Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: Are people just less friendly these days?

"If you make a deliberate attempt to smile at people in the street – you’ll be surprised how many people smile back"

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The Independent Online

Dear Virginia,

I am starting to give up on the human race. People increasingly seem unwilling to respond to my friendly advances. I asked my sister if she’d like me to babysit and I’ve received no answer. Another friend suggested that instead of going out, he came to supper with me – but as he knows I have no facilities for cooking a proper meal, I realised he simply hadn’t thought it through. People are always jostling me in the Tube and everyone I ring, even just to make appointments, is so rude. Is it me, or are people just hostile these days?

Yours sincerely, Ruth

Virginia says...

The one thing I remember from Latin lessons was the way you had to phrase a question. If you were expecting the answer “no”, you preceded the question with the word “num”. If you were expecting the answer “yes”, it was “nonne”. I suspect that, at some level you are giving out the “num” message every time you open your mouth. There is something in your voice and your demeanour that tells everyone you’re expecting to be rejected in all your advances – even, dare I say it, asking for it. 

I say this partly because I’ve seen this in myself. When I was young, I was terrified and depressed. I suspected every stranger who walked down the street, drawing myself into myself, determining not to make eye-contact, sending out furious vibes to be sure of there being no chance of contact. The result was that, like you, I thought most people were absolutely vile.

Now that I’m more confident, I can see that all this stemmed entirely from my attitude. If you make a deliberate attempt to smile at people in the street – and I mean a proper smile, not one like a wolf baring its teeth – you’ll be surprised how many people smile back. And as for your sister not answering your offer of babysitting, lots of people fail to answer emails these days. And if she’s got small children, there’s even more excuse for her not to reply – she’s probably run off her feet.

Anonymous people on the end of a phone are usually trained to be impersonal, and sometimes that can be experienced as coolness, but if you’re lucky and really try, with a few jokes, you’ll find that even they can unbend now and again.

And as for your friend who has asked himself to supper, it’s typical of your state of mind that you see this as a thoughtless and cruel response rather than the affectionate suggestion of someone who’d just love to see you in your own home for once. Have you never heard of take-aways? Or couldn’t you share a ready meal with him?

It sounds to me as if you’re depressed. Depression is insidious. It tells you that the bleakness you’re experiencing is actually real. It is saying: “Ruth, this is the truth – people are horrible, uncaring and the world is a hostile place.” But it’s lying. I’m not saying the world is full of skipping children, smiles, sun and merry tunes, but on the whole, I’d say that people are more often nice and kind than not.

I’d go to your doctor. And if you can’t get an appointment right away, don’t fly into a rage but, rather, realise the receptionist is doing a difficult job as well as he or she can. But it is important that you try to understand this about yourself – or you’ll even think my advice is simply cruel, uncaring rubbish. Which it isn’t, I promise.

Readers say...

You might be depressed

Have you spoken to your doctor, in case you are suffering from depression? Please don’t take offence. I ask because a friend once explained her depression to me in a way that sounded very close to what you’ve written. What depression does, she told me, is suck away your confidence, to such an extent that incidents that most folk would shrug off (such as being jostled on the Tube, or someone being curt on the phone) really knock the stuffing out of you – so over time, you do start to wonder, “Is it just me?” And that sucks away even more of your confidence. So please talk to someone.

Nick, by email

You should seek therapy

Objectively, it’s highly unlikely that the people you encounter are as hostile towards you as your experience suggests. I can’t remember who said it but there’s a lot of truth in this quote: “We see the world as we are, not as it is.” I would suggest that you seek help from someone trained either in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or neurolinguistic programming (NLP), to see how you can be helped to modify your instinctive reactions to what other people say or do.

Ian Hurdley, by email

Lighten up a bit

Buy a Big Issue and receive a smile and friendly chat. Carry a walking stick and you will be given space. Baby sitting – is it possible you frighten your sister’s infants by being a cross patch?

Nancy Henshaw, by email

Do as you would be done by

I am very old and go a lot by tone of voice. If someone asks me to do something in a gentle, sympathetic tone of voice, I usually say yes. Have you tried adopting a gentler, more sympathetic tone? It just might make people more receptive to you and your wishes. Just give it a try. You don’t need elocution lessons. Begin by reading something aloud. Listen to yourself and modify the notes in your voice. I promise you it will work. And in answer to your last question, no, people are not, generally speaking, hostile these days. They give back what they get. You can be the one to start the less hostile ball rolling.

Helen Roger, by email

Next week's dilemma

My boyfriend was Hindu. His family said it was impossible for him to marry me, and as I’m looking for a long-term relationship, I gave him up after six months. At the end, I said a lot of hurtful things that I didn’t mean. During our relationship, he treated me liked a princess and told me he loved me every day. But he’s now cut me out of his life completely, even though I’ve written begging him to forgive me. He won’t even be civil. I’m finding it very difficult because in the past I’ve always stayed friends with my exes. I’m wondering whether he ever really meant what he said to me in the past.

Yours sincerely, Trish

What would you advise Trish to do?  Write to Anyone whose advice is quoted or whose dilemma is published will receive a box of Belgian Chocolates from