This puzzle should be read in light of the previous post, about wishing everyone a calming of the reflex to strike back, about being mild and not angry.
A lapsed friend from freshman year in college sends an email every few years, opening conversations he does not pursue. One told me all about his life and asked me in detail what I’d been up to in the fifteen or more years since we’d last seen each other, what I believed in. It seemed to call for a manifesto about my values, which I took a couple of hours to write. One expressed admiration for a guitar track I played on a short animation I put on youTube not long ago. I thanked him, asked if he still played. One asked a legal favor for his daughter in NYC. I responded with a long email explaining the pertinent NY Law, that I no longer practice law, but that his daughter was welcome to call me to discuss the situation. To my annoyance I never heard back to any of my replies.
I mentioned this to a friend recently, since I’d had an email that this fellow, a few weeks before he and his wife were coming to NY, telling me that they hoped to see me during their short visit. “When I didn’t answer him right away, he sent me the same email again, just forwarded me his previous email twelve hours later. Struck me as kind of a dick move, especially for someone famous for not replying to emails,” I told a friend who also knew him.
My friend’s reply was uncharacteristically harsh. He reminded me of great favors he’d done recently for this person, also with no acknowledgement, and apparently not for the first time. His solution, he told me, was to leave the messages unread, in a kind of spam folder he’d had set up for just this guy’s emails. “When he leaves town send him a friendly email telling him how nice it was to see him when he was here.”
I admit, the simplicity, justice and understated viciousness of the plan tickled me.
I admit, also, that this guy’s particular tic, not responding (while being demanding of a response when he wants one) is like kryptonite to me. Silence by way of response is a kind of death sentence to me. It can come from many places– being too busy, being preoccupied, not knowing what to say– or from worse places– obliviousness, insincerity, selfishness, anger.
Silence is the clearest, easiest way to disapprove of something, it implies, with no effort at all, that the thing in question never even existed. Although I’ve made strides over the years, I struggle with silence by way of response. It is hateful to me, especially since, in the age of email, tapping a few keys is so easy. If I live by one credo it would be “what is hateful to you, do not do to others”.
A few hours ago I had a voicemail from this guy, arrived in NY, looking forward to our visit. Informing me genially that he would bend his schedule in any way necessary, he and his wife would come to me, wherever was most convenient, so that we could hang out.
I don’t want to visit with him at this point, though when I first wrote back I indicated it would be good to see him and his wife. I had a few words back from him, and a promise he’d be in touch in a day or two. Two weeks later I had an email with details of the redeye flight and their general itinerary. Then his call today.
So that is your puzzle, Dear Abby. I don’t want to do what is hateful to me, that is, respond by way of easy silence, as I had thought to do. I could take the polite, semi-honest, route and tell him that my operation was more debilitating than I expected (actually, it was) and that I am busy catching up with things I couldn’t get done last week, that time got away from me and unfortunately there will not be a moment to get together.
I could send him an email, three or four sentences about the combination of actual factors, not least of them his habit of starting conversations that die out because he doesn’t seem interested in continuing them, suggesting a lack of authenticity that makes the prospect of a visit unappealing. I am not up to the particular kind of acting that social situations sometimes demand.
I could simply send him a link to this post.
I could be more direct still, calling him and laying out the facts, including the most pertinent one, that we are not really friends and that it probably wouldn’t really be very interesting to get together, at least not for me.
All of these options require some degree of effort on my part. Silence takes no effort, but I well recognize the ugliness in it. We must resist becoming what we hate, especially when justified to act that way, if we are sincere about becoming better, not worse, people.
I’m leaning toward the quick email and the truth, in a day or two, since forwarding this link (a more elegant solution) would compromise the privacy of the friend who devised his own solution for dealing with this person’s demanding, nonreciprocating nature. His, what my grandmother and mother would call “chutzpah“. The first syllable of this handy Yiddish word begins with a rattling clearing of the throat, by the way, and not the way you sometimes hear it on TV, as though the ‘ch’ at the beginning were the first letters of a word like “church”.