People-the 8th wonder of the world.
March 23, 2008 8:26 PM   Subscribe

There are times that I find it really hard to "understand people". Two questions have been weighing on my mind this weekend. How do I accomodate people's practical needs that I'm not familiar with? How do difficult people make and keep friends?

There are times that I find it really hard to "understand people". Two questions have been weighing on my mind this weekend.

How do I accomodate people's practical needs that I'm not familiar with? I feel that I have let down some people within the last couple of weeks. I recently served food at a party, majority of the foods had nuts in it, or was made with peanut oil. Guess what? One of my guests had a peanut allergy. It never occured to me that one of my guests could have a pa. I felt like an ass. A little later, I invited some people out to lunch. I told the hostess that it did not matter where we sat, smoking or non-smoking session. Little did I know that one of my newer friends was very sensitive to smoke! What are some YOUR practical needs that you like for people to take into consideration?

How do difficult people make and keep friends? I am AMAZED how many fucked up people have friends, and friends that would do almost anything for them! I know so many people who are gossipers, backstabbers, unreliable, judgemental, and all around negative...yet they have tons of friends. Why would people associate with them? I don't get it.
posted by sixcolors to Human Relations (21 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
In regards to your first question, you didn't do anything wrong. You could not be expected to know that someone had a peanut allergy; nor could you be expected to know someone was severely allergic to smoke - without them TELLING you. I am always happy to accommodate people with allergies as best I can, but I can't possibly do that without the allergic person saying something. Your party guest should have told you, "I'm allergic to peanuts, can you please have nut-free foods available for me?" So don't knock yourself out with apologies.

For future parties, you might want to put "If you have food allergies please let me know and I'll do my best to accommodate you" on the invitations.

As for the second question - IME, often difficult people are friends with other difficult people, or with doormats. And some difficult people are charming and charismatic, exceptionally good-looking, or powerful, and so keep people around where someone not so naturally gifted couldn't. Other difficult people may appear to have friends but run through them and burn bridges.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 8:35 PM on March 23, 2008

What are some YOUR practical needs that you like for people to take into consideration?

You know, everyone makes faux pas and they generally aren't big deals. I work really hard on being considerate of others, but I didn't always. I think it's just something that comes from experience.

Generally I the things are want people to take in to consideration are things which are my pet peeves. Lately this has been the realization on my part that some people are oblivious to their surroundings. This mostly takes the form of people talking on the phone loudly in say a cafe, or other public place. Things like that.

The thing which has helped me become more considerate of others is the realization that there is a world outside of my own skull full of people just like me.

they have tons of friends. Why would people associate with them? I don't get it.

This is a very chatty question which really doesn't belong with your first. That said, there is a range to friendships just like anything else. Some people cling on to other people despite them being immature assholes because they need to for personal reasons etc...
posted by wfrgms at 8:38 PM on March 23, 2008

That second question is very interesting. I guess it's partly because difficult people often form really intense friendships with people that share their (one, or many) severe hangup(s). They often form this sense of an "us versus them" mentality which, if you're on their good side, can make you feel great. The more difficult the person is, the more "special" the friendship can seem.
posted by mammary16 at 8:42 PM on March 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

For your first two examples, communication is the key. Don't make decisions for a group of people based on your own feelings or preferences. Don't assume that everyone is ok with sitting in smoking just because you are. Don't assume that everyone will like the same kinds of food that you like. Same with movies, music, temperature, politics.

Ask questions, bounce ideas off people: "It doesn't matter to me where we sit. What do you all think?"

On the food issue - really, on any of this - pay attention to what people say in general conversation and keep mental notes. For example, I noticed that one friend always makes a point to order her salads without tomatoes. I finally asked her if she didn't like tomatoes, and she told me she was allergic. File that away for next time. I like to have cold air blowing on me at all times in the car; people who drive with me know that because I tell them. If it's important to a person, they will tell you. Then you have to try to remember, if their feelings or comfort are important to you.

[Both your examples are forgivable sins, BTW, especially the party food one. You can't know the allergies or preferences of every person you invite, but what you can do is be mindful of the kinds of foods that provoke allergies (nuts, seafood, etc.) and provide a variety of different dishes (to accommodate non-meat eaters.).]

For your second question: Misery loves company.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 8:45 PM on March 23, 2008

Agreeing with Rosie M. Banks that you didn't do anything wrong at all. You can't accommodate the needs of people you are not familiar with.
posted by vacapinta at 8:48 PM on March 23, 2008

You're not an ass bcause you didn't know your guest has a peanut allergy and you're not an ass because you didn't know your newer friend was smoke sensitive. While it's a good idea to make a note of these things going forward in both cases you have people with fairly important environmental concerns and they have some of the responsibility for telling you. Your job, at that point is to try to be as gracious as you can and make them feel comfortable if you're trying to follow fairly traditional etiquette advice.

My fussy needs are: I don't eat fish, I have a hard time hearing people in noisy TV bars, I don't like people to phone me early in the morning (where early = before 10 am) and I don't enjoy sort of normative conversations where people make conversation by doing the functional equivalent of asking "why aren't you NORMAL?" That said, unless people are being total jerks about it, my part of the whole equation is to try to be fairly gracious about it if I get stuck in a situation where one of these things is happening and then we can all feel marginally better about the whole deal.

I'm a fucked up person with friends. I have friends, some of them (not YOU) who could be considered fucked up. I just figure it's because every person is a messy package of good and bad characteristics. Like you mention unreliable. Well, if they're fun once you finally get ahold of them, a little unreliability is overlookable. Similarly, maybe I hae a friend who is a terrible gossip... So, I don't pass on other people's information to her but maybe she's a workhorse when it's time to move. Some people enjoy dramatic relationships with people -- friends, lovers, family -- and some people enjoy things being more tranquil possibly at the expense of being fun/exciting/whatever.

I'm wondering, a little, whether the two incidents you relate [and the tags you've put on this question. bitches? assholes?] have anything to do with the second part of your question. Even if people aren't your sort of people, they're probably someone's sort of people... The whole idea of etiquette, to me, isn't that you oppress someone with a set of rules they only vaguely understand, it's that you sort of agree to a set of generaly understood norms so that everyone can be confortable and not have to be guessing all the time.
posted by jessamyn at 8:50 PM on March 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Neither of the two situations you pointed out are big deals. These examples do not make you a difficult person. Did the person with the peanut allergy have no food at all? Did she let you know about the peanut allergy in advance? If not, rest assured that this is not something to beat yourself up over. You're not a mind reader. I have a friend that dislikes ketchup. I never knew this until yesterday when her son told me that his mother hated ketchup so much that he had to sit at another table while eating it so his mother wouldn't gag. I could have invited her to a barbeque this weekend and had ketchup all over the place. Of course, if I knew she hated ketchup I would not serve it. You can't do that if you don't know. So, no worries about the peanut allergy. Now you know. You won't serve peanuts to this particular friend again.

The smoking thing is not that bad either. If upon discovering your friend is sensitive to smoke you apologized and offered to move, that is good enough. He or she probably thought nothing of it.

If you would like to be more considerate that is always a plus and fairly easy if you are aware. Turn to your friend and ask her where she would like to sit. Call your friends and ask them if they have any dietary restrictions. Think about your friend's comfort and desires as well as your own.

And about the backstabbers, liars, etc. People aren't perfect. Nobody can tell why a person remains in a relationship. If you lack these flaws, that is very good indeed. I'm sure you'll have lots of friends. Ah, but it's not enough to be nice and positive and nonjudgmental. You must be available. You must make an effort and extend invitations and remember things you last talked about and be there for them if they are having a difficult time. Adult friendships are hard.

Good luck.
posted by LoriFLA at 8:53 PM on March 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

I am AMAZED how many fucked up people have friends

Of course they do, why wouldn't they? You're fucked up, too. So am I. I think people form and maintain relationships that fit into their life in a way they can deal with. People associate with people that you find "difficult" because they want to, for whatever reason. "People who are gossipers, backstabbers, unreliable, judgemental, and all around negative"- honestly, everyone I know has been in at least one of those categories at one point in my mind. Nobody's perfect. I could wait a thousand years alone for a perfect friend, or I could accept the friends I have as they are and celebrate them for what they are. All in all, I think I'd prefer the latter.

On preview, what jessamyn and LoriFLA said.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:59 PM on March 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

When I started writing this, I had the same sentiment that everyone else is voicing: that you didn't do anything wrong if these people had never communicated their needs/wishes to you. I still believe that, but I also wanted to ask if there's any chance you could just be oblivious and that these people had actually communicated, but not directly, and it just went over your head.

I ask because I have a friend who is the least observant person I've ever met. I'll spare you the (painful) details but he just does not pick up on things that seem obvious to me and to others. If you tell him directly, he'll generally remember...but if you hint around, he'll never get it. A fictional example would be if he was out to dinner with your allergic friend and witness the allergic friend do the "menu dance" with the waiter to figure out what's safe to eat, it would never sink into his brain that there was an issue.

Now, I'm not sure where the fault lies if there is then a mixup over the allergy. In my opinion the burden lies with the person with the allergy, because they shouldn't expect other people to keep a running catalog of everyone else's issues all the time. But I think they could be forgiven for thinking "but he was at dinner with me and saw me asking about peanuts, he has to know already." It might be a foolish (and dangerous) way to think, but I can see how someone would think that way.

All of that is just to say, it's still not your fault if no one told you, but maybe they thought that they did. In the future, ask when you extend the invitation to new people.
posted by cabingirl at 9:15 PM on March 23, 2008

As far as anything that concerns another person goes - ask them before making a decision on behalf of anyone. The newer friend with a smoke allergy may have been too shy to speak up when you've already said "we don't mind" - if I was her/him and I didn't know you very well, I'd be too embarassed to say "er, actually I do mind". I don't eat pork, and I'm more vocal about that (i.e. not shy to speak up about it unasked), but some people have a tendency to go with the flow and not argue for fear of causing a disturbance.

The best thing to do is ask, then go from there. Sometimes I feel erring on the side of being too cautious would be good; shows that you're considerate.

Something else you may want to consider is that not everyone drinks - I often have issues with friends whose only idea of "party" is "drink at a club" and I get left out due to that. But again, I don't know your friends - just ask them when you're planning something.
posted by divabat at 9:29 PM on March 23, 2008

Instead of criticizing yourself for not realizing that the other person was sensitive to smoke, maybe you should be wondering why that person didn't immediately say: "Wait, could we please be in non-smoking? I'm really sensitive to smoke."

At the same time, there's a simple lesson here. Don't feel the need to always be the "leader" in social situations -- consult with other people about what they feel like doing. You asked: "How do I accomodate people's practical needs that I'm not familiar with?" Well, all you can do is ask them when you think of it. But you can't be expected to always predict people's problems -- it's their job to articulate their needs, more than it is your job to read their minds.
posted by jejune at 10:39 PM on March 23, 2008

This is a very chatty question which really doesn't belong with your first. - wfgrms

They are very related, both involve being hypercritical , either of one's self or others. "I should have realised this, "she shouldn't have said that", and so on. It's the same cognitive distortion, you can read about it here:
posted by Pigpen at 6:16 AM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

How do I accomodate people's practical needs that I'm not familiar with?

To answer this first question, I say ask them. Whenever I have friends over for dinner, unless I've known them for years and am very familiar with their dining habits, I ask what sorts of foods they like/dislike. If we're in a group and going out, and I somehow end up 'in charge' (it happens), I ask about things like seating preference. If I'm going over to someone else's place for an event, I ask if there is something they want/need me to bring.

I've tried guessing, and doing things like the 'menu dance' so as not to seem intrusive. And it doesn't work. I find being polite, asking up front, and trying to be accomodating works a lot better. And yes, I still screw up on occasion. And in that case, you apoligize, make acommodations as best you can, and move on.

And I have friends who are oblivious, tardy, bitchy, demanding, whatever. And I know I have a tendancy to dominate conversations and can be over-sensative to negativity. But my friends are also generous, kind, fun to be around, intelligent, and forgiving. So that's why we're friends. None of us are perfect, and the good far outweighs the bad.
posted by sandraregina at 7:46 AM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

In the first case, you were the one giving the party. They weren't forced to eat. Yeah, in the future, you might want to ask ahead of time if anyone has food issues. But you did nothing wrong. If people overreacted, they are the jerks.

In the second case, when the hostess asked where to sit, you should have asked the people who were there with you if they had any preference. Some people subscribe to the idea that in restaurants, there should be one person in the "host" role. Make all the decisions so the others don't have to. This is rarely necessary and often offends.

Who do bad people have friends? Because some people thrive on the dramatics of it.
posted by gjc at 7:53 AM on March 24, 2008

I have a peanut allergy. I tell people about it if I get into a situation where somebody is cooking for me. Or I forget to mention it and proceed to get the hell over it.

I don't get upset about somebody not accounting for it because that's my job.
posted by dosterm at 8:58 AM on March 24, 2008

What are some YOUR practical needs that you like for people to take into consideration?

I have a kid with special needs. When other parents suggest an outing, I appreciate it when they ask if it would be an appropriate activity for my kid.

However, if someone suggests something that wouldn't work for my kid, I don't think they've done anything wrong -- it's not their responsibility to keep my child's needs in mind. I just say "I don't think we'll be able to make it, but have fun!" or, if it wouldn't be a hassle, ask if they'd mind changing the plans to accommodate us.

I don't think less of the other parents when they suggest an activity that isn't right for my kid, just like your friends with allergies don't (or at least shouldn't) think any the less of you.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:33 AM on March 24, 2008

I'm a difficult person with an amazingly loyal set of friends. I keep expecting them to wake up one morning, smack themselves on their collective foreheads and go, oh yeah, she's such a bitch WHY do keep putting up with her. (Bad temper, cuss like a stevedoor, antisocial to the point of crying in the bathroom if I have to talk to people I don't know, bad at the reciprocal part of friendship: you called me now I call you, and generally, in Mefi parlance, batshitinsane).

On the other hand, I'm smart, creative, intuitive, loyal, reliable. A fucking girl scout in many ways. You just have to take the good with the screaming fits.

My friends are not doormats, they do not share, mirror, or complement my hangups. They see something in me that they value and have made the choice to take the good with the bad.
posted by nax at 3:10 PM on March 24, 2008 [4 favorites]

I can second not calling before 10 AM, something I've repeatedly anecdotal-ed

People's messed up friendships are probably more about fear of new strange uncomfortable people then the qualities of the jerks.

I'm sure this is said, but don't be so hard on yourself. You couldn't have known, and you can't always be 'right,' but you can always be honest. It sounds like you are and I'd say good on you for that.
posted by oblio_one at 9:53 PM on March 25, 2008

When I have people over for a food thing I usually ask them in advance if they are vegetarians or have any allergies so I know what type of food to get/make. (And if they have some other food issue I didn't mention, they usually use that as an opportunity to bring it up.) Or if it's a large group and not practical to ask everyone in advance then I try to serve a variety of foods, keeping the most common food restrictions (vegetarian, vegan) and allergies that I know of (nuts, dairy, gluten) in mind. In general I try to have a little bit of a lot of different things at my parties so that everyone can find something they can eat and like. (Some people don't have allergies but are just picky, and this strategy works for them too.)

Given a choice between smoking and non-smoking, for a group, I'd always choose non-smoking (even if the smoke didn't bother me) because I know that smoke bothers many people. Even non-allergic nonsmokers will often want to leave a smoky place sooner than a non-smoking place.

When I had cats I would warn guests in advance about them, since some people are extremely allergic (although the deathly allergic ones usually ask). If I knew that someone sensitive to cat dander was coming over I would put the cats in the other room and do a thorough vacuuming of the furniture and carpets.

I think maybe it's just something you learn with experience. You'll start to accumulate knowledge both about specific people (so-and-so can't tolerate X) and about people-in-general (in a larger group, there is usually at least one vegetarian, at least one person who can't stand smoke, at least one person with food allergies, at least one person allergic to cats, at least one person with mobility issues who can't walk long distances, etc.).

If you don't want to wait for experience and would prefer a "crash course" in these things, in addition to this thread you might look for websites or books on event planning. Event planners have to accommodate large, diverse groups of people and so I'd expect that they would have information on common issues to keep in mind. Years of event planning volunteer work is where I learned most of what I know about anticipating and accommodating people's needs.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:42 PM on March 25, 2008

"Who do bad people have friends? Because some people thrive on the dramatics of it."

Yes, I can vouch this is true. My husband has a "friend" who is probably diagnosably a sociopath. Neither of my husband or I like or respect him that much, but we continue to occasionally associate with him for the sheer soap opera entertainment value of it. We don't let him close enough to us to entangle us in his drama, but we do enjoy hearing about his schemes, exploits, and interactions with all the batshit crazy people in his life.

To other people (and to him) it probably seems like we like him a lot more than we actually do.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:54 PM on March 25, 2008

"Years of event planning volunteer work is where I learned most of what I know about anticipating and accommodating people's needs."

Oh yeah. If you're ever in charge of a programmed event, make sure you schedule at least one 10 minute bathroom/water/snack/smoking/medication/etc. break per hour.
posted by Jacqueline at 11:03 PM on March 25, 2008

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