Lose friends, alienate people

Getting rid of unwanted acquaintance

When I was 10 years old, a new girl at school rather publicly made me a gift of an aftershave sampler. Embarrassed, I dropped this into a nearby bin with a snort of derision. I still remember the expression on her crumpled face – and have since been more willing to accept, and even cultivate, unwanted friendships.

In this I feel a bit like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, who tells us on page one that the same openness has made him victim to “not a few veteran bores”. Since the birth of my first child, last year, I feel more like Nick than ever because I’m practically always at home in the evenings and so am an easy target for phone calls and unannounced visits. I’ve been caught out by not a few veteran bores myself.

Usually they ask me to join them at dinner parties full of dreadful people (not the words they use) at some distant date on which I can’t possibly have anything else planned. Sometimes they assume I have whole weekends to spare. And too often I can’t think how to get out of these engagements.

So when I do, I feel uncommonly satisfied because, as Edward Bulwer-Lytton put it, there’s no feeling of liberty like that of escape from half-friends.

I know that to write this is ungrateful: I should count myself lucky to have friends at all. I also know that if my friends read this I may henceforth be left alone not only by the ones I don’t want to hear from but also by the others whom I love, mistakenly concluding that I’m writing about them. Naturally, I hope that doesn’t happen.

But if somebody is determined to be your friend and you are determined not to be his or hers, it’s impossible to avoid causing distress. For this reason you must patrol vigilantly the borders between friendship and mere acquaintance.

The literary agent, Stephanie Cabot, draws a distinction between friends for whom you would cross the Atlantic at short notice and all the rest. She points out that not all these special friends would necessarily cross the Atlantic for you. And one of my colleagues argues that friends should understand whether they belong to your A-list, B-list or C-list. The A-list will remain close even if you see them infrequently. B-list friends must work at the relationship. C-list friendships are forgotten as easily as they are established.

That same colleague (let’s call him David) once kept up an unwanted friendship through many months of costly dinners, and only eventually managed to terminate it when his “friend” let slip a bad taste joke about the Holocaust. David remembers banging his teaspoon on the saucer to indicate his distress at this ugly remark. But I can readily imagine the warm glow that flushed through him as he realised that the dinners had finally reached an end. The joke, he concedes, was an unexpected gift. But he encourages me to believe I can find similar relief by pouncing on even the slightest opportunity to take offence; even a joke only mildly off-colour will do, so long as I adopt a sufficiently shocked expression in response. If that fails, you can always be offensive. This should ensure that you are never asked back.

Another co-worker, a woman, recommends the following strategy for getting rid of unwanted invitations (and the friends who issue them). Accept the first summons, she says, but reject all others on the basis that it’s your turn to be host. Say that you fully intend to repay the debt – but never get round to it.

Would it be better to tell people directly that you don’t want to be friends? YourP45.co.uk offers a jokey service enabling you to “sack” friends by e-mail, using a variety of pro-forma explanations, including (the least vulgar) “because you are about as useful as a chocolate radiator”. But those emails are really disguised love-letters, designed to be sent between people whose closeness permits such joshing. If you really want to get rid of somebody you must be more direct.

Once again, my wise colleague David has a view on this. For some time, he enjoyed a nodding acquaintance with a man who frequently swam at the same pool as him. It turned out that they had a mutual acquaintance. One day, the man asked if he’d like to go for a drink sometime. David’s reply was frank: it would be nice, he said, but he had enough problems keeping up with the friends he already had. (Can you imagine Nick Carraway saying that? He’d never have got to know Gatsby.) The man’s friendly smile immediately collapsed into something more solemn. Subsequently, the two have ceased even to nod at each other and the atmosphere at the pool, David reports, can be tense. But he regrets nothing.

804 words. First published 17 April 04. © FT Magazine