My friends can’t stop moaning | Mariella Frostrup

Offering a shoulder to cry on is great, but being able to say no and turning off your phone are just as important, says Mariella Frostrup

The dilemma Im 31, and my friends are all having life crises. Ive found myself with a set of eight emotionally needy people. (They dont know each other.) It sounds selfish, but Im exhausted from taking out their emotional trash.

I could be flattered that Im considered a good listener, but I feel like I have another full-time job. Whether its the daily three texts from the lonely new mum, the uni friend whos addicted to Tinder bad boys, or the former colleague who still doesnt know what to do with his life, I feel depleted.

Id like to nest with my partner, yet my life is like a sushi carousel, going from one persons problems to another. If I try to turn the conversation to me or give suggestions, I still get negativity thrown in my face.

How do I create barriers to protect myself? I simply dont know what words to use when they just need someone to talk to.

Mariella replies How about: Sorry, Im busy? It may sound simplistic, but its definitely the most straightforward solution to your dilemma; that, or not answering at all. Having the confidence to bat off unsolicited encroachments on thinking time and drains on our physical energy has never been more important. That doesnt mean you shouldnt offer friends a shoulder to cry on in times of need but not perpetually in times of neediness.

Creating boundaries is as important as displaying empathy. People do seem inordinately happy with the sound of their own voices of late often to the detriment of further enlightenment or progress. I know this may sound Victorian, but Im increasingly conscious of a dwindling standard of social interaction among my fellow homo sapiens. Whether its heckling those with whom we dont agree, jostling each other in queues, forgetting to say please and thank you, talking over people because were overexcited about the sound of our own thoughts, or ranting away on public transport having one-sided conversations, it all adds up to a desertion of good manners a quality we once took national pride in.

Were evolving into a myopic and unruly bunch, more Salem-style mob than civilised democrats. Political tensions are high and the divisive damage done by the poisonous referendum campaign cant be underestimated. Perhaps the powerlessness felt by those being fast-tracked into a small-islander future is partly to blame for the speed with which citizens are zooming from 0 to 60 on the emotional scale.

I recently attended the nobly inspired The Convention, a forum supported by this newspaper, where people of all political persuasions were invited to share bright ideas for a brighter future. It promised to be a weekend of mentally stimulating, cross-party, cross-cultural brainstorming. Instead, a debate I chaired on the necessity or not of a second referendum was drowned out by the booing and hissing of a small minority of well-to-do 60-year-olds on a day trip to Westminster. As the militant element of this sexagenarian rabble threatened to completely disrupt proceedings, I wondered what had happened to the UKs fabled stiff upper lip. The heckling was particularly ironic since the tagline to the proceedings was listen as well as speak!

Part of the process of civilised engagement has to be listening to those with whom we have little in common, in order to find mutual ground. Our ability to insulate ourselves and hear only the echo of our own thoughts is one of the most corrosive side-effects of social media. You may wonder where Ive wandered off to but I am, I promise, on a journey back to you. You must be a good listener, perhaps too good a listener, if all your friends come to you to download their woes. Maybe your lines are too often open. Just because we have phones doesnt mean we need to answer them; just because we have instant communication doesnt mean we need to offer instant response; just because unburdening our hopes, dreams and vitriol can be achieved in a mere 140 characters doesnt mean thats the best forum for saying what we think.

In short, unmitigated access to everything, all the time, is a compelling argument for restraint. Personal space is under threat and whether its texts from friends or emails from colleagues, group Snapchats pinging, or Facebook pages that urgently need updating, it can feel like there isnt a second of free time available. In generations past people might have felt it a vanity too far to unburden themselves with no consideration for the receiver. I suggest you introduce these eight disparate friends so they can expand on their emotional woes ad nauseam and drown each other out in the battle for attention. Then shut down, snuggle up with your partner and put your feet up.

If you have a dilemma, send a brief email to mariella.frostrup@observer.co.uk. Follow her on Twitter @mariellaf1

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