Question #128: “I’m not being mean, I’m being safe!” or, A primer on shutting down awkward conversations with busybodies.

Dear Captain Awkward,

I’m a high school student, and I had a friend who turned into a stalker. My family, and the school counselor have really helped me through a lot of it. However, I need some help explaining to my friends at school, and the friends of the stalker, of how I absolutely will not be interacting with her, without having to go into all the painful and elaborate details of what happened. The assumption of my casual friends is usually that we had an argument, and now I’m being childish by refusing to speak to her. (Again, high school students, this seems to be a common assumption.) So some of my friends are trying to force me to interact with her. “Just be civil, hold a conversation, just be nice to her, etc.” The school counselor recommends I stay away from her, for my personal safety, and I agree with her.

I’m not worried about my best friends, who understand the issue, but the people who I’m not very well connected with. I don’t want to write a two-page thesis just to get them to understand the problem. I also feel that it’s a violation of my privacy to have to try to explain the issue to anybody who feels like knowing, and letting people know that the way to push my buttons is to bring up the subject. As well as I know that the stalker has been telling people false information, and that anything I tell these friends will likely wind up reaching her.

Telling them that the counselor said it wasn’t a good idea has just prompted questions. One person has even tried to force us to communicate with each other, and it was very difficult to explain to her that I will not be doing that, and avoid spreading drama across the whole school. I don’t want to hurt the stalker, I’m trying to minimize contact with her, but I need a way to explain to people that I can’t be around her, especially when she’s skipping study-hall-classes to be hanging around my classes. (By the way, the school counselor is up-to-date on what’s going on and has been doing her very best to resolve the issue).

I avoid using the words “stalking/stalker” when I talk to them about this, because they are usually friends with her, and also because I don’t want to be accused of over-reacting, or my friends thinking this is just a friendly nickname. I also don’t want to give any reason for the stalker to try to raise a fight.

Even in my letter I find myself trying to justify everything, even though I am neither the source of the problem, nor have any hand in what’s going to happen involving it. What I really want is to be able to get rid of the problem, to get my friends to take my word that what’s going on IS serious, and I’m not going to change my mind no matter what they do, and they just cannot convince me to accept being stalked. Not cool.

 Any help would be extremely appreciated.

 Thanks,

Striving For the High Ground

Dear Striving:

By seeking help from your school and your family, and by trying to protect your own privacy and be generally classy about things, you are handling this exactly right.  Unfortunately, your wider friend-circle are hardcore carriers of Geek Social Fallacies, namely GSF1 (Ostracizers are Evil) and a combination of GSF4 & GSF5 (Friendship is Transitive + Friends Do Everything Together).

I’m very leery of evolutionary psychology since so much of it is written up so atrociously in the media as “You Should Just Accept That Horrible Bullshit Oppression Is The Natural Order of Things, Because: Science!” and “Learn How We Used Science(!) To Confirm All Of Our Own Sexist and Racist Ideas and Reaffirm the Status Quo!” But I do accept that we are social animals and that the desire to fit in and figure out our place in the pecking order is baked into us on a very primal level. Nowhere does this manifest more than our teen years, when we’re forced into close quarters before we’ve learned how to set and respect boundaries with grace.

When your former friend stalked you, she had to be kicked out of your personal pack. This is primal stuff for the two of you, but I think it is also primal stuff for your friends, who are worried about “How do I fit into the pack?”  If they are prey to those particular Social Fallacies, they think that everyone should be in the pack all the time. When they say “But what did she do that is so wrong?” or “But if you just talked to each other, you could figure it out!” they are showing their own anxiety – “If she can be kicked out of the pack, maybe I can be kicked out of the pack, too” and trying (in a fucked up way) to heal the pack.  If you and your stalker would just make nice, they could breathe a sigh of relief.  “Ahhhh, the pack is good.  Everyone is in the pack.”

By way of example, this allows me to sort of answer another question I have waiting in the mailbag, about a rape survivor whose friend group makes rape jokes in front of her and who recently screened a film with a violent rape scene at a party she was at and then got angry at her “Jesus, stop being so sensitive! We’re just kidding!” when she asked them to turn it off.  When the culture of the pack is “Everyone is in the pack! Also, If you set a boundary you are criticizing me (GSF2 “Friends Accept Me As I Am) and ruining everything!” you take a risk when you speak up for yourself – are you cutting yourself out of the pack?

That’s why it can be so hard to defend yourself against shitty behavior, especially for women, racial minorities, disabled people, LGTB people, poor people, fat people, employees vs. employers, abuse victims, and anyone who has historically been an outsider or who has less power in a situation.  Cue the second-guessing: “What will speaking up cost me?  Is it even worth it? Am I making a big deal out of nothing?” Extra-Double Bonus Points where BONUS=VOMIT if it all ends with a lecture from the person in power about The Greater Good or The Cause or Being a Team Player or Having a Positive Attitude.

So. You (correctly) kicked your stalker out of your pack, and your wider friend-circle has sensed a disturbance in the force.  I feel pretty sure that you’re with me on this, but let’s review for everyone:

  • It is ok to just not like someone (even without a long history of stalking and odd behavior on their part).
  • Not everyone has to be friends with everyone else.
  • Not everyone has to be invited to everything.
  • You can dislike someone that your friends like without it being any kind of comment on their taste, general likability, or the closeness of your friendship.
  • If you don’t like someone, it’s a sign of maturity and LACK OF DRAMA to just quietly avoid them rather than spilling all your dirty laundry and trying to make everyone else not like them, and if the situation can be defused quietly that’s best for everyone. However, if at any point you feel like your safety (or the safety of others) depends on letting people know exactly what she did to you, free yourself from this obligation.

What you need from Captain Awkward Dot Com is a crash course in shutting down an uncomfortable conversation and changing the subject.  The most effective way I’ve found to do that is 1) to develop a mantra or a stock response that I give people, that I can repeat several times in a couple of different ways.  If that doesn’t work, I (2) ask them to change the subject. If THAT doesn’t work, I (3) leave the conversation. If physically leaving the conversation doesn’t work (they follow me, they bring it up again) I (4) try to refer them to someone else.

This doesn’t make the people who are bugging me change their minds, and it doesn’t prevent them from getting pissed off and wishing I would handle it in a different way.  Part of growing up is learning how to be okay with the negative emotions of others, by which I mean, recognizing that their negative emotions are THEIR emotions (and not automatically laying yourself down like a bridge over troubled water to make them feel better).  The conversation may still end in a crappy way and leave people feeling crappy!  But when it works, it teaches people that behaving this way is not going to get much of a response from me.  If they get bored with the topic, or stomp away unsatisfied to go moan to someone else about how mean I am, that’s a good outcome because it means I don’t have to engage anymore.

Here’s how it could work in practice for you:

When your friends bring up your stalker, your stock response might be:

Short version: “She and I aren’t friends anymore. What’s new with you?

Medium version: “She and I aren’t friends anymore. We have a conflict that is being resolved with the help of the school counselor, and to protect everyone’s privacy, I am choosing not to talk about it or interact with her.”

Longer version: “I know you like her, and I don’t want to make it uncomfortable for you – that’s WHY I’m trying to be private and keep it just between us. But the best thing for me to do is avoid her. So I need you to stop bringing her up or trying to get us to talk to each other. I need to handle this in my own way.”

If your friends keep pushing you, it’s time to close and/or change the subject.

Let’s change the subject, I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

You should jump directly to changing the subject any time this comes up (after you’ve given the initial stock response and any follow-up you want to give). “That’s an awkward topic for me, can we talk about _____ instead?”  A good way to change the subject is to actually change the subject by asking them a question about something completely unrelated.

If they accuse you of creating “drama” by not talking about things with them, the correct response is:

“(Stalker) and I are dealing with our problems directly with the help of the school counselor.  Talking about people behind their backs, or having these forced interventions and confrontations leads to drama. I need you to let me handle this in my own way.”

I know you think you are helping, but you’re not helping. I need to not be around her, and I need to not talk about it anymore.

If your stock response and changing the subject don’t work, it’s time to leave the conversation.  You can decide how smooth you want to be about this, and plot your escape route.  Nothing like walking away and then realizing you can’t get away because you’re in high school and you need a hall pass.

I think I hear my mother calling”

“Sorry to cut this short, I need to go do ________.”

“I really can’t talk about her. I’ll catch up with you later.”

If all of this doesn’t work, and someone really won’t leave you alone, call in the cavalry. If you were dealing with a pushy customer at a retail job, you’d eventually call in your manager.  If a traveling salesman comes to the door and won’t take no for an answer, you ‘d call your parents.  Refer your most nosy and pushy acquaintances (they’re not acting like friends if they’re escalating to this state) to the school counselor.  It’s polite to give the counselor a heads-up about what you’re dealing with, but he or she should be able to deliver the message that the conflict is private, shit is being handled, and get to the bottom of why the busybody is so concerned in the first place.

I’ve really told you all I’m going to tell you, and it bothers me that you keep asking me. Please go ask the school counselor.”

I hope this helps and that things get better soon.  If you can stand firm and keep enforcing your boundaries around this, I promise that people will either back off and leave you alone or escalate things to a level of jerkiness so jerky that you can free yourself from caring what they think.

14 comments
  1. Chris said:

    Ug. I’m dealing with something similar with a co-worker — not high school, but a high school like environment. I am really getting push back for limiting contact to a cordial “good morning” but don’t want to create further drama by explaining. This helps.

    • JenniferP said:

      I’m glad. In your situation it might be something like “We’ve decided to keep our conversations strictly about work” or “I can work with people that I wouldn’t necessarily choose as friends” or “We figured out that we got along better when we stayed focused on work” or “We had some friction, and after talking to HR we decided to keep everything strictly about work” and then change the subject (ask the person who is making it an issue a question about work).

      If you want the advanced move, it can be such an awesomely passive-aggressive thing to thank coworkers in advance for something you wish they’d do, as in “Yeah, I know it seems weird, but we get along better when we only talk about work. Thanks for not making it weirder than it has to be,” or “Thanks, I know you’ll be cool and not make a THING about it.”

  2. Copcher said:

    I have nothing to add, but I want to second this advice. This kind of thing should be explicitly taught in schools. Of course, that means that the people in charge of schools need to learn this kind of stuff too.

    • JenniferP said:

      What they teach in schools is “just ignore it.”

      “Just ignore it” = “Just shut up about it.”

      “Just shut up about it” = “Shady, irritating people getting away with no-good.”

      • Sarah in Tokyo said:

        This, this, this. And because people quickly learn that ignoring it doesn’t necessarily get anyone anywhere (other than “away with it”), people often turn to the polar opposite. In my experience, this leaves people thinking that drama-spreading and acts of petty revenge are the grownup way to go about things. Thinking back on what high school was like, I’m suuuper impressed with the LW’s approach to the situation.

        Man, I still remember how floored I was when one of my dormmates in university matter-of-factly told me that it’s perfectly okay to not like someone without disliking/hating them. Until that moment, the thought just never came into my head.

      • rosi5 said:

        Wow your comments about school are very true.

        I had a similar thing happen to me – the usual high school thing, a “friend” spread lots of nasty and untrue rumours about me, turning my friends against me. The school authorities said exactly that to me! “Just ignore it”…high school has to be the hardest place to put that into practice!

      • AMM said:

        I thought “just ignore it” meant “stop bothering us [grownups] about it. We don’t care what happens as long as we don’t have to deal with it.”

        • Ignotus Somnium said:

          This so much. “Just ignore it” seems to either mean “I don’t know, so I’m giving you a stock answer so you’ll stop asking me” or “You’re the one bringing it up, so I see you as the problem and just want you to shut up.”

          LW, I am SO glad that you seem to have a supportive school environment to help you deal with these things. You’re doing exactly right.

  3. Seeking the High Ground (Green Girl) said:

    Thank you all so much for your support! This will be a great help for dealing with the future situations, especially because it just isn’t possible to go to the counselor until after something happens, so I really would like to say thanks to all the people here!

    • JenniferP said:

      You are very, very welcome. Let us know how it goes!

  4. xenu01 said:

    I do not know if this is helpful to you or not, LW, but the way that I survived an extremely unhappy high school time was to make friends outside of my school. I think it would maybe help a lot for you to have at least one friend who doesn’t know Stalker, or at least doesn’t consider her a friend. You know? Someone in YOUR corner. My (OMG so geeky!) was to do that was online gaming. Yours might be just as geeky or something more like volunteering, or intermural sports, and meeting some kids from another school or some college kids.

    What you are going through, by the way? That is what people trying to leave abusive relationships get told all the time, by the way- don’t make waves, he/she is a Good Person and why are you so mean, etc. It happened to me when I was trying to protect myself, and I spent a lot of time blaming myself before I realized that my “friends” were actually being jerks by being more concerned with not making waves than my safety and well-being. 😦

    • Seeking the High Ground (Green Girl) said:

      Actually, one of the things that really helped me out was my Science Fiction group. They’re all adults, and they have really great perspective on things, and don’t have the high school attitude.
      Also, my best friend and I talk outside of school writing fan fiction. So geeky is something I look up to. 🙂

  5. Chris said:

    I just ran across this article (which will hopefully be linked to my name?). Anyway, LW, you for sure are not alone.

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