I’ve been on both sides: the person who wants desperately to be friends and the person who would really rather be left alone. Right now, I’m dealing with a lot of the latter.
Some background: I’ve been living in South Korea for about two years now. In my first year, I was eager to form any and all friendships. When you’re lonely and have no community, you’re starved for friendship. Anything is great! But this year is less so. With a stable community of people who have proved to be incredibly steady and loyal friends, it’s sometimes harder to work up the motivation to make new friends.
Not that I say no to new people. New friends are always welcome, though I have less room in my schedule for new friends than I did before.
The problem is, being a foreigner in a largely racially homogeneous country means you’re going to be singled out by people a lot. People are going to want to know you. At first you’ll feel like a celebrity. But soon you’ll realize these people’s interest has nothing to do with you as a person and everything to do with status. If you have foreign friends here, you’re cool.
So I’ve learned how to tell the difference. There are people who want to use you to practice English and there are people who want to use you for that status. It’s hard. And it’s not just with dating. It’s with normal friends too. Here are three types of people I’ve come across (and keep in mind, this is not everyone, nor is it necessarily the majority of people):
- The “Look at All My Foreign Friends” Person
Self-explanatory. They befriend as many foreigners as possible. They force closeness. Take a lot of pictures. Often very extroverted. But they don’t stick around for long.
- “Let’s Practice English”
Honestly, this is fine to me as long as you’re up front about it. But often it’s not upfront. It’s subversive. This is mostly a problem with male/female friendships, in my experience. A guy kinda flirts with you, texts you a lot, etc. But you learn he’s doing this with three other foreigners, all of whom are girls, and he refuses to speak his native tongue, only English. K bye!
This is not limited to men. It’s harder to pick out when it’s same-sex friendships, in my experience.
- “I’ll Scratch You Back, You Scratch Mine”
This one is really similar to number 2. in that it’s probably about your English. This kind of person will either do a lot of favors for you without your asking and then later ask you for favors. You feel guilted into doing it. For me, there was an older Korean lady who I met in a coat shop randomly. She tried to take me under her wing and drove me around places, but I soon felt that she was only doing this to get me to look after her kids. Like “oh hang out at my house! The kids are here because it’s summer break.” Basically, free English practice. That’s the only time she’d text me.
Another person would only text me to whine about her life and ask me English questions or to teach her class for an hour (she’s an English teacher for adults). It got to the point where I felt like she was only hanging out with me so she didn’t feel bad asking me for favors. She also stopped hanging out with me when I said I didn’t have time to do her class on Tuesdays. I don’t know if this was a conscious choice on her part or not.
To be totally honest, there was more wrong with these relationships than just the being used parts. But it was an issue that either blocked a deeper friendship entirely (from my own self-preservation) or became a glaring obstacle toward feeling like the friendship was worth continuing.
I also want to clarify that this post is not meant to complain about Korea or Korean people. I love this country and my Korean friends whom I have gotten close to are some of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met. This is context to talk about a larger problem: How to deal with people who are forcing a friendship you don’t feel comfortable with.
Particularly, this post is dealing with the people in scenario one and two, not three. That’s a different issue and a bit harder to break down.
The thing those two people have in common is that they were trying to force or manufacture closeness, which chokes any potential for natural closeness to develop, at least for me. I can feel it, and it exhausts me.
So, what are some ways you can draw your boundaries when you’ve decided, for whatever reason, you don’t want to get closer to an acquaintance or casual friend who is trying to force a friendship with you?
This sounds obvious, but I don’t mean you should tell them that you don’t want to be friends. I mean turn their invites down. Currently, I’m dealing with someone who won’t take no for an answer. It’s not that she’s a bad person, but I quickly felt that we didn’t match. We have very little in common and I don’t feel particularly comfortable with her. There’s no reason to force a friendship with her, and I frankly don’t have the energy anymore to sustain light friendships unless I see potential for a deeper relationship in the long run. She is not a person I feel this potential with.
I think it’s also important to clarify that I have never been close with this girl or hung out with her beyond the occasional group. We have never had a deep one-on-one conversation and we have never confided in each other. We are not close. Despite my attempts to keep that distance intact, she continues to persevere.
In Korean, the word 눈치 (nunchi) means someone’s ability to read a room, mood, situation, or person. And this girl has no nunchi.
She sends a text. “Eat with me! ㅠ.ㅠ” I tell her I’m leaving Korea soon for three months and don’t have much time, so we should have a larger gathering. She says “Ok let’s eat in a large group.” Three days later she comes up to me in our language exchange and asks me why I haven’t planned the group gathering yet. I say “I’ve been busy with work and preparing to leave, sorry.” She continues to ask me when I’m free while grabbing my shoulders, hugging my arm, etc., initiating physical contact I’m not comfortable with. I tell her I’ll text her later today and she looks at me doubtfully (in a joking way, I think). I do text her.
She ends up inviting herself to my one-on-one dinner with another mutual friend. She has done this before when I didn’t make plans with her. I’m probably coming off as a bad person. And if I hadn’t tried to be friendly with her already and decided I didn’t feel comfortable with her friendship, I might feel truly pretentious. But I have considered it, and I have consciously made a decision about what kind of relationship I want with her. Anyway, this leads to my next point.
If they keep persisting, invite them to plans you already have or make a group gathering
Granted, this time it was forced on me, but it ends up working in my favor. By inviting this person to a previous engagement or including other people, you’re keeping your personal boundaries by not allowing them to force closeness. Proximity and closeness are not the same, so by making a group or inviting them to other plans, you’ve got the buffer of other people while making them feel that they’ve successfully made plans with you.
In people who have a little more nunchi, hopefully this will send the message that you don’t want to meet one-on-one. You won’t be forced into intimacy.
Fact is, we have limited time and energy. Some people have more or less, but we have relationships that are a priority and others that are not. It doesn’t make us bad people. If someone is trying to force their way up in your list of priorities, they’re forcing a burden onto you and it’s draining.
If you don’t feel comfortable around someone, you’re not obligated to let them closer than is OK for you.
Be Kind but Be Fierce
Maybe not in the way Winston Churchill meant it exactly, but the point is, be kind. Even if someone is being aggressive, it’s not helpful to anyone, least of all yourself, if you’re getting angry with this person to their face. Stand you ground, assert your position and guard your time, but be polite. Thank them for invitation but tell them you can’t make it. You don’t have to offer more explanation than that.
Also, don’t be upfront about your free time. If they ask you “Are you free on Saturday” or “What are you doing on Wednesday,” don’t tell them you’re absolutely free. Just say “I have to check my schedule, why?” Don’t fall into this trap. Protect your time.
Just be kind. Examine your reasons. And stand you ground.
Don’t Say Yes and Then Cancel Later
If you have a legitimate reason to cancel, that’s different. But if you only said yes out of obligation and didn’t really want to and last minute tried to get out of it by cancelling for a made up reason, that’s a. cowardly, b. not a good habit and c. just plain rude.
It’s better to say no from the get-go than to become that person who disrespects other people’s time, even if they’re driving you up a wall.
Understand Their Point of View
If you’ve been on the other side of this situation, the one where another person wasn’t keen on being your friend, you should know how hard that can be. This should be even more incentive to be kind. If they get angry or upset at your continued rejection of plans, this is a great example:
Acquaintance: “You’ve said no to my invitation to lunch three times now. I’m beginning to think you don’t like me!”
You: “Please don’t think that. I don’t often accept lunch invitations because of my busy schedule. I’m very protective of any free time I have so I’m probably not the best person to ask to hang out with.” -From LiveAbout.com
I do feel like a jerk for feeling this way about some people. The desire to not be friends. My natural instinct is to say “yes” to everything and everyone. But this is neither sustainable nor healthy for me as a person, or for you.
Many Christians I think struggle with this, as well as non-religious people, of course. We should show love to others, right? But even Jesus said no to plans. Even he was selective about who he let close. Even he set boundaries. Some people literally drained the power out of him:
But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.” -Luke 8:46
Saying no and setting boundaries is important for protecting our personal and spiritual well-being. And being careful with who we let close is also an act of self-care. That person who you feel uncomfortable being closer with may be a totally fine friend for someone else, but you’re allowed to choose not to be close with them.
Who you surround yourself with is important, and they can shape your present and future, so it’s important to choose who you let close. And if you don’t feel comfortable around someone, you’re not obligated to let them closer than is OK for you. Just be kind. Examine your reasons. And stand you ground.
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