What constitutes a great friend? One who tells you the whole brutal truth and nothing but, or one who tells you “the truth”—a softened up, dialed-back version of things tailored specifically to your threshold for reality and/or need for reassurance?
Such situations arise often enough: Perhaps your friend is involved with a known garbage dude and wants to know what you think of him. Maybe your friend has been passed over for a promotion again and wonders aloud if she’s bad at her job. Or your friend asks you point-blank if people think she’s a slut, and you answer “probably.”
The latter really happened to Justine Harman at Elle, who wrote an article exploring whether friends give friends bad advice on purpose—and whether that bad advice is ultimately more harmful than the oft-painful truth.
The author writes of a college friend who had slept with three out of five guys in Harman’s boyfriend’s friend group. When the friend innocently asked, “Do you think they think I’m a slut?” Harman answered full-on true:
I’m pretty sure I was eating a Fudgsicle at the time so picture this: I took a considered lick, shrugged my shoulders, and—considering the 3:5 ratio—said, “Probably?” Her demeanor changed entirely. “Are you fucking kidding me?” she said. (Now picture the Fudgsicle slowly lowering from my face to my navel.) “Get out of my house.”
Harman’s unfortunate casual slut-shaming aside, the friendship survived—but not without the incident resurfacing over the years with what Harman describes as a mix of “appreciation and can-you-believe-this-bitch indignation.”
Harman set out to take the pulse of a range of women from 18 to 37 on the matter. What she found was that pretty much no one was calling it like they saw it, and friendships were preserved another day because of such aversions to blunt honesty. A sampling of responses indicated that advice is tempered routinely to avoid friends feeling judged, or piling on a friend’s already stressed life, or simply because friends feel compassion should win the day over a deadpan stab of truth:
Cathy*, a 37-year-old photo editor and entrepreneur, agrees that empathy can dilute a harsh response. “I think that, often times, women don’t want to face the messy reactions of our friends when we tell them something they don’t want to hear,” she says. “Plus, we love our friends. And it’s normal to help them feel better—even if we know it’s the wrong advice.”
Maybe it depends on what the friend is seeking an outlet for, exactly. Say a friend is engaged in what looks like a damaging affair—one that leaves her in turmoil, confused, bitter, angry, depressed, and comes to you to commiserate. This can be heartbreaking and frustrating to watch, but this is not your relationship to end. And not knowing whether she could really end up with this person, you can’t necessarily risk being brutally direct in the manner of “fuck that guy” or “break up with that piece of shit!” or other such bits of vitriolic wisdom in the guise of friendly advice.
But what you can do is listen. And ask questions. And draw attention to the fact that your friend seems to feel a certain terrible, self-defeating way an awful lot when with this person, or get her to examine what it is about the situation that keeps her returning. There is a way to help someone come to a better understanding of themselves without being prescriptive or risking your friendship in the process.
Once, while feeling particularly postpartum frumpy, I complained to a good friend about how awful it felt to feel so completely out of touch with my body, bleary-eyed from the demands of having an infant. My friend responded quickly, as if she’d been waiting a long time to point this out: “Well, this probably isn’t helping,” she said dryly, pointing to the lumpy, cat-hair covered maternity jacket I’d been hiding out in for nearly a year.
It kind of pissed me off. Here I was just lamenting my current body anxiety, one that no piece of clothing could ease or make worse. She was offering helpful advice, sure, the jacket was an abomination, but I wasn’t prepared to hear it. Of course I could wear things that were more flattering. But the point was, I didn’t fucking want to! I felt like shit and just wanted to wallow. I was hoping eventually I would feel like putting something else on my body, but only because my body had changed, not my attitude.
Friendships die every day on such hills. Instead, I got over it quietly, because good friends should not be faulted for such missteps—they are usually trying to help, solve a problem, or do anything to knock you out of the funk you’re in when you’re on a tear.
But ideally we have friends for different kinds of emergency care, and if you’re lucky, when you have an issue you simply pick the one who’s good at that kind of problem-solving or listening. One friend will go out with you and help you fake your way through the night; another will commiserate all night by text until you’ve vented it all out. Still another might be the one who will tell you what you don’t want to hear.
And when it’s your turn to listen to her problems, try not to call her a slut.
Image via USA/Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.