Friday, September 11, 2009

On Social Tact: Bluntness vs. Ambiguity

Recently, a friend was asking me for advice. He is a pretty amazing guy who happens to have a lot of friends who are girls. In this instance he wasn't feeling good about a particular friendship and decided that he wanted to end the friendship. In pondering the best way to end the friendship, he asked for my advice about how to handle it. There were two main objectives that he had: he wanted to be very clear in stating that he was not interested in continuing any sort of friendship, but he wanted to communicate it in a way that would be respectful and not leave her feeling hurt or rejected.

Of course, to me those seem to be mutually exclusive goals. If you want to be direct and convey that you no longer want to be friends with someone, it's virtually impossible to do that in a nice way. It's easy to add some true statements such as, "I think you're a really nice person", "You have a lot of great traits", or "It's not because I dislike you." However, all of these will come across as disingenuous. Whether you actually mean them or not, all the other person will hear is: "You don't meet my standards for friendship, so I don't want to have anything to do with you." Additionally, attempting to add any such qualifiers to your message will demonstrate lower social value, since they make your message less assertive and make you sound like more of a sycophant.

If you take any sort of direct route in your communication of a breakup (either in a friendship or a romantic relationship), there is virtually no way to prevent hurt feelings. If the other person was invested in the relationship, they will feel hurt. Period. The only choice you have is how you will be perceived in the interaction. Clear, assertive and unapologetic communication will convey strong leadership, social dominance and personal confidence. Mixed messages, excessive qualification or emotionally-catering communication will convey lack of a spine, lack of confidence and a subtext that you are looking for external validation. Which way would you rather be perceived? I'll take the strong and masculine way any day, even if it does border on insensitive.

Alternately, if you prefer to take a less confrontational and emotionally volatile approach, then an indirect route might be a better choice. This route takes less courage and emotional fortitude, but it does subject you to less negative interactions and lower the chances of more substantial fallout. Additionally, it has the bonus of plausible deniability. If you would rather not end a friendship directly, you can simply flake more often, cease to initiate interactions, and selectively ignore/avoid contact. If your friend tries to call you out on any of that, you can give any one of a thousand reasons for why you've been distant. Supposing you are a genuinely busy or social person, then your excuses will sound quite reasonable since they are completely true.

Anyway, no matter how you approach the dissolution of a friendship, there are no nice ways to go about it. It seems that handling things directly or indirectly are your only two options. The direct approach is virtually guaranteed to hurt your ex-friends feelings and self-esteem. Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe there are dozens of nice, positive, upliftings ways to say, "I don't ever want to see you again."


  1. Great points. I also really like your ending. I've felt before like I've fallen short when I haven't been able to end a friendship in a really "nice" way, but this blog is encouraging because it points out the facts that the goals are mutually exclusive.

  2. Well said, Silas. There is always a difficult balance between tact and clarity when it comes to relationships. Also, great rhetorical twist at the end -- I appreciated that.

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