I speak English, you speak... English?
September 22, 2017 12:06 PM   Subscribe

I have a cousin who never actually says what she thinks. She has a front she puts up, and she does it to everyone. I see her on a regular basis, for Reasons. More below fold.

My questions are:

1.) How do I talk to someone who is extremely indirect?

2.) How do I talk to her without getting angry because she responds indirectly?

3.) How do I respond when I feel she is manipulating me, without causing an argument or making it seem like I am the crazy person for thinking she is, in fact, trying to manipulate me? (Calling her on it invariably results in denial.)

For those with the time, some backstory:

I have the feeling that she says what she thinks I want to hear, only to go off and do whatever she thinks is best after the fact. I think she sincerely believes what she is telling me, when she is saying it. It's just that then she goes and does something completely different after whatever we talked about. Or she just does whatever we agreed to work on together by herself. This infuriates me, makes me feel like she doesn't trust me at all, or worse, that I am incapable of completing a simple task. When I address it, though (after calming myself down) she denies there is a problem.

Our communication problems have led to huge arguments. After one of these, unbelievably, she informed me that she "thinks we communicate very well." That floored me.

I am a direct person. I ask direct questions and speak directly. This appears to annoy her, and makes me feel like am rude and ungainly, perpetually trampling her feelings. Nothing I say or do ever mitigates that sense: that somehow, I never ever say the right thing, that I am always violating her space, when in fact I don't know what to do or say because I feel she is never honest with me, not about her feelings, or anything else.

Since I have to continue to interact with her, I want to move forward doing so in as efficient and non-crazy-making a way as possible. Thanks in advance.
posted by Crystal Fox to Human Relations (27 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I don't understand why it is important to you that she takes your advice. How does her indirectness inconvenience you? An example of what kind of things you argue about would help.
posted by Omnomnom at 12:10 PM on September 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I don't understand why this would make you angry. She doesn't take your advice; don't give her advice. I think we need a bit more information about what's going on here, because I honestly can't think of a situation where any of my cousins would need to 'work on [something] together' with me or vice versa.
posted by destructive cactus at 12:13 PM on September 22, 2017 [6 favorites]

I think the examples in your question may be too vague to get really great answers on here- maybe you could briefly explain a couple of specific conflicts you had with her, and the hive could point out some trends?

I really liked this article about the New York Jewish Conversational Style, By Deborah Tannen (which I found on here long ago, thanks to whoever posted it first). It illustrates and articulates some areas of friction between direct and indirect communicators across many cultures. Maybe reading it together would help you both better understand each other's communication styles.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 12:22 PM on September 22, 2017 [10 favorites]

This isn't going to change and nothing you can do will make it change. The only way to move forward in a non-crazymaking way is to assume that she will always behave this way and adjust your expectations accordingly. And stop caring what she thinks of you, since you'll never know for sure any ways.
posted by windykites at 12:23 PM on September 22, 2017 [7 favorites]

If you want to do anything about this, you'll have to give up worrying about whether she likes it or not. She doesn't, because if you create additional clarification she can't do whatever the fuck she wants.

On items in which it is truly important to you that the decision made is the decision followed, either write it on a piece of paper and photograph it to send to her after you both agree on the written decision, or grab your phone and put the decision in email. And when she's all haha I don't know why you're going to all this trouble you can say because in the past what we've agreed on isn't what happens and I don't know how else to fix that sorry.

Obviously, this is only for concrete items, not advice or opinions. If you're giving advice or opinions and she's saying yeah that great I'll do that and doesn't, stop giving advice and opinions because she doesn't want them. But if it's something like I'll get a hotel room for visiting family and you make dinner reservations and you know she's going to turn around and do both, put that shit in writing. She may still do both, but now you have proof , and after a few of these you can decide whether this solves the problem or if you just can't make joint decisions with her anymore because she's incapable of cooperating, collaborating, or telling the truth.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:40 PM on September 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

You can try, "Cousin, when we spoke last week, you agreed you would do X, but later you did Y instead. I was counting on X. Can you help me understand why you changed your mind in a way that inconvenienced me?" but I don't think you'll get very far. You should accept that you can't count on your cousin, unless there's something we're missing here.
posted by blnkfrnk at 12:40 PM on September 22, 2017

Best answer: There's an old, excellent MeFi answer that might help you: Ask Culture meets Guess Culture

My mother is a "Guess" culture kind of person, and when we talk, it helps if I give her permission or a choice. When I couch my questions or invitations with language like, "whatever works best with your schedule" or "I'm happy either way" or "I won't be offended if you'd rather not come." I have to give her explicit permission to turn me down or beg off. She's getting a little better about it.
posted by gladly at 12:42 PM on September 22, 2017 [6 favorites]

I have someone in my life who communicates this way and it really bothered me until I thought about it. Certain cultures require submissive, passive behavior from certain members. It is expected and encouraged, and not seen as wrong. Therefore some of my annoyance is misunderstanding about the culture this person comes from.

I'm assertive, but put me with a passive communicator and I can seem brash, tactless and aggressive because I take up their space too, sometimes. But that doesn't mean my way is Right. As a cis woman, many people would argue that my way is actually very wrong.
posted by crunchy potato at 12:44 PM on September 22, 2017 [5 favorites]

Oops, hit post too soon. I think you and your cousin have different communication styles, and you're not picking up on her signals, and she's not reading that you would accept a "no" answer to whatever you've agreed upon. Guess people think that by the time you're asking a question, you expect a yes, so they give the "yes" that they don't want to give.

Your style isn't wrong, but you might need to more explicitly give your cousin permission to answer you with another option.
posted by gladly at 12:46 PM on September 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Also, in reducing your anger, it may help to consider maybe your cousin has never had permission to have opinions, to do what she wants. That could be a pretty oppressive feeling to carry around, and conditioning like that doesn't go away simply because you want it to.
posted by crunchy potato at 12:48 PM on September 22, 2017 [15 favorites]

It would be helpful if we had some more context here.

Absent that it strikes me that this may not be a matter of communication styles, or manipulation, or your cousin thinking she is not allowed to have opinions. It could be a lack of self-awareness. You say that you think she believes what she's saying when she says it; perhaps she simply does not think through the implications of her actions afterwards.

I say this because it reminds me somewhat of my own cousin, whom I do not think is a manipulative or indirect person at all. But she can gob-smackingly unself-aware at times. We're pretty close, and I've helped her through some shit in the past, so sometimes it drives me nutty that she doesn't seem to have figured out this or that about herself.

But you know what? There's nothing I can do. Occasionally, if it's a scenario in which I think it could really be helpful, I'll point this out when I see it. I try to do it nicely when I do. Usually, though, I just let it slide.

Anyway, I don't know that that is what is going on here, but it seems possible.
posted by breakin' the law at 1:03 PM on September 22, 2017

Response by poster: A specific instance of this is when she needs to borrow money. She has in the past, and sworn she will pay me back, and then doesn't. Attempts to address this result in more promises, that then are never met. I've stopped loaning her money. I can't really be clearer or more specific without getting into privacy issues.
posted by Crystal Fox at 1:40 PM on September 22, 2017

if I'm understanding you right, she agrees with you about stuff verbally, like in making plans, but then ignores what was said as if it never happened, right?

Are you pressuring her? I mean, if it's a situation where she says "I was thinking about trying that new seafood place for the family dinner" and you say "nope it's gotta be the steak place" and she says ok but books the fish place anyway, then I think the message is clear, which is she will just say whatever it takes to make you stop talking, and her goal is not to come to an agreement, but just to not have arguments.

In general you have to look at people's actions, not their words, when there is a disconnect between them. People say all kinds of things but they do what they actually want. If the words she goes back on are things you were trying to dissuade her from to begin with, then you'll want to assume that dissuasion isn't a worthwhile use of your time.

Edit: on preview, I see your money example. This is a great example of someone's actions speaking much louder than their words. She will say what it takes to make you stop talking; it has nothing to do with what she actually intends to do. Ceasing to loan her money is an excellent way to deal with this disconnect.
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:44 PM on September 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

Just adjust your expectations, as you have already done with the money thing. Assume that nothing she tells you can be taken for truth, that no promises will be kept, that no agreements will be honored, that no advice will be taken, regardless of anything she says. Her word is worthless, essentially. Does this mean that your relationship with her will be limited to a superficial level only? Yes, it does. It's impossible to have a genuine relationship with someone who won't be genuine with you. If she asks why you've backed off from her, tell her the truth.

If there's some serious reason why you need to be able to have a deeper relationship than that, then how to proceed is going to be dependent on the specific circumstances of the situation. What is your goal with your cousin? Is there some specific, important issue which you're trying to help her work on (and which she's agreed to work on with you) like beating a drug addiction or escaping a bad relationship? Also, how old is she? Other than blood relations, what are your roles in each other's lives right now?

Without knowing more specifics, it still sounds like your best course of action is to just cut her adrift. I know you say there are privacy issues, but nobody here knows who you are, who she is, or even where in the world you both live. If you want better advice I think you still need to tell us more about your goals and motivations and the background to this situation, because otherwise it's going to be hard to give effective advice.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 2:03 PM on September 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

So, in a less complicated world, a person with good boundaries would either stop giving advice or stop caring if the advice was actually taken. The person would recognise that there was nothing she could do to change the other person, so she would work on changing her own response. She might not stop caring, but she would stop feeling she had to take on the other person's problems.

She would try to minimise any fallout for herself, should the other person mess up mutual plans. By investing as little time or money as possible in uncertain outcomes.

The question is, what's stopping you?
posted by Omnomnom at 2:14 PM on September 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

If this is so upsetting why do you have to spend so much time engaging with your cousin? Just reduce the level of engagement and when you have to interact at family events you do what Omnomnom says. There is no obligation to be close to her. It'd be nice if our families comprised people we actually like and get on with but alas not always the case.
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:20 PM on September 22, 2017

If this issue is primarily focused around money and/or responsibilities, consider that this is likely not a communication issue - it's about her relationship with money/responsibilities. Most people have a hard time admitting to personal failures of money/responsibility.

If this extends into other areas outside of her being responsible for a particular task ("what time should we meet for lunch?" "What gift do you like best for Grandma?" "I felt the ceremony was a little off-putting, I wish it hadn't been done that way, what do you think?") then it makes sense to approach this as a communication issue.

If it's about her not being able to follow through on commitments (for whatever reason - no judgment, we've all been trying those periods of life where we just Can't Get It Together), no amount of communication style adjustments will change that.
posted by samthemander at 3:44 PM on September 22, 2017 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I have the feeling that she says what she thinks I want to hear, only to go off and do whatever she thinks is best after the fact.

I have this exact dynamic with a family member, although I would be your cousin in this scenario.

I perceive my family member (let's call them C) to be very headstrong (they would call themselves direct), and as coming across as their opinion of how things should be handled is The. Right. Way. When I present my opinion of how something should be handled, it results in a heated argument of why my reasoning and criteria are wrong, and why C's are right.

C would tell you that we are not arguing, that we are merely having a discussion. To my definition, "discussion" does not include raised voices, or insults, or attempting to prove yourself right at the expense of the other person being wrong.

I've been engaging with this dynamic all my adult life. In the last few years I've become a parent, and MF has raised my consciousness about emotional labor, and I just can't anymore. I am emotionally exhausted from this dynamic, and I'm too busy in the rest of my life to waste time arguing and trying to get someone to see my pov when they have already made up their mind.

So I changed tactics. Now I just say "okay, whatever you want" or otherwise say what I think C wants to hear. I do this to just end the discussion and not waste my time going back and forth with each other. But if it's anything that requires significant time or labor on my part I do what I want. To my mind, I'm not deliberately trying to be manipulative, I am trying to avoid an argument. It's true, it is infuriating to C, *IF* they discover what I've done, but many times they don't, and I've saved myself a fight and a headache. At times they do discover it, and we have the fight anyway. I'd say overall I avoid about 2/3 of the fights that we would otherwise have had.

If C could see their way to concede that other people are allowed to have their own thoughts and feelings, we would have a different dynamic. I did my part for years to try to have a good dynamic. At this point I feel like C has made their bed and now they're just going to have to lie in it.

My story is one person's account as to how this dynamic can occur. I share it in case some of it resonates with you.
posted by vignettist at 5:51 PM on September 22, 2017 [12 favorites]

Best answer: I feel she is never honest with me, not about her feelings, or anything else.

what it sounds like is she is afraid of you. or if not of you, of whoever it was that set the pattern for this personality trait that persists. and usually, if you let on that you're scared of someone who isn't trying to scare you, it makes them angrier because they're insulted, so you keep it to yourself. you say whatever they apparently want to hear, to make them stop and make them go away, and you never fight back overtly. you pretend you are not having a fight at all.

You may think: I only get mad because she's so avoidant, and if she would woman up and come out with her real opinions, no matter what they are, I would calm down, I only get angry about lies. but she may think: she gets SO fucking mad now, when I bend over backwards to be bland and polite and suppress my emotions and avoid all conflict and never tell her when I think she's wrong -- how much worse will it be if I ever tell her the truth and give her something to actually be justifiably angry about!

alternately, she doesn't want to share her feelings with you because she hates whatever situation forces you into contact. it's unacceptable to promise things she never does, but being private about her personal feelings is her right.

the money thing is real bad unless it was negligible amounts like ten bucks for drinks, but you already solved it. for other practical things, if you really need her and nobody but her to do something, have a witness present when you discuss it. otherwise, stop worrying about how she feels about anything. she doesn't want you to know.
posted by queenofbithynia at 8:15 PM on September 22, 2017 [6 favorites]

I think it will be helpful to you to be clear about responsibilities.

Your cousin is responsible for what she does, says, and feels.

You are responsible for what you do, say, and feel.

Her behavior is not due to you--it's all her. Driven by her motivations, vulnerabilities, etc. You are not to blame for your cousin's behavior.

Here's the tricky part: All that hurt and insult you're feeling? That's actually not her responsibility either. That's your vulnerability talking. That's you assigning meaning to her action. That's you deciding that *her* actions mean that *you* are deficient somehow.

The good news is that it's actually completely in your power to get out from under that bunch of self-recrimination--by reminding yourself that *your cousin's behavior is all her responsibility*. She's not acting the way she is because you are bad/failed/etc. in any way, she's acting that way due to her own motivations, flaws, feelings.

Finally, you can reexamine how you act and engage with her and take responsibility for changing that if her behavior is troublesome and problematic to her. Stop lending money, stop spending time, stop listening to her sob story, whatever. You are empowered to change your part of the dance, too. If you don't like it, change it.
posted by Sublimity at 8:44 PM on September 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: It's not that she distrusts you, or thinks you're incapable, or even is consciously manipulating you; I'm willing to bet that 99% of her motivation in all situations is avoiding conflict and she will say whatever she has to say to avoid conflict and argument. This is someone for whom conflict and direct disagreement is scary and even threatening -- maybe because of an abusive background, but sometimes it's just a personality thing. They promise things they have no intention of following through on because to them it's not even lying in that moment -- it's just deflecting an argument, avoiding a conflict. It's much easier to flout you later, when you're not there.

And, yeah, sadly, the fact that you get angry/frustrated at her avoidance tactics is going to make her double down on avoiding conflict with you. In my experience only a long, steady demonstration that you are easygoing about differences of opinion and that you respect even a hesitantly-drawn boundary and that you can couch your thoughts/opinions/advice in ways that leaves room for others to disagree without having to directly contradict you will draw an avoider out of their defense tactics and make them feel comfortable telling you they don't want fish for lunch. And even then, it may just be too deeply entrenched.

So you have two basic choices, which are to avoid pinning her down, and very deliberately pin her down. In the first case, you say things like, "Okay, so it sounds like you're going to arrange grandma's transit from the airport to the hotel. I'm totally happy to make the dinner reservations if you want, why don't you text me and let me know if you want me to. Either way is fine." That avoids making her commit to letting you do it but leaves it open if she wants you to. In the alternative, you flatly refuse to take avoidance for an answer and say, "No. You need to tell me how we're going to do this, and you need to follow through. I'm well aware you tell me one thing and do something else, but that is not going to work here. Whatever you commit to, I expect you to follow through, or at the very least be honest. Don't make promises you aren't going to keep."

I sort-of suggest saving the second for, like, super-important issues. Because it's pretty nuclear and it WILL result in your cousin being upset with you for weeks, and if she still puts you off and lies, you're going to have to follow through on some kind of negative consequence (cooling the relationship, not doing something she needs you to do, whatever). The first tactic, where you avoid pinning her down, is more about saving your sanity. If you don't force her into a corner where she feels like she has to lie to avoid a conflict, she won't lie to you nearly as much, and the mandatory interactions become a lot less aggravating. I realize it makes her problem your problem, but trust me that it'll lower your blood pressure.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:00 PM on September 22, 2017 [4 favorites]

I've been on both sides of this with different family members. It can be a pretty shitty status quo, and IMO better off addressed than ignored.

For example, Relative 1 (R1) acts like your cousin: they're sweetly insincere in the interest of avoiding conflict. Unfortunately, that means R1 has lied about important matters like money, personal needs, health, etc. When confronted, they fall back on the perennial 'I didn't want to upset anyone'. What this really means is nothing important is ever seriously discussed, and any attempt to address it is considered to be deliberately 'rude' or seeking conflict. R1 insists on maintaining the facade, and it's so much emotional effort on my part pretend everything is kosher that I limit contact with them as much as possible.

Conversely, I employ a similar strategy with Relative 2 (R2). Lying outright, however, strikes me as disrespectful and demeaning. If R2 broaches on a topic I don't want to talk about, I tell them I don't want to talk about it and why. If they persist, I firmly shut them down. This more or less works: we're both Askers, so it's perfectly okay within our shared lexicon for a question to be answered with a negative without long-term resentment. As a result, I have a far better relationship with R2 than I do with R1.

You say you've already tried to talk to them about the dynamic and they've brushed you off; is there any neutral 3rd party/family member who knows the situation and can mediate for you? If not, I really don't see a good solution; your cousin clearly doesn't want/isn't able to be honest with you, and they've proven again and again your needs aren't going to be considered.
posted by givennamesurname at 8:37 AM on September 25, 2017

Response by poster: For anyone who happens to check back here, one more example which came to mind after I'd given the answers here some thought: the other day she called me and asked me if I wanted to "go for a ride." Since we never ride together if we can help it (we've had very abrasive confrontations over driving style) I knew she wanted something. I asked her directly why she wanted me to go on a ride with her. She hemmed and hawed, and finally ended the call sounding irritated. Later on I found out she'd been on her way to picking up a heavy item from a store and she wanted my help to put it in her car. I felt bad for not going with her and helping her, and then I felt annoyed that she fished around like that, and then I felt bad again, for not having the patience to suss out what she wanted, or not do that and just go along with her for the ride and expect the surprise of "since you're here, would you please just help me with...." It's this dynamic that goes round and round in my head regarding her. It is this response to her indirectness that I am seeking to change (in myself, not her) in a way that respects her boundaries and mine in a positive, not anger-and-resentment filled, way. Or if positive is not possible, at least neutral.

The reason we "work together" (better phrasing fails me) is because of a mutual family member. That is why I cannot just cut ties as would certainly be easier.

The ask vs guess thread was very helpful in helping me understand her behavior and stepping back from being angry. (I really don't want to be mad, and I really don't want to seem like I feel she *has* to take my advice - my goal in posting this was to get some answers so that she and I can get along better.) All the answers here were very helpful. Thank you.
posted by Crystal Fox at 6:39 PM on September 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

You really really do not need to feel bad about the heavy lifting episode.

Do you know in your heart that you'd have helped her if she'd been forthright enough to ask? Do you know that you've demonstrated that, and that she had no reason to think you wouldn't have helped her? Then you have nothing to feel bad for.

If this is someone that you want to go out of your way for, you can tell her clearly "you can always ask me for help, I'm always happy to help you, give me the opportunity." But you'd need a really good reason to want to do that.

I had a dearly beloved relative who was a martyr type like this and we had to go out of our way to figure out what would help her, and do it, often over her initial objections. (The vague invitation that was really a request for help would have fit right in with her style, now that I think of it.) But she was an extremely giving, loving, selfless, wonderful person who was worth the backflips and we really did feel honored to be able to help her in any way and would look for chances to do it. Not sure that applies here.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:48 AM on September 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yeah, I would think about two things - one is that it's really not on you to try to determine what she wants. If you are up for a ride then go with her and see what happens. If you can't go then say you can't. If she really needs your help, she's going to have to learn to ask for it. She can't do that if you take on the responsibility of decoding her words for her.

The other is to think about intent. Actually, don't think about intent AT ALL. Just take what she says at face value and then if she says or does something else, say "oh, she did something else." and don't let yourself go down the path of " . . . and so that *must* mean that she thinks I'm an idiot". Is there a way to divide your work so that each of you can be fully responsible for your own parts?
posted by dawkins_7 at 1:22 PM on September 27, 2017

Oh! That 'go for a ride' thing example is definitely what I was looking for!

Yes, I've got a friend like this and am currently attempting to figure out the best way to deal with it, too. It's so incredibly insulting - does she think she's smarter than me, or that I might have some reason for not helping her otherwise -a reason that she considers stupid?

I'm not quite sure if this has worked yet, but I told her, "If it ends up that you have manipulated me to be somewhere/do something for you without my knowledge, I won't do it." It's worth mentioning that I got an indirect "I don't know what you are talking about" response, but I didn't care.

At least, that way you've given a warning of sorts? But seriously, don't feel bad about not doing the thing she attempted to trick you into.
posted by destructive cactus at 4:09 PM on September 27, 2017

Well, that "go for a ride" example changes my understanding of the dynamic, and my answer. The Ask vs. Guess thread was also a revelation to me, and really helped me put into perspective the actions of many people that I had previously found bewildering. Despite my answer above, I am actually an Ask person, and I used to find Guess behavior infuriating as well.

Now, when I encounter Guess behavior, I have given myself permission to not do the other person's labor, ie, if she needs help she needs to learn how to ask for help. You did the labor of asking her what she needed, and she still didn't tell you. Give yourself permission then to say "welp, I tried" and move on, rather than feel guilty for not helping her. You did not create this situation, she did, and if she did not get her needs met, she needs to own the consequences of her contribution to that.

Some people don't know that they are Guess because it's how they've been raised. I have another family who does this, and it's only been since reading that thread and then asking my family member to read it and then discussing it (and revisiting it at times, like "I feel like we are not communicating well right now. Are we having an Ask vs. Guess issue?") that our relationship has improved. You might bring the article to her attention at a non-emotional time, like "I was reading this interesting comment about a relationship style that I'd never heard of before, and it really put things into perspective about my relationship with (an ex-bf/gf, a friend from HS, etc). Here, I'll send you the link.".
posted by vignettist at 9:39 AM on September 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

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