Hi Captain Awkward,
The background to this story is I moved away from the city I grew up to go to graduate school on the other coast. While I have been in the area a while I am currently living with roommates I did not know prior to living with them. This is fine and for the most part they are very nice. However one of my roommates, lets call her Reba, is very nosy.
Specifically, Reba constantly asks incredibly personal questions and constantly offers to hear my personal problems. This really came to a head a few weeks ago when I finally broke up with my boyfriend of 4 years. For the most part the break up was amicable, it really was just we are at a point in our lives where we want different things; I am trying to finish my Ph.D. and then hopefully have adventures as a post doc while he is trying to buy and house and settle down. Anyways I decided not to tell Reba (and the other roommate Mike by proxy) because I did not want to talk about it and my personal life with Reba. But a few days after it happened Reba mentioned that she had over heard me talking on the phone about breaking up with my boyfriend. And then talked about how she is really good at listening, and will be totally fine with hearing all of my problems about the break up etc. etc.
Honestly I was kinda in shock because I had specifically been avoiding telling Reba, and the fact that she admitted to overhearing me on the phone and the fact that she decided bringing it up was the best course of action was annoying. I more or less responded with “I don’t want to talk about it” and left the room. Now to her credit she has not brought it up since. But I am still really annoyed by it. I am trying not to obsess but I just feel like I have no privacy at my house. I have not been talking on the phone at my house at all (I have been leaving to go somewhere else to have phone calls), and avoiding going home until late at night to avoid having to deal with Reba.
I think part of my reaction is due to some previous actions of Reba. When I have had packages sent to the house she asks what they are, who they are from, etc. A few months ago, my boyfriend and I had a small fight at the house and she offered to mediate for us (ugh that was so gross.) I responded that I think the two of us could manage to discuss things on our own. I think the big thing for me is that when she discusses previous roommates it is like they are a string of problems. There is “roommate who was divorced and had to move home to take care of a sick parent”, or “roommate who liked to horde”. Reba also thought it was appropriate to talk to me about how the other current roommate Mike is very sad because his brother died, note that Mike had not yet told me about this.
All in all I just feel like Reba has no boundaries about other people and their problems. I dont really know what if anything I should do. I want to confront her, or at least not feel like a prisoner in my own house. I feel like I cant talk on the phone, or be upset, or show any emotion without Reba bringing it up and try to help me “process things”. I am an adult and I have been supporting myself and paying for my education on my own since I was 20. I neither want nor need Reba’s help working things out in my life, because quite frankly I feel like my life is pretty good at the moment and even if it wasn’t I feel like I am pretty competent at knowing myself and working things out on my own. And if things get hard and I am upset I have good friends, both in the area and back where I grew up, to talk to or get a beer with. I especially don’t really want to talk about my life to anyone with Reba’s boundary issues.
I am on the lease with Reba and Mike until August, so I don’t think moving is an option for the next 6 months. But I am also annoyed because I feel like at this point the sum of my interactions with Reba are her asking about personal details and me responding with “I don’t want to talk to you about this” as I make a mad dash to my room to avoid further contact. I feel like I need to have a talk to Reba about appropriate boundaries. Although ideally I would like a big confrontation where I list all the past problems and Reba learns the error of her ways and apologizes I don’t think this is going to happen. My alternative approach is to start elaborating on “I don’t want to talk to you about this” by being really firm on why asking me personal, emotional questions really really annoys me. I guess my question is what advice do you have on the best script to use so that she realizes that by being so overbearing about asking me about my personal life she is causing me serious anguish?
Roommates should not be your therapist
Since your housemate is an budding amateur therapist and an obvious expert on human relations, no doubt she will appreciate a frank conversation about boundaries and how she is making you feel.
:wipes tears of laughter away: Sorry, I didn’t mean to make funny jokes back there. In fact, I bet she will NOT appreciate it, because no one like being told they are being a busybody, and busybodies never think they are busybodies, they’re just people who care! a! lot! If you point out that they seem to kind of get off on other people’s problems and get a sense of importance* from feeling needed and “in the know” and that it’s a little creepy sometimes and it definitely makes you feel cornered and pressured to share your personal details with them and they should back off because you don’t actually find their insights helpful or think of them as a close friend that you want to talk to about stuff? Yeah, they don’t like that.
And yet? A frank talk is in order. A very frank talk. And I want you to keep this front and center in your mind, if you start feeling squeamish or guilty about being “confrontational.” Reba has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that she is totally incapable of taking hints. All of those times when she asked you stuff or offered to help and you turned her down flat? That was you communicating that you are not interested in her help and not interested in sharing.
So here’s what you do.
“Reba, can we sit down and talk for a bit?” I wanted to talk to you about my break-up, and some stuff that happened right afterward.”
Reba will be so psyched right now? She’s been waiting for this, right?
“It really bothered me when you told me about overhearing my phone conversation with my boyfriend. It made me feel violated and like I can’t have personal conversations in the house without someone eavesdropping and commenting on them.”
Let her talk. The most likely response will be a variation of “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop/I just care about you and mean to be helpful,” which, true enough.
Can I teach you a pro-level teaching/directing/interviewing/difficult conversation/werewolf technique right now? It’s a really hard one for me because I am a middle child who wants everyone to feel comfortable all the time. But whenever I practice it good things happen and I learn something new.
STRATEGICALLY PLACED SILENCE IS YOUR FRIEND. Say the difficult thing/ask the question, and then wait expectantly. When an awkward pause happens, don’t automatically jump in to fill it and smooth everything over. Sometimes you need things to be temporarily unsmooth so that real, true things can happen. Like learning, or creative leaps, or dawning self-awareness, or the kind of conflict that actually solves the deeper issues. Let the other person step into the awkward pause and come up with the words themselves.
In other words, when Reba tells you she wasn’t eavesdropping and didn’t mean to, wait. Gather your thoughts, and let it get wicked uncomfortable. When it’s time, jump back in.
“I’m sure you meant really well, but it still made me very uncomfortable to feel like my private conversations are monitored. When you live in close quarters with people, you just have to pretend you don’t hear certain things.”
I mean, we all know the Housemate Code of Sex, right? “As soon as a bedroom door closes, a magical soundproof seal is activated and no one can hear anything that goes on, and also a spell of forgetfulness descends over us all….what were we talking about again?“
Before we finish the script for the conversation, let’s put ourselves in Reba’s shoes for a second. In the most generous possible interpretation, Reba obviously likes you and cares about you, and the way she shows that is to take an active interest in your life. So, because you want to maintain a cordial relationship with her for the remainder of your lease, keep that front and center while you say what you say next.
“Reba, I know you are a caring person and you are just trying to show a friendly interest in my life and make sure I was okay after a troubling thing happened. But I am a very private person, and the best way you can support and care for me is to give me as much privacy and space as possible to sort through things on my own or with my very close friends when and if I choose to talk about them. So I need to set a very firm boundary with you right now. I need you to not ask me questions about my personal life, and trust that if I need your help I’ll come and ask for it. Can you do that for me?“
What you want to hear from her right now is some version of “Oh god, I’m so sorry” and any indication that she has an awareness of how she made you feel. If you get that, it’s time to end the talk/thank her for hearing you out/change the subject back to something lighter. Congratulations! This relationship is salvageable!
What you don’t want to hear from her is stuff about herself and her issues. Her issues are not the issues, and they’re not your issues. So if she starts cycling into the “Oh god, I suck” place or the “I wouldn’t have to be so nosy if you weren’t so standoffish and secretive” place, jump in and cut her off.
“Reba, I can sure appreciate that this is an awkward conversation, especially when your intentions are so helpful and kind. But even though you meant well, it still made me feel very invaded and uncomfortable. I need you to acknowledge that, and I need you to agree to be more respectful of privacy. If you can just say “I’m sorry, I’ll try to do better!” we can change the subject and be cool with each other. Cool?“
Afterwards, if things go well and you see her openly trying to change her behavior? Be generous with her. Act as if the whole thing never happened. Thank her when she does something nice. Spring for a pizza one night and watch a movie with her.
If she does cross the line again (and she will), speak up right away in a friendly-but-firm tone. “Hey Reba, thanks for asking, but I’d prefer not to talk about it. Let’s talk about your day. What’s new with you?” Or try this – “Reba, please just ignore me for the next couple of hours. I’ll catch up with you later!” Or this, if she tells you something private about Mike: “Hey, that sounds like Mike’s private business, so I’d prefer not to discuss it unless he tells me himself.“
If any of that feels mean, remember: Reba cannot take hints. You have to SAY THE STUFF.
If things do not go well weird passive-aggressive place where there’s a lot of loud sighing and “How was your day? OH WAIT, AM I NOT SUPPOSED TO ASK YOU THAT ANYMORE?” start planning where you’ll live when the lease is up or how to band together with Mike to kick her out.
*Yes, I do have enough self awareness to say “FUNNY YOU SHOULD SAY THAT, JENNIFER WHO STARTED AN ADVICE COLUMN FOR FUN,” thanks for asking!