Thursday, March 22, 2007

Question & Answer With Shoshana (Bershad) - Maintaining A Distance From Nudniks

(Illustration by Gene Deitch)

A Simple Jew asks:

In the past, I wrote about maintaining a distance from nudniks. I wonder if you have any insight of how do such in a manner that will not be perceived as unfriendly.

Shoshana (Bershad) answers:

Most women will listen patiently while someone "pours her heart out" about a serious problem. If we can offer a useful suggestion or refer someone to a professional for help, we do so; but most people just need a sympathetic ear. They need to have someone acknowledge their pain and confirm that their feelings are valid, and we can help them by sympathizing and soothing. Often, they just need a sounding board: as they put their distress into words, they begin to formulate a decision, or a path toward a solution becomes evident. And for the listener, even if the subject matter is painful and depressing, it feels good to respond to a need and help someone else.

As I reflect on this, two individuals stand out in my memory. One was a close friend I used to work with. She was a decent and moral person, raised in a very traditional family, yet her life turned into a soap opera: her grandson had been sexually abused by his own father, yet the court was ordering visitation with the perpetrator. The saga continued for years. My friend was under tremendous stress, which took a physical toll on her health. When she talked to me about the pain of being unable to protect her grandchild, there was little I could do to help, except to listen and sympathize, but I could not begrudge her a minute of the time, as I knew it helped her. And when I was going through a crisis of my own, she was always there to listen to me. We felt like sisters, and the burden was lighter when it was shared.

The other person I remember was a neighbor going through the ups and downs of a difficult marriage. I didn't know her well, but I babysat her children in the afternoons, and I would hear a new episode of her story every evening when she picked up the kids. I do remember feeling drained, to the point of wanting to avoid hearing any more of the sordid details. Now that I am thinking about it, I can't tell you why this experience was so different from the other. Was it that I didn't like her or that I disapproved of her? Was it that she never took my advice? No, I remember feeling that our relationship was completely one-sided; she never, ever, asked me about MY life, even though I had problems, too. I felt that she wasn't being a friend; she was using me. Maybe that's the difference.

Another aspect is timing. My office friend would usually talk with me at lunchtime; at other times, she would ask whether the time was convenient for me, or, if she couldn't hold back the tears, she'd apologize for interrupting my work. In contrast, my neighbor generally caught me when it was time to start dinner and our kids were getting "antsy." In retrospect, I probably should have suggested meeting with her at a more convenient time, without the children, so that I could give full attention to her problems. But when emotions are running high, it's difficult to confine them to a schedule.

You asked how one can politely maintain a distance from nudniks. As you can see, I am not good at setting boundaries (although perhaps I've learned my lesson). When you feel true friendship and sympathy, you don't hesitate to listen if you think it will help the other person. What makes a person "needy" (as opposed to being "a friend in need")? I think the needy person is someone whose troubles become an imposition, blocking you from fulfilling your own needs; he shows no concern about inconveniencing you, and he is not someone you consider a true friend.

I opened my remarks with the comment that there is, perhaps, a gender difference in the reaction to hearing other people's problems. Women are nurturers, and we often have a sense of sisterhood with our extended "family" of friends, so we are generous with emotional support. Men may have a warm sense of brotherhood, but they learn not to express and share their emotions openly with other men (except through sports! I often observe that this is the medium through which my husband and son connect emotionally). A person who breaks through that invisible barrier is more likely regarded as a pest. Men may also be more goal-oriented; they see no purpose in simply commiserating unless a "solution" is achieved. And yet, men are fathers, sons, and brothers, and they serve as rabbis, coaches, and mentors. Certainly, they, too, can experience the tremendous joy of "being there" for a friend.

A Simple Jew responds:

The people you described above are truly in need of our compassion and attention, yet there are others who I would define as true nudniks. These are the type of people who try to speak with you about nothing in particular and follow you while you try to attend to your children's needs without any concept that you too have responsibilities. They only speak about obscure topics that they want to talk about and ask inane questions about the particulars of your life, such as inquiring about the specific times your wife woke up to feed the baby. These were the people I was referring to when I asked for advice on how to distance oneself from them in a "friendly" manner.

Shoshana (Bershad) responds:

Hmmm, I think my husband and son regard ME as a nudnik sometimes! My husband tends to focus intently on one thing at a time, and he simply does not respond when I intrude on his thoughts; or he pretends to listen, but I soon notice his eyes glazing over and his attention wandering off. My son handles these interruptions more diplomatically: he explains that he's working on something and promises to listen when he's finished. That is usually my response, too; if I'm in the middle of doing something that requires concentration, I will ask someone to "hold that thought" or even use a hand signal (raising a cautionary index finger) to indicate that I need "just a minute" to finish what I'm doing. My daughter is unlike the rest of the family; she's much better at multi-tasking, and she seems able to carry on several tasks and conversations at the same time. But, if necessary, she politely indicates that she's busy but will get back to me as soon as she can.

If the topic is totally uninteresting, of course, a request for postponement is not the answer; it just delays the pain. Think of how you behave when you're interested and attentive, and do the opposite: avoid eye contact, utter monosyllabic responses, and use body language (e.g., yawn, glance at your wristwatch, shift your posture, look away) to show that you're bored. If you want to remain friendly, you have to tone this down and be subtle, but you can certainly avoid asking follow-up questions or nodding encouragement to the speaker.

I have a few friends whose phone calls I dread because they tend to drone on and on. I've learned to wrap up these calls by saying, "thanks for telling me about this; keep me posted on how it turns out" or even, "well, it was nice talking to you, but I've got to go now" (without being too specific about my plans). You can add, "Have a good day!" (or the Hebrew equivalent), which is recognized as a conversation-ender.

As for the person who asks questions that are too personal, I'll pass on the advice of a newspaper columnist: turn the tables on the questioner, saying, pointedly, "Now, why on earth would you ask me about THAT?!" Or, if you'd prefer to handle it more delicately, you could say, "Oh, I'm sure my private life isn't all that interesting," and if the questioner persists, just smile and keep mum. After a few attempts, the nudnik will learn that you are not going to back down. Follow up immediately by changing the topic to something extremely innocuous, like the weather, which sends a signal about the degree of intimacy you're willing to tolerate in casual conversation.

I hope my remarks are not seen as evidence of a yetzer hara (evil inclination). It’s better to overcome a selfish preoccupation with our own thoughts and activities when others have a real need for our attention. But we have responsibilities, obligations, limited time, a right to privacy, and needs of our own. We are not obliged to answer every prying question, nor be everyone’s best friend.


At March 22, 2007 at 8:22:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz said...


I have some (i'd like to think) great advice in this instance. I learned from my father who always learns from people what it is they know best, and my mother who is always willing to engage everyone in a creative manner.

My method fuses the two approaches together.

When a true nudnik talks to me, I try to figure out what special nougats of knowledge they may have, what unique qualities they have that makes them different from others, and I steer all conversation (creatively) in the direction of themselves, asking them about their lives, cutting in to redirect their diatribes towards information that i'm interested in or might be curious about.

This usually leads to an interesting conversation for me, and they eventually cut it short.

I got my training playing this game with a brilliant but schizophrenic musician who talked about at least four different topics at once. Whatever he was interested in. When I started to be able to keep up with all the conversations and introduce my own threads of conversation in addition, he used to get bored and move on to someone else.

Remember that the Baal Shem Tov made it very clear that all our interactions are interactions with God. My feeling is, instead of trying to avoid it, engage it and take it in a direction of your choosing. Once you know the rules of the game, and that it's a game, you can take control because they aren't aware that the rules exist at all. Essentially, you have to transcend nudniks.

To some tzaddikim, we must all seem like nudniks. (obviously because of their compassion, they don't see us as nudnikim, but we are always bringing them all of our problems, and talking about ourselves all the time. And it's not like there's any question about 'convenient times' we bug them 24/7!!)

At March 23, 2007 at 11:14:00 AM EDT, Blogger Alice said...

I think Shoshana and Yitz are both making good suggestions.

Something I learned as a Special Educator- and in my own life- is that social skills are LEARNED. I picked up some lousy ones from my parents, even though they are awesome people, and my son will surely pick up some lousy ones from my husband and me if we aren't careful. My awesome mentor used to give up her lunch hour to eat lunch with some kids who were sorely lacking these skills. She taught them how to take turns in conversation, how to validate what other people were saying, how to interpret tone or ambiguous comments, etc. And I have certainly learned how to be patient by hanging out with some very awesome rabbis who know how to make anyone feel good. So maybe these people will learn a thing or two from your patience and subtle cues to take the conversation to appropriate topics.

At March 23, 2007 at 12:34:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yitz and Alice have some interesting ideas about how to enrich a conversation and derive a benefit from it. But when someone's a nudnik, he's--by definition--a pest, an irritant, an impediment, and he's asking impertinent questions or making inane comments to you at a time when you're not feeling receptive and your attention is rightfully directed elsewhere (perhaps he's intruding on your limited time to read a book, or perhaps you need to focus on caring for your children). If you overcome your resistance to a conversation with him, will either of you benefit? And what will you lose in the exchange? If you're not the nudnik's teacher or counselor (or parent), what do you owe him, other than a few polite words? We generally make these "value judgments" subconsciously, and I think we have to trust our instincts.


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