Friendliness conundrum
September 23, 2023 11:41 PM   Subscribe

I seem to keep running into this problem: I meet a new person/group of people. I am initially very cautious and wary in order to respect boundaries and not intrude. People mistake this for shyness or aloofness, and are extra kind and friendly. I remain wary, but they eventually win me over and I start to let my guard down.

Once I do so, they get cold and standoffish, and it’s clear the friendliness was never intended as friendship and I’ve overstayed my welcome - up until then I had my guard up so as to avoid doing that, but once I relax and trust them, I stop picking up on subtle “buzz off” signals.

Is this an experience anyone else has figured out how to avoid repeating?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
How does your behavior change once you “let down your guard”?
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:59 PM on September 23 [17 favorites]

What is your intention when you let your guard down? To spend more time with them / develop closer relationships? Do you feel you need / want more or better relationships in your life?

Unpopular opinion incoming: it’s ok to let your guard remain up in a lot of social contexts. Many people have lost their way spiritually, so if folks are seeming friendly at first it may be a way for them to give themselves cookies for “being nice” to the new person in the room. You don’t need scraps from their table. No need to be cold or rude about that, but there’s also no need to be anything but basically polite.

I would look to change up where you’re meeting people, too. Special interest based gatherings or groups might be more fruitful over time.

Also, don’t push to spend one on one time with people. Let them invite you first. That way you’ll be able to spot a genuine interest in a friendship.
posted by rabia.elizabeth at 12:07 AM on September 24

It sounds like you're a bit passive in these scenarios. It might help to have certain goals or aims in situations- are you going jn to make friends, or just to meet acquaintances? Which of the people you are meeting would you like to get to know better, and which not? You can also decide which friendships to try and pursue, or not.

I tend to be a bit passive myself which can lead to disappointing outcomes that I feel I don't have control over.
posted by bearette at 2:14 AM on September 24 [1 favorite]

Once the honeymoon phase is over, both sides let their guard down and show what they're normally like. This is where the interesting phase comes in and you get to decide which of these people seem nice to casually hang with, which people you want to get to know better as friends and which people are...not your thing.

I agree you're too passive. You seem to think that making friends is about putting yourself out there and then waiting to let random groups of friends decide to adopt you or drop you. Where's your agency?

Whether you become friends or not isn't just up to them. Nor are friend groups a homogenous mass of people that you need to love or leave as a group. Nor is letting your guard down a binary thing, either up or down. People have layers, like an onion. You need to onion, too. Don't just indiscriminately let your guard down. Decide who you like as a person and then slowly let them see more of you. If they don't treat the slightly peeled back version of you well, put your guard up again.
posted by Omnomnom at 3:32 AM on September 24 [9 favorites]

... and are extra kind and friendly.

For me, that is not what I'm looking for, and I'll remain exactly as aloof/cautious as always in its face. I want signs of reciprocity of the respect I am giving them, and them turning up the charm is one of its opposites. Now, I don't mean people who just are super nice and friendly: when the thing you're describing is happening it's different than that. Even super nice outgoing friendly people can signal that they don't intend to intrude on one's privacy and that they respect one's individuality, including one's desire to initially maintain perhaps a bit more space than they would. These folks aren't doing that for you. If it's the sort of situation I'm imagining, it's more that they find it low-key intolerable for anyone to not let them in, so they pour on the charm until they get past your reasonable social boundaries. But then they're not actually interested in maintaining that level of connection (they just didn't want to be denied it), so they push you away and make you feel like you did something wrong. This may or may not be entirely deliberate on their part, but, again, it's not what I personally am looking for in friends and you don't have to keep engaging with the cycle either. I prefer to exit at the point where someone responds to "caution and wariness" with being "extra kind and friendly" in a way that suggests they are working to overcome it. Sometimes there's someone who seems genuine enough that I stick with it, but always with the thought in my head that I'm not going to blame myself if it turns out I was wrong to trust their overtures. It's entirely possible that I thereby miss some people who would have been fine to be friendly with in the end, but my psyche just can't take tolerating a much greater level of risk.
posted by teremala at 5:28 AM on September 24 [4 favorites]

It seems like you have a really specific story about what's happening here but with the limited information you've given I can think of like half a dozen ways to explain what's going on. You seem to be doing a lot of mind-reading ("People mistake this for shyness or aloofness", " the friendliness was never intended as friendship"). You might be right! But it's not the only possible explanation for their behavior.

One thing that I'm noticing here is that you seem to be presenting your behavior early-on in an acquaintanceship (cautious, mindful of boundaries) as being in opposition to others' behavior (kind, friendly). Do you feel like these people are un-mindful of your boundaries when they're being friendly, as teremala suggests? Are they steamrolling you and making demands for increased intimacy on you (albeit in a "friendly" way)? Keep an eye out for that kind of behavior, where they're trying to grind you down with friendliness. Those are probably not people you want to pursue friendships with.

Another possibility though is that they are being friendly but also keeping their own guards up. Personally, I'm very friendly but also reserved. I can be very friendly to someone without giving up much of myself. Once in a while that means someone thinks that I am trying to be their friend when I am not actually interested in that (maybe I don't know them well enough yet or maybe I'm already pretty sure we're never going to be close). The people I get along with best generally catch on to this and our relationships involve a gradual opening up/drawing each other in to talking about more personal and difficult subjects.

Because yeah, it's totally likely that at least some of these people are looking for a friendly-but-not-friendship relationship. There are a lot of people I know who I want to be on friendly terms with - people I work with, people I participate in hobby activities with, neighbors - even if I don't want to be friends with them. When I meet someone, I'm open to a wide range of possible future relationships - but as I reveal more of myself and as they reveal more of themselves, we settle in somewhere on the acquaintance-BFF scale, and it's usually closer to the acquaintance end of the scale.

NB: This is probably not relevant to the type of situation you describe but another type of friendly person that you might encounter is someone who is super extraverted and puts it all out there no matter what. My next door neighbor is like this, and I like her a lot! She overshares, but she's not demanding with her oversharing - when she reveals something personal, I don't feel any expectation that I'm supposed to reciprocate, I think she just can't really keep it in (she has what people describe sometimes as "no filter"). She is totally respectful of (or possibly just oblivious to) the fact the I rarely/never match her intensity level in our conversations.
posted by mskyle at 5:58 AM on September 24 [9 favorites]

I’m curious to hear specific examples of what “let my guard down” and “cold and stand offish” are. The second phrase, in particular, is an interpretation of behaviors, but maybe there’s a different type of communication happening there that, in your mental “friend” model, gets interrupted as “cold.”

There is a person in my extended friend group who I like, very much, as a person, but who I haven’t been able to find a happy, mutually comfortable place with. Despite mentioning multiple times that I really don’t like text messaging (always glad to set a date to get together), whenever I run into this person and start talking about doing something, it’s immediately followed by days of incessant texting — often way earlier than I wake up or after I’m asleep, always things that THEY are interested in but I have no connection with, and every fucking day, even if I haven’t responded to anything they sent. It’s overwhelming and yeah,I recoil and pull back. It’s like they only have two speeds — 0 and 1,000 - and that they have a model for how THEY want to do “friendship” that has nothing to do with what I’m comfortable with, either in content or frequency or volume or how much time I have available to commit to building a new friendship. I feel friended AT, like I’m being subjected to how THEY like to do “friendship” and not like I’ve started the slow, gentle process of co-creating a mutually comfortable learning-each-other.

I’m sharing this as an example of something that is not a ‘me versus them’ narrative, but more an encouragement to explore dynamics of actions, expectations, and potential indirect communications around boundaries or comfort levels or availability in very busy lives.
posted by Silvery Fish at 6:06 AM on September 24 [7 favorites]

Yeah, what does cold and stand-offish look like? And how far into the acquaintance are we talking--the second time you meet, or after a few weeks?

I can picture the effusive friendliness--hey, great to see you! Can I get you something?--giving way to casual friendship--oh, you're here! Hi. Drinks are in the fridge--and that just meaning you're no longer getting the "guest" treatment but are now "one of us." Not being effusive doesn't mean you've overstayed your welcome.

So I guess my question is what a middle ground of "welcoming but not overly effusive" would look like to you?
posted by gideonfrog at 7:38 AM on September 24 [3 favorites]

I agree with people suggesting that this question is a bit too vague for us to give useful feedback - I know your anonymous, but perhaps the mods could help you provide us with a concrete example of what "letting your guard" down looks like, and that's been met with a "cold" response in your view (and what specifically was). Because like Silvery Fish points out, it could just be that there is a mismatch between what you view as intimate behavior and what they do.

Another thing - I find it's a lot easier to make friends with an individual than a group. Of course, it's often easier to get an invite to a group activity - but if you notice you click more with one person, suggest a one-on-one hang with that person. Group dynamics become easier to navigate when you have solid individual friendships with at least 1-3 people within the group.
posted by coffeecat at 8:05 AM on September 24 [8 favorites]

Are they just not able to give you what you're looking for, in a relationship? I'm my normal level of friendly/nice in the beginning but if the other person lets down their guard and it seems that being friends would be a huge time/energy/emotional commitment for me.... I'm going to pull back from that relationship. Not because they don't deserve committed friends! It just can't be me.

Might people be experiencing your "real self" as very high energy, intense, "a lot", anything like that? I want to make it clear that there's nothing wrong with being this way if so! People just may not have the bandwidth to be fully reciprocal friends and that could be why they pull back.
posted by Baethan at 8:10 AM on September 24 [2 favorites]

I think I get what you mean here as someone who has been in a lot of activist groups. I think it can really just mean that the group (or some people in it) aren't really the best match for you. I've definitely had the same thing happen both ways - someone I went out of my way to welcome into the group turning into someone I don't really get along with, someone who was really friendly to me cooling off. Sometimes when people are welcoming you, they're not so much being fake or "spiritually lost" as welcoming you for the group - they want you there, they want to grow the group or include you specifically and they want you to stay, but they are not actually hitting it off with you the way you sometimes click with a real friend.

My feeling is that as we get older and our personalities differentiate more, it can get harder and harder to make new friends, as opposed to friendly acquaintances. And as more people are busy with kids/work/family, the pool of potential friends shrinks a bit. Also, people's careers take them in different directions.

I think that unless you're a very gregarious person, it's difficult to make real friends as you get older, and that can feel like you are somehow less worth befriending. I had this experience with a couple of recent activist projects - I am so used to finding friends via activism that it took me a while to understand that while these are all terrific people who I really like working with, I don't have too much in common with most of them outside of our shared beliefs.

Basically, I'd say that it's okay to be friendly acquaintances with people - if you're, eg, joining a group of film nerds for film night, it's okay to just keep things light. You don't have to love them and they don't have to love you in order to enjoy an activity together.

Also, I have noticed that there's often a sort of emotional reaction after an intensity - a drawing back that also goes away. Try sticking around a bit after feeling some of these "buzz off" feelings. If you're really sensitive, it may be that you're over-reading a normal emotional sequence. In my experience it often goes "super friendly>>>wow that was intense I don't know how to proceed and need to back off a little>>>normalize".
posted by Frowner at 8:12 AM on September 24 [14 favorites]

People are often on their best behaviour when they meet new people. This could be what you're interpreting as being "extra kind and friendly". And most people are going to be some level of friendly even if they have zero intention of becoming friends. And that's ok because otherwise what, do you want everyone except your True Friends who will divine instantly from the moment you meet that you will be BFFs, to be unfriendly to you?

It could also be true that as you get to know each other and you share more about yourself/let your guard down, that they decide that they really only want to be superficial friends. Like friends that you can go to the movies or drinks with occasionally but not weekly hang outs kind of friend. So maybe they are pulling away because they sense you want a deeper friendship than they are prepared to give. This isn't anything wrong with you, just a mismatch in friendship expectations.

To avoid repeating what you've experienced, maybe try treating friendliness as not equalling friendship, but as a step on the path of getting to friendship.

I can't picture how letting your guard down means you can't spot the "buzz off" signals though. If you were able to see it before, would that not indicate that they didn't want to be friends? And are you sure they want you gone, or could it be that they've just relaxed from their "best behaviour' standard?
posted by pianissimo at 8:27 AM on September 24

Can you give some tangible examples of actual behavior/situations you’re seeing before and after? You’re getting a lot of different answers because I think it’s too general of a scenario to really respond to.
posted by artificialard at 9:41 AM on September 24

I think its a case of them not expecting you to "take them up on the offer", so to speak, so when you start to reciprocate, they panic.

I have had this experience. My partner comes from a different culture that I find hard to navigate and assimilate myself to. And as a result I've always felt myself quite a bit apart from his friends and family in social situations and still do despite having been around these people relatively frequently for years. There was one childhood female friend of his who was particularly sweet and kind to me and one day when we were at a party together I decided I was going to try to take down my wall and return her apparent overtures at friendship. I left my SO's side to go talk with her and tried to hang out with her a bit at the party and I could feel her cooling to me very quickly and doing her best to politely ditch me. I'm sure she was thinking "oh no, now I'm stuck with this clingy oddball for life" and to be honest, I probably was coming off as clingy as I was so excited to finally make a friend/find a real entree into this group of people or so I thought.

So my advice would be to maybe pace yourself - show a little reciprocity, then a little more each time you meet with them and as you expose them to your real personality. I think, fairly or not, you are someone they feel a little sorry for and that sudden all-on friendliness from you will come off as clinginess and desperation, because of that.

I like Frowner's answer too. In my case, I "got the message" and backed off quickly from my SO's friend and never tried to befriend her again, because my feelings were hurt, but I think now if I had backed off a bit but still tried to build the friendship more slowly, I would have succeeded eventually despite any initial awkwardness.
posted by Jess the Mess at 9:46 AM on September 24 [3 favorites]

A possibility that I don’t yet see in the comments is that some of these people may feel as though you’ve been “testing” them, making them prove to you that they’re worth bringing your guard down. I’ve definitely had the experience of feeling squicked when someone that I’ve made good-faith efforts to be friendly with opens up in a way that suggests I “won them over.”

I don’t treat people with kindness and respect to win them over - people are not a game. I don’t want to be friends with someone that expects me to invest effort in them until I’ve proven that I’m worth their time. I fully expect that people will need to take care of themselves, and that different people will have different levels of comfort as we get to know each other! But there’s a world of difference between the friend A who often turns down invites but genuinely asks how I am doing when I reach out and the acquaintance B I greet and try to make conversation with who never makes any effort to engage. I don’t think B is a bad person, but I’m not going to continue spending time and emotional effort to get to know them.

Apart from your using the phrase “win me over”, this doesn’t sound exactly like what’s happening for you, but it might be worth thinking through what other people’s perception of your behavior might be. Do you demonstrate your own willingness to do the reciprocal kindness and respect of friendship, while at the same time maintaining a guard level that gives you a feeling of safety? If not, how could you?
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 1:07 PM on September 24

I once had a German friend, who described this behavior as "Opening the door for you, but not letting you come in." She found kind of the smooth social niceties of almost fake-friendship that is very common in many American social circles incredibly offputting and alienating, and preferred to start with brusqueness until sincere affection developed. However, for a number of people, they do the opposite - provide kind of evenhanded casual affection that often does try to substitute, intentionally or not, for a kind of pseudo-friendship. This is especially the case in organizing or hobby circles.

I think it's important to differentiate between groups of people who have Reasons for wanting you to be part of the group, and groups of people who are genuinely looking for a new friends. Don't mistake the one for the other.
posted by corb at 5:15 PM on September 24 [3 favorites]

Would it be possible that they are trying to send the message "we aren't scary, we don't hate you", and you're reading that (or acting in a way that implies you read it) as the message "we feel a close personal connection, let's be besties"?
posted by Lady Li at 6:49 PM on September 24 [1 favorite]

People mistake this for shyness or aloofness, and are extra kind and friendly. I remain wary, but they eventually win me over and I start to let my guard down.

Just as a data point: this is sort of the opposite of how I've experienced people engage with "shyness or aloofness". Usually, I notice people equate those characteristics with a desire to be left alone, and so they move on before they'd attempt to "win you over".

As some have mentioned above, I'm wondering if there is some misinterpretation and/or blanket narratives happening for you that may not actually be how your acquanitances are experiencing your interactions.
posted by RajahKing at 6:57 AM on September 25 [1 favorite]

Your post kind of reminds me of a friend of mine who is going through a breakup right now from her boyfriend of one year. She's breaking up with him because she just found out he hates her beloved dogs, and has been pretending to be fine with dogs throughout the time they've dated because he was afraid she'd dump him if she found out how he really feels. During their messy, ugly breakup, this guy wailed that "Every time I get vulnerable and show a woman my true self, I get dumped," and "Why does nobody accept me for who I am?" and "You're so selfish and controlling, you were only interested in me because I changed myself to suit your preferences."

Apparently it has never occurred to this guy that he should stop lying about who he is to make people like him and fool them into thinking he is compatible with them. If he had the capacity to be honest about himself, he would only have found dates with fellow dog haters, and this would never have happened to him. But he won't be honest, so he is doomed to repeatedly get his heart broken and he will just get more convinced that nobody likes his true inner self. Talk about self-inflicted wounds, SMH.

Why am I telling this story? Because I think perhaps you might be making a mild version of the same mistake. The people who want to be your friends in the beginning want to be friends with Cold And Aloof and Cautious flavored you. When you turn into Dropped Guard i.e. Original Flavor, they don't like the taste anymore. And that's not really their fault. You're pulling a bit of a bait and switch on them. If you want to keep the friends you make, present them with Original Flavor right from the start. Be yourself the whole time. That way only people who actually like your true self will ever try to be your friend.
posted by MiraK at 1:42 PM on September 25 [4 favorites]

Reading your post, it's very clear that you've already decided on a very specific interpretation of how you are perceiving other people's behavior. I would like to gently suggest that your interpretation may not be accurate.

For example, I instinctively interpret "I am initially very cautious and wary in order to respect boundaries...they eventually win me over and I start to let my guard down." as "Initially I behave like a reasonable person, but then I decide to let lose and overshare / stop respecting boundaries / behave badly in other ways", because I have run into several people who would frame their wildly obnoxious behavior as 'letting their guard down' or 'showing their true self'. My interpretation might not be accurate! But yours may not be either.

One other possibility: could this be culture clash? Have you have moved from a culture that values public sharing to one that is more buttoned down, and thereby accidentally cross boundaries when trying to deepen a friendship? Or, from a very buttoned down culture to one that emphasizes friendly behavior, and are interpreting other people's common politeness through the lens of your original culture?
posted by Ahniya at 6:45 PM on September 25

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