Dating: The easy way to make difficult requests

This reader brings up a great question:

Hi! Alex,
I have been enjoying your autoresponder updates.  Thank you!  I am grateful that my friend told me about you!

My question is:

When a man uses vulgar language (mainly the “f” word) around me (and we are just getting to know one another), how do I let him know that I would rather not hear that? Sure, I have heard the word a lot in life (I am 56) and even said it myself a few times (usually softly when no one’s around!), but I feel uncomfortable when a guy uses it in front of me…

Thanks and blessings! Maureen from Seattle

Well well.  This is a universal issue, isn’t it.  How do we ask for what we want when it can potentially offend the person we’re asking?  It also comes up when giving unsolicited (but direly needed) advice: for example, how do you tell someone he or she has bad breath?  Or that her boyfriend is a loser and she needs to dump him pronto?

There are a few motives here working at cross-purposes.  One is genuine concern for the friend.  Second (a corollary to the first) is not wanting to hurt the friend’s feelings.  And the third is to get some relief for yourself.

First of all, I’d like to bring to your attention that of the three motives listed above, only one really matters: your genuine concern for your friend.  Number two, namely not wanting to hurt the friend’s feelings, is still part of the fact that you care.

Forget about relief for yourself and instead frame it thus: “If this person continues to have raging halitosis, his friends, including me, will probably be less willing to hang around him, and his life will be less rich for that.”

Now your selfish concern is an unselfish one, which will make you more empowered to speak your mind and tell him about the stinky breath.  Because now, it’s more like you’re shoving him out of the way of a falling piano instead of just nagging him.

Great!  Now that you’re willing to tell him, how do you tell him?

Since I’m in the business of telling people what’s good for them even when they don’t necessarily want to hear it, I’ve thought long and hard about how to package the medicine such that the patient not only takes it but wants to keep on talking to you after taking it.

What I’ve found to work is to ask for consent first: “Would you like to take care of this problem?  Would you like me to help you with that?”  After you get a yes, then you deliver the medicine: “Well then, this is what I suggest you do.”

In the case above, for example, Maureen would say, “Hey, Mr Occasional Foulmouth.  I was just wondering if you really enjoyed my company and would like to see me more often.”  Why yes, he says.  That’s the part about getting consent.

Then you say, “Well, I just want you to know that I get a little uncomfortable when you use foul language around me, and I enjoy your company a lot more and am much more likely to hang out with you if you used softer language.”

What works best is using a non-judgmental tone that focuses on YOU, not him, and focuses on what you want him to DO, not what you don’t.  Phrase things positively.

Here’s another format that has worked for me: “Would you be interested in some feedback about such-and-such?”  If you get a yes, then you ask, “Would you like me to sugarcoat it, or would you prefer that I be ruthlessly compassionate?”  Then you proceed to tell what’s on your mind, as positively and non-judgmentally as possible, at the level of bluntness that they requested.

Sometimes — most of the time, actually — when you do this, nothing happens.  The behavior does not change.  And that’s when you have to decide which is more important: the company of your friend, or relief from the irritating behavior.

We don’t get line-item vetoes when it comes to friends — you accept or reject the whole package.  And a big part of living a happy life involves accepting the world as it is, versus wishing it to conform to our particular whim.  So if a friend’s habit is truly irritating (e.g. nose-picking in public) or detrimental (e.g. crack addiction), it’s your duty as a friend to speak up.

But, as Krishna says to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, you are entitled to your labors, but not the results of your labors.  So if you will err, err on the side of loving people for who they are instead of trying to fix them.  It makes for a richer and easier life.