Carolyn Hax is away. The following first appeared in 2003.
Q: I’m in a long-distance friendship with a guy I met at a conference about a year ago. Neither of us is out of college yet, but he is a senior and I am a sophomore. We’ve talked to each other a lot and everything has gone really well, but the other day I got a very snappy email from him. I’m not sure what is the matter, but I’m afraid I may have done something wrong. I would not normally be so intimidated, but because of the difference in age and the long-distance deal, I worry that anything that goes wrong could be the end of our friendship. I don’t want to ask him, lest I only irritate him more. I don’t want to ask his friends because they would tell him I asked. This is the first time he’s ever snapped at me. What should I do? Should I even be concerned?
A: Yes, very, but not about him or your friendship.
I hate to sneeze on your breakfast – you sound so cheerful and all – but in one paragraph you’ve taken the first six steps toward getting treated like dirt:
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(1) You assumed the worst about his message, even though tone is notoriously hard to gauge in email.
(2) You’re reflexively blaming yourself.
(3) You’re suggesting that snapping is acceptable if in fact you made a mistake.
(4) You’ve seized on the wispiest of justifications (the age difference) to position yourself as his inferior.
(5) You therefore value his opinion of you above your opinion of him, and so are afraid to speak on your own behalf.
(6) You’re indulging that fear and remaining silent.
In one cowering swoop, you’ve put yourself in the I-am-not-worthy-so-I-must-grovel-to-make-people-like-me role, also known as the groupie, the sycophant, the thing ending in “-mat.”
The mistreatment won’t come only from this guy, either. Stay fearful and you’re going to find a lifetime of people – friends, lovers, colleagues, your own children, your dog (you think I’m kidding) – who will be more than happy to test whether you'll do anything to stay in their favor.
Save yourself the anguish and turn the Great Email Flap of 2003 into a healthy-relationship drill. Reply to the email as if this guy is your equal and you have no more to lose than he does – not because I’m telling you to, but because he is, and you haven’t: “Hey, that wasn’t like you. What’s up?”
That tells him you have the equanimity to ask before you overreact; won’t let snottiness slide, if that’s in fact what it was; have the guts to hear criticism, if in fact he’s annoyed; and aren’t so dependent on this or any other friendship that you'll handle it like a raw egg.
If he wasn’t snapping, you will have successfully treated his email as the nonevent that it was. Friendship saved.
If he was snapping, then accept blame if you have actively wronged him, defend yourself if you haven’t, and point out that, either way, he really had no right to snap. Friendship saved – but only if it’s worth it. If you have memory problems, embroider this on a shirt: No healthy relationship ever dies of an open debate.
Q: It’s been a while since Christmas, and I can be patient no longer. My family exchanges gifts; we draw names. Last Christmas, “Roger” emailed my husband asking when would be a good time to drop off his gift. My husband responded. No show. Next holiday, Roger and my sister said they would stop by with his Christmas gift. No show. Last month, Roger dropped off my birthday gift and said he’d bring the Christmas gift to the family reunion in three weeks. Well, the family reunion has come and gone. No gift.
What do we do? My solution is to bow out of the exchange, without giving the reason. This may cause a lot of discussion among my family, and I hope the disrespectful party will realize how deeply his action has hurt me.
A: Good thing you just do a drawing, or else somebody might be tempted to take the whole Christmas gift thing too seriously.
Waaay too seriously.
Roger has blown it. Agreed. But what Roger blew has the wattage of a nightlight. Start seeing the humor in this Godot of gift-giving, please. Make it up to your husband yourself and go buy him something he doesn’t want or need – and rig it so he draws Roger this year.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org.