I have a group of friends—mostly good people—and we spend a lot of time together. We have the same taste in music, restaurants and movies. The problem is that anytime I want to do something, it turns into a group effort. There’s no such thing as going out to dinner with one or two of them; word goes out and the next thing I know, I’m sitting at a table for 12. I love the whole group thing, but not every time I want to go to a movie or something. It’s difficult to have a meaningful conversation or bond with a friend when there are so many voices, all wanting to be heard at once. Am I antisocial? How can I invite one friend to dinner exclusively without hurting anyone’s feelings? Well, you’re not alone in your thoughts about this. So many millennials run in packs, all great buddies. This is certainly fun, but it’s not intimacy. But every pack has its own pecking order, just like the old sitcom Friends, and there are usually small packs within big packs. And there are always hurt feelings, jealousies, pairings and dropouts within the group. Your friends are not Canada geese flying in formation; they’re all over the place.
You’re overthinking this situation. I’m sure you already know the people in your crowd who would love to go to the movies alone with you. Just do it. No one’s going to get their nose out of joint if you know your characters: like-minded people who can use a break from the pod. Enjoy the freedom.
I live in a leafy suburb on the South Shore in a neighborhood where everyone is hospitable, high school sports are important and people go sailing and fishing. It’s an old-fashioned town and my wife and I raised our two boys there. On Halloween night, my wife was visiting her parents, and kids were coming nonstop to our house, where we were loaded with candy. They were all in hysterical costumes, and I snapped pictures to show my wife when she got home. At one point in the evening, the doorbell rang and a mother of trick-or-treaters who had come by earlier was at the door. “How dare you take pictures of my children?” she said red-faced and furious. “You’d better not post those on Facebook.” I was shocked and I apologized, though she wouldn’t tell me her name and she stormed off. The more I think about this, the more furious I get. What do you think I should do, if anything? Well, I believe in offering “teaching moments” to people who are clueless, regardless of their age. When we are blindsided by someone’s behavior, it’s often difficult to think clearly in the moment. Later—usually in bed at 3 am—you wish you had said many things during the conversation. But it’s tough to be clever when people behave outrageously toward us. I would have suggested saying something like, “Please step inside. My wife and I raised two children here. Take a look at our family pictures on the walls, on the piano. You’re lucky to live in this neighborhood, where people watch out for each other, have friends in for drinks and dinner, participate in town affairs and are active in our kids’ schools. Why would we not love trick-or-treaters? And want to take some snapshots of their Halloween costumes? Where did you grow up to be fearful in a neighborhood like this? Meet your neighbors; don’t treat them like criminals. Maybe you’ve moved to the wrong town.”
Robert Frost wrote, “Good fences make good neighbors.” But isn’t it better to open our doors and our arms? That person owes you an apology.
What’s your take on gift cards? “Plastic always fits,” I often say, but lately I’m hearing otherwise. I’ve been told that I’m being lazy. I had planned to give them as holiday gifts this year but now I’m not sure that’s the best thing to do. I mean, it’s just so easy to go on Amazon and send everyone a gift card—or even simply send money over the internet, no card needed. You just get an email from Amazon saying ‘Merry Christmas, and here’s your gift.’ Is this too impersonal? Should I take the time to find a book or something tangible? Well, there are presents and then there are presents. There are people, and then there are people. You have to make the punishment fit the crime. As we get older, more and more, we may find we want simpler, not complicated. Gift cards are great presents, something everyone can use and be grateful for. I’m now giving checks to my children, for instance. Let them buy what suits them. Simple. But maybe there are two or three really special people in your life. For the special ones, buy individual gifts, perfectly wrapped and designed to ring whatever bells you want to ring.
For everyone else, you might as well make Jeff Bezos even richer. It’s the season to give. ◆
John D. Spooner is an investment adviser, author and novelist. His most recent book is No One Ever Told Us That: Money and Life Lessons for Young Adults. Here, he responds to queries from advice seekers of all ages. Send your conundrums to email@example.com.