(Ask Alle is an advice column, written whenever the titular blogger feels like writing it. Alle Malice has a B.A. in Psychology, which as one professor put it, is basically a degree in seeing through other people’s bullshit. Though she does not pretend to have it all figured out, she does have enough figured out to be helpful. On the rare occasion that she cannot be helpful, she will be funny, and if she cannot be funny, she will share an embarrassing story.
I started going out with this boy, we’ll call him Derek, and I thought he was [awesome]. Well, he chucked me and started going out with one of my best mates. Now he’s telling everyone that I’m frigid and none of my friends will talk to me anymore because they’re all siding with him and her. I wish I’d never gone out with him and I wish I never met her, but they were so [cool] in the start.
My question is, how do you know who’s a bad person and who isn’t?
Lawd. How many times have I prayed for a litmus test for exactly this situation? C, first of all, I want you to know that there are High School Problems and then there are Grown Up Problems; what you are describing is very much a Grown Up Problem which happens to be set on the high school stage. Throughout your life, you are going to meet people who turn out to be very different than you thought, and sometimes–like in your situation–it will not be for the better. But though it’s hard, there are some ways to spot bad people or, because I don’t really believe that anyone is really BAD, certainly People Who Will Be Trouble.
A good way to spot People Who Will Be Trouble is that they have two vastly different faces. This isn’t a matter of cleaning up vocabulary because you are with your mother; this is a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde situation. It might be hard to make judgments on people like this because they’re probably showing off their best side to you; “They’re nice to me,” you justify. “They’re certainly not nice to everyone.” The way to look at this is to compare the face that the person shows you with the face that they show the world. If the discrepancy is too vast, keep your distance. If you see someone doing terrible things, even if they are sweet as pie to you in that moment, get out while the getting’s good.
Another way to spot People Who Will Be Trouble is to look at their friends. Psychological research in social exchange theory is pretty clear on this one: we like people who are similar to us in major ways. This is called the Matching Hypothesis (Goffman 1952) when it deals with physical attractiveness and the Law of Attraction (Byrne 1971) when it deals with attitudes. What does this mean for daily life? Simply that birds of a feather flock together, so look closely at the plumage: does this person whine about their friends being selfish or immature or otherwise broken? Could be that they’re selfish or immature or otherwise broken themselves. The relationships that we have are reflections of ourselves, and the things we can learn about people from observing their interactions with others are very telling.
Become a dedicated observer and look for patterns in people’s behaviour. If you’re looking to date someone, find out how their last relationship ended. If you’re looking to be BFFs with someone new, look at their past friendships. It’s not foolproof because I believe that people can change, but man, sometimes you really can find out about a fire by looking for the smoke. Is this person a serial dater? Do they undergo a complete friend-purge every six months? If so, you might just be another link in the chain. Here’s a fun anecdote to back this one up, because you know how I love sharing my humiliations: I once dated a dude who still had a girlfriend when we met. We were together for almost a month before he broke up with her, much to my surprise (she contacted me as she suspected he had not been honest with me; she was correct). I was pissed but took him back; I thought he wouldn’t do it again because I was different. I was wrong. He did exactly same thing to me, and man, was I mad afterwards–not about the guy (I was kind of over him at that point anyway), but because I was so stupid as to ignore the warning signs completely.
On a similar note, if you ever find yourself saying anything even remotely approaching “They won’t do [this terrible thing] to me because I am different,” RUN, do not walk. Thinking like this is the direct result of contact with a Person Who Will Be Trouble. Yeah, you might be different, but chances are that it’ll still happen to you. When a pattern of negative behaviour has been established it’s very hard to break; gambling on it NOT happening again is like playing Russian Roulette with a loaded gun.
Not to sound like a straight-edge fuddy duddy, but people who abuse drugs and/or alcohol are trouble. Notice that I said abuse, not use; I drink but am not a drunk, and though I stay away from drugs I know that it is possible (though not terribly likely) for people to use them responsibly. We all learn to just say no as kids, but the truth is that peer pressure is hard to resist even as an adult. Limit your exposure to these people and the types of situations where you’d have to just say no, so that you won’t have to say it very often.
On a similar topic, here’s another Alle’s Mother-ism: Don’t trust anyone who won’t take “no” for an answer. If you really don’t want to do something–if you’re really, truly intractable–and someone tries to change your mind for whatever reason, call it what it is: manipulation. And manipulation is the work of People Who Will Be Trouble. A simple “No” or “No thankyou” if you’re polite (like me!) should be your final word, and anyone who will not accept that isn’t anyone you want in your life.
Okay, so I’m cheating: this one is not about the other people who may be trouble, it’s about YOU: If you’re picking all the wrong friends and potential significant others, if you keep getting beaten down by life, it means that somewhere in your process you are doing something wrong. It’s not your fault; it just means that you’re making a mistake down the line. Look back at the bad times to see what went wrong–and I mean REALLY look, because often the underlying problem isn’t obvious. Learn from it. There is always something that you can do to make things better, easier or more positive the next time around, I promise. You have to find it, is all.
Finally, to quote from an awesome book (The Perks of Being A Wallflower), “We accept the love we think we deserve.” What kind of love do you think you deserve? Now that you’ve answered that question honestly, accept the following statements as 100% trufax: YOU ARE AWESOME and YOU DESERVE WONDERFUL THINGS. Got standards for the people in your life? Raise them. Then raise them again, and don’t be modest this time. Insist on being treated well, treat other people well, and you’ll find that a lot fewer People Who Will Be Trouble are able to find their way into your life.
Good luck, C. Good luck to all of us.