How do you criticize without appearing overcritical (when you're not)?
December 13, 2009 2:00 AM   Subscribe

One of the problems I seem to have is coming across as overly critical, despite the fact that I am normally patient and tolerant with people. So I ask you all: How long do you tolerate an issue until you bring it up as a problem? And how do you communicate this so that the other person sees it as something to work on, without feeling "under the gun" all the time?

I'd like to be a more assertive, yet easygoing person. For the most part, I am pretty tolerant when people “mess up” – when a friend is late, craps out on plans, forgets to introduce me to others, etc. I can brush these annoyances off fairly well, saying “it’s no big deal,” and we get on with the day just fine. Essentially I give my friends the benefit of the doubt (temporarily believing that they will adjust their habits next time) and don’t dwell on their mistakes for too long. I’m not the kind of person who likes or wants to criticize every little thing.

Yet after I give a friend multiple chances, and his/her "offensive" behavior persists, I find myself increasingly annoyed. It gets to the point where I have to say something about it, and this usually results in me taking a somewhat critical tone. I would think this is a natural and legitimate development. I feel I have a reason to be annoyed and I explain why. Unfortunately, despite how tactful I try to be in tone and content, my message isn't always taken receptively.

As an example, I used to get annoyed at my girlfriend (who is incredibly ambitious and a bit of a workaholic), who always seemed to make plans on the same days we had something planned. These extra plans would often cut into the amount of time we had to spend with each other, as it would lead to her being late, or my having to wait more than expected. The first several times I let it go, of course, because I was being a nice guy and didn’t expect this to carry on too often. Finally, after what felt like the 6th or 7th time that this happened to me, I reached my limit and called her out for continuing to schedule things so close to arrangements we had. “Things always pop up,” she would say, but I wouldn’t have it, and I contended that I had been patient and understanding for so long that I felt it was unfair for her to keep doing this. Now it has gotten to the point where my girlfriend feels like she is sacrificing her freedom to work to spend time with me, and she feels pressured by me because she thinks I would be upset any time she makes plans when I’m in town.

This is not the situation I wanted. I don’t want my girlfriend to feel pressure with me, and it has been very difficult for me to figure out how to reduce/eliminate the amount of stress that my girlfriend seems to have with me. I’m not entirely sure, but I think the solution to this problem is giving each other more space and being more accommodating towards each other's schedules (though, please offer any advice if you can).

Oftentimes I feel like I am being patient enough to let things go a number of times before I start to bring it up as an issue with the person at hand. I feel like I am being tolerant, but then my tolerance is abused, and when I bring it up as a problem, I feel like my tolerance is unnoticed or forgotten about entirely. The end result? I come across as too critical / picky about little things, which is the last thing I want to be, especially because I have been trying so hard to be tolerant. And strangely enough I find myself agreeing with the sentiment that I am being too critical (a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts).

I have become convinced that the best way to resolve this problem is by being more relaxed and accepting when people do things I don’t like or things don’t go the way I want them to, essentially be more easygoing than I am already. Let people figure things out for themselves, rather than have me tell them what to fix. Yet I am deeply concerned about developing the “doormat syndrome” and being taken advantage of if I adapt this mentality. I am also concerned about my criticisms losing potency.

What do I do?

Am I being tolerant and assertive enough already? Am I being too nice, or will being more easygoing make things easier? Again, how long do you tolerate an issue until you bring it up as a problem?

Furthermore, how do I express that just because I get annoyed at something once doesn’t mean I’ll get annoyed at it all the time (I just don't want it to be a habit)? I don't want to feel like I'm being too imposing or putting too much pressure on others, but there are obviously times when I need to express myself.

Any advice or suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!
posted by matticulate to Human Relations (33 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
IS the problem with your girlfriend in particular or a lot of people you know in different contexts? You might just need to find some people who respect you and your time. There's nothing wrong with expecting to be respected. If you bring it up in a friendly manner, it shouldn't be met with such hostility.

I really don't like the sounds of this: "my girlfriend feels like she is sacrificing her freedom to work to spend time with me"
Spending time with your S.O shouldn't be a burden.
I used to have a boyfriend who would do the same thing and it drove me insane and he would give me the same bullshit about it, too. The only thing you can do is get used to not having plans, or only having plans under certain circumstances, and seeing her when she decides she has a block in her schedule for you, which may be on no notice or not at all.
posted by amethysts at 2:15 AM on December 13, 2009

Best answer: First of all, I appreciate how self-reflective and self-critical you are. It suggests something to me about your very analytic tendencies and maybe there is something in this that makes your complaints harder to take. This happens to me, too. You think and think about something and try to present it fairly. But sometimes, telling someone they should work on a problem (because to you, that's how you talk to yourself) -- for example, "you might think about working on your tendency to be late" is more offensive than just saying, "Hey, I waited half an hour here dude!" THe former unintentionally comes off as condescending and critical even though you were bending over backwards to be gentle and tolerant. See even "tolerant" sounds somewhat presumptuous, as if you know their problem and tolerated it.
HOWEVER I am speaking of your pattern that you lay out here, that seems to make you more self-critical about the girlfriend issue. In the case of her behavior, seems to me she should be contrite, and that your self-critical thinking is giving her the moral high ground. She isn't being fair to you.
posted by fullofragerie at 2:35 AM on December 13, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Oftentimes I feel like I am being patient enough to let things go a number of times before I start to bring it up as an issue with the person at hand.

You do seem to concentrate an awful lot on how 'tolerant' you are. It's hard to tell how long your friends are making you wait from your post and how much your girlfriend is disrupting your plans, but it does sound like instead of truly letting these things go the first few times, you make a mental note of 'ah, I had to wait 15 minutes for you. That's one point against.'

If your friends are making you wait 5 or 10 minutes, I think you need to accept that those particular friends just aren't the best at time management, so plan to meet them in coffee places or pub--somewhere where you can wait comfortably.

If you've had to wait for them for 30 minutes, in the rain, definitely bring it up there and then, so you get it off your chest and it doesn't lead to simmering resentment. Even better, after you've been waiting for 5 minutes, ring their phone and ask where they are and how long they'll be.

Now that you're really frustrated about the situation, I think the best course of action is the next time you make plans, plan to meet in a place you'll feel comfortable waiting and ask them to ring you if they'll be late.

As for your girlfriend, it's not completely clear how much her plans are disrupting your plans together (her being half an hour late to a 6 hour afternoon and evening together is different in my books from being half an hour late to an hour and a half dinner you had planned). With the former, you could see how you being a stickler for her being exactly on time could be a bit suffocating, whilst with the latter, she would certainly be being very unfair to you. Perhaps the best solution would be to present it in terms of how much you enjoy spending time with her and would love for her to set aside 4 hours (or whatever) in her weekend for you to spend together?
posted by brambory at 2:58 AM on December 13, 2009 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Uh, quite a few issues here.
1) Suppressed annoyance likely only makes you act tolerant. People can get really good at this, so that's not it, but it isn't the real thing. Perhaps the others see more than you think you show. And then: if you anticipate that your "easy-going" attitude will be misused, you'll get just that. I don't believe it's a real risk if you are being true to yourself. If you actually are easy going most of the time, what's the deal? As soon as people make use of it so it bothers you, you'd automatically show that it bothers you: be momentarily less easy going, that is, and thus solve the problem. If someone acts like an inconsiderate jerk, walk away - easy going solves nothing.
2) Why does one criticize others? I (for myself, not saying it's ultimate wisdom) have tried to learn asking myself what people (and I) are likely to gain from my criticism: will there be any improvement of the situation, after I've said my thing?
In order to arrive at a good answer, it has been helpful for me to analyze what I'm criticizing: am I making some moral statement (could be wasted energy, or end in some life-philosophy standoff that nobody can solve)? Am I simply venting my frustration with someone I perceive as inconsiderate? Does how the other person has acted influence me directly or not? Etc. It is pretty amazing how often it is actually totally okay to simply disagree with someone and let go.
3) The example with your girlfriend doesn't belong here, because it is clear that none of you is 'right' or 'wrong'. What you're describing here is a lifestyle clash where the one doesn't understand the advantages of the others' ways and construes them as 'wrong' and to be criticized. Decide whether you will be able to find and maintain compromises, catering to the needs and style of the two of you; or find out whether it is better to not do certain things together in order to keep the partnership otherwise afloat; or ask yourself whether it's better to move on.
4) Try to be at peace with your ways. If you think that "they will anyway get angry" because there's something wrong in your way of criticizing, your tone will likely become defensive enough to make this prophecy work out.
5) Founded, and convinced criticism can occasionally seem harsh, even if you have done your homework and self grooming (as in above). It is always worthwhile trying to revert roles - to ask yourself how you yourself would react if someone else would criticize you in this fashion. I have, in pretty painful ways, learned that some people are really bad at this exercise - but it is absolutely essential. You don't treat others in a fashion you wouldn't tolerate on the receiving end.
6) People react to criticism following their own patterns. You have no ultimate control over that. If someone gets put off beyond reason because they themselves haven't understood your honest and good intentions, there is little you can do except local damage control. It is worthwhile learning some tactics for that, but you shouldn't beat yourself up about it.
7) Some people are not able to grasp what one's talking about. A lack of analytical power is no ill-will per se - it is sometimes good to remember that.
posted by Namlit at 3:10 AM on December 13, 2009 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Perhaps your desire to be tolerant is a little out of whack. You're constantly trying to be tolerant, which is essentially just not complaining when people do things that you don't like. Then, by not complaining, you are implicitly approving of their actions. So they think it's fine, keep doing it, and then you get resentful (I have similar tendencies). But the result is that you have gotten into the habit of holding secret grudges. Bad! How about every time someone does something that bothers you, say so. BUT - be quick to forgive. So if someone makes you wait half an hour, get a little pissed off. It's OK! Once you feel they have genuinely apologized (and not just said a perfunctory "yeah sorry"), then really drop it and let it go. You have to blow off that steam, and you're justified in doing so. But it is vitally important that once you have blown off that steam, that you are really really truly no longer bothered. And it is equally important that people around you know that you are no longer bothered. If they sense that you are still harbouring resentment, and just saying "oh yeah, it's fine", then it creates this kind of, chronic stress/distrust/akwardness/discomfort.

I don’t want my girlfriend to feel pressure with me, and it has been very difficult for me to figure out how to reduce/eliminate the amount of stress that my girlfriend seems to have with me.

Don't try for the impossible. Stress/pressure is normal. Just accept it when it happens, and try to avoid chronic stress (ironically, you may well be creating a chronic stress for yourself by worrying so much about your girlfriend feeling pressure/stress).
posted by molecicco at 3:14 AM on December 13, 2009 [4 favorites]

I think you need to speak earlier, not later. If there's a behavior that bugs you, say something small (the "Dude, I had to wait 30 minutes!" example above is perfect), and say it the very first time it comes up.

That way you don't wait until you're irritated and it becomes A Thing, at which point you're presenting this as a flaw in the other person that they need to fix, instead of a one-time annoyance. Also it's pretty unfair of you to expect other people to know what you're annoyed about before you've expressed it in any way. Not everyone has the same standards for lateness, and only informing them you've got a problem with their behavior after it's established is not really fair.

If you do take this approach, you should still be tolerant-- all you say is "Dude, I had to wait 30 minutes!", you do not bring it up again, either that evening or later. You've made your point, they can then decide how to respond in the future. There is no need for a Discussion.

On the other hand, if you find yourself saying something more like "Dude, I had to wait 2 minutes!", then perhaps you do need to adjust your expectations.h
posted by nat at 3:27 AM on December 13, 2009

nthing you need to speak earlier. It's all in how you put it in words :

- don't make a big thing out of something that isn't
- focus on expressing how you feel as opposed to criticizing what others are doing : If you can say it starting with "I'm unhappy/annoyed/..." then it'll be less harsh (and closer to reality anyway)
- try is to include yourself in the issue (ie "I feel we should go out more often" vs "you're never up for anything")

Also if you waited too long but still wanted to mention the issue, really do focus on feelings and not on facts - memory isn't such a great tool for this, and others may have a completely different view of the events.
posted by motdiem2 at 3:53 AM on December 13, 2009

One question that comes to mind:

How would your girlfriend react if YOU were late for plans?

I had a girlfriend who was great in many ways but inconsistent, unreliable with respect to plans.

It frustrated me because I'm organized and on time most of the time.

I purposely forgot about plans one evening to see how she would react. She did not like it at all.

But did it help her understand how I felt? Not really. She continued her habits.

One thing to remember is that people with these habits aren't doing it to hurt you, they are most likely more spontaneous, somewhat disorganized folks.

I'm much happier around people who are reliable and on time.

And even though what you are asking is very simple, breaking habits are not simple. That's the issue in my opinion. Unless they are very adaptable people and acknowledge and internalize feedback constructively, they won't change.

Its possible that your girlfriend doesn't see her approach as being "wrong".

If you both hold strong on your views, it may cause a lot of friction.

So it sounds like some level of acceptance on your end and some effort on responsibility on her end might work.
posted by simpleton at 4:35 AM on December 13, 2009

Best answer: You don't sound tolerant at all. You sound like you think you're tolerant because you "let things slide", and then can't understand why others don't see how easy going you are when you've got a laundry list of complaints. Really you're checking off the list of things in your head they did wrong. And then you later bring it up as some sort of ammunition to why they shouldn't be doing blah. Most people will have forgotten about what happened more than a few days ago, especially these minor transgressions. If you're recounting something that happened 6 or 7 times, who knows how long ago it was! Of course people are going to get defensive.

Either bring it up right away; you can bring it up tactfully "I wish you had gotten here a little earlier! I have to leave at 8 and I would have loved more time to catch up!" or let it go. In the case of missed plans, a simple "I really miss seeing you! We need to reschedule something soon!" is often enough. And if you get door-matted too many times, then don't make plans again, or make casual plans with a group of mutual friends or to an event that it doesn't matter if they show or not. If someone doesn't introduce you to their friends, pop in and introduce yourself. They will more than likely remember after feeling embarrassed for forgetting. And if they don't, well so what? You introduce yourself next time too. Not a big deal at all.

If you really want to be easy going, you really need to do is stop viewing all these things as being mistakes and behaviors that need to be correct and just accept that for some people "things always pop up". It's life, things happen. That's what being easy going is.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 4:40 AM on December 13, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The first several times I let it go, of course, because I was being a nice guy and didn’t expect this to carry on too often. Finally, after what felt like the 6th or 7th time that this happened to me, I reached my limit and called her out...

I have a very close friend who, like you, thinks she is extremely easy-going and behaves like this; once she reaches her breaking point she explodes and all of her pent-up resentments toward the person she is criticizing come pouring out in one long complaint. Or, a constant stream of passive-aggressive barbs every time her victim engages in the "inconsiderate" behavior.

Being around a person who bottles things up like that is exhausting. You feel as if you can never truly relax and are always walking on eggshells. The end result is that people don't enjoy your company.

how do I express that just because I get annoyed at something once doesn’t mean I’ll get annoyed at it all the time (I just don't want it to be a habit)?

You don't. This is part of the give and take of relationships. Choose your battles. Either the complaint is annoying enough to warrant criticism or it isn't; you can't have it both ways.

Being easy and accommodating != being a doormat.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 4:42 AM on December 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

And how do you communicate this so that the other person sees it as something to work on, without feeling "under the gun" all the time?

Short answer: you don't. "Something to work on" is -- must be -- a personal decision. You may, in fact, force the issue somewhat, but if someone is making changes to avoid unpleasantness from someone else, it will just foster resentment and will be counterproductive (to, in this case, the relationship).
About all you can do is decide which annoyances you can live with and what are really boundary issues for you and let the other person know how you feel when they cross those boundaries. If they continue the behavior, then your only choice is to not put yourself at the affect of the behavior any longer. Of course, this may have relationship implications, but if it's a behavior that crosses a boundary for you, that's a relationship issue already and you need to address it for what it is.
posted by TruncatedTiller at 5:10 AM on December 13, 2009

Best answer: What I got out of your account could be paraphrased as something like,

So my GF does this thing that bothers me, and I say nothing. She knows it bugs me since she can read my mind, so I'm sure she'll do things differently next time -- no big deal. But next time it's the same -- she does the same thing, it bugs me again, but I say nothing since her mind-reading abilities make spoken communication of my feelings unnecessary. Surely her regard for my feelings will lead her to behave differently next time. But NO! IT HAPPENS AGAIN! Six or seven cycles later I'm terribly frustrated. She must not care about me! In desperation I resort to actual speech and make my extreme displeasure and resentment known, and I can't understand, given her mind-reading abilities, why she's at all surprised or dismayed!

I've thought about it a lot, and I think maybe what I need to do is wait even longer before saying anything. Surely, if I just wait long enough, my GF will use her mindreading abilities the way I do.

So yeah, speak up sooner. But when you do so, drop the idea that your expectations are right and correct. Unless the people you're interacting with have explicitly agreed to this code of behavior you have in mind, it's just your preferences against theirs. Talk about these issues in terms of your preferences and feelings, not right and wrong. Look for compromises that can meet your needs and theirs. Stop trying to win.
posted by jon1270 at 6:20 AM on December 13, 2009 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I am normally patient and tolerant with people

when people “mess up” [...]I can brush these annoyances off fairly well, saying “it’s no big deal,” [...]I give my friends the benefit of the doubt (temporarily believing that they will adjust their habits next time) and don’t dwell on their mistakes for too long.

And how do you communicate this so that the other person sees it as something to work on, without feeling "under the gun" all the time?

No, you're not actually tolerant. You have certain priorities, values, expectations of etiquette and you expect your friends to share these. And if they do not share them and cancel plans at the last minute, are persistently 10 mins late or don't share the same social graces as you and thus don't feel the need to introduce you to their acquaintance (why don't you just say "Hi, I'm matticulate, nice to meet you" and do it yourself?!) you do not go that's life and we're all different - you get annoyed.

As for the communicating your complaints - if they don't share your values and prioritities they won't share your view that they should be working on something because to them it's not an issue. So by waiting until they've done something 6 times you're then not communicating a genuine grievance but are judging them and their outlook on life.

For example, if sombody cancels plans at the last minute which means you cannot now do whatever the alternative plan was and your time is wasted you can mention that at the time. If somebody leaves you waiting in the rain for an hour (why would you though - wait a few minutes and call them and find out where they are and when they expect to get there and do soemthing with that time?!) and doesn't call you to say they are late that would be something to mention to them.

If on the other hand somebody is persistently 10 minutes late and you know that and everybody else knows that you incorporate that knowledge in the plan - your own ETA changes for instance or you tell them to meat 15 minutes earlier to eat at the time you want to eat or whatever...
posted by koahiatamadl at 6:26 AM on December 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

Everyone in the world will do at least one thing that annoys you, and sometimes that isn't something they can really change. Sometimes tolerance doesn't mean being patient the first few times, it means accepting an imperfection in a person.
posted by prefpara at 6:43 AM on December 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Like you, I am a fairly punctual person (I try to arrive early to any appointment, and I usually expect to wait), and I feel that continually arriving late is pretty disrespectful. This used to bug the living crap out of me. However, over the years, I have learned that other people don't feel the same way I do, and the options are to a) learn to deal because people don't change their approach to punctuality all that readily or b) isolate myself from other people. a) has proven more palatable.

Dealing is not a "one size fits all" model. Some friends I just don't make timed plans with -- I don't go to movies with them because, if I do, I will be waiting at the theater, fuming, when they show up 20 minutes after the film has started, and that's no good. Other friends I might plan to meet for coffee first to build in a time buffer. Or, if I am cooking dinner at home, I plan the meal to be ready 15 minutes later than we agreed on so it will come together when everyone is there. With some good friends I might serve the meal and let them join in media res. I try not to make a deal out of it, and, as time has gone on, I find that, while I still feel a surge of annoyance, I can let it go pretty easily. I forgive my friends their bad behavior (or, more accurately, their behavior I find bad) because I hope that they will forgive me mine. Although my friend who was so late he missed a flight to Japan got some flack for this when we were finally reunited in Tokyo.

In your case, things are made worse because you are romantically involved with this person. You need to decide if this is a deal-breaker or not. If it really causes you this much stress, your opinions as a couple on punctuality and work/leisure divisions may be too far apart for the relationship to work. If you want to try and make it work, you need to express your concerns clearly but without hostility, negotiate reasonable compromises, and focus on letting go of anxiety and resentment rather than just deferring them.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:07 AM on December 13, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Nearly all counselors and conflict specialists agree that bringing up old issues in fights is a huge red flag that a person isn't fighting fair. Seriously, Google "bringing up old issues in fights." You'll find an endless list of articles about how to talk constructively, and every single one will warn against using a long list of old problems in an argument.

In other words, the reason that your method isn't working is that your method is ineffective. You need to say something when you're annoyed, not save up until you're REALLY REALLY annoyed and then giving a long list of examples of things that have annoyed you in the past. When a friend is late, say, "I was a little annoyed that I had to wait for you. Can you call my cell next time if you're going to be late?" When your girlfriend makes plans that conflict with your plans, say, "I'm disappointed that our time together has been cut short. Do you mind checking with me the next time you're going to schedule something that affects me?" When a friend fails to introduce you, say, "Hey, I felt a little awkward just standing there while you talked to that other guy. Next time, could you introduce me to him?" It's easy, and it doesn't result in you having these pent up resentments.

Say something every time, and I guarantee that you'll feel better. If you find yourself doing this a lot, to the point where it annoys your friends, well then, guess what, you may actually be overcritical. You may actually have a lower tolerance than other people do for the minor inconveniences, affronts, and slights that life heaps on all of us. And that's okay, but that's a different issue to work on. At that point, you'll want to explore ways to genuinely let things go. That means remembering that people are human, that you too certainly do things that annoy the crap out of your loved ones, and that forgiving people means actually letting go, not saving up examples of bad behavior to prove that they're wrong later. But you should try speaking up before worrying about whether you have a bigger problem.
posted by decathecting at 7:33 AM on December 13, 2009 [8 favorites]

Learn to let it go! It will help your relationships and it will definitely help your well-being and peace of mind. No one is perfect. Stop keeping tabs on times that people annoy you or do something you dislike.
posted by Neekee at 8:26 AM on December 13, 2009

People react to criticism following their own patterns. You have no ultimate control over that. If someone gets put off beyond reason because they themselves haven't understood your honest and good intentions, there is little you can do except local damage control. It is worthwhile learning some tactics for that, but you shouldn't beat yourself up about it.

Namlit, you stated the above. I've found myself in situations like this and I'd like to know some tactics you mention. Sounds interesting.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 9:01 AM on December 13, 2009

did you notice how many times you used the word "annoyed"? - are you one of the types who are easily annoyed? if so, you are not fun to be around. even if you "think" you are justified, or maybe you ACTUALLY are, you can't go around criticizing without appearing overcritical - you just can't.

if you don't want your girlfriend to feel pressure around you, then don't put any on her. i have the feeling that there are probably a lot of people around you who "let it go" when you start criticizing... get it? this "fear" of becoming a doormat is an excuse imo. you are actually worried that your sense of self will somehow be diminished if you are unable to "justify" or express your criticism. what do you do when you get annoyed at things out of your control? do THAT more... learn to MOVE ON (in your head I mean)
posted by mrmarley at 9:05 AM on December 13, 2009

I get you, man. It's the chronic pattern of disrespect that gets to you, not the specific instance. It's not a choice between saying something right away and keeping it to yourself, though. You can bring it up next time you're making plans, or having a "where is this relationship headed" discussion, or any convenient time like that. NOT during an argument. Just say something like, hey, I'd love to go out to dinner with you, but it really makes me feel unimportant if you make other conflicting plans. Are you sure you have the time to do it?

Ultimately the only way of getting through to lots of people like this is to just start declining invitations. When they start wondering why you don't seem to like them as much, they may be open to the answer. (Sometimes still not, though. There is a certain kind of person to whom multitasking and schedule overbooking is the pinnacle of efficiency, and can't be convinced that it's rude.) That's probably not what you want to hear re: your girlfriend, but sometimes that's what it takes.
posted by ctmf at 9:19 AM on December 13, 2009

Best answer: There's a certain kind of person who you're just not going to get along with in this way. Maybe another example would be better, but the conflicting schedule thing is pretty common with these people. From their point of view, you're pretty demanding and controlling. In the freight train that is their life, you not only want them to stop by the station on their way, maybe ride along together for a bit, you want them to stop their entire life, turn the keys off, get out, and give you their full attention. That can be really annoying to them. Can't you just hang out casually, does everything need to be a formal 'start at exactly T, end at T+1 hour' event? Is it ok that I have a life, too, or do I have to drop everything to be your girlfriend? (this is what they're thinking)

If you've brought something up that bothers you, and nothing changes, that either means the other person doesn't believe you, doesn't care that it bothers you, or does believe you and care but can't change without resenting you. All of those options mean you aren't going to be great friends anytime soon and in a relationship point to 'keep looking'.
posted by ctmf at 9:44 AM on December 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

Focus on asking for what you actually want in the moment instead of making it about "you always do X, you are a wrong person." In other words, don't criticize at all -- ask for what you want.
posted by yarly at 10:29 AM on December 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It seems that you see it as a binary thing: either you get things your way, in which case you are controlling and she is annoyed; or she gets things her way, in which case you are annoyed yourself.

Next time you have a problem like this, ask why. You are annoyed because she is late. But why does it annoy you? Maybe...

- because you don't spend much time with her and you'd like to spend more
- because you were waiting somewhere boring and felt like it was a waste of time

Now, maybe this is something YOU could do something about (don't agree to wait for her in boring places). Maybe it's something she really agrees with and you could find a solution together. You want to spend more time together? Maybe she could rearrange things and give you a whole completely unscheduled work-free day rather than several stressful hurried "appointments".

The key is, you can look for a creative solution that works for both of you, rather than for a way to cope when only one of you can get their way at once.
posted by emilyw at 10:41 AM on December 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

I agree with some of the above commenters; it sounds to me like you're being reasonable, but it might help to say something sooner. The way I see it is this: if I show up late somewhere, I already feel rather bad about it. If the person I'm seeing doesn't say anything, I feel grateful and like I dodged a bullet. I might become lax about being on time with that person, though, even if I know better, because I think they genuinely won't mind. If I get kind of used to that and then suddenly they call me out on it, I'm going to feel REALLY bad for misinterpreting on top of whatever latent guilt I already had, and when people feel really bad and are caught off-guard by a criticism, they can tend to get defensive and tell you you're being a jerk.

On the other hand, if I'm late and the person is mildly annoyed, that's the reaction I expected so it doesn't catch me off-guard or make me defensive. I feel about as bad as I should and apologize, and when the other person forgives me I make extra-extra sure to not do that again.

In other words, by not saying anything, you're kind of lulling people into feeling safe with behavior they probably already know isn't considerate, and criticism flings them from feeling safe to feeling attacked really fast. People tend not to deal with that well. If you say something from the beginning, they're in exactly the kind of situation they expected to be and they take the criticism more easily.
posted by Nattie at 12:33 PM on December 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Your situation reminds me of this article: Faux Friendship. Particularly this part:
As for the moral content of classical friendship, its commitment to virtue and mutual improvement, that, too, has been lost. We have ceased to believe that a friend's highest purpose is to summon us to the good by offering moral advice and correction. We practice, instead, the nonjudgmental friendship of unconditional acceptance and support—"therapeutic" friendship, in Robert N. Bellah's scornful term. We seem to be terribly fragile now. A friend fulfills her duty, we suppose, by taking our side—validating our feelings, supporting our decisions, helping us to feel good about ourselves. We tell white lies, make excuses when a friend does something wrong, do what we can to keep the boat steady. We're busy people; we want our friendships fun and friction-free.
It sounds like you have a more classical idea of friendship/relationships, but people don't like this, they think you are just being mean to them. To take someone aside and tell them "Hey, you're behavior is having some bad effects" is the worst kind of humiliation, since they believe the rule is that this should never happen. So, try to be more like a therapeutic friend! This doesn't mean becoming a doormat - if they are doing something that bugs you, try to let it go. If you can't, then you aren't compatible and you should break up or not hang out that much.

You don't really have any obligations except to pursue your own happiness while not interfering with your friends doing the same. If this sounds like a too self-absorbed way of going through life for you, you might get a lot out of being a father. Also, a woman who has a strong desire to be a mother might appreciate this side of you more.
posted by AlsoMike at 12:42 PM on December 13, 2009 [11 favorites]

You're setting up a false binary between being silent (and feeling like a doormat) and saying something "critical" to the other person. These are not your only choices. How about saying something, but expressing your needs rather than criticizing the other person? How about enlisting the other person's help to find a mutually satisfying solution?

"I really want to spend more time with you. Is there a way we can make that happen?"

"Are you definitely going to be there at 8:00? I get really uncomfortable when I have to wait around, so if you think you might run into traffic like you did last week, let's just say 8:30 instead, and that gives you plenty of time to get there."

"Hey, I'd like to be introduced to your friend."
posted by Orinda at 12:44 PM on December 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

On second thought, this example that I just gave:

"I really want to spend more time with you. Is there a way we can make that happen?"

. . . should probably read more like, "I really want to spend more time with you. Do you feel the same way?" If the other person really has needs or desires that are incompatible with yours, then perhaps that's a sign that the relationship should be reconsidered. But if the other person agrees on the goal, then you move on to: "How can we make this happen?"
posted by Orinda at 12:55 PM on December 13, 2009

Best answer: I wrote: If someone gets put off beyond reason because they themselves haven't understood your honest and good intentions, there is little you can do except local damage control. It is worthwhile learning some tactics for that, but you shouldn't beat yourself up about it.

Taken Outtacontext answered: ...I've found myself in situations like this and I'd like to know some tactics you mention.

Good, I'll bite because it addresses the original question as well. Of course, these tactics should be personal, all what follows is just examples. I should have been more clear: most of the stuff I devised for myself has to do with anticipation.

Tactic 1. I avoid issues that (as far as I know) unduly trigger the person I'm talking to (unless it's really urgent or essential in some way). Example: a person, who otherwise is smart and interesting to talk to, has a deeply ingrained self-righteous manner that shows itself in life- career- and finding-that-people-act-unwise -- rants. This person is, in fact, not able to turn matters around and understand the impact of his pessimistic monologues on the receiving end. So, given my philosophy outlined above, this would be a paradoxically ideal case where I would - as a friend - feel entitled to show him a better path through my constructive criticism. I have carefully tried, and it didn't work at all. So I don't try. It's fine.

Tactic 2 is confrontation management. If the person I've just (rightly) criticized blows up into my face in defensive shards, I could, in my discomfort, get defensive myself, so that the situation deteriorates into an accusing match or something. I've had a work colleague who triggered me like this for years. I learned to step out of that circle by understanding how it was not so much I who triggered her belligerent insecurity, but she who, by reacting belligerently insecure, made me feel insecure in my turn. So this is about anticipation too; anticipation of my own reactions: it is very much easier not to act defensive or harp-on-on-my-pointy if I know beforehand that some defensive feeling is on its way.

Tactic 3 is an evasive tactic in the best sense. Very often it is not the criticism itself but the chosen moment that's wrong. My own agenda to 'get it off my chest' (or something) might interfere with what, neutrally seen, would the best moment to launch my criticism. Most people who react fierce when criticized feel so awfully wronged; a feeling that I cannot have at that moment (because I believe I' m having a point and not they), but which I nevertheless can learn to somehow imagine. This exercise makes me occasionally much more mellow-minded right away, which creates space for being kind to the person in question for a while. This establishes a relaxed atmosphere; serves me well, since I'll be able to get 'it' off my chest in a less tense fashion; serves the to-be-criticised one, too, obviously. It has actually happened several times that the person, in the course of our interaction, delivered some line of self-criticism that was more to the point than what I ever could have said.

Tactic 4. Sometimes it feels so darn good to accept the challenge. If someone grossly misinterprets my intentions and accuses me of hidden agendas or of belonging to this that or the other group/party/ideology, while it patently isn't the case, I am happy to lose my patience without being coy about it. Sure, we're still talking damage control: the damage of letting these accusations stand unaddressed might be greater than the danger of a local flare-up. But there's also something called spontaneity.
posted by Namlit at 1:29 PM on December 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Thanks Namlit. Much food for thought.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 5:05 PM on December 13, 2009

Are most of your annoyances time/scheduling issues? It might help to see this as a matter of people's differing orientations to time/schedules.

I tend to be a little loose on scheduled times, even when I have the best intentions of being on time. If it's critically important I can be on time, but if it's a plan with a friend I am often a little late.

I also tend to prefer spontaneous social organizing ("oh hey, want to grab a quick lunch?") over scheduling events in advance. My partner is the opposite - very good about being on time and takes it very seriously, and much prefers having a schedule in advance of the week's events. Trying to add a spontaneous event makes him really uncomfortable, whereas for me, having to turn down that last-minute lunch invitation (since it's not on the schedule) makes me sad and confined because it feels like a missed opportunity for fun. It's important to me to be able to have part of my day/week that's open for spontaneous things; if there's a week without that kind of space, I will get grouchy and fighty without really knowing why.

Both ways are ok, and it's very hard to change someone's basic orientation on these kinds of things. With friends, you may just have to accept heartfelt apologies, or change the way you plan events with people who are chronically late (tell them a start time a little earlier eg) - or let them know that punctuality is a thing with you, and please could they make an extra effort.

With gf, it might help to have a sit-down about how the two of you can find some middle ground on the scheduling issue.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:34 PM on December 13, 2009

Best answer: Every time you interact with someone you should expect that you are setting the standard for your future interactions. That doesn't mean no one can ever make a mistake or be late, or have a bad day. But at the same time it always appropriate to acknowledge when these things happen.

If someone shows up late and you say "no problem" then the event is over. If you say "no problem" five times then you have made it clear to them that it is not a problem if they are late. You are allowed to change your mind and say you've decided that it isn't ok, but recognize you are the one changing the standards in the relationship and in fact they may never be committed enough to that change for it to happen.

The first step is to recognize that you don't have a valid complaint if there was never a promise on the other person's part. In fact, it sounds like in your attempt at 'tolerance' you've even invalidated some of the usual social contracts. Normally the expectation is that if someone is late it is a bad thing. If you repeat the "no problem" reply to a person being late more than a few times then you've developed a new implied contract with that person with the 'no problem' expectation. So, what you have is not a complaint at all.

What you have is a new request. You can say "I thought I could be pretty easy-going about when we show up, but I've discovered that I'm always ending up waiting around, which is no fun for me. I realize I haven't brought it up before, but could you put more priority on being here at the time we said we'd meet?" By recognizing that you don't have a complaint, but that there is something going on you'd like to change, hopefully you can make requests of other people that will be more helpful to you.

One other thing to keep in mind is that people have a right to decline your requests. Just because you think it is important that someone schedule their time a certain way doesn't mandate that they need to. It is up to them to accept. If they don't, you have to live with it. You could come up with a different request, you could just decide that it isn't that important after all, or you could change your relationship with the person. But, you can't use the fact that they declined your request as a source of criticism.

Specifically with your girlfriend, it sounds like she has a commitment to the job which you are finding conflicts with a commitment you would like her to have to schedule her time with you. If you can keep history out of it (no fair opening up a litany of past transgressions) and just talk about how it impacts you, and what you believe you are looking for, then you might be able to discuss a solution for how you deal with that disconnect. Again, go into the conversation open to the possibility that there may be opportunities for you to change your expectations so that both of you achieve what you are looking for.

Good luck.
posted by meinvt at 7:01 PM on December 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Don't do things you don't want to do, so next time someone's late, don't wait for them. Just leave. I guess that doesn't solve your overall problem.

I usually decide to just let something go, or be super firm and serious about it. You hate it when people are late, so say up front when you make plans that you hate it when people are late. It can be your thing. Then when they're late they'll at least feel bad about it and apologize. My thing is sarcasm directed at me, or funny-but-serious insults. I make it clear up front that it's not OK, preferably before it happens. That way it's not a criticism, because they already know you hate it. You can just be mad and they'll know why. Just say "you're late, what's the deal?" and yeah, if they keep doing it then quit waiting for them. Showing up to the donut place and waiting...waiting...and you're comfortably at home enjoying yourself with a beer or whatever, and they won't do it again.
posted by kathrineg at 8:55 PM on December 13, 2009

By the way, once you call someone on it for the first time, be serious, then once they get that you're serious and understand how important it is to you, immediately back off and relax, and move the conversation on to something else. That way they don't feel too bad, you can still enjoy yourselves, but they understand that it's seriously not OK.
posted by kathrineg at 8:57 PM on December 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

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