Bad Advice: Stop Trying To Be Friends with People

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Dear Bad Advice,

I have a coworker that I can tell is not doing well. Her work performance is fine, and I never have anything to complain about there. But I can tell she must be going through a rough patch in her life. She looks haggard and doesn’t seem to put as much care into her hair and dress as she used to. She doesn’t look happy and she’s gone frequently (for scheduled absences). I heard a rumor she might be seriously ill with something chronic. She’s single and lives alone, far away from the rest of her family. I get sad thinking she doesn’t have anyone to take care of her. But I don’t know how to approach her to offer help. I want her to know I’m here to listen, too, but I don’t know how to tell her that. We’ve worked together for years and never been close. What should I do?

– Concerned in the Cubicle

This is going to sound like bad advice, but don’t try too hard to be nice to this person.


If you’re anything like many wonderful, well-meaning people I know, you’re probably thinking to yourself, I’m going to swoop in and make Cindy-Lou’s life so great again! I’ll become her best friend and single-handedly lift her out of her rough patch, and she’ll think of me fondly for the rest of her life as the person who got her through this.

If that’s true, I don’t blame you for craving some do-goodery. That’s not a bad instinct. I know some people roll their eyes and say, “If you’re only doing it to feel better about yourself, it’s not really doing a good deed.” To those people, I say screw you. I’m grateful that I have a built-in impulse to stoke my own ego by helping other people — it keeps me helping other people. Where that impulse goes astray is when your good deeds become more about you than the person you’re helping.

I’m not saying ignore this poor woman and pretend everything is okay. But don’t intrude on her life, either. You’re probably not going to swoop in, become her best friend, and fix everything… because she probably doesn’t want you to. And even if she does want you to, wait until you get the signal from her, not just from your own sense of charity.

The first thing you can do is be kind to her at work, where you already encounter each other every day. Ask her how her day is going, and maybe invite her to join you for lunch if she tends to eat alone. If she does start struggling at her job, see if there are any little things you can do to help her out — maybe offer to help her catch up on filing or boring administrative stuff everyone has to do, or if her job involves writing offer to help her by proofreading. Or, just walk up and ask if there’s anything you can do, if she’s looking really rough and overwhelmed one day.

From there, pay attention to her cues. Is she grateful and polite, but not forthcoming? If you give her an opportunity to open up (it’s as simple as asking, “Is everything okay?”) and she doesn’t, drop it. If you invite her to spend her lunch break with you and she doesn’t, drop it. If she refuses your help at work, drop it. Just the kindness you’ve shown her might have already started to lift her spirits even if she doesn’t accept your help. You’ve checked off the box “Tried to Help Obviously Sad Person,” and done a genuinely good deed. It’s okay to stop there. If she either doesn’t want or need your support, don’t press it on her.

The thing is, maybe she does have a great support network. I know plenty of single people who live far away from their families who still have plenty of people rooting for them, and checking in on them, locally. Maybe she just prefers to keep her work and personal life very separate. Some people find comfort in that — especially if she has a chronic illness, maybe work is the place she can come and not be asked about it all the time. Or maybe she is all alone but she just prefers it that way. Maybe she’s all alone and doesn’t prefer it that way but just doesn’t want to be your friend for one reason or another. Whichever it is, just let her be.

I just read a great post on another advice blog, Captain Awkward, about how to listen to someone who just received horrible news or is going through a bad time. It’s well worth a look. Whether or not you agree with the politics of her intro, her advice is sound. The number one thing to keep in mind if you want to help someone feel better is: don’t derail her. Don’t take her crisis and make it about you. If you force a friendship on someone who’s rebuffed you, no matter how much in need she seems, you’re derailing her. And on a similar note, if you just don’t have enough of a personal history with someone, or enough patience and pure altruism to go through Captain’s Awkward’s steps to being a good listener, then it’s a favor to yourself and your potential helpee to just stay out of the situation. There’s actually nothing wrong with saying to yourself, “Well, there’s nothing I can do here,” or “I don’t think I’m up for this,” when the situation calls for it.

I once had a long talk with another friend about “charity friendships.” Those are friendships you start up solely because you feel sorry for someone. I batted around the idea that charity friendships aren’t charity at all, because I’ve seen them go through their entire natural cycle:

1) You start with pity, then you strike up a one-sided relationship where you provide all the emotional support to the other person,

2) Then the other person’s problems drag on and on and you wear thin as you realize all you do is talk about her because you have few other common interests (after all, couldn’t that be the reason you weren’t friends to begin with?). A lot of people tap out here. But some make it to…

3) Your charity friend’s problems have been resolved! But now you’ve set a pattern in your relationship in which you are fixed as the giver, and she’s fixed as the taker. It doesn’t even necessarily reflect poorly on your new friend — after all, all this time you’ve never indicated you needed her help and support, so she might assume you don’t want or need those things from her. It’s hard to break that kind of pattern, and unfair of you to whine about her sticking to it when you’re the one who set it up. So you’ll wind up either feeling burned out all the time on that friendship, or you’ll blow up when you’ve had enough and then move on from the friendship entirely.

Not every charity friendship turns out that way. But it takes a lot of work, and two very special people, to transition from a charity friendship to a more reciprocal one.

Am I saying “Never try to be someone’s friend if they seem sad or lonely”? No. Of course you should extend friendship when you’re moved. But don’t force it if it doesn’t feel natural. And don’t make pity the only reason to become someone’s friend. Focus instead on your good deeds: the little things you can do to make that person’s life better when you’re thrown together naturally. Friendship isn’t a good deed; it’s a relationship that has to be nurtured by two willing parties. If friendship springs from your good deeds, that’s a wonderful byproduct. But don’t become someone’s friend because you think the friendship itself will “help” her.

Submit your questions to [email protected] or leave a question in the comments section, and I’ll answer it in Bad Advice!

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