‘Can I Cut My New ‘Friend’ Off?’

Illustration: Pedro Nekoi

This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack.

¡Hola, Papi!

I’m a grad school student. Naturally, I’ve been introduced to some new people through classes and such. One of these people, let’s call her Nancy, has some things in common with me. We work in overlapping areas, and while we’ve never spent time together outside college, we got lunch together for a while and we’d message regularly. Friendly, but not deep. But now I’ve gotten myself into a situation with her that I don’t know how to handle without being an asshole. 

The end of my first semester, during exams, Nancy sent me this long message about how she was thinking she should drop out along with all kinds of details about everything wrong in her life. I found it a bit too personal considering how we’d talked before that. But I felt for her. I wanted to be nice. I’d had similar thoughts myself, so I put loads of emotional energy into writing a big message back to her being supportive, and I spent an evening talking her out of the spiral. Right after that was a break, and I didn’t hear any more about it. I didn’t actually know what she’d decided to do. It weighed on me, emotionally. I felt terrible about it. 

Start of the next semester, I got a bad infection that turned into pneumonia. Really bad. I got a message after a few weeks from Nancy saying, “hey, haven’t seen you around.” I explained I wasn’t well. I was miserable, obviously, and very stressed about all the work I was missing (we’re both doing a taught masters). But then, within a few days, I got another message with all the same stuff as the last time. This was just over a month later! And while I can barely manage breathing! I went into “Bad Vibes” mode and ignored it. When I did get back on campus I didn’t run into her again. I’d kind of been waiting to see her in person and try to gently say she was putting too much on me emotionally, if there was an opening. I thought doing so in person would be the best option, but I was kind of relieved to just not see her again.

Until today! We exchanged big smiley waves in passing, and I thought that was nice of her. I of course had it in mind that it could have been very hurtful to not hear back from me last time. Then, this evening I got another message, “haven’t seen you in months, didn’t know if you were still here. I’m really struggling this semester.”

What to do, Papi?

Sick and Tired

Hey there, ST!

I’m sorry, but there’s something darkly comedic about telling someone you have pneumonia and them responding with complaints about school. Read the hospital room, Nancy!

It’s rare that I advise anyone to leave someone on “read,” but in this case, I think it’s fine. You’re acquaintances at best, and this person is seemingly unburdened by “caring about your response.” Doesn’t seem like one of her concerns. It’s worth considering that your reply isn’t even something she’s after here. It sounds like she’s writing diary entries that just so happen to have a recipient. There are people like this.

In these situations, you should trust your gut. The beginning of a friendship is a spectacular time to signal to another person that you possess qualities like “is a good listener” and “is supportive when bad times befall you” and “doesn’t see you as an empty Word document.” It’s also a time when the rhythm of the give and take between two people gets established, or at least is previewed, which is why, as you’ve experienced, it’s not a terribly appropriate time to make high emotional demands. You save those for later, when it’s too late! Am I right?

This might sound like an uncharitable reading of Nancy, but I’m a big believer in the idea that our time and attention are precious resources, and if it feels like someone isn’t honoring yours, you should nip that in the bud. The fact that you felt relieved to not see her again says a lot. I’m not advocating callousness or for you to care less about other people’s struggles, but we have a finite amount of time on God’s green earth and I’d prefer not to spend too much of it on people who, for whatever reason, don’t recognize that I, too, am sentient.

As specific as your situation might seem, ST, I think many people will relate to it. It seems like we’re all trying to figure out what we owe others, be they strangers or acquaintances or good friends, and how to balance kindness with protecting our own peace. When do we need to send a long text? When is a phone call or an in-person meeting more appropriate? Is quietly cutting someone off ever justified?

It’s all case by case, of course, but at their core these questions all come back to wanting to be a good, responsible human being. You sound like a nice, empathetic person, which is great! You’re probably able to recognize that someone is in pain, and you want to mitigate it, because that’s a kind thing to do.

But among our obligations to human beings are obligations to ourselves. Kindness isn’t just self-sacrifice. Kindness can look like setting boundaries and making sure you’re setting a good example to yourself of how you want to be treated. It helps you treat others with similar respect. If you let people run all over you, if you give your energy too freely or you let it be sapped away because you think that’s the nice thing to do, you could end up resentful, both of others and of yourself. This makes “being nice” more difficult.

If Nancy doesn’t get the hint after your lack of response, sure, you can say you have a lot going on yourself and you’re probably not going to be the most helpful person regarding her issues, but you wish her well, and so on. Clarity is nice! But pneumonia on top of grad school is as good an excuse as any to protect your peace.

I hope Nancy’s situation improves, and that you’re breathing easier!

Con mucho amor,

Originally published December 21, 2023.

Purchase JP Brammer’s book Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessonshere.

‘Can I Cut My New ‘Friend’ Off?’