Are my friends too abstruse?

My roommate comes out with us, but all our high-flown talk seems to leave him baffled

By Cary Tennis
Published July 26, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I love your column so much! I'm writing for some advice -- it's definitely not about a dire life-or-death situation by any stretch of the imagination, but I'm sure it's one a lot of folks struggle with.

I move around in a very creative community. Almost all of my friends are artists or teachers whose politics swing very far left. They're great. Super funny, incredibly cultured, verbose, thoughtful, etc. I have another friend that lives with me whose interests are different. He appreciates the arts but isn't really steeped in them the way my friends are. His values are also more traditional regarding family and gender roles.

Since we live together, I invite my housemate to meet and hang out with my friends. I'm the sort of person who likes to include people. If he wants to, he joins us. But I've noticed that he often shuts down when he's out with us. He'll even pull his chair away and start looking at things on his phone. His attitude is of total disinterest. This has happened several times. I know that this is a type of shyness on his part, a defensive behavior he uses when he's a bit out of his element. He's more accustomed to commanding the conversation and being the center of attention. He does try and engage with my friends and vice versa, but the conversations can only go so far. My friends like to have pretty intellectual conversations or talk about rather esoteric things. Not a lot of folks are into the things they like, so when they get together, they really want to maximize the opportunity to talk out their ideas and interests. I mean, that's what friends do! I told him that if he wasn't comfortable with my friends, he didn't have to hang out with them, but he says he enjoys it.

He's an adult and can take care of himself, but *I* get stressed out by his disinterested behavior. It's really hard for me to enjoy myself when he acts and looks like he doesn't want to be there. It changes the energy in the room, too. People don't want to initiate a conversation with him when he acts bored or disinterested.

So do I quit inviting him out? Is this an instance where I should obey the notion that birds of a feather flock together, and quit trying to integrate this other buddy?

Wanting Everyone to be Friends

Dear Wanting Everyone to be Friends,

The short answer goes like this: If your housemate's behavior makes you uncomfortable, stop inviting him out. End of story.

The longer answer is more like this: In the kind of casual, mixed social group you describe (if English were more like German it might be a Casualmixedsocialgroup), ideas and witticisms are exchanged and rapid references are made to works of art, poetry, music and prose, as well as scientific discoveries and current areas of study. These references are sometimes abbreviated, and met with excited recognition. This kind of talk requires a shared context. And it requires some intellectual focus.

Generally speaking, such mixed, casual social groups do not support such intellectual focus. There isn't time for questions. One either gets what's being discussed or one doesn't. Such conversation can be hard for a generalist to follow.

For that reason, it is an act of kindness and generosity to dial back the intensity when not everyone knows what's going on. At least, it's kind and generous if you want to be inclusive.

You and your friends may not really want to be inclusive. There is, I must say, a certain pleasure in being exclusive -- especially if your interests are so esoteric that you yourselves have at times experienced exclusion and now enjoy being on the inside. Not only does it feel good to be understood by those who share your discipline, but it also feels good to be the only ones who know about some complicated and interesting idea.

However, much conflict exists between the requirements of a casual, mixed social group and the requirements of a focused study and discussion group. Casual, mixed social groups are generally porous and leaderless, whereas focused study and discussion groups are walled off and have a leader and an agreed process. It may be impossible for the functions of both to happen at the same time. That inherent contradiction may be the source of your housemate's feeling of exclusion and your discomfort about his behavior.

Maybe the two should be separated. If it's a discussion group, he might not want to join you. And if it's a casual mixed social group, he might rightly expect that at some point someone in the group will turn to him say, Hey there, fella, where you from and how about those Minnesota Twins -- or Pittsburgh Pirates, or Houston Astros, or whoever. Ya know?

And if nobody does that, well, that might be why he's staring into space looking sorry he came.

If you want your housemate to join your friends for a night out, perhaps you can negotiate with your friends by telling them that what is planned is a casual night out, and you would like your housemate to feel included, and so to dial back a notch on the special, abstruse conversation. Conversely, if you crave intense conversation with people who have studied the same things and instantly grasp subtle ideas related to your discipline, perhaps you need to meet for focused study and discussion -- or casually, but not trying to include everybody.

So the short answer is as above: If his behavior makes you uncomfortable, then stop inviting him out. But the longer answer is that perhaps you can negotiate and make some adjustments, depending on what kind of time you want to have. This negotiation can occur with your group of friends and also with your housemate. You can tell him that you appreciate his company and have observed that at times he tunes out the discussion, and commit to trying to be more inclusive when he is out with the group.

Cary Tennis

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