What are the limits of free speech within a friendship?
January 18, 2019 7:53 AM   Subscribe

I have an old friend; I'll call her Chores. (Important background: she spent some of her working life in Window Display for department stores, so she is home-dec oriented.) She collects and is surrounded by decorative pillows, and other cluttery decorational artifacts. As a semi-minimalist, that's not my thing.

About mid-December, Chores sent me an email with photos of her holiday decor. She asked, "do you think I have enough pillows [on my sofa]?"
I prefaced my reply with: "Warning: honest opinions to follow! Your pillows act as sit-repellants for guests who might want to sit on the couch. Otherwise, said guest would would have to toss a few on the floor, which would make you crazy. They * look* nice, but are not inviting."

Here is a paraphrase of her reply:
"Poop on you! Just because you don't like stuff doesn't mean that other people can't enjoy what they have. I move pillows around when I need to. No more pics for you little girl!
Sometimes u need to keep your opinions to yourself."

There now seems to be a communications stand-off.
Yes, I know this is trivial. But Chores and I have a couple things in common (our obsession for winter coats, and old rotary phones, specifically.) I might have a need to talk wool coats in the near future.
Since she asked my opinion in her email, how should I proceed in breaking the ice?
posted by BostonTerrier to Human Relations (72 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe she thought you were calling her crazy? Instead of that it would *drive* her crazy? A quick apology for that might smooth it over.
posted by wellred at 7:55 AM on January 18 [2 favorites]

Honestly, I think you were in the wrong and should apologize. She asked “do you think I have ENOUGH pillows?” not “what do you think of my pillow habit?” The appropriate response is “Yes” or “Yes, you could lose one or two” not “let me tell you why you are wrong for having pillows”.

If you apologize I’m sure you can get back to normal relations.
posted by corb at 7:59 AM on January 18 [152 favorites]

It's kinda like when a friend asks how you like her new hairdo, even if you think it sucks you tell her it looks good.

So, apologize for being harsh and move on.
posted by mareli at 7:59 AM on January 18 [34 favorites]

Sometimes people who ask for your opinion do not actually want your real opinion. You could have said something like, “It’s plenty!” and that would have been both accurate and supportive.

Apologize: “Hey, I was much too blunt! I’m sorry about that. I hope your holidays were lovely... Let’s get together soon.”
posted by mochapickle at 8:02 AM on January 18 [32 favorites]

Are the pillows indicative of a larger problem that will grow worse and jeopardize the health and safety of this person? Will this person's pillow obsession result in financial tragedy? Have a direct intervention! "Chores, it seems trivial, but we need to talk about the pillows."

Do you merely find the pillows vaguely distasteful but harmless? Half-heartedly acknowledge them in a way that is both jovial and factual, but where you do not need to endorse the pillows! "So many pillows! You do you!"

I suspect the latter is more appropriate here, and something to the effect of "I'm so sorry - I was having such a bad day. The pillows were undeniably epic! Next rotary phone is on me!" would help salve the relationship.
posted by eschatfische at 8:03 AM on January 18 [24 favorites]

It sounds like her question was rhetorical/joking, not an earnest desire for feedback. Apologize and move on.
posted by sonmi at 8:04 AM on January 18 [110 favorites]

You obviously know this person better than any of us but it doesn’t sound like she was asking for an actual Home Decor Criticism from you as much as a “lol yes”.

If you’re paraphrasing her response correctly it sounds like she’s a bit miffed that you knocked her decorating style when she was just looking for a compliment or at most a jokey reply about her pillow collection.

Ask her out for coffee or something and if it seems like she’s still on edge about it you can apologize and maybe home decor is off the table for conversation between you two, but that beats losing a friend.
posted by griphus at 8:05 AM on January 18 [27 favorites]

FWIW, if a friend had sent me something like that, I would probably not have read the remark as an invitation to offer my honest opinion, I would have read it as a tongue-in-cheek way of indicating she knows and has accepted that she has more pillows on the sofa than most people and does NOT want to hear any further comment on it.
posted by solotoro at 8:06 AM on January 18 [128 favorites]

If you are to successfully break the ice and restore your friendship, you will have to own your actions that caused this rift: specifically your reply to her. You were overly and gratuitously harsh, and you knew it because you prefaced your comments with a warning.

You should apologize to this person, first of all, and second I think you should examine why you felt like you needed to say what you said to her. Does her aesthetic upset or irritate you in some way? Was something else going on in your life that day? Do you just not want to be asked questions about decorative pillows, like, ever? And when you know what your own intentions were in saying what you said, bear those intentions in mind as you proceed in your friendship with her. It's okay to name them to yourself ("these pillows drive me nuts!") and you may find that the act of doing so helps you to bear the irritant graciously, or you may find that you need to put some gentle boundary in place ("Nicole, you and I just have very different ideas about how to decorate a room.")
posted by gauche at 8:07 AM on January 18 [16 favorites]

Your response was a little harsh to me. I’d apologize for my phrasing and buy her a pillow, perhaps with a pithy friendship-oriented message.
posted by snickerdoodle at 8:07 AM on January 18 [38 favorites]

"Hi Chores, I'm sorry I was a grinch about your pillows. I was having a grumpy day and shouldn't have been rude. I miss you. Can I buy you a latte and we can talk about phones and coats and never speak of pillows again? You can also smack or smother me with a pillow as revenge, but that's a one time offer that expires at the end of January. The latte part is forever."
posted by pseudostrabismus at 8:09 AM on January 18 [91 favorites]

I also think you should apologize to break the ice, because a kinder answer would have been, "I think it's better than enough, but you know me, all semi-minimalist and all!"
posted by kimberussell at 8:10 AM on January 18 [6 favorites]

Do you want to be right or do you want to have a friend?

Apologize. It's pillows.
posted by bondcliff at 8:11 AM on January 18 [31 favorites]

The moments of requisite painful honesty with friends arise when there is potential for harm to self or others, like eschatfische said, but different design choices don't fall into this category.

I agree with the posters above. I feel for you as well because her question was a bit needy and cloying and your response was a bit harsh. From now on, canned responses like "You know pillows aren't my thing but I know you love them and have a great collection!" Just as she's quirky about her pillows, you're quirky about your self-described semi-minimalist aesthetic: neither is right or wrong but just an issue of taste. I know my friends put up with my little bits of weird so I'm glad to put up with theirs!

You say she's an old friend: has it gotten to the point where you feel pressured to keep up the friendship for old times' sake and this pillow situation is a symbol of a much deeper rift? If that's the case, it's OK to reevaluate your friendship and contact. And, in that situation, it's better to have an honest heart-to-heart, even via text, saying that you have valued her friendship over the years and wish her the best but feel you've grown apart. I may be assuming too much here but your description of her does not sound very favorable or happy, which is fine but perhaps a sign of something deeper?
posted by smorgasbord at 8:12 AM on January 18 [6 favorites]

She kind of asked for your opinion? But not really. The way you describe it, she wasn't asking for your help refining her decor, she was basically saying "hey look what I did!" and just happened to use a phrase that had a question mark in it. Like showing off the wool coat she's just bought and saying "that collar big enough for ya?" instead of "check out the size of this collar!" If I'd gotten that text I probably would have said "you had enough pillows for me with about 2, but I think that looks just right for your house! I love the red one!"

But hey, you're friends! You know each other. You know you're different people, and you like each other anyway, right? So you apologize, and you say "I'm sorry about what I said back before the holidays. I didn't mean to insult your sofa - you know my living room looks like a monk doing penance in comparison, so don't trust my design sense on your house!"
posted by aimedwander at 8:12 AM on January 18 [8 favorites]

I would read your response as judgemental and harsh, but I’m not familiar with the general tone of your conversations so I don’t know if this is unusual. (In fact, I read this post as a little judgemental— the words you use to describe her aesthetic vs yours stood out to me.)

My friend posted a pic of her holiday decorated house and asked if I liked it. Ooh, so festive! Merry Christmas! Xo! I replied. Because I love her, and she was obviously trying to share her holiday joy and house-pride with me. What did I truly think of the decor? I’ll never say.
posted by kapers at 8:16 AM on January 18 [28 favorites]

Since she asked my opinion in her email, how should I proceed in breaking the ice?

See, but she didn't.

She asked, "do you think I have enough pillows [on my sofa]?"

Your answer to this was "Yes." unstated is "Far too many." but again, she asked you a very specific question and you went over the top rope. I think you need to calibrate what people want from you and what effect your words are having on people, and if someone was mean to me like that, I'd be very hurt. Honesty is not a virtuous cudgel that you should use to bring order to the world.

Anyway, it's okay. Apologize if you want to continue the friendship. Make it genuine, not an "I'm sorry if I offended you." but an "I realize that my words hurt you, and I regret that and apologize."

My tip for the future would be to ask, "Is this comment hurtful?" yes/no, "Is this comment necessary?" yes/no and proceed when you're not doing harm or it is very necessary. (This is a weird aside, but I make comments like you did when I'm really unhappy with myself. I am not saying you are, but I recognize the snark/justice boner I get when I'm depressed and flailing for something to think is bad besides myself.)
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 8:21 AM on January 18 [21 favorites]

Honestly, life is short and there are a lot of people in the world to be friends with. If you're someone who says something like this instinctively without thinking someone might get offended, and she is someone who is going to take offense to something like this, I think this will probably not be the last thing you clash over, and I would find the whole thing too exhausting.

For what it's worth, I'm on the side of thinking this is an insane thing to be upset about.
posted by something something at 8:22 AM on January 18 [3 favorites]

Going forward, one thing you can do is try to understand her aesthetic on its own terms rather than as a failed version of yours. You don't have to like it, but you can work on accepting it as its own thing in your head.

Think of it as you might a style of music that you don't enjoy - perhaps you don't like Baroque, finding it fiddly, sentimental and trite, but you wouldn't actually think "Baroque is a morally incorrect fake art-form and I need to cut it down whenever someone praises it because it reflects bad values".

When you do that, try to understand the purpose of the maximalism on its own terms. Is it about contrasting textures? Complimentary colors? Working out a "vintage elves" theme? If you start thinking about the internal logic of the decor, you'll be able to find something sincere and appropriate to say, like "wow, the 1970s holiday pillows are hilarious!" or "I like all the purples".

Detach the whole thing from ideas about your preferences or your home - think of it as a style of decor that you're studying rather than a chance to express your values, and think of it as a form of communication from your friend about who they are. If you change your understanding of what you're looking at, you won't feel the need to judge.
posted by Frowner at 8:26 AM on January 18 [19 favorites]

I happen to think her response was fine and your response was off. She was sharing a part of her life, not asking for an intervention nor a critique. I did something similar in spirit to an old friend once, and my words were much much harsher. She responded appropriately with righteous indignation and it brought me back to reality. I eventually figured out where I had gone wrong (a brain fart, essentially; I had misread a teasing email as a genuine request for advice and then delivered harsh, awful, judgmental advice).

I apologised as earnestly and sincerely as I could because I had been an asshole. My friend, after all, had been expecting a light-hearted response from me, not an attack, which was essentially what it was no matter how my glitchy brain thought of it just before I hit the send button. You screwed up; people do. It is human. I am on Team Apologize Sincerely and move on. Why risk losing a friend you care about over your own thoughtless response?
posted by Bella Donna at 8:26 AM on January 18 [5 favorites]

It sounds like her question was rhetorical/joking, not an earnest desire for feedback. Apologize and move on. -sonmi

Exactly this. She already knows it's a lot of pillows and knows you're more of a minimalist. She was being sarcastic in a "Is it hot enough for you?" way. This isn't even at the level of "do you like my new dress?" This is "I know I like a lot of pillows and you don't but look at all of them ha ha."

A more appropriate response, depending on personalities and the dynamics of your friendship might have been more along the lines of, "Nice pillows, and plenty of them!" or "I'm not into pillows, but you do you!"

So, yes, apologize and move on.
posted by The Deej at 8:26 AM on January 18 [13 favorites]

Her last response seems annoyed but like she‘s purposely keeping it light. I‘d probably send her a picture of a pillow and a „sorry I was a killjoy! peace offering pillow?“ or something.
posted by Omnomnom at 8:32 AM on January 18 [5 favorites]

Your question framing here points to the answer for you.

It's not about free speech vs. #censored!!! It's about interacting with your friend in a way that maintains the warm tie between. You can still express your opinion but you make the connection first.

The answer you gave wasn't, in fact, just your opinion, it was actively insulting. "Sit-repellants"and "make you look crazy" are not neutral language.

Some samples of expressing the same concerns kindly/warmly:
"I'm your minimalist friend! If you ask me I'll almost always say you have too many pillows."
"For me, that's a lot of pillows...love ya"
"Wow, when you decorate you go all out! It's too many for me but do you love it?"
posted by warriorqueen at 8:33 AM on January 18 [35 favorites]

Also, something I learned the harder way in my life - if you feel like you have to give a warning before you say something, don't say it.
posted by warriorqueen at 8:34 AM on January 18 [42 favorites]

1. she wasn't really asking for feedback, so you were (inadvertently, since you thought she was,) rude.

2. I hate pillows all over the damned place, so I feel you here. I do. WHY DO PEOPLE PUT THEM WHERE THEY'RE IN THE WAY OF ACTUALLY SITTING ugh.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:35 AM on January 18 [3 favorites]

What are the limits of free speech within a friendship?

Also, to answer the question in the title of your ask, the limits of free speech within a friendship are whatever limits each person in the friendship establishes for themselves and the relationship as a whole. Friendship is a mutual thing; to keep it going, both parties must agree to keep it going.

Here is an example: to keep an important friendship with one person I love, I have said no to discussions about politics because I cannot have those discussions and remain friends with this person. (And no, it is not because this person is a Nazi or racist or wing nut.) There is no hard and fast rule about this stuff. Of course, my friend could have ended the friendship because of my no-politics rule but they value our relationship and have abided by it nearly 100%. If they forget, I remind them and they quickly shift topics.
posted by Bella Donna at 8:35 AM on January 18 [6 favorites]

"It sounds like her question was rhetorical/joking, not an earnest desire for feedback."

Yeah, wow, I think you badly misread what the original question was, which was a friendship overture where she was gently making fun of her over-the-top pillowness and your proper response was an affectionate "lol omg" or "PILLOW NIRVANA!" or something similarly silly and positive and affectionate.

Instead you went to "you're a bad host who makes your guests uncomfortable" and whoa. I honestly don't know if I would have replied at all after that, I would have been so hurt and taken aback to have a goofy picture mocking my own foibles responded to with a "you're a bad host who makes guests uncomfortable" which is some pretty harsh criticism of someone you're apparently good friends with!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:35 AM on January 18 [77 favorites]

I thought she was good naturedly making fun of herself when she asked. Proper response would have been "Lol. Can never have enough pillows, amirite?"
posted by AugustWest at 8:35 AM on January 18 [6 favorites]

It sounds like you might be frustrated by the desire to be honest and to maintain this friendship. It's important to recognize, of course, that the standard of honesty in a friendship is not the same as in a courtroom. You don't swear to tell the whole truth, every time a friend asks for an opinion, after all!

Others have pointed out that you had the option of saying just, "Yes, that's more than enough pillows!" She may have also been open to some friendly joshing, like: "OMG, that couch is one pillow away from being visible from space." I know, as strange as it may seem, I think this may be the sort of situation where a joke like that would have gone over better than the straightforward opinion you provided!

In a situation like this, if you really are not comfortable keeping the totality of your opinion to yourself, what can you do? Ask for permission to share it. You can say something like this: "Yes, that is definitely more than enough pillows! Lemme know if you want to hear my reasons for being such a minimalist about throw pillows."

That gives her the option of hearing your opinion more thoroughly. It also gives the option of not hearing more about it. You give your opinion, you make clear that there is more to say about it than just a simple matter of taste, and you leave it open to her to decide how much criticism about her style she's going to hear.

But, yeah, like others have said: I think this is a situation where the best response was probably to photoshop the picture of her couch, to make it look like Cookie Monster, with a caption like "Nom nom nom gimme gimme more pillows!", rather than something serious.
posted by meese at 8:38 AM on January 18 [3 favorites]

You were rude. And it's not trivial.

The question you should have answered was not whether you liked her decor, but whether she had achieved what she was going for.

Did you really say "said guest"? That's a mock-legal expression intended to build up your authority and it is always a fail. There was no confusion in your sentence about which guest you were you talking about.

Did you really say "not inviting"? Absolutely not true considered in the proper context. Her entire persona is dedicated to being "inviting."
posted by JimN2TAW at 8:49 AM on January 18 [17 favorites]

She didn't ask your opinion. I know the question looks like she was asking your opinion, but that's a quirk of language usage. Do you have a history of sometimes taking things overly literally? Because I don't think what you really need here is to apologize exactly--at least not in the sense that you should feel you really did something wrong--but rather an explanation that you parsed that question as an actual solicitation for feedback about pillow quantity and not just a "look at all these pillows" comment. You might get known for being The Friend Who Takes Things Too Literally, but if you are that person, it's way better if your friends know that and take that into account!

What you did was basically only mean if you knew she wasn't seriously asking and you said it anyway, but it doesn't sound like that's the case. I've said this in other questions but I'll repeat it here: Manners are for strangers and acquaintances. With friends, honesty is great. But honesty doesn't just mean a full dump of your opinions on everything... it also means being willing to be the little bit vulnerable in admitting that you misread a situation and didn't understand what the other person was looking for out of that interaction. A lot of friendship is negotiating how to communicate with another person so that you both have a nice time, and that often has some hiccups.
posted by Sequence at 8:54 AM on January 18 [4 favorites]

Ugh. Ambiguous questions via writing sometimes get answered. Her response was condescending as hell. Never apologize to condescending people unless you like being treated like an inferior.

The right answer is to respond with something like “little salty about the pillow sitch, eh? I’ll keep that in mind...” then change the subject. It may be too late for that now, though.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 8:55 AM on January 18 [1 favorite]

You took her question literally, as if she were asking for your opinion about her decor. If she'd meant it literally, your response would have been fine. However, she didn't mean it literally (she was just making conversation), so your response felt like a slap in the face to her.

It wouldn't be honest for you to say you were having a "grumpy day" or whatever to apologize, because this was a miscommunication, not you lashing out. However, you can apologize without a white lie by saying, "I'm so sorry I hurt your feelings about the pillows! I misunderstood your initial text. Your home is always so welcoming, and it's great that you love holiday decorating so much. Want to get together at (place) soon?"
posted by metasarah at 8:56 AM on January 18 [3 favorites]

Think of it this way. You send her a picture of your minimalist living room and say, "Do you think my coffee table is empty enough?"

She replies, "Warning: honest opinions to follow! Your coffee table is cold and impersonal. A guest who visits you doesn't have any sense of who you really are. If a guest wants to put a glass on the table, she'll feel like she shouldn't because it will mess with your decor. It * looks* nice, but it is not inviting."

Do you see the problem here?
posted by FencingGal at 8:56 AM on January 18 [54 favorites]

Say "Jeez, you're right, I forgot how to even friend! What a goof. I should bring over a bottle of wine and we can throw pillows at each other!"
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:13 AM on January 18 [9 favorites]

And in the future, for situations like this, you don't have to offer an opinion to answer like a friend. As others have noted, "do you think I have enough pillows [on my sofa]?" is a playful rhetorical question that shows she has a sense of humor about having lotsa pillows out. You can respond in the same: "I don't know, you can still see some cushion on the right," "I personally like to be at least three feet off the couch, but I guess that's sufficient for most people," or "No one will say that's not a festive couch" or just "LOL looks like you're having fun!" is a fine response. Unless a friend is pressing you for brutally honest opinions or there's a serious situation that warrants it ("My new boss is coming over and I want to impress her! Do I have enough pillows?") you can keep all interactions light and in the spirit of friendship. No actual opinion needed.
posted by LKWorking at 9:20 AM on January 18 [3 favorites]

I am not a minimalist but I am prone to extremely harsh criticisms of my friends' things and lives without much prompting and could easily be you in this situation. For the most part my really good friends know that I just am like that and don't take it so deeply when I misstep and blurt judgments at them, but I have a larger tier of less close friends where I am very cautious about things and do accidentally offend sometimes and have to make amends. It is usually worth it. As you said - what if you need to talk coats with someone soon?? You can't do that with just anybody.

If I were you, I would start taking pictures of funny/pretty/hideous pillows when out and about and text them to her, with opaque emoji commentary, like [picture of beaded floral pillow] "alien head, diamond, woman dancing, cup of tea". This will communicate: a desire to continue speaking with her, humor, perhaps convey your mixed feelings about pillows/maximalism in decor, and acknowledgment that you should probably be the first to reach out with it being heavy.
posted by Mizu at 9:22 AM on January 18

"Freedom of speech" is no excuse for being rude to a friend. I understand that you were not intentionally hurtful, but you still ought to say sorry.
posted by w0mbat at 9:25 AM on January 18 [7 favorites]

Harsh. Her response was better than necessary. I'm not a fan of frou-frou decorating and the hyper-consumerism that drives it, but it's not my role to judge my friends. I'm wondering why it pisses you off so much that she likes the frou?
posted by theora55 at 9:30 AM on January 18 [3 favorites]

"Poop on you! Just because you don't like stuff doesn't mean that other people can't enjoy what they have. I move pillows around when I need to. No more pics for you little girl!
Sometimes u need to keep your opinions to yourself."

You offered your honest opinion and she gave you HER honest opinion in return, as is her right under Free Speech. Now you're even. I'd say something like "Yes, you are right, I went a little overboard, let's have lunch next week!"
posted by bleep at 9:33 AM on January 18 [17 favorites]

As always, free speech means if you call my mother a whore while drinking my wine I can’t have you jailed - it doesn’t mean I have to invite you back for Sunday dinner. If you want to be invited back, you should probably apologize.
posted by eirias at 9:40 AM on January 18 [27 favorites]

It wouldn't be honest for you to say you were having a "grumpy day" or whatever to apologize

The important layer of honesty in a sincere apology is the layer of sentiment. If you genuinely regret the harm you caused and genuinely wish to restore the friendship, then taking on "more blame than may be strictly called for by a dispassionate analysis," if that's the way to accomplish that goal, isn't a meaningful untruth.

OP, as a Prolific Opinion-Haver, I sometimes walk into this trap. So I sympathize, but everyone saying you screwed up and should apologize is right. Most people do not have a critical analysis subroutine running in their brain most of the time, and you should try to evaluate that kind of question accordingly.
posted by praemunire at 9:42 AM on January 18 [3 favorites]

Your response was rude and uncalled-for. You're in the wrong, not Chores. She asked if she had enough pillows; it was clear from her phrasing that the appropriate answer options were (a) "Yes, it looks great!" or (b) "It looks good, but a few more would look extra festive!"

You should apologize for being nasty and ask if you can both put it behind you and move on.

But Chores and I have a couple things in common (our obsession for winter coats, and old rotary phones, specifically.) I might have a need to talk wool coats in the near future.

...do you value Chores as a friend, or just as a phone/coats resource? Your phrasing here is so... utilitarian, like the only repercussion of your rude text is that might lose your coat person. Chores deserves to have friends who truly enjoy her company and friendship, not who see her as some kind of resource. Maybe you're kidding around here but if not you should step back and reevaluate why you call her a friend at all.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 9:45 AM on January 18 [25 favorites]

With the disclaimer that none of us know the tone of your interactions as well as you do - your response was a misread of her question, her response to you was a little over the top, but this may just have been because your straight-bat response was so unexpected she was thrown off kilter.

If you like this person and want to maintain the friendship, apologise for the misunderstanding and make up.

(if you double down and call her salty, and fully expect that to be curtains for the friendship)
posted by ominous_paws at 10:01 AM on January 18 [1 favorite]

She absolutely did not ask your opinion in email. She made a statement that was pretty obviously a rhetorical question, and you responded by telling her she was a shitty host (paraphrasing, of course, but that was the gist of it). You also suggested she was irrational because she didn't want her stuff on the floor. If you had sent that email to me, I'd be pissed too. If you really value her friendship (and frankly, from your question, it seems like you kind of don't, which is fine), apologize to her.
posted by holborne at 10:02 AM on January 18 [4 favorites]

Defining this as a "free speech" issue seems like you feel you should get to put your friends on blast over any topic you choose and they have to like it and you face no consequences, which is a mistake a lot of people make about "free speech", which this isn't anyway because no government or authoritative body is attempting to curtail your right to yell at your friends about their decor.

Now, as a Friend Speech issue, your guiding rule should be to appreciate your friends for the people they actually are, even when that person's sofa is rendered unusable, and offer your support to them in all things UNLESS you truly have a concern so serious about their well-being that you're willing to risk the relationship to voice it. If she is putting all those pillows in her baby's crib, you need to say something, even harshly if the message is not getting across. But in less than life-or-death situations, a friend is going to approach the message with some care. Even if it's something quite serious, like trying to convince a friend she should get out of a bad work/relationship/family situation, you save the "you're an idiot and it's surprising you survived childhood" for your final desperate plea; you start with something gentler. Out of kindness. Because you like them.

I have some friends who just have wildly different seems-awful-to-me lifestyle preferences, and there are a bunch of ways to reply that are cheerfully neutral, when the topic isn't life-threatening but you still don't want to quite say "oh I love that". "Look at you, Her Royal Highness Queen Pillowfort!" "Look at that magnificent collection!" "Job well done!" Between some friends, one can say - in a friendly way - "I don't know how you don't fall off the couch, but that's definitely a primo collection of pillows you've got there!"

You are maybe familiar with the phrase "Don't yuck my yum"? Or perhaps the idea behind the jokey phrase "Your favorite band sucks"? It's rude, it's a little high-and-mighty, even if she asked your actual serious opinion - which she didn't, she just tried to share something she liked with you with an invitation to participate nicely in that sharing - and probably the best way to smooth that over is to apologize that she caught you with your grumpypants pulled all the way up to your chin one day and you're sorry you were rude.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:03 AM on January 18 [32 favorites]

You would probably hate my apartment. I only have three pillows on my couch, but I have a ton of framed pictures and various gewgaws scattered around my place. If you were my friend and I asked you what you thought of my apartment, and your response was "I'm a semi-minimalist so I hate it, you should get rid of all that crap," then I wouldn't respond by redecorating my apartment.

You probably really hurt this person's feelings, for basically no reason except to make it clear that you think their taste is godawful. Why was it so important for you to take that stand? And if you absolutely had to, why not say something like "it's not my style but it's totally you," which would have allowed you to feel privately superior without being insulting?
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:11 AM on January 18 [17 favorites]

She was looking for validation, not your opinion.

Apologize and try to be kinder next time.
posted by Twicketface at 10:11 AM on January 18 [2 favorites]

I‘m going out on a limb to suggest that your friend already knows exactly what you are like. You don‘t seem like the kind of person to hide your analytical free speech side very well! She knows your opinion of pillows.
Her email was part teasing you AND part wanting validation. I don‘t know how much you two banter, but in my friend circle, if known as a strict minimalist, a response of „haha, looks like a pillow factory exploded in there! But, pretty fun looking pillows!“ or „dude,there will NEVER be enough pillows for you!“ would be absolutely fine.

She wanted to have a laugh with you about your differences AND show off her haul. And you spoilt it by being mega serious and critical.

So, apologise, tell her you‘d love to see her next pieces and promise you won‘t ever be such a curmudgeon again.
posted by Omnomnom at 10:33 AM on January 18 [30 favorites]

She didn't ask for your opinion. She was making a bid for connection, in order to bolster feelings of kinship and goodwill with you during what can be a very stressful and emotional time of year for a lot of people. A kind and loving response would have looked like any one of the jokey responses in this thread. Your response was somewhat cruel, and very effectively shut down her attempt at connection. This is also demonstrated in her reply to you, when she tells you you'll get no more pictures -- since her last bid for connection was so poorly received, she's not likely to try again.

And I don't blame her, to be honest. Your feelings toward her seem very transactional, not friendly, since you call her a somewhat derogatory nickname here and believe that her hurt feelings are trivial -- if all you want is someone to talk to about shared interests, maybe find a Meetup for wool coat enthusiasts or rotary phone collectors and let this lady go spend time with people who actually enjoy her.
posted by palomar at 10:43 AM on January 18 [57 favorites]

There are a million ways to be both honest and warm, and people have given you lots of examples here. So yeah, it’s not about “do I have to LIE??” It’s about being yourself without feeling the need to tell other people what to do.
posted by stoneandstar at 10:53 AM on January 18 [3 favorites]

I really urge you to read and think about the link that palomar posted on "bids for connection." I am a very literal-minded person as are some of my friends, but understanding "bids" really changed how I view conversations and made me a better listener and a better friend, although it is definitely a process.

When you posted your convo with your friend, I could see right away that she was not looking for advice but was trying to put a little bit of fuel into the stove of your friendship. By sending you the pillow picture, she is trying to say "I am thinking about you. I know what you like and don't like, and you know what I like and don't like, because we are friends. I am gently teasing myself as a show of vulnerability and trust in you, my friend." By responding in a negative way that shut down the connection, you perhaps communicated that she can't be vulnerable with you.
posted by muddgirl at 11:06 AM on January 18 [43 favorites]

Warning: honest opinions to follow!

This would pretty much give me insta-hurt feelings. No sensitive comment is going to start with a warning, you know? If she was dating a married man and asked your opinion...maybe? But pillows? No.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 11:09 AM on January 18 [13 favorites]

Other people have already said it better than me, but… this is not a free speech issue. You are free to say whatever the fuck you want in a friendship, but that doesn't mean your friends aren't allowed to be hurt by it, or angered, or to unfriend you. Freedom to speak does not mean freedom from consequences, OK?

This is an empathy issue. A good friend is in tune with their friend (most of the time, anyway) and understands what they're getting at without having to have things like requests for validation framed out in the most literal terms possible. Your default position with your friends should be to say things that are funny and kind, not critical. When someone is open to critique about their lifestyle, they will generally make that super explicit and unambiguous, because the vast majority of the time people are not looking for that from their friends.

You are free to say whatever you like to your friends, but you may find that you soon have fewer friends if you do that.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 11:22 AM on January 18 [7 favorites]

I'm blunt to the point of hurting feelings on occasion. I have learned to only give my honest opinion when people are asking about things that are actively harmful to them or others. This is not one of those times.

Also, the way you described your relationship with your friend -- as a resource you may need to call on in the near future for advice about wool coats? (I imagine this, like your nickname for her, is intended to be jokey in some way I don't grok?) -- that seems strange to me. Friendships are not primarily about what people can do for you.
posted by sockermom at 11:30 AM on January 18 [8 favorites]

You also insulted her intelligence, as though she doesn’t know that pillows take up space on a couch. Presumably she knows this and is aware of the pros and cons.
posted by kapers at 11:35 AM on January 18 [7 favorites]

Wow. She wasn't actually asking for constructive criticism. That's mean. You think that shit. You don't say it. The correct response is "lol. You sure do like pillows!" You don't have to lie and say you love it. Just a neutral statement of fact.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 11:50 AM on January 18 [6 favorites]

You're allowed to tell her its not your style but it looks nice. It is not your place to criticize how she places things in her own apartment
posted by Amy93 at 12:05 PM on January 18 [1 favorite]

Does she know you're a semi-minimalist? How about, "As a semi-minimalist, I think you have more than enough! Do you like them?"
posted by bluedaisy at 12:56 PM on January 18

As for how to respond, in my mind you have three options depending on what you really want from this relationship. (1) If you don't want to be even her acquaintance, no response necessary. (2) If you want to be casual acquaintances/casual friends who only talk about areas of common interest and nothing more, a brief and sincere apology for your grumpy reply followed by a change of subject would hopefully do the trick. (3) If you want to be real friends then you need to come up with a response that makes fun of yourself a bit on top of the apology. Like maybe take a picture with all the pillows and pillow-adjacent objects in your place on top of your own couch and say "trying out a new design"
posted by muddgirl at 1:21 PM on January 18 [1 favorite]

There now seems to be a communications stand-off.

There is a communications stand off because the ball is in your court. For whatever reason, you gave a harsh response to a harmless question about something that wasn't hurting you or anyone else. She called you out on it fairly gently considering your tone. Apologize.

Referring to this as free speech in a friendship is the same as those people who use "i am just really blunt/honest" as they mow down other peoples feelings. It is mean and gains you nothing. You can be kind without comprimising your own views.
posted by domino at 3:01 PM on January 18 [12 favorites]

I don’t mean to pile on here. I will note that if you’re feeling roundly criticized by all these answers, and you were expecting more responses here that validated your point of view, you probably have a pretty good idea of how Chores is feeling right now.

I’ve known a lot of people who pride themselves on being “brutally honest.” They seem to think honesty can only ever be brutal — never affirming or uplifting. They tend to self-identify as smarter than other people, and they tend not to identify as sensitive souls. To a person, however, they seem to get very defensive when someone else gives them honest feedback about how their “brutally honest” appraisals make other people feel. It’s a live-by-the-sword, die-by-the-sword kind of thing.

If this incident was an aberration for you, you’re probably already wondering on some level if you really messed up. If so, that’s a good sign — maybe personality clash between you and Chores just got the best of you, and you snapped. Extend that olive branch. Recognize that we’re all validation-seekers, perhaps most especially those of us who want to be seen as highly analytical and levelheaded.

If this incident is part of a larger pattern, though, it might be worth asking yourself whether you’re holding other people to higher standards of kindness and agreeability than yourself. It’s a VERY easy mindset to slip into, and there is no surer recipe for loneliness.
posted by armeowda at 3:36 PM on January 18 [24 favorites]

Way harsh Tai. Send her a pillow with CTRL Z on it. Or challenge her to a one-armed pillow fight and let her win.
posted by Z if for Zillah at 4:00 PM on January 18 [4 favorites]

Yeah someone was having a fun moment with something they were a little bit proud of even though they knew it was silly. Your response was way too serious & negative for such such a lighthearted photo. Buy her a pillow with I'm sorry on it and take her out for a coffee. Life is short, if she's other wise a good friend except for obsessive decorating & pillow habits then it's worth making an effort to keep the friendship.
posted by wwax at 4:20 PM on January 18 [1 favorite]

I think your framing of this was a bit defensive (framing this as a "free speech" issue seems very similar to people who complain about PC culture when asked to be less offensive) and given that you sense that Chores's feeling have already been hurt, then I think you absolutely do not want a reply like "“little salty about the pillow sitch, eh? I’ll keep that in mind...”" as suggested way above. That continues to belittle Chores and make it seem like you care as little for her feelings as for her decorating style.
posted by TwoStride at 4:39 PM on January 18 [17 favorites]

This right here? This is yet another in an endless litany of examples demonstrating why the use of text-based electronic communication to support an emotional relationship is a terrible idea, despite being an almost universal practice in 2019.

Text has no tone of voice and no accompanying facial expression, and electronic text is most often generated at speeds that bypass such nuance as it is actually capable of. Turning a completely inconsequential difference of style preference into a nasty emotional wound is absolutely par for the course. Plus, text sticks around inviting re-reading and interminable overthinking, turning what might otherwise be a throwaway remark into a dug-in and festering emotional splinter.

Communicating with friends is best done face to face. Failing that, video call. Failing that, voice call. Failing that, wait. If you're going to write to somebody, use a medium that does not positively invite you to fire off what you wrote the instant you finish writing it. And all of that goes double, triple, quadruple for intimate partners.

The assumption and expectation of 24x7 contactability is every bit as toxic to interpersonal relationships as it is to work-life balance.
posted by flabdablet at 4:42 PM on January 18 [6 favorites]

Your friend texted you to show off her holiday display. It would have been better to respond with something like ‘wow thats a lotta Christmas there! I love those red candles where did you get them? Looks great and you def have plenty of pillows 😉. Are we still on for lunch next weekend?’

Then show your partner the pic and giggle over the excessive pillows. Your response wasn’t very nice, she wasn’t looking for an honest reply. This is like when your chubby friend asks if her skrt makes her butt look big? IT DOESN’T. If you have to critisize, say the color or print isn’t flattering, not that she looks fat. Because you value your friends feelings more than the need to be brutally honest about her taste in things or her weight etc.

When you visit her, do you have problems sitting due to too many pillows and if so does she remove them as she mentioned in her reply? If so I think you owe her an apology. If not, just move them next time you’re at her house but it would be better to hold your tongue to preserve the friendship.

In short I think you hurt her feelings with your reply and she lashed out at you.
posted by RichardHenryYarbo at 8:46 PM on January 18 [1 favorite]

you gotta buy her some apology pillows now
posted by poffin boffin at 8:47 PM on January 18 [18 favorites]

What poffin boffin said.
Just give her some pillows. Maybe just one. That you've chosen with consideration.
A lot of times, silly things will happen in relationships and you gotta allow for an easy surface to sort of slide onto without fuss. I don't know if you need a lot of words for this; unless she's a ridiculous person, that action should be enough.
posted by redpajamas at 6:35 AM on January 19

the right answer is already in your question.

"As a semi-minimalist, that's not my thing"

When something really isn't my thing to the point I can't muster a socially acceptable white lie some manner of "i'm not the right person to ask" is my go to.
posted by French Fry at 9:01 AM on January 20 [1 favorite]

If only Congress would act with such unanimity!
Unfortunately, Chores wasn't home when I called her just now. I left a cheery "Happy New Year" message, and a sincere apology for being rude about her decor. I also offered her a couple of my decorative objects that she likes (i've been KonMarie'ing like mad), as an implication that she can't have too many decorative doo-dads.

I hope to hear from Chores soon. I've been missing our intense coat conversations, plus there's a phone on eBay that I need her advice about. I miss her, dammit.
posted by BostonTerrier at 10:15 AM on January 20 [13 favorites]

Final update, then done.
Chores returned my call this afternoon, and graciously accepted my apology. We had much to catch up on!
I'm happy.
posted by BostonTerrier at 2:17 PM on January 20 [46 favorites]

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