What do you do with thoughtless, clueless acquaintances?

people and relationships, society

Earlier this week, I got an e-mail from an acquaintance which basically started off… “Hey man, you know a lot about [x], right?  So would you recommend…”

That in itself isn’t so offensive.  But when someone routinely takes and takes (advice, help, my time via his rantings, etc.) and never gives (a sincere “How are things?”, a random “Hey, I was thinking of you” without a request for help, etc.)… well, that just gets incredibly annoying.

Luckily, I don’t know many people like this.  I have much better taste in friends, and I’ve been really pleased to end up with colleagues who are consistently thoughtful and personable.  But still… there are still enough clueless leeches I hear from that I ought to come up with decent ways of addressing this situation.  And I’d love some of your insight and recommendations!

In my undergraduate days, I learned the hard way that there are always a few people around you that—deliberately or unintentionally—will consistently take advantage of you for as long as you let them.

I clearly remember one particularly notable example of this back from my undergrad days.  Just as I had in high school, I provided piano accompaniment services free of charge to my fellow students, and dammit, I was actually quite good :-D.  Before college, I had enjoyed thoughtful cards, even gifts from those I accompanied, and so understandably I expected more of the same in college.  But it was not to be; even after helping a woman get selected as a understudy for a lead role in a prominent broadway touring company, I don’t even think I got as much as a thank you.

So after one too many of such inexplicable snubs, I literally walked back to my dorm room and cried.  A friend (clearly a true friend, though I don’t remember who) promptly gave me some tough love and said something along the lines of this:

“Look, man, you’re an idiot.  You’re accompanying all these people for FREE.  And then you wonder why you get stepped on?  Charge money for crissake!  People believe they get what they pay for.  You’re free.  You’re not worth anything, so you’re treated as worthless.”

So, reluctantly at first, I started charging money.  Sure enough, I continued to get gigs, and along with the gigs I also got thank you cards, invitations to parties, even small gifts in addition to the cash.  I must admit to having still slightly resented what I felt was such utter stupidity (I hadn’t gotten any better as a pianist; I wasn’t actually worth more!)  But over time, I realized… hey, that’s just the way the world is sometimes.

*  *  *

This isn’t to say that I think there’s no room for kindness, particularly random acts thereof :-D.  But I’ve learned that I have to treat and portray what I have to offer—time and talent—as valuable, or risk losing respect.

So this brings me to an interesting decision.  When faced (most commonly via IM or e-mail) with another Attack of the Selfish Person, should I:

1) Simply ignore them.
2) Actually block them on IMs.
3) Make excuses why I “can’t” help them.
4) Give them a clue as to how selfish they are.

I’ve typically done a variation of #3.  Sometimes helping a bit, other times noting that I’m busy and hoping they’ll get the hint.  They typically don’t.

I find #1 to be just simply rude (two wrongs don’t make a right), and #2 to be a bit too much on the passive-aggressive side.

So that leaves #4.  I’m tempted to say something like the following:

“You know, I’ve avoided saying this because I don’t wish to sound meanspirited, but… for the umpteenth straight time, you’ve asked for something or rambled on about your life or both and NOT ONCE have you asked how I’m doing or suggested a willingness to help me out with anything.  In short, you’ve just come across as REALLY SELFISH.  I thought about just ignoring you, but I figured, hey, maybe you don’t realize how you’re coming across.  And maybe by giving you a bit more self-awareness, I can save from you someone you *really* care about from simply telling you off.”

Then again, I really despise confrontation, and—given the fact that these folks’ behavior has made me NOT care about them—do I really even owe them the favor of a clue?

It’s hard to say.  I do wish, as I was growing up, that more of my peers or teachers had given ME a clue.  After all, I’m happy with how my life has turned out, but I could have achieved a sense of peace and self-worth and a robust social circle a lot sooner had more folks kindly but firmly offered me some harsh but helpful feedback.

And frankly, I don’t really believe that the selfish folks I’ve referenced above are bad much less evil people.  I’m guessing they just don’t understand how they’re coming across or why their one-sided interactions might be so annoying.

*  *  *

But enough of my musings.

1) Do you know selfish people like this?
2) How do you handle ‘em?
3) Do you have any interesting or funny stories of successful clueings-in?  Or “interventions” gone horribly or hilariously wrong?

12 comments… add one
  • ME Jul 18, 2006

    answer questions with questions 🙂

  • Lynne Oct 27, 2007

    The problem with #3 is that those people may or may not realize that they are being so selfish. With #4 you leave no doubt that they know and maybe you will actually cause them to change, which in itself is a form of help that you didn’t even charge for. So, your back to square 1… Giving free help to people who dont deserve it.

  • Katie Feb 8, 2010

    It comes down to what you can live with and how YOU will feel with each of these responses.  Regardless of whether the person deserves the response, I personally feel guilty when I ignore them, and would feel bad later about telling them how selfish they are, but that is my own response.  I feel guilty about a lot of things that I shouldn’t, so I respond in ways that in the end I can look at myself and feel good about myself.  It really does differ by the person and how many interactions there have been in the past.  I have cut people out of my life without explanation because I didn’t feel he/she was the friend to me that I deserved.  Usually there was a “final straw” moment that brought that change.  You are a great, kind, intelligent, good-hearted guy and should be treated well by all those who are blessed with your friendship. 

  • Adam Feb 8, 2010

    Lynne, good point!  But if there’s hope for changing someone… this makes not only your future interactions likely better, but also makes other people around the former-jerk happier too, right? 😉

    Katie, I hadn’t thought of the idea of guilt here… interesting!  But in the end, it is indeed about doing the right thing and feeling good about our decision and ourselves.  And thank you very much for your kind words!!! {{{{}}}}

  • Anita Feb 9, 2010

    I found the musings pretty interesting. Its true that some people take your help all the time & take you for granted. Sometimes, I anyway help those people as I believe in karma. I believe that if I help someone, someone else will help me when I need help. If I come across someone who is totally ‘me, me, me’, I tell them why I don’t have time for them, & hope that next time, they’ll try to help others.

    For #1, there are more selfish people around, for # 2, don’t give them more than 3 chances, ie. help them only thrice, unless they change.

  • Letseat Feb 9, 2010

    Hey Adam, how are you? … 😀

    For what it’s worth, I haven’t run into the same thing from my friends. I tend to lend my truck out a lot and while only some of them will fill the gas tank or treat me to dinner, I think all of them have at least said “thank you.”

    It’s different with acquaintances though. A friend’s sister only emails me to ask for a favor or a charity donation. And at one job interview, they wanted me to come back with a full strategy presentation for the board – for free. With acquaintances though it’s pretty easy to say “no thanks” or ignore the request.

    Perhaps you need to rethink your definition of “friend”?

  • Rachel Feb 9, 2010

    I think any of your responses might be appropriate depending on the situation.  If the person is a nuisance or has asked for favors repeatedly with not so much a thank you and you don’t need to maintain a relationship for some other reason (like a coworker, spouse of a relative or friend, potential business client, etc) it is okay to brush them off (or ignore or block them if they are a real pest).  There is the slightly more tactful version where you say I am too busy to answer your question in detail right now (if it will take more than a quick response) but here is the contact info of someone who is a paid computer consultant. 

    In contrast, my father is an environmental consultant and he often spends a lot of time answering scientific questions for clients and potential clients.  His opinion is that the time is worth it because it adds to his professional reputation which may get him future clients (or maybe he just likes to hear himself talk ;-)).  But if you are not self-employed as a consultant you probably want to limit time you spend networking.

    If the person is someone you have friendship with then giving them the feedback that they are coming across as selfish makes more sense.  I had a close friend who was 2 years younger and a bit immature.  We were close friends from our early teens and it seemed like I was waiting for her to grow up until we were in college.  I did finally did talk to her about it when she was in her last year of college.  In this case it made a difference because we both had a lot invested in the friendship (close friends for over 10 years).  I’m not sure I would have made so much of an effort with a casual friend. 

    So I have rambled on and on here but my point is you are not obligated to spend a lot of time and effort helping someone when there is no give and take in the friendship.  It is fine to politely say No to requests sometimes (and you can still consider yourself a nice person).  Everyone has limits and if you don’t make it clear what yours are some people will try and take advantage, sometimes without being aware of it.

  • Mona Feb 13, 2010

    Adam, we’ve never hung out in person but have known you for a little over a year (possible longer?) For what it’s worth, you have such an amazing energy…this positive vibe, kind, courteous, and simply, you are a good person 🙂 The down fall to taht is when people who don’t have the same morals or values can advantage of that. I should know, this happens to me a lot…but the thing is, life is too short to live skeptically, change them, or even change myself. I choose to be the person I am. If the other person happens to take advantage of me more than a few times, then I cut my losses and move on. Cut my losses, being I am very short and let them know I do not want to help them (in a polite way.)

    Lecturing or trying to make the person see who or how they treat people is not really my job and I refuse to become their therapist since the one thing I have learned over time, is that we cannot change people. 🙂

    Anyway, to answer your questions in your preferred format:

    1) Do you know selfish people like this?
    Yes.

    2) How do you handle ‘em?
    Keep them at an arm’s length—Facebook friends, occasional email buddies, a coffee or drinks once every one or two years but I let them make the effort, not me.

    3) Do you have any interesting or funny stories of successful clueings-in?  Or “interventions” gone horribly or hilariously wrong?
    Plenty—but this should be saved for when we go out for drinks! 🙂 Jeez, I talked your ear off. But bottomline: do not change—you are an awesome person!

  • Liz May 29, 2010

    Interesting thoughts. Liked them. However what was more interesting is the amount of admirers you seem to have. Well done you!!

  • ThatAdamGuy Jun 12, 2010

    Anita, I share your views re: karma, and also try to stick with the “three times” rule 🙂

    Letseat, always nice to see you online and offline :). And yes, I do think you have a good point about the need to occasionally re-evaluate friendships, or how one defines a “friend.” (dang Facebook for ruining the concept of “friend” :p)

    Rachel, thanks for the examples and for reminding me that I need to set limits.

    Mona, as always, you make me smile! Thank you so much for the kind words… and I’m very much looking forward to our long-delayed drink(s)!

    Liz, I’m glad you enjoyed the entry and comments. I am indeed grateful for the kind and, yes, thoughtful people who post here (often regularly!) and — more broadly — thankful that despite having to occasionally deal with jerks, I still have so many good people in my life 🙂

  • Phil Lawther Jul 13, 2014

    The best thing to do for YOURSELF is to let the other person know how their behavior affected you. It’s REALLY kind of you to explain it to them. Chances are they will attack you, or act like they do not care. Once in a while it’s worth it and you’ll get a ‘sorry’ and make a really good and kind friend. The confronting part is essential and it has to be done immediately. It makes or breaks a potential friendship/relationship.

  • Anon25 Apr 17, 2016

    Came across this. I have a friend who lacks most common sense and it drives me insane because she lacks the initiative to do things herself. If she asks me a question, I always redirect her. This seems to help but she won’t take any initiative. At work the same thing, people always expect me to do things for them like remind them of meetings and figure out projects for them to do. They treat me like I am their secretary. It is obnoxious. I need to set boundaries but I think it might be too late

What do you think?