I don't know how to say no to coffee dates with strangers - media job
July 1, 2013 2:46 PM   Subscribe

I have a job in radio and an on-air persona that invites interaction from our audience. Nice for the station, not so great for me. I have to be polite but firm in cutting people off, but I suck at it. Help?

I have an on-air radio job. I'm well-liked in my little world, and my apparent approachability (a quality that works well for me and for the station) means that some of my listeners will occasionally email me wanting to strike up an acquaintance. I've been a broadcaster for years now, so I've gotten pretty good at dealing with the really strange situations. People who write to me with hostile intent or abuse are relatively easy to deal with. Most crazies you just don't reply to. With others, you need to document what they send you, copy management and see if it escalates. The people who like me can be more worrisome than the ones who hate me. I've been stalked by listeners before, and I've dealt with it. It's gotten hairy at times, but I'm still here. So far, so good.

What continues to stump me, though, is how to respond to the relatively nice, relatively normal folks who write in with requests for all kinds of things I can't possibly do, produce, create, spend time on, explain, advocate for, or whatever. Their intentions are aboveboard, but what they want from me will be inappropriate, and I find it hard to know how to respond. I shouldn't be, but I'm always surprised by their approaches, because these people seem to be operating in a social universe quite different from mine and it floors me.

Some correspondents, after a polite note from me saying, "Nice to get your note, so glad you like my show, thanks for listening," will then send me a gigantic wall of text - containing their autobiography, usually. These people apparently don't realize that you don't send emails that read like Tolstoy novels to people you don't even know. The fact that they're do it anyway makes me feel like I've been corresponding with a nice, normal person who has suddenly turned into a crazy person.

One of our listeners is an artist, and he's excellent. I saw his prints online and just had to buy one. It's still my favorite piece of art of all time. This guy started writing to me and inviting me to his house. He wanted me to meet his wife, his son, his daughter, his parrot, etc. I told him thanks but I just didn't have the time. He kept writing. I should have nipped the thing in the bud, but he's a contributor to the station and I wanted to not be rude. I represent not just myself in these exchanges, but the station too. My polite refusals were finally met with: "I INSIST you come to my house! Hey, did I tell you about my gun collection? I'd love to show it to you!" Like, Oh, a GUN collection, well okay then!

The other thing that happens is that I'll exchange a few words with someone who seems fine, and all of a sudden they're asking me out for coffee. See, I like to network as much as the next person, and I really need to. Gawd knows it's vital to stay out there when you're in a shrinking field like radio. I could wake up jobless any day. So I like to keep making connections and staying in touch with people in various fields who could help me. But at this point in my life (married, working a full time job, trying to change fields, busy with a number of freelance projects, etc. etc.) I don't have time to just have coffee with people who hear my voice on the air and decide they need me in their life. And I wouldn't do that anyway, because it creeps me out. And hubby would never permit it. And I don't want to wind up on the news at 11.

So my problem (and I'm sorry it's taken me so long to get to my question) is: I don't want to aliante these people. For one, they're our customers. We're a public station, and they pay our bills. And it's part of my personal code to treat people with courtesy, even when they drive me nuts. What are some nicely-worded phrases I can use to let well-meaning people know that I can't have coffee with them, but I appreciate their ideas, and...

That's the part I have trouble with. What do I say after "and?" Or should I be cutting these people off completely? Is it too risky even to throw out something friendly about, "Do stay in touch" or whatever?

The other part of my question is just one about psychology, I guess. Maybe I'm naive, but I can't believe that any normal man in the 21st century would email a female stranger out of the blue and ask her out for coffee, and expect to get a good result from that. This particular guy who contacted me today, for instance, isn't looking for a date (as far as I can tell), but WHY do this to me? It puts me in an awkward position. Here I am doing my job on the air, being all awesome and approachable (it's just my job, that's what they pay me for), and now I'm in the position of having to tell this guy - who's probably a pretty normal, fairly nice human - to go stuff it. It makes me sad and mad!

How to stay professional but firm in my response, that I can't meet up in person - but I would enjoy continuing to network? (He's a writer, I'm an aspiring one, and his publisher could turn into my publisher some day, f'rinstance)? Or should I make a firm rule never to engage in an extended correspondence with a listener, because these people are actually strangers to me and it's potentially risky, etc. etc.? Even when the risk is not so much one of getting axe-murdered, but of getting roped into an open-ended correspondence with somebody I don't know, when I've got so much stuff to do?

Really sorry this was so long.
posted by cartoonella to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I have this problem! I suggest twice yearly meet and greets at a pub. Meet them there. Get some therapy to help you feel good about saying no and to help modulate your anxiety. Accelerate your field changing plans to end this problem sooner. Well done for your good boundaries! Feel proud of them.
posted by Mistress at 2:52 PM on July 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

I'm the assistant to someone who isn't quite as public facing as you are, and doesn't have all the public radio do-gooder baggage that comes with your job. But she gets a LOT of requests that she can't accomodate, and I'm her first line of defense for a lot of it.

Granted, this is easier when it's someone else on your behalf* and not you, but typically I reply with something like, "Unfortunately [Boss] is very busy and won't be able to participate. But good luck with your project; it's sounds like a great idea for a [whatever]!" This is really all you need for networking/coffee date type requests.

I think the key, really, is not to do what we're all tempted to do all the time and create a "maybe later" type of answer. Even in that dummy email above, I was tempted to write "but if you ever need anything in the future, let us know..." Which, SERIOUSLY NEVER EVER DO THAT. Unless you mean it, obviously.

I don't run into this problem much, but I also think you could probably help matters by keeping interactions professional and not taking it to a social place. Like, you buy a print from an artist who is also a contributor to the station. Anything that is not purely professional, you have to turn down. Don't even open the door to hanging out, or getting coffee, or coming over to their house, or whatever. You're not friends. Don't let a professional exchange ("I'd like to buy this print!") become a social one. Anytime you "start writing to each other", that's only going to lead to disappointment for the other person if you have no interest in actually becoming friends.

*If you want to get really mercenary about it, you could always invent an assistant who screens your email, and reply to people in his/her voice.
posted by Sara C. at 3:03 PM on July 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

How to stay professional but firm in my response, that I can't meet up in person

Unfortunately your schedule means you can't meet up in person, but you'd like to keep in touch via email, Linked In, etc. Which is true - you're really too busy to be meeting up with people.

(married, working a full time job, trying to change fields, busy with a number of freelance projects, etc. etc.)

And, if someone keeps ignoring that request, then it's a good thing that they're not in your life and you shouldn't feel bad about that. Don't respond immediately and keep asserting your boundaries. You really don't need to see their gun collection unless you really want to.

Keep in mind, a lot of people are lonely. A lot of people. Very lonely. A lot of people don't feel they have anyone in their life (and they probably don't) who is a) nice to them and b) who will listen to them. And they're trying to connect with people. And sometimes they haven't done it in a while and so are quite awkward, and sometimes they are quite desperate to connect and it comes out in weird ways. However - it is not your responsibility to solve their problems (e.g. their social awkwardness, their loneliness) and you should only ever do things you feel very comfortable about when it comes to other people because it's your safety that overrides everything.

Basically, if you're uncomfortable, you're too busy because of work. Which is true.
posted by heyjude at 3:06 PM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

The ever popular "that won't be possible" is a good start. Then follow with telling them you will no longer correspond with them; something that signifies finality, but in a nice and professional way. Maybe along the lines of:

Dear Fan,
I'm sorry, but because of my busy schedule, (your request) won't be possible. I can barely find time to reply to wonderful fans like yourself. I'm flattered that you enjoy my work and thank you for your kind words. I wish you all the best.
Ms. Cartoonella
posted by NoraCharles at 3:08 PM on July 1, 2013 [8 favorites]

now I'm in the position of having to tell this guy - who's probably a pretty normal, fairly nice human - to go stuff it. It makes me sad and mad!

I think one thing that will help you with this is not to think of turning down all these requests as being actively mean and bad to people. It's perfectly OK to say no if what they're asking just isn't possible. Which seems to be what it boils down to in all these cases.

I mean, think about it, what if you couldn't make coffee with this guy because you had a scheduling conflict. Would you feel like you told him to "stuff it" in that situation? Probably not.

Think of these interactions as the ultimate scheduling conflict. It simply won't be possible. You're not trying to hurt people by turning down these invites, you just can't make it.

A couple weeks ago, my boss had a long-standing networking thing with a contact she wants to develop. Unfortunately the contact had a last minute emergency and had to cancel. Because of logistical stuff, that was their one chance to meet, and it didn't work out. My boss didn't feel slighted in the least not to get to meet with this person.
posted by Sara C. at 3:11 PM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Amazing how many lonely people there are who have only a voice to communicate with. You do a great service for them, but they are still strangers. A local listener-supported radio station has an afternoon coffee every year. Local companies help out with coffee, punch, and cookies. Members are invited to come visit the station. Your listeners are not members, but you maybe your station would put on something like that. You would be much safer at the station than at a pub or any other place.
Odds are the weirdo does not have a wife and child, and probably would not show up with a parrot.
posted by Cranberry at 3:49 PM on July 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Love that suggestion above to hold twice yearly pub nights! I have similar problems with a lot of inbound requests for help and networking and feel like I'm in a good place managing them. A couple of suggestions:

1. If you ever ARE willing to meet with these people, decide on a specific time in your schedule and stick to that. For instance, I will only meet for coffee at 3:00pm on the first Friday of the month. It will not last longer than 30 minutes. They can have the next slot, or wait another month, but I can't meet outside that window.

2. Get a boilerplate response you can copy-and-paste every time. That will save you the mental energy of having to "decide" (and subsequently fret and wonder and worry if you're doing the right thing). You can use Gmail's "canned response" feature or an extra email signature file in other mail clients like Outlook or Apple Mail if you want to just click a button to respond.

3. If you have Gmail, install Rapportive. It's a plug-in that quickly gives you the email sender's LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and picture — right in your inbox. This helps screen the requests so if someone that IS of high networking interest contacts you, you're more likely to know and be able to screen them in.

4. Build a simple website using about.me or flavors.me or Tumblr and put up an FAQ section where you preemptively explain that you can't meet with listeners. I have done this for basic questions I always get and it really helps cut down the garbage.

As for scripts you can use, a couple of phrases I like.

Thank you so much for listening, I really appreciate your interest and the time you took to write me. Unfortunately right now my schedule has become too full for me to meet on this, but feel free to stay in touch on LinkedIn or Twitter, and best of luck with your project!

Thank you so much for your note. I can't meet up, but do appreciate you taking the time to reach out. Best of luck with your project going forward, and thanks again for listening.

Hey! Thanks for your note. I've been hit lately with a number of similar requests and as much as I'd like to sit down and talk with everyone, my schedule and other committments just don't allow it right now. I'm sure you understand. Thanks very much for writing and best of luck in the future.
posted by amoeba at 4:01 PM on July 1, 2013 [8 favorites]

This happens to me on occasion due to my own job. An "oh, I'm sorry! I won't be able to do that -- but thank you so much for listening!" is perfectly nice and should get the job done. In terms of networking, as an on-air personality, do you have a Facebook page that's for fans (separate from your real one), or a twitter or a tumblr or whatever/ In my experience, being able to interact with fans on social media cuts down on these sorts of requests, because these folks -- most of whom ARE perfectly nice and totally awesome -- get their "personal interaction" fix with you that way.

I am very bad at "it won't be possible" in my personal life, but "I'm so sorry, I've got way too much on my plate at the moment" is pretty easy in these kinds of interactions, not least because it's ACTUALLY TRUE.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 4:08 PM on July 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

*If you want to get really mercenary about it, you could always invent an assistant who screens your email, and reply to people in his/her voice.
posted by Sara C.

I actually kind of like this idea. It should be exercised with discretion, but it could be a useful tool at times. I may even borrow it for myself. Acting as a buffer between you and the world can often be the most important role of an assistant. It's infinitely harder to tell someone directly over and over that you can't do something than to let someone else act as a gatekeeper. As long as all the correspondence is through email or other digital means, I see no reason why the gatekeeper has to be real at all. Eventually, if they can't get through to you directly, many of them will stop. I would not expect ALL of them to stop, though. Some people have unlimited endurance to keep trying to contact you, in my experience.

Still, if it's not you denying them directly, it's still less emotional as a "rejection" for them. Hell, if you did seriously offend someone and felt bad about it, you could even "fire" your assistant for being rude and let them know. I would imagine most busy people use their assistants for gatekeeping. It's not being a dick; it's often just survival.

The one serious caution I guess I'd exercise is to make sure it never slips out that you do this. Since you're in the public eye and, with social media the way it is, it could be everywhere pretty quickly. I just happen to think that telling people over and over that you're too busy still always gives them the thought that there will a time when you are not busy and there will be more more hope attached if you're the one responding directly. Fake assistants work pretty cheap, too, I've heard.
posted by KinoAndHermes at 4:12 PM on July 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

As you say, you're representing the station even in these one-on-one exchanges, so "thanks for the offer but I won't be able to. We'll be at xy musicfest on Thursday though, stop by the booth and register for a door prize!" And you've brought it back around to work where it belongs.
posted by headnsouth at 4:31 PM on July 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

People vary widely both in their adherence to social norms and their ability to "read" other people. Often times, you are doing everyone a favor by making the status of the relationship (or lack thereof) crystal clear. Being mean is bad, but short, clear, and businesslike is good, both for you and for them.
posted by wnissen at 4:57 PM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you haven't read "The Gift of Fear" by Gavin DeBecker yet, you should definitely pick it up. There is a section about celebrity stalkers -- reading that would probably help you to better judge whether someone is just a harmless eccentric versus someone who is waving red flags at you.
posted by oh yeah! at 5:21 PM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wow, such great responses. These really help me, guys!

The pub night or listener lunch Mistress suggests is wonderful. I've been trying to get my station to revive these for years. I'll keep hammering. There's a sort of fear and loathing of the audience at my station that goes contrary to everything they say they're about. Needs to change. (Boy, if I ran that place...)

I appreciate Amoeba's social media hints and tips. I had no idea gmail had any of those features. Didn't know about the other services either. Thank you!

And thanks Sara C. for the phantom assistant idea. I already know what I'm calling him: Serge. He's six-two, witty and adorable...Okay, maybe not too adorable, or the listeners'll want to meet up with him too!

Yes, heyjude, it's so true - "All the lonely people, where do they all come from?" I never really knew this until I started working in radio...

Seriously, you guys are saving my life. I think I may even have fun with this. 'Swhy I come to y'all! THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH, AGAIN!
posted by cartoonella at 9:15 AM on July 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

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