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If I Write All My Friend’s Papers, Are We Really Friends?

Welcome to Survey Says, FiveThirtyEight’s advice column. In each installment, our two advice-givers will take a reader question, debate what he or she should do, and then survey a panel of people about what the best course of action is. Need our advice? Send us your quandary!

A good, long-term friend of mine has become distant these last few months. I try to make plans to hang out, but my friend is always busy or cancels at the last minute. Sometimes my friend won’t even let me know they’re not going to be able to make it. However, at least once a month, this person pops up and needs a favor. Usually it involves me helping write their papers for class. I always say “yes” because it gives me an excuse to talk to them. Lately, though, I feel a bit used. Both of us are college students in our early 20s. How can I bring this up? Am I being too sensitive? — Ghostwriter

Morgan: No, Ghostwriter, you’re not being too sensitive. Sounds like you have a fair-weather, flaky friend.

Walt: This person is totally using you and is not being a good friend.

Morgan: At all. Honestly, I don’t feel like it’s worth bringing it up. It’s one thing to be busy, but it’s another to ditch you during scheduled hangouts.

Walt: I think it’s best to be busy or call out at the last minute the next time this person pops back up and needs a favor. See how they react.

Morgan: This person has no respect for your time or feelings.

Walt: In this friend’s defense — not that there’s much to defend here — “college student in early 20s” time is a tough period to make plans. I feel like the letter writer should relegate this person to a lower friendship tier — not many one-on-one hangouts, but keep on inviting them to parties. It may be that this friend is seriously falling behind and trying to keep up or is very studies-oriented.

Morgan: I wouldn’t invite this person to anything anymore, to be honest. Like, I’ll see you when I see you.

Walt: Eh, I’m generally against burning bridges over passive behaviors. I say keep them in your life but stop being their on-demand tutor. You never know who’s going to become a better friend after college.

Morgan: Oh I’m much more radical. Life gets a lot harder after college. If you can’t keep up now, see ya later.

FiveThirtyEight commissioned a SurveyMonkey Audience poll that ran Aug. 9-12 and received 1,009 responses. We presented respondents with Ghostwriter’s question and asked them what the best advice is, given the situation. They were allowed to choose only one option.

  1. Stop being friends.

    12.1%

  2. Don’t cut the person out of your life but stop being an on-demand tutor.

    63.6%

  3. Invite the person to large gatherings but don’t bother making a one-on-one effort.

    9.6%

  4. Try harder to be this person’s friend.

    2.9%

  5. None of the above is good advice.

    11.7%

Walt: 12.1 percent of Americans are cold.

Morgan: What in the world? Lots of people want to keep this person around. I am even more confused!

Walt: I guess people think the person deserves a chance?

Morgan: But 64 percent say that the letter writer should stop being an on-demand tutor? Huh? What? In the immortal words of Cher, “That was way harsh, Tai.”

SHARE OF RESPONSES BY AGE GROUP
18-29 30-44 45-59 60+
Stop being friends 15 11 8 16
Don’t cut the person out, but stop being a tutor 55 63 69 66
Don’t bother making a one-on-one effort 15 9 8 7
Try harder to be this person’s friend 5 5 2 0
None of the above is good advice 10 12 13 11

Walt: The younger a respondent was, the more likely he or she was to reshuffle where this friend stands in their life, while older respondents were more likely to want to put a foot down about the tutoring. I mean, when the friendship only involves helping someone write papers, that’s not a great place to build from.

Also, interesting gender differences here — women are more likely to keep the person in their life.

SHARE OF RESPONSES
FEMALE MALE
Stop being friends 10 15
Don’t cut the person out but stop being a tutor 68 59
Don’t bother making a one-on-one effort 10 9
Try harder to be this person’s friend 2 4
None of the above is good advice 10 13

Walt: I mean, the clearest way to determine the way forward is to only invite the person to big stuff and see when and how they want to hang out outside of that.

Morgan: Short of just cutting this person out, I think so too.

Walt: I have a friend who only wants to hang out when I write essays for him. His name is Micah, and he is my editor. Will try some of these strategies and report back.

Morgan: LOL. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot now!

More of our advice:

Walt Hickey is FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.

Morgan Jerkins is a writer living in New York City.

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