Thursday, December 3, 2009

On Social Tact: Handling Confrontation

Last night a couple of friends staged a little mini-intervention for me. They were concerned about certain lifestyle choices that they thought I was making. That part was cleared up quite quickly and easily since it was just a misunderstanding. In addition to that, they also let me know that something I did a couple of weeks ago really offended another friend of mine. Until they said something, I honestly had no idea that he was so offended. I have seen him quite a number of times since the incident, and not once did he say anything or convey that I had really offended him. To hear that he had an issue with me that he hadn't talked about really surprised me, since overall I view him as a very bold, assertive and direct sort of person. In fact, as I thought it more, I felt really angry that he hadn't said anything.

Let's be honest. Even in the best of relationships, occasionally tension comes between two people. Sometimes a person is offended by something their friend said or did. That's normal and natural. The question is, what is the best way to handle an offense? Fundamentally, there are three basic approaches to dealing with grudges. You can directly confront your friend about the issue, indirectly handle the problem through passive-aggressive behavior or gossiping, or avoid dealing with the issue completely.

In the case of minor irritations avoiding the issue might work, but with any serious offense or grudge, it is a horrible choice. Resentment builds internally and eventually will harm the relationship, lead to mental problems or result in an emotional blowup. Since all three of those are utterly undesirable, avoiding the issue is a horrible option. More specifically, it is an illusory option, since not dealing with things just means that they will be dealt with later in a much uglier way.

Directly confronting your friend is the scariest option, but also the most cathartic. The best way to handle confrontation is to be clear and direct about specifically what behavior bothered you and why. At the same time, the tone of the confrontation should be positive and non-condemning. In many cases, offenses are simply the result of miscommunication or misunderstanding and can be cleared up fairly painlessly. In other cases, an offense may have been a mistake, and a simple apology is all that is needed. In the rare case of a perpetual or serious issue, while the air may not be cleared immediately, at least everything is in the open and there are no mind games or misconceptions about the disharmony. Handling confrontation directly and in a positive manner is a scary option which takes a good amount of courage, but it also leads to the best results and the least emotional fallout or social collateral damage.

Indirectly handling the issue is the coward's way out. Engaging in passive-aggressive behaviors creates a major emotional rift in the relationship, which often causes more harm than the original offense. By expecting your friend to read your mind or just "know" something is wrong you refuse to take responsiblity for your own emotional state and for the condition of the relationship, placing the burden entirely on your friend's shoulders. Alternately, gossiping to other friends about the issue causes social damage and alienation. Eventually, when the gossip circle has completed its rounds, irreparable damage has been done, and the devastation far exceeds the original offense. At that point the direct confrontation will certainly be more heated and emotional than handling things directly up front would have been.

As such, I'm quite disappointed with my friend. He could have come to me directly and things would have been settled easily in five minutes time with a simple apology. But, instead of having the balls to tell me that something I had done bothered him, he chose to gossip about it and pretend that everything was okay between him and I, just because he was afraid that things would be "awkward" between us if he said anything. For most Americans, I would expect them to take the coward's route. As a nation, we are too passive and fearful to confront people openly and honestly, the way we should. In my friend's case I am surprised, because normally he seems quite courageous, assertive and masculine in his interactions. Hopefully, this was simply an odd abnormality. In any case, the next time I see him I will confront him directly about the issue and quickly clear things up. Directly handling confrontation is the most caring and courageous way to deal with things. Insipid mind games or destructive social gossip are both cowardly and wimpy ways to deal with offenses.


  1. Eh, I see this more and more. I chalk it up to the feminization of the American male.

  2. "In fact, as I thought it more, I felt really angry that he hadn't said anything."

    "Indirectly handling the issue is the coward's way out."

    "As such, I'm quite disappointed with my friend."

    "But, instead of having the balls to tell me"

    "cowardly and wimpy ways"

    I can see why your friend didn't say anything.

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