Are You Friendly Distant?

How We Keep People At Arm's Length With A Smile (And How To Overcome It)

On a warm autumn day, for five minutes or so, we talked about our lives.  Our jobs, our kids, our weekends, and (of course) the football game later that day.  It was enjoyable, and we sped off with a smile and quick goodbye.

As I drove home, though, I felt a strange dis-ease about our interaction.  It was friendly and nice.  There was no tension.  And there was some back-and-forth.  It’s not like my friend talked my ear off.

But, our time together still felt empty.  We had held each other at arm’s length with a smile.

Three Kinds Of Distance

We’ve all been in – and contributed to – interactions like the one I describe above.  But some people are hard to connect with in general.  Keeping their distance can be a way of life.

But that distance comes in (at least) three flavors.  Let’s use some animal comparisons to amuse ourselves and avoid feeling convicted.

  1. The porcupine.  Porcupines are not subtle.  As you interact with them, you see their prickly quills in the form of anger and comments that (consciously or not) keep you on the periphery of their lives.
  2. The tiger.  Tigers like to live alone, far away from the clamor of civilization.  Unless you seek them out, they’ll leave you alone.  Human tigers operate the same way: they pretty much keep to themselves and will neither help nor harm you so long as you respect their space.
  3. The cat.  No doubt your cat is perfect, but many other cats are classic illustrations of a third kind of distance. Cats live with you.  They rub against you and let you interact with them.  But only to an extent.  You feel like you’re BFFs, but you can only get so close to a cat.  It’s the same with some of the people in our lives, too. They’re ‘wonderful’ and ‘great guys’.  We feel like we know them, but when you slow down and think about it, we really don’t.  They’re friendly-distant.

Are You Friendly Distant?

You know what you’re getting with aggressive (porcupines) or distant (tiger) people.  It may not always be pretty, but it’s usually pretty clear.

Not so much with friendly-distant folks, who give us mixed messages.  Let’s put together a quick profile to see if we qualify.  Friendly-distant people:

  • are friendly and smile.  They’re fairly warm, and may be quite personable and engaging.  
  • are socially smooth and polished.  Conversation with them flows nicely.  They’re not socially awkward.  They know what’s expected of them in social settings and do it.
  • may have many friends and busy lives.  They certainly seem to have rich, full lives.  

These are all qualities that make friendly-distant people enjoyable to be around.  But there are also other, less obvious things happening beneath the surface.  Friendly-distant people also:

  • are not fully present.  They’re with you, but not quite fully engaged, even as they smile and talk with you.  It’s like there’s an invisible barrier between you.
  • don’t reveal a lot about themselves personally.  Weaknesses and struggles in particular are often not shared, or, not with true vulnerability.  
  • have shorter, distraction-filled conversations.  When you talk to friendly-distant people, you feel like they’re ready to move on from the conversation.  Or, that their attention is focused on other things.  (Not to be confused with responsibly watching their kids, or, tendencies toward ADHD!)
  • don’t take a sincere interest in others.  Friendly-distant people tend not to ask good questions.  When they do ask how you’re doing, they listen some, but don’t draw you out.  You don’t feel like they’re trying to get to know you… because they’re not.
  • may be satisfied with primarily online relationships.  This is shaped by what generation someone belongs to, but when someone’s relationships don’t extend much beyond the web, it may be a sign that their preferred method of distance is a friendly one.
  • don’t move relationships forward.  No one can – or should – get to know everyone around them at a deeper level.  But friendly-distant people aren’t moving deeper with anyone because they won’t allow themselves to be known.

To this point, I’ve been speaking in the third-person.  But let’s try reflecting about ourselves in the context of the lists above.  How many of the 9 traits can we identify with personally?

In all honesty, this is something I’m working on.  It’s only been over the last two years or so that I’ve had growing, face-to-face relationships with the guy friends in my life.  And that was only after my wife challenged me about that several times.

Why We’re Friendly-Distant

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a passion for getting to the heart of why we do what we do.  As Jesus said, ‘What you say flows from what is in your heart’ (Luke 6:45, NLT).  So, if we want our behavior to change in a lasting way, the innermost parts of us need to change first.

So, what may lie beneath our tendencies to be friendly-distant?  Up front, let me say these are ideas.  Your particular challenges may be different.

  • We’re all hiding…  Ever since Adam & Eve swallowed the bait, became flawed, and tried to hide from God, we’ve been hiding, too.  All of us have deep problems that we don’t want others to see. It’s one form of pride, which tries to find its identity in who we are (or can pretend to be) apart from God.  So we hide, then (try to) hide the fact that we’re hiding.
  • We want the benefits of relationships without the costs of being known.  We know – in theory – that relationships are good.  And didn’t Jesus and the Apostle Paul say somewhere (it may have been 100 times, as this infographic by Jeffrey Kranz shows) that we’re supposed to do Christian stuff to ‘one another’?  We really do want relationships, but, taking down the curtain can be hard when we’re actually in them.
  • We’re just plain busy.  We only have so much time and, now more than ever, we know – and know of – so many people.  Sometimes a friendly, quick ‘hey, how are you’ is actually the best thing to do because it allows us to care for someone but focus on whatever – or whoever – we’re supposed to.  There are times to be friendly-distant!

4 Ways We Can Be More Friendly And Less Distant

Whew.  I’m not sure about you, but I’m feeling a little convicted.  Like the time I stole Tic-Tacs from the supermarket and had to face the manager.  (True story, but I was five, OK?)

But seriously, I think this is something we all struggle with, yet want to grow in.  We want to be present and fully with whoever we’re around.  We’ve had moments like that, and know they’re life-giving for us and others.

How can we become more ‘friendly’ and less ‘distant’?

  • learn to recognize the struggle  – this might be something you haven’t given much thought to, and that’s OK. Friendly distance can look, on the outside, just like the real friendliness God calls us to.  For example, I can remember a time when I was talking to a well-known Christian leader and feeling insecure.  I did all the right things – smiling, asking questions and so on – but on the inside I was worrying about how I came across and how he was more successful.  We need to ask God to be more aware of moments like this so we can ask him for help.
  • finding our security in the right place – in another post, I’ve written about three places we can find our security, based on 1 Corinthians 4:3-5.  In what others think about us, in what we think about ourselves, or, in what God thinks about us. As we gradually choose to value God’s opinion, it’s easier to get close to others.  They may see our flaws, but it’s not so threatening anymore.
  • do it scared – I used to work really hard at getting rid of fear in my life.  But it hasn’t worked, and I don’t suspect it’s going to until Jesus returns.  I love what writer Jeff Goins says about fear, in the context of the work we’re called to do: ‘Waiting for the fear to go away isn’t a good strategy — it won’t happen.  For those called to do important work, you’re going to have to move through it’.  I’ve found that this takes so much pressure off when I’m feeling afraid, which is often.  I’m learning to turn to God instead of pretending I’m not afraid, or, working to somehow push it down.
  • start with one – I came up with 5 more ideas, but I’m going to end here.  Just pick one person you can be more real and vulnerable with on a ‘regular’ basis.  Make a point of sharing your struggles at a deeper level than you have before.  And when you feel yourself creating unhealthy, friendly distance, start praying and hang in there.

That was a lot of information, but I think this dynamic of holding people at arm’s length with a smile is actually a hidden problem in the church.  Let’s commit – together – to being part of the change.

How do you see this dynamic at work in your life?  What ideas do you have for making progress? Share it with our community in the comments below!

 

 

 

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Bryan, love the animal distance analogies. Makes it so easy to remember! (And hey, thanks for the nod to my infographic, too!)

    • Very welcome, Jeremy, and thanks for your encouraging words. Always great when we can learn *and* have fun. 🙂