I'm a nice, relatively well-adjusted guy with plenty of friends. For whatever reason, many of them are in personal crisis. At any time, a dozen people in my orbit are facing serious financial, psychological or interpersonal problems.
I don't know why, but people gravitate toward me for help — which means a dozen people constantly asking for my advice or just to talk. I'm a busy person in a high-stress job, and this can become a serious time-suck.
Even more frustrating is that it's a rare day when any of them follow my advice. I'm not convinced it does them any good. I'm not convinced it would even if — miracle of miracles — one of them ever took my words to heart.
I love these people deeply and don't want to see them suffer. I would do anything to help. But I can't do for all 12 at once. And I rarely actually do anything for any of them, since they only seem to want only to take up my time for a while — to be consoled somehow — before going back and doing the screwed-up things that got them into trouble in the first place.
Should I, as a friend, be doing something differently? How can I reclaim a bit of space for myself here?
— Hesitant Helper
Start an advice column. That way these wayward souls can submit their queries and you can answer them when you actually have time. Oh wait, please don't do that. I don't need the competition.
Full disclosure: I know you in real life and know you don't mess around when it comes to telling people what you think. I imagine these people seek your counsel because they think they want the hard truth. The problem is that most people are wrong about what they want. What they really want is for you to tell them what they want to hear. "No, bro, you don't smoke too much pot, don't be silly." When your advice doesn't match with what they hoped you'd say, they tune you out and do another bong hit.
Clearly, the problems your friends bring to you will run a spectrum of intensity and it's up to you to create boundaries around what you will and won't consult on. Is someone spiraling into a deep depression and you're genuinely worried about his or her safety? Absolutely get involved. Is someone having petty work drama that smacks of junior high antics? A gentle pat on the shoulder and a quick, "That sucks, dude," may be all you have time and energy for.
It is a compliment that they view you as the Owl to their Pooh, but it can't be to your own detriment. Keep giving people the brutal truth, but try to be less available. They're going to do what they want anyway, but you don't need to invest emotional energy in a problem your friend isn't willing to solve.
I was seeing a guy for a few months and did a freelance project for him during that time. We recently parted ways — slightly dramatically — and I reminded him that he owed me money. He seemed like he was going to pay me, but now it's been three weeks. How would you go about asking for the money? It's about $150, so it's not chopped liver, but I could probably live without it.
— Pay Up
You didn't assign yourself a pen name so I did it for you. Fittingly, it's the thesis of what you should say to this dude. Pay up! Could you live without the $150? Sure. Should you have to? Hell no! Severing personal ties doesn't free him up to run off with the money you earned. Text or email a friendly reminder, even though you've already done that. Follow up with a phone call if need be, but be prepared to learn a $150 lesson about not mixing business with pleasure. My Spidey Sense is telling me this guy doesn't have you at the top of his action point list.
I communicate through email a lot and I'm never sure how expressive I should be with punctuation. I like exclamation points and smiley faces, but I don't want to go overboard like my coworkers who constantly use <3 and :D and :P.
I like the :) but when it comes to emoticon-ish punctuation and exclamation points, whether for work-related or personal correspondence, how much is too much?
— Pondering Punctuation
Oh dear. You sure have caught me in the act, haven't you, what with all my exclamation points in this column. There is absolutely a difference between what is appropriate in work vs. personal correspondence, and though I love a well-timed <3 myself, I'm careful to save those for Facebook (a.k.a The Land that Grammar Forgot.)
I got a work email last week that didn't contain even one period, I swear. Every sentence ended in an exclamation point. I wasn't sure how to feel! Am I excited?! Am I angry?! I don't know!
The very fact that you're asking this question assures me that you know when to use a period, when to use an exclamation point and when not to use a <3. (That's a heart, for all you non-emoticon folks.) Tone things down a notch or two for work stuff, throw in an extra smiley face for personal email, and I think you'll be fine. <3