'My sister ruffles people up the wrong way. In keeping this from her, am I being overly protective?'

Eleanor Gordon-Smith
·4-min read

My sister ruffles people up the wrong way. She is very kind and caring at heart, but can be quite rude, demanding and passive aggressive with people who are not in her inner circle. She has badly hurt some of my friends, and I have protected her from knowing this as it would hurt her so much. I recently let a few of these instances slip because she wanted to ask advice from a friend of mine and I was worried about how she’d handle the situation, and explained she needed to communicate gently. This has caused a huge rift between us. Have I created this issue by being overly protective? I’m not sure what to do.

Eleanor says: I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who is perfectly calibrated to the possibility of having caused hurt. The world seems to divide into fine-tuned supersonic vibe machines, constantly scanning for the ways they affect other people, and people like your sister, whose output settings don’t seem to come with any adjustable dials.

When you’re in one group it’s easy to see the other as fundamentally mistaken. But neither group is obviously right. The constant vibe-scanners risk being obsequious or people-pleasing, giving too much of their mental real estate to other peoples’ opinions and reactions. And the vibe-oblivious risk causing harm they can’t recognise or make amends for, or finding that people cannot interpret them as kind or caring even when they want to be.

Related: Leading questions: 'Should I make contact with my father, whom I have never met?'

Just as important as the fact that each group gets a little wrong is that each gets a little right. Your way of getting things right tends to get a lot of praise; we like it when people can read our feelings and care enough to try. We thank them for it and want to spend more time with them. Your sister’s way of getting things right gets a little less adulation; nobody says thank you to the blunt people. There’s no individual beneficiary of her way of doing things, in fact there’s a whole lot of individual victims. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t also have a skill – she is able to be her own person in the face of the disapproval of strangers, and that is far harder than a lot of us realise, especially when we’re the strangers they don’t bow to.

So try not to get stuck in a fight about who’s doing things right. The next time something like this comes up, try to focus instead on means-end connections: “If you want people to feel this, I think you need to do that.” That way you aren’t dwelling on the morality or propriety of being polite, you’re simply saying that if she wants to have certain effects there are steps she can take to achieve them. You leave the final decision with her. Be specific and concrete: if she doesn’t know what part of what she did caused the feelings she now has to answer for, telling her to cause less of them won’t map on to any actions.

And just as much as your sister can help how she comes across, other people can help how they read her. You say she’d be hurt to discover that she’s caused hurt. That means she didn’t mean to, and that matters more than what she accidentally communicates. Small moments of directness can help other people recalibrate, like saying “I have a hard time knowing when I hurt feelings, so please know that if I offend you it was by accident.”

It’s an unending challenge of human life that we don’t always come across the ways that we mean to. There’s a way to understand each other despite our different styles, but only if we are genuinely trying to understand.

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