A few weeks ago I was at a party. While there, I settled into a deep conversation with a young woman I had just met about her dating history. She told me that she was in therapy and that her previous partners had been varying levels of abusive, with the latest one (who we’ll call Brad) being a drug addict that had, among other things, stolen thousands of dollars from her in order to purchase pills. She told me she was struggling with issues of worthiness. And that the whole thing was really hard. I listened. I commiserated. I affirmed that she was, in fact, worthy. And that I thought it was really great that she was going to therapy and also being open about it.
Later in the evening, I heard Brad’s name cross the name of another member of the group. The man in question was saying how Brad was super cool and they had a lot of fun together.
I interjected, “Brad? Her Brad?”
“Yea,” partygoer guy said. “He’s a really cool guy.”
“I’m sorry, are you aware of his history? That he’s a drug addict who steals from the people who love him?”
“Well yea,” he said, looking sheepish. “But he’s super fun to be around, this one time-”
“No. I don’t want to hear about how fun he is. Why the fuck would you endorse him as the sort of person that one should hang out and have fun with if you know what he’s done in the past?”
He blubbered, then, and said that he understood what I was saying and that he probably shouldn’t do that. I told him that no, he shouldn’t. And then continued with my evening.
Then another guy at the party started going on and on about Brad. I confronted him, too, this time with Brad’s ex in tow. His response to my queries?
“Well, he’s not that bad. He always looks me in the eye when I shake his hand.”
My actual response in the moment was something along the lines of: “That’s not exactly the litmus test of whether or not someone is a decent person, though.” He eventually acceded to my and her joint points and moved on.
But what I wanted to say was this:
OH! He looks you in the EYES, does he? Well then that turns everything on it’s head. Forget his history of drug abuse and stealing from his girlfriend. Forget all of that. He must be a good guy if he can look you in the face. A warm handshake means that all the well-meaning, intelligent women in your life should feel right as rain going on a date with him. Forget that he’s also emotionally abusive and manipulative. He knows how to interact with another human being, so all’s well!
I bit my tongue on that rant, for obvious reasons.
A few days after the party, I sat down with my brother for birthday drinks after seeing a play and brought up all of the above.
“Why, in male culture, is it OK for men to vouch for bastards? Why do they act like they’re nice guys when they’re not?” I asked him.
“Well,” he responded, “would you have called our uncle a nice guy?”
Our uncle was a heroin addict who also stole from family and friends to support his habit.
“No.” I said. “I wouldn’t. Because calling him a nice guy tells the people around me that they should trust him, and I don’t want anyone to trust him. Vouching for someone by asserting their niceness is basically putting the seal of approval onto the idea of friendship with that person.”
We talked about it for a while after that. My uncle and Brad and the way that society seems to call people nice as if that means anything at all. Nice has become this word that we all just toss around to mean that we like people or that they’re OK to hang out with or that they make a good key lime pie or whatever.
But nice means something. When you say that someone is a nice person what you’re saying is that you vouch for them. You think that the person you’re talking to should spend time with them or buy them a beer. But if you know that person is problematic, why would you give another person the idea that trusting them is a sound notion?
I’m not saying that you should spend all of your time running around extolling the horrible minutiae of the personalities of everyone you don’t like to everyone you meet. That would make you look like a dick. But maybe don’t act like someone’s cool to be around when they’re not. And maybe don’t be afraid to tell people that someone might be problematic. If someone asks your opinion about another person who find problematic, you could just say:
I won’t speak more on this without being asked, but I would be careful with Brad if I were you, based on what I know of his history.
That way you can warn the person off without going into terrible detail, but still leaves them room to take or leave your advice. Honestly, I tend to err on the side of being super direct when people ask me what I think of someone. I’ll usually just say that I don’t like them very much. There’s nothing wrong with saying you don’t like a person. If the person talking to you trusts your judgment, they can go ahead and ask for more details. If they don’t, no harm done!
I think the important thing when it comes to dealing with people whose behavior is problematic is that you don’t have to be seen as the type of person who likes and gets along with everyone. In fact, it may be better to be seen as the type of person who tells it like it is, when push comes to shove.