Ask Polly: My Best Friend Keeps Recruiting Me To Join Her Multi-Level Marketing Scheme!

Hi Polly,

Over the past several years, my best friend and I have remained close through some huge life changes. I made the decision to get a divorce from my abusive spouse and she was right there with me, offering me a place to stay and moral support. She experienced an unplanned but welcome pregnancy which resulted in the birth of her first child. She also got engaged to the love of her life. I am now heavily involved in plans for her wedding. I love her dearly. However, there is one major problem with our relationship.

Both her and her new fiancée are active members of an international Multi-level Marketing company that focuses on health and wellness. Fiancée is a notable and well-known success, due in large part to his family’s early involvement with the company. Best Friend has “recruited” her entire family into the business. They frequently attend company events, and most of their other friends are members. As for me, I cannot in good conscience participate in the business, and it is starting to cause a rift between us.

Some history: I was in poor health a few years ago. I struggled with depression, treatment-resistant acne, and GI issues. After my divorce, I made a lot of changes. I visited a dermatologist and endocrinologist, who both confirmed what I suspected: I am very sensitive to hormone imbalance. My derm specifically mentioned that consuming lots of soy as a possible cause of hormone imbalance. In general, I’ve found that avoiding soy and consuming a diet of mostly whole, unprocessed plant foods keeps my skin, mind, and guts happy. I am grateful to be in the position to follow this diet and am very pleased with my health these days.

So, the core product of Best Friend’s MLM company is a “weight loss plan.” The “plan” is basically just their low-cal meal replacement shakes (soy protein heavy) subbed for 2 out of 3 meals a day, then a combination of “supplements” full of caffeine and all the other vitamins you miss out on when you don’t eat actual food. This is, in my opinion, nutritionally unsound and a starvation diet. A number of the other “energy” supplements rely on artificial sweeteners and non-FDA approved diet herbs. Even putting aside my belief that whole foods are the best sources of nutrition, I think that it is questionable to promote these products as quality sources of nutrition.

I also don’t agree with certain marketing and sales practices. Basically, they exploit people’s body insecurity for money. Fiancée actually has a button that reads “Lose Weight Now-Ask Me How.” He wears it EVERYWHERE. I am not that close to him, so I haven’t said anything… but I’d really like to point out how gross that is without him going on the defensive.

In addition, the company frequently makes lofty promises of financial independence to lure in new members. They throw events and parties that showcase the best and brightest in the company… but minimize the massive amount of people involved in their success. It is a classic MLM — as in, the people at the top are making money due to the quantity of people at the bottom. In reality, very few actually make a living off of the sales of the products, let alone get rich. The prices of the supplements are also very inflated for the average consumer, and are only “discounted” if you sign up to be a sales representative (this of course, includes kickbacks and additional discounts for the person who “brought you in”).

Basically, all my experiences with the company and their products leave a literal and figurative bad taste in my mouth. They are not unethical or dangerous enough to warrant a “scam” label, but I disagree with what they do to the extent that I don’t want to be involved.

In the past, I’ve used avoidance and excuses to explain to Best Friend why I don’t want to be a part of the company. I say I’m an introvert, so I’m uncomfortable with direct sales and attending parties. I say that I have a soy sensitivity and can’t drink the shakes. I say that I get headaches from artificial sweeteners. But she still pressures me to join. Every excuse I have, Best Friend has a company-approved rebuttal. I also feel like I can’t talk about my finances or my health around her because it gives her an opening to “pitch” the company to me. It is really starting to make me uncomfortable. With her impending nuptials, I know I’ll be spending more time with her and her family. It is bound to keep coming up.

My question is, how can I effectively communicate that I do not want to join the company, without alienating or offending my friend and her family? I don’t want them to think I am being condescending toward their life’s work, as I realize that everyone is different. I respect that they should do what works for them. It’s just not for me.

Thanks for any guidance,

Friend on the Outside

Dear FOTO,

Americans are too polite. Sure, we shout and rage at each other on our superhighways and our cable TV channels. But when you put us at the same wedding shower, we’re as meek and as mild as anesthetized kittens. This is what made Borat so brilliant — not his obnoxiousness, per se, but the reactions to it, the pervasive, pathological unwillingness to stand up and say, “Seriously, you need to stop.” Borat could fall over drunk at a private dinner, talk openly about bedding a married woman in front of her husband, and all he encountered was shy tittering and a few awkward silences.

How in the world do you prevent yourself from condescending to someone who wears a “Lose Weight Now-Ask Me How” button everywhere he goes? I’m not sure that level of self-restraint is physically possible, let alone healthy. Your best friend not only had the gall to marry a character straight out of a Christopher Guest film, but now she’s actively recruiting you to sell crappy fake food that she knows very well you hate? As Kanye would say, that shit is fucking ri-DICK-a-lus.

Why does it always have to be the cheesy Tupperware ladies and the water filter-peddling morons and the tone-deaf Mary Kay mob who come to the rescue emotionally when the shit hits the fan? Why can’t your friend who loves Fellini and David Mamet and crocheted tops and Mac lipstick in Vamp swoop in for a change? Why do the young hipsters go all “No, YOU are the wound!” when you get dumped by your abusive husband, when out in the suburbs they’re dropping off casseroles and walking your dog and watering your plants and pressing copies of Gone Girl into your sweaty palms? Hipster ladies need to put on their big girl Dickies and pull their heads out of their naturally-sourced, unbleached asses for long enough to support their lady loves.

Anyway, suffice it to say that I get it. This repugnant viral scourge in human form that you describe is also one of the most unthinkingly loyal, slavishly adoring friends you’ve ever had. Why shouldn’t she be? She’s our species’ answer to the fungal infection. You’re recovering from abuse, she has a room for you to stay in. Hmm. She reminds me a little of one of those people who run rescue dog shelters or organize the teen club at the local church: Salt of the earth, lovable, warm, loyal — and also total fucking bad news, passive-aggressive scary, stay away, Luke, It’s a Trap! You are treated to unparalleled generosity for years, until it’s time for the queen to lay her eggs in your corpse.

But that’s just a wild guess, and she might be a loving but slightly insensitive person with not very good taste. I have no way of proving that she is wretched and rotten to the core, beyond her perverse interest in having semi-regular sexual relations with someone who may or may not be wearing an “Lose Weight Now-Ask Me How” button on his person at the time. Mostly I think she’d make a really good character in one of ABC’s slightly dark suburban dramedies. I’m not saying dump her as a friend. I just want you to know that you should never, ever feel even a tiny bit guilty about those reoccurring impulses to, say, kick her in the shins and tell her she’s a fake-food peddling fuck.

But don’t do that. Here’s what you should do instead: Prepare to smile and eat huge, steaming platters of shit. Actually, anyone who’s about to see a friend through a wedding, or even attend your run-of-the-mill extended family vacation, should prepare for the same thing. Eating a lot of shit dished out by your family without drinking too much, overturning the Monopoly board and/or loudly proclaiming each family member’s DSM-V diagnosis basically ushers you into the realm of mature adulthood.

When the Soylent Green peddlers start doing their thing, though, I want you to look the peddler in question straight in the eye for 3–4 seconds (it’s a long time) before speaking. Then I want you to say, in a calm tone, “I love that [Name of Friend] is happy, but this business is not for me.” When they protest, you say, with a small smile, “I’ve heard every pitch, but trust me, it’s really not for me.” Then look them straight in the eye. Let them apologize, or move on. If they stay on the subject, politely excuse yourself and go to the bathroom.

To your friend, you say, “I love you, but no, and that answer won’t change.” That’s all. If she revisits it, look her in the eyes and say, “Are you hearing what I’m telling you? Please respect my feelings on this front.” It’s not a question of you respecting her choices. You don’t have to say a thing about what she wants and needs. All you have to say is, “I don’t want that for myself.” The end.

I would avoid specifics. I would memorize three “No thank you” lines and I would prepare to say them over and over again, punctuated by uncomfortable silence. As long as you don’t start talking and explaining and apologizing and discussing her choice to become a pox upon the face of the earth, you’re safe. Just be a woman of few words in this arena. And for fuck’s sake, don’t get drunk. Don’t loosen up and start blabbing about the wrong thing. Your first line of defense is silence. Your second line of defense is one or two scripted, polite refusals. Your third line of defense is more silence.

We women always want to explain everything. More words! Surely more words will solve this problem! Men know better. When people ask most men to commit to something they don’t want to commit to, or to discuss something they don’t want to discuss, they fucking sit there and say nothing. They never explain shit, those smug rats! They never throw good words after bad when they can choose to remain vaguely disapproving and enigmatic instead.

And they never get blamed for anything that way! We get blamed and blamed and blamed, because we can’t shut up. We try to make stuff better by apologizing, analyzing, comparing, and along the way we nail ourselves to the wall like specimens. No!

So now you know better. You know just what to do, and you know that you’re not bad just because you sort of sometimes dislike this lovable superfreak you call a friend. As for your future with this lady, well, that’s up to you. You might want to gently nudge her in the direction of the human race over time, but otherwise, I give you my blessing to tolerate her crappy choices indefinitely. As unsavory as she might be, it’s absolutely true that not every human alive will take you in after you leave your abusive husband, just as not every human empties out the extra bedrooms in their house and fills them up with one-eyed Chihuahuas. Old friendships really are worth hanging onto, even when there are some one-eyed dogs and button-wearing asshats in the mix.


Hi Polly.

I’ve been reading your advice about flinchy boyfriend for years. You’ve pretty much nailed the guys I fell in love with in my late 20s and early 30s — big charming personalities, fascinating people who were completely fascinated by me and would make huge romantic gestures until I actually agreed to date them, at which point they turned into the person who would never go to my house, I had to go their house. The person who wouldn’t come with me to weddings. The coworkers who would introduce me to their family but wouldn’t acknowledge our relationship at work. And, eventually, the person who was just kind of bored by whatever I had to say — and on top of it, they just didn’t know what love was anymore. And I would spend the final two-thirds of the relationship trying to get back what we’d had at the start, reluctant to let go of this amazing person that I’d had such a connection with, even if we’d hit a rough patch right now.

Lucky me, I finally dumped my last loser boyfriend and declined to meet or date the guy from online who was in the process of getting a divorce but just hadn’t moved out yet… and a few months later, I met my kind and normal husband. We’ve now been together almost five years, married for three, and working on babies. We’re each other’s best friend, but not suffocatingly so — there’s space built into the relationship for individual interests and time apart. The biggest regular fight we have is about what level of clean is acceptable in the kitchen. (For the record, the choices are clean, or uber-clean.) So, yay.

But I’ve noticed something I’d like your advice on. What got me through my years of flinchy boyfriends were my friends — deep soul friends, people who would go out to brunch or on hikes or blackberry-picking with me and spend seven hours talking through our respective relationships, what was working, what wasn’t, what was missing. I mostly had intense, individual friendships, rather than traveling in groups. When I married my husband, I moved several states away, but the friendships continued, through e-mail, Facebook, and the occasional visit.

Which brings me to why I’m writing. One of my very closest friends from that time in my life just visited, and the visit was… strange. She came during the workweek so that we could both work during the day and then hang out at night. But the visit had the strangest dynamic. On certain days, there were things I had to do — pick up medication across town, go to the grocery store so I could make dinner later — and she said she was happy to tag along, we could talk while we drove, etc.

But after we had agreed on a plan — let’s leave the house at 4 so I can get to my doctor’s office before it closes; let’s go the grocery store right after work so I can start cooking — I could just not get her to execute on it. What’s more, it actually started to seem like she was purposefully undermining every plan we made. We’d agree to leave the house at 4; at 4:05 she’d be walking down the hall in a towel. We’d agree to eat lunch at 2; then one thing after another would happen and we wouldn’t eat until 6. By the time she left, I was so frustrated and angry, almost out of proportion to the actual events. I just felt like she had spent the visit agreeing to things and then passive-aggressively rebelling against those things… to what end, I don’t even know, because who cares if she got in the car now or 20 minutes from now. Same car trip. What’s the difference? And if she didn’t want to go, why not just say that?

Anyway, I don’t even really know what my question is, except that, having attracted flinchy boyfriends for so many years, it’s probably likely, isn’t it, that I had flinchy friends, too — especially the closest and most charismatic? The people I think of most fondly. People whose actions are actually indicating, in every way possible: Don’t count on me for what you need. Take that nonsense somewhere else!

And then I wonder: Are the rules about flinchy friends the same as they are for boyfriends? Is it more of a drain to have those people in your life than to not? And when I think, oh, but I hate to toss away all those years of deep conversation and closeness over something so minor as a scheduling issue; I hate to throw out someone I know so well, just because she doesn’t organize her time well… am I just deluding myself that there’s a relationship to hang on to, as opposed to a pattern of accommodating someone else’s needs without my own being acknowledged in return? Or am I just blowing a small scheduling issue out of proportion, because I like to be on time.

I’d be very curious to know your thoughts — thank you!

Not Flinching

Dear NF,

I don’t think your friend was passive-aggressively rebelling. I think she was on vacation and she was losing track of time over and over again. When I’m visiting someone’s house, it’s incredibly difficult for me to adhere to a schedule. Being on vacation turns my brain to jelly. On top of that, I work from home, I never run errands on any kind of a schedule, and the words “We have to leave by 4 if we’re going to…” only trigger a response in my brain when they’re followed by “avoid missing the first scene of the movie” or “keep this kid from throwing a tantrum” or “get there before the free drinks and appetizers run out.” I’m not perpetually late to everything. No way. But if it’s me and one other friend, and my friend has a concrete schedule in mind, and that schedule seems a little restrictive and arbitrary to me? It doesn’t stick in my brain. It falls out, onto the floor, and then I go take a shower and come back and someone is glaring at me and I’m all, “Oh! Right. Sorry! I’ll hurry.”

So maybe that means I’m fucked up, too. Even so, if that’s the only complaint you have with your friend, you should consider yourself extremely lucky. Old, intense friendships are always a little bit taxing in one way or another. Here’s a more typical old-friendship scenario: You’re going through something tough, and your old friend says “Whoa, that sounds hard,” and then has to run because her cat looks unhappy. The next day, you listen to her repetitive, circular thoughts for two hours straight, during which she casts aspersions on your choices and hints that you might be happier if you did things the way she does them (which you’d only do if you were FUCKING INSANE but that’s a story for another time) and you want to say something, but now she has to run because she’s getting ready for a really exciting event you know all about but aren’t invited to.

Let’s just state the obvious and admit that maintaining close relationships with smart, interesting humans with lives of their own (let alone lives of their own thousands of miles away) can be taxing. Old friends can seem hopelessly selfish when they’re acting exactly the same way you act in a different arena. Her insensitivity to your schedule corresponds to some equal and opposite insensitivity in you, trust me. You are flawed and so is she. You’re two very different people who don’t see each other all that often.

Few of us work on our old friendships the way we work on our marriages. Few of us tolerate old friends the way we tolerate our parents or our children or our siblings. But you have to do a little of each: Work on your friendship, try to talk through your personal differences, and, if all else fails, grin and bear it for the sake of a lifelong friend. People without crazy old friends tend to be rigid, controlling types who eventually end up whittling down their personalities to match their spouse’s. You don’t want that kind of a life, with or without the profitable pyramid scheme built in.


Is your friend a million times more taxing than the one this woman just described? Write to Polly and tell her about it!

Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl’s existential advice columnist. She’s also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Pyramids photo by Wilhelm Joys Andersen. Clock photo by Matthew Frederickson.