Dear Prudence

Help! My Contrarian Friend Is Debating Me to Death.

Each week, Prudie discusses a tricky letter with a colleague or friend, just for Slate Plus members. This week Jenee Desmond-Harris discusses her response to “I Have Taste Too” with fellow Slate writer (and also her husband) Joel Anderson.

Dear Prudence,

I (she/her) have been best friends with “Mary” since we were 19—about nine years total. We met in college, where initially I thought she didn’t like me! This is probably because she has a contrarian personality—often critical of media, jokes, phrases, public figures, and cultural artifacts other people love—and won’t mince words when expressing that she dislikes something in the presence of those people. She’s had this sort of taste since she was, like, 12. This has led some mutuals to voice that they find her standoffish or too cool.

Mary IS cool, and also generous, intentionally kind, and the most excellent listener I’ve ever met, once she is out of her shell. She has taught me a lot about what it means to be a good friend. She has shown up for me every time I needed her to. Her tastes have influenced mine massively, and she likes my art genuinely. I’ve grown to see her sharpness and her ability to see where other people end and she begins as some of her best qualities. In fact, it’s inspired me to limit some of my own people-pleasing tendencies.

But here’s the thing: I’ve lived long enough to realize that one’s best qualities are also at least sometimes one’s most challenging qualities. Lately, I’ve been feeling a little tired of Mary undermining things I like—whether it’s a pair of funky shoes or a new indie film or an opinion about implementing our (shared) socialist politics. Sometimes she’ll contradict me about something mundane while with a group of friends, and I recoil into myself. I’ll wonder if I’m taking it (and myself) too seriously or if she’s being a little socially ungraceful. Sometimes she contradicts me privately, and I’ll wonder: If we aren’t totally at odds, why can’t you just “yes, and” me? Is that too much to expect?

I try to notice whether she’s doing this equally to everyone, but it’s hard to tell. It comes off stubborn, unwilling to consider that I might have a point. It creates an inhospitable environment for any type of conversation besides a debate, which I rarely want. Or a “well, agree to disagree,” which sounds formalistic and a little passive-aggressive. And I worry that if I do suddenly begin to go to bat for my opinions and tastes without explaining anything, it’ll throw her and others off.

Either way, do you have any advice for whether and how to approach her about this? I’m struggling because I don’t think her outspokenness and well-developed critiques are always a bad thing!

— I Have Taste Too

Read Prudie’s original response to this letter.

Jenée Desmond-Harris: I don’t like Mary. I just don’t. I hear that she’s generous and kind, but she’s a jerk! And I also think the LW is giving her way too much credit for being cool and having good taste. Who says her taste is better than anyone else’s?

Joel Anderson: That’s probably the co-dependency talking. I can see where this sort of person might be alluring at a distance, but if we’re at the point where, even in private conversation, Mary can’t turn off this contrarianism, then I wonder how good of a friendship this really is. The LW is already at the point where she’s investigating Mary’s interactions with other people to detect traces of assholishness. I’m here to say: That doesn’t even matter. What matters is how she treats the LW.

Jenée: “I’ve lived long enough to realize that one’s best qualities are also at least sometimes one’s most challenging qualities” strikes me as something like “Relationships are hard work”—it might have some truth to it, but a person could also use it to excuse being treated like shit.

Joel: Right. But she also talks about Mary’s generosity and kindness and willingness to listen to her. So there’s obviously something here in their relationship that the LW values. Which means it’s salvageable and that, if she knows Mary like she says she does, maybe that generosity and kindness will help her to understand that she doesn’t have to constantly antagonize her to maintain their friendship.

Jenée: I hope so, but I also want to point out that “she has shown up for me every time I needed her to” is not true. Part of showing up for someone is how you respond when they say something in a group of friends. “No, you’re wrong, you have bad taste” isn’t it. But anyway. What do you think she should say to Mary?

(Side note: I know how you would handle this: You would secretly see Mary as insecure and feel sorry for her and pity her and just put up with her behavior to make her feel better.)

Joel: Lol. See, I knew you picked this question because it was reminiscent of a previous friendship that I had. Unfair!

Jenée: Your person was actually much worse than Mary, but go on …

Joel: Unfair again! My old friend actually had a lot of similar traits, down to showing up for me in difficult times, BUT his indifference to my feelings about his behavior gradually took a toll on our relationship and on me. Which is what seems like is happening here. And yeah, I do tend to think that’s where a lot of aggressive contrarianism and constant nitpicking comes from.
Mary is trying to put the LW in her place and establish dominance that she’s clearly unable to establish elsewhere.

Jenée: Right. There’s a huge difference between having very particular tastes and intense opinions and having to lecture other people about those tastes and opinions all the time.

Joel: The LW is an artist! Unless Mary has a degree in art history or a career as an art critic, maybe she should chill out. But the LW has to make a choice, and it seems like a simple one: She has to confront Mary about this behavior and tell her that it’s not working for her.

Jenée: Script for the confrontation please.

Joel: Man, that’s your thing! But fine: “Mary, you know that I appreciate you and your sharp sense of taste and style and how you’ve been there for me when I’ve needed you. I love having you as a friend, and I think you’ve made me a better person. Well, here’s something I need from you: Can you please try to be a little less critical or confrontational? I’m not much into debate, and sometimes I really just want to say things to you without worrying that you’re going to poke at or criticize me. I’m not really asking you to change yourself or your personality; I’m just asking you to be a little more considerate of my feelings. I’m not expecting it to all happen at once. Just be a little more cognizant of whether what I’m saying demands a contradictory follow-up.”

Jenée: Mary: “I think what you don’t have enough taste to have an appreciation for here is how to have a proper debate about art and culture. Let me explain …” Just kidding. That was good. And if she’s a good friend, she’ll respond appropriately. If not, she and her super-special opinions can go to hell.

Joel: Look: As it is, this relationship will probably fade out anyway. It’s extremely hard for people to change—I’m kind of a nitpicker who comes from a family of nitpickers, lol. But it just seems like the LW needs to bring it to Mary’s attention, which doesn’t seem like it has happened so far. So, give Mary a chance to address it. If she doesn’t, give her another chance. If she still doesn’t, chunk her the deuce.