Q: My father just got diagnosed with cancer. Most people have been extremely supportive, but two girlfriends I texted about this haven’t responded at all. Is it really that hard to say “I’m so sorry”? Should I use this opportunity to do a little friend housecleaning and demote certain “friends” to acquaintance status, knowing now that I can’t count on them?—Too Harsh?
A: At least when you yell into the Grand Canyon, you get back more than the blinking cursor of nothingness.
Ideally, your friends’ responsiveness should not compare unfavorably to a giant hole—especially not when you’re all “Yoohoo…I’m kinda devastated about my dad!” But before you decide to “demote” friends, there are a couple of things to consider: “evolutionary mismatch” and our reliance on technology to get messages across flawlessly.
Evolutionary mismatch, a theory originated by evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr, refers to how we modern humans are driven by an antique psychological operating system largely calibrated for the world of our human ancestors 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago. This means, for example, that important triggers for others to take action that were there in the ancestral environment aren’t always present in our modern one.
Take expressions of sadness: Bodily expressions of sadness like tears or having all the spring in your step of a curbside couch are basically street corner sign spinners advertising our psychological state. When people see those behaviors, feelings of empathy automatically arise, motivating them to reach out with a hug or, at the very least, a mumbled kind word.
Expressions of sadness via smartphone text—in words on a tiny screen—lack the visual elements, the bodily signals, that evolved to trigger empathy. Also, consider that many people think not knowing what to say is reason to say nothing. What they don’t realize is that saying nothing in a crisis is usually a bigger blunder—more hurtful—than saying the wrong thing would ever be.
It’s also possible they missed your text.
Q: One of my best male friends is in a super-toxic relationship. I’ve told him to end it many times, and he does, but then he gets roped back in. At this point, I don’t want to listen anymore, and I’m tired of saying the same thing. How do I convey that without blowing the friendship?—Earache
A: If you wanted to repeat yourself constantly, you’d get a side hustle as a parrot.
Let’s be honest. When a friend puts their relationship issues on endless repeat, it’s tempting to put the phone down while they’re talking and go prune the ivy. It’s tempting for anyone, but probably more so for you because you’re a woman. Women, in general, have a tendency to be indirect—to hint at what they want rather than come right out and state it.
Women’s hintishness is often viewed as a flaw, but as I wrote recently, the late psychologist Anne Campbell, who researched female psychology and behavior, viewed it as an evolutionary feature. Campbell believed this indirectness evolved as a way for women—the baby carriers and primary child carers of the species—to avoid physical confrontation that could leave them hurt or dead. (If you don’t quite say something, somebody won’t quite have the ammunition to clobber you for it.)
But a tendency is not a mandate. You can understand why you, as a woman, might feel uncomfortable being direct—stating exactly what works for you—but you can decide to be direct despite that. To help keep the guy from seeing you as mean, unkind, or a crappy friend for saying “no más” on hearing the same old, same old, explain, “I care about you, and it’s really painful to hear about you continuing to let yourself be abused.”
Follow this up with something like: “My advice has not changed, and I hope you’ll eventually take it. Until then, I’m sorry. I just can’t hear about this situation anymore.” Difficult as this might be, it’s less invasive than the next-best option: having a string installed in the back of your head that, when pulled, causes you to say “So sorry to hear that” over and over and over again.