Q: A friend I know moderately but not terribly well sends me messages via every available medium – text message, messaging app, email and Facebook – far more often than I want to respond. How do I get her to back off without being rude?
A: I think what you’re asking is how to de-escalate the friendship without losing the friend, and the answer is it may not be possible. It’s a problem I think about relatively frequently, because it’s tricky, and it feels disloyal, and love and friendship are two of the most important things in life and we reject them at our peril.
On the other hand: what you’re talking about – shy of stalking, but a bombardment that suggests a disparity in you and your friend’s relative needs – is difficult and something that the internet has only made worse. Where and when it’s OK to ignore someone and when it isn’t has always been hard to work out, but trying to parse which messaging service is optional and which entails an obligation to reply isn’t straightforward.
I think a lot of it depends on how sensitive this person is to your nonverbal cues. (And, I would add, it might depend also on where you are coming from. I am an English person who is very much in favour of passive aggression and will take almost any steps to avoid confrontation. You, on the other hand, may be American and regard this as a form of time-wasting cowardice. Let’s address both.)
The passive-aggressive response is, as with Pavlov’s dog, to try to mould this person’s expectations to suit your desired response. So you wait a couple of days before replying to a message and, if it has been sent across multiple mediums, you pick the one that is least likely to generate an automatic reply (avoid IM and text messages at all costs unless you are ready to have a conversation).
That leaves email, now the lumbering old lady of digital communication, and thank God we still have it. Ignore chasers of the “Are you there?” / “Everything all right?” kind. After a couple of days, send a cheerful, short response, either giving a reason why you’ve been out of touch, or not – there’s an argument that you shouldn’t have to explain yourself, but this always feels too harsh to me – and promising to catch up soon.
I’m trusting that this person is neither having a nervous breakdown nor is in need of genuine help. We’re talking about the kinds of people – and there is one in every social group – who send out 25 phishing texts declaring themselves to be in need of a chat and are happy with whatever comes in. They don’t need you, they need a warm body who will listen and be vaguely sympathetic.
I’m not talking about narcissists either, who do all of this but with an added layer of malevolence. There’s no manipulation here other than to get you to respond. And it is probably the case, since you don’t want to lose the friendship, that once you have them on the line, you have a lovely chat. You just don’t want to speak to them every night.
What we’re talking about here is over-communicators who have been unleashed and emboldened by the vast number of new channels of communication available to them. Now, you, the person who doesn’t want to be in touch every two days, looks like the freak.
This brings me to another point. You can decide that the aggravation isn’t worth it. It’s a strange thing that people whom you rarely see have the power to invade your consciousness more frequently than the people you love. I came late to this realization a couple of years ago when I realized I was spending minutes of every day scorning the line drawings of unicorns and mad screeds put by a second cousin on Facebook. I was giving her more thought than my nearest and dearest and promptly unfollowed her.
There is often a performance aspect to over-communicators who, in my experience, operate under a well developed persona, one that requires a lot of feeding.
That’s passive aggression. Sometimes people can be trained, and sometimes they can’t, in which case, you may have to graduate to the more grown up and very un-English way to proceed, which is to send one of those emails I instinctively dislike but that I can see are more evolved in their way.
These are the ones that start, “Don’t take this the wrong way” or “I’m having trouble bearing up under my weight of correspondence” (although perhaps not phrased as if you have a stick up your bum) or “I’m just giving you a heads up so you’re not offended if I don’t immediately respond.”
Maybe it’ll work. Maybe it’ll just prolong the agony. Maybe the friend will think, wow, why am I friends with this person in the first place?
I think my main point is that you don’t have to sign up to a schedule of frequency set down by somebody else. (Unless it’s your mum). And while this problem has given rise to a language I hate, there is just no other way to say it. Be polite, be firm and – deep breath – assert your boundaries!