling something and I have no idea if they’re irritated with me, thinking deeply about their response, or just holding in a particularly forceful fart. If I spend enough time with them, I’ll figure it out, but it does take time. So I’ll say things like, “if I’m being too chatty just let me know. I’m super extroverted and I know sometimes people want quiet.”

          1. And for me, I came out of a household where I was constantly having to try and interpret another person’s social cues in a (vain) attempt at making sure I never made them angry (or angrier than they already were). These days, I don’t do subtext because I can’t for my own mental health. If you don’t tell me, I don’t know. So yes, although I will be doing my share of the emotional labor if not more, I won’t necessarily know if I’m bothering you unless you tell me.

            Now, sometimes telling me doesn’t actually take words, if I know you well enough. But.

          2. Adventures, I use it similarly to you. It’s the friend equivalent of a third date question. We’ve gotten to know each other well enough that I’m starting to feel comfortable, and I know that when I feel comfortable around people I can accidentally plow through social conventions of appropriate conversations and leap over boundaries of of what someone might be comfortable talking about without noticing until after the fact. So I’ve taken to warning people I’m just finding myself comfortable with: I have only the politest fiction of a TMI filter and I can be bad at reading body language in the moment. If I ever cross conversational line for you, please let me know.

            And then when I do it (usually two or three hangouts later, because having said something I’m now thinking about making sure I don’t accidentally gross you out) I will either catch the look of horror as I describe picking gravel out of a wound or they will say something and I apologize.

            It does mean that most of my friends are ask culture people though.

      8. I think it depends. Asking people to tell you when they require basic politeness (“It bothers me when we make concrete plans and then you don’t show up.” “It bothers me when you call me mean names.”) is one thing. Having to ask for basic consideration can feel really demeaning.

        But for things that are idiosyncratic and may take a while for someone to pick up on, I think it’s fair to say that it would be good for an individual to communicate them. Let’s say, for example, that someone has a preference for socializing in the morning instead of the evening. I think it’s fair to suggest that they say that outright (if they want the friendship to continue, anyway) than having them expect their friends to do the emotional labor of gleaning through trail-and-error that they only accept morning invites. Expecting people to guess preferences that are specific to you is putting the emotional labor on them instead of taking it on yourself by communicating it.

        Essentially, I think that everyone should just do their best. Be as clear as you can in your communication, and be as considerate as you can for other people. There are always going to be instances where people just aren’t a good fit for each other, and that’s okay.

        1. Agreed. I was raised in a culture where I was supposed to be very aware and anticipate what others want (vs. them telling me directly), and after a while I was left feeling very resentful. It’d help so much if people told me their specific preferences instead of expecting me to guess correctly and then punishing me when I don’t.

      9. Mrs. Morley, if that’s the way you feel, then there is literally no way I can accommodate you.

        Like Megpie, I am autistic, and have trouble reading social cues. I think a good analogy for the difference between me and a neurotypical person is driving. Do you remember when you first started to learn to drive? You had to think really hard about absolutely everything you were doing, and you couldn’t pay attention to it all at once. You had to think about which was the gas and the brake, and you didn’t have a good sense for how hard to push them so the car jerked when you accelerated or braked. You couldn’t predict what other cars were doing very well, and you had trouble paying attention to what was in front of you and off to the sides/rear at the same time. It took absolutely all of your attention and was exhausting.

        Eventually, you got better at it. All those tasks became automatic, and you can do them without much effort, and even while doing other things.

        The thing is, for me (and others like me), reading social cues is like being a new driver, that same level of effort and attention, that same lack of expertise, except it will never become automatic. I don’t think I should get a pass or not have to put in an effort, but I cannot sustain continual hypervigilance, and even doing so is not going to prevent errors. I ask for people to tell me if something I’m doing bothers them, and make sure to say that no is an acceptable answer to invitations, and do whatever else I can to make explicit boundaries on the part of other people feel safe to them because trying as hard as I can will never be good enough. If that offends you too, then that’s just the way you feel about neurodiverse people, I guess.

        (This is not at all me saying that neurodiverse people should get a pass on things like manners. It is absolutely my job to be aware that people might be communicating things I’m not noticing. However, I can only deal with that by trying to proactively make things more explicit so I don’t trample people’s boundaries by accident.)

        (Also, Captain, THANK YOU for the link about Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria!!! I have literally been trying to explain this to my husband for six months, and it helps immensely to know that it is A Thing (A Thing which actually has pretty serious impacts when trying to interact with Guess people while having a social skills/perceptions deficit))

        1. Yes, it’s possible that we can’t accommodate each other. That’s a sad state of affairs, because you come across as a very fine person.

          For me, there’s a difference between a stranger leading with “Just tell me if I bother you” and an acquaintance telling me they need me to be explicit rather than oblique.

          The stranger is the person who sets my hackles spiking.

          The acquaintance is someone I’ve already observed. They’re someone whose bona fides are known to me. So yeah, of course I’ll accommodate this person whom I hope will be my friend.

        2. Could you re-link it, Elf? I’m already aware of Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria, but I’m interested in learning more.

      10. I think it might be helpful to talk about a situation where someone said this to me and it really worked.

        I was at a nudist sauna which is like half a sex space and half just where West Indian aunties hang out because it’s pretty cheap for a sauna (which is why I was there). I was there on my own, which as a young(ish) woman means I get a lot of people trying to start conversations with me whether I like it or not.

        Another woman there on her own came up to me in the hot tub and asked if she could sit and chat. I said sure, and we had a nice conversation – she clearly struggled slightly with conversational cues, and she dominated the conversation a bit, but I didn’t mind because the things she was saying were interesting. She also said, ‘please tell me if you want to stop chatting, *and I will go away*.’

        And the way she phrasd this meant that when I eventually said, ‘this has been lovely but I’d like to sit on my own for a bit,’ I had complete confidence that she’d be chill. And she was! She said thank you for the company, and then she left me to it.

        So I think there’s a big difference between ‘oh just tell me if x bothers you’ and ‘please tell me if x bothers you and I’ll stop at once.’ The first places a burden on the person being asked, and the second makes it clear that the person is aware that x might become an issue, asks for the assistance they need in identifying when it has become an issue, and makes clear that they will shoulder the burden of stopping it from being an issue once it starts. One can sound dismissive, the other is explicitly collaborative.

        1. (i should clarify because I realise I didn’t write this well: I’m not a West Indian auntie, I’m just trying to explain the cultural mix of the place, half local community and half dudes looking hopelessly to bone)

  17. Thinking about the LW’s offer to do the extra communication work necessary for a friendship between two very different people. I think this offer is very well-intentioned, but I wouldn’t blame anyone for not wanting to build a super close friendship on the basis of that promise. Remember what the Cap says: people change, but slow. Think glacially slow. I have a well-intentioned relative who works pretty hard to do the communication work of avoiding his natural tendency to interrupt and tell me something helpful I should be thinking, feeling, or doing. His improvement at meeting this boundary is glacial, (like five percent per decade glacial) and I end up just avoiding telling him anything and nodding and smiling while he monologues. We’re both pretty worn out with the effort. Worth it for a forty year history and an image of myself as a person with some familial loyalty? Yup. Worth it for the new folk I met at work? Almost surely not.

  18. I think it’s extremely valuable to know if you tend to be a direct communicator. I’ve had a lot of luck just saying “hey, I think there’s subtext here but I don’t have the codebook – is this a “not now” thing or a “not ever” thing?” Not everyone is comfortable with *that*, but if they’re not, the course of your relationship is never going to run smooth.

    Indirect communication works great in small communities with a lot of shared assumptions. It works a lot less well when you’re in contact with people from lots of different backgrounds. Learning how to translate back and forth is a good thing for everyone to learn!

    1. I’m not great with subtext, and used to stress a lot about missing cues and boundaries or misjudging situations. I eventually found out I could ask the person when I’m not sure of a situation.


      1.The invite says: “Bring yourself, no gifts”. Me: “Does that really mean absolutely no gifts at all, or is it a polite way to say: don’t bother with elaborate gifts, but I can bring a small thing?” Them: “No, really no gifts please, we’re swamped with stuff, but a greeting card is always nice” Me : “Got it, Thanks!”

      2. I’m chatting at a studiomate’s place for quite a while and they offer me another tea while simultaneously poking at their computer. Me: ” Erh, I’ve the feeling I’m holding you from work, am I?” Them “Yeah, I actually should stop postponing and do this client thing” Me: “Ok! Back to work we go!”

      This has helped me a lot, but it only works with people who are willing to clarify. And people who are honest in their clarification.

  19. LW, I have also struggled with steamrolling/alienating friends due to pushiness and inattention to their preferences/boundaries. The “lack of yes = no” strategy doesn’t work for me. What if I can tell we obviously have good friend chemistry, but plans never come together? What if they tend to be indirect with yeses AND noes?

    I have a different strategy: Explicitly invite a “no.”

    Every time I extend an invitation, I will either offer a reason why I think they might say no (it’s last minute/I know you’re busy/furry burlesque might not be your cup of tea, just thought I’d check), or I will literally say, “It’s OK to say no.” I want to make that individual decision as easy as possible for them to communicate, and I want my proto-friend to know that I am a safe person to turn down. That way, even if they have a boundary I didn’t anticipate, they might feel a little safer bringing it up.

    I also make a practice of apologizing for mistakes/potentially hurtful things, no matter how long it’s been. I have literally apologized for years-old passing remarks and had friends start crying because they were still carrying that. Again, I feel like this communicates humility and commitment to doing your best.

    I think there is something kind of uniquely difficult about being an extremely blunt woman. My communication style isn’t an easy match with almost ANYONE. But it works best when I channel the bluntness into extreme transparency about myself, so nobody has to try and decode me.

    1. I like your idea of prebuilding the excuse – that’s a nice gesture for folks who find it hard to say no. I’m a little more hesitant about “It’s ok to say no,” as a thing to say out loud. I’ve had a couple of people say that to me recently, and it put my back up. It felt like a reminder of all the ways “no’s” can go wrong. Almost a “Nice place you’ve got here; shame if something happened to it,” kind of a thing. Even if that wasn’t the intention, it made my spidey sense tingle, which is not a feeling to engender in a possible new friend.

      1. The problem for me with “it’s ok to say no” is that it removes the plausible deniability from a soft no. “Do you want to come to fury burlesque with me on Friday night? It’s OK to say no!” My “oh errrm, Friday, that’s um, it’s um, well I’d have to check with my partner” is suddenly a lot more “no”, and I might prefer to leave it in that vague “I probably said no but we don’t have to be all obvious about it”.

        There are definitely some people who can pull it off, and I can happily go, “oh well, in that case: no!” But I don’t think you can unilaterally make it ok to do a direct no: you might be ok inviting a direct no, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still weird for me!

        1. I can definitely understand all of that! For me, this is something that works from people I know *well*; I don’t know how I’d feel about it from anyone else, though. I tend towards people pleasing and wanting to be chill and sometimes ignoring my own wants or needs in the process. So friends who know me well include that “feel free to say no” as a reminder to me that “no” is, in fact, a valid response and not the end of the friendship forever.

        2. Sure, but that’s the problem – one person wants plausible deniability (and the avoidance of the appearance of conflict) and the other person wants clarity. If neither one can find a way to compromise, then it just may not be a friendship that works.

          1. yeah, that was my point – this, like everything else in the thread, will work for some people some of the time but it is not a failsafe how-to-people hack that will work every time!

        3. It’s also a problem where it makes a “maybe” sound a lot more like a “no” than it necessarily is, and if the other person thinks you’re hedging there’s a risk of offending them because they offered you a hard no and they think you refused to take it.

        4. Have you considered that not knowing if they should buy an extra ticket or not, not knowing if they should look for another friend to go with or not, not knowing if they should pick you up or wait for you there. Generally having a plan half made but not finalized either way can actually cause a lot of anxiety.

          1. I would suggest that anxiety is on the asker’s plate to manage, for the most part. I’m exactly the type of person that worries about those things so I always extend an invitation like:

            me: “Do you want to go to X with me on Friday?”
            other person: ..partner, maybe, we’ll see, hem, haw, etc…
            me: “Ok! I’m buying tickets tomorrow after lunch, let me know.”

            Of course this only works if you’re actually ok with going to events alone/without the person you invited.

          2. Well, yeah, but “I am making plans in accordance with your absence/presence, please confirm either way” is a different conversation!

          3. “Well, yeah, but ‘I am making plans in accordance with your absence/presence, please confirm either way’ is a different conversation!”

            I don’t think it is – that’s almost NECESSARILY implicit in every case. Logistical considerations are different if you are involved versus if you are not involved in the thing to which someone invites you. Depending on the invitation, it may be easier or more difficult to handle the logistics last-minute or change them on short notice, but you are always making your own desire for lack of clarity a higher priority than the other person’s ability to plan, at the very least (possibly also time and labor), when you’re intentionally vague or noncommittal.

          4. I had this exact situation recently. Tried to make arrangements to spend an evening/night with a fun Friend+ after a planned Event coincidentally near them. They kept Maybe-ing me until literally days before the event. Which, given I needed time to work out hotel options near them, logistics of travelling between my home, #Event Location and the hotel/their home depending, last-train timing options and so on, wound up throwing a pile of stress and anxiety over the planning of the Event that was my main reason for being in the area in the first place.

            And more than once I’ve found myself spending a weekend alone, because the first person I invited to do things Maybe’d me until it was too short notice for me to make plans with anyone else.

            Also Autistic here, and I try to be mindful and aware of situations where people might be uncomfortable giving a direct no. I’ve tried being explicit when there’s time-sensitive logistics involved (“Hey wanna do Thing on Day with me?” “Umm let me check if I’m free” “No problem – I really want to go to Thing regardless, so if you can’t make it can you let me know by Other Day? It’d be great to see Thing with you, but I understand if you can’t”)

          5. No help to you now, of course, but I’ve definitely told people “If you’re coming, I need to know by [date]” where [date] would give me enough time to invite someone else and/or plan without stress.

          6. For me I find it more helpful to ask people to let me know by x date if they CAN come, rather than if they can’t. That way they know that I will take silence or maybes past that date as a no.

      2. Right, because it’s so manipulative and presumptuous to tell another person “It’s ok to say no.” So much for autonomy! I’d challenge them on the spot for making that kind of statement to me, but without malice, because I know it’s coming from a warm place, but it is itself a boundary violation.

        1. It does kind of imply that there’s some times it’s *not* ok to say no, doesn’t it? The people who said it to me were kind people I had a positive history with, so I kept my mouth shut, but I was thinking “I don’t need your permission to say no.”

          1. I think when people either provide built on excuses, or say “is ok to say no” it may reflect a bit more on their culture than their beliefs about boundaries.

            I always feel pressure to say yes when someone issues me a personal invitation. I feel obligated to find a way to make it work if I don’t have a serious time conflict.

            The “you can say no” is definitely followed by a “and I won’t be disappointed” in my head. And for me it is a good reminder that people want me to do things for our mutual enjoyment, not our of a sense of obligation.

            So I often include that, if I feel like my invitation is asking something of them. (family/work functions, very weird events or strange timing)

            I think another way of thinking of it is that I want the other person’s enthusiastic consent to this outing, so I am trying to avoid them feeling obligated to make it work.

        2. I don’t agree with this at all. I don’t think it’s manipulative or presumptuous to reassure someone. It can be, certainly – just like it can be manipulative and presumptuous to say or strongly imply that no is NOT an acceptable answer.

          But this seems to go way, way, WAY beyond your personal preferences and into projecting a lot of very specific and very negative intentions without much basis at all.

          This phrase is a pretty common and anodyne way to frame an invitation as casual, and refusal as something that won’t be disappointing.

          I think this is actually an example of the other side of the “sometimes it’s not about deciding whether someone is ‘a good person,’ sometimes it’s just about style and preference.” People who phrase things differently from you are not bad people.

          1. Oh I don’t think anyone is a bad person, just nipping things in the bud from the git, and to be frank I enjoy an opportunity to model assertive behavior. A simple, pointed, “Yes, I know that,” when someone tells me I can say something is very satisfying, and a step forward when I can make myself do it.

          2. I have a friend who is even more conflict-averse than I am, and I will use the phrase “you can tell me no” as a *reminder* to her that I’m not her family and I’m not going to go crazy on her if she does.

    2. I used to do this *all the time* (“Of course I’ll understand if you’re busy”) etc, until one of my friends started getting HUGELY annoyed with me about it because she interpreted it as a hint that I didn’t actually want her to say yes and didn’t really want to see her at all.

      In general I still think it’s a decent strategy but be aware that since people are all so different it can sometimes backfire!

      1. Yeah this happened to me once. I wanted to go see a movie super weird and likely to be terrible so I kept being like “you don’t have to come” and my friend thought I didn’t want him to. Lesson learned!

    3. For people with raised hackles over “It’s okay to say no”, my friends and I liberally employ “no pressure!” instead–“Hey, Hari and Tish and I were going to catch Avengers tonight at 5–want us to buy you a ticket? No pressure!”

      It might still bother some people for similar “It’s-okay-to-say-no” reasons, but I (and my anxiety) appreciates it for stating that my (or my friend’s) presence would be delightful, but my absence won’t ruin anyone’s evening. As someone who has had to frequently turn down invites with people I would otherwise LOVE to hang out with due to mental health flare-ups, it’s always reassuring to know that they understand that my No *this* time isn’t necessarily a No *every* time.

      I can also see the phrase being used in super annoying ways (either too drawn out: “absolutely, positively NO PRESSURE, no worries” or by people who don’t actually mean it), but it *can* be very helpful.

      1. I think “no pressure” is nice and light, and it’s also good shorthand for old friendships where you’re really saying “I know your (introversion, anxiety, exhausting day at work…) might make this a no go, but I’d still like to include you, if you’re up to it.” LW is concerned about new friendships. I’m thinking if the nice new gal at work says “no pressure, but would you like to go to lunch?” That somehow feels more pressure-y than “I’m gonna go grab lunch. Wanna come?” Full stop.

      2. In my friend group, we’ve started using variations on “I will be glad to see you if you want to come, but I won’t be offended if you don’t” – it’s a bit more of a mouthful than “no pressure” or “feel free to say no”, but it’s been really useful because of just how little ambiguity there is about how you feel.

        I doubt it would work well for a brand-new friendship in a lot of cases, it’s maybe a little more blunt than a lot of people would be comfortable with, but for a group full of people who all have a tendency to worry that the rest of the group doesn’t really want them there, it’s made a noticeable difference.

    4. I just want to say that I’m appreciating all the disagreement about these strategies that is coming up! Upon reflection, I think I mostly use “it’s OK to say no” when asking for small but inconvenient favors.

      In terms of other qualms… I’m kind of going for “direct, but gentle,” and it’s OK with me if people who dislike directness self-select away from me. However, I don’t want to come off as pass-agg or weirdly threatening or undermining. I will have to think more about this.

      1. I definitely use “it’s okay to say no” this way, when I’m asking for favors. I hope it’s not coming across as implying that there are times when it’s NOT okay to say no to me! I typically use it if I’m asking someone to do me a small favor, or if I’m inviting a good friend to an activity that will involve a greater amount of inconvenience to them than would be the norm for our social plans (like something that involves travel, or would be more expensive than our usual activities, or require a greater degree of logistics and planning).

        If I’m asking a favor, I use it as a way of letting my friends know that they can say no, and it won’t leave me in dire straits, as opposed to being closer to the “I’m sorry to ask, but I really, REALLY need help!” end of the favor-asking continuum. “It’s OK to say no” is the kind of thing I say to my very dear friend who has the same kind of anxiety issues and introversion that I do, to let her know that if she wants to turn me down because she just really wants to stay home in her PJs and snuggle her dogs, I totally understand, and it is not a friendship deal-breaker.

        This discussion has been interesting because I would never have looked at as an implication that I’d be mad if someone DIDN’T accept an invitation or do me a favor, although I can see now how that could be the case. I will definitely think about how I’ve been using this, and maybe ask some of my near and dear ones how this is coming across to them. My experience has been that the kinds of people I know who actually would take it personally or get mad at me or passive-aggressively fume about my turning down a request have typically been the kinds of people who would never think to add a soft disclaimer like that–they’d just expect me to know that the only correct response from me was compliance.

        For most of my life, I was a person for whom saying yes to invitations/requests that I didn’t actually want to do/accept wasn’t just a tendency, it was a way of life, and I’m still breaking myself of those old habits. For me, hearing a “no pressure!” or “it’s okay to say no,” or “I won’t be hurt if you’re not up for it this time” does take the pressure off me and remind me that I CAN turn down invitations and requests even if I don’t have an elaborate excuse, and that doesn’t make me an objectively worthless friend. When I hear those kinds of phrases from someone, it usually signals to me that this is someone who wants to make sure I know that our friendship is not dependent upon my constant compliance with their wishes–that they are someone who can hear “no” to a low-stakes request and not treat it as a referendum on our whole relationship.

        1. I think this all sounds fine!

          We’re all operating out of OUR OWN HISTORY AND NEEDS here and trying to be good to other people’s.

          The whole point of the post is that I don’t think there IS some universal right/better/wrong way to communicate. It’s personal. It’s subjective.

    5. That whole pre-built excuse/self-deprecation/”ok to say no” spiel would likely backfire, badly, on me, because when my mother says things like that, it’s not about making it easier for me in any way. It’s actually a demand for re-assurance and help in soothing her cripplingly low self-esteem and anxiety. Does that mean you’re ‘wrong’ to do it? Not necessarily, but I guess it’s another example of how difficult human communication can be.

  20. One thing I haven’t seen mentioned yet – if you’re not sure if you’re hearing a “soft no” or a “not now but yes next time”, but it’s too early in a relationship to ask, you can always explicitly leave the ball in their court.

    A: hey want to go to a movie this weekend?
    B: oh, sorry I’m busy
    A: Oh, too bad. Well if you want to see Summer Blockbuster later, I’m free most Friday nights.

    (then drop it – if they really were saying no, don’t make it weird/pressure them into getting back to you)

    Maybe B is just busy, maybe B doesn’t want to see you again, but it leaves the door open more than just accepting the deflection as a “no” without anything else said, and I think it’s suitably un-pushy for many new-friend interactions.

    1. I like your idea. I have a friend who likes dancing and singing so once, I suggested a group I go to on a regular basis. I only mention the group if it comes up in general conversation and I don’t ask or suggest that he come. Although he may think it’s a “soft invitation. He keeps saying he should come or that he meant to come.

      Next time he says that, I’m going to just say that “Hey it’s OK if you aren’t interested and it won’t hurt my feelings. I won’t mention the schedule unless you specifically tell me you want to come.” We’ll see how that goes.

  21. The way I grew up, I essentially shut off my awareness to a lot of soft noes as a way to survive in a really toxic, passive-aggressive environment. I was expected to know exactly how mum felt, and what she wanted, and what wasn’t allowed, how exactly to phrase things, without her ever communicating anything and too much ‘guess culture’ type soft noes and deflections just sends me into an anxiety spiral. I’ve been exploded at for “ignoring” a boundary that I honestly don’t believe was ever communicated and then had the fact that I immediately changed behaviour once I was actually told it was an issue cited as ‘proof i knew it was wrong all along.’ I’ve had people insist they told me something they definitely did not, to the point of gaslighting. I completely sympathise with the LW in wanting a way to be sure you’re being told the truth, in words, wanting to communicate your willingness to respect what they tell you. There’s no easy win though where they HAVE to recognize the effort you are putting in and the effort you are willing to put in and understand you. They don’t have to. They aren’t obligated to even try.

    I think though, knowing that, you can still try to check in with people. You can try to open a conversation ‘hey i can be a bit oblivious sometimes, anything i should know that’s bugging you i might have missed?’ You can say things towards the beginning about not picking up on some deflections – ‘haha i’m so used to pushing, my family is loud, i have 8 brothers, feel free to tell me if i’m pissing you off.’ By asking openly, you’re giving the cue of the type of communication you’d prefer/need. There are even people who prefer indirect communication who will get that and see you’re trying, and give you the info you need to be friends with them. You can earn their trust when you respond well to the boundaries they then set. The ones that don’t communicate, that self-select out – they aren’t necessarily a passive-aggressive ragemonster – and you aren’t necessarily a thoughtless steamroller — it doesn’t need to be about negative judgement. It can be all the millions of incompatibility or budgeting of effort reasons like the captain listed.

    I think there can be a lot of shame pushed especially on a female-presenting-person for being more direct and blunt and missing some of these social cues and part of it is just, letting go of that, ok you miss them sometimes, you don’t have to FIX every relationship, you don’t have to get along with everyone – you can let go, and, more to the point, let other people let go. If you have a lot of shame attached to the idea of failing at social cues it’s easier to push much more than you should. Learning to see it as value-neutral incompatibility can make it easier to just not try so hard, and you’ll push other people less in response.

    1. Yes, I was raised in a fairly extreme Guess culture, by a mom who used people’s ability to guess her needs as proof of their love for her, made twice as complicated by her depression & anxiety telling her she was unloveable, so she must always hide, misdirect, and outright lie about her needs and wants.

      Which was then reinforced by the inability of mere mortals to penetrate her smokescreen and successfully guess – thereby proving that nobody loved her.

      I grew up to be an Asker. Because loving and being loved are tricky enough in this messy world. I’m not going to make it any harder if I can help it.

    2. This is my background also, I am not going to be able to guess at what people want, or pick up hints, because attempting to do so will put in into an anxiety/shame spiral. I’ve had enough of people hinting and guiltripping at not guessing correctly for a lifetime. If this means I can’t hang out with “guess” type people so be it. Why is using your words so difficult? I also don’t understand when I use my words and somehow people think I mean the opposite.

  22. “One Foolproof Trick For Seeing If A Budding Friendship Is Actually For You”

    Mine is: Am I worrying a lot about whether this person Likes Me? Like, more than I’m feeling excited just because this person Seems Teally Cool?

    Grade A, Almost Definitely Going To Work Friendship: “this person just seems really cool! And fun! And smart! And nice! And did I mention fun! How can we hang out more?”

    Grade B, Might Work Friendship: “this person seems really cool! And fun! Do they like me? I hope they like me! They probably like me! I’ll see if they want to hang out more!”

    Grade C: Probably Not Going To Work Friendship: “Does this cool new person like me? Was that thing I said stupid? I wish I hadn’t said that. They’re so cool, but they probably think I’m dreadful. Ugh.”

    The more I’m stressing about whether someone like me, the more likely it is that I don’t ~actually~ like them. I mean, I might like them in principle—I might like the idea of them or admire their many fine qualities or whatever—but basically, something between us isn’t clicking because they are not making me feel confident and unconscious in their regard. With people I really like, there’s some basic level of feedback that means I *know* they like me too and that whole concern just isn’t part of the equation at all.

    1. I suspect this metric mighht have to be calibrated against the brain-health-o-meter (if one is in a depressive spiral/long anxiety attack everything gets wonky), but otherwise, I like this a lot!

      1. Yeah, for me, an ever present underlying layer of anxiety (particularly with regards to potential friends and offending people) is base level normal, things are probably fine. If I’m in a really intense anxiety cycle with someone all the time though, they’re probably not a good friend for me.

    2. I wish I could use this metric. As it is, especially when it comes to solo hangout time, I’ve never actually managed to reach the stage of not feeling like you need to ‘perform’ for the other person in any prospective friendship since grade school. I could tell myself to just knock it off and act naturally, either the friendship works or it doesn’t, if of course ‘act naturally’ weren’t in itself such a lovely oxymoron.

      1. I agree entirely, I cone out of almost every conversation with all people feeling like Grade C. I’m sure I have missed out on all kinds of wonderful friendships because my brain weasels think I’m being overbearing or something.

    3. I love this! This makes so much sense and explains something about why I’ve felt more comfortable in my new job than the last one. I realised I very rarely catch myself thinking “oh no I did xyz thing wrong, they must think I’m stupid and weird”. I just feel like they get me and/or give me the benefit of the doubt and like being around me.

  23. OP, you say “I (she/her) am someone who is GREAT at respecting “no,” but really, really bad at understanding deflection and being ‘politely’ ignored.” With all respect, I think this means that you are (and are, on some level, aware that you are) a person who is generally bad at respecting other people’s boundaries.

    I say that because the vast, vast majority of boundary setting is not the “I am explicitly telling you exactly where my line in the sand is; as long as you don’t cross that, we’re 100% good” type of boundary setting. That kind is a lot of work for the boundary setter!! They have to consciously draw that line in the sand; they have to find clear wording to verbalize it; they have to find a setting where they can communicate to you clearly, without distractions or having to rush off; they have to open themselves up to the possibility that maybe you’ll decide to intentionally disregard their boundary, and all the hurt and anger that would come with that outcome; they have to repeat the process if their boundaries have shifted or if you didn’t understand the first time. That’s a lot to ask of someone, especially a new acquaintance who isn’t all that invested in you yet. If that is the only kind of boundary-setting you’re willing to acknowledge, you’re blocking yourself off from a lot of potential relationships.

    If you want to be better at respecting people’s boundaries, you need to take on some of the work of identifying them yourself. There are two approaches you can take to accomplish this: you can learn to pick up on hints, and/or you can learn to explicitly ask before doing things.

    Picking up on hints is largely about paying attention to the details. If your new friend looks even a little uncomfortable, back off–even if they verbally say it’s fine. Remember things they’ve told you in the past; if they mention how much they hate it when people touch their hair without asking, assume that applies to you too and make a mental note not to touch their hair. If you’ve invited someone to hang out one-on-one a few times and they keep not making it happen, take that as a no, even if you get along really well in group spaces and they never explicitly said they don’t want to hang out. If you’ve brought up a topic a couple times and they changed the subject soon after, don’t bring it up again.

    If you know you’re bad with hints (whether you’re still practicing, or just don’t feel able to catch them period), your safest route is going to be to always ask first. Don’t just reach out with open arms; verbally ask if they’re up for a hug. Don’t just start telling them about the hard thing that happened to you today; ask “Are you up for listening to me vent for a few minutes?” Make sure these questions leave room for them to say no–you should be asking them as a sincere question and then waiting for an answer, not just asking and then breezing right by, not phrasing it in a leading way like “It’s okay if I do this, right?” If they do say no, make sure you’re accepting that easily, with absolutely no pouting, guilt trips, debating, etc. Ask *every single time*, even if they said yes last time–just because it was okay on Tuesday doesn’t mean they’re up for it today. Not everyone will be up for friendships where this has to happen for you to respect their boundaries, but at least you probably won’t overstep and hurt them while trying to feel out your compatibility.

    1. This is an excellent comment and helps me understand something that’s been bugging me about a specific friendship. I hope it will be helpful to the LW as well. Thanks, Amy!

    2. This! Like you say, it’s a lot to ask of someone to draw a solid boundary and communicate it. A person doesn’t always know exactly where the boundary is, or whether a new thing or circumstance will be ok or not, and sometimes boundaries shift – which is fine, and normal, and human. Friendship is the act of continuously adapting to each other.

      In a friendship, it’s up to both people to communicate (whether verbally or nonverbally) when they like or don’t like something, AND to notice the other person’s communications and recognize patterns. The patterns are the boundaries. The people whose communications you find clear and easy to understand will likely end up being closer friends.

    3. Yes! I’m willing to explicitly draw boundaries with people I already trust to respect them – a friend was joking about something, and I had *had it* with that particular joke, so I told him. “Honestly, that joke just isn’t funny to me anymore and is kind of making me mad.” His entire response was, “Okay, sorry, consider it pulled from my repertoire.” And he’s never made it again. With a new friend? Who could read my facial expressions? Who constantly made a joke that put me on edge, no matter how slightly? I’d just fade. I’m not going to go into a relationship knowing I’m going to have to actively police a boundary.

  24. OP – the captain touched on this, but it might be a really, really good idea to interrogate your own needs in a relationship, and see if anything falls out. A hard lesson for me to learn, was that there are some people I will never be friends with – not because they do anything bad, but just because certain styles of communication are so hard for me to deal with that to maintain a deeper relationship with them would take so much effort, and I would be so afraid of missing their boundaries, that it just wouldn’t be worth it. My fiancé’s best friend is one of those people. I think she’s really great! In theory, we would be fantastic friends! In reality, interacting with her for more than a few hours at a time every couple of weeks at most is exhausting for me, and I always end up feeling bad about it. C’est la vie.
    If you’re always feeling bad because you think you’re missing boundaries… maybe don’t be friends with the people who are bad at communicating their boundaries [with you]. There are plenty of people out there who will have sufficiently different world views, but *not* communicate in an incompatible way – there are more efficient ways to use your social energy then worrying about something you can’t control 🙂

    A slightly more actionable piece of advice – I have a 3 invites rule. I’ll invite a person to do an activity (with a specific date/time associated) and if they cancel on me, so it goes. Some time passes, and I still want to be friends, so I’ll send them another invite. If they cancel that one, then *maybe* if I really want to be friends, I might let some time pass and send a third invite. But that’s it – 3 cancels in a row = they don’t have the desire to be friends, or at least not to be friends right now, so I let that whole relationship go. They still have my number, so if they change their mind, or get less busy or what have you, they know how to reach me 😛

    1. I also use the 3 invites rule. Unless they try to reach me, I just let it go. You’re right that sometimes people aren’t ready “right now” and this feels like it isn’t a total rejection and we can both feel OK about it.

      1. The one thing I would add to the 3 invite rule is explicitly stating that the ball is in their court somehow (usually along the lines of, “Hey, call me if you want to do something.”) so they know it’s up to them.

    2. I was going to say something similar! There’s nothing wrong with being someone who tends to hash things out and find middle ground with people, or communicate better with direct signals. Not every failed communication or incompatibility is the result of one party not respecting boundaries.

  25. LW, you say someone has walked away after gently hinting at a boundary that you apparently crossed twice. Since you recognize you crossed the boundary, have you ever apologized? I ask that sincerely, not as a way to say you should apologize. Someone who has walked away from you might not want any kind of contact with you (and that can be hard to gauge in and of itself). But acknowledging an error and sincerely apologizing for it could a) help repair a social relationship b) open up a dialogue about boundaries, where the other person talks about others they have and you get to talk about yours. If you have tried this, I would love to know what the outcome was. It would make a big difference to me whether I wanted to pursue a friendship or not.

  26. Nobody else has mentioned Mindfulness here – I’ve found practicing this has helped with all kinds of situations where amygdala is sending some signals that stuff is off and letting me consciously process that in the moment instead of just feeling anxious and not working out why until later. Then you can deal with it assertively in the moment while it’s happening. Otherwise you’re in “boiling a frog” territory where the boundaries are slowly being trampled and you feel terrible but don’t know why, and everything gets so dysfunctional that you have to cut the relationship completely for your own sanity.

  27. This is a great answer, Captain! FWIW, my read on what’s being asked here is “How do I get other people to express their boundaries instead of just ghosting me?”

    It’s my guess that this is what LW is talking about because I had a friend whose process was a lot like LW describes, except replace “walk away” with “Punish Muffin until there are tears.” It wasn’t a good friendship, and I eventually broke it off; in retrospect, I think the failure to *express* boundaries clearly was actually a huge red flag and I should have left sooner.

    1. I read the question the same way. There are a lot of people who will twist themselves into knots in order to avoid actually ever saying ‘knock it off please’ over even the simplest things and it can be really disorienting and even hurtful if that’s not your pattern.

      I had that friend too. I never figured out how accidentally doing something (minor!!!) that they didn’t like made me a terrible person but deliberately doing something in order to hurt me (still refusing to say why) was totally ok.

  28. It’s not an absolute foolproof trick, but I get a lot of use from listening to the difference between repetition and escalation. I find that repetition is usually a deflection of just being polite whereas escalation is communication that the speaker means what they say and wants to be listened to.

    In Fae’s example above, a guest was told once at each of 3 dinner parties that there was no need to help with the dishes. The guest heard that as polite deflection and helped anyway. In other words, the same words were repeated, not escalated. If I were advising the host, I’d have recommended something like:

    1. [soft voice] Oh, no need to help.
    2. [a little louder] Really, I absolutely prefer doing this myself.
    3. [clenched teeth or yelling] Out of my kitchen! I’m particular about how things get put away in my own kitchen and don’t want you here. If you’re a friend, you’ll get out now.

    I also like testing early on. I used to have a way of helping a potential friend in a hundred ways because they needed help and I didn’t mind helping. Then months or even years in, I’d need a favor, would ask it, and would learn that the so-called friend didn’t mind accepting favors but saw no reason to return them. It rubbed me wrong to feel like I was experimenting on friends, but I’ve learned to do it. It doesn’t matter if the favor was a small one I didn’t mind doing, and it doesn’t matter if I don’t particularly need the favor, I ask one. It might be bringing the picnic lunch or saying I’d like to get together but asking my friend to make the arrangements as to choosing the date, time, movie and restaurant. If I’ve done the driving, I ask them to once or twice. My experiments teach me a lot. Note that I’m not saying that everything has to be kept even on a tit-for-tat basis, only that it’s better to test early as a way of gathering information.

    1. The testing early thing is something I’m finally learning after some really hurtful experiences where I overestimated the closeness of the friendship/how willing they’d be to reciprocate/how willing they’d be to stand up for me as a bystander to bullying.

      I think it also applies not just to one-on-one relationships but to organised groups as well. I’ve learned the hard way that the structure of some groups allows people to take advantage of the grey areas between what is considered a personal favour and what is considered a contribution to the group as a whole (or part of the “game” eg in LARP/reenactment groups) to evade reciprocating. It’s a sociopath’s dream.

    2. I have been diagnosed with avoidant personality disorder. My graduate advisor frequently found the need to append “This is *not a test*, [Student]!” to questions he asked me during tutorials–apparently I flinched without being fully aware of doing so. My parents had tested my young self’s loyalty and respect a lot. The idea of a friend (or, even scarier, a potential-friend who is Interviewing Me for Whether I Merit Friendship–I hardly knew that was a real thing) deliberately testing me is an old, old nightmare that I’d assumed was a worst-case fear unlikely to happen in real life. Clarry’s comment feels frightening to read.

      1. Thank you, Forsworn Memorialist for your answer. I learned from it. I never wish to hurt someone that way.

        What would make you comfortable and secure that would accomplish what I was describing above where Friend 1 wishes to find out if Friend 2 is taking advantage?

        1. I think *asking a favor* early in a friendship is fine to do. It’s the framing of it as an experiment, or a test that the friend can fail, that raises my sense of unsafety. Also the idea of “finding out if someone will take advantage” kind of leaves me wondering if I need to stop asking friends for favors legitimately needed (eg, rides where buses don’t go) for fear that scores are being silently kept and/or that “taking advantage” is a red line a lot closer to my average ask than it appeared (and maybe even when people say “it’s fine/no trouble”). May I ask, what is sufficient evidence of a friend’s capacity to reciprocate in your view? And what signals of “advantage taken, this ask is too far” could I learn to recognize in my own benefactors?

          1. When I’m on the asking side I watch for a diminishment in enthusiasm. If the first time I asked for a ride they said, “Yeah, riding together would be fun!” but more recently they’ve been responding, “*sigh* I guess I can do it if no one else can,” then I take it as a hint to ask less frequently or to try harder to balance the equation with gas money, fresh baked cookies, or being a supportive friend by listening to their oddball political ideals with a straight face (they weren’t offensive ideals, mind you, just very unique ones [completely impractical in my opinion but very entertaining!]).

            It’s not about an exact quid pro quo. I gave many rides to a friend who is blind, which obviously she couldn’t reciprocate. But she & her husband were generous in their hospitality and delightful friends in general, so I didn’t begrudge a minute of the time I spent as chaffeur. And groveling isn’t necessary but a real “Thank You” every time helps one avoid seeming entitled.

          2. I think for me one-sided friendships aren’t the sort of thing where you’re going to get the clear “sufficient evidence”, because it is more of a long-term thing/overall “sense”. The times I’ve felt a friend was taking advantage would be stuff like they constantly call me to talk about something they’re going through, but then when I need their support, they suddenly always have to go. But, that doesn’t mean if I provided a lot of support to them during a legit rough time that they are obligated to take my calls – it’s a pattern more than a one time thing.

            I also try to remember that people often are much better at remembering the things they did for others, but not the things people did for them – I’ve seen enough situations where both people are convinced they are the one putting more work into a relationship that it can get messy. Honestly my metric is more “is this friendship making me exhausted/annoyed more than happy” vs “is this person objectively bad/taking advantage.”

            I hate being in the position of having to ask for the same favour, so if it was a case of always going to need a ride I’d try to set up a system, or I offer options like “if you want to hang out at your house I can’t easily get there, would you rather pick me up and I’ll give you gas money, or meet somewhere I can bus to?” As a non driver I try to be reaaally careful about never taking advantage of my car-having friends – and some people are just sensitive about this. I have a friend with a car who will say during the making plans, AND during the hangout how she can’t give me a ride, even though I have literally never asked or expected one, and it’s honestly kind of insulting/frustrating.

          3. Out of nesting. Thanks for your responses re: rides and reciprocation-in-other-kind, spiralingsnails and twomoogles! I used to bake bread periodically for a colleague who habitually gave me rides to the train station.

          4. I’m coming late to this, but this resonated with me, and I wanted to say, I think that despite Clarry’s framing this as a “test,” from the outside it looks to me more like establishing an equal relationship from the beginning of the friendship, and seeing if the other person can hang with that.

            The requests they describe – bringing the picnic basket, arranging plans, trading off driving – are basically just sharing the responsibilities of doing stuff together, and not allowing a pattern to start, where they’re the one doing all the work. It’s about Clarry’s behavior, as much as the new friend’s.

            When you know one particular quality is make-or-break, it can *feel* like a test to find out if it’s there. But I think this more about starting the friendship as you mean it to go on – it feels weird because it doesn’t come naturally, but that’s true of a lot of worthwhile things.

            So, I don’t think you need to worry about asking for favors or your friends keeping score, Forsworn Memorialist (easier said than done, obviously!) One thing I would recommend if you want to check in is to bring this up at a time when you *don’t* need a favor – just something like, “Hey, you’ve given me rides a few times now, and I really appreciate it! I want you to know it’s fine to say no when it’s not convenient – I can figure something else out, and I don’t want you to feel obligated.”

            I hope I’m not misinterpreting your words, Clarry. I related to both your post and Forsworn Memorialist’s, so I know I’m projecting a little!

          5. Out of nesting, replying to boo bot: Thanks, this is insightful and safe-making regarding “starting in a way to avoid an antipattern” and checking in with benefactors. Also, I would usually pair a request with an alternative, eg, ‘may I have a ride to the station tonight? If this isn’t a good day to ask, I will ask a different colleague,” if there was time to find a backup.

  29. Boundaries are one of those things that are just super situational, and so the LW’s question feels weird. Like, how I communicate and maintain boundaries with a boss vs. a coworker vs. casual professional acquaintances vs. casual hobby-based acquaintances vs. members of my social circle I am not particularly close with, is totally different, and is often based a lot on the relative power of myself and the other person with whom I’m communicating/working.

    That said- the people who I tend to become friends with, out of this milieu, are people with whom negotiating boundaries doesn’t take a ton of work. I really value emotional intelligence and recognition of emotional labor, so someone who’s going to move from “person I have friendly chitchat with” to “person I actively seek out to spend more time with regularly” is someone who’s able to understand a soft no, and who’s able to communicate their own no’s to me effectively (even if those are soft no’s, so long as they’re communicated effectively/at all). Our time on this earth is limited, and honestly, I like having friends with whom it’s not a struggle to be myself and who are comfortable being themselves around me.

    Also, what the Captain said. Relationships of any type require effort, and it’s entirely reasonable to expect the other party to put in as much effort as you do. When it comes to friends, I find that these are people with whom my excitement level about spending time with them is matched. Like, if we run into each other when we both have free time, will both of us be pleased and excited by this? Will we be able to find something that we both enjoy doing to fill that time? Great! Awesome! We still might not wind up friends, because life is difficult and weird and sometimes stuff doesn’t work out, and it’s not anybody’s fault. But also, our friends should be points of joy and happiness in our lives, and there are literally billions of people in this world and you can’t be close personal friends with all of them, so it’s okay if it doesn’t always work out! Hopefully the next person will be someone you click with better.

  30. Hello to the Captain and the Crew ~ this is my first time posting! I absolutely love this blog and the community it creates!

    I have historically over-invested in relationships my whole life. I was not popular as a kid, and I’m an extrovert. This created some really bad social habits during my adolescence and early adult life: I craved friends and wanted to please. I ended up with some really dysfunctional friendships that way. If I were a dog, I’d be the Golden Retriever who can sense the non-dog lover in the room, and then spend hours bugging that person for rubs, treats, attention, etc. I’m not the best at reading social cues. My daughter is an adult with autism, so maybe I’m a little on the spectrum or at least I have an unobstructed view of it from where I am. That’s not a bad thing, by the way. My daughter is one of the finest and most honest people I know. It just means she and I need really concrete language to communicate…

    This is the strategy that I learned: people will act in ways that get their needs met. If someone finds a conversation unpleasant they will often do whatever it takes to make it end. So when I invite someone to do the Really Fun Thing That I Think Would Be A Blast and they hear “do you want to do this [insert Activity They Hate here] with me?” And if I’m eager in the asking, then they may feel that saying “Oh God no! I hate that!” to be a bit harsh. So in that circumstance, I’ve noticed that people will agree with me and accept the invitation just to make the conversation end. Later, I’ll get an email/text to the effect that “something came up and I can’t make it”. I put the later cancellation in perspective with what else I know about the person, and give them the benefit of the doubt. This is especially true of my dear loving introverted/conflict averse peeps. I do the thing without them. No biggie. And I make a mental note of their boundary for the future.

    I’ve learned that some people are just trying to optimize their options, and some are just selfish. In those cases I use the Rule of Three: I will initiate an invitation three times and then just not initiate any more until the other person gives a concrete signal that they also want to do things with me. This weeds out making “friends” who always expect you to call, to invite, to plan while they always hold onto the position of being the one to say Yes or No. As my dear sainted mother used to say: “don’t swim an ocean for someone who won’t hand you a glass of water.” This way, I mark my own boundary clearly in my own mind of what I need out of a relationship.

    The only other idea I have is to own your own communication style. I’m an attorney, so we like certainty and clear language. I use self-depreciating humor and invite people to say no to me. I find people who won’t take NO for an answer to be problematic, because they tend to be allergic to the whole concept of boundaries in the first place. But most people are good and want to do the right thing, but don’t know how.

  31. One possible answer for a soft no is some variant on “cool, call me if you want to get together.” If I invite you to go to free Shakespeare in the park on a specific date and the answer is just “thanks but I’m busy Saturday,” I might say “OK, let me know if you want to go to another show sometime.” Not “Well, how about Sunday?” or “if you don’t like Hamlet, Actors Shakespeare Company is doing *Pride and Prejudice,” either of which could feel like pressure.

    There are also answers that (i hope) make it clear that the person saying them would like to spend time with the person whose specific invitation they’re turning down. For example: if you invite me to Shakespeare in the park on Saturday and I already have plans but like the idea of going to that show with you, I might say “I’m busy Saturday, but how about Sunday?” Asking *well, how about Sunday?” when someone just said thanks, they’re busy Saturday is pushy; it’s a bit different if it’s part of the same answer as “thanks, but I’m busy Saturday,” because at that point the person suggesting Sunday has some evidence that the other person would like to spend time with them in the near future.

    1. I’m thinking here of my friend L, who could get relatively cheap theatre tickets, if she was willing to buy ten at a time. She had a bunch of us who she’d call and ask if I was interested in seeing X show, at Y time. And if you said no, “OK, maybe some other time” and she’d call the next person.

      If I just said “no thanks,” she’d keep asking about equally often. But when I was out of work for a while, she asked if she should keep offering me those tickets, or wait until I was employed again. And she did the same for people who were very busy with things that would last months or years (sometimes grad school, but one friend wasn’t available in the couple of months before April 15th every year), because she knew that some people wanted to be called in case the offer seemed appealing enough even on a tight budget, or one evening came free in the middle of five busy months. And other people would rather not be reminded of the fun they can’t have right now.

      That’s a great system, but I wouldn’t expect her to extend that to all social stuff, to the things that were more “I want to see you” or “hey, can I lean on you for a couple of hours” than “we have this shared interest, and it works well for me to organize group outings.”

  32. As a person who isn’t good at reading soft cues, here are a few tips I’ve picked up to make me better at not trampling over people’s boundaries.

    1. Make it clear that “no” is an acceptable answer

    For example, “Do you want to go to a sportsball game, or is that not your thing?” This framing makes it clearer that “Nah, sportsball isn’t my thing” is an acceptable answer, rather than being seen as rude or abrupt or something that will get pushback.

    When some people utter this kind of sentence, something about their delivery makes them sound judgey about the “is that not your thing?” part. (Imagine the delivery of “Do you want to go to a sportsball game, or do you think you’re too good for sportsball?”) If you’re concerned your question might come out that way, rising and trailing intonation is your friend. (“Do you want to go to a sportsball game? Or is that not your thing? Or…?”)

    2. Put the ball in their court

    You: “Do you want to go to the sportsball game?”
    Them: “Um…I’m not sure…I’ll have to check my schedule..”
    You: “No worries! The tickets go on sale on Tuesday at 10 and I’m going to be pouncing right away, so if you want in, let me know by then!”

    That way, it’s all on them now. If they want to come, they’ll have to contact you, thereby giving affirmative consent. If they want to opt out, all they have to do is nothing.

    3. Name it

    This is not for early in a relationship, but rather for once you have an established friendship, or if you’ve had a misunderstanding after putting the ball in their court. (So, in the example above, if they wanted to go to sportsball but didn’t get back to you by Tuesday at 10.)

    “Historically, I’ve struggled to recognize when people are giving me a soft “no”, so I try to err on the side of not pressuring people.” If it’s an established relationship that’s going to continue into the future, you can even set up protocols specific to the relationship. “So if this ever happens again, do you want me to follow up before the tickets go on sale? Or would that be nagging?”

    1. Part 1 of nnn’s comment is one of my favourite ways of trying to ensure the other person doesn’t feel pressured. That is, always have an “or” in your offer, which in terms of your tone is presented as just as good. E.g. the way that asking “hugs, high five or a wave?” is better than asking “hugs?”

      1. Oh, I like that! Offering a range of alternatives would absolutely reduce some of the social awkwardness folks can feel when saying no to people they don’t know well. (as long one of the options is a no contact / equivalent to nothing option of course)

      2. I love the “Or is that not your thing?” when delivered in the way nnn describes, with the trailing intonation (versus the more judgmental tone)! It makes me feel like the other person is signalling that if I say “No, sportsball isn’t really my thing, I’m afraid,” they will: a.) not hate me because I don’t like sportsball or b.) think that when I say I don’t like sportsball, what I really mean is “and I think you are stupid for liking it.”

        And unchartedworlds, I absolutely love the “hugs, high five, or a wave?” and I wish everyone would use it!

  33. Lots of people have stated that if someone’s needs around boundaries don’t click with your communication style, then you’re probably not going to b friends and that’s OK.

    I’d like to add that for some people, being explicit abound boundaries has historically led to the boundary being deliberately trampled.
    When “I find this unpleasant, please stop” has a track record of leading to more unpleasantness, then yeah someone’s going to be wary of needing to explicitly state WHAT the thing they hate is, because you might just do more of it.

    They can’t read your mind and they don’t know that of course of you wouldn’t.
    Needing to explicitly say “I don’t like this” to a person that they don’t already know well, like a proto-friend, already feels icky because their (my) experience says that by the time you have to say Stop, it’s too late. The other person has already chosen to trample past your flinching and redirection and soft noes.

    TL;DR, sometimes it’s not you, it’s them, but there’s still a damn good reason for it and they are not required to ~just give chances~

    1. I, too, have had the experience where a direct, clear communication of “I do not like ducks” has resulted in that person bringing me more ducks. To see my reaction? Because they found it funny? Because “everyone likes ducks”? To punish me for being direct? Who knows. And who cares about the reason, the action is obnoxious.

      Or they rules-lawyer at me. “It’s not a duck, it’s a greeb. You never said anything about greebs!”

      It’s exhausting and it makes me feel unsafe. So, if I’m not sure how safe I am, I go for a softer, more palatable “No.” I just want to end the interaction and get out.

      1. Ah, I see you have met my mother’s extended family!

        I hear this. When you’ve learned that a directly stated boundary is going to be weaponized against you, it’s really hard to overcome that programming. I can do it when someone has been around me enough that my emotional security system has grudgingly moved them out of the “CAUTION! Emotional harm could come at any moment!” zone and into the “No imminent threat detected; lower Level 1 shields. Maintain remaining shield levels” zone. But with new people? Yeah, it’s a lot of work and worry.

    2. Yes, this!

      I have had massive trouble setting boundaries with my in-laws, and it took therapy to realize that my hesitation around telling people something bothered me wasn’t universal and was something I’d learned through childhood bullying. Like, why would I point out to someone where my weak spots are? That doesn’t sound safe at all.

      And my experience was mild, as bullying goes.

      Saying “this bothers me” takes a fair bit of trust. Trust that it will stop, that it won’t be used to mock or berate you, that it won’t be filed away in case they want to hurt you in the future.

      People who haven’t spent their childhood trying to be invisible to bullies or abusers might grant this trust automatically to people they don’t know that well without seeing it as a big deal.

      Added to that, you don’t necessarily have to have experienced bullying or abuse if you have brain weasels telling you to expect the worst in every situation.

      I don’t know what the solution is, except that the more you show people you’re safe, the more likely they are to tell you if you upset them.

      1. Like, why would I point out to someone where my weak spots are? That doesn’t sound safe at all.

        Oh! That’s exactly why I have so much trouble doing that! Thanks for putting it into words.

  34. Thank you for this. I really needed it this year. Been struggling with some guilt after slow fading a formerly close friend (because we were no longer compatible and I got tired of our conversation styles where she insisted she needed me to be more direct, but could rarely accept a direct boundary) But she’s so kind and generous and works so hard. Regardless I’m done. I can’t do it anymore.

  35. I have distanced myself from two types of friends. The first is supposedly feminist women who like to remind me that I can wear pants. (cisfemale here.) and I don’t need to wear makeup or keep my hair long or style my hair for anyone. Yes, I got the memo that women have choices in their lives, I’m just femme in that way. I don’t tell women how to dress and as a kid, my mom used to dress me in overalls, but I preferred my skirts and dresses more. If every time I see someone, they make remarks about it, after me telling them I just like to dress in skirts, then my friendship will be limited
    The other person I distance myself even more from is ANYONE who pesters me about the fact that I live downstairs from my parents. I am disabled, housing in my area is super expensive and really hard to come by if you need accessible housing, and I am super close with my parents. It actually affords me a bit more independence than if I were living on my own. Other disabled people are actually the main ones who commit this offense. I didn’t talk to one of my friends for two years because she kept bringing it up. (She doesn’t anymore.) I don’t recommend living with parents for most people I know, but I’m a person, not a social justice movement, so my life, my choice. I usually explain some of this and if the person implies afterwards that I’m not living up to the Independent Living Movement or something, I will be polite to them at functions, that sort of thing, but we will NOT hang out.

    And one last note, I had a very traumatic experience concerning boundaries (romantically so won’t elaborate.) and I have gotten MUCH better at saying NOPE to friends and colleagues . I used to be one of those “Everyone has to like me” people and it was part of my self worth to be seen as “sweet ” and “acommodating”. It’s not like I’m mean or uncompromising but if people don’t like me, I know plenty who appreciate what I bring to the table. (And the 2016 general election results played a big role in my evolution too.).

    1. Yesssss to the parents thing. I need to live with people I know well (yay for depression) and all my friends–for many varied reasons–would not be good ideas. So parental units it is.

      Yes people judge me and it suuuuuucks (even people who “should” know better… grumble). But when my choices are live alone and become so depressed I need inpatient or live with my parents? I’m gonna have to go with B.

      1. At some point I read a great Miss Manners column about how it’s weird that people think it’s weird to live with your parents. People throughout the world and throughout time have lived with parents as adults. It’s incredibly common. And it’s really nice if you get along with your parents and provide each other mutual benefits by living together. Why is not getting along considered the default in adult parent/child relationships? Why isn’t it celebrated when people like their parents?

        (Not that I’d ever judge someone who isn’t close to their family – I’m sure they have their reasons.)

        1. Yessssss! One of my unmarried sisters lives with me, my spouse, & our kids, and IT ROCKS! We get help paying the mortgage from a tenant we trust around the kids; and she has social anxiety so having ‘safe’ roommates/ landlords is much less stressful than moving in with strangers would have been. Win-win!

          It wouldn’t work for everyone (not even within the same family) and it took a lot of intentional communication & ground-rules up front to get things started right, but family cohabitation is an option that I think more people should consider.

        2. I live with my mother and older sister (my sister is here part-time; her husband is retired and they had to move out of the city to afford housing, but her job is still here in the city, so she stays with us on work nights), for similar reasons as Oranges, and have also encountered prejudice due to that fact. I likewise find it utterly baffling for the reasons you note: getting along well with one’s parents should be a good thing, not a bad thing; multi-generational households have been the norm for nearly all humans who have ever existed (it’s really only in industrialized capitalist societies with a high degree of urbanization for middle-class and upper-middle-class families that nuclear family households have been a norm, and not even in all such societies, so for a minority of the population for a little over 100 years), including most of those who exist right now; and housing is expensive, making seperate dwellings a large-but-unnecessary expense (and increase in necessary domestic labor) when one has people with whom one might comfortably share a dwelling. Abusive norms of parenting may contribute, with authoritarianism and privacy invasion so common that people assume a functional shared household with one’s parent(s) as an adult is impossible. Even more strangely, because housing is expensive and many people cannot afford a single-family house, living with total strangers (perhaps as flatmates/housemates, and apartment buildings are technically a lot of strangers living in the same building together) doesn’t tend to invite the same kind of derision or suspicion in my experience as living with adult family members, especially one’s parent(s).

  36. Today is a great day for discussions about friendship in the advice column world! This and Heather Havrilesky’s column today (https://www.thecut.com/2019/06/ask-polly-my-friendships-make-me-sad.html) are giving me so much food for thought. I like, Heather, have found that I can’t always trust my instincts when it comes to friendship and somehow manage to set the bar too high and too low at the same time.

    I think you two ultimately come down to the same point – that friendship often requires some intense introspection and sense of self and communication, but also the courage to just…chill, and let it be what it will be. Sometimes I literally just close my eyes and say the word “surrender” to myself, to remind me to let go of my rigid ideas of What Friendship Will Be that are really just mechanisms to try to protect myself from ever getting hurt, a futile endeavor if ever there was one.

  37. Thank you Captain ❤ Your response really spoke to me. I've been guilted pretty badly in some ugly ways in the past for walking away from friendships/acquaintanceships that often were not super close – like the person was somebody I'd met in an online support group a year prior, they did something off and weird, and I backed away and blocked them after they drug me into their ugly attack on another friend – when it was clear that things were really unhealthy and remaining in contact with the person was exacerbating my mental health issues. Or had somebody insinuate that I don't really care about DV survivors when I unfriended/blocked somebody who like me is an abuse survivor after she did some particularly toxic things to another friend, and that if I really care about other survivors I must tolerate toxic behaviors and have no boundaries apparently and never back away from/block anybody. I even had others insinuate that I must have some sort of personality disorder for being willing to cut people out of my life who make me really uncomfortable and anxious, and that if I was normal and stable I'd just put up with it indefinitely because friendships are important and it's important to give people "the benefit of the doubt" apparently. Never mind that I've had many, many other healthy friendships that have lasted for years and years that I've never felt the need to back away from.

    And while I've held firm with my boundaries and continue to back away from people who really feel unhealthy and toxic to me and who make me very anxious, the accusations I've gotten for this have really messed with my head sometimes and made me feel pretty bad.

    I get the impression that in general, while most people in my life currently understand my having walked away from a marriage that was abusive to me, I've gotten a lot more judgment and nastiness from feeling the need to walk away from friendships that felt really toxic or in some cases even outright emotionally abusive to me or others, because there's this impression people have that friendships are supposed to be forever and you're supposed to be able to forgive everything from your friends no matter what their bad/toxic/emotionally abusive behavior is. So I really, really appreciate you writing this today, this helps so much.


    One thing I just want to hammer on is this: your needs and boundaries don’t have to be sensible or rational to be important and deserve respect, and neither do anyone else’s. And — though I will not swear to it in a court of law — I suspect that the more one is able to allow oneself to just have the weird needs and boundaries one has, the easier it is to respect those of others.

    I am hypersensitive (going through some shit right now, friends) and there are several perfectly innocuous things I just can’t deal with. Example: found out that a new friend doesn’t text back with any reliability. Was my chatty text about badgers or whatever really that important? Obviously not. Still, I can’t make this person text more, and she can’t make me be less anxious, so that’s my heads-up to draw back some and invest less in this friend.

    It’s not reasonable or fair, and IT DOES NOT HAVE TO BE. But the more I am putting energy into making myself feel safe and comfy, the more energy I have to be understanding when other people do the same.

    1. Nobel Prize in Psychology for you, Jane. Feeling fully allowed to have one’s own weird needs and boundaries is…kinda scarce for me. Astoundingly, when I experience more permission/validity/legitimacy for the needs/boundaries I fear are indefensible, I am less apt to lash out when an apparent infringement occurs than if I’m trying to submerge the sense of infringement under an internal running commentary of “oh don’t be a hardcase, Self, this is a silly thing not worth the potential relational price of asserting!” Gallant Partner is full of good will, but has a tendency to logick away feelings or to respond to an unscheduled “RAWR BOUNDARY INFRINGEMENT, can I not take up space?!” with “now I have to walk on eggshells” and “it’s not fair, you should speak your boundary Calmly and Firmly and then Give Me Time and a Chaaaance To Self-Regulate before being angry”.

  39. One great piece of advice I got on boundaries is that they aren’t simply a barrier against badness. They are supposed to be permeable, like skin – They should let good things in and let bad things from inside get flushed out.

    So that means more than knowing your needs about “no” or “stop.” It also means recognizing when a relationship or situation is happy and helpful for you, and recognizing when you can be vulnerable and process difficult things.

    I read the question as, “I seem to be alienating people that I’d like to get to know better, and I don’t understand why.”

    The best thing I learned about how to step back and see the dynamics differently is to practice following the other person’s lead.

    Not that you blindly agree to everything they say or want. But that you take your cues on energy level, topics, activities, pace, intensity, from them. Not mimicking them, but like when you walk with someone and you try to keep alongside by matching their pace – doing that same type of matching in conversation.

    That forces you to pay close attention to their nonverbal cues. You see a lot, and when I realized how different I felt from my normal style, I could see how I was probably rubbing people the wrong way.

    I haven’t completely altered my personality. There are still people I click with, and those I don’t. But the practice of following made me far more aware how I was coming across, which is useful.

    1. Though healthy boundaries, like cell membranes, are *semi*-permeable (or *selectively, actively, discerningly* permeable), finding that sweet spot is extremely difficult for those brought up to believe that love = *fully permeable* and any lesser permeability = unloving, hurtful for no reason, “you’re using a sledgehammer on me”.

    2. Oh wow, this is a fantastic comment! Boundaries as permeable to the good is something I’ve not run into before in boundary discussions, and I really like it.

  40. “…we ourselves adapt over time in how well we express them and stand up for them.”

    So spot on. Things that get an immediate “no” today would have been negotiable 30+ years ago because I didn’t think it was ok to say it.

  41. All through High School and College, I was friends with Rose. She and I were the “weird girls” and were searching our way through puberty and stuff, so it was probably normal that we grew to be friends.

    The instant College was finished it tapered off. Somehow not sitting near each other made it not that interesting to hear the stories of the other one’s life. Also, Rose was still dating Nice but Boring Boyfriend, her first real relationship, and incompatible in almost every single area that a LTR should have some compatibilities (children, marriage, living together, etc).

    As a woman doesn’t leave a good man just because he’s boring and unfulfilling (I blame her family for that!), she wanted to cheat on him to get some adventure. This started already in college but at that time it was moderately interesting to hear her relationship thoughts. So after College both of us probably two or three times initiated contact but then I realized that I really didn’t want to hear about a) her relationship or b) her cheating attempts.
    I had told her various times to either leave Boring BF or to stop trying to cheat, or at least to try to talk about opening up but she didn’t want to do any of that. Hearing after years and years that Rose still was with BBF, the relationship never had improved at all, and that she was looking for options to get something else without telling him made me sick.

    She probably felt that I wasn’t as understanding as a good friend would have to be so none of us has contacted the other one for years. Whenever I miss her I miss the “idea” of a long time friendship from high school but I honestly don’t really miss Rose as a person.

  42. On the topic of taking anything but an enthusiastic yes as a no. I have a friend in an tabletop rpg group who will sometimes deliver a reluctant yes in some shape or form for playing. Almost without fail, when presented with some opportunity to say “no” (“sounds like it’s maybe a bad time for you? we can find another time later!”), they respond with another weirdly hesitant but insistent yes. And then proceed to be clearly not really enjoying themself. To be clear, it’s not the game, cause otherwise they have fun and are engaged. The second yes is usually followed by reassurances that we will finish the game whenever they don’t want to play anymore – we always stop without question or sulking if someone has to go.

    We usually need all players to play. We have a set time once a week where we play so we can schedule around it but are generally pretty flexible. The hesitant yesses happen when we take stock of everyone’s availability on play day.
    Ignoring their reluctance (which history seems to indicate means “I would rather not but don’t want to be an inconvenience/make anyone sad”) doesn’t feel right. Insisting that they actually mean to say “no” doesn’t feel right, either. Maybe I’m overthinking it? But selfishly, sometimes it really drags down the game. But you can’t really force someone to say no, either.

    1. Maybe ask them? ‘hey, it sounds to me like you don’t really want to do this but are just going along. Am I misreading this, or what’s the deal?’

      Have they always been like this? Maybe they’re losing interest so they’re not eager to play in the abstract, but still like it enough to be engaged while actually playing? If they’ve always been this way, maybe that’s just them?

      You might want to consider recruiting a new player or two.

    2. My mama used to play canasta monthly with a group of 7 other friends. If someone couldn’t attend on third Thursday as usual, there was a short list of approved substitutes to try, so the two tables of game always happened. Could you keep reluctant person in the roster but have a short list of approved substitutes if someone can’t come at the usual time, and remind reluctant person of the list if they seem reluctant?

    3. See, to me, this type of repeated soft no and no-win situation would lead me ask them if they want to continue in the regular group or change to being an occasional player. Because we can restructure it, or find another regular player if the weekly meetups aren’t working for them.

      And if they said they wanted to continue but kept on with the visible reluctance, I’d tell them to call me when they wanted to play, and replace them anyway.

      for them.

  43. One thing I think affects compatibility is that everyone has different types of emotional labor they’re up for. What I have to offer might not be what someone else needs. In my case, I’m good at initiating and don’t need a ton of reciprocity (obviously, we’ll see other more if you also initiate, but as long as we enjoy the times we’re together, I won’t feel bad if I’m consistently the instigator). I’m pretty good at active listening if you need to process something. I’m a great cook and enjoy feeding people and making sure everyone’s dietary needs are met (up to the point that I can actually do; if you can’t safely be in the same room as flour or peanuts or you keep kosher at the separate-dishes level, we’ll need to stick to meeting at the location of your choice). People have told me they find me to be open, non-judgmental, and good at bringing people together.

    On the other hand, I’m not going to offer to help you move. If you ask me specifically (i.e. not just a general FB post of “Hey, can anyone help me move?”), then I’ll come if I can and cheerfully help out, but I don’t like doing it enough to volunteer. I’m not going to be the person to plan you a surprise party or remember significant dates or the names of your siblings or what your parents do for a living. I’ll listen with interest, but I don’t have the bandwidth to retain. And I’m just not everyone’s cup of tea: I’m very direct, my hostessing is along the lines of “there’s the fridge, have whatever you want”, I don’t clean for company, and I enjoy violent hypotheticals and gallows humor. We might be decent people but not particularly enjoy each other’s company, and that’s okay.

    1. So many things in this description are qualities that appeal to me in a friend, and now I want friendship personals—that express what someone is happy to do & skilled at in a friendship, what they can’t or won’t, basic needs & dealbreakers—to be a common phenomenon in society!

      (I really value friends who are good at initiating and don’t mind taking on the bulk of it; I will happily make counteroffers if I can’t/don’t want to do the first suggested thing but want to spend time with the person, I’ll do nitty-gritty logistics planning like “how about we meet my place and carpool from there, this is what time we need to leave because parking is crappy around there, do I remember right that you’re allergic to X, I can pack us snacks, do you like Y?”, I’ll express appreciation and acknowledgement of the labor they’re doing as the primary initiator, I try to determine other things that help them feel valued and do some of them… but due to my specific combination of Brain Stuff and Body Stuff and Family Stuff, doing the initial reach-out is a really high-mental-load activity for me.)

      1. I sometimes have complicated feelings about counteroffers depending on whether I specifically want to see the person or want to do the thing and am inviting the person for company. I try to make it clear which things are negotiable: “Do you want to get together? We could get dinner or go for a hike or whatever; I’m free Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday” vs. “Do you want to come over and play Galaxy Trucker Sunday night?”

        I don’t get upset if someone makes a counteroffer as long as they can take my cheerful “I really want to play this game, so I’ll look for someone else if you’re not in, and we can do something else another time” or “Sorry, Sunday is the only day that works for me; some other time!” in stride. I just have little patience with being pushed back on after that point. (And this is not at all to say I think you would do that; you seem like a very nice person who would be great to do things with)

    2. Spot on. Compatible emotional labor is as important in friendship as in “relationships.”
      Travel planning stresses me the fuck out. Like rapid breathing stress out.

      So I have friends/family who like to plan travels. They do all the planning, all the booking, everything. In return, I give a straight up yes/no/I don’t care if they ask me about something and I am deliberately a good traveling companion and never ever complain or get my nose out of joint if anything goes “wrong.” Don’t care if you lose half our itinerary and we end up in the wrong country; if the hotel sucks, i will only bitch *with* you; I will never sulk because I didn’t really want to this or I really wanted to do that; I don’t freak if we get lost; am perfectly happy to change plans midstream; I am happy no matter what we do or don’t do– as long as I don’t have to fucking deal with pulling it all together.
      Obviously, this won’t work for everyone, but for people who love to plan, I’m the perfect ‘ok! I’m game for whatever!’ person to drag along, or hey, let’s fly to Far Away Land and make it up when we get there.

      And you sound like my kind of hostess. I’m always perplexed when people knock on my door when they’re coming to a party. Just come on in!

      1. Lol, we would be great traveling companions! I love the planning process; my husband likes there to be a plan but gets stressed by making the plan, so we have a similar system.

      2. **I’m always perplexed when people knock on my door when they’re coming to a party. Just come on in!**

        Huh, I remember having someone say, “Well, you could’ve just come in” when I arrived at their house for a party. I felt like, “So…the SECOND I walk in the door, you’re immediately criticizing me..?” (admittedly, delivery probably had a lot to do with it. If she’d said, “Just come on in, silly!” in a sunny manner I would have felt differently).

  44. Two friend anecdotes:

    1. One time, a friend and I were walking together and she asked me if I wanted to come to a gathering at her place that night. I said, “No, that doesn’t really sound fun.” I felt bad being so direct and I’m not sure why it came out that way – maybe I was tired. But she LOVED it, and often told me afterwards that she now knew that if I agreed to something, it was because I really wanted to do it, because obviously if I didn’t, I would just say no. (This is false, by the way – I often agree to things I don’t really feel like doing – but I’m happy to let her believe it.)

    2. I have a different friend who doesn’t really ever say no to things, even when she doesn’t want them. Once you know this about someone, it’s not that hard to navigate – you just look for that enthusiasm. For example, we were trying to pick a place to eat once, and we were about to pass an Olive Garden, and I said, “Olive Garden?” and she said, “…uh, that could work,” and I just took it as a no. (In fact, I was explicit about taking it as a no and we laughed about how it’s not that hard.) But I’m reluctant to ever ask her for favors, because I know she’ll always agree, and I would be very cautious about dating someone like this.

    1. I find your 2 can be frustrating because you never know if or when you’ll get a yes.
      I have friends who would never make a suggestion for where to eat and if I suggested something would be, very oh I don’t know or unenthusiastic okay. They are both the kind of people who were raised to be “polite”, and not forceful, and not “selfish” and are in addition just very agreeable easy-going people.
      On the other hand, I have definite opinions and can be a bull in a china shop. I try to remember this so as not to obliviously just drag people in my wake.

      I finally told my friends explicitly that the “oh, anything’s okay-i don’t know-well maybe this-how about that-i dunno, does that work for you” drove me crazy, so I would hereafter tell them what I wanted and to please agree if it was okay or say no and suggest an alternative. No more “suggesting” and trying to reach a consensus with no one being willing to say anything definitive.

      It not only stopped the 30 minute dance to end up at a place we’re not sure anyone really wants, my friends have become much more assertive in saying what they want and don’t want. It’s okay to say you *don’t want* this! It’s okay to say you *want* that!

  45. There’s a difference between general incompatibility/mismatched communication and Violating Boundaries, and I think if OP left space for that distinction she could ease her anxiety. I think in advice columns or similar spaces, boundaries get discussed in serious terms – often people are trying to grapple with abuse – so we talk about taking very firm lines against any violation. But in regular social interactions, you probably won’t cross someone’s lines hard enough to really hurt them (even if they still don’t want to be friends!) What I mean is: if you like long text convos and I don’t, I’m free to not engage, but you don’t have to feel like you did anything wrong because you didn’t.

    ALSO ALSO – watch if you find yourself with a bunch of people who use the concept of violating boundaries as a way to make you feel bad, or, ironically, cross ~your~ boundaries or otherwise legitimately hurt you. I don’t know if this is applicable to your life at all, but it’s something I’m dealing with in a friend group right now.

    1. Oliver616616, I envy you your freedom to not engage. “free to not engage” has been a theoretical not real option in my experience, getting responses such as frequent interruptive text convos from a clingy colleague or parental “why didn’t you CAAALLLL MEEEE/I’m CALLING YOU because YOU WON’T CALL ME and I WILL NOT LET YOU GO”.

      1. Forsworn, what you’re describing are Boundary Violations, not mismatched communication. If you’re not free to not engage, it’s not merely general incompatibility/mismatched communication.

        If the long-winded texter is a friend/proto-friend, not a clinger, you don’t have to engage. You can -in your own time/way- let them know you’re not up to long text conversations and then, either everything is cool -whether they back off the long texts or you both agree your responses, if any, will be minimal – or you’ve discovered you’re not compatible.

        1. Wow, thanks for the insight, BigDogLittleCat. The Boundary Violators in my earlier life socialized me to feel that disengaging from someone is hurtful in se and shouldn’t be done if I care about being a nice person–or at least that there is a very high burden of proof for “sufficient cause to disengage”.

          1. Oh, yeah, the burden of being “nice.” Ugh.
            And triple ugh for the having to prove your reason is good enough. My life became easier when I realized “because I [don’t] want to” was all the justification I needed.

            Funny how the people who go on at you about being “nice” and needing “reasons” always seem to be the one who are not kind to you.

        2. I ran out of nesting and want to reply to your extremely validating 2nd comment, BigDogLittleCat. Those who need good-enough reasons and require niceness are often not kind, while believing that they ARE being long-sufferingly kind to the unthankful and inexplicably underattached.

  46. When I’m unsure about whether I’m getting a soft “no,” I’ve found it useful to verbalize that to the other person. If saying “no,” is not their intention, then they have the opportunity to clarify.

    Me: Wanna go out for Mexican food tomorrow?
    Friend: Um, maybe, I’m not sure, I might be busy…
    Me: Hmm, sounds like you can’t make it. If your plans change or you want to reschedule, let me know.

  47. Hi LW. I am also a Libra who is very good at enforcing boundaries. I shut down boundary violations immediately, with extreme prejudice. The “two soft hints, then dip” scenario you describe is actually one of my strongest moves. Boundary violations are extremely uncomfortable and upsetting for me. If I dip, I am already uncomfortable, and I’m dipping before it gets worse for both of us. I mean, after the soft nos have been missed, what are my other options? Explain? Tutor? Tolerate? Even explaining, the easiest one for me, risks emotional blowback that I do not want to deal with, like hurting someone’s feelings and then having to comfort them over how bad they feel for making me uncomfortable. And even before I explain, I’ve already spent energy on the cost/benefit analysis, finding the words, framing the emotional tone, and bracing for impact. It’s a lot. Even a good outcome can put me in a funk for hours, and I will definitely keep that person at arm’s length regardless. What it boils down to is that I simply cannot be friends with someone who, wilfully or not, lacks the sensitivity to recognize a soft no. So I dip. Boundary enforced. Mission accomplished.

  48. Macro-Level Moderator Observation From Someone Who Just Liberated Many Spam-Trapped Comments:

    When someone says “I do this communication because it works for me”
    And other commenters say “That wouldn’t work for me at all”/”Oh that would be annoying”/”Oh, it reminds me of someone annoying”
    And the first person or other bystanders say “Wait am I doing it wrong”

    (This happened a lot in the thread in various ways)

    Consider that I could say the words “you look very nice today” or “you did a good job on that” and they could feel like a lovely compliment or a mean, passive-aggressive burn depending on how we know each other and feel about each other.

    Consider the stranger who is saying “oh, that would annoy me so much” doesn’t know you at all and you don’t have to set your personal standard on what would personally annoy this specific person.
    Consider that a poster saying a thing isn’t the same as when the worst person who ever said this specific thing to you.

    You cannot find one way of communicating that is guaranteed to work for every person and situation.

    People who really like you and want to hang out with you will probably overlook [picky eating][aversion to discussions of picky eating][pre-emptive reminders that you’re allowed to say no][bluntness][hints] that don’t align with their exact preferred style. People who aren’t 100% compatible make friends and like each other and hang out all the time, and if what you’re taking away from this post and this thread is “whoa I am doing it all wrong” then we/I am doing something wrong, because that is the opposite of my point.

    My point is: PEOPLE ARE DIFFERENT. You can know yourself and control yourself. If you are doing your best, and it’s not connecting with someone else, it might not be that you did anything wrong. They’re just different from you and not invested enough (for whatever reason) to cross those little irksome divides and parse the quirks. If it happens all the time, the same thing over and over, and you get the same feedback over and over, then yes, work on that. But finding something that works for you most of the time is sometimes as good as it gets! This is not Beat Yourself Up Time, it’s “whoa, people really have different approaches to this” time.

    There are some people where even if we both used each other’s perfect way of communicating, we wouldn’t be friends. It’s too late, it’s just not right. And others who, look, that one thing bugs me (and my one thing bugs them) but it doesn’t matter.

    Don’t try to be perfect. Seek people who meet you where you are and make you feel heard.

    1. Re: “Don’t try to be perfect. Seek people who meet you where you are and make you feel heard.”

      I think this is important. It’s also important to realize that you can be just fine, and other people who don’t find you a good fit for a given level of friendship can be just fine, too — and that your not being a good fit *for them* doesn’t mean you are at fault, and their not finding you a good fit *for them* doesn’t mean they are at fault, either.

      I’m middling short. Always will be. I can’t change it — it’s how I’m made. It’s not my fault. I’m also really bad about shooting hoops and distanced hand-eye coordination.

      If someone really likes to chill out by shooting hoops, we aren’t going to be a good fit. That doesn’t mean my potential-but-not-to-be friends hate short people, or are offended by people who don’t enjoy playing basketball. They aren’t anti-me. They aren’t anti-people-like-me. We’re just different. We’d probably make great colleagues (my job doesn’t require height or distanced hand-eye coordination), and we might make great friends-who-hang-out-at-conferences, but we probably wouldn’t enjoy relaxing together. And that isn’t anyone’s fault, and nobody needs to change.

  49. I (possibly used to) have a friend who seems to think that forced confidences are the route to and proof of friendship intimacy. It’s really difficult.

    We’ve been friends since high school, when close female friendships were often about late-night discussions and telling each other everything. I was also extremely shy and anxious in high school, so everything seemed overwhelming and my friend enjoyed being a bit more worldly-wise than me.

    The problem is that, as we’ve got older, there are things that I don’t want to share with her – and she tries to force them out of me at any cost. She seems to think that extracting information she desires (about deeply personal stuff) is proof that we are still close. And I really hate it.

    I thought maybe I wasn’t being obvious enough with soft boundaries – short answers, evasive or general answers etc – but she would always ask more and more direct questions, ignoring or unaware that I was feeling more and more stressed and uncomfortable.

    Eventually, I made a hard boundary: “I don’t want to talk about that. It’s private.” To my relief, she let the subject drop and I was amazed – wow, this boundary setting thing works!

    But then, about an hour later, she brought it up again – what’s going on?? You don’t normally say that things are private to me?? Tell me about [subject I didn’t want to discuss]!!”

    So I did. But it pretty much finished my friendship with her. I had explicitly told her that I didn’t want to talk to her about something (after 2 evasive subject changes) and she came back to the subject and insisted that I tell her about it. I realised how much of the time that I spent with her I often felt tense and anxious, because I was trying to anticipate and avoid subjects where she would demand confidences or patronize me. How she would often push me to do things I didn’t want to do. And I was just kinda done. We saw each other a few more times, but when she moved to a different country I didn’t make a huge effort to keep in touch.

    It’s sad, because we’ve been friends for years. And because in many ways she’s been a really really good friend to me. But … I don’t really miss her, which is strange and maybe sad, but suggests that maybe I did the right thing?

    1. Wow, that is some grade-A douchecanoe behavior on your friend’s part. (Though I’m sure she also has many fine qualities that I as an Internet Stranger™️ cannot know.) I hope your maybe-ex-friend eventually develops some awareness that her behavior is hurting people and pushing them away, and that you’re able to let yourself grieve of you need to for the friendship you hoped you could have with her.

  50. “[I have a theory that many ‘Missing Stair‘ connections have been grandfathered into social groups from a time when the other members did not feel they could afford to be so choosy, but actually if you look back, these people were a lot of work and gave off a lot of signs of trouble right from the start.]”

    It’s a light tangent to the rest of the threads, but just wanted to say that this theory checked out entirely with me: Missing Stairs coming in at times that felt emotionally sparse/drought years and/or coming in with group members who were in a bad place at the time.

  51. My roommates, after knowing each other for 15 and 7 years respectively, just told me I miss social cues. From about 5 months ago until about a month ago, they have been berating me and yelling at me over incredibly minor things.

    For example, picking up a coffee cup that wasn’t empty, calling my boyfriend for a couple of minutes while waiting for a friend to join us, moving one’s purse off of a chair so I could sit down, and asking for one of the spare lamps when mine malfunctioned. I believe I missed boundaries they tried to set.

    I might have thought it was just them. About a week ago, I inadvertently hurt a couple of people due to phrasing things badly. I apologized to both of them, explaining what I had intended. I thought it was resolved, but I was mistaken. It wound up costing me that entire social circle. It was a case of general boundary set, I crossed it without realizing it, they aren’t compatible in how I communicate.

    Does anyone have recommendations for resources and strategies for developing better awareness social cues?

    1. Wow, I’m sorry you’re dealing with that; it sounds really hard and painful. The examples you give are all things that I can see being annoying in certain situations or for certain people but are also things that could be easily dealt with in words: “Hey, I wasn’t done with that coffee” “It really bothers me when people I’m with face-to-face text or call people instead of talking to me” “Could you ask before you move my stuff?” “I don’t want you to use that lamp / I don’t like lending things out” (Okay, I don’t really get that last one, especially for just asking, but okay people can have boundaries I don’t understand).

      Obviously I don’t have the details, but I’m having trouble imagining what someone could say that isn’t racist/sexist/otherwise awful (which I’m figuring your thing wasn’t) and end up being cut off from a healthy social circle even with apologies.

      Unfortunately, I don’t have much advice about how to notice social cues of that sort; I think this is where the “find people whose communication style is compatible with yours” kicks in.

    2. Hey, I hope you find what you need in terms of resources and strategies, but this:

      “From about 5 months ago until about a month ago, they have been berating me and yelling at me over incredibly minor things”

      is not okay! Yelling and berating you, their roommate, is bad behavior. You shouldn’t be treated that way by people you live with.

      Also, frankly, none of the things you’re describing sound serious or unusual at all – they’re very normal, minor things. If your roommates don’t like them, then they should find ways to socialize accordingly, but it’s wrong of them to get angry with you like this.

      I think you’re being mistreated, and I think you should find other roommates so that you can be more comfortable, not so they can be protected from your vile purse-shifting ways.

    3. What’s so terrible about asking to borrow a spare lamp? This post reminds me of nothing more than letter #194, where a person has been convinced by another person (a boyfriend, in that case) that everything is always their own fault.

      I mean, sure, it’s probably wiser to say “hey, can I move this?” before just going ahead and doing so. But leaving you without a place to sit because their purse was taking up a chair or whatever is not exactly the most considerate thing either.

      As for the second thing — I can’t tell if the social circle involved includes the roommates, or if it’s separate. If it’s not separate, I would take the idea that it’s some kind of independent proof that you’re wrong with a huge grain of salt. Isn’t it possible that the roommates have poisoned the well there?

    4. Here’s the thing about social cues. They’re not one thing with one interpretation that everyone, whether they’re normally considered good at reading them or not, is going to get right every time. If social cues were as obvious as plain statements, they wouldn’t be social cues. Someone could tell you that you’re not good at reading social cues when they’re really demanding you read their mind. Or they might be right that obvious things are being missed. It’s all subject to interpretation.

      The only strategy I know for developing better awareness is what I mentioned up thread: Repetition and escalation. If someone turns down an invitation over and over always with a vague excuse, you may gather that they will continue to turn down invitations, and you may stop inviting. That’s repetition. If someone looks uncomfortable with a lack of eye contact, fidgeting, and a drawing in of arms in a protective stance, you may ask yourself if something you’ve done or said is making them uncomfortable. Note that this does NOT mean that you should conclude that something you’ve done is at fault, only that you may wonder. If they then flee from the room, that’s escalation, and again you may wonder if there’s something you’re missing, but it’s not an absolute.

      1. Thanks, Clarry! The majority of people say I am very empathetic and pick things up easily.

        I have known/lived with one for 15 years and known the other for 7 years and lived together for a total of about 8 months before either of them complained to me. Now, they want me to ask my psychiatrist for autism screening.

        It’s mostly been stuff like suddenly it’s not ok to touch their purse/laptop/etc. when I don’t recall it being a boundary preciously. Resource guarding over dishes and cups. Annoying them by over-explaining. Not realizing they are grumpy before I interrupt them. Losing track of time/hyperfocusing and not realizing they are ready to go.

        1. Here’s my completely subjective, not at all scientific, interpretation of what’s going on: They want you to be a mind reader, and they want it so bad they’re going to go off on wild theories to get it. Here’s what I would do. Stop ever touching their purses and laptops. I say that because I personally, and you do not even know me, don’t like those 2 things touched. Nevermind that they didn’t say they didn’t want those things touched, and nevermind that it’s a sudden rule. For the “etc” that they might suddenly demand that other items can’t be touched, ask and remember what they say. Decide for yourself if they’re being ridiculous. For example “don’t touch the doorknobs” is a ridiculous demand. “Leave alone this particular favorite coffee mug” might not be. Use what they say to spur discussion as in “I can’t promise I won’t touch the doorknobs, and I will leave your favorite coffee mug alone, but I wish you’d told me, and what’s this business about dishes and cups. We’re sharing this apartment, and I’m not going to have separate kitchen items.” (For myself, you’re welcome to all the coffee mugs including my favorite special ones, all the kitchen equipment, but I like my own towels and meds in the bathroom. You can borrow my clothes but not my pajamas. I’m trying to make the point that it’s all arbitrary.)

          I wonder what they’d say if you did talk to your psychiatrist about autism and if your psychiatrist said that you absolutely weren’t. It bothers me intensely that they’re using an “accusation” of autism as a way of saying “you’re wrong.” If they really thought you were autistic, they’d know that it’s on them to be clearer in their expectations. They’d know to spell out “we’re going to be ready go in 10 minutes” followed by “we’re ready to go now” without expecting you to have your eye on them.

          You’re being ganged up on.

          1. I haven’t touched any of their things without asking since the second incident, when her laptop bag was on top of my laptop.

            By resource guarding, I didn’t mean using her favorite cup or anything. I do the dishes most of the time. I picked up her coffee cup, which had 1/4″ of coffee left in it. She yelled at me for a half hour.

            A couple of weeks later, I asked if she was finished with her plate, without touching anything. She hunched over it and snapped at me.

            I have been diagnosed with ADD and bipolar. I was switched to a new psychiatrist when my previous one left the practice. The new one is making some medication adjustments, so we have an appointment for next week already.

            I figure there’s no harm checking in with her about it. For that matter, I figure some strategies might be useful regardless.

          2. Being annoyed that someone picked up an unfinished drink is normal. Yelling at someone for half a freaking hour is NOT. (In fact, does that count as verbal abuse? Probably?) These people are being very shitty “friends”. Even if you’re legitimately annoying the crap out of them, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s incredibly inappropriate of them to respond that way.

  52. My only problem with the dropping a hint type of boundary is that hints aren’t picked up by everybody. I don’t typically understand hints and implied ideas because I’m autistic, but if you tell me to stop, I will absolutely stop and not do it again. So if you say “I’m really uncomfortable” many autistic people will take it as a statement of feeling (because it is) and not a request to stop (what you meant). The boundary still exists but the autistic person couldn’t have known that it existed, and they don’t understand why you’re upset with them or why a friendship ends. And this happens to us all the time when people aren’t clear, and it sucks.

  53. I’ve been reading through all the comments and thinking a lot about this some more. One thing that I’ve noticed for me personally, as a very conflict avoidant abuse survivor with PTSD, is that all of the very good long lasting friendships that I have are friendships where I have never ever had to set any boundary with somebody, not even once. I don’t mean like never turn down an invitation or something like that, we are all busy people and everyone in my friend group accepts as a matter of course that not every person can make it to every friend group thing. But I mean having to ask people not to do or say a thing that bothers me. That’s a thing that I’ve never had to do at all with any of my many friendships that have lasted over 10 years.

    Those friend/acquaintance – ships where I have felt a need to set some sort of boundary or felt uncomfortable and bothered early on – those are the ones that have ended very badly for me with a lot of stress and exacerbating of my PTSD issues.

    And often it seems like the person really knows they had done something inappropriate and expecting me to explicitly state a boundary would have been a cop-out. Like the person I was friends with briefly who among many other things would be constantly would be messing with my hair, even though it had repeatedly come up in other conversations that my ex used to drag me by the hair a lot and I didn’t like my hair being touched. And she’d clearly notice my flinching away whenever she touched my hair, and she’s literally say “It’s ok, the women in my family always do this” like she knew it was bothering me, yet had a ready made excuse of her family apparently for this. And in that case, she’d clearly seen me flinch because she had an excuse ready. So she knew I was uncomfortable. It had even come up in other conversations that I don’t care for it. So I didn’t even see the point in explicitly stating “Stop don’t touch my hair” when it was already obvious to her that I was uncomfortable without my doing so. Or about her constant drive-by ventings at me on Facebook, where she’d vent all this stuff to me in Facebook messages in the middle of the night while I was asleep, then I’d wake up to multiple paragraphs of angsty venting repeatedly for many mornings, and she’s feeling better because she got it all off her chest, and I’m waking up so many mornings to tons of venting angst right before I had to deal with going to work, getting my kid to school, and all that – and every time in her messages there was a “sorry for venting” in there like she already knew it was stressing me out, so what point would setting some kind of boundary have served?

    The one time I did try to set a boundary when she was rude and insulting about “carbs” in the food I served at my house, she immediately came back with something hostile and snarky complaining about my husband (who when she of her own choice offered to bring pizza to my home, then made a big angsty deal about how she shouldn’t be eating this and tried to make us feel bad about it – shut her down and said eating pizza once in awhile isn’t the end of the word) – so it felt like setting a boundary with her would get me an instant retaliation back.

    So I ended up ending the friendship with just blocking her on Facebook and being done, because it was clear that she knew her behavior was bothering me. But no doubt she’d be saying oh I just needed to set more clear boundaries, or phrase my boundaries better, or something. Never mind the obvious flinching. Never mind her knowing her constant venting was bothering me clearly by her constant annoying apologies about it (all while continuing to vent) Never mind her hostile response the one time I tried to clearly and politely set a boundary asking her not to comment about the food I serve in my home.

    So these days I see having to set any sort of boundary early on in a friend/acquaintance-ship or feeling uncomfortable enough that I’m thinking about setting one as sort of a friend red flag. A sign that this person and I are really not compatible for whatever reason, and that dealing with them is maybe not great for my mental health since my PTSD symptoms tend to get a lot worse whenever I’m feeling uncomfortable and off in any kind of interpersonal relationship with somebody, which is what I’d definitely be feeling if I felt I needed to set a boundary with someone.

    And maybe they have their own mental health issues or other issues that make it hard to see my unspoken boundaries, but my own mental health issues and well being matters too and I get to choose to only have friendships that feel healthy for me, and to me that means friendships where I don’t even have to think about boundaries at all.

    1. Oh, Harpy with a harp. This sounds SO recognizable and painful. Jedi hugs or distance-gassho or the form of support from afar that is most welcome to you.

      Re: carbs, there are people to whom I daren’t say “please don’t calorie police” because the resulting “But I’m CONCERNED/You KNOW I’m RIGHT” would hurt worse than just being quiet and ordering whatever on the menu would be least judged, and re: hair and other appearance-invasiveness there has been someone who *sat me down and used an exfoliation tool on my face without asking* and responded to flinches (the how-dare-you sort, not the physical discomfort sort) with repeated exclamations of “It *doesn’t hurt!*”

      A lot of boundaries advice doesn’t seem to provide for the situations where we KNOW from experience that saying a boundary would only determine someone to retaliate for our “unlove” or “disrespect” or “not niceness”, or to continue and justify an invasive act, as if to show us that our boundary was *mis-guiiiii-ded* (I will always be able to hear the way someone in my past prolonged that vowel).

      1. “hair and other appearance-invasiveness there has been someone who *sat me down and used an exfoliation tool on my face without asking*”

        OMG so much NOPE!

        1. To be fair, it was my mother, and she probably felt she was heroically saving me from facial down others would judge but never mention. She said with an embarrassed and embarrassing laugh, “Honey you have a problem. Let me fix it!” or similar before she started sanding.

          1. Even there, I’d react a lot better to something like “sorry, but it needs doing” or “this is the least painful way to do this” than to someone denying the evidence of my own senses in order to keep doing something that hurt. I don’t expect dentistry to be painless, but I once went to a dentist said he had a way of injecting novocaine that wouldn’t hurt; it did, I said something like “ouch, that hurt” and he said “no it didn’t.” Not “sorry,” but refusing to admit that his trick hadn’t worked and the injection had been painful for a moment. I did sit through that session, but never went back.

            But what I did there–walk out of the office, never go back, and consider finding another dentist–isn’t really generalizable to close family.

          2. I’d react a lot better to someone saying ‘please can I?’ and accepting no for an answer. It doesn’t really matter the reason they give or who they are if they are touching me without my agreement.

          3. Yes, this! I wish the well-meaning ladies in church would never again turn down a tag that’s sticking out of my top or dress. It startles me, interrupts my singing/listening/praying, and leaves me with an itchy tag against my skin.

  54. Autistic person here and this letter speaks to me.

    So I have high-level advice, and then more hands-on practical advice.

    High-level advice:

    You cannot be friends with everyone. Nobody is going to be compatible with every person under the sun. It is perfectly fine, it is healthy, it is necessary to pick your friends from those people whose communication skills mesh with yours. This category should really include a diverse bunch of people with diverse opinions so you can still have a wide range of friends! But the thing where you’re saying you want to be able to bridge communication-style gaps by putting in all the work required yourself? This is likely to go wrong. Because this relationship is now imbalanced: any misunderstandings are now solely your fault and it is on you to change how you act to prevent them. And that is a really toxic mindset to be in and can lead to some serious damage.

    Be kind and respectful of yourself and your own needs: accept the fact that not everyone is going to be compatible with you, and that’s okay. You can’t be friends with people who do the “subtle hint then walk away” thing? I couldn’t be friends with them either. That’s okay.

    Hands-on practical advice:

    All that said, there are some styles of indirect refusal that are so common that failing to understand them can come across like failing to respect an explicit no to NT people. I decided it was worth putting in the effort to handle those, because it really reduces my chances of making somebody massively uncomfortable and does open up my potential friends pool quite a bit. Due to the autism, I can’t deal with this in a super nuanced way – e.g. any decision point involving “check if potential friend looks uncomfortable” is a no-go. Instead, I have the broad rule for myself that I take excuses and explanations at face value and do not attempt to find a way around them.

    Me: “Hey, would you like to meet up for coffee Satuday?”
    Potential Friend: “Sorry, I need to wash my hair”
    Me: “Ah, OK! It was just a thought. Let me know if you’d like to meet up some other time, though!”

    I do not ask why hair-washing is a standing appointment that blocks out the entire day. I don’t ask if she could do it some other day. I don’t ask if she’s free Sunday instead. The reason isn’t important; the refusal is the important thing.

    I may make an exception here for things like “offering food” or “offering to help with the washing up” where I know that politeness often calls for refusing the first request. However, I’m very unlikely to persist beyond a second “are you sure? I really wouldn’t mind”. This is probably not sufficient for a bunch of cultures that do this sort of dance, but see above re: not everyone is compatible with everyone.

    In general, I err on the side of overcaution with these things: I’m sure there were instances where the potential friend would really have liked for me to go “oh but how about Sunday?” and their body language and whatnot was totally signalling they were really into this idea. Oh well! I once again refer to the above: people who communicate in that way are people where a friendship would never have worked anyway. And I’d rather pull back too often than accidentally make someone uncomfortable when I don’t mean to.

    1. I’m not autistic but I absolutely follow this rule as well. I actually don’t know if “I need to wash my hair” is an actual true reason or they are trying to get out of doing whatever….but it really doesn’t actually matter!

      I have a friend who is VERY hard to read in this way. She gives me mixed messages all over the place. So I just remind myself, when I find myself feeling like her “Sorry, I already have plans” is actually a “I’m tired of you, go away,” that there’s actually no arguing with either the truth or the lie. Meaning, if she truly does have plans, well, I’m not going to make her cancel them. And if she is tired of me and wants me to go away, well…my needling her into coming clean with her truth isn’t going to change her mind.

      1. In my usage, “Sorry, I already have plans” doesn’t mean “I’m tired of $IndividualInviter, go away”; it’s a euphemism for something very different. It’s the way I decline an invitation to a group activity without giving an internal real reason that is likely to be judged adversely, to be second-guessed, or to cause pain to the inviter. “Come to this study of %sacred text defending %not-a-postmodern-viewpoint!/this nutritional scare film at our exercise studio! Rah! Rah! Life-change!” Outside voice: “Sorry, we have plans. See you at worship/at dance class next week!” Inside voice: -If I either attend this and am seen to be uncomfortable or state that I don’t CHOOSE to attend this because I disagree with its PREMISES and would be triggered, there’ll either be an earnest Overcoming Barriers to Improvement conversation or the inviter will feel that I have invalidated something very important to them. The opaque box of a social decline must remain opaque.-

        1. “my needling her into coming clean with her truth isn’t going to change her mind”

          This is a great reminder for people seeking clarity and explicit explanations that sometimes accepting things at face value(ish) is a perfectly good and friendly option, and if you press the ask, you have to be prepared for an answer you may not like. I once had a good friend (who was also at the time my roommate) who got really into a social/spiritual thing that I was unthrilled about, although I could see that all in all, it was a positive thing for her. She would come home from a thing-related activity all excited about it and I would listen and ask questions because it it was important to her, but when she would start with “hey, next time you should join me!” I would get evasive and have other plans—because why rain on her parade, but there was no way I was ever going to join in. She finally absolutely pinned me down: said she thought I was being evasive about this thing that was important to her and it was a bummer for her and what was up with that? So I came clean with a strong “This is absolutely not for me. I am never going to be even a tiny bit willing to get any more involved in it.” (I hope I didn’t say “because I think it’s really dumb and semi-cultish” but that was pretty evident at this point.) She was a really good friend I had known for a decade, so I was willing to be honest, because if I couldn’t be honest, what was the point? As it went, she was able to accept my boundary, stopped asking, didn’t sulk—and I still consider her a friend decades later (albeit a much much more distant one). But with a less important relationship, with a person I didn’t trust? Not worth the emotional energy and effort. The opaque box of social decline is opaque for many reasons!

        2. You’ve articulated something I’ve had a hard time expressing. As much as we all like to believe that we’re totally fine with being turned down, some invitations don’t exactly invite honesty from the invitee. I used to know a guy from a student job who would not stop asking me to jam with his band. It would have been so awkward for 19-year-old me to have to say, “You are very kind, but I don’t know you very well, you are 20 years older than me, and it does not sound fun to play Tom Petty songs in your basement with your other dad friends.”

      2. I think this is a great rule!

        Since I enjoyed reading Forsworn Memorialist’s description of how she used this, I thought I’d share mine. I’m pretty antisocial, so my more accurate version is “Sorry, I have plans to stay inside my apartment and not talk to other people. Because people are terrible.” Obviously that would be hurtful, so I just say I have plans without elaborating.

        This is actually pretty similar to Forsworn’s usage in that it’s never personal, but is used to spare feelings. It’s a sort of “If I tell you the real reason it’s going to be a really unnecessary Thing, that neither of us wants.”

        1. Thanks, Thistledown. I’ve occasionally had “plans at home to conserve social spoons or protect partnership time” myself. I should admit that in the most recent case of “nutritional scare film avoided with intent” I didn’t even dare say “plans”. I said nothing, skipped two regular classes at the studio, had a genuinely overextended work week, then at class on the morning after the film I didn’t go to, said truthfully “Week of Many Deadlines, it’s good to see you all again at last!” After the general invite and the specific “Forsworn and Spouse, I hope YOU can join us for the film” I figured ANY verbal deflection would be seen as a transparent excuse, and I didn’t want a residue of awkwardness with our instructor and treasured dance tribe.

        2. I like this! I’ve also received and used scripts like, “Thanks but I’m spent and really looking forward to down time at home alone with my book tonight!” which frames it as a positive exciting plan I’ve made for myself.

  55. Late to the party, but I’m seeing a lot of comments about so-called Guess Culture and indirectness that bother me. I generally try to be direct, but—

    a) If I’m using body language and facial expressions, I *am* being direct. If I’m backing away or I look angry, that is me saying “you’re too close” or “I’m angry.” This is not subtle, mystical Guess Culture witchcraft that takes god-tier social skills to understand. If you have problems with language, that doesn’t make you a bad person, but I’m not *wrong* for not immediately verbalizing my boundaries every single time you come close to them.

    b) Expecting someone to adhere to near-universal social conventions (e.g. don’t eat my food or ask about my sex life if we just met) without constant reminders isn’t unreasonable, arbitrary, or ableist. If you are a serial non-adherer—again, you aren’t bad or unworthy of friendship, but you may need to resign yourself to not being most people’s cup of tea.

    c) It’s possible to learn to generalize about someone’s boundaries. If someone hates it when you try to hug them, you can guess that they might have other issues with you getting in their physical space or belongings. If someone doesn’t seem to want you texting them constantly, they probably won’t be happy with constant calls or IMs. I am not being oblique or difficult when I get annoyed that I can’t relax around you because I have to play whack-a-mole with your behavior.

    I know the ethos here is to use your words, and I try to do that as much as possible. However, CA is right that it can be *very* difficult to be around people who are otherwise lovely people, but don’t seem to live in the same shared social universe.

    There are many shades between “blunt” and “so subtle it’s microscopic.” Most communication happens in those middle shades. If you are unable or unwilling to see anything that’s not on the extreme blunt end of that spectrum, it doesn’t mean that I’m a frustratingly indirect Guess Culture person. It means that you’re not necessarily a safe friend for someone who isn’t interested in constantly forcing you pay attention to their needs. You may not be able to help it—non-neurotypicality! lack of socialization! personality! whatever!—but that doesn’t make you any *less* unsafe, especially in situations where there’s no difference in the consequences of “I don’t know what you need” vs. “I’m ignoring your needs.”

    1. ❤ ❤ ❤

      Communication that isn't explicit verbal commands (like "Stop touching me! I don't want to hug!") is still valid communication even if some people have great difficulty reading body language and facial expressions just like Swedish is still valid communication even though I don't speak a word of it.

      I'm also getting tired of the idea that tactful, gentle communication that lets people save face and tries to show care for their feelings is somehow wrong and cowardly and why won't those horrible shifty guess-culture people just say what they fucking mean?!!!1111!! Yeah I have some feelings about this 🙂 I'm also salty about what a strange coincidence it is that the way women are often socialized to communicate is the way that gets shit on for not being clear enough. My boundaries do in fact still count even if I don't express them exactly the way somebody prefers.

      Using your words is great and all, but until I know somebody well, I don't know if it's safe to be direct with them. Some people will respond really well to a direct request to stop doing something that bugs me, and some people will go "UGH. Well fine I GUESS but god do you have to be such a bitch about it?" and then go tell everyone in the office that I flew off the handle just because they did one little thing and everyone should know to watch their step around me.

      1. Yes to all of this! Especially the thing about not knowing whether a new person takes directness well. Ask Culture Guy can say “Why won’t people be direct with poor oblivious me?!” all he wants, but c’mon, we just met! Even if he announces his preference for absolute honesty up front (which most people don’t), we all know that guy who suddenly needs the meeeeean direct people to be more gennnnntle and kiiiind to him so he doesn’t blow his lid.

        I wish I could link to a Simpsons GIF, but in lieu of that:

        HOMER: Heh heh heh, from now on, I’m gonna be just like Krusty and tell it like it is. Marge, you’re getting a little fat around the old thighs!

        BART: Dad!

        HOMER: You too, Bart!

        MARGE: Oh, knock it off, Homer; you’re the fattest one in the car!

        HOMER: [shocked] You didn’t have to tell it like it is, Marge!

      2. Using your words is great and all, but until I know somebody well, I don’t know if it’s safe to be direct with them.

        So, I promise I’m asking in the spirit of genuine inquiry as a very direct ask-culture person: what kinds of things can people like me do in order to build the kind of trust that lets you get to know someone well enough to trust them with directness?

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