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Help me get out of this weird friendship!
March 25, 2009 8:04 PM   Subscribe

How do I politely and professional break of ties with a sort of creepy former colleague?

I'm a mid-20s woman. While at my previous company, I became "friends" with a relatively high-level guy at a client I was working with. It started when he indicated how impressed he was with my work, and we'd occasionally trade friendly professional email. It then started going down the path of politely teasing me, then occasionally into things like "I can't believe you don't have a boyfriend!" This guy has kids my age and (seems to be) happily married, so it understandably made me uncomfortable. But, for harmony between his company and mine, and also because I don't like dealing with this sort of conflict, I mostly laughed it off and talked my way out of uncomfortable moments.

Last summer, I noticed him acting very similarly with his young female intern, so this seems to be a thing for him.

Anyway, I left my old company, and over the last six or so months he's continued to email me with updates on what his kids are up to, or pictures from his family vacation, or sending me links he thinks I'd like. I've pretty much ignored them or just responded with a one-line "thanks, looks cool."

He's often self-deprecating, and if he says something that even *he* thinks could be construed as obviously inappropriate, he'll backpedal and say, "Just let me know if this bothers you." That puts me in an awkward situation, and I've never really been able to say "Yeah, this bothers me." I've only called him on something he said once, but that was because it was relatively public and other colleagues could REALLY have taken it badly.

Today I got an email from him asking "What's up? I haven't heard from you in a while. Should I stop trying to chat with you?"

How do I take advantage of this and finally bow out of this weird creepy "friendship" for once and for all? I want to be polite about it, because it's not unlikely that we'd run in to each other in professional situations in the future, and we have a number of mutual friends and acquaintances at my old company. But just as I haven't found a good way to do it in the past, I'm having trouble thinking of the right thing to say now.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (24 answers total)
 
Seems like he's ready to give up, just don't reply.
posted by delmoi at 8:12 PM on March 25, 2009 [4 favorites]


Were it me, I'd just not reply. Do you have time for this? Probably not. So eh, you got too busy to exchange pleasantries with a vague acquaintance. Who's a little creepy.
posted by desuetude at 8:19 PM on March 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'd say you would appreciate a note now and then about his wife and family. He's apparently harmless and you do yourself no good by dissing him. By defining the minimal amount of communication, you make it not worth his while to contact you. The last thing you want is a long email explaining how he was "misunderstood."
posted by Ironmouth at 8:20 PM on March 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ignoring it gives you plausible deniability in the case that you need to deal with him in the future.
posted by spiderskull at 8:54 PM on March 25, 2009


You should email back something along the lines of:

"I appreciate your asking, and I think that you probably should stop trying to chat with me."
-
posted by General Tonic at 9:02 PM on March 25, 2009


Yup, just stop replying. He'll move on. What do you use for e-mail? If you can, I'd suggest tagging his address as spam and letting all his creeptacular messages pile up along w/ all the boner pill ads and Nigerian scams that you ignore in your bulk mail file.
posted by EatTheWeak at 9:11 PM on March 25, 2009


Ignoring it gives you plausible deniability in the case that you need to deal with him in the future.

Agreed. "Oh, you've been e-mailing me? I hadn't seen them! I get so busy sometimes, you know how it is..."
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:18 PM on March 25, 2009 [4 favorites]


Options:

1. Don't respond. This is an answer in and of itself.
2. Be direct: "I just figured the friendship had run its course and we went our separate ways. All the best."
3. Tell a white lie: "I'm sorry, I'm just swamped in this new job and don't have time to keep up with friends like I used to. All the best to you and your family."

I'm kind of a wuss so I'd probably do #3, and then #1 if he responded to that.
posted by Bella Sebastian at 9:19 PM on March 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


Is "thinking of him akin to ones (hypothetical) old racist second removed aunt & uncle" out of the question? Simply because you do mention that you have similar social circles, and that can be awkward to outright ignore him or tell him to get lost. Just a polite smile when you do encounter him face to face, and an otherwise explanation of "oh, wow! My spam filter must be catching everything lately!" lament when you do have to see him can go a long way towards disociating yourself from the unsavoury parts of his personality while not being outwardly "ew. get away."-ish.

Good luck.
posted by kellyblah at 9:35 PM on March 25, 2009


I bet he thinks he's flirting, which I imagine you'll find even creepier. It's probably best if you don't respond.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 11:41 PM on March 25, 2009


1. Don't respond. This is an answer in and of itself.
It's really not. Failure to respond leaves open a vast panoply of reasons as to why you have failed to respond, only some of which amount to "I don't like you". If you don't tell someone why you do, or don't do, something they will make up their own reasons.

It's cowardly and lazy to leave people hanging. That it's pretty much common practice only implies that cowardice and laziness are common. The only feelings you spare are your own, and that ought to be an indication of the moral standing of that idea.

Most people do and will "get it", but it's likely that the same reasons you find him creepy--his capacity to give and take hints is lacking--are the exact same reasons he probably won't get it. So, you can either maintain the social fiction of dealing with him as though he isn't somewhat socially dysfunctional--despite realizing that he is--or, you can deal with him as if he is.

Just tell him, politely, something along the lines of "Bob, I don't really think of you as a friend, and I don't think we have enough in common to be friends. I'd prefer you took me off your email list, please."
posted by aeschenkarnos at 3:36 AM on March 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wait a week or so, then tell him sorry you've been too busy to reply but you're glad to hear things are going well.

Artificially inserted lag will kill anything.
posted by fleacircus at 3:38 AM on March 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


Since you say you have mutual friends and may run into him in professional circles, and since you can do this by email (easier!), how about being honest with him, while giving him the opportunity to "save face" and framing it in terms of you instead of him?

"I've been feeling awkward about continuing to chat with you on a personal level, because sometimes I get the feeling you are hitting on me. I would like for us to continue to be professional acquaintances, but feel uncomfortable with the private sharing. I would like for us to continue to speak in professional settings, but when you share photos and jokes, it makes me feel uncomfortable. I'm really working hard on being a professional, and keeping my personal and professional life separate."

He'll think to himself (or worse, reply or tell others), "What a joke! Me? Flirt with her?" And so what? That will just be him saving face. But, he'll get the message that you two are professional acquaintances, that the chatty stuff has to stop, and you aren't burning a bridge or making it difficult if you work together or see each other again in the future.

At worst, he'll think of you as such a consummate professional that you are a bit of an "ice queen". Again, so what.
posted by Houstonian at 4:13 AM on March 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


I want to be polite about it, because it's not unlikely that we'd run in to each other in professional situations in the future, and we have a number of mutual friends and acquaintances at my old company

If that's the case, then I think Bella really nailed it. First #3, then #1.
posted by marsha56 at 6:19 AM on March 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


I would go with what fleacircus recommended....I've used this approach in different circumstances, and it's worked well without alienating anyone. If the guy creeps you out, by all means, try to tactfully, artfully create distance between you two......the message will be received.

Just as a general question: Did the guy actually proposition you in anyway or is he just oversharing with you in a real uncomfortable way? Or is he just annoying?
posted by PsuDab93 at 6:51 AM on March 26, 2009


Seconding 5_13, and agreeing with Bella. If you feel you have to speak, go with #3.

I had the same situation at my work; the guy sits about 50 ft away from me. Pleasantries sequed into non-work related emails. I didn't respond to one of them (mind you the email didn't merit a response), and he called me on it a week later! In actuality, he didn't want to know why I didn't respond, he just wanted to passive-aggressively bitch me out.

That was 6 months ago. Since then he hasn't spoken to me or acknowledged my presence. And I work with the people in his department daily.
posted by xena at 7:07 AM on March 26, 2009


What Houstonian said; that's perfect.

And in the future, when someone is making you uncomfortable with inappropriate language or actions, it isn't your obligation to be good-natured and laugh along. Drop the smile, look the person dead in the eye and say, "I don't appreciate that." Then walk away. I know you're just trying to be nice and get along (I used to do that too and realize it's a hard habit to break), but the fact is, most people who behave like Bob know exactly what they're doing and are testing you for your reaction. If you play along, their behavior will become more and more aggressive or inappropriate.

It's best to put the kibbosh on this type of guy right from the start, especially if you work together. Good luck.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 7:23 AM on March 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


"It's awkward, yeah. Thanks for asking. I should have said something."
posted by cairnish at 8:25 AM on March 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


I disagree strongly with what aeschenkarnos says about not replying, viz.
It's cowardly and lazy to leave people hanging. That it's pretty much common practice only implies that cowardice and laziness are common.
That is a very moralistic and judgemental stance.

From what you have described, the exchange of emails you had was very much in a work context and since you have moved out of this context you haven't done anything to encourage a continuing conversation. Thus you don't owe him anything, which includes spending the time to work out how best to deal with him. You can of course choose to reply, but that is your choice to make. Just because someone sends you communication doesn't mean you are under any obligation to communicate back.

I also disagree with the people who are suggesting that you tell a white lie. If you do that, his unwanted communication is now causing you to lower your level of honesty. Being honest is a great virtue (exercised with tact of course) and why should you be dishonest and false just to rid yourself of some unwanted attention?

Either you can give an honest answer about not wanting to continue a conversation with him, if you feel comfortable about doing that, or you can just ignore him. Both are valid options and both maintain your integrity.
posted by Sitegeist at 8:53 AM on March 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think it is a bit cowardly to leave (ambiguously harmless) people hanging, IF there are better ways to accomplish what you want to accomplish.

In this case, keeping professional lines open while closing personal lines.

If I were you, I would just shoot him back an email saying something along the lines of;

" Hi, John,
While I'm glad we have a good professional relationship, I am *very* uncomfortable with our personal relationship, because you are married, and I'm sure you can understand that, etc. "

That way, you have told him the truth, not offended him overly much, and you both can just carry on.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 9:49 AM on March 26, 2009


He asked a direct question:

"Should I stop trying to chat with you?"

Give him a direct answer:

"Yes, stop trying to chat with me."
posted by gyusan at 10:08 AM on March 26, 2009


LuckySeven is right. These men know exactly what they're doing. They're taking advantage of the fact that you can't get away and so they enjoy making you squirm, like pulling at the wings of an insect. They know exactly how to push at boundaries slowly and imperceptibly so that there was never a line at which you really could say that they were doing something wrong, until it goes from creepy-compliment "why don't you have a boyfriend" to "my wife doesn't understand me."

But now he's given you that line. He thinks he has boxed you into a corner where the only way you can feel "nice," which he knows is so important to women, is by saying "Ohmygosh, no, of course I still want to chat!"

Instead, pretend that you assume he's asking this question in all seriousness, and give him a serious answer. "Actually, our more personal correspondence has made me uncomfortable. Thank you so much for understanding! I really appreciate it."
posted by thebazilist at 10:43 PM on March 26, 2009


This is never easy, and no reply can fully avoid hurt feelings. I don't think that you need to tell him your uncomfortable yet, unless he is not getting the point in a serious way. Maybe try out this:

"Thanks for the updates on your family. So much has changed since our employers were doing business with each other and i find my freetime in short supply lately. It would be a relief to know that since I won't be able to respond to your emails or requests very often, you will understand."

After that, I think you can ignore further odd attempts to contact you, and also feel that you have tried to steer him away from expecting a reply.
posted by shimmer at 1:04 PM on March 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


He's often self-deprecating, and if he says something that even *he* thinks could be construed as obviously inappropriate, he'll backpedal and say, "Just let me know if this bothers you." That puts me in an awkward situation, and I've never really been able to say "Yeah, this bothers me."

Ok, this is what I'd try:
In life, please, please practice saying "Yeah, it bothers me".
No, it does not put you in an awkward position, it gives you an opening. Actually, start regarding it as your standard repartee - and, if you feel anxious about explaining why, just say "So don't do it again" then smile and wink (not necessarily wink, but give that impression however is appropriate to you), then immediately move on.
What could that person say that would make it any clear they want you to correct them if need be?

If you don't, you will continue cultivating creepy relationships, you will continue attracting them, and you will even have 'creepy' relationships with many people who would actually respect your boundaries if they knew where they were.
posted by Elysum at 3:21 AM on March 28, 2009


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