Hi Captain Awkward,
One of my (32, she/her) very best friends (ditto, ditto), Sara, has been dating John, for about a year, and I’ve recently realized that I just do not like him much.
Most of the time, in either big or small groups, John doesn’t interact much with me or others at all; he’s in the “just kind of there” school of significant other-ing, which is understandable early in a relationship. We haven’t found any common interests (besides Sara) that could be an easy point of connection, other than me occasionally asking him about work in a small-talky way, which is too bad, but not a huge problem.
The problem is when he does interact with me unprompted, it’s often to “well, actually” me: things like “you don’t need bug spray, we’re on pavement” (yes I do) or “you say you’re avoiding sugar, but you’re drinking wine right now” (uh, OK?) or “you could take a rideshare for the same amount you’re spending on that drink, and then you wouldn’t need to stress out about taking the bus” (reiterating that I need to catch that bus is my way of signaling that this conversation will have an expiration date!). Or he’ll point out a flaw or foible in a sorta-joking way. Maybe he’s just a jerk; maybe he’s just socially awkward and is trying, badly, to join in the conversation. Either way, as another close friend, who has also not warmed to him, put it recently: it feels like he’s lightly negging us all the time.
I realize that part of adulthood is that my friends are going to date or marry people who are not necessarily my cup of tea, and that even if Sara and John break up, I will likely not be so lucky as to genuinely connect with every single person my friends ever bring around (though I’ve been pretty lucky so far). In these situations, what are some strategies I can use to forge some low-key social bonds, or at least manage to tolerate hanging out with, people who would not be my first choice to socialize with but matter to people I care about?
—I Could Probably Be Trying Harder Here Too
Dear “I Could Probably Be Trying Harder,”
If you want to “try harder,” try saying something back to John when he says this stuff to you. The One! Weird! Trick! for engaging with difficult people who comment on other people’s consumption or other habits that are really none of their business is: Don’t engage the judgmental comments on their merits. Don’t explain why you need bug spray, why you’re happily spending your day’s sugar allotment on wine, or why you like public transit, actually, because it means having a set departure time in mind. Instead, point out how weird it is that he would comment on this at all, and challenge his authority/standing to speak to you this way. For best results, be incredibly boring about it, use a flat, even tone, and it’s okay to use the same script for all instances of this.
John: “You don’t need bug spray, we’re on pavement.”
You: “Weird, I don’t remember asking you.”
Then apply bug spray! Don’t be an urban mosquito buffet!
John: “You say you’re avoiding sugar, but you’re drinking wine right now.”
You: “Weird, I don’t remember asking you.”
Then drink your wine!
John: ““You could take a rideshare for the same amount you’re spending on that drink, and then you wouldn’t need to stress out about taking the bus.”
You: “Weird, I don’t remember asking you.”
Then drink your drink and take the bus home!
Alternate scripts or strategies:
- “Okay.” (then do what you were going to do anyway)
- “Howabout no.”
- Take a beat of sweet, cold, delicious silence. Maybe give a confused shake of the head, like you saw a dog do a magic trick. Consider the shrug. Then go back to whatever you were saying or doing without acknowledging what John said.
- “Hey, I think you think that’s an okay thing to say or a joke, but it’s actually annoying when you comment on what I’m drinking or doing, please don’t.”
Do these scripts seem “mean” or “harsh”? They aren’t, unless you think communicating disapproval when someone says something annoying and patronizing to you is “mean,” (which a lot of people seem to think is the case and will try to argue you should never do unless you know for sure that the person intended to be evil beyond a reasonable doubt and until you’ve exhausted all “nice” strategies for quelling the behavior, preferably without ever crossing over into making someone who annoyed you the tiniest bit upset or uncomfortable…or accountable). People are always full of advice for what a woman should do about a man’s rude behavior (like patronizing comments or unfunny mean jokes at her expense that don’t land right) and it’s almost never saying “Bro? No. No, Bro” and expecting him to change his behavior.
Instead: (I guess? Though I can’t remember where or how I know what these expectations even are, I just know that people have them?) We’re “supposed to” “just ignore it” (for the sake of our friends’ romantic happiness, which apparently means permanently tolerating it when their chosen dudes can’t hang and also worry it will be our fault for not being nice and accommodating enough if a chosen dude becomes abusive down the road and tries to isolate our friend from her friendships. Also, if we ever say, ‘Hey, your boyfriend can be kind of a jerk to me sometimes what’s that about, is he ever like that with you?’ it’s probably ’cause we are “jealous” and don’t want our friends to be “happy,” which happiness can only be achieved via long-term heterosexual partnership with a dude who can’t hang?
And if we have a problem we’re “supposed to” deflect, laugh it off, be nice, extend empathy and sympathy without expecting any in return (aka himpathy), “be the bigger person,” or else we’re supposed to find a good reason for it, assume “he probably didn’t mean it that way,” and (my favorite!) brace ourselves for the summoning of Schrödinger’s Autist, who only ever comes out in internet discussions when men are being shitty to women, as if autism and misogyny are co-morbid (they aren’t), as if women with autism don’t exist (they do), or as if autistic people don’t try EXTRA FUCKING HARD to be polite and avoid accidentally pissing neurotypical off (they do!) and as if they don’t respond better to direct feedback about interpersonal stuff than many allistic people do because they don’t assume they already know how do to do everything (<3!).
And if we’re Slightly Too Mean to a man when he’s a little bit mean to us, well, then it’s probably our fault he acts that way, what did we expect, why did we escalate things instead of smoothing them over? Do I have this right?
Kindly consider this entire website to exist as a refutation of the above-described attitudes and conditioning.
If John is acting this way because he’s kind of a jerk, then he needs to stop it.
If John is “just socially awkward and trying, badly, to join the conversation” then, welcome to the time-honored tradition of socially awkward people realizing that what we are doing isn’t working when we don’t get positive feedback when we make jokey and overly-familiar insults and perhaps experimenting with non-insulting communication strategies and seeing if we get better results next time. If John fixes this behavior, you’ll like him better, it is actually that simple!
You don’t have to endlessly submit to this annoying behavior and try to smooth it over to be a good friend to Sara. If her boyfriend is bad at interacting with her friends and turns gentle correction when he steps out of line into a chance to double down and drink deep from the Well, Actually, you’re still allowed to “Well, Actually, IDGAF” your way out of these annoying interactions. He isn’t Sara’s fault and she’s not his governess or life tutor, so address it with him directly and expect that he’ll adapt if he wants to get along with his girlfriend’s friends.
You don’t have to endlessly submit to this annoying behavior and try to smooth it over, period, even if John meant it as a joke, even if Sara doesn’t mind being joked at this way, even if every single other person at these gatherings wouldn’t mind it in your shoes. You’re still allowed to mind it, and, look, you’ve got some independent confirmation from this mutual friend that he does this to other people, too, and it annoys them, too, so I definitely don’t think you’re being too exacting or unreasonable. You’re not overreacting, you’re reacting.
What I need you and all of us to definitely stop doing in the name of feminism [I’m dead serious]: Stop framing a situation where a dude is behaving badly as a situation where *you* need to try harder to excuse or endure or engage with him. You’ve tried already! You’ve been perfectly pleasant to John and tried to find acceptable topics of conversation. It’s actually okay to not particularly bond with someone or have much in common with them and coexist at a polite distance, and when they cross that polite distance, it’s also actually okay to check people. It’s not the end of the world, “Bro, no,” isn’t a Doomsday Device or The Extremely Good China that can only be taken out for special occasions. For most people, hearing, “Hey, what do you mean when you say stuff like that? I think you think it’s a funny joke, but it’s actually just pissing me off, so, could you not?” is a sign to apologize and change it up.
In other words, John has choices. One choice a kind-but-socially-awkward person can make is realizing, “Hey, I have unintentionally messed up here and annoyed this person, even though I meant it as a joke. I really like the LW and don’t want to upset her, and I want Sara’s friends to like me, so I’ll apologize and not do that annoying thing any more.”
If he makes different choices, that might make it less enjoyable for you to hang out with Sara when she brings him along and more likely for you to want to schedule Sara-only hangouts to set yourself up for a more enjoyable time with her, but that’s not a situation you created, and it won’t be a test of tolerance or friendship that you failed. It’s okay to hope that your friends won’t date people who are hard to get along with, and to refuse to pretend everything’s “amazing!” when they do.
Edited To Add: I am closing comments, even though they are mostly constructive. Almost 400 comments strategizing about how to tell one guy to pipe down a little when he does something annoying = That’s enough comments and way more than enough work!
Letter Writer, next time John says something irritating to ‘neg’ you just reply with one of the many scripts along the lines of “noted” or “who called the bug spray police” and move on with your night. He’ll either adapt or he won’t, he’s not your burden, you’re not his life tutor, you don’t have to pull him aside for a gentle performance review. ❤