Saturday, June 26, 2010

Pretend Friends

Some folks will pretend to be your friend, because they want something from you.

You've experienced this before. You meet someone and they pretend to be your friend. They are "friendly" to you and all, but in a way that sets off alarm bells in your head - something is not right with them - something is not genuine. They always have this phony full-tooth smile, and make eye contact and say your name three times, like they just came back from a Dale Carnegie seminar.

And sure enough, this "pretend friend" soon asks you for a favor. Maybe something small, maybe something large. But they always end up asking, sooner or later. And sometimes they ask you to do things for them just so they can make you do things. It is pretty sick. And pretty soon, you find yourself asking why you are doing things for this person. In every transaction with them, it's all about them, and what they need. After a while, you get the impression it is a one-way street with them, which it is.

And if you are not of any value to the pretend friend, they drop you like a hot potato pretty quickly.

Who are these people? And are they even people? They act more like replicants, it seems, aliens or machines taking human form, aping the characteristics of humans, but not getting it quite right. They can be charming, but there is always something missing from the picture.

Psychiatrists call them "sociopaths" - people who basically mimic human behavior, but have no internal moral compass or set of beliefs. They use people and take what they want from life, with no remorse or sense of equity.

In extreme cases, such as Ted Bundy, they can be murderers, charming young women before strangling them to death.

How do they succeed at this? Well, because regular people are needy. Real humans have a need to be noticed, accepted, validated, and wanted. It is a human emotion, but one that the sociopath does not have.

I first noticed this at a law conference. Everyone there was a young lawyer, attending a Continuing Legal Education (CLE) conference to get their CLE credits. During the breaks and the reception later on, most were shy and nervous. The only people socializing were those who already knew someone there (having come as a group). It is an awkward social situation - being in a strange place among strangers, and you probably have experienced it yourself.

I looked around the room and realized that most of the people there felt awkward and shy and didn't know anyone else at the conference. In other words, everyone else there was like me. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I went up to someone who looked bored and nervous and said "Hi, how are you doing?" and before long, we had a discussion going among a group of people and everyone was having a good time. They were desperate not to look like they were alone, and when I came up and said "Hi" it was a relief for them to have someone to talk to.

People naturally want to be listened to and noticed and validated. So the sociopath can take advantage of this and pour on the charm and pour attention onto someone and then make them feel important. And people respond to it. Everyone likes a good listener. Try it some time, at the next party or event. Ask someone questions about their hobbies and pretend to be interested in their Hummel collection. They'll love you for life! And you might learn something interesting about Hummel, you never know. Did you know that each figurine comes with its own certificate of authenticity?

But I digress...

The problem with sociopaths is that they can be huge time and energy drains in your life, and you are best limiting contact with them. They will pretend to be your friend, while at the same time, driving a knife into your ribs. If it means a promotion for them (over you) such people are more than happy to spread rumors about you among management. And oftentimes management is foolish enough to believe such things - without wondering whether they should keep a rumor-monger on the staff.

I wrote before in They're Baiting You! about the young law firm Associate who would take people out to lunch - Associates who were ahead of them in line for partnership - and run down the firm and generally try to get a "bitch session" going. They would then report to the partners than so-and-so was criticizing the firm. And to add icing on the cake, they would then sick headhunters on the associate they were trying to get rid of. It is an effective strategy, as once you can convince someone that a particular place is a crappy place to work, all it will take is one headhunter call to make them go away. And yes, some people are this Machiavellian.

How do you deal with such people? It can be difficult. For starters, avoid them entirely if at all possible. If you are forced to deal with such people, for example, in a work situation, try to keep things at a superficial level and don't get drawn into their games. If they ask you for favors, find reasons not to help them out. Once they realize you are of no use to them, they will probably drop you, like a hot potato, in no time.

And make sure, above all else, that they don't perceive you as a threat. If you are not in their way, they will likely ignore you, once they realize you are of no value to them. But once you place yourself squarely in their path, then it becomes their life's work to eliminate you. You are better off side-stepping such folks.

Why are people like this? It is hard to say. Some people view life as one continuous struggle, for everything from getting a job, to finding a good parking space at the mall (we've all seen the latter). Even trivial daily things they view as a challenge, to somehow get ahead, make an extra buck, cut in line, rise to the top, get a little extra, or whatever. They probably came from disadvantaged childhoods, perhaps. Or perhaps they are just sociopaths.

Whatever the cause they can cause a lot of trouble in your life, through baiting behavior, and by making everything into a contest. Cooperation and getting along are not in their vocabulary. For them, its "Heads I win, tails you lose!"

And some folks get upset when the sociopaths in our lives "win" at these silly games, whether it is cutting you off in the parking lot to get a parking space, or ingratiating themselves to management to get ahead. And let's face it, every company in America is top-heavy with witless staff that somehow managed to get promoted, despite their utter lack of talent. The Office, while a sit-com farce, is not far off the mark.

The solace you can take from this is that such people are generally very unhappy. Despite their glued-on smiles and pumping handshakes, these sort of folks will never know real friendship or love or even success. To the sociopath, no amount of success is ever enough. They crave the trappings of success and have deep-seated needs to be envied and admired. These are the sort of people who buy "look at me!" houses and cars and boats, hoping to impress others with the trappings of their wealth.

But at the end of the day, such things are very hollow and of no worth. What's the point in having a nice house, when you end up divorcing your wife of 20 years in the process? Six bedrooms are awfully empty when you only have custody every other weekend. The real values in life are not in "winning" at every task and challenge - particularly when winning at the expense of others and for no real gain.

All you can do is let these type of people play their silly games - but don't get drawn into them. Because all they want to do is win, and they won't ask you to play, unless it is preordained they win.

Pretend friends are dime a dozen. Some folks feel a need to have a lot of friends, and end up having a lot of pretend friends as a result. But you are better off having a few, sincere friends, rather than a cadre of phonies. In fact, if you have one really good friend, that may be all you really need.

Walk away from the phonies. Being ignored is the one thing that they cannot stand.