Hard to Say is a column about delicate situations and difficult conversations, for people who wish they could hire a ghostwriter for all their texts.
A reader writes:
I’ve seen some sentiments going around Twitter over the past few months about how you should be extra patient and non-judgmental with your friends because there’s a pandemic… the gist being that people should get a pass on bad behavior right now because everyone is struggling. Do you agree? What if someone is behaving really badly, or selfishly? What if they are taking risks (not wearing a mask, going to house parties, etc.) that put others at risk, or think posting a black square on Instagram constitutes full-throated activism? Even though I know we’re currently in extreme circumstances, I don’t think I’ll be able to easily forget or forgive how some of my friends have acted or the things they believe are OK. What are your thoughts?
Before you write a friend off, especially a close friend, for behavior that isn’t particularly politically charged, I think it’s worthwhile to go through the exercise of taking the most generous view of this person and whatever they are doing that is annoying you so much. Some things to consider:
- Major recent life events. Have they lost their job and/or health insurance, gone through a breakup, had a family member get sick or die? (And think about things that happened late last year, before the pandemic started.) These things can really mess with all aspects of a person’s life—even if they are saying they are fine, and even if lots of people are going through the same thing.
- Access to healthcare. Dealing with gestures around tiredly everything right now is… a lot! It’s even harder when you’re in physical pain, unable to sleep, or depressed. Does your friend have insurance, a primary care doctor, all their usual prescriptions, a therapist who they see regularly?
- Support networks. Who else does your friend see/talk to every day, or regularly? Loneliness can take a toll, so think about whether not having the usual social connections (including co-workers or acquaintances) or not having someone to talk/vent to might be playing a role.
- Self-awareness. Do they seem conscious of the ways in which they are acting differently this year? Have they mentioned to you that they are struggling for one of the above reasons? Being aware of the problem will only go so far, of course, if it doesn’t actually motivate them to make changes or stop whatever it is they’re doing, especially if they are doing something that is really hurtful to you. But if they recognize that they aren’t their usual self, that matters.
- Duration. Is the behavior new this year, and seemingly related to the pandemic, or has it been going on in some form for a while now?
Before you declare someone you used to be close to toxic and cut all ties, may I also suggest… talking to them about what’s bothering you? You might say something like this:
- “Hey, I’ve noticed lately whenever we catch up, we’re spending a lot of time talking about what’s going on with you, and I’m not really getting a chance to share what’s going on in my life. Could you try to shift the balance a bit, or make a little more time for me to talk about my stuff too?”
Maybe they’ll be receptive; maybe they’ll double down. The only way to know for sure is to try.
ALL THIS SAID… if you want to break up with a friend because of behavior this year, particular behavior that is related to their values… go ahead.
But if you do care about having a “good” reason, well…. pandemic-specific behavior like not social distancing or not wearing a mask when one very much should is a pretty good one.
Most of us have dealbreakers when it comes to friendships, even if we’re not conscious of them all the time, or during “normal” times. I think it’s been easy for a lot of people—particularly in a culture where talking about “politics” makes a lot of folks uncomfortable and where “agree to disagree” reins supreme—to ignore or downplay the unsavory or even shitty beliefs of people they otherwise like. The events of this year have made waving these traits away a lot more difficult for a lot of people.
Which brings us back to the examples you brought up, Letter Writer.
Being flippant about wearing a mask or avoiding evidence-based coronavirus best practices in favor of one’s own desire to gather with 30 family members indoors every weekend isn’t the same as not always asking you how you’re doing during hangouts. Similarly, being wishy-washy about Black lives and police brutality isn’t something that all of us can “agree to disagree” on. While I’m very hesitant to call mask-wearing or the belief that Black lives matter “political,” it’s clear that both of these things—or, really, the absence of them—reveal something deeper about who we are. The things you want your friends to do better this year, LW, are rooted in your values, which is why it’s not outrageous to want to end friendships over them.
Do I think you should make the decision to end a friendship based solely on what you see on Instagram, without ever talking to the person again? Eh… it depends. If they aren’t a terribly close friend and the stakes are low—i.e., if you’re looking for permission to simply mute or unfriend them and move on with your life—I think it’s probably fine. If we’re talking about a closer friend, it’s probably worth seeking out a little more information before you blow it all up. Maybe you’ll discover that they and their 30 family members isolated for two weeks before the indoor birthday party or something. I don’t know if those details will change how you feel, but I don’t think it’s a bad idea to try to get more context before you totally write them off.
Of course, doing this might actually require a hard conversation, which I know no one likes to have. A lot of people would prefer to slowly ghost people, or claim they’re “sooo busy” instead of just saying, “Yeah, what was up with that party with your family? Based on your posts, it looked kind of risky, and I was kind of surprised because it’s so at odds with how I’ve been behaving during this pandemic.” If you don’t think it’s worth it, or you have a ton of evidence at this point that this person does not share your values, or you’re dealing with something wildly inflammatory where one post was all you needed to see, tapping out makes sense. But if you are feeling generous, I do think a little patience and curiosity here can be worth it.
This pandemic has been going on for the better part of 2020, and is showing no signs of stopping. I don’t think we can really say at this point that this is not “real life.” Yes, there are extenuating and terrible circumstances that have an effect on people’s behavior, and we should all look for ways to offer people grace—during a pandemic, and always. But if your friend’s behavior is less about the current circumstances and more about the way our current circumstances have exposed a massive difference in your core values, it’s OK to admit that you’re not OK with it. Whether that requires a formal friend breakup depends on the nature of the relationship. But if you just want permission to be done with people who, you’re finally able to admit, don’t really have the qualities you’re looking for in friends, then consider that granted.
Rachel Miller is the author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People. Follow her on Twitter.