Help! I may be an asshole
December 2, 2010 9:36 PM   Subscribe

I seem to have a neverending list since adulthood of people that just simply do not like me, and increasingly shorter list of those that do. How do I become less of an asshole?

I have no real friends other than distant acquaintances. I bounced from group to group in high school and college, then during my 20's, always having drinking buddies but no real friends other than those of my various significant others that i socialized with.

I don't think i'm angry, or a bad person (morally or otherwise), or argumentative or unpleasant to be around. In fact i feel i'm a great person to know, I'm rather social and inquisitive, never boastful or overtly political or otherwise polarizing. However, the feedback i keep getting from new people is 'meh, not a fan', the results i'm getting from old friends is 'i'm writing you off', with no particulars mentioned.

i do tend to challenge people and voice a strong opinion sometimes, but the converse seems to be gliding through life nodding my head just to be liked. have i not found my subset of folks, or am i doing something fundamentally wrong? How do i become someone that people define as 'a good guy' ?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (55 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
Do you want to be known as a "good guy" or do you want to have enduring, meaningful friendships? If you're interested in the latter, what steps have you taken to make this so? I ask because you haven't mentioned any and friendships begin and end with effort.
posted by mizrachi at 9:47 PM on December 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

You might want to consider group therapy. The other members of the group and the facilitator will be able to provide you with more constructive feedback on how you get along with people. That will be vastly more helpful than us trying to figure it out from the paltry clues that can be left in a textual domain like this. That said...

i do tend to challenge people and voice a strong opinion sometimes, but the converse seems to be gliding through life nodding my head just to be liked.

This sentence makes me start to dislike you already. This sort of all-or-nothing-thinking is a hallmark of people who are difficult to get along with, in my opinion. Voicing your opinion is great, but people who take pride in voicing "a strong opinion" can sometimes be insufferable. If you are voicing your opinion more strongly than anyone else in a group of people, perhaps you should tone it down a notch. "Challenging people" is not always necessary.

Read Dale Carnegie.
posted by grouse at 9:50 PM on December 2, 2010 [28 favorites]

the results i'm getting from old friends is 'i'm writing you off', with no particulars mentioned.

Are your old friends writing you off, or are you just growing apart? If your friends are straight-up saying, "I'm sorry, we can't be friends anymore", or abruptly disappearing from your life, then maybe you should just ask them what's up.

On the other hand, it could be nothing at all, but your lives are just taking you in different directions.

One thing I've experienced throughout my later 20's is that my old college friends' lives change, causing them to drift further away from me. And yet it's difficult for me to make new friends who I feel that same kind of bond with. So every once in a while I get panicky about this same issue. What's wrong with me? Why don't I have as many friends as I used to? Do people dislike me? Am I doing something wrong? Maybe this is pure vanity, but I've simply decided that it's an inevitable part of getting older and nothing personal.

Also - if you're stuck in a pattern where you befriend your S.O.'s friends, and then you break up, which of course means you lose access to the friends? Yeah, that can really suck.
posted by Sara C. at 9:52 PM on December 2, 2010 [4 favorites]

A good guy is a giving guy. Do you really care about these people in your life? Do you show them that you do and care about them enough to do this in ways that do not make them uncomfortable?

Do you enjoy your work? Do you have any fun hobbies? Do you enjoy music and dance? Do the things you enjoy doing and give yourself to them wholeheartedly.

Do you work at keeping yourself healthy? A good guy is someone who takes reasonably good care of himself and finds enjoyment in life that does not depend on the presence of others. Running? Team sports? Do you know how to cook? If you don't start to learn by following recipes or taking a cooking class. Eventually you'll feel comfortable contributing a tasty dish to a potluck dinner or even inviting a few people over for dinner.

Do you do any volunteering? Give of yourself freely without expectation of reciprocation.

Don't be so quick to assume that people dislike you, they may just find too little in common with you to warrant pursuing a friendship.Eventually you will find people with whom you can have real friendships.

I think you're very brave to put this question out to us, even though you remain anonymous. I wish you happiness.
posted by mareli at 9:54 PM on December 2, 2010 [10 favorites]

As a reforming asshole (it's a long, hard road, and I'm still an ass, but I'm trying to be better), it's not easy to change. The central problem is what you've already said. You don't think there's anything seriously wrong with how you act, yet you're telling us that people don't want to get to know you, or the people who do don't seem to want to maintain the friendship. That should tell you something in itself.

Just for starters: stop challenging people. Stop throwing out strong opinions. That stuff? It's for good friends, long lasting relationships, and family. Most casual friends are just that. A quick example: someone I worked with in the past couple of years, not less than ten minutes after meeting them, criticized my choice of lunch, and explained (in a very, very holier-than-though voice) that they don't eat red meat. Bully for them, but I'm not them, and I just met them, and they'd already created an unpleasant environment that managed to continue to be unpleasant for the two years we worked together.

I have very, very strong opinions, but I keep most of them to myself, or share them with friends that I know don't mind that sort of discussion. The key thing is, most people don't like stressful or contentious discussion, and most people don't like being challenged on things they believe are just kind of normal. Take a minute to think, why do you need to challenge these people? What can you possibly gain? Is being right more important to you than having people you can spend an otherwise pleasant time with?

I'm not saying that you need to get chummy with people whose beliefs are diametrically opposed to yours, but if your self-image ('I feel I'm a great person to know.') is so different from others, well, maybe you need to think. Nodding and smiling can go a long way, as long as you're not, y'know, nodding and smiling while the Klan recruiter talks about a better, purer America.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:55 PM on December 2, 2010 [4 favorites]

First, go pick up a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People and read it cover to cover.

Most people don't like it when you challenge them in public. Hell, a lot of them don't like it if you do it in private. I have met very few people who know how to successfully engage another person in a productive dialogue without coming off as punitive, judgmental, oppressive, and condescending, and I myself have developed a rather volatile response to those who are unable to deliver opinions and thoughts in a tactful way. It is possible that the people you meet and then challenge verbally see you as boorish and belittling, and that's no way to win friends or keep them. You could be presenting yourself in such a way that overwhelmingly says to those people, "I find you stupid for thinking such a thing, and I have GOT to get you on the right track". Nobody likes a no it all, and no one likes a "my way or the highway" kind of person either.

I have found that the best way to engage someone in a debate is to first ask them to clarify a certain point of their argument in a polite, nonjudgmental way. "I am interested to hear more about why you feel this way about X. Could you explain what's prompted you to feel this way?" Listen. Let them talk. Then say, "You know what, I've never thought of it that way. For me, I've seen it like this." Use "I" statements only. Don't make generalizations. Don't demean any opposing points of view. Just calmly, congenially state what makes you tick about that particular topic, and if the other person is getting heated or irritated, back off. "I notice that this conversation is making you uncomfortable. Would you prefer a change of subject?" And then move on.

As for the primary question about what makes someone a "good" person, that's sort of one of the fundamental cruxes of life, isn't it? To me, a good friend is someone who respects me, who respects themselves, who offers assistance and support (and space!) when the situation merits it, and who is actively working towards maintaining the friendship by meeting me halfway whenever possible. Maybe the key here would be to brace yourself for some raw responses and go ask some of your ex-friends why they feel you haven't been worth keeping around. "Hey, I get the feeling I've been kind of an asshole, and it bothers me that I wasn't a good enough person for us to stay friends. I know this is really awkward, but would you be willing to point out what rubbed you the wrong way? If not, I completely understand. I just don't want to repeat whatever it is I'm doing or not doing anymore."

IDK. May not be your style. But kudos for being introspective and actually taking the time to consider the possibility that it could be you. We all can do with a little bit of polishing here and there when it comes to interpersonal shit, and honestly, all you can do is be conscious of what you're saying, and just make an honest, earnest effort to be kind, polite, and inviting.
posted by patronuscharms at 10:00 PM on December 2, 2010 [9 favorites]

Also, stop talking about yourself. If you think you're great, awesome. Show the other people you're hanging with that that's true by letting them shine. Ask other people about themselves. When someone asks you about yourself, keep it honest, but short and sweet. Don't go overboard. If you show someone they're interesting by being a good listener, you will begin to develop a better foundation for a friendship than you would if all you can do is be critical and talk about yourself. The long, deep, personally revealing opinionated talks are for when you have established friendships.
posted by patronuscharms at 10:04 PM on December 2, 2010 [4 favorites]

I must already know you.
Most of my friends are assholes. I hear it all the time, "how do you hang out with that guy?" Ya know what? I like assholes! They have opinions. They're different, provocative. Who needs another placating, yes man? Just don't be a stupid asshole – that's bad.
posted by pmaxwell at 10:10 PM on December 2, 2010 [12 favorites]

There's nothing wrong with having strong opinions. But keep in mind that just because you have strong opinions doesn't mean you are always right and the other person is wrong. An opinion is just an opinion and you don't need to try and challenge people and prove them wrong or judge them. You can, however, express your opinions in a way that stimulates an intellectual discussion rather than trying to "win" or set sides. Seeing things from another person's point of view is very helpful in not coming across as an asshole, and it will earnestly make you less of an asshole because you will be seeing people as complex individuals with histories and backgrounds that have created who they are today rather than perhaps viewing them as simpletons who are wrong.

Also, the more you attack somebody's opinions, the harder they fight back no matter how logical or informed you believe your argument may be. People are emotional creatures and an argumentative stance is not going to change anyone's mind or endear them to you. If you are truly trying to "enlighten" and broaden someone with your ideas, try it in a non-confrontational, non-argumentative manner. You're not going to agree with all your friends, you can only hope to find people who are kind and accepting of who you are (and you would have to be kind and accepting of them, too). Who you are includes your perspectives, so that means you are fully entitled to strong opinions, but you don't have to butt heads with others who have different perspectives. You can know who people are and where they are coming from and agree to disagree while also having a beer and a good time. Also, read "The Tao of Daily Life" by Derek Lin. Perhaps it can help you live in the moment and be flexible without having to compromise your ideals, whatever they may be.
posted by mrdmsy at 10:41 PM on December 2, 2010

If you think that it's either you are "yourself" or you're caving in to be liked then you've already lost as those are both losing propositions for the simple reason that they're both about you. Friendships can only materialize in your life if you take the focus off yourself. It's not about being liked (for who you are or who you aren't) it's about liking other people. If you can shift your focus to whether you like someone and realize that liking them is about who they are and not about what being with them can give you (emotionally or otherwise) then you can start to see things from other people's perspective and that will naturally temper your attitude. All the other stuff about how to act, etc is bullshit unless you shift how you relate to others.
posted by blueyellow at 10:42 PM on December 2, 2010 [9 favorites]

Oh yeah, you said you weren't argumentative, but the line i do tend to challenge people and voice a strong opinion sometimes, but the converse seems to be gliding through life nodding my head just to be liked is just like how grouse mentioned, it doesn't have to be one or the other, all-or-nothing. It's not all just black and white. Find a happy medium.
posted by mrdmsy at 10:44 PM on December 2, 2010

I realize that this is anonymous, but could you explain how you are not augmentative, yet you have strong opinions and challenge people because the line between the two is incredibly thin. Also what kind of subject matters are you challenging people on? An example would be really helpful.

I have strong opinions also, but I also have plenty of friends. And even though I have strong opinions and like to debate, I would say that I probably don't voice my strong opinions on a regular basis because really most day to day conversations with friends over drinks and dinner don't elicit my strong opinions or I keep them to myself because it's not the time or place. But really most day to day conversation consists of: what you've been up to, talk of family, other friends, significant others, movie you saw, movie you want to see, great concert coming up we should all go to, are you coming to X's birthday next week? yeah I am cool, oh god I've had this cold all week, work has been crazy, and on it goes. Really none of this should evoke a strong opinion or cause you to challenge someone.

I would say that if every time you go out with a group of people you are voicing your strong opinion or challenging anyone at least once, that is too much. Sometimes we glide through life nodding our heads because it's the nice thing to do and sometimes challenging someone can come off as insulting someone. Because if you are challenging someone's beliefs or opinions or their taste, really you are saying their beliefs or opinions or the fact they like Coldplay is wrong or bad or inferior to your own.

Will I challenge someone on the fact they thinks gay people shouldn't be allow to marry? Yes, I will because I think it's an important issue of basic rights that overrides my desire not to insult that person's beliefs or to upset the general mood of the evening.

Will I challenge someone on whether eating 5 bananas a day will prevent cancer? No because what does it matter? If someone wants to eat 5 bananas a day what difference does it make to me?? And if I challenge someone on this: 1) I will not change their mind (they will likely become even more ingrained and committed to their opinion): 2) I have insulted/questioned their knowledge, taste, judgment, intellect, etc.. and 3) they will dislike me for doing so and for doing it in front of other people.

I'm sorry if this is not representative of you, but that part of your question was a big red flag for me.
posted by whoaali at 10:44 PM on December 2, 2010 [7 favorites]

You're boring. Do things that are interesting to you. Get excited about what you do. But when you meet people, talk about them and what they do, not what you do, not unless it comes up naturally when talking about the other people. And always shift it back to them. Say your bit and then think "but enough about me" and shift it back to what boring people really love to talk about: themselves.

And don't be a crank. Talk about personal things, not about how you would fix the world if you weren't sitting there talking about fixing the world. If you want to fix the world, go out and fix it.
posted by pracowity at 10:48 PM on December 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

Try not to act negative. A lot of people who grew up identifying as "smart" (rather than "sporty" or whatever) have what seems like a negative attitude towards everything: they're self-deprecating, they point out flaws rather than upsides, and you better not make a statement without hedging any possible misinterpretation or negative implication or they will point out your wrongs. Even if, as in most cases, the negative-seeming person is in their own mind just being realistic, or taking their interlocutors' ideas seriously, or engaging with the world actively instead of being a bleating sheeperson... it still comes across as being a jerk.

So, if that describes you, and given your question it sounds like it might ("gliding through life nodding [your] head," eh?), pick your battles. If someone says "Let's get drunk and do skids down an icy road in our cars" or "Why are {ethnic group} so dumb, anyway?", sure, call them on being an idiot. But if they are just having a relaxed conversation, don't be the first one to break out the Your Favorite X Sucks response.

This goes double for professional situations. Don't be that guy who, whenever a co-worker announces something, immediately picks it apart for potential flaws. There's a time for "Hey Sam, I think I see a potential problem in that idea you mentioned to everyone the other day" but there is also a time to just keep quiet and let people get through what they have to say without it turning into an interrogation.

Remember, the majority of human communication is not to exchange ideas or bash out rigorous solutions to stated problems. It's just done to reinforce group cohesion and share feelings. And that's okay. That's what humans do.
posted by No-sword at 10:54 PM on December 2, 2010 [27 favorites]

Here are a few traits of the most universally hated person I have ever known in my life (though I say this having never personally met Hitler):

-a know-it-all
-went out of her way to voice her opinions to others (even to perfect strangers)
-had nonstandard habits that she tried to enforce on everyone around her
-thought that social rules didn't apply to her (much worse than just being clueless)
-demanded 100% of the time and energy of what few friends she did have
-threw tantrums if she didn't get her way
-made no apologies for her behavior when specifically called out on it

I could go on, but I won't. Anyone can be some of these things some of the time, but when someone is all of these things and more absolutely all of the time, it's a real drag.

It might be useful for you to think about people you know in your own life who you don't like being around. Why don't you like them? What, specifically, is it about their personality or the way they present themselves to others that turns you off? (Then, see if any of those qualities might apply to you.)
posted by phunniemee at 10:59 PM on December 2, 2010 [4 favorites]

A lot of people with relatively minor mental health issues have problems making and keeping friends because there are a lot of little things that can make you terribly annoying to others and/or keep you from seeing the right social cues that allow you to properly adjust your behavior. This comes straight from the mouth of my therapist. You might consider seeing somebody. Just to see if, overall, you need some help making your mental image of yourself match the person you really are.
posted by gracedissolved at 11:18 PM on December 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

the converse seems to be gliding through life nodding my head just to be liked

I can't say BULLSHIT! loudly enough.

You can say anything you want, you just have to say it right. patronuscharms put it very well, and supplied you with a link too.

Other than that:

- Say how things make you feel, rather than what you think. People can relate to that, even if they don't feel the same way.
- You haven't found your subset, it's true.
- Don't be so vain as to think what you think matters, or is right.
posted by seagull.apollo at 1:18 AM on December 3, 2010

In my humble opinion, most people will like you if you make them feel good.

It takes different things to make different people feel good. Many people feel good if you pay attention to them. With these people they will usually like you if they feel that you are listening to them, if you understand what you have heard, if you sympathize/agree with what you understand, and if, after all this, you like them.

Other people feel good if they have fun around you. With these people, it really helps you are genuinely positive in general. If you are happy overall, and you smile, laugh, and just go with the flow in general, and don't make things too heavy.

The group of people who feel good by being challenged by someone with strong opinions that don't match their own (and they don't match, because it wouldn't be a challenge otherwise), is a fraction of the size of the other two groups I mentioned. It obviously exists, otherwise there wouldn't be cults, but it's just a lot smaller.

I think you should really try to figure out what you get out of challenging other people and putting forth your strong opinions in situations where nobody has asked for them.

Be honest: is it actually altruistic, or is it about control, or demonstrating/showing off that you are smarter than others, or that you are more "right" than others?

Or is it your way of being altruistic? Do you genuinely believe that the world would be a happier place if you could convince others of the truth of your opinions?

If that's the case, then as someone who also holds some strong opinions that differ from a lot of other people --- the way to convince people of the truth of your opinions is not the way that you're going about it. Surely you have already noticed that. People often don't change their opinion because they're browbeaten or backed into a corner of being wrong. Sometimes they will cling even harder to their opinions in that case. So all your challenging is futile either way.

That said, I think there are things in this world that are really important to stand up for. When we're talking about something that is actually important, I completely understand that it chafes to have to decide between standing up for those things and being liked. In those instances, I think you might just have to accept that you will not be liked if you do that, and decide whether or not that is worth it to you. (But when I say "standing up for" these things, I don't just mean voicing strong opinions. That's kind of like cheap talk. If all you're doing is talking, I think it would be worthwhile to consider what the talking is actually *doing.*)
posted by Ashley801 at 1:40 AM on December 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is the kind of question where there is probably some key element that you didn't think to write. I'd seek help in person. Good for you for thinking about it.
posted by salvia at 1:52 AM on December 3, 2010 [5 favorites]

You might find this article helpful - how some intelligent people have a knack for inadvertently distressing others.

I enjoy people with strong opinions who like to challenge me ... sometimes. And I love a good argument ... sometimes. But most of the time I want to hang out with people who like me for who I am and who accept me uncritically. I recognize that and I will still sometimes fall into the trap of offering criticism and opinion in contexts where they are not wanted.

I once dated a girl who pointed this out to me - every time I did it. And you know what I learned? I sure didn't want to hang out with her ...
posted by zanni at 1:53 AM on December 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

As someone who thrives on approval and people liking me (too much, I am sure), I have an issue with *thinking* that people don't like me, and then finding out that they do. What's usually the case is, I am the one who doesn't like something that I said, something that I did... and I project that onto others - because I know what's going on in everyone else's head... right?


Don't assume the worst about others are thinking. People generally do not mind discussing the issues of the day, and having a strong opinion is ok as long as you project a respect for the opinions of others. If you have a strong need to express your opinions, join an online discussion forum - there are thousands of them. Not only will you be able to indulge your need to debate, but after awhile it will help you learn how to express your opinions in a way which is eloquent but non-offensive. I know - I have been in the same place as you are.
posted by brownrd at 3:03 AM on December 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Going with the respect for others opinions - be sure you're listening and not just waiting for your turn to talk. And for that matter, check to see if you constantly interrupt or speak over people. Listen. And realise that you don't have to challenge everyone, and the world will spin on if you have an unexpressed thought or opinion.
posted by lemniskate at 4:06 AM on December 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Do your friends actually use the words "I'm writing you off"? What do they actually say?

What happens right before they say it?
posted by tel3path at 4:11 AM on December 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

no real friends other than those of my various significant others that i socialized with...

This is also something to think about - is it possible that you don't put in the needed effort to strengthen older casual friendships once you have a SO's friend network to plug in to? I would recommend that for the time being, focus on creating strong friendships independent of any SO's. I simple reason for friendship breakup is in the fallout of a relationship breakup, where groups of friend retreat back to their original sides. Another thing that could be a factor but that you didn't bring up, is if you have moved, it will be very difficult to increase the strength of casual friendships or even maintain close friendships.
posted by fermezporte at 4:22 AM on December 3, 2010

I knew somebody like this once. I enjoyed arguing and poo-flinging debate, but after knowing him for a few years, I didn't any more. He was absolutely relentless. He believed that others had a moral obligation to discuss any topic he wanted to discuss, whenever he wanted, and that if they didn't they were being SHEEPLE who needed to WAKE UP.

Underlying this was a zero-sum attitude that made everything a contest. The practical effect was that he was always trying to undermine me. He expressed clear understanding that relationships are cooperative and not competitive, and talked as if that were his attitude, but it wasn't. One day he wrote a blog post about witnessing others piling onto an innocent victim, bemoaned how terrible other people were for doing this, but then went on to express his anguish that the only way to relieve one's own pain is to inflict it on someone Thus, his combativeness unfortunately this didn't stop with theoretical arguments on unimportant topics. Eventually he tried to undermine me at work. It wasn't in his nature to do otherwise.

He once told me that his father had said that as a child, "everyone hated you", that he had been repellent to people since as long as he could remember, and therefore, being socially rejected wasn't a source of pain for him the way it was for me. It seems to me that it is, and that he is self-aware enough to know that what he's doing is destructive, but that the rewards of hurting and alienating people will always be more satisfying to him than real, mutual relationships, however much he may crave them. I don't see that he will have a happy life to look back on in his last days.
posted by tel3path at 4:25 AM on December 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

"somebody like this once" -> somebody who tended to "challenge people and voice a strong opinion sometimes" and felt strongly that it wasn't worth his integrity to do otherwise
posted by tel3path at 4:27 AM on December 3, 2010

Is this previous metafilter question you? Or somebody you might identify with?
posted by Comrade_robot at 4:48 AM on December 3, 2010

It does take an extraordinary amount of work to maintain a friendship after reaching a certain age. From a female point of view, to maintain a friendship with another female I need to remember birthdays, major holidays, the ages and birthdays of her children, details about her work and her boss. I have to make time for one to one meetings on a regular basis, even if it is just getting a pedicure together. I have to be supernice to her SO and really like and respect him, I have to remember details about her siblings and parents. And so on...

It seems that the number of my true friends has declined, but the quality of friendship is so much better: I trust my friends completely.

Maybe a similar effort is required for friendship between men?
posted by francesca too at 5:28 AM on December 3, 2010

i do tend to challenge people and voice a strong opinion sometimes, but the converse seems to be gliding through life nodding my head just to be liked.

As someone mentioned up above, this sentence is already making me dislike you. Life is challenging enough, people don't need supposed friends challenging them too. Or they don't need or want it in the way I'm betting you do i.e. in a way to prove you're right and they're wrong or that they have strange or messed up view on something. Most people don't want to hear that shit.

You should read this recently side-barred comment about what a guy learned from watching reality tv. It has some decent lessons in it about learning social interaction and what's really important to people.

I suggest you find a couple of outlets where challenging people is the norm, say a debate club or discussion group, so you'll have a way to channel that energy. But for regular, everyday interactions? Tone it down and quit being that person who comes off as an arrogant jackass who always wants to fight.

... but the converse seems to be gliding through life nodding my head just to be liked.

Also, as others mentioned, this sort of black and white, right or wrong thinking is boring, not very smart and aggravating to hear over and over. One can be a strong personality and voice opinions and be liked. Just not the way you're doing it.
posted by nomadicink at 5:33 AM on December 3, 2010

Strong opinions and challenging behavior can be very off-putting, but there are a lot of other ways to be generally annoying while not actually being an asshole.

Maybe think about whether there is some way in which you are out of step with the prevailing culture you operate in. Are you an Ask in a Guess world, or vice versa?

Do you have very different interests or knowledge than most of your friends and do you talk about them at length? Are you particularly knowledgeable about music, film, books, wine, food, travel, etc., and do you frequently share your superior insights on these things? (People can be very touchy about having their taste belittled.)

Do you consider yourself to have more common sense than most people, or some accumulated life wisdom that you feel compelled to share? (You might be trying to impress or simply want to be helpful, but people generally hate unasked-for advice, criticism and correction.)

Do you tease or rib people a lot? Are you sarcastic? (Both I and my husband grew up in families where friendly sarcasm was the norm... it took me a long time to realize that one of my friends was continually being confused and sometimes offended by my constant smart-assery.)

I had one friend who I stopped hanging out with when I realized I never enjoyed her company or looked forward to seeing her. There was never I time when I thought "Gosh, X activity would be even more fun if Jane could come with us!" She's a nice person, not an asshole, but to me she is a pain in the ass.

She's pushy about getting her own way. I can be very clear that I don't want to do something and she'll keep needling me about it in a "but, but" sort of way.

She always finds a way to complicate our plans. Needs to run an errand first, or three, while we wait. Cajoles us to go out of our way to pick her up, and when we get there we find out we can't leave on time because she's waiting for the cable guy or something. Or she (and we, because we drove) has to leave the event earlier than we'd agreed upon because she has an appointment she neglected to mention.

She's always asking favors of various sorts. She's a huge Ask and I'm more of a Guess. I try very hard not to impose on people and she doesn't seem to understand the meaning of imposition. I think the biggest problem I have with some Asks is that they just expect everyone to operate the way they do, to be comfortable with lobbying for their own interests all the time, hashing out disagreements until someone wins or loses; and that being stubborn about your cause until you get your way is just the way the game is played. I imagine two Asks probably have no problem dealing with each other in this way.

But I don't like to argue, and I don't like to say no. I WILL say it but it always makes me uncomfortable and makes me want to avoid people who put me in the position of having to say it a lot.

She has also made it obvious that she feels competitive with me. I don't enjoy her acting smug, condescending and making little jokes that make it clear she feels better about herself because she thinks herself more clever or attractive than me specifically.

None of the things she does are horrible or heinous, and I'm sure she has no idea how much she gets under my skin. I truly believe it is just a personality clash, and I imagine she probably thinks I am touchy and ungenerous. But good person or no, bottom line is I just don't enjoy interacting with her. If it was a occasional thing I wouldn't have a problem, it's just that she's so relentlessly annoying to me, in one way or another.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 5:44 AM on December 3, 2010 [4 favorites]

Don't challenge people. Nobody likes the guy who makes hanging out into work. Yes, I know we had that great conversation that one time. That doesn't mean I want to be a part of the algonquin round table every time I see you. Maybe I'm talking about someone else.

You sound a little like another guy I know, who is very socially needs but doesn't know it. And slightly narcissistic. Doesn't understand that other people aren't interested in dropping everything to engage with him.

Say how things make you feel, rather than what you think. People can relate to that, even if they don't feel the same way.

It's a shame you don't believe that other people can relate to thinking. If you need to use feelings to express an intellectual idea, you are doing it wrong. Do not take this advice.
posted by gjc at 6:15 AM on December 3, 2010

"i do tend to challenge people and voice a strong opinion sometimes, but the converse seems to be gliding through life nodding my head just to be liked."


Look, everybody I know has strong opinions. Because I hang out with, socialize with, and engage professionally with people who are almost all highly intelligent, well-educated, and deeply-committed in their personal and professional lives. When we hang out or socialize? People are not voicing those strong opinions. They are having pleasant discussions about their lives, about books they read, about local news, about the weather. Sometimes it gets serious. Sometimes we vent about the serious things. But, look, I spend all day engaging with serious issues and working on them. I spend a good part of the day talking with people who think I hate America, Jesus, or children because of my stance on a particular issue. I do not want to spend my off hours arguing more! It wears me out!

Some of this is a function of age. When you're 18, 22, 25, you spout off. College students, post-college people, they have strong opinions about the world and arguing is a sport. But as I get into my 30s I have less and less tolerance for that because a lot of us have moved on and are working on those issues and fixing those things. So when someone comes to a party and is proclaiming from on high What Is Wrong With Kids Today, I want to know why they aren't involved in the mentoring program for high-risk children at the local high school. When they're on about Local Government Is So Corrupt, why aren't they attending city council meetings and pointing out the corruption in public session? Why aren't they volunteering to serve on the sidewalks commission to stop the deep corruption in sidewalk placement priority? When it's all People Eat Shit That's Bad For Them Because They Are Stupid, why aren't they engaged in one of the dozen community projects, civic and volunteer, to educate about food, gardening, cooking, etc.?

Because they're just assholes. They just like to spout off "strong opinions" to sound like big men, and they're not actually engaged with those issues in any meaningful way. That would be hard. It's easier to complain about how everything is shit than it is to try and fix it. Easier to be a critic than a creator.

I know this isn't everyone's experience of the world, but my social circle IS people who are strongly opinionated AND deeply engaged, and they don't feel the burning need to bicker after work hours. When you're actually engaged with important issues, it's intensely frustrating to deal with someone who's formed an opinion based on reading a couple things on the internet and thinking I Went To School Once So I Know How Discipline Should Work In High Schools That Are Nothing Like My Own With Kids Facing Entirely Different Problems. You know, another reason I don't often spout off my opinions at social events is that because I'm actually engaged with these issues, my opinions are nuanced and complex, because as they say, there's an answer to every problem that's simple, clear, and wrong. People who know nothing about my fields of endeavor having strong, simple, clear opinions on nuanced, complicated, difficult issues? It's idiocy, and it's difficult to listen to without wanting to scream.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:42 AM on December 3, 2010 [31 favorites]

This is just a hunch, but do you consider yourself to be more honest than most people? Like most people are just hiding what they think because they're afraid of conflict, but you aren't, and so you face the world with what you think is a kind of bracing honesty?

I ask because almost every terminal asshole I've ever met has been like that. After all, nobody walks around trying to make people feel bad and alienate them (or at least very few people do). But the most unpleasant people I've ever met have been of the "I'm just saying what everyone else is afraid to say" variety.

Your comment, "the converse seems to be gliding through life nodding my head just to be liked" raises a red flag for me in this regard. You seem to be describing the normal concessions that most people make toward other people in order to make those people feel comfortable and make their social interactions go smoothly. It looks like you interpret this behavior as a sign of weakness or passivity. This attitude is, again, often a source of assholery. I'd suggest to you that there's something to be said for making people around you feel good, and that people who do it routinely might have motivations other than fear.
posted by Ragged Richard at 7:00 AM on December 3, 2010 [27 favorites]

i do tend to challenge people and voice a strong opinion sometimes, but the converse seems to be gliding through life nodding my head just to be liked.

Nthing that this sentence is a red flag for me. I have a decent number of friends I would characterize as good to very close. Not all these friendships are created equal. My relationship with some of these friends is such that we talk about issues/opinions and sometimes dissent on matters in a heated way. My relationship with some other friends is that we don't ever really talk about deep issues - we're friends because being around each other is fun and relaxing and as such, we keep it light.

One is not better or worse than the other, but I suspect given the way you worded your question that you might be treating all new relationships in the first way, and frightening people off with aggression, intensity, or self-centeredness.

You know how I know which kind of friendship I'm working with? When I've been introduced to someone that I'm interested in being friends with, I keep it light the next time I see them. I listen and ask questions to learn more about them. That's how you learn what kind of things you can talk about, what kind of jokes you can make, and so on. While you're focusing on learning about them, most people will be doing the same toward you, and if you're friend-compatible things will just fall into place and the kind of friendship you'll have will make itself evident.

It's hard to make friends when you're gazing lovingly at your own navel. Make hanging out with people about those people, not about you. If you're still struggling after that point, consider other measures - but I think you may find that changing your conversational and listening behaviors has a huge effect.
posted by superfluousm at 7:12 AM on December 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

i do tend to challenge people and voice a strong opinion sometimes, but the converse seems to be gliding through life nodding my head just to be liked.

Be aware that your (ex) friends and acquaintances may think you're the study buddy in this question. If you want to be liked more, sometimes you really do just have to nod your head.
posted by immlass at 7:30 AM on December 3, 2010

Take a mental note of every time somebody does something that makes you feel a little "fuck you"... and don't do that. (And also note that they're probably not trying to make you feel bad any more than you used to, so handle that problem as your own.) Take note of things other people do that make you think "I like this person" and do more things like that. This includes not only spoken communication, but body language, context, familiarity, etc.

This other one seems out in left field, but most anyone who trains will agree: Take Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Seriously. Aside from it being fun, mentally challenging, and a great physical workout, it does wonders for the ego -- in short, it teaches you not only what an enormous capacity you have for Being Wrong but also what a gift it is for someone else to point out your faults. And it gives you a laid-bare minefield of egos upon which to carefully tread; when you get better at navigating these egos (and controlling your own) in class, it transfers directly over into real life.
posted by LordSludge at 7:33 AM on December 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

So I probably am fairly similar to you. I enjoy arguing, I care very much about several volatile/polarizing issues, and I'm fairly extroverted and enjoy chatting with strangers. However, I have a wide and long-lasting circle of friends. Some of them aren't even big fighty jerkfaces like myself.

Why? Because I know I can be a completely abrasive asshole if I don't check myself, and I make an effort to not push others out of their comfort zone. So I'm not going to bring up abortion, foreign policy, religion, or any other potentially-inflammatory topic until I actually know you. That's not being a yes-man, that's simple good manners.

There's a difference between "nodding your head just to go along with others" and "completely and violently tearing down casual acquaintances because you disagree with them." If I know you pretty well (say, we've known each other for a few months and spent time hanging out with each other), and you like debating and arguing as much as I do, then I'll most likely enjoy debating extremely polarizing issues with you over a few beers. I might even take the opposite position from my own beliefs, just to try to figure out why people think that way. But most people aren't fighty, and some of my best friends are much more conflict-avoidant than myself. Hell, I married an amazing person who does not like to have long arguments with others. I just have to be careful to not argue with people who don't want an argument. That doesn't mean I can't have meaningful conversations with them -- it just means that I need to be careful to not be mean to them. Don't think of yourself as this awesome thick-skinned paragon of honesty, think of yourself as a person on the long tail of the bell curve of conflict-tolerance, and make concessions to the fact that most people hate confrontational interactions -- especially when the confrontation is with people they care about. Most people also hate to be seen in the company of a person who is likely to, say, walk up to a nun and start an argument about the existence of God. Not only is that person being rude, but people around a rude person are often perceived as rude-by-association -- "Oh, you're friends with *that* guy?!"

And finally, Eyebrows McGee is spot-on. Maybe when I grow up some more (I'm in my late 20's) I won't enjoy arguing as much, but for now I have my debate/discussion friends. Thing is, we are all educated and informed. Most of us are engaged with the community and do real things in the real world relating to the issues we feel passionate about, and we don't just have opinions for the sake of having them. I find it tiresome to try to have a meaningful discussion with a guy that read two articles about intelligent design and now wants to have a debate with me about the teaching of evolution and intelligent design in the public schools -- I've got a substantial education in evolutionary biology and philosophy of science, I do science outreach regularly, and I've got a sophisticated layman's knowledge of education research. Two-article guy can't keep up. Worst of all, he doesn't know that he can't keep up, and it's just going to be frustrating and unilluminating for me. Make sure you're not two-article guy.
posted by kataclysm at 7:37 AM on December 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

"Maybe when I grow up some more (I'm in my late 20's) I won't enjoy arguing as much, but for now I have my debate/discussion friends."

It's also about venue. Two of my friends are, respectively, chief counsels for the statehouse majority and minority leaders. They almost literally couldn't disagree on more issues and their day-to-day JOBS are to attempt to destroy one another. And yet they are very good friends. We were all recently seated together at a wedding, and the conversation was about kids and schools and housing prices and a few jokes about big personalities at the statehouse. Not pending legislation on civil unions, or where the tax rate should be set, or anything like that.

OTOH, if I go out for lunch with them, where it's mostly politics-people and it's not someone wedding or a relaxing beer after work or whatever, oh, will they get INTO it. I love it.

I suppose I should have been more clear that I do still like debate/discussion, but whereas in my early-to-mid-20s I thought I great night out at a bar was bickering over politics, nowadays a great night out at a bar is catching up with people and hearing what their kids are up to and talking about sports and just relaxing.

Some people don't seem to catch that as people get a little older, the appropriate venues for debate change. And, yeah, some people LOVE to debate. Others, not so much. I also think as I've gotten a little older, I've gotten much more interested in learning from others rather than being two-article-guy myself. I want to hear THEIR expertise and ask questions about why my half-baked ideas are wrong and half-baked so that I can get smarter, not just spout my simple solutions.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:52 AM on December 3, 2010

It's hard to be an opinionated person who also wants a social life. I feel for you. It took me many years to learn how to balance intellectual needs with social ones, so that they didn't bite each other in the ass. In the past, in my 20s, I felt like I had two choices: be opinionated and turn people off or have friends by withholding a really important part of myself.

Part of the problem was that I young. Young people -- and I was no exception -- tend to think of personality as stances: "He's the guy who likes Kubrick movies." "She's that communist girl." "I am an atheist."

As I got older, I started to see those traits as objects stored in my mental cupboards. The cupboards are part of me, but the dishes and cups in them aren't -- even if I'm really into them. For instance, my personality can't be "that guy who likes classical music," because I might stop liking classical music one day. If that happens, I doubt it will seem like my personality has changed. So one thing to remember is that, while being opinionated might* be part of your core personality, your specific opinions are not part of it.

(*It probably isn't. Most opinionated people (and I'm one of them) have low self esteem. Their constant opinions are defenses, attempts to prove they are smart. Or they're obsessive types (guilty), the sort of people who can't stand crooked pictures. Or they're endlessly curious types: people who aren't happy until they've gotten to the bottom of everything (guilty again!). If you think, "I'm someone with strong opinions," It might be worth pulling that notion apart or digging deeper into it. WHY do you have all these opinions?)

Why do young people (and some older people) equate stances (or styles: haircuts, leather jackets, etc) with personalities? I used to think it was because they hadn't yet formed real personalities: there's nothing under the pink-dyed hair or the left-wing politics.

I no longer believe that. Back when I thought of myself as a collection of stances, opinions and styles, it wasn't that there was nothing underneath. Rather, the stances were masks that covered parts of me I was scared of or ashamed of. If you had stripped all the opinions and such from my 22-year-old frame, you would have seen a cowering animal: what I REALLY was was scared, lonely, sexually frustrated, angry, ashamed and confused. I was also (often) charming and funny and loving, but those weren't the parts of me I was desperate to cover.

The problem is, you can't really have friends if you don't share yourself -- your REAL self. What I was doing, a lot of the time, was shouting about Kubrick when what I really needed was someone to hold me. But I didn't say "I need a hug," because (a) I didn't want to look vulnerable in front of my friends and (b) I didn't think I'd get a hug; I thought I'd get rejected; which would have slammed me against that core of shame I didn't want to deal with. So I covered it with bombast.

The first lesson I learned was that the only tolerable opinionated people are HUMAN opinionated people. I was being opinionated without being human. I was like an opinion-spouting machine.

"Hi, how are you doing?"

"The Beatles are overrated!"

That's a parody, but just a slight one (and, actually, I LOVE The Beatles!). Once I started talking about wanting a girlfriend, being scared I might lose my lob, the scary noises I kept hearing outside my apartment at night and the amazing apple pie I tasted last night, an amazing thing happened: I found I was able to say thinks like, "I don't believe in our education system" without everyone rolling their eyes. Some people even became interested and wanted to talk to me about education. The ones who didn't were able to think, "I wonder where he got that apple pie."

If you follow this advice, be careful not share your troubles so continuously that you become a Debby Downer. We like to be around a guy who admits he's lonely. We don't like to be around one who continually cries because he doesn't have a girlfriend.

The second lesson I learned is that the chief tool in the art of socializing is BALANCE.

You said, "i do tend to challenge people and voice a strong opinion sometimes, but the converse seems to be gliding through life nodding my head just to be liked." That is about as far from balance as you can get.

When you're with people, don't spout opinions ALL THE TIME, but also don't NEVER EXPRESS AN OPINION. Don't talk about your sorrows all the time; but do talk about them some of the time. And, of course, don't talk about yourself all the time. Listen to other people, talk about other people, ask other people questions... But do talk about yourself part of the time.

If balance isn't natural to you, you may be to be very conscious about that part of socializing: "Okay, I've been on the pulpit for five minutes. It's time to step down." No one likes having to think about stuff like that -- and not being free to improvise -- but if you allow yourself to do it consciously for a while, it will eventually become second nature. Meanwhile, you're just being conscious about how long you're talking about certain things. You're not stopping yourself from expressing opinions.

Lesson Three: people are sensual creatures.

I bet there are some people, if they've read this far in my post, who are still thinking about apple pie. In other words, what we see, hear, smell and touch stands out for us -- and is much more accessible -- than what we think about. Good writers have understood this for centuries. Nietzsche begins "Beyond Good and Evil" with "Suppose truth is a woman. What then?" He understood that it's much easier to understand "woman" than "truth."

Most of us can only hold so many abstract ideas in our head at a time (think one or two). If you say "Democracy is an unachievable ideal because the masses don't have the learning to participate in a system that demands each member be cognizant..." eyes are already starting to glaze over and many people are longing for apple pie. (or Nietzsche's woman.) So another thing to be conscious about is how long your head has been in the clouds. This is one of the reason why people say, "How about those Mets?" It grounds the conversation in the hear and now.

Next lesson: it's easy to forget the learning process you had to go through to have the opinions you have now. Other people didn't necessarily go through that process.

For instance, I think that the American education system is deeply broken. I think our schools are terrible; I think most of the teachers suck; I think tests and lectures are worthless teaching tools; I don't believe in grades; I don't believe in required courses.

You may disagree with me about all or some of that stuff. That doesn't matter. What I want to talk about is the way I came by those opinions (whether they're right or wrong). It SEEMS to me like I came about them "because they're true" just as it seems like I can drive a car because I just can. Wrong. I believe what I believe about education, because I've been reading books about education for 25 years. I've spent 20 years as a student and almost that long as a teacher. Without thinking about the fact that I was doing this when I did it, I put THOUSANDS of hours into studying education.

But, as I said, it doesn't seem like I did that. It seems like I just know some self-evident things about education. "No course should be required." OF COURSE! Duh! It's OBVIOUS!

Then I hear a friend say, "I think everyone should be required to learn a foreign language" and it sounds, to me, like he's a moron: like he's not getting a as simple as 1+1=2.

In fact, he's just saying what most people believe -- that some classes should be required. That idea is entrenched in our culture. To NOT have it, I had to do some rigorous brainwork. I've forgotten the experience of doing that work, but I did it.

Also, I'm not smarter than the guy who said foreign languages should be required. I've just read some books he didn't read. If he wants to spend the time reading all those books, he'll pop out the other end with the same opinion I have -- or the opposite one, but whatever his opinion, it will be just as well-informed as mine is.

Because people talk about education all the time, and because my ideas -- which, to be honest, I'm SURE I'm right about -- are so outside the norm, I hear (what to me is) bullshit nearly every day. An added irritant is that this subject is dear to my heart. Every time I hear someone talk about getting a good grade or doing homework (which I also don't believe in), it sounds, to me, similar to someone saying John Tesh is better than Mozart. Them's fightin' words.

But I have to remember that for people to get to where I am on that subject -- to even be able to disagree with me in an interesting way -- they have to go through a long period of study. For me to really explain to them why I'm right (why I think I'm right), I would have to lecture them for twelve hours or give them a stack of books to read. That's not realistic. So I need to be gentle with them, instead. Maybe they haven't spent years studying eduction. But then I don't know how to fix a car, play the piano or speak Italian.

I can still make challenging remarks about education. If someones asks, "Why do you think that?" I can say, "Well, I'd be happy to explain it, but first let me know if you're really interested, because it's involved and it will take me a while to explain. If you'd rather just shelve it for now, that's fine." That allows other people to choose whether they want to go on an intellectual journey with me or talk about apple pie.

Next lesson: check in with people and give people an out.

If you're deep in opinion/logic land, make sure you check in with "your audience." Give them outs they can use that don't make them look rude: "I just realized I've been spouting this stuff for ten minutes. I can go on if you guys want, but does anyone need a break from this?" Sometimes I give people a really easy out by taking the break myself, even if I don't need it: "You know: maybe we can pick this up after lunch. I'm getting hungry." I'll know if people are interested, because, if they are, they'll prod me to continue the discussion later.

Final lesson: find an outlet.

I am an intellectual. That doesn't mean I'm smarter then everyone else. I suspect I have slightly above-average intelligence. What it means -- or at least what I mean by "I am an intellectual" -- is that I live a life of the mind. That IS a core part of who I am. I'm not someone who always thinks well (I often think in sloppy, wrongheaded ways), but I am someone who is always thinking. My thoughts about education or computers or theatre or democracy might be right or wrong, but they're voluminous. Being able to drop nuggets of them into conversation isn't ultimately satisfying. I want to DELVE into them. I want to discuss them for hours and hour and hours. To deny me that but letting me drop the occasional nugget is like only giving an Olympic swimmer a wading pool. But I can't expound endlessly in most conversations: it's a turnoff.

So I'm always looking for outlets. I have a few friends with whom, to a greater or lesser degree, I can have intellectual conversations. If I discuss Aesthetics for four hours with John, who likes doing that as much as I do, I can spare Fred, who doesn't. And there are lots of web forums that cater to this sort of thing. I try to spend some time with these friends and sites, enough time that I can get my fill of philosophizing without plaguing my friends with long monologues and rigorously-logical arguments about first principles.

When a friend says, "Everyone should be required to learn a musical instrument," I smile and decide to take that as a expression of his love for music. Rather than barking about how requirements are evil, I ask my friend what instruments he plays and what kind of music he likes. And I know that I can go on line and have a first-principles discussion about required classes if I want to. So I don't need to do that with my friend the musician.


- when was the last time I admitted I was wrong about something? (Note: if the answer is, "Well, it's been a long time, but that's because I HAVEN'T been wrong about anything recently," you're in trouble. Either you think your knowledge is on firmer ground than it is, or you're right, but that's because all you ever talk about is a tiny number of subjects you've intellectually exhausted.)

- when was the last time you apologized?

- when was the last time you let someone talk without interrupting them, which means letting them come to a complete stop with a breath afterwards?

- when was the last time you let someone else have the last word?

- when was the last time you asked someone about himself (without then immediately bouncing the conversation back to being around you)?

- when was the last time you really LISTENED to someone?

- when was the last time you chose to not correct someone on a minor error that was tangential to their main point?

- when was the last time you discussed something personal about you (as opposed to philosophy, politics or whatever)? When did you last share something uncomfortable?

- when was the last time you used humor?

- when was the last time you responded to someone else's humor?

- when was the last time you went on a humorous riff with someone?

- when was the last time you could have corrected someone's mistake but held back because you realized it wouldn't achieve anything good?

- when is the last time you stayed on-topic while avoiding controversy? (Friend: "Democrats don't get what's wrong with this country." You (a Democrat): "What do you think is wrong with this country?")

- when is the last time you gave someone a conversational out?

- when was the last time you gave someone unsolicited advice or criticism? (Don't ever do this! If you realize you just did, apologize.)

- when was the last time you cornered someone? "Aha! See, you're wrong!" Don't do this. If you do this all the time, then you are thinking of your friends as opponents, as players on the opposite team, and you're trying to win at their expense.

- when is the last time you repeated your point? You get to do it once! Someone might have been confused by it the first time, so you get a chance to clarity. Then, if they're still confused or whatever, drop it or move past it. Otherwise you'll just be saying the same thing over and over, which is irritating.

- when is the last time you talked about something sensual?

- when is the last time you told a story -- not a story that has a point or moral, but one that's just entertaining?

- when is the last time you invited someone to do something with you?

- when is the last time you did something for someone without being asked? (Could be a small thing: birthday card, etc.)
posted by grumblebee at 8:02 AM on December 3, 2010 [88 favorites]

There are ways to have strong opinions and be entertaining about it, and ways to have strong opinions and be a boring blowhard.

I've met a lot of people through friends that I've been "meh, not a fan" about, and usually its because the person talked too much, knew too little, and picked arguments with me. Sometimes it's because the person tried too hard to be funny, and I find that offputting. Don't pick arguments with people you barely know. Don't try hard to be funny if you're not a naturally hilarious person. Sincerity goes a long way. Life is not inhabited by sitcom characters and there is no laugh track.

So my grandfather was a brilliant, witty man who knew a lot and said a little, and when he said anything, it was interesting and entertaining. He was widely loved. He died. My grandma's boyfriend is a loud know-it-all who begins every conversation "have you heard about--" and then launches into a diatribe about something he doesn't understand, inviting people to agree or argue. They mostly run away. This man once picked a fight with me at Thanksgiving about whether hotmail was a dial-up service. It's not one.

Be my grandfather, not my grandma's boyfriend.
posted by millipede at 8:04 AM on December 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'll take a different viewpoint. You go from being acquaintances to good friends by being "the guy". You stop treating people like they are interchangeable and start treating them like they're valued friends. Need a favor or a ride to the airport? Your friends do that for you. I wouldn't loan our pick-up truck to an acquaintance, but can friends borrow it for trips to Lowes or camping or whatever.

Start going the distance for people.
posted by 26.2 at 8:15 AM on December 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

If someones asks, "Why do you think that?" I can say, "Well, I'd be happy to explain it, but first let me know if you're really interested, because it's involved and it will take me a while to explain. If you'd rather just shelve it for now, that's fine."

grumblebee, I think you should hang out with the OP sometime. I'm sure you'd both get along great. You strike me as a reformed version of the OP. You come across as kind of a crank, but you at least know how to give people an "out" if you're not their kind of person. This is probably the best possible lesson you can probably teach the OP: "you can't really change who you are, but you can make it easier for yourself to navigate the social waters of people who aren't socially/intellectually gratified in the same way you are."

Start going the distance for people.
posted by 26.2 at 11:15 AM on December 3

posted by deanc at 8:58 AM on December 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

You come across as kind of a crank

Next lesson: don't call people names (e.g. "crank").

(Though I know what you're talking about, deanc, and I'm not offended. However, I rarely get offended -- which is maybe one of the ways I'm a crank. In general, I think no-name-calling is a good rule of thumb.)
posted by grumblebee at 10:37 AM on December 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

You remind me of a guy in my major when I was in undergrad. He was so convinced he was right about everything, he had to constantly talk over everyone else. I could ask the lab instructor a question, and if he was in the vicinity he would begin talking over the instructor. He was the sort of person who would not let something drop without written proof that he was wrong. I literally had to show him the dictionary definition of chitterlings to prove that the were not, in fact, pig's feet (I should have just let this drop, but he was driving me crazy with this sort of behavior and I wanted to knock him off his high horse). Dealing with someone like this can be incredibly frustrating and emotionally tiring. Does this sound at all familiar to you? People may avoid you because it's simply too much trouble to engage with you when they have to jump through hoops to get you to accept that you're wrong and every conversation turns into you spouting rhetoric.
posted by Logic Sheep at 10:50 AM on December 3, 2010

Based on my experience and what you describe, to me the gap between

I don't think i'm angry, or a bad person (morally or otherwise), or argumentative or unpleasant to be around


I do tend to challenge people and voice a strong opinion sometimes

might be the issue. Most assholes I know don't see their behavior as problematic; what they see as "maybe a little opinionated," others read as unbearably obnoxious. I think getting feedback on your specific behavior-- the arguments you choose, your body language, and the tone of your voice-- might be the key. As somebody mentioned upthread, group or individual therapy can help you with this.
posted by Rykey at 11:37 AM on December 3, 2010

You have received a lot of great answers so far. People have been focusing on the fact that you said you enjoy challenging and arguing with others because that's the one thing you brought up that you think might be problematic. There might be other things, too, that you're unaware of. I think people who unintentionally alienate others probably generally have no idea how they're doing that.

There are a number of people in my life that I have either cut out of it or see in very small doses (those would be unpleasant family members). Here are some of the things they do or have done that have made me not enjoy their company. If you do similar things, they may be having a similar impact on others.

- Being ceaselessly negative. Shooting down others' ideas, dampening their enthusiasm, talking badly about others behind their backs, seeing the world as a relentlessly terrible place and constantly talking about it. Negativity when directed at someone hurts their feelings. When it's gossip, it makes people think you're going to talk about them as soon as you leave the room. When it's general, it just brings people down. My mom always said, "Take Thumper's mother's advice: if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." It's not meant to be wimpy going-along, it's just diplomacy.

-Prying into my life with overly personal questions as though it's an interview for my unauthorized biography. There are two main kinds of prying: asking inappropriate questions once, and asking any question over and over after I have indicated that I don't want to answer. Examples of questions others find inappropriate include asking their age, salary, if a woman is on her period, pregnant, or "menopausal yet"; why someone is "still" single or doesn't have kids or only has one; how many sex partners someone has had; how tall they are or how much they weigh; intrusive questions about their health. For example, I know someone who, every time I sneeze, asks if I have a cold. Or worse, something like "now that you're 60, are you starting to lose your memory?" Or any other age-related health question regardless of their age. People's mileage may vary with what is considered too personal. If they bring it up first, it's probably okay to discuss it. I would just not bring it up.

-Judgmental comments and criticism, unless directly asked for, are hurtful to most people. The Lesswrong link someone gave you earlier discusses this in detail.

-Are your opinions racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, or religiously intolerant? If so, it's understandable why people who don't agree with them would be offended or irritated.

-I had a good friend for years that I recently stopped contacting. Although she often praised me, she tore me down (unintentionally, I am sure) even more with the following behaviors: criticizing my SO behind his back, which implied that I have poor judgment in being with him; an "oh, I know how you are!" attitude toward me that I found condescending; dominating the conversation with things I have no interest in such as fashion and astrology; guilt-tripping me if I didn't call her every day to "schmooze" for hours; giving me very little room to get a word in edgewise, ever; and the final tiny cut in this litany of a thousand -- she told me that if I ever became a Christian she would stop being my friend because all Christians want to kill all Jews and she's Jewish. She's a very opinionated, argumentative person with wacky ideas that she's very invested in and she doesn't listen and expects to be catered to. Her company drained me of energy.

-I fell out with another friend over her lack of empathy which was couched in New Age ideology. When mourning a relationship's end, she told me my "attitude" was attracting negativity. She also seemed to expect me to offer unconditional emotional support and not want to give it in return.

-Other things that turn me off from people include a lack of interpersonal warmth (no hugs, no "I'm glad to see you's", etc); preaching their beliefs (even if agree with them); just plain rudeness (commenting on their physical appearance in any way other than a compliment); people being sarcastic; people being defensive; people being irritable and snappish.

Do you do any of these things, and if so, do you justify them by thinking you are "just a real straight shooter" or that if you're not offended by them, no one else should be? If so, you may have your answer.
posted by xenophile at 11:57 AM on December 3, 2010 [6 favorites]

Xenophile, your first anecdote reminds me of The Underminer. Act three in this episode. I used to have a friend like that, and it was an awful feeling to fear constant criticism that you couldn't defend yourself against because it was always couched in a jokey, "but I meant in a good way!" veneer..
posted by dhn at 1:03 PM on December 3, 2010

People have been focusing on the fact that you said you enjoy challenging and arguing with others because that's the one thing you brought up that you think might be problematic. There might be other things, too, that you're unaware of.

That is a very good point. The problem, of course, is if you're unaware of them, you can't change them. So the solution is to GET aware of them.

How do you do that?

Well, that's the sort of thing that's almost impossible for someone to do on his own. It's trying to see what's in your blind spot. I guess you could spend a lot of time observing other people -- people who are somewhat like you but more popular -- and try to determine how they're different from you. But in the end, I predict you'll have as much success as a writer who tries to proof-read his own novel and find all the typos. You need an objective eye.

Asking friends is tricky: "Please tell me honestly how I turn people off" is not likely to get you to the truth. For one thing, any particular friend might not be good at figuring this stuff out. He might sometimes feel put off by you but not be sure why he feels that way. What really sucks is that most people hate to say, "I don't know." So if you ask someone and he doesn't know, there's a strong likelihood he'll make up a bullshit answer -- maybe without even knowing he's bullshitting.

Second, no matter how much permission you give people to critique your behavior, most of us were brought to think of that as rude. It's hard taboo to break. If someone asked me to critique him, I would try to soften the blow, even if I was being sort-of honest. Like, if someone had terrible B.O. all the time, I might -- if he pleaded with me to be honest with him -- say that he OCCASIONALLY has a funky smell, but that it's really not that big of a deal. But I probably wouldn't even say that.

You'll also have to deal with people's dysfunctional baggage. Someone might be mad at his boss and take it out on you. "You want to know what's wrong with you? Fine! You always yell at people!" That might actually be his boss that's always yelling. Or someone who doesn't like you (or is angry at you) might just make up bad traits to wound you. Worse, this stuff isn't always conscious. A friend might react to your question in a pathological way without realizing that's what he's doing.

So it can't be you; it can't be a friend...

The answer, of course is ... drum roll, please ... a therapist. This is a PERFECT case in which you'd benefit greatly by hiring a neutral, trained observer. In your shoes, this is what I'd do, and I'd be very clear with the therapist about what I was looking for: "I seem to turn people off, but I don't understand what I'm doing to have that effect. So I need you to help me figure that out." If the therapist didn't respond well to that or wanted to go off into tangents, I would ditch him and get another therapist.

For instance, how your mother treated you when you were a kid may be VERY relevant to WHY I behave the way I do, but it won't tell you anything about HOW I'm currently behaving. So if I explained to my therapist that I was seeing him to break through a blindspot about my current behavior, and he started asking me about my childhood, I would leave and get a new shrink. (Well, that's a bit harsh. I would probably ask the current shrink to stay on topic and leave if he continually went off on tangents).

If you have some core traits that are pissing people off, it shouldn't take many sessions for a therapist to figure out what they are. If he's still clueless by the fifth session, it may be time to find a new shirk.

Assuming you and a therapist DO get to the bottom of the problem, you can -- if you wish -- move to stage two: solving the problem with the therapist's help. That part very likely WILL involve subjects that were tangential when you were still in stage one.
posted by grumblebee at 1:14 PM on December 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

The fact that you asked this question shows maturity and insight. I think when we challenge and are argumentative, and too deep when most interactions should be light, is because we are our worst critics and too hard on ourselves. We are looking for ways to gain respect, admiration, and love even if these ways prove unsuccessful.

What you have to remember above all else is that people want to feel good about themselves. You are behaving in such a way because deep down you want to be loved and understood -- you want to feel good. Perhaps you challenge people because you do not know how to behave in a way to attain love/friendship/intimacy. You might challenge people to appear intellectually or morally superior thinking that this will win you admiration. In the process it's making the people around you feel badly about you and themselves. We all do it. We are all trying to work with the tools that we have. Our feelings get hurt or we feel inferior so we do something to make the other person feel inferior. It's what people do when they don't know what else to do. It's what people do when they can't verbalize what they're really feeling -- My feelings are hurt. I feel inferior. I feel neglected. When you said or did that it made me feel xyz

If you want friends and close relationships you must do hard work. You cannot despair that you don't have friends when you do not take steps to change behavior. You cannot walk around and bemoan these people!, can you believe these people? We are all imperfect.

Work hard at not challenging -- at all. Let your ego die sometimes. It is not always necessary to be right. Yes, our egos may be bruised but most of the time it is not the other person's intention to hurt you. Your thought process about the behavior is what angers you and makes you feel inferior, not the actual behavior of the other person.

Say an acquaintance got a historical, sport, or political fact wrong. Say a person cut you off in traffic, or didn't say thank you when you held the door, or you perceived some sort of slight. Say a person is stating their political views that are polar opposite to yours. These behaviors do not have to make you feel bad. The behavior itself should not offend. You may perceive the behavior to be offensive because of your thinking patterns. When we here that someone got it wrong or said something that offends our sensibilities we want to speak out and set them straight. You may feel the urge to challenge but all you should do is sit there and be light. Their behavior has nothing to do with you. Notice that your friends are trying to gain respect and love in their own ways, just like you use your own ways. Notice these things and show them respect. Be a pal instead of an opponent.

Good luck.
posted by Fairchild at 4:16 PM on December 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

I struggle sometimes with this too, and I know for me it has a lot to with what I said earlier once--might be helpful to check yourself re: that sort of thing, if you're being really upstanding, there for the people you want to be friends with, able to help them without it being a deal, etc. I know for me the less flake-y and selfish I am with my time, the more my friends are really ok with you know, considering me a real friend, not just a hanging out for the good times-type buddy.
posted by ifjuly at 4:27 PM on December 3, 2010

I suspect a lot of assholes (hereafter known as "you") are just the same as "regular folks" in how they think and feel, and they're not bad people at all. But things you do and say offend others, hurt their feelings, or give them the impression that you don't respect them. You're blunt and straightforward, and you don't require special kindness or empathy from other people. But you just can't seem like a good, tolerant, and reasonable guy unless you let the special stuff -- empathy, kindness, humility, and benefit-of-the-doubt -- cushion your blunt words and actions.

All those nice things may feel like coddling and babying of overly-sensitve people. The thing is that a lot of people try to guess things about others without being able to know, and they either don't indicate their displeasure or they give subtle hints.

I'm guessing that when you're offending, disrespecting and pissing off your friends, you don't know it. They don't like it, but they let their displeasure build and build, and then finally when they've had enough, they decide they just want to be rid of you. (Ironically, they're no showing a whole lot of understanding and compassion either. But they don't know how to handle it any better than you do.) You probably do know a number of people who just assume you mean no harm. Theyre gems and deserve appreciation.)

It would be really helpful if you could get one friend to tell you about one instance when you weren't acting like a good guy. (Trust me, you don't want to hear a littany.) If they say. "you always..." or "you tend to..." try to bring it back to one instance that you both remember. If you really appear to listen, it will go a long way to making you seem much more caring. You can then explain how things seemed to you. You can apologize for annoying or hurting them (or whatever) and you can ask them how you can make it better next time. A big part of improving your relationships will be their letting you know, or asserting themselves a little more when they don't like what they're doing. They won't do this unless you sincerely ask them to, and then listen to and accept their comments.

You probably hear and understand every damn thing they say. But you need to be obvious about it. You can do this mostly verbally and sometimes with body language. I suggest you google "active listening" and "listening skills". Every site will say the same thing, so cut through the blah blah blah and get to the instructions. Try out the advice. Nod your head when people talk. Paraphrase what they just said. Draw them out by nodding and saying "uh huh"-- they'll accept your opposing viewpoint more readily if they believe you actually listened to their opinion. This kind of thing works beautifully in the most difficult situations. Even if someone is telling you, "You're being a jerk!" you can pause and ask them to say more. Let them finish. When they get done with that, they'll already feel better about you. Of course, it's not going to be so easy for you, just sitting there and asking for more about your flaws. But it will be great for the relationship in the future. If they realize they can tell you what they don't like, they won't be letting their irritation build till it's too late to talk rationally.
posted by wryly at 7:32 PM on December 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

It could be something completely different like that you don't have good personal hygiene (but think it is fine!), you have a creepy stare that never falters, you like to touch people near you (just a friendly gesture to you, very ugh! to them), or ?

Maybe you can find someone who can tell you - I think there was a service that did that to prepare people for dating, you went on a fake date and all.
posted by meepmeow at 8:26 PM on December 3, 2010

It's hard to say what's going on without any examples or the ability to ask for clarity. Hopefully you'll find something in the multitude of replies to go on from here. It really sounds like you need honest feedback from people who have seen you or can see you in action. The group therapy recommendation sounds good in that regard, I'm not sure if that appeals to you or not. At least you will be in an environment where you can get honest feedback and suggestions on how to improve how you interact with people.
posted by mbird at 10:15 PM on December 3, 2010

no real friends other than those of my various significant others that i socialized with...

Is your condition that.. well, you live in the modern United States of America?

Maybe you're not an asshole, it's just that hardly anybody knows how to be friends anymore with anyone other than their spouse?
posted by citron at 11:06 PM on December 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

Citron is kind of on the track that I'm about to mention.

I don't have time to look at all the comments, but I've noticed that many people are focusing on personality factors. While this could definitely be a factor, you haven't mentioned how much effort you've put into maintaining friendships. It's a lot of work.

People don't call friends or invite them places for a variety of reasons, the majority of them having little to do with how much they like these people. I know there are tons of times where I wouldn't have minded if person X came along somewhere but I just didn't think to invite him/her, or we hadn't spoken in awhile so it seemed a little awkward, or I started hanging out with a different group of people that person x didn't know very well, or I felt unsure if he/she would care to come in the first place.

All of these had nothing to do with how much I liked person x.

Once you remember that, it's easier to be proactive in building friendships. I think most people like it when they feel that effort coming their way, it makes them feel special.
posted by Defenestrator at 12:02 AM on December 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

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