Auntie says farewell
Auntie Matter on how she gives advice
Big news: Auntie Matter is graduating! At commencement, you might notice two students stacked on top of each other inside regalia. That’s Auntie.
She invites would-be advice-givers to hang up their own shingle next year and start giving advice to the lovelorn, the academically agonized, and the employment embittered. (Uncle Energy? Auntie Symmetry? Grandma Gravity? Cooking instruction from Cousin Cuisine?)
To ready the path for the next generation of advice givers, Auntie will offer some reflections on the principles by which she has written this column. Like any teacher at MIT, she will demonstrate these principles for you by solving an example problem and then leaving you on your own for the rest of them.
Dear Auntie Matter,
My friend keeps unloading her problems on me and asking me for advice on almost everything she does. It's getting kind of exhausting. I don't want to hurt her feelings, but I dread talking to her because it's depressing. She's also been invasive with the questions she asks me lately (which I suppose is fair given how much she's told me, but I'm not comfortable with it). She also talks about how she's a romantic and is “meant to be with someone,” but it doesn't seem healthy, especially given how much she worries about her crush. I know I need to talk to her about this, but I'm not sure how to bring it up in a way that would be helpful.
— Frustrated Friend
Auntie will address both you and her reading audience in this column. She appreciates your willingness to be an example!
Auntie’s first step in reading any letter is to look at what can be inferred. Usually, the root problem in a letter is not the explicit subject of the letter. In this case, Frustrated asks about how to speak to her friend (about their relationship and about her friend’s romantic life). Frustrated does not need advice about what words to use with her friend but, instead, about what has gone wrong in her friendship and why.
The biggest implicit clue in this letter comes at the end. The subject of the letter is a friend who needs too much advice, but tellingly, Frustrated closes with a question about how to give the friend yet more advice!
Frustrated, you resent on some level the neediness of your friend (despite your best efforts to prevaricate on the matter “I suppose [it’s] fair,” “I don’t want to hurt her feelings,” etc.), but you cannot resist interceding nonetheless. You want your friend to need you, and your friend is needy. It is easy to see how this dynamic perpetuates itself.
There are a few other clues that Auntie gained from this letter that can shed more light on the situation. Frustrated’s friend does not seem to notice that Frustrated is uncomfortable with her personal inquiries and her dependency.
Frustrated, perhaps your friend lacks social skills generally and has not noticed that you are growing resentful. Or perhaps she has noticed, and this makes her cling tighter. Auntie also noted that it seems like Frustrated wanted permission to cease being friends with this person — if that is the case, Frustrated, you have Auntie’s permission.
The last sort of ‘meta-analysis’ that Auntie usually does of a letter is to look at how a letter-writer thinks — what sort of thought patterns they have, and how it might lead to the sort of trouble in the letter. In this case, the issue seems to be with a toxic friendship, not toxic thought patterns, though Frustrated would do well to think about why she feels so obligated to help her friend.
In light of her observations on the letter, Auntie offers practical advice. She reflects on what would be good for the letter-writer based on her analysis, and comes up with steps to achieve those goals.
In this case, Auntie thought the friendship was unhealthy, and she wasn’t confident in the communication skills of the people involved. Therefore, she is offering advice on how the letter-writer can get distance from the friend without having to have a conversation about it. She thinks that these two individuals are not well-suited to be close friends, so she is not telling Frustrated to maintain an intimate friendship.
Especially if a more distant friendship is the goal, a slow drift, rather than a conversation, is the best way to get there. If you will be more distant, there is no need for such intimate communication. Auntie is also offering advice on what to do in the moment when the friend is relating her problems or asking personal questions.
First, Frustrated, you can try to shift the dynamic. Auntie recommends doing so in an unspoken way — she is not sure a conversation about your friendship would be productive, as your friend seems too fragile to withstand candid feedback and would likely take such a conversation as a complete rejection. Try to only hang out with your friend in group settings, or when you can do more structured and engrossing activities, such as watching a movie, playing games, doing an escape room, etc. We are also coming up on the summer, which could be a natural time to get some distance from your friend.
However, you may sometimes still end up in an emotional conversation with the friend. If this happens, try to have an excuse or an activity afterwards so that you can more easily leave the conversation. And if she is pressing you to share personal things, you should express that you’re not comfortable sharing.
Auntie also imagines that a number of interactions between you and the friend occur over online messaging. If the friend is messaging you about her personal problems, wait a few hours before messaging her back and don’t message her back at length. Instead, simply say, “I’m sorry to hear that’s bothering you,” and try to shift the conversation, e.g. by sending a funny video or meme.
If you cannot reset this friendship, or if you just don’t enjoy spending time with your friend, Auntie thinks the friendship should be tapered off. Gradually spend less time with her. Try not to be available for one-on-one time. Luckily, you are no doubt genuinely quite busy, so this should not be too hard.
Despite Auntie’s advanced age (older than time itself), there are still individuals she believes are wiser than her. For this final column, Auntie has polled some truly wise faculty and staff at MIT for their advice to graduates. Below, in no particular order, are their words of wisdom:
- “Many things in life will not unfold either as planned or hoped for. But there are some life goals over which you have complete control. Make a commitment to being kind and solicitous of other people’s needs and perspectives. Then critically, choose not to care whether you get credit for any good that results. If you strive for this among your other ambitions, it will make the setbacks you cannot avoid easier to recover from.”
- “To get the most out of every personal and professional relationship, bring something to the table: have considered opinions and be prepared to argue for them. But if you want your opinions to be truly considered, be critical not only of other people’s thoughts, assumptions, and prejudices, but especially of your own. And have a sense of humor! Laughter puts everything in perspective.”
- “Here is the advice I have lived by: (1) Take advantage of opportunities that broaden your perspectives, challenge you, and excite you, even if they don’t fit some predetermined plan. (2) Commit to making time for your personal life — do what you love with those you love; the result will be lasting memories and no regrets.”
- “When I reflect on the moments of happiness in my life, I notice how often they are associated with laughter, awe, and hope. So I suppose my advice would be never to neglect the less often cited virtues of humor, of appreciation of beauty, and of future-mindedness.”
- “It is good to think about your career and plan a few years out. Be open to changing that plan when something new or unexpected happens.”