I have a colleague, “Peter”, who I’ve known for several years. We first worked together at a festival, and added each other on facebook/phone for organisational reasons, as he was the crew leader. Over time we have become friends, although I do see him as more of a colleague as he is 20 years older than me with a kid, and I’m a student. I worked with Peter again this year, and during the festival he split with his girlfriend. Naturally he was upset, and I was sympathetic – at first.
Recently, he has been pestering me on social media, and on the phone when I ignore his messages. I shouldn’t ignore him, but he frequently sends me random unsolicited updates on his life/ weirdly personal accounts of his break up, often at 2am, and I don’t know how to respond. Sometimes I will commiserate, but then he will turn on me and ask these loaded passive aggressive questions like “you really ok with this?” or “am I being obtuse”, so I have stopped responding as I don’t have the time or emotional energy to deal with him right now.
I think he is just looking for a friendly ear, but I’m struggling to deal with someone who is so emotionally vulnerable and so different from me. When I do respond, we get our wires crossed, so I try and keep my replies neutral. For example, he had been trying to recruit my young best friend to his crew, and even after I said she wasn’t interested multiple times, he added her and starting talking to her on social media. I got annoyed at him over boundaries and he got in this huge strop about how he could do what he liked. Then he eventually apologised, but the rift keeps widening.
Peter constantly questions how deep our friendship really is, and to clarify, I have always seen him as a friendly work colleague. From my point of view, him pouring out all these emotions on to me seems very strange, as surely he must have closer confidantes his own age? I probably sound quite cold, but I don’t think he should be discussing the legal issues and horrible drama of his break up with me.
I want to maintain our good working relationship, but don’t know how I can enforce boundaries, particularly on social media. Help!
She/her pronouns please.
You are not selfish if you don’t want to have these conversations anymore. Let’s ask some questions of the situation:
- Would Peter send male colleagues -his boss, say, or male colleagues who are his same age & peer status – messages like this? (To be clear, if he does, that doesn’t make it okay, but when gender/power shit gets weird at work it’s good to use this as a reality check.) If he did overshare with these guys, would they be like “right on Peter, that’s a totally normal thing to do, pip pip cheerio!” No, they would find it weird and they would either avoid the messages (and him) or tell him to knock it off.
- Is Peter doing even a tenth of the emotional labor around this situation you are? By which I mean, you are worried that if you say no you’ll lose your friendship and affect your professional life. Why isn’t he worrying that dumping his relationship problems on a college student will affect his friendships and professional life?
- Are you happy and comfortable with the situation and do you want it to continue?
#3 is the one that counts.
Peter is 20 years older than you and you’re a student (seasonal/festival?) worker where he works. He 100% fucking knows that it is inappropriate to message junior female colleagues at 2 am to tell them about his relationship troubles and to constantly put you in a situation of having to reassure him that it’s all okay when it isn’t. I also think it’s likely that Peter seeks out “working”/social media friends relationships with very young women (like you, and your best friend) because he likes the weird power-imbalances and ambiguous situations. There’s an element of grooming behavior going on here that I do not like. Over the last year I’ve read a ton of stories about sexual harassment at work (especially in universities) and “It started with him confiding in me about his romantic life and contacting me a lot outside work hours wanting emotional support” is a common thread in a lot of the stories. A lot. It’s the old “my wife doesn’t understand me, not like you” trick dressed up for a new generation. I need all young people everywhere to recognize this shit for what it is and to learn the response “Huh, that’s sad, but let’s stick to work topics!” when someone tries that with them. #LysistrataTime
When Peter asks stuff like “are you really ok with it?” it’s a rhetorical question. When he calls himself obtuse, it’s so that you’ll jump in to say he isn’t. He’s trying to reassure himself that what he’s doing is ok when he knows that it’s probably not. But he *is* asking you, so, you do have an opening to take him at his word and not at the intention you’ve (correctly) picked up on: “Hey, since you ask, I’m not really comfortable hearing about this kind of personal stuff. Let’s stick to lighter stuff, or better yet, work!”
You did the right thing by not responding to messages when you didn’t want to engage. If you’re not ready to block or unfriend Peter entirely yet online, use filters and massively limit his ability to monitor your feed. You can also check a setting on Facebook Messenger that lets you ignore messages from a given person. I recommend deploying it immediately. To him it will look like you are rarely or never around.
And the next time he “pesters” you about his relationship troubles, tell him the truth:
“Peter, I know you’re hurting, but I’m not comfortable being your sounding board about this anymore. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you so sooner. I’ll see you at work.”
- “I hope things get better, but I don’t want to hear about [girlfriend/breakup] anymore.”
- “I did ignore your messages about [problem] because I have no idea what to say and I wasn’t comfortable with the personal direction of the conversation.”
- “I see you as a friendly person to work with, and our working relationship is really important to me.”
- “I see you as a friendly work colleague.”
- “You’re my work friend. I really like working with you, but this is too much.”
- “I like working with you but this conversation is too personal for me.”
- “I like working with you but I don’t think it’s working for me to mix social media and professional stuff.” + (The block button)
A friend would say “I understand and I’m so sorry I made you uncomfortable” and end the conversation, because a friend understands that you are not a 24 hour emotional labor vending machine and that you get to say no to things. At minimum, a Grownass Professional Man Who Is Not A Creep would say “I understand and I’m sorry I made you uncomfortable” and then he would end the conversation because he understands that you are not a 24 hour emotional labor vending machine and that you get to say no to things.
When creeps and bullies are told to stop doing something, they use “negs” or “typecasting” as manipulation tools. They say stuff like “Whoa, I didn’t realize you were so uptight,” “I thought you were mature and you could handle it” or “I thought age doesn’t matter in friendship like ours” or “You’re right, I’m so pathetic, how can you even stand me?” (stealth version, trying for pity) or “But I asked if it was okay and you didn’t say anything, so it’s not fair that you would ask me to stop now” to try to get you to defend yourself or comfort them by doing what they want you to do/what you don’t want to do. The fact that you don’t like this and don’t want it to continue cancels out any argument he might make.
One way to defuse typecasting tactics like this is to agree with the neg instead of arguing with it, for instance:
- “Yep, I’m pretty uptight, and also, I’m not okay with this anymore.”
- “You’re right – I’m a college student, and this is too mature/too much for me to handle, so, let’s stop talking about relationship stuff.”
- “Yep, you did ask if it was okay, and I’m so sorry, I should have said something sooner. But I’m saying something now, so, are we cool?”
- “Yep, it’s probably unfair, but it’s what I want to happen now. Good talk, everyone!”
If Peter feels sad or embarrassed about how he’s behaved, well okay, I would feel embarrassed to know I was weirding out a friend or colleague the way he is doing. Let’s get even more specific: I’m in my 40s and I work with college students who are 20-25 years younger than me all day long. They are hilarious and talented and great, and some of them do become friends on social media after the class is over. I promise you, I PROMISE YOU, I would be completely fucking mortified if I started using one of them as a witching hour sounding board about my romantic ups and downs and asking them to constantly reaffirm the closeness of our friendship. Like, I cannot imagine circumstances under which this would be at all normal or ok or even possible. Peter’s embarrassment or hurt feelings at doing an embarrassing thing are not your responsibility to fix. If this all goes south, it’s not because you’ve been unprofessional or mean. “I like working with you, but I’m not enjoying these 2AM feelingsdumps about your smoking ruin of a love life” is not what he wants to hear, but it’s also not a mortal insult. A sincere “Hey man, I hope things get better, but I am not the right sounding board for this” + “Sooo, what kind of weather are the sports teams are having this week?” is a reasonable, normal and and friendly boundary to set.
Your friendly working relationship might deteriorate further if you speak up, not because you did anything wrong, but because I don’t have high hopes for Peter’s emotional maturity or professionalism. He’s shown you that he has pretty poor boundaries and has a hard time taking no for an answer (that whole thing with recruiting your friend!) and I predict that when you tell him to back off he will dump a big old sulk on you. Not only did his girlfriend leave him, but also his cute nice source of endless emotional labor is also bailing and his self-image as a person who is good with The Youth took a hit. Let him sulk. Give it time. He’ll either decide to be cool or he’ll make it undeniable that you can’t be friends.
If Peter threatens your job or retaliates professionally in any way when you withdraw from personal conversations with him,
launch his ass directly into the center of the sun report him to Human Resources. Screencap everything he’s sent you as backup, and document that you asked him to stop and how he responded. Telling HR “We were friends but then he started expecting me to comfort him about his love life at all hours. I did my best to listen for a while because I thought of him as a friend as well as a coworker, but when I asked him to stop he made it super-weird and threatened to make sure I never got hired for another festival” is not gonna make him look good. To be clear, I wouldn’t necessarily start with HR – try telling him directly first, even if it just ends up being good boundaries and assertiveness practice for you. Please know, also, 100% this guy does not have the power to make or break your career. If he implies anything of the sort he’s an even bigger douche than I already think he is.
I’m sorry you’re having to deal with this but I want you so much for you to know and understand: To me, Peter’s behavior is part of a recognizable and predictable pattern of older men demanding emotional labor and crossing boundaries with young employees, especially young women. He hasn’t tried to have sex with you or date you…yet…and he may never actually do that, but I feel like it’s brewing in his mind to think of you That Way. In your shoes, I would not be alone with him, I would not drink around him, I would not hang out with him late at night, I would not let him be my ride to and from anything, I would lock down my social media feeds (especially anything with photos of you) & I would tell my friends about this weird older guy at work who tried way too hard to make a friendship happen. Paranoid? Maybe. Just remember how we fight negs: “Yep, I’m a little paranoid, but also, I don’t want to suddenly feel that guy’s hand on my knee, and he’s already shown me that he’s not really good with boundaries.” We don’t have to have a jury trial for you to decide not to hang out with someone or to exercise caution when you do.
I also want you to know that you didn’t cause any of this by being friendly to him. Peter has a lot of choices about how he behaves. I hope he’ll do the right thing – “Whoa, sorry I made you uncomfortable, of course I’ll take it elsewhere” – and then continue to be a good colleague. If he doesn’t, none of it is your fault. A friendship where you can’t state a boundary without retaliation or “ruining the friendship” was never a friendship.