How do I tell an odd stranger to back off?
July 20, 2009 10:50 AM   Subscribe

How do I explain to an acquaintance with learning difficulties that his language and actions are unwanted?

Some background: I take the same train to work every day, and have always been the sort of person who talks to strangers.

Over the past few months I've been chatting with a man I'll call "Joey," who lives in a care home/shelter near the train station. He is very shabby, but not a drinker or a drug user; in fact, he is mostly very childlike. He may have some mental disability that makes him that way, but I couldn't diagnose him based on that. He takes the same train downtown, and we usually chat about general stuff, like sports or weather or food.

Joey doesn't ask for money, and I don't give him any. I don't know what his mental health is like, but I suspect he's somewhere on the autism spectrum. He is very literal, and he will answer direct questions, but not volunteer much information beyond the answer. He is childishly friendly, although I think he's in his fifties. He is just an odd bird.

He knows I am married, and a couple of weeks ago he announced at top volume on the train, "I KNOW WHAT IT FEELS LIKE WHEN I DO IT BY MYSELF, BUT WHAT DOES SEXUAL INTERCOURSE FEEL LIKE WITH A LADY?" I told him very firmly and quietly that it was a private thing that you do in private, but that he shouldn't ask those sorts of questions in public. He said he wanted to be with a woman and know what it was like, so I sidestepped and told him he had to make friends with a lady first, and then talk to her about it.

He hadn't been inappropriate like that since, but this morning he tried to grab my hand and started shouting, "I WANT TO DO IT WITH SOMEBODY." I told him again, nicely and firmly, that he shouldn't just touch people without their permission, because they may not like it.

He seemed to get this, but I'm worried that by being friendly to him, I have given him an "out" to express his feelings to a woman, and I don't really know what to do next.

I'd appreciate any advice from mental health professionals, or others who might have some guidance in what I could say next time. I don't want to just stop talking to him, because I get the impression he leads a fairly lonely existence -- but I also don't want to have to fend him off every morning, either.
posted by vickyverky to Human Relations (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like you're handling the interactions themselves as well as anyone could, but I'd suggest dropping by the home he's at and having a word with the staff. Whether or not they're actually responsible for him, it would be good for them to keep an eye on his interactions with other residents, who may not be as good at boundary-setting as you are.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:56 AM on July 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

I agree with restless_nomad. Do you know where he lives? If you don't, finding out where he lives might be tricky.

Other people may not react as kindly as you did, some might even consider his touching them as a form of assault. the sooner you can talk to his caregivers, the better.
posted by mareli at 11:19 AM on July 20, 2009

If he is literal, you may need to be careful in your use of the word "friends" with him in this context. He clearly sees you as a friend and you initially directed him to become "friends with a lady, and then talk to her about it." You may need to instead direct him to a girlfriend or a wife. Point out that you cannot be his girlfriend or wife because you are already a wife to your husband. You might want to define your friendship with him in terms of chatting on the train.

You did the right thing in reminding him not to touch people without their permission. If this happens again, you can talk about appropriate touching like shaking hands when you are friends who talk on the train. You can show him your wedding ring and say that because you are married you only hold hands with your husband. You can use the words "stop" and "no" with him if he reaches for you again.

I doubt you'll have to fend him off every morning. However, you may go through a time where you're establishing these boundaries with him. He may be crushing on you because you're nice to him. However, your friendliness is not permission for him to be inappropriate with you. He may not be remembering or connecting your statement of having a husband with how it will impact his desired relationship to you. You need to tell him. If he continues to push the issue, you may need to warn him that if he doesn't stop, you will stop speaking to him on the train.

(I'm not a mental health professional. I'm just the sister of a mentally challenged woman and volunteer for Special Olympics.)
posted by onhazier at 11:23 AM on July 20, 2009 [12 favorites]

What would you say to a child? You would say:

- Don't talk about sex in public. It's wrong.
- I'm not going to talk to you anymore. I'll start talking to you if you stop talking about sex.

You need to use simple words, you need to limit the number of clauses in your sentence, you need to outline what behaviour is bad, and what the consequences are of that behaviour.

Repeat until he gets it.

Teachers do this all the time.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:28 AM on July 20, 2009

You would say:

- Don't talk about sex in public. It's wrong.

Saying it this way might work best in this particular circumstance, but when speaking to children I wish people would say instead that sex is a private thing, and should therefore not be discussed in public. There's enough shame and issues associated with sex already.
posted by runningwithscissors at 11:38 AM on July 20, 2009 [4 favorites]

Thanks, everyone. I do know where the home/shelter is, but would that be an intrusion to go there and talk to the staff about this? It's a male-only care facility, so I doubt that he's touching anyone inappropriately there.

onhazier -- thanks very much for the perspective. He definitely remembers me having a husband, but I guess I should scale back my chattiness/friendliness a little bit in future. I've been careful to keep my conversation to "I live on the other side of the hill" and vagueness about where I work, etc. so he sees it very much as a "train friendship" and nothing else.
posted by vickyverky at 11:47 AM on July 20, 2009

Plus he is pretty much left to his own devices between 9 a.m. and 4.30 p.m. every day (the shelter kicks people out during the day -- I imagine most of them are like that). Since he's out and about without a care attendant, I assume he has a level of independence/common sense, although he does seem sheltered and childlike and very keen to make friends.
posted by vickyverky at 11:48 AM on July 20, 2009

You know, you could just get on a different car of the train.
posted by downing street memo at 11:59 AM on July 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

I do know where the home/shelter is, but would that be an intrusion to go there and talk to the staff about this?

Do it via phone. Call and ask to speak to a director at an appointed time, so you have his/her undivided attention. If you just show up, it may be construed differently than if you called and calmly asked for time to have a telephone conversation.

If he's at a good placement, they'll be keenly interested in his goings on. If not, you'll know and can take a different action, such as changing your commute for a spell.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:02 PM on July 20, 2009

You're on the right track, but it sounds like you need to firm up your boundaries a little.

I work with an outfit that provides in-home care to adults with developmental disabilities. One of the things they really stress is that we have to be absolutely explicit about the fact that we are not our clients' friends. It's not meant to be cruel, it's done to keep things professional. Telling Joey that he needed to talk about such subjects with a female friend was a fine thing to do, but you should have followed that up with "and I am not your friend," or some more tactfully worded equivalent. I know it sounds mean, but it really does sound like he considers you a personal friend right now and, to my mind, it's kinder to make things known beyond any doubt than to let someone assume something untrue. These folks don't tend to have a lot of socializing opportunities and sometimes even their families don't come around very often if they're in a group home. So, they tend to really latch on hard to what connections they do make. You're going to have to be very clear that you and Joey don't have such a connection going on.

You're also going to have to repeat yourself a whole lot and, again, be explicit. Avoid abstract statements about manners and be specific to yourself. "I don't like it when people talk to me like that." "I don't talk about such things with people I don't know" "I don't allow people I don't know to touch me. You need to keep your hands to yourself." There's nothing rude about firmly setting a boundary and, in any case, this is a situation where clarity is going to have to come before manners. If possible, couple this boundary setting with a hell of a lot more physical space. Is it possible to ride in a different car than Joey? To move well the hell away from him when he grabs? If so, then do so.

Please feel free to MeMail me if you want to go into further detail. One of the clients I've got right now, unfortunately, gives me all too many opportunities to practice boundary-setting, so I've kinda got this stuff on the brain these days.
posted by EatTheWeak at 12:03 PM on July 20, 2009 [4 favorites]

People with developmental impairments may be sexually unimpaired. As far as I can tell, programs that help/house them don't address their sexuality. You have been kind to him, so he's trying to get help with a genuine problem. If you can find a minister, social worker of other kind soul who would be willing to talk to him about sex, it would be a profound kindness.

Otherwise, maintain very good boundaries. "Joey, it's not something I will talk about. I'm a married person, and that is very private. If you talk to me about sex, I won't talk to you."

Thanks for being kind to him. I have a disabled family member; many people are downright mean.
posted by theora55 at 12:04 PM on July 20, 2009 [12 favorites]

Oh, yeah, regarding talking with his staff - I would strongly encourage you to call rather than show up. And if you must show up there, make 100% certain that Joey won't be there when you do so. An unscheduled visit from his "friend on the train," no matter its purpose, is only going to confuse him further.
posted by EatTheWeak at 12:05 PM on July 20, 2009

Another thought is "Joey, a good person to talk about this with is your doctor, your counselor, or a staff member at the home. This isn't something polite people talk about on the train, and I'm not comfortable talking about it with you."
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:16 PM on July 20, 2009

I thought about that right after I typed it -- showing up where he lives would be a big mistake. I'll get the phone number and see if I can talk to someone.

downing street memo: The trains are only two cars long (SF light rail), so it's impossible to avoid someone. Plus, Joey seems to be waiting for me on the platform now -- before, if I got a later connecting bus, I wouldn't see him. Now I think he's hanging around to see me.
I really don't want to change my commute because this is the shortest, quickest way to get to work, but I have thought about it if it comes to that.

My sister-in-law has some boundary issues related to her own disabilities, but she doesn't go out in public too often. (She lived in a care facility and had a sexual relationship for a while -- her parents were happy because she was happy, but were mainly concerned about birth control.) I know how to talk to her about touching, etc., but wasn't sure how to draw the line with Joey. He doesn't freak me out too much, but I know I need to be a lot firmer with him in future.

Thanks to everyone for the perspective.
posted by vickyverky at 12:24 PM on July 20, 2009

It's a male-only care facility, so I doubt that he's touching anyone inappropriately there.

Yeah but clearly, he's not confined to that home. If it were me, I'd be concerned that his confusion on the subject may lead to him inappropriately touching someone else and ending up in heaps of trouble.
posted by jerseygirl at 12:31 PM on July 20, 2009

I ran into similar situations working at a downtown coffee shop. A few of our regulars were adults with mental health issues, so listening to awkward ramblings was sometimes par for the course.

One lady in particular became very attached to me, likely because I was the only person who was nice to her (I would chat with her while outside for a smoke - she would be panhandling in the doorway next door). It got to the point where I couldn't sit down for lunch with friends because she would plop herself down next to me and start going off about welfare screwing her over, the judge taking her kids away, her medication, etc, etc, etc. Eventually, I was avoiding the place (my regular hangout) because I didn't want to get ambushed by her.

Finally, after she started hitting up my coworkers for my phone number and address ("Future has something for me and wouldn't mind if you gave me her phone number") it was time to take action. My boss had a little chat with her and gently but firmly told her that his staff were being paid to work and didn't have time to make friends and if she didn't adhere to these rules, she wouldn't be welcome in the shop. It worked, but I still felt horrible because I didn't set the boundaries I should have in the first place.

Some people are suggesting you change your commute. I say no way. You shouldn't have to change your routine just because something makes you uncomfortable. I think talking to somebody at his home is a good step, as well as firmly and literally stating your case when you're conversing with him. Had I taken my own advice here (then), I probably wouldn't still feel so guilty about having to forcefully push this woman away.
posted by futureisunwritten at 12:45 PM on July 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

If he is being put out of the shelter during the day he's probably in general population and may be receiving no services whatsoever. A homeless sheter isn't a housing "placement," it's primarily a warehouse with cots and the services provided in most tend to be minimal to nonexistent. You could approach the shelter staff but I wouldn't expect much, I had a cognitively impaired client who was functionally a five year old due to a head injury that spent ten years in Ridge Avenue Shelter here in Philly. Even then nobody on staff knew who he was or anything about him. If you do go to the shelter ask to speak to the case management supervisor, who knows, maybe you'll have some luck.

Otherwise, follow EatTheWeak's advice. Dude is not your friend. I had a client that came across as a sweet, old guy because he had organic mental impairments complicated by years of alcohol and/or drug abuse that left him seeming harmless and childlike. But he didn't look so sweet anymore after I ran his name through judicial system records and found his extensive history of sexual assaults, including a rape conviction.

You have no idea who this guy is, and since you don't have access to the system-level information that would fill that picture in you should proceed with caution.
posted by The Straightener at 1:15 PM on July 20, 2009 [5 favorites]

I just thought I'd chime in with my $.02 - I used to work in a group home with mentally handicapped adults. This of course make me no expert.

My approach would be to treat this man like the adult he is (though with the understanding that he may need help understanding some things). If he blurts our something 'inappropriate' then my return would be something along the lines of: "I am not a person you should talk to about that" or, perhaps more honestly: "I'm not comfortable talking about that with you, could we talk about something else?"

I don't think you need to (or perhaps should at all) take the role of teacher in this scenario. You don't know what his staff/doctors are working on with him - what if he's been encouraged to be more outgoing or to go find a girlfriend? Maybe that was his (very clumsy and ineffective) way of flirting. Instead of shutting him down and overtly 'teaching' him something - why not help him learn from the experience on a more personal level?

"You shouldn't do that" type statements are vague and confusing and often just lead to more questions ("why shouldn't I do that?"). Whereas, making it a personal choice ("I don't want to talk about that") is more honest, direct and clear.

In the hand grabbing scenario I might say "please don't grab my hand" and if I were really concerned for others I might add "you know, most folks probably wouldn't like you grabbing them like that."

As for getting involved with staff, it may be helpful, but dollars to donuts they already know about this.
posted by soplerfo at 12:57 PM on July 31, 2009

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