Setting boundaries with people (men, in particular!)
September 3, 2011 6:02 PM   Subscribe

How do I set boundaries with people while staying true to my accepting, easy going nature?

How can you set boundaries with people in your life without coming off as uptight and demanding? I've always been pretty relaxed and accepting of people since I have a lot of empathy and constantly try to put myself in the other person's proverbial shoes. I realize it's not always appropriate to be so understanding since there's a fine line between being accepting of imperfect human nature and being a sucker. I can't seem to figure out how to communicate my boundaries with people since judgement and criticism does not come easily to me. This excessive tolerance and tendency to over analyze carries over into other areas of my life. For example, I have a lot of trouble with making decisions when faced with many possibilities. I can see so many reasons for why people behave the way they do, and so many ramifications that a decision I make may have, that it becomes paralyzing. Usually I just hold my peace and try to remove myself from unpleasant situations or laugh them off, but it can really take a toll on one's self esteem to not be assertive, and sometimes you can't avoid certain people (or perhaps you don't want to - you just want them to respect your boundaries!). I know demanding good treatment for oneself is healthy, but I'm just not sure of how to phrase that sort of negative talk properly. How do you know when to say something and when to just walk away from a situation that's not worth the effort?

Two examples--

1. An older man (a lot older - 70ish?) at my workplace insists on telling sexual jokes/raunchy stories that are harmless, but make me uncomfortable nonetheless. The other females just seem to laugh it off and ignore him, but I'm not his superior like they are since I was brought on quite recently, and am forced to work around him since we do the same job. How can I politely tell him I won't put up with his nonsense any more?

2. With men, I never know how accepting to be of their behavior, especially now that everyone is texting/using instant and facebook messaging/etc. I went against my instinct and starting online "chatting" again with a couple guys who seem interested, but now I find myself pissed that one of 'em promised to call and didn't (probably since I'm on facebook chat again, and I hadn't been for a long time!). Also, I prefer using the phone to online chatting since the latter feels coldly impersonal. I'm guessing if you don't set proper boundaries from the beginning, that person is a lost cause, and anything I say now will just make how I acted in the past seem fake. How do you let a guy know what's acceptable to you without seeming high maintenance?
posted by sunnychef88 to Human Relations (9 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Use your willingness to try to empathise to your advantage here; it will answer these sorts of questions for you pretty often.

With #1 -- how would you want somebody to deal if you were being crass? What is the most dignified way to deal with this, something that will minimise drama while sorting things out for you? Going through HR, I'm guessing...

#2 Overthinking this is the 'fake' part. Again, pretend it's you, you're doing something that's benign but ultimately a turn-off to the person you are interested in. Do you want to know? Probably yes. How do you want to hear about it? Probably relatively bluntly, with some sugar-coating. 'You know, I can't stand chatting -- I like YOU so much that I have been sitting here chatting anyway, but the truth is I loathe it. I feel terrible coming out with this because I would hate to not talk to you. But. My phone number is... I am almost always home after 7... Seriously, call me and I will tell you all about how much I don't like Facebook chat.'

The first scenario might need an employment attorney or it might be a sign that the job is overall a poor match for you, and the second might indicate some compatibility issues, too, and you should feel okay with something like wanting a partner who values talking on the phone over text communication. Somebody who never calls you now is perhaps unlikely to evolve into the sort of mate who would always telephone over texting when away from you; if that's a dealbreaker, acknowledge it as such. Not really optimal with the workplace issues, but it is okay to opt out of cultures that promote, or even do not abrogate, things that you dislike. If walking away means a good outcome for all concerned, there's nothing wrong with walking away.

Prioritise etiquette -- that is, the sort of good manners that nobody actually notices as such; the sort of things that simply put people at ease -- and other people's dignity, and that will avoid a lot of the usual unpleasantness of confrontation. Admittedly it does leave one writing a lot of letters where a simple fuck-you would have sufficed, and perhaps 'How do I identify the right situation for my middle finger' is the crux of this question. But it sounds like your self esteem is suffering because you fear you should be less of the empathetic, understanding person you are, and it shouldn't.
posted by kmennie at 6:33 PM on September 3, 2011

If you have boundaries that you don't want people to cross, they only way they're going to know is if you tell them what they are. You mention you're an empathic person, so clearly you're not going to say something that is hurtful.

I disagree slightly with kmennie-- I wouldn't got to HR, that seems too heavy-handed as a first strike. I'd just wait until 'Bob' tells a joke that makes you uncomfortable, just say "Hey Bob, do you mind laying off the raunchy jokes, they make me feel a bit uncomfortable". If he doesn't, then you can go down another avenue, but most people are honestly good, and he'll be glad you mentioned it to him. If you were in his shoes, and you were making someone uncomfortable, you'd want to know, and would happily stop.

As for you're online suitor, just tell him! "Hey Dave, call me, I can't stand this back and forth messaging! :)" Or better yet, call him.
posted by Static Vagabond at 6:42 PM on September 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

You're overthinking this.

1. Tell the dirty old man it makes you uncomfortable. You don't actually get to decide what will and won't be put up with at work -- his and your bosses do, who apparently okay with this. If you want to couch it, lead in with something like, "You have no way of realizing this, but... [I'm uncomfortable]."

2. Tell your guys you would like it if they called. "I enjoy phone calls and I'm not really into chat -- why don't you give me a call!"

Just tell them what you want in terms of your own preferences.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:42 PM on September 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

Seconding the suggestion to go to HR for #1. Most workplaces strongly frown on this sort of thing nowadays. They won't want to be open to a sexual harassment suit, and are likely to take swift action to ensure these sexual comments stop.

I disagree with talking directly to the coworker. There is no reason you have to stick your neck out and face possible bad feelings aimed in your direction. If he's clueless about what is appropriate to talk about at work, HR should speak with him; that's part of their jobs.

Also, other people may very well be uncomfortable as well even if they've been acting casual.
posted by parrot_person at 6:55 PM on September 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Use your empathy--think about how you would feel if you were making someone uncomfortable, or if someone was writing you off before telling you they prefer the phone. You would want someone to firmly and kindly let you know that you were making a bad impression, right?
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:14 PM on September 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office is a book that really helped me, especially with work issues such as you describe. I highly, highly recommend it.
posted by Ostara at 7:28 PM on September 3, 2011

#1. I have repeatedly kicked a sexually pervy man out of my cubicle by both telling him to shut up and literally pushing him out after he told me an off color joke (talking to my breasts) and then proceeded to air hump my desk. Some men are just assholes, best to not tolerate them and let them know up front that you wont.

#2. I really am a no-bullshit kind of girl, I made my online dating profile very specific and descriptive about me, then I refused to play games, when I found someone I was interested in I "winked" and said lets meet for coffee or drinks, worse case scenario we will be out the minimal amount of time it took to have said drinks. When the right man reads those words and actually has the respect to adhere to them... marry him =D, I did!
posted by Jayed at 7:33 PM on September 3, 2011

So the aggregated advice here is it's not a major deal, don't tell HR, you can't change the culture, and quit your job? I mean, it may be true that it's not the ideal place for sunnychef88 to flourish professionally, but not everybody can go around quitting their job based on fit. Doing something about the behavior in the meantime seems like a good idea, HR included. Old men who tell raunchy jokes in the workplace are pretty low on my sympathy list.

As for the other stuff, I don't think that's fake at all-- just start telling folks you want to chat on the phone. A lot of people meet online and segue quickly into different modes of staying in touch!
posted by stoneandstar at 7:34 PM on September 3, 2011

This mental shift might help - your boundaries are about you, not the other person. So, setting your boundaries is not about cricitzing the other person, it is about what you prefer and what you are you going to do to take care of yourself.

So for #1 -start by thinking WHY you have a problem with the jokes and how you want to present this to the man ( examples: I was brought up to respect women, jokes like that feel disrespectful to me.) and also what you are going to do if he continues to tell the jokes Depending on your relationship, you might just not respond to the jokes or to question it in a way that makes it unfunny ("I don't get that. Why is it funny that...." or "Are saying that ALL blondes...?) or you might to explain your objection and see how he responds. Remember, you can't expect him to change just because you want him to. Your response needs to be under your control, not his and needs to work for you.

#2 someone not calling when they say is not a boundary violation per se. The issue (I assume) is that you don't want to continue in a relationship with someone who does that more than once. So you might start by collecting more information (why didn't he call?) and then set the boundary (i'm looking for someone who is a man of his word, it really bugs when people don't follow through even on little things.) then protect your boundary if he does it again by upping the stakes (if you do it again, i'm going to be really pissed off) or by dropping the relationship.

Also, preferring the phone to chat isn't really a boundary issue - it is your preference that the other person doesn't know about. There is already good advice for how you might explain why you didn't express your preference earlier.
posted by metahawk at 9:45 PM on September 3, 2011

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