Dear wonderful Captain,
I’m coming to you with a question you’ve answered several versions of before, but not quite for my exact circumstances. So I beg your indulgence.
I’m a mid-thirties woman, and my problem is that men hit on me. All the time. And I’d like to change my behavior, if doing so is reasonable, in order to make that happen less.
My looks are thoroughly average. What I have going for me, though, is charm – or charisma – or magnetism – or whatever you call it. I’m confident and funny and I listen well and I’m truly interested in other people. I get along easy with just about everyone. Illustrative incident: a great new cafe opened up near work, and I have been there every day this past week meeting various people (a friend, a first date, a volunteer coordinator, my writer’s group). On Friday, the barista came up to my table and said she’d really like to get to know me because she loved the interesting conversations I had with so many people, and she doesn’t even care that that sounds creepy. We laughed our heads off. We exchanged numbers. It was fun.
It’s not so great when many men I know either hit on me or end up developing feelings for me, and I keep having to do the rejection dances and often losing people I like and/or need. I was shielded from this for a long time because I was married. But I’ve recently gotten divorced, and this THING just keeps on happening.
When it’s a stranger or a low-key interaction of some kind, it’s easy for me to smile and say “That’s really nice, thank you, but no,” and keep going.
But sometimes it’s inconvenient. Like, my contractor, who is fully 25 years older than I am, says flirty things all the time and texts me that we should run away to an island together. IDK how to get him to back off without risking losing this thing rarer than unicorns – a good, affordable contractor.
Sometimes it makes me angry, like when a coworker asked me out, and after I politely said no, claimed he hadn’t been asking me out in “that way” at all, and then stopped talking to me, which makes me peevish because what the hell. What if it had been someone I actually need to work with?
Sometimes it’s genuinely uncomfortable. A casual friend who happened to go through a divorce at the same time as me tried really hard to get with me just because it was happening to us at the same time. I told him no, and he didn’t back off, so I had to stop talking to him.
Sometimes it’s just SAD. A beloved friend whom I only know online through my writer’s group confessed today that he’s caught feelings, “I’m a little bit in love with you.” This is actually what’s making me write to you. I hate this shit, Captain. What the fuck even. This guy is sweet and kind and as two people who are working on memoirs, we know some deep shit about each other. This guy is sound, so I know I won’t lose his friendship just because I say no. But it’s different now. I can’t share my writing with him anymore, not least because I’m writing about dating these days, and obviously it would be unkind to him to have to read that.
I’m just so sad today. And I think I’ve been sad about this for a long time, just never acknowledged it because as long as I could “deal”, I could not justify feeling bad about it to my feminist conscience.
But now I won’t deny it. This makes me sad, and upset, and I want to change this pattern if I can. What can I do to stop sending out these vibes, Captain?
There are wrinkle to this story:
1. I grew up with extremely repressive and abusive parents who hated it if I ever had friends and disowned me when I told them I had a crush on a boy. Not kidding. I was 18. A few years after that I married a man who was verbally and emotionally abusive, just always angry with me for whatever reason, punishing me with endless silences or yelling etc. For 30-something years of my life, I lived with people who have disliked me. I’m sure that messed with my head. It feels weird, weird, weird to realize people like the real me. Therapy helps, but it’s still a process.
2. While I always did have SOME friends through both childhood and marriage, I had much fewer chances to socialize. I feel like since my separation two years ago, I’ve finally come into my own. I can finally be myself without my mother calling me a slut or my asocial ex accusing me of being “fake” friendly.
3. I’ve had this problem with unwanted male attention since I was 11 years old. As a child I was blamed for it. IDK why I share this, except to say I’ve always had this issue, and I think I have felt bad about it for a very long time.
Anyway. That’s my super long question. As a good and faithful Captain Awkward reader for years, and also by dint of being a mouthy bitch from the day I learned to speak, I don’t believe I have boundary issues. What I have are maybe personality issues? Or something?
I just… I don’t know anymore. Can you help me?
– The Woman With The Problem Most People Wish They Had
Hi there! This all sounds so exhausting!
What if I told you that you’re not doing anything wrong and that none of this is your fault?
What if I told you that most of my divorced friends have stories of The Year Almost Every Dude I Know Suggested That We Bone and you’re not alone in this?
What if I told you that these dudes are responsible for their own feelings and the consequences of them? Like, you’re thinking “What if saying no ruins my relationship with my great contractor” but your contractor should be thinking “Oh shit, what if perving on my client ruins this business relationship with a great person who pays on time and who can recommend me for other work.”
The dude in your writing group should be the one thinking “Oh shit, I’ve ruined this and now I maybe have to find a new writing group if hearing these stories makes me sad.” You should not have to censor your writing about your own life (the whole reason you’re there) to spare his feelings. In fact, I beg you not to do that. Let. Him. Be. Sad.
The blame and socialization you received from childhood is backed up by our sexist culture – as in, a non-zero number of these men would probably readily agree that it’s a little bit your fault they like you that way and it’s a lot your job to make them feel better about it, and that sucks, but that still doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you or that they’re right about any of this! Since you have a therapist (great!), maybe work on detaching from these guys and their feelings and find a way to practice reminding yourself that it’s not your work to soothe them or to make yourself smaller (SERIOUSLY, THAT’S YOUR WRITING, YOU GET TO KEEP DOING YOUR WRITING) in order to soothe them.
The sad also-divorced friend and the work person seem to be closed situations – as in, you shut it down and they chose to behave badly (that’s an important word, chose – they chose how to react to you saying no or setting a boundary), so let’s deal with the ongoing/unfolding stuff.
The contractor thing is a little scary (he has access to your house, and if he sulks, he can damage your house, or worse) and I understand wanting to tread carefully because there is actual risk to you in pissing him off. As a former 16-year-old diner waitress with a lot of charisma and a big mouth who needed to thread the needle of keeping customers happy and not lose my job while also not wanting to put up with constant bullshit, here are some strategies that I’ve had luck with when faced with the North American Jocular-But-Creepy Old Man:
Step 1 for all of these: Research other contractors. You’ll have more power if you have a backup plan. You don’t want to have to fire him, but you absolutely can, and you should remind yourself of that.
Strategy A) Keep the tone joking (at least at first) and joke back about how icky/inappropriate the offer is.
- “Aw, that’s a kind offer, but you’re way too old for me!”
- “Run away with you? Are you telling me I’m not going to like my house when you’re done working on it?”
- “Hard no, Carl, but my dad knows some single ladies at his church who might be more in your age group!”
I also used to invoke my dad as much as possible. “Do you like my new shirt?” “Yeah, cool, my dad has the same one.” “When am I going to take you waltzing?” “Aw, my dad goes to ballroom dancing classes with my mom, it’s the cutest. I love when old people cut a rug!”
It’s okay to be blunt/mean in the words as long as you keep the tone light. His strategy is “Haha I’m only joking I’m not creeping on you!” and your answering strategy can be “Oh, yeah, this is a funny joke, let’s make it at your expense instead!” In my experience this goes one of two ways:
- Geezer is DELIGHTED by the jokes, and starts treating me like One Of The Guys. A dubious honor, to be sure, but one with way less staring at my chest.
- Suddenly jokes of any kind are not fun anymore, Geezer sticks to the topic at hand while making the most hilarious old man pout.
Strategy B) Just ask him to stop.
- “Aw, Carl, I know you mean to be nice with the jokes about running away, but it kinda stresses me out – can we stick to the work?”
- “Aw, Carl, I know you mean that as a joke, but it’s inappropriate.”
If he’s a pro who’s been doing this a long time he’ll most likely say “Aw, sorry, I was only joking” and then he’ll act like a professional. You are not the first female client he’s ever had, the first charismatic female client he’s ever had, and he actually knows better than to treat clients like this. If he gives you the classic angry “I WAS ONLY JOKING, JEEZ, CAN’T YOU TAKE A JOKE, DID YOU THINK I WAS REALLY HITTING ON YOU?” response you can say “Of course, I know you were joking! That’s why I wanted to let you know it bothered me. You’re an awesome contractor and I don’t want a few jokes to get in the way of the great work you’re doing.”
Strategy C) This is a temporary situation, right? So temporarily studiously ignore every communication that isn’t about the work: “I have no idea how to respond to that. How is the drywall looking?”
Only respond when it’s a legitimate work issue. The risk here is that the person will escalate if you don’t tell them to stop the weird behavior (“But you never said anything, I thought you liked it”) but you can always say “I had no idea what to say to that, I figured you were joking so I just tried to talk about the work.”
Strategy D) Change up the medium. Right now he’s texting you. What if a text from him about flirting got totally ignored, and a text from him about a legitimate question got a phone call or email back instead? Break up the perceived informality and immediacy of texting.
Strategy E) Invoke witnesses.
Sometimes these dudes back off if they think there are witnesses to the behavior (the equivalent of young-waitress-me saying “Keep that up and I’ll tell Denise-The-Mean-Bartender you’re trying to cheat on her with me!”) as in, “Hilarious, Carl, I showed your last text to my Grandma and she says she’s willing! But seriously, how about that tile order?”
I once had a creepy freelance client who was overly familiar in his emails and chat communications, so I invented a fake assistant & made a Gmail address for her and started CC-ing her on my responses to him – “Oh hey, Carl, I’m copying my colleague Carrie so that she can get to work on that research for you.” Once he thought someone else was reading his 11:30 pm suggestions about how if I was still awake we could “meet up for a drink and talk about work…or other topics…” he STFU. I finished his project as fast as I humanly could and then turned down all future work.
To be absolutely clear, you shouldn’t have to soothe the feelings of an adult professional man who is being inappropriate, especially one you are paying for a service, but sometimes I think that it’s strategically valuable to find a way to let the guy save face if you still need work out of him. You can save your real feelings for the Yelp review you’ll write later. “Affordable & reliable, though if you’re a woman watch out for the barrage of creepy dad jokes.”
As for Writer’s Group Buddy, maybe try this:
“I really wish you hadn’t said that. It’s important to me to be able to share personal writing here without having to think about anything but the writing.”
And then what if you kept going exactly as you have been, and if he brings up anything about feelings again you say “This working space and the professional trust we have in each other is very important to me, and I need to keep it professional.”
This is also a situation where the rest of the group (or the idea or threat of them) can help – as in, stop exchanging private communications with him. It doesn’t mean sharing what he said with the group (unless he escalates or gets mean or even more inappropriate, in which case I think it’s okay to share what’s happening to you), but it might mean communicating only in forums that are visible to everyone and not responding to private communications from him.
And if he doesn’t like it, HE can go find a new writing community.
Overall, the steps seem to be:
- Be your awesome friendly self and enjoy this renaissance of making friends and meeting new people without the millstone of your marriage and your mean parents hanging around your neck.
- If someone catches feelings and you don’t return them, say what you feel – “Thanks, but no!”
- Let the dude be sad if he wants to. It’s not your problem! You’re not doing anything to cause the attention, you have no obligations here.
- When he pressures you to do something about his sadness, say some version of “That’s not my problem.”
- If you lose a friend in the process, remind yourself that the person is making a choice about how to treat you and how to interact with you. If someone who was formerly kind to you gets mean when you say no to romance or sex, they are telling you that they are willing to be mean to you when they don’t get what they want from you. That sucks, but it’s not your fault!
- Keep awesome-ing.