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the art of no

Hail Captain! (And Awkwardeers)

I come to you with a question regarding boundaries and the ways to professionally enforce them. Some background: I’m a law student of a certain age (mid-30s) and a custodian to 2 cats (a black and a gray). Meaning that no matter what I wear, I’ve got some visible cat hair on all my outfits. After being a cat mom for 10 years, I’ve come to terms with it. Because honestly, my entire life (furniture, clothes, cars, to my casebooks) has some cat hair on it. And before anyone asks, yes I do try to curb the worst of it, but my cats are prodigious shedders. I can spend the minuscule bit of energy not devoted to school driving myself nuts about it, or I can just let it go and enjoy the fact my kiddos love me and want to be with me.

However, for my 22 year old cohort-mate, this is a way of life she can’t abide. This young lady feels extremely free to reach out and being removing cat hair from my person whenever she’s within arm’s reach. She does it in class, when I’m sitting beside her. She does it in casual conversation, when other people are present. I can only surmise she’s a “motherly” type, who thinks she’s helping. Or she’s got a thing about stray hairs that just makes her nuts. But Captain, as an introvert and adult woman, I don’t like it when someone who’s not the list of approved “touch me whenever you like” people touches me.

Captain, I’ve told her repeatedly to stop, that I don’t care if there’s cat hair, that I like it just fine, that maybe I want to take my babies with me all day! Her response is “It bothers me” as if that’s a valid excuse for breaching the sacred three foot bubble. Apparently she comes from a house of sisters, where this behavior is normal. Whereas I and my brothers outgrew the phase of just manhandling each other ten years ago. I want her to stop; I’ve told her to stop, but apparently what I want doesn’t much matter.

Captain, part of this program is hearing repeatedly that our professional community is very small, that we’re establishing our professional reputations, and that our behavior is being monitored. So making a scene isn’t an option I can take. I need some thoughts, or even a script on how to make a “professionally appropriate scene” to get this young woman to keep her hands to herself!

Any insights you can suggest would be appreciated,

Covered in Cat-hair

(she/her pronouns for both parties)

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Dear Captain,

This seems like a very minor thing to be asking for help with, I know. But I feel like even if there’s no solution to my “problem”, getting the input of a bunch of neutral parties (particularly neutral parties with solid understandings of boundaries) would make me feel better, and if you feel like this letter is a waste of time you can just delete it, no harm done.

I do not own pets, for a number of reasons. I feel like it shouldn’t matter, but in case it does, in no particular order those reasons are: 1) My husband is deathly allergic to cats/dogs. 2) My husband very explicitly does not want pets even if he wasn’t allergic. 3) I have had pets in the past and found that no amount of wanting to be a good pet owner changes the fact that I am not a good pet owner (I am not patient, consistent, or stable enough). 4) I am an extremely high strung (or anxious) person, and being in a constant state of panic (did pet just eat something they shouldn’t have!? Is pet sick!? What if their collar slips off while I’m walking them!? If I go to a dog park, what if pet runs away and I can’t catch them!?!) would be awful for both me and the pet. 5) I’ve now lived for a couple of years with no pets, and oh my goodness, I have learned to love not having fur everywhere so much.

I have 2 adult sisters, who have 2 dogs each. They are very much the “this dog is my baby” sort of people. They consistently ask me to care for their dogs while they go on vacation (which happens several times a year each). Years ago, I almost always acquiesced. When I moved in with my husband, however, I mostly stopped agreeing to pet-sit. I cannot bring the dogs to my place because my husband is allergic, so pet-sitting always requires driving 30 minutes across town, several times a day, or straight up living at their house for however many days they’re gone. In addition, these dogs are not well trained. The dogs are extremely food aggressive, they get into fights, they beg, they jump on people, they destroy furniture, etc. etc. etc. Hiring a professional would be too expensive, they say, although I also feel like part of the problem may be that a professional would not accept caring for aggressive dogs.

I have made it clear that I do not want to pet-sit. But they keep asking, piling on the guilt any time I say no. I am, at this point, known for being a terrible, selfish sister because I won’t take care of their dogs. I do not work, so they point out that they’re willing to pay me, and I have plenty of free time, so there’s no reason I can’t pet sit for them. I have turned them down several times this year, but yesterday my sister came over to “catch up and chat”. Turns out, that was just an excuse to ask me in person to pet sit for 4 days while she and my other sister went to Vegas together for a holiday vacation. She knew I wouldn’t be able to say no in person, and she was right. Now I am pet sitting next week. I guess I have a few questions for you and your commenters: Am I in the wrong for turning them down just because I do not want to pet-sit, when they’ve offered to pay me and I do have the free time ? Obviously I and my husband are pretty biased and think I shouldn’t have to regularly take on responsibilities because someone else has pets, but it seems like every pet owner we know disagrees and thinks we are just selfish, lazy people. (As a side note, I have no problems helping them with non-pet related things; I regularly edit resumes and help with landscaping projects and help decorate for parties, so it’s not like I’m refusing to ever lend a hand with anything.) Are there any scripts you could recommend for saying ‘no’ to favors for family, especially when saying no means potentially ruining major plans for them? And finally, is this just a thing I need to get over and stop being annoyed at (people are always going to ask for favors you don’t want to do, and you’re always going to be considered the bad guy if you turn them down, too bad, so sad, stop complaining)?

Thank you so much for your time,
Not a Willing Pet Sitter

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Putting this behind a cut given the “Guy In Your Office Who Gives Weird Backrubs And Ends Every Sentence With ‘That’s What She Said’ Is Totally #IBelieveYou About Your #MeToo Social Media Posts” and “Pretty Much Every Movie You Loved In The 1990s Is Now Kinda Gross To Think About” week we’ve had.

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Hi Capt,

Surely this has been asked before, but I can’t find anything this straightforward in the archive. What do you say when someone wants to be your friend but you just don’t like them?

I feel like at any given time there are a few people in my life who really want to be my friend but who I just don’t find all that interesting or fun or my cup of tea. Usually they have done nothing wrong and are in no way offensive; I just don’t like them. Usually they pursue me pretty hard, inviting me to things and politely but persistently trying to schedule friend-dates. Usually we are socially connected so there’s no ghosting on them forever (also that’s mean), and also it means bearing the burden of showing up at a real friend’s party and having not-my-friend be super excited to see me and be all “it is so awesome to see you, we need to catch up!” Ugh.

I sound like such a jerk in this email. I don’t want to be a jerk! I also don’t want to spend time with people I don’t like, and I don’t need new friends badly enough to give these folks a chance, and inevitably they are the sort of people who stubbornly refuse to notice that their invitations are never reciprocated. I also wonder why I seem to attract oblivious quasi-groupies when I am definitely not the cool one in my friend group and also I am really not that nice to people I don’t like. Like, I’m not an asshole (I hope), but no one could claim that I lead these not-friends on; it’s not like I say “omg we def need to catch up but I’m just soooo busy rn,” I’m more like “sorry, can’t make it! EOM”.

Got a script for saying “no I don’t want to hang out with you and it’s not that I’m busy, I just don’t want to” without making it a Huge Deal? Or for telling a new acquaintance that no you don’t really want to get coffee some time or friend them on Facebook? Also what’s with people friending folks on FB who they met once for like a hot second and then being offended that you don’t accept the request? Hi I don’t know you so I definitely don’t want to see your vacation photos nor you to see mine.

Maybe I am just a jerk.

Oh lordy these people probably write to advice columnists about me.

Signed,
Not Your Friend
(She/her)

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Hi, Captain!

I’m really suffering for my inability to say no. I’m pathologically afraid of refusing people or hurting them or letting them down, and so I keep ending up in situations where rather than being able to say ‘I am very uncomfortable with the direction this is going’ I pretend to be just as into it as they are. Actually, quite often I end up leading the way into something I know I don’t want to do, just because I can tell that’s the kind of person someone wants me to be (and I’m pretty much always right about their wants, afaict, but it does mean it’s definitely on me not them). I keep reminding myself it’s a problem and I need to stand my ground, but it’s like I’m trapped in my body while it goes through the motions. So by the time I manage to admit that I’m not ok with doing X, the person I was doing X with is almost always upset and confused because I seem super into it right up until I’m super not.

How do I break this habit, and learn to be true to what I want and am comfortable with, rather than dragging myself through this bullshit? The only advice I ever get boils down to ‘just don’t do it’ which is not the most helpful. How do you force yourself to stop something like this (which I’m 99% sure is a preemptive defence mechanism, like, ‘DON’T HURT ME, I’M SO NICE’)?

Thanks,
Suffering From Advanced Cool Girl Syndrome (pronouns she/her)

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Dear Captain

I live with my partner (W) and we have a lodger (H). W has a friend who lives abroad (M). M is an alcoholic with a coke problem (not addressed). He has just lost his licence for driving drunk which has also lost him work as he is a self employed builder. M is from same BigCity that W and I live in and M’s mother (also an alcoholic with lots of health problems) is going into hospital at Christmas, so M is coming home to BigCity for the holidays. W, H and I all had a conversation months ago where (I thought) we agreed that it was ridiculous for him to come and stay on our couch when he can stay at his own family home while in BigCity but that of course we would see him while he is in the country.

Fast forward to last week. I am working up until the Friday before Christmas. W tells me (on Wednesday) M is arriving in the country and will stop by to see us Thursday. Great! I get home from work Thursday and M is there. With his bags. M is staying ‘for a couple of days’. I am upset. W and I talk, I use my words to say Christmas is important to me, I wanted to spend it just us together and M has to be gone by Christmas Eve. When I get home from work on Friday, M is gone. Yay! I used my words and problem solved. Except…

M arrived on the 27th. M is only going to stay ‘a couple of days’ by which he means 3rd Jan. And M is only leaving then because his dad (just outside BigCity) has offered him a weeks work but M plans to return to us the following weekend. M has no return ticket to his country. I found all this out when M was already sitting in my front room. In fact, when he arrived I still didn’t know how long he was planning to stay (because a couple of days to me is two days) and it only became clear when he mentioned New Years.

I do not want to spend New Years with this man. I do not want him in my home. M has already in one day drunk all the wine in our house. I had planned to take the first week of January off for a much needed break. I have been working a stressful full time job at the same time as finishing my PhD which I only just submitted last month. At the same time W and H decided this would be the perfect time to start home renovation project which has been ongoing and very disruptive since the summer (sanding, painting, moving furniture boxes stuff everywhere). This year has been loooooooong. Now I’m thinking I should just go back to the office and not waste my leave with M in the house.

W thinks I said I did not want house guests over Christmas, meaning literally the 24th and 25th so he has not done anything wrong and I am being unreasonable, asking M to leave now is really rude and how come W is not allowed to have people stay when last year I had my friend stay for New Years so how is this different (she stayed two days, it was planned beforehand, I ASKED him if it would be alright), and M is his best friend. M is now making sad noises that if he’s in the way he can go stay all alone at his moms place while she is hospital. H is happy with him staying because M can help out with home improvement project, so I am on my own. How do I get W to understand why I am upset? Am I being unreasonable? How do I get M to leave?

Please advise,

Unhappy Party Pooper (She/her)

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Dear Captain Awkward,

I couldn’t find anything like this in your archives, so I hope you don’t mind me asking for advice.

I’m a 23 year old woman and I’ve never been in a relationship. It just doesn’t particularly interest me, and I identify as an aro-ace and I feel satisfied by all my platonic relationships. I have dated in the past, which has clued me in to things I like and don’t like, and I’ve also come to realise that dating people I don’t know makes me really uncomfortable with the thought that they will want things I don’t.

During school, my friends told me that a guy at a party had been hardcore flirting with me and I hadn’t noticed. I’ve been messaging him on and off since and we’ve gone on two dates, and I don’t know him well enough to want to go on more – I want to know him as a friend before we try more dates. The problem is, one of my friends is meddling to try and push me into a relationship with him, and I just want to run the other way. Despite not hanging out in five years of school, she’s asked me twice in two weeks to hang out and if I decline to save money, changes plans conveniently so that I don’t have to pay anything. I know she’s meddling, and another friend has admitted as such. All she’s doing is making me want to duck my head and hide – the more she pushes, the less I want to know this guy at all.

I don’t know how to tell this guy that I want to know him as a friend before we progress without hurting his feelings, and I really need to tell my friend to stop meddling because it makes me really anxious and uncomfortable, but I have no idea how. Do you have any advice or scripts that might help?

Thanks,
Happily Single and Being Pressured

Dear Happily Single:

Be blunt and let them know where you stand. It’s actually the respectful, friendly thing to do. You can do it!

“Friend, stop meddling. I will work things out with this guy in my own way and at my own pace. You’re driving me bonkers right now and making me feel pressured and annoyed. Knock it off!”

“Guy, I like hanging out with you and I’d like to maybe be friends. I don’t think I want to go on any more DATE-dates for the time being, though I will let you know if that changes. Is that cool?” 

“I’m happy being single.” (Repeat as necessary, to the point where the conversations become very boring because you default to saying this every time the topic comes up). “But won’t you give him a chance?” “I’m happy being single.” “But he was flirting with you!” “Cool. I’m happy being single.” “I just want you to be happy.” “Good! I’m happy being single.” “But I thought you liiiiiked me.” “I do like you as a friend. I’m happy being single.” “I just want to help you.” “But I don’t want help. I’m happy being single.”

You already know what I’m gonna say: I’m happy being single.

Guy and Friend(s) will feel whatever they feel. Maybe Guy won’t be interested in hanging out just as friends. Maybe Friend(s) will deny their meddling or be offended that you don’t want them to do more of it and be miffed for a while. Maybe they will get it and apologize and stop pressuring you. You can’t magically prevent people from doing stuff that annoys you, but you can have a conversation where you let them know how you feel about it. Stop silently accepting their annoying behavior. You are not “being mean” or “causing trouble” by stating your needs and boundaries. 

You got this!