For the week ending 12 September 2009 / 22 Elul 5769

Sharply Blunt

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Anonymous

Dear Rabbi,

I recently had a discussion with someone I got to know not too long ago about a personal issue of his which I disagreed on his approach and I told him exactly how I felt and why I think he's wrong. Today, I wanted to ask him something and he told me that he's not willing to talk to me as he dislikes my form of communication and my tone of voice. I was really hurt and terribly angry as I never talked differently to him than to anyone else and I never affronted him or treated him inappropriately.

I think that this was pretty mean of him and he is the first person in my life who has said anything like that about me. I have been raised to always be open and direct towards others, to tell them exactly what I think and I accept other people behaving the same way towards me. I think he should take it as a compliment that I am open like that towards him as it means that I trust him and talk to him like I talk to my family.

Well, he does not seem to see it like that and now I do not really know how to behave. My feeling is that I should tell him that I do not want to talk to him ever again in my life as I'm still mad at him. He just does not stop complaining about me - which is not justified. On the other hand I ask myself if I should just ignore it and wait until he changes, but if he doesn't, I don't know if I'm willing to talk to him again if he does not apologize.

Could you please tell me what you think about it and what you would do in my situation?

Have a nice day!

Dear Anonymous,

I understand how you feel, and from your perspective, you seem to be justified in feeling hurt and offended.

But to be honest and straightforward with you, as you prefer, your friend also has good reason to feel as he does and I want to help you see things from his perspective.

Let's first consider your approach of always being open and direct and telling people exactly what you think.

Being honest is generally good, but there's a big difference between that and being blunt. Even when someone asks your opinion, being honest but sensitive can help, but being too direct can hurt. This applies all the more so when we take the liberty to volunteer our opinion. Even good advice, if unsolicited, is usually unwanted and thereby offensive. In any case, regarding sensitive, personal matters, people are generally not objective, and often they're upset, worried and emotional. This is not the time to say exactly what you think, but to think about exactly what you say. After all, you want to help, not hurt, right? What we say and the way we say it makes a world of difference to how people hear us.

So if this is a sensitive person and a sensitive matter, and if he didn't explicitly ask your opinion, it's quite possible that even if you were honest, to the point and even right, he would view your communication as "offensive" and your tone of voice "unpleasant". This is certainly so if, in the name of honesty, you may have been blunt. Now all of these matters – communication, tone and directness – involve very subtle nuances and are therefore highly relative. To one person one form is acceptable and even desirable, while to another it is offensive. That's why even if you are accustomed to communicating this way with your family, and no one has ever objected to your approach, it still doesn't mean that your friend is wrong for being hurt — because either he or the issue is more sensitive than you thought.

Now regarding your expecting him to be grateful to you for "trusting in him" enough to say your mind and viewing his response as mean and insensitive, please realize that he sees it exactly opposite. More than you put trust in him to express your opinion, he put trust in you to discuss his personal matters with you. And after having opened up to you, you (of course unintentionally) responded in a way that hurt him and which he viewed as mean of you to do to him. I'm not saying he's right, I wasn't there to hear what and how things were said, but it doesn't matter anyway because, as I wrote, these matters are subjective and relative, and the fact is he was hurt.

So what should you do? Quite simply, you should not take his reaction personally. It's not about you as much as it is about his being hurt and feeling betrayed. The fact that he continues to complain about it shows that he really does care for you and values your friendship. Since he's the one who lodged the complaint about what you said, you should not expect or wait for an apology that, in his pain, he doesn't see as warranted. Rather you should take the initiative to apologize to him privately and sensitively and tell him you didn't mean to offend him. Say you only intended to help him as a friend or brother and that's why you were perhaps too direct. Tell him that you value him as a friend and don't want to lose a friend because you were trying to help. After he's forgiven you and calmed down, have another conversation with him in order to understand what went wrong so you can avoid this happening again.

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