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How do I get friends to stop being so selfish?

The question

Mine is actually a double situation, as two people in my life are causing the same problem. One is a relative; one is a friend. Both are extremely self-centred. They turn every conversation - whether it is about personal creams or the war in Afghanistan - back to themselves. I have received several irritated comments about this from people who feel the same way.

Also, they're always assuming everyone wants to "help" them - shop, babysit, run errands, etc. One of them just had a child, and we're all thrilled, but now I now get phone calls and e-mails asking to "do something" and it turns out that means babysitting - often while they go have fun. I never volunteered to do this. I find it especially rude that this hijack babysitting is poorly cloaked in a social invitation.

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How can I get these two people to stop behaving so selfishly? I love them, but have had to restrict my exposure to them because I am ready to give some really nasty speeches. Any advice you could share would be greatly appreciated.

The answer

I think you're quite right, though for slightly different reasons, that you have double trouble - i.e. two distinct and separate issues to deal with, here.

One is the self-absorption and solipsism of your friend and your relative. Not much to do about that, in my view.

I mean, I know what you're saying about nasty speeches. I spend half my life composing speeches in my head, aimed at all the people who have zinged/burned/rubbed me wrong as I travel along life's highway.

Muttering to myself, tossing and turning, I revise, tweak, and polish these speeches in the crucible of my cranium, until they become gleaming, gem-like chunks of verbiage that would (so the fantasy goes) leave my listeners aghast, apologetic, and humbled before the grandeur of my righteousness.

But perhaps I should have said "gem-like chicken chunks," above, because I never wind up delivering these overheated oratories.

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Well, sometimes I bounce them off my wife, Pam. She listens patiently as her husband paces back and forth, jabbing the air with his index finger as he makes one point after another to his imaginary interlocutor.

"Not bad, Dave," she might say, or words to that effect, when I've finished. "But you know you can never say that to [the person in question]"

And she's right. Nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of a thousand, delivery of a "home truth" speech is a bad idea. It would just create friction and bad blood.

In any case, self-absorbed, solipsistic people tend to be impervious to observations that are either a) not about them, or b) sound vaguely unlike praise. These type of comments tend to be filtered out by the seven veils of their vanity, and just sound to them like quacking, radio interference, white noise.

So, not much to do there - except what you're already doing: patiently enduring the conversation-hijacking, and hanging out with them in small doses to minimize teeth-grinding on your part.

On the other front, though - errand-presumption, kid-fobbing, etc. - I think I can help.

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As a former stay-at-home dad to three little boys, I'm like a Wu Tang/Shaolin master of the kid fob (which you call "hijack babysitting" - I like it!), particularly the reverse kid fob, which was always my specialty.

Like, say my neighbour got his son to call and ask if he could come over for the afternoon.

"Hmmm, I admire your skills," I might think (vis-à-vis my neighbour). "For who can refuse such a request coming from an innocent child?"

But then - Ya! Sha! Hoo-Sha! - I execute a series of masterful moves and, before my neighbour can fully comprehend what's happening to him, all three of my kids are at his house for the afternoon, squabbling and demanding snacks while, back at my house, I am taking a nap.

Now… in your question, sir, you didn't mention whether you have kids. So I'm not sure whether the reverse kid fob would be practical for you. And I'm a little nervous about revealing the details of its mechanics here (I'm worried that the information could be used to create Weapons of Mass Fobbination, and soon children would all be at the wrong houses and society would teeter on the brink of collapse). But if you're interested, e-mail my editors and I will pass along my contact info for a private tutorial.

In the meantime, there is a simpler, more straightforward, surgical, and ultimately more effective, technique you can employ to avoid getting stuck with all these errands and/or hijacked into babysitting.

Whenever either of these self-absorbed/entitled mofos tries to stick you with an errand, or fob his kid off on you, or perform any other un-volunteered-for service, all you have to do is utter one word - a single, solitary syllable, in fact:


Try it. It's empowering. If you feel obliged to elaborate, say you're busy, or have errands of your own to do - whatever. But really, why do you feel obliged? You know they won't wind up appreciating the favours you do them - so don't do the favour in the first place.

Doing favours for self-absorbed, entitled ingrates is a mug's game: It just leads to bitterness on the part of the favour-giver.

And you don't want to become a sour, bitter person, do you? No, you want your heart to be full of joy and the milk of human kindness.

Therefore, take evasive action. Sidestep all favour-requests from this presumptuous pair. That way, when you hang out with them, you might wind up being bored by their self-serving stories, but at least you won't be fuming about all the time you've wasted doing them favours.

David Eddie is the author of Chump Change and Housebroken: Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Dad. Damage Control, the book, was released in March.

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