Dear Captain and Awkwardeers,
I have a potential freelance client, who I might do some paid work for if he can ever get around to sorting out funding and letting me know how much I would be paid for what work.
While all this is being sorted out he and I have been emailing back and forth about the topic of our professional interest. He is knowledgable though I have more knowledge about the specific project he wants to do.
I have also met him a couple of times — for coffee, in daylight, for professional business meetings.
Anyway, more recently this potential client, let’s call him Doug, has been emailing more frequently and has suggested we talk on the phone a few times about work issues. However, his conversations have mostly been about other, non work issues and he revealed that he has been tracking me on social media. Specifically, he does not have a Twitter account but he is very very familiar with everything I tweet and has brought up a couple of things in conversation as evidence that I am “stressed out” as he put it and “need to relax.”
The tweets in question were me remarking that I had blocked someone for being offensive and using profanity which I don’t like on social media. Apparently Doug read this as “she is very stressed and hurt about this big incident where a man threatened her!” when in reality I was mildly irritated and forgot about it immediately I’d told my followers I’d blocked the silly troll. Oh, and when we speak, Doug also calls me by my Twitter user name which is not a nickname I use in my personal life. (it’s a name based on an animal that sort of sounds like my actual very common name)
Another time he asked me if I had “relaxed” at the weekend because I tweeted I was going to watch a play after a very hectic work week with lots of tough deadlines.
My Twitter is open, it’s a mix of personal and professional stuff as I have developed a group of followers who are interested in my life. So it’s open for him to read. But as Doug keeps insisting, he has not got an account himself so it’s not like I am one of the folks he’s following. I find it creepy that he is reading everything I write there and commenting on it, that he calls me by my user name and the fact that he tells me about it makes me feel surveilled. He never ever comments on the professional stuff, which I would have found totally fine. It’s always the personal stuff and he always reinterprets it through this “poor little stressed lady” lens.
This weird feeling crept into our last physical meeting, he shook my hand by taking my hand in both of his and sort of pressing it and then he said “bye, bye, sweetheart” which is not how people in my profession behave here. Things are “formal friendly” but you don’t call women this stuff AT ALL EVER.
This dude is my age by the way.
Am I over reacting to find this creepy-ish? It’s like Doug wants to go over a line of being professional and be my friend but we just don’t have that background. Am I over reacting if I don’t want him as a client? Maybe he is just being friendly and he is a bit awkward around women (my profession is almost totally male dominated and quite macho) but I feel really weird about it all.
Slightly Creeped Out
Dear Slightly Creeped Out:
I would like to offer you validation: Yes, your feeds are public, so theoretically everyone can read them so it is difficult to say “um, stop reading that” and yes, Doug’s behavior is strange and cloying, especially the “sweetheart,” the use of your handle to address you in conversation, and the way he is clearly monitoring the personal things you share and thinking about mundane passing stuff you’re doing in your free time days later. A script like “My dude, there is a place that you could have real time conversations with me about what I ate for dinner yesterday and that place is called Twitter, and also, my name is _________, not @__________, and also, don’t call me ‘sweetheart’ ever,” will get a huffy and unsatisfying “No I wasn’t!” response. His goal might be friendship, might be romance, might be collegiality and wanting to keep you interested and available for the work while he patches together the funding, and the social contract makes it hard to call him on anything directly until he makes some direct move. So, trust your instincts. If his annoying behavior is bugging you, then it’s bugging you, and it’s okay to make decisions based on that.
Fortunately, you can absolutely fire freelance clients you don’t want to work with, and you don’t have to give reasons or even *have* airtight reasons. Also fortunately, I think there is a way to reset this client relationship with Doug to a strictly professional one and leave the possibility of paid work open.
To reset this, your script for anything personal he says is some variation of “Heh, interesting. So, about work topic …” and your overall strategy is to ignore him until he contacts you next, and then ask him directly: “Doug, do you have any news about a scope of work or funding?” and if he says, “Not yet, but let’s meet up and talk about it more” you say, “Thanks for the invite, but I don’t have time this week. I’ve really enjoyed speaking with you about (field & topics), but I need to prioritize other clients right now and put our discussions on the back burner until there is funding and an agreement in place. Please do reach out when you are ready to move forward with a project and we’ll talk about a realistic timeframe.”
His reaction to what is a completely reasonable boundary (“It will be great to work with you, but I have to focus on paying clients and deadlines“) will be telling. If he’s cool and professional, you can probably work with him. If you get pouting or sulking or attempts to take the conversation to a personal place, like, “I thought we were friends!,” etc., then you’ll know what’s up. In the meantime:
- Can’t meet him for coffee…you aren’t getting paid!
- Can’t talk to him on the phone…you aren’t getting paid!
- Can’t send him emails about work or not work…you aren’t getting paid!
- Don’t have time to talk about your stressful week or stuff he read on your Twitter feed…you aren’t getting paid!
- You could spend time trying to interpret his motives and his behavior, but…you aren’t getting paid!
You met up with him, you emailed back and forth with him about your professional interests, you’ve done all you can to be friendly and market your services and set yourself up to be considered for work. You don’t have to meet endlessly with potential clients or give them free labor (& emotional labor of interpreting/fending off their odd behavior). If he does eventually come through with paid work, great, maybe you’ll do it or maybe you’ll be too busy or “too busy.” In the meantime, give yourself permission to not think about him at all. Put that energy into other clients who don’t creep you out.