Illustration of young people holding protest signs that say “right to vibe” “groupchats of the world UNITE” and “unionize”
Illustration by Alina Bohoru
Health

If One Person's Annoying Behavior Is Destroying Your Friend Group, Unionize

A group of people seeking change in an organized way for the benefit of the whole outfit? Sounds like a union to me!
July 29, 2021, 12:00pm
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Getting Along is a column about taking care of yourself, setting boundaries, and having difficult conversations, for people who struggle with all three.

The past year has been marked by, among other things, impressive, necessary union efforts across industries. Fast food workers, warehouse employees, Uber drivers, and teachers, to name a few, have come together to demand better pay, hours, and benefits, and safer working conditions. 

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Unions are cool now, and the collective bargaining ethos is permeating culture in most unexpected ways. In a June episode of the current season of The Bachelorette, the men “unionized”: Several of them banded together to tell Kate (the bachelorette), at the start of the week’s rose ceremony, that their fellow contestant Karl is a no-goodnik. “We feel as a unit it’s our job to protect your heart, and we’ve come together in solidarity and we think that, unfortunately, what Karl said wasn’t the truth. As a unit, we really feel that’s what you need to hear,” Mike P. said. As a unit! We truly love to see it. And in a testament to the power of collective action, Kate gave Karl the boot. 

And lest you think this is some new thing, I stumbled across an iconic example during a recent rewatch of Sex and the City. In the Season 2 episode “Games People Play,” Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte tell Carrie that they are done listening to her talk endlessly about her breakup with Big, and that she needs to go to therapy.

It’s been more than 20 years since this episode first aired, but this scene—and the idea contained within, that you can and should band together with your friends to firmly but kindly tell an obnoxious friend that they have to cut it out—is quite timely. Now that it’s safe (ish) to do group hangs again, many of us are confronted once again with the unfortunate reality of the duds in our social circles, and the way one friend’s bad behavior can really ruin the vibe. Prior to 2020, this might have been the kind of thing you’d simply stew and shit-talk over, or, if it got bad enough, remove yourself from certain friendships—basically anything to avoid a direct conversation about it. 

But now? Well, most of us spent a good chunk of the past year at home, worried the air might kill us, thinking about how we want to use the rest of our time on this earth. People are refusing to accept minimum wage, quitting their jobs en masse, and taking to the open roads in Sprinter vans outfitted like RVs! And it turns out that a lot of folks simply do not want to spend the better part of their one wild, precious life with people who have main character syndrome or who insist on bringing their horrible partner to every function. So as we get back to socializing—and, as such, get back to dealing with dreaded social obligations—it’s a great time to reset the dynamic of the ol’ friend group, and collectively demand better conditions. Don’t simmer with quiet resentment; unionize!

Step One: Decide if unionizing is right for your friend group.

Unionizing won’t work for every friend group, or every situation. But it’s a good option when you’re dealing with a problem that is relatively low-stakes and not terribly fraught—the kind of scenarios one might post about on Am I The Asshole?, let’s say. It isn’t right for, say, concerns about intimate partner abuse, serious drug or alcohol misuse, or major worries about your friend’s mental health. It’s for instances in which your friend is simply being persistently annoying in a very specific way! 

Some examples: 

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  • A friend is being terribly self-centered à la Carrie Bradshaw talking about her ex non-stop. 
  • A friend is trying to make your friend group participate in their TikTok or Instagram content, even though you’ve expressly said you do not want to be part of their TikTok or Instagram content.
  • A friend is doing something quite morally repugnant/ethically dubious, and expects everyone to go along with it and maybe even lie on their behalf. 
  • A friend’s partner is simply intolerable. Maybe this person thinks ribbing people nonstop is hilarious, or doesn’t respect the house rules, or never repays people who front money for things, or is racist/misogynist/classist/etc., and you’re all done with them ruining every house party and beach day.*
  • A friend is planning a group trip or bachelor/ette party and isn’t respecting the majority of folks’ needs with regard to budget and general planning.
  • A friend’s buddy or partner is being a creep—e.g., hitting on everyone, talking about people in a really degrading way, making lots of “jokes” about sex that leave everyone feeling uncomfortable—and the group wants the friend to stop bringing them around. 

Two other important factors: It should be a situation where you all actually want to maintain the friendship (vs. ending it entirely), and one in which there’s a clear-cut solution (that is not “be a different person entirely”). You should genuinely care about this person and want to keep hanging out with them... you just need something to change for that to be possible. 

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*If the problem is the way a friend’s partner is treating them, and, more specifically, is behaving in a way that is fairly cruel, controlling, or possibly abusive, a confrontation like this could end up being twisted by the partner to isolate the person from their friends, which is exactly what they want! So in that situation, consider a different tack like this.

Step Two: Talk to your friends about unionizing. 

If someone in your circle is behaving badly, you’re probably already talking to your pals one-on-one about how much you dislike it. You might even have expanded these conversations to the bigger group. And, in fact, these casual discussions are a prerequisite to what comes next: You need to find out if the rest of the group is willing to join you in actually doing something about the problem. So the next time a few of you are griping about it, seize your opportunity: “Friends, I think it’s time we put an end to our shit-talking about Jay and just draw a line in the sand: If they want to come on the trip in October, they have to leave Tyler at home. What would you think about us taking a firm stance on this and talking to them about this later this week?” 

Or, you know, you could just send your fellow gripers this article right now with the eyes emoji! 

Step Three: Formulate your demands.

When co-workers unionize, they have to determine what their biggest priorities are. You and your friends will also need to decide what it is you need from the friend of yours who is being annoying at the moment. Again, this request needs to be fair, reasonable, and practical—anything massively inconvenient or super expensive is probably not the way to go (at least not if you aren’t all willing to help offset some of the costs or hassle). The solution should also be specific; avoid anything that is too vague, too subjective, or too annoying to litigate (like “be less dramatic”). 

And skip any short-term solutions that could allow more harm to be done. Instead of “Sam’s on notice! If they do one more big racism, they’re no longer allowed to come around!!!” it should just be more like “Sam’s no longer invited. Sorry!” 

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On the other hand... dare to dream! Just because you’ve been raised to believe that there’s no greater harm than making an annoying person who repeatedly breaks the social contract feel slightly uncomfortable or embarrassed doesn’t mean it’s actually true. So talk with your friends about what you’d like to change, and come up with a simple-to-understand demand, like...

  • Kai has to stop attempting to film TikToks with us in them when we’re all hanging out together.
  • If Alex is going to cheat on their partner Sam, that’s their business, but they can’t keep talking about their affairs to us, or ask us to tell Sam they were with us when they were actually out cheating.  
  • Jay’s buddy Tyler is no longer invited to stuff, including the group trip you’ve recently been batting around. Jay is welcome, but Tyler can’t come, because Tyler ruins everything.

Keep in mind that there’s a good chance your friend will, once confronted, try to get you to change your mind—maybe they’ll insist that the thing you’re annoyed about isn’t a big deal, or they’ll tell you that you’re being unfair or a bad friend. They may also try to negotiate (“Fine, Tyler won’t come along for the trip in October, but I’m still bringing them to brunch every weekend”) or even threaten to walk (“If Tyler can’t come, I’m not going either!!!”). You all should be prepared for this, especially the latter scenario. Decide in advance what other solutions you’d be willing to accept, and discuss whether you’re OK with a situation in which your friend misses a group trip or stops hanging out with you all for a little while. 

Step Four: Bring your demands to the table. 

Before you talk to your friend, your group should elect a union rep—basically, decide who is going to be doing the talking. Quite often, I’d suggest not confronting someone as a group, because it can be counterproductive—the person feels ganged up on and gets defensive, and can’t really hear what you’re saying to them. But there’s also power in numbers—that’s kind of the whole point of a union! And in situations like these, when the problem at hand isn’t particularly fraught, it makes sense to do it as a group, with one person leading and the others chiming in with support and backup. You don’t want your friend to be able to brush away the concerns, or act like the primary speaker is the only one who thinks this way. (And if you speak on behalf of folks who aren’t involved/present, you run the risk of them throwing you under the bus and saying they don’t agree later.) The secret to making the group conversation work is to nail the tone. 

While I’m all for bringing a serious manner to serious conversations, this is an instance in which a ton of formality will likely stress the recipient out and lead to more stress and drama. I actually think the tone in the aforementioned SATC scene is a great one to strive for. The women are friendly, firm, and direct, and ultimately communicate, “This is not that deep!” It doesn’t feel like they are ganging up to assault Carrie’s character; instead, it’s very, “Hey, we love you, but this is annoying and we’d like it to stop!” Think of how you might tell a sibling they are being annoying and go from there. 

Step Five: Hold the line against union-busting.

Even if your friend union is united at first, the reality is that a lot of people hate conflict and balk at the idea of being “mean” (note: setting boundaries is not mean!) to anyone. So even if your friend agrees to whatever it is you’re asking of them at first, don’t be surprised if they later try to walk it back, or get you to make exceptions, or go to the Charlotte of your friend group to try to wear them down. Instead, plan in advance that this will happen, and give each other your word that you’ll stay firm in your beliefs. Unions are about mutual support and solidarity; once someone crosses the friend group picket line, it’s all over.