#1224: “When someone wants to be friends but shoots down all small talk attempts.”

Hi Captain!

As I’ve tried to make better friends with her, I’ve realized that my roommate’s GF is a very negative person. Several times in a conversation, small talk will be shut down with very honest but also very negative responses that make it hard to move the conversation forward. Some examples:

Me: I heard you and your parents are going to [nice restaurant] next week, that’ll be so fun!
Her: It’s actually not very nice there.
Me: Oh, really?
Her: No.

Roommate: I think I’ll start taking Spanish classes.
Me: That’ll be fun! And it will definitely help in your line of work.
Her: I speak 3 languages and it’s never helped me.

A few points:
1) These are conversations that take place, for example, while we’re all sitting around in the den before we all scatter to do separate things. That is, she and I are not hanging out one-on-one or having intentional heart-to-hearts, it’s ‘we’re both/all sitting here, let’s not sit in silence’ vibes.
2) She has apparently told her BF she wishes she were better friends with me, so it’s not that she’s trying to shut me down and I’m missing the hint. I would have stopped trying by now if I didn’t know she apparently wanted to be friends.
3) I recognize that my pattern is to try and put a positive spin on things, and clearly she doesn’t appreciate that… but I have no idea how else to make light small talk, especially when she doesn’t seem to be introducing these negative angles in order to confide in me or something. It just makes the conversation die.

While I do want advice for how to manage this particular friendship better because this person is constantly hanging around my house, I realized that this is also a bigger question, and one I thought you’d be particularly suited to answer because it comes up quite a lot from the opposite side in questions here. What do you do when you’re the person trying to make the small talk that the other person apparently finds annoying or offensive (accepting as a given that they aren’t just trying to make you go away)?

best,
Chatty Cathy (she/her)

Hi Chatty Cathy!

It’s 2019 so I’m going to advise you to do less and try less hard.

Your roommate’s girlfriend is a frequent guest in your house and you are being basically hospitable and kind to her, yes?

Great. That’s all you have to do.

If your roommate wants to foster better conversations in your living room and bring you and his girlfriend closer together, he has choices! He can play host, draw everyone out, make sure everyone is included and feels comfortable, invite you both to things you’d mutually enjoy, pick up her conversational balls and toss them gently back into the middle, or ask her outright what she means. He passed on his girlfriend’s wishes to you, cool, does he expect you to do something about that that’s different from what you’re already doing? If so, he should ask you to do that specific thing, and you can decide if it’s something you can or even want to do. 

His girlfriend told her boyfriend/your roommate that she’d like to be better friends with you. If that’s true (and it probably is)(though keep in mind it could be mostly about him wanting you do to more hosting work that he doesn’t want to do himself) she could do things like: Invite you to hang out, ask you how your day is going, start a conversation with you, respond more fruitfully* to something you asked, or tell you that she’d like to be better friends and ask if there’s something she could do to make that happen. She knows where you live! She could even say “Hey, I appreciate how you always try to talk with me when I’m over, I’m not much for small talk and I hope I don’t bum you out, just, we can be quiet sometimes and that would be ok! I hope you know that I like you a lot!” and then you could chill out and relax.

*She doesn’t have to perform positive emotions in order to be good friend material, but  you’re not messing up if someone purposely lets a particular conversation-ball drop and you leave it to them to either pick it back up or lob you a new one. The examples you provided sound to me like this lady is either wanting to shut down a line of discussion because it’s uncomfortable for her or basically daring you (& her boyfriend, perhaps especially him) to ask her questions about [not-nice restaurants][possibly weird upcoming parent interactions][her employment struggles re: languages]. And without knowing her better, it’s a paradox: If she’s trying to shut down discussion, then you are being respectful when you pick up on her vibe and change the subject. If she’s trying to test the waters with sensitive subjects, when neither of you asks for more info, she gets internal confirmation that nobody in the room really cares about that stuff (or wants to discuss it this second), which, let me be absolutely clear, might be true.

I think this is a common vibe, actually, with a subset of self-described small-talk haters who want to “skip the pleasantries” and get to the “real stuff” with people. [I am not talking about neurodivergences that make small-talk fraught and exhausting right now, that IS a thing but a) we have no reason to know it’s a thing in this situation and b) it’s not the only thing – preferences come into play in all cases]. It’s not that I don’t have “real stuff” or an interest in discussing human darkness, it’s that with people I don’t know well or like much (or like much…yet) I maybe don’t actually want to talk about their parents or do a deep dive into their troubles in my free time, and refusing to pick up gambits like this in favor of sticking to neutral/pleasant stuff actually is a polite form of deflection/distancing.

For example, I shared a cubicle with someone who sighed dramatically every time she sat down for two years and the one time early in my employment there I asked her “Whoa, what’s wrong?” five years of stored up grievances poured out of her mouth like bees and I regretted it so deeply that I probably never asked her a question that wasn’t “Where did you save the file” or “Can I bring you back a sandwich? No mayo, right?” again. She was a big one for throwing out a dramatic negative ambiguous statement in response to a routine “How was your weekend?” question (which is different from not liking the question or wanting to deflect the question, she definitely 100% wanted to be asked about it), and she probably thought to herself “Jennifer doesn’t care about the important stuff in my life” and readers, if so, she was 100% right about that. I was polite to her, I worked my ass off to never be the weak link in any shared projects we had, I was a basic amount of work-friendly to her (I once overheard her describe me to someone as “fake,” which again, correct, I was definitely faking a lot of things at that job to get through the days) but the thing I was not faking was this: Lady, I don’t like you that much and I am not pretending that I’m here for your ballad of dissatisfaction. We can talk about work, the weather, or nothing, I know which one I’d pick! So my answer to: What do you do when you’re the person trying to make the small talk that the other person apparently finds annoying or offensive (accepting as a given that they aren’t just trying to make you go away)? is: I stop talking and let them handle the work of conversation, if any. Whatever I’m doing isn’t working so….[1,000,000 shrug emojis]

It’s okay if you don’t want to be closer friends or do ANY additional work at this lady. Once we cover the base where you are polite and kind to a person who regularly visits your home, everything else, and I mean EVERYTHING else, comes down to your preferences, your comfort level, and your enjoyment. Do you want to be better friends with this person? Do you enjoy the time y’all spend together? Would you like to put in some more effort to figure out a better way of interacting? Or do you wish you could just watch your shows sometimes without worrying about making conversation with this person or whether you’re supposed to be friends? It’s okay if you decide, nope, I don’t think we’re compatible! You don’t have to manage your roommate’s relationship or his girlfriend’s social skills development. You’re not being rude. If she’s unhappy, or he’s unhappy, it’s not down to you and it’s not your problem! So be honest with yourself and proceed accordingly.

Once you know what you’d prefer and how you feel, reasonable responses to your roommate’s/her boyfriend’s passing on of her wish to be better friends could be:

  • “It’s great to hear your girlfriend likes me, I can’t always read her reactions so well. I hope she knows she can always ask me if she wants to hang out or talk, you don’t have to be her ambassador.” (Only use if you DO want to get to know her better)
  • “When you say she wishes we were better friends, what does that mean? Is there something specific she’s asking for?” (Again, only use if you DO genuinely want to spend more time with her.)
  • It’s nice to hear your girlfriend likes me, I can’t always tell. She is always welcome here, and I’m always happy to hang out with both of you when she’s visiting. Beyond that, I don’t know what to say. I’m glad she makes you happy but I don’t see us hanging out on our own. Sorry if that puts you in an awkward spot.” THEN LET HIM HANDLE IT.

As always, adapt, combine, refine what’s useful to you until it sounds like you and is true for you. You’re allowed to prefer your own (polite, pleasant) conversation style in your own house without it being a problem to be solved.

Things I’m a generally an advocate for in making communication more harmonious and less stressful: Direct communication whenever possible (vs. communicating through someone else), giving the other side in a potential conflict every opportunity to describe and articulate a positive case for the thing they want, translating wants or feelings into specific actions where possible, refusing to automatically take on more work in a situation until the other people do some work to at least spell out what they need. Also, especially when talking to someone about their romantic partner (or a family member or close friend), it pays to assume that whatever you say will be passed on to the person, at least in some form, so perhaps do not say something about someone that you would not say to them. Whatever you end up deciding, “Remember when you asked me a question and I took the opportunity to vent to you about how unpleasant I think your girlfriend is?” is not what you’re going for.

Here’s hoping that you find the right balance between getting along with this lady and your roommate pitching some away games at her place so you can watch your stories in solitude.

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