Belonging. Fitting in. Though they won’t admit it, even the bitterest misanthrope secretly cherishes faint dreams of finding a (very, very small) group of people they feel accepted by. Some people are so eager to fit in that they don’t stop to think about whether or not the social group they’ve targeted is the right one for them; some of them want so very badly to belong that they do things that maybe they shouldn’t.
Relax, Snarklings, this isn’t the Lady of the Manners’ big after-school special on the perils of peer pressure; the Lady of the Manners hasn’t gotten that desperate for lesson topics. No, this month’s lesson was prompted by the following letter:
“Lady of the Manners, I have consulted many sources about the problem I’m about to detail to you, and none have provided a satisfactory answer. You may be my last hope.
You see, there is a person who we will call Tom, who has recently become involved in our small local goth scene. The vast majority of my group of friends have agreed that he is one of the most annoying people they’ve ever met. He makes inappropriate comments, is incredibly socially awkward and doesn’t understand boundaries, and is trying much too hard to fit in by imitating the tastes and opinions of others. But because one kind soul has the patience to deal with him and invites him to social gatherings out of politeness, he regularly tags along and feels that he is part of our group of friends and the scene itself.
Now, aside from this one person, everyone else in my group of friends can’t stand him. I am tactful and polite but others are rude and even manipulative, leading him on in order to extract favors from him. I don’t think it is fair to us to have to put up with him because he has one friend in common with the rest of us, and I don’t think it’s fair to him to continue subjecting him to the poor treatment and taunting he is vaguely aware of being directed at him.
Is it too bold to suggest to Tom’s one friend that he not invite Tom along to social outings? Tom certainly has not taken the hint on his own. What would you suggest?”
Oh, oh dear. Firstly, yes, you should speak to Tom’s friend about things, but perhaps not in quite the way you were thinking. You might want to start by taking your mutual friend aside and pointing out (in a concerned tone or manner) that Tom is possibly being the teensiest bit too eager to be part of the group; that not only is he blindly parroting the opinions of others instead of being his own person, but that he doesn’t seem to be aware that some people are playing manipulative games to take advantage of his desire to win their approval. (Be warned: Tom’s friend may not have noticed these machinations, and might ask you for examples. If you aren’t comfortable with giving examples, you might not want to bring this up at all.)
Once you’ve made Tom’s friend aware of the behind-the-scenes bitchery, then carefully bring up your other concerns, but ever-so-tactfully. Mention that Tom just doesn’t seem to be fitting in; that he doesn’t seem to quite grasp what is appropriate behavior, what are good topics of conversation, and what people’s boundaries might be. And that since Tom is their close friend, they could have a little chat with him.
Now, the Lady of the Manners feels she must warn you that no matter how careful, delicate, or tactful you are in talking about all of this, your friend will possibly get very, VERY angry with you. And even if they don’t, they may earnestly try to convince you that you’re being too hard on Tom, and that you just need to get to know him better. Short of saying something along the lines of “No, I’ve thought about this a lot and I just don’t think he’s fitting in”, you may not be able to convince your friend otherwise.
(A quick digression: the Lady of the Manners hears you muttering back there, and yes, people should try to be more accepting of each other. In the Lady of the Manners’ world, more accepting of each other means being polite to everyone, including people you don’t like or agree with. It does not mean being friends with absolutely everyone. There are many, many people that the Lady of the Manners can be civil and polite to, but doesn’t want to share a club night with, much less a social group.)
Does the Lady of the Manners think that you should mention to Tom’s friend that Tom should maybe not be invited to all the various social outings? Um, er, not really. There is just no good way to make a blanket statement of “And for goodness sake, don’t bring him!” The best you could do is say, for each and every social event, “Oh, I don’t think Tom would be comfortable at/enjoy this party (movie night, concert, séance, whatever it is.) Yes, each and every time. Who knows? Maybe someone would finally get the hint. The truth is, you are probably going to have to resign yourself to Tom becoming a part of your social circle through sheer inertia. Start practicing graceful ways to exit conversations, because you’ll probably need them.
After all of that, the Lady of the Manners is sure that some of you are worriedly thinking “Oh no! What if I’m like Tom, and everyone is just barely tolerating my presence?” The solution to that dilemma is very simple, Snarklings, but requires courage. You will have to go to a close friend you can trust to be honest with you and ask them. No, you can’t just drop veiled hints and hope to be reassured. Ask them if you behave inappropriately, or if people are just putting up with you. Yes, it’s embarrassing asking these sorts of questions, but being direct and to the point is the best thing to do in these sorts of situations.
(If you are the person being asked this, you must do your very best to be kind and honest. This is not the time to forget all tact and trample, Godzilla-like, all over someone’s self-esteem. And if you absolutely must answer “Yes” to this sort of question, try to be constructive in your criticism.)
Gracious! What an uncomfortable but necessary lesson. The Lady of the Manners can only hope that next month brings some, well, not easier, but certainly less … squirm-inducing questions. But do try to stay out of trouble, and come back in a month or so for a new lesson. (Of course, not only could you write to the Lady of the Manners with any questions, but you could read previous lessons, or even shop for Gothic Charm School goodies. Just in case you were at a loss for things to do in the near future …)