DEAR MISS MANNERS: I have a male friend who is always bringing up people I don’t know: people he works with and people from his past. The content is almost always of a problem at work or a death. I have no interest in listening to such empty chatter.
He expects me to sit and joyfully listen to news about people I don’t know. Recently he got very angry when I said I didn’t want to hear about these people. He responded very angrily and loudly with, “Well, you know what? I’ll just call somebody who cares about me.” I never said I didn’t care about him; I said I didn’t want to hear about his work-related stories about strangers.
Am I wrong to not want to hear about the people he works (or worked) with or the people from his past, none of whom I know? Please help me set the conversation in a productive direction.
GENTLE READER: It is reasonable to set some boundaries to stories about people you do not know. Where that line is, however, depends not on your knowledge of the person being discussed -- you can always get to know them vicariously through these stories -- but on the nature and depth of the friendship, the amount of repetition and the level of reciprocity. In other words, does this friend listen to you in return?
Miss Manners will provide you with three ways to change the subject -- and one way not to. “Yes, you told me about that; it sounds really annoying,” is acceptable, so long as it is delivered with compassion, not impatience. “A similar thing happened to me ...” is another way out. (If your friend does not listen to your stories, you may wonder whether the friendship is worth continuing.) And finally, “You seem so upset. Let’s talk about something else to cheer you up.”
Let us agree, however, that you will not characterize news about the death of one of your friend’s acquaintances as “empty chatter.”