Every week on Twitter @jdesmondharris, Dear Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. She’ll post her final thoughts on the matter on Fridays. Here’s this week’s dilemma and answer:
I got labeled aggressive by one of my friends. I’ve always known that I intimidate people, but I never really thought it was because of my personality.
I always thought it was either because of my body type, my athletic ability, or my education. Recently, I lost touch with a friend of mine. That’s not completely uncommon for me when I get busy at work. I ran into her over the weekend. She was nice and friendly, but definitely got uncomfortable when a friend came up and mentioned a party she was having. It was clear she didn’t want me to go, and I brought that up. Long story short, she accused me of having an “aggressive” personality. She didn’t mean I was mean, she meant that I get really excited about things, am confident in my opinions, and am sometimes very loud.
That is all absolutely true and I have no plans on changing that, but my problem is, I think this may be why I no longer have any close friends. I’ve always thought of myself as a social chameleon, preferring to match the vibe of the other person, unless I’m talking about something I’m passionate about. I don’t usually talk about those things unless the person I’m talking to has the same interest. I am naturally a very lighthearted person and I always thought that people saw that instead of my size or my resume. A few years ago, I found out there was a boy I liked in high school who was intimidated by my athletic ability, and for years I’ve seen people act weird when I tell them where I graduated from college, but I always thought that didn’t matter because of my personality. Now I’m wondering if that’s true. Even in college, I had very few friends, even among athletes who wouldn’t be intimidated by me. I really want to find some close friends again. Do you have any advice on how I can avoid intimidating people while not hiding who I am?
— Aggressively Friendly
Dear Aggressively Friendly,
I found your letter hard to answer, because, well, what you were saying didn’t completely add up. The content itself—a lot of discussion of how impressive you are and how you refuse to change—flew in the face of your description of how you interact socially. But I could tell you were sincere about needing help. So I asked readers to weigh in.
The first theme of the advice I received, which I thought was really insightful, was that you are too inward-looking: too focused on how you are and how you feel and how people might be seeing you, and not focused enough on your actual actions. You can simplify your dilemma but putting more of your attention on what you actually do in social situations. Be intentional about specific actions like listening, asking questions, giving compliments, allowing people to speak without interrupting. Get out of your head about your identity and all the qualities you have that people may or may not be reacting to, and just work on these concrete social skills:
OP seems to be stuck in a mentality of “treating people the way she wants to be treated” rather than the way THEY want to be treated. You can remain authentic without steamrolling others. What she perceives as “matching the vibe” could also feel like conversational competition. — @CaseySplinter
She’s focused on the perception herself based on social markers that don’t really have anything to do with being a good friend. Is she kind? Does she call them when they’re sick? Does she offer support when they have a win or a loss? Does she trust people? That’s what matters. — @Palaverd
Sounds like they tend to brag, one-up, monopolize conversations, etc. People do that for many reasons (insecurity, loving to talk, whatever). It would likely help this person to spend a week focusing on listening, and seeing the effect that has on them and others. — @iwasbeinhave
I have a few people in my life like this, so I’m going to extrapolate and make an assumption that this person talks about themselves a lot. Showing interest in another person and taking yourself out of the spotlight goes a LONG way. Turn your focus to making the other person comfortable. Ask about them. Give natural and genuine compliments, don’t make everything a lead in to the YOU SHOW. Funny thing is, this actually makes you more appealing without you having to list off your accomplishments. Do this to everyone and you will have people flocking to you. You will be the favorite in every room. People will want to be around you and everyone will be singing your praises. I know because this is how I feel about the people in my life who build me up. — @realaftonnelson
I’m curious *how* this person engages when talking about things they’re excited about, and how they present their education. I recently had to carpool with someone who I suspect would describe themselves like the OP. This person ran roughshod over everyone else in the vehicle. Over the course of about 2 hours in the car w/ one other passenger, (over two days) and additional time in a larger group, I don’t think I spoke a single full sentence on the first try. His “excitement” about a topic meant no one else got a turn to talk, or could talk without constant interruptions. During the final ride, it became obvious that he thought his law degree made him “better” than other people. — @arransom
I think there’s something else going on, and it can be really hard (or enlightening!) when the puzzle pieces come together. I don’t think the traits mentioned need to be changed — it’s not size, enthusiasm, or volume. It’s probably something not mentioned. Lastly, sometimes it can be totally unexpected. I got feedback in my 20s that lots of people thought I was judging them. It was because my squint looked like a judgmental frown and I really needed glasses! (No joke). Ask yourself kindly: Do you interrupt people? Ask them questions? Check in on them? You mentioned ghosting people when you get busy with work. Are you there only for fun or also when it’s tough? There’s something here, and I think it’s time to be curious and collect more data. — @startup_parent
If this still feels really challenging, think about whether it’s something you might get professional help with. Several people with experience with neurodivergence wondered whether a diagnosis might help explain your challenges interacting in socially appropriate ways, because the way you described yourself felt familiar to them:
I am curious about whether the LW might be neurodivergent and not realize it. Specifically the mentions of 1) speaking too loudly and 2) having specific topics they’re excited or over-excited about. — @cleanandgritty
Kid’s ADHD (and likely autistic). If she can get a friend in a calm setting and just go “hey I really want to know how I’m coming across so that I can stop making people uncomfortable” it may help. Also, find your tribe and gobble up all the resources by neurodivergent adults. — @MarjBaldwin
This sounds a lot like Asperger Syndrome. The giveaways are the lack of actual self-awareness, the intentional mirroring of other people’s energy and the high excitement over their passions. The other sign is the fact that most of the replies express disdain for LP’s overall vibe. You can read it in their voice - they genuinely don’t understand the subtle ways their behavior upsets or annoys others. It’s just one more way having a disability can be isolating. My advice for LP is to talk to a medical professional about the possibility of an undiagnosed mental disability. From there, frank and honest shame-free conversation about the way they feel, think and behave (when appropriate). — Jesus of Swordsereth
The bottom line is that if you want to see a change in your relationships, you’re going to have to at least be open to making changes to the way you interact. As @sic_sonja wrote, “I know lots of “intimidating” ppl — big ones, loud ones, ppl w/impeccable credentials, 1st rate intellects, illustrious jobs — all have close friends. Aggressively friendly doesn’t & it’s causing them grief. So long as they tell themself it’s not their problem, they’ll be lonely.”
I come from a state where people are generally kind and not very confrontational. I’ve also lived in cities where people are far more gruff and are very boisterous when they think someone is trying to take advantage of them. Because of this, I’ve developed a much thicker skin than most people back home. I’ve been confronting people not wearing their masks correctly in stores (masks are mandatory in my city). It stresses me out so much and has me wondering if I’m being a “Karen.” I ask to speak to managers and write strongly worded letters somewhat frequently…