Politeness is the art of choosing among one’s real thoughts. — Abel Stevens
“How can we invite her and not invite him?” I asked David.
“You can’t,” David answered. “You need to decide how important it is for you to have her at the party and realize that he is the price you will pay for her presence. It’s a package deal.”
I took a moment to run through the cost-benefit analysis. Karen was a guaranteed good time. She had just the right amount of passion and informed opinions when it came to worldly matters, enough to make you think but not so much as to push anyone’s buttons or come off as pedantic; and she was funny. A definite sparkly, which was one of the many reasons I sought her friendship in the first place. But this new guy she’d been dating was as inflammatory as pepper in the eye. I have no problem getting along with most people, but this dude was a chore.
“I can’t,” I said. “I don’t have the energy to deal with him. And he’d probably annoy our other guests. I love Karen, but I can see her another time.” David nodded. It was for the best.
When it comes to social situations, perhaps the most awkward is preserving a friendship with one whose girlfriend/boyfriend/husband/wife you dislike. Regardless of the specifics, the result of these schematics is always the same — with every interaction, at least one person is left discontented. Usually, that person is the one doing the disliking — in accordance with accepted protocol, the disliker must keep her unwelcome opinions to herself and feign interest, a task that can fuel resentment. If she makes her thoughts known, the disliker runs the risk of alienating her friend, hurting the feelings of the friend’s partner, and feeling guilty about both, leaving everyone unhappy. It’s the ultimate “damned if you do, screwed if you don’t” dilemma.
I don’t expect everyone’s predilections to mirror mine — how boring. There are plenty of tactful ways to express differing opinions regarding politics, religion, or even movie genres. But, there’s no right way to say, “I don’t like your spouse.” So, what do you do? If you care about the friendship, you fake it. “She’s nice,” you say, when what you’re thinking is, She’s dull. Or, “He’s funny,” when you really think, He’s obnoxious. Faking it can work, in the short term. But it opens a gap in the relationship that only honesty can close. Unfortunately, honesty can be more incendiary than C4 — instead of closing the gap, it might blow a hole in the friendship.
My friend Brian hooked up with a chick who squandered her opportunity to make a good first impression by getting plastered and belligerent. I’d usually have no problem telling Brian what I think about one of his randoms, but the following week, he confided to me that he was really into this girl. None of his romances lasted long, so I figured I’d fake it until he reached the part where he grew bored. After a few months, it became clear I might be waiting a long time. Because I hadn’t been up front about my opinion — because I’d said, “Yeah, she’s cool, feel free to bring her over” — I was stuck having to keep up the pretense.
My usual method with friends who go through relationships faster than a box of chocolates is to remain respectful and supportive. I stick to “He’s sweet,” until I’m probed for more information, at which point I search my mind for favorable adjectives that are also honest. I’m not the one dating the person, so my opinion doesn’t really matter.
When a friend seeks my “opinion,” she’s likely fishing for approval, so that’s what I give. This is usually in that beginning stage, when she is insecure about her selection. If a person is secure in her choices, other people’s opinions are inconsequential. For example, I don’t care what anyone else thinks about David. He’s my partner and my best friend, and when it comes to our relationship, the only opinions at play are those David and I have of each other.
Only when a friend breaks up with her guy are negative sentiments accepted, even appreciated. Even so, I’ve learned to be careful before releasing all those repressed opinions. After my friend Corinne split with a beau I’d found particularly off-putting, I mentioned (over a sympathetic glass of wine) that I never liked the guy. There was a twinge of the betrayed in her voice when she asked, “Why didn’t you tell me that before?”
“Because, he was making you happy,” I explained. “And that’s more important than having you know I thought he was a tool. Which, by the way, is something we both agree on now.” I refrained from sharing another truth — that while Corinne was dating the human repellant, both were knocked off the list for intimate dinner parties — not just by me, but by all of our mutual friends. This was one of those rare cases in which it seemed nobody but Corinne liked the guy, and even for her, infatuation soon expired.
I know I am not as forgiving or accepting as some of my more open-armed friends, but I make no apologies when it comes to choosing with whom I spend time, which is life’s greatest commodity. The hours allotted to each of us on this rock are limited. I don’t see the sense in squandering those hours with people I don’t like.
On the other hand, a little irritation or enervation is worth it when it comes to maintaining the friendships I cherish. If the only options are to fake it or risk making a friendship fragile, I usually choose to fake it in the hope that, years from now, the final tally of the balance sheet will indicate a net profit in terms of friendship.
“It’s a good thing that everyone likes you,” David said with a wry smile.
“Well, if there are friends of friends who think I’m the insufferable one, or friends of mine who put up with you to maintain a friendship with me, I think I prefer not knowing about it,” I said. Then, throwing that wry smile right back at him, I added, “Besides, how could anyone not like me?”