How to draw a line with a genuinely needy but unpleasant person
September 23, 2022 11:56 AM   Subscribe

There's a guy where I swim who struck me as very lonely and eager to talk, so I indulged him a few times (he talks about himself, I listen). Then, he started mixing in insulting comments (how slow I swim lately, how beat up my car looks, etc.) into his patter. How and where do people draw the line in situations like this?

Not sure he's aware of being insulting but there's definitely a creepy feel to the comments, so it's not just lack of a filter.
I hate feeling like I need to be more wary and less generous with people, but I also hate getting entangled in others psychodramas (and the insults touch on my own sensitive areas, so feel cruel.) Can't help wishing I never indulged him in the first place.
posted by Jon44 to Human Relations (40 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Then all you need to do is stop indulging him now.

You can't stop him from talking to you but you can certainly stop visibly paying attention when he does. In your situation that's where I'd start.

It will feel rude. But in my book it's perfectly OK to reflect rudeness.
posted by flabdablet at 12:00 PM on September 23, 2022 [33 favorites]

I draw the line, if I am being true to myself, by not continuing once someone has made it clear they're not good-faith talking. My attention is not charity, after basic politeness has been met. That said, I do get stuck in these situations a lot, so I sympathize.

Where do you wind up talking to this person (like by the pool, in the locker room, somewhere else at the gym) because that might affect how to manage it. In general I think it's fine to either extract yourself by just nicing your way out of it "Sorry, gotta go!" or by actively and directly responding to the negative tenor "Hey I don't appreciate that. I'm going to leave now."

I am presuming by your username you may be male-presenting. Is it possible this person is flirting and trying to "neg" you somehow? If you're female-presenting, I might nip it in the bud a lot more clearly "I do not want to continue talking to you" and then try to actively not be at the pool when they are because you should respect your "this is creepy" feeling. Not that this might not also be the case if you're male-presenting but the question would be "Do you feel like you are in danger or do you just not like being insulted by a near stranger?"

So yeah I'd just ease off, don't continue conversations, and move on at your pace even if he's talking to you.
posted by jessamyn at 12:05 PM on September 23, 2022 [18 favorites]

I am guessing it feels creepy because he's communicating to you that he's paying attention to even when you aren't engaging with him, like when you are swimming or leaving the club. And he's negging you.

You can back away as folks suggest above. He might seek you out (especially if you're stuck, like in the changing room). You might also try being direct:

"Oh wow that's unkind"
"Oh my that's quite rude."
"Damn dude. Why are you ragging on me?"
"Super uncool to say that."

I'd not explain more than that and just leave it there.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:24 PM on September 23, 2022 [35 favorites]

This is a “pick up artist” tactic called “negging”. The aim is explicitly to put you on your back foot and hope your self esteem is low enough to take what they hope is bait for anxiously attached people, because they know such people are easier to control (which means they’re more likely to agree to providing access to sex, among other things).

WALK AWAY from anyone who talks to you this way without regard for politeness or a second thought.
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:36 PM on September 23, 2022 [50 favorites]

If it’s not a conscious attempt to pick you up, it’s an unconscious attempt to manipulate you one way or another for one reason or another. Again, like just walk away. (You could say “excuse me” if it hurts to be rude.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:40 PM on September 23, 2022 [10 favorites]

You don't say how old this guy is, but young men often indulge in teasing each other as a form of social bonding, so Im guessing this is a clumsy attempt at that rather than a genuine desire to insult you.
If he is looking for a real friend and you are just looking for an acquaintance, that isn't going to work, so you need to disengage, just ignore the taunts and keep your discussions brief and formal until he gets the idea.
posted by Lanark at 12:41 PM on September 23, 2022 [2 favorites]

I agree with those saying you should just be direct "Wow, that's a rude thing to say. Please keep any judgements about me to yourself."
posted by coffeecat at 12:55 PM on September 23, 2022 [9 favorites]

“Meow” (quiet angry cat noise)
“Pardon? My car is what?”
“Wow are you timing my speed? That’s weird.”
“Huh. Well I should get going.”
posted by nouvelle-personne at 1:07 PM on September 23, 2022 [5 favorites]

My general feeling is that I am allowed to have preferences about who I spend time with, and I don't want to spend time with people who make me feel bad regularly. If it were a long-time friend then I'd say it's worth a conversation, but for a random guy? No. It's not fair to him, either, to pretend that you like him if you don't. When you're getting to know people, it's ok to have dealbreakers, and it sounds like you've hit some. Just walk away and stop talking to him.
posted by lapis at 1:12 PM on September 23, 2022 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the extremely helpful feedback so far.
Not to get too personal, but my description of this (older) guy would also apply to both my parents. (Somewhere on the very needy, malignant narcissist spectrum.) So it's helpful to get encouragement that I owe this guy nothing. (I realize this intellectually, of course, but emotionally I can't help shake this sense of obligation...)
posted by Jon44 at 1:20 PM on September 23, 2022 [23 favorites]

You mentioned that his insults touch on your sensitive areas. Has he been insulting you in many areas and then doubling down on the ones that bother you?

It seems too much of a coincidence that he happens to insult the areas where you are sensitive. When I think back on people like this, I remember them also insulting traits I don't care about, and observing my reaction to refine their insults. That helps me realize it is intentional to some degree.

You said you are unsure whether he's aware of what he's doing. If you think back and realize he was tuning his insults over time like a heat seeking missile, perhaps that will help you cut him off.
posted by cheesecake at 1:28 PM on September 23, 2022 [10 favorites]

Oh it was a senior? Ok, context matters, there could be non-intentional factors accounting for rudeness that are beyond what’s been suggested (eg various neuro issues that people have varying levels of skill in navigating and no shame in that). Still though, if you’re not comfortable with a stranger, you’re not obliged to entertain them. In that case, I would probably have smiled & nodded and said “Yep…. Well, I gotta go, have a good day!” (and left).
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:51 PM on September 23, 2022

Sometimes people are lonely because they’re assholes who drive people away. They are not OWED not being lonely. It may or may not be helpful to him to hear “I don’t like it when you make rude comments so I’m done talking.” He’s very likely set in his ways and a weirdly disproportionate number of men take pride in being seen as “crotchety” or the like.

My hesitation with saying something rather than just not engaging with him at all is that if he gets weird or aggressive about it that you may feel uncomfortable or unsafe using this pool. So, I would tend towards just reminding yourself that you don’t have to engage. We strike up maybe friendships all the time with strangers! And not all of them will work out *and that’s ok*. Having a passing acquaintance doesn’t obligate you to continue that or to escalate it. You can just decide this isn’t for you and distance yourself.

Hell, if you have the budget, maybe some waterproof earbuds so you can send the signal that you aren’t available for conversation.
posted by Bottlecap at 2:20 PM on September 23, 2022 [34 favorites]

I work at coffee shops and this reminds me of some of the people who strike up conversations with me, down to the weird insults. My read of the situation behind the odd insults and other quarks is that when they were younger they had social groups where it was normal to lightly insult each other, and as they got older and more isolated their social skills have deteriorated to where they feel overly familiar with people and use the same social skills they used to use before the relationship has progressed to that point. They're also not as good at reading social feedback and not doing things that make their conversation partners uncomfortable.

I think it's very unlikely he is trying to make you feel bad with the insults. I think being more direct in your feedback is also ok and required if you want to keep interacting with him without them continuing.
posted by hermanubis at 3:54 PM on September 23, 2022 [17 favorites]

We have these people in my dog park. My go to is, "I'm gonna cut you off there. Morning time with my dog is the best part of my day and I prefer not to spend it listening to complaints or negativity as it makes the rest of the day worse. Have a good walk." And then I just walk away.
posted by dobbs at 4:10 PM on September 23, 2022 [18 favorites]

I had a neighbor like this at my last building. While at first, I put up with the slightly negative comments and too-long monologues, I eventually figured out that I'd just say "I gotta go" (no excuse, just "I gotta go") and leave even one or two sentences in.

It took a while, but the interest from them went away.
posted by fake at 4:40 PM on September 23, 2022 [10 favorites]

my go-to for "we're done here" is "I gotta go, have a good day."
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:00 PM on September 23, 2022 [8 favorites]

If you get the sense he knows what he's doing and has pegged you as a person who will put up with it, then ask him if he's ever seen As Good As It Gets and then tell him Greg Kinnear got paid to play that role. In a ha-ha-only-serious kind of manner.

Even if this is just his version of jocular one-upmanship, you are in no way obliged to be cast in his mental sitcom (or be treated like a locker room buddy) just because you're going to the same swim center.
posted by snuffleupagus at 5:08 PM on September 23, 2022 [1 favorite]

but in the case of someone who's being offensive, I'd leave off the good day part. Really it's mainly there to indicate the conversation is over. In your case, it sounds like you'd prefer they didn't talk to you at all, so the chill of "I gotta go" with no softener is better.
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:08 PM on September 23, 2022 [1 favorite]

I really like cotton_dress_sock's "Yep....well, I gotta go, have a good day!" Like, to the word, this works.

That's a really efficient and effective phrase to walk away by. Very unoffensive and gets the job done.
posted by tristeza at 5:44 PM on September 23, 2022 [3 favorites]

This reminds me of an answer by Miss Manners that I read:

"You can graciously disengage yourself in any number of ways, from the 'I’m sorry, but I really have to go' to the 'I think I hear my mother calling.'

But all of these options require time. What you really want is a method for not stopping, for which Miss Manners recommends acquiring a mental mindset of yourself as a ship that requires miles to stop: Wave and smile as momentum carries you out of range of your talkative neighbor."
posted by carriage pulled by cassowaries at 6:52 PM on September 23, 2022 [12 favorites]

What should you do? Yeah, probably just walk away. But I for one am sick AF of "just walking away" from people like this. It is NOT OKAY for people to act like that and I've started calling them out on it. Being polite and not causing a scene is precisely what those bullies count on in order to keep doing what they do. My reaction would be something along the lines of "exCUSE me? My [car / swim speed] is what now? You have no right to talk to me like that. Now leave me the F alone or I'm reporting you to management." Then report him to management anyway. And also call 911 if he responds in any way that is even vaguely threatening. This is probably not good advice and one of these days I'm going to get my ass handed to me but I just don't care anymore. In the meantime, I feel a lot better by actually standing up for myself.
posted by storminator7 at 7:56 PM on September 23, 2022 [3 favorites]

It can be useful to see your feelings of discomfort as a signal that the other person is stepping on your toe. So if he's ranting but it's kind of entertaining and you feel like humoring him, or you want to make his day better - it's all good. But then if he's starting to sound toxic or is downright hostile and you feel the clenching in your gut - that's your signal to extract yourself from the situation.

I truly do *not* think it's a good idea to lecture him about it, or put him down in any way. "Sorry, gotta go" is a message in itself. Anything longer is engaging him further and risking an escalation. Especially if you're alone with him in a locker room but even if you're not. Just grey rock him as much as possible and walk away when you feel discomfort.
posted by M. at 2:06 AM on September 24, 2022 [5 favorites]

The time tested ways that I've avoided unwanted conversation from randos in public are being really busy and wearing headphones. They do make waterproof earbuds so you could start listening to something (or pretending to do so) while you work out, or just not stay long at the wall or in the locker room. He might double down on attempts to get your attention before giving up.

With insults here are two other possible replies. One is to agree but not care ("ha ha ha! Yeah my car is the world's oldest." "Yep, I'm dragging a bit lately.") Agreeing with insults can put you in a one-down position, but paradoxically, agreeing with it confidently sends the signal that none of your self-worth is attached to it. Another is to question their reason to say it, like "ha ha ha, are you the swim coach today or something?" or "are you offering to get it detailed for me?" or "I'll be sure to get it detailed before the next time I pick you up, ha ha." Polite ways of saying "and what's it to you, buddy??"

But back to the first paragraph, I'd probably give very short but pleasant non-answers ("oh okay," "thanks," "you're right," "have a good one," or "enjoy your swim") and be unavailable (keep my earbuds in or start the next lap). Not creating negativity but just being too busy to get into it with him.
posted by slidell at 4:54 AM on September 24, 2022 [3 favorites]

Your mention of your parents though, that sheds light on this. It's like an interaction game that you both are practiced in playing, so when he does his part of the game, you click into a mode of knowing how you historically reply. If you mostly liked the guy, you could intentionally try to respond differently than you would to your parents. Anything that feels "weird," like waxing philosophical about what does it mean to have a nice car, might frustrate the normal serve-and-reply pattern and might decrease those kind of comments over time. But he might not know how to play a different game so cutting things off could make the most sense.
posted by slidell at 5:03 AM on September 24, 2022 [2 favorites]

I once overheard a conversation on the subway between a tourist and a local dude. She seemed kind of gregarious and chatty, so when he first approached her she was being friendly, but then he started to talk about how fiiiiiiiiiiine she was. And she politely but firmly said "Hmm. You know what, this conversation is over." And she turned away. It worked so well, he actually apologized and then got off at the next station.

Maybe something that simple.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:04 AM on September 24, 2022 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Again, thanks so much to everyone--this is hugely helpful to me.
To add a wrinkle to some of the specific suggestions, this is at a Y and he essentially has me cornered in the group showers and sauna. (And the Y has limited lap swim times, so there's one afternoon block that we both swim in).
Because I can't avoid the showers and don't want to give up opportunity to stretch in the sauna, feels like a direct approach is my only option. I'm thinking something like "hold up, I need to take a break here." "Well, sometimes you cross a line" , then leave it at that.
posted by Jon44 at 7:03 AM on September 24, 2022 [4 favorites]

"I don't do shower/sauna conversations, sorry"
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:52 AM on September 24, 2022 [2 favorites]

If you want to set a boundary without creating too much conflict, a good place to start could be to make a bit of a joke out of it. For example, “Hey, man, I come here to swim and sweat. Not to have my car criticized. KnowhatImean? Ha ha!”
posted by slkinsey at 10:54 AM on September 24, 2022 [4 favorites]

"hold up, I need to take a break here." "Well, sometimes you cross a line" , then leave it at that.

Ooh, yeah, second that that invites explanation and debate. I would do like someone said before, make it an instant reaction to something he says, even if you have to wait a minute after you're annoyed for the perfect time. Then when he makes some remark about your car or something, IMMEDIATELY pull the trigger and say "What? I don't want to talk to you any more right now. Please don't talk to me."

Train him like a planaria what topics he is not allowed to talk about, and do it in a very clear way such that if he continues the conversation he is clearly doing so against your request. "I asked him to stop talking to me and he won't" is very easy for the staff to understand and act on.
posted by ctmf at 2:33 PM on September 24, 2022 [2 favorites]

I would at this point just stop engaging this guy, period. Trust your gut, he's creepy. Creepy dudes can be dangerous.
posted by ctmf at 2:38 PM on September 24, 2022 [2 favorites]

With this additional context, it’s different again for me. In almost the exact same situation (serial boundary crosser ruining my favourite lap swim slot at my favourite pool - it’s so lovely, pale tiles and big windows letting in such a beautiful light at midday, made me think of a Roman bath), I just gave up and went to another pool. Wasn’t worth having or anticipating this interruption of what should be a peaceful experience. Idk if that’s a functional response, but I couldn’t deal, it was just ruined.
posted by cotton dress sock at 4:54 PM on September 24, 2022 [1 favorite]

I had an older coworker like that. Much older than my parents and very lonely. I gave him attention, listened to his endless talking. But pretty soon, I learned there was good reason why he was lonely when he started being rude and condescending.

Sometimes people are lonely because they treat others horribly.

Just walk away. There is nothing rude about walking away from abuse.
posted by Neekee at 3:38 PM on September 25, 2022 [4 favorites]

“I don’t want to talk anymore”
posted by Neekee at 3:42 PM on September 25, 2022 [1 favorite]

I’ve encountered a few different versions of this person. They are deliberately trying to put you down, and the reaction they are hoping for is any sign of weakness - hurt, anger, indignation, anything to prove that they succeeded in getting under your skin. It’s a power play. They want to feel bigger than you.

An effective way to deal, particularly in situations like yours where you can’t get rid of them and can’t always walk away (coworkers also fall into this category) is to be completely unbothered, unfazed. I’d pretend I didn’t hear them, or laugh like they just made a silly joke. Water off a duck’s back. When you don’t give them the satisfaction, they’ll eventually give up or move on to another target.

This is kinda off tangent, but I really like the advice to never accept criticism from anyone you wouldn’t take advice from. Truly, this guy’s words are worthless. They mean nothing, so don’t give them any weight or consideration. These sorts of people will always be their own worst enemy in life.
posted by keep it under cover at 4:08 PM on September 25, 2022 [1 favorite]

They are deliberately trying to put you down, and the reaction they are hoping for is any sign of weakness

People do that, yeah, but this guy's escalating a bit. The 'how you swim' and the remark about your car - I mean I don't know what the layout is there and whether its obvious when you park your car or whatever. But it seems to me both of these remarks aren't designed to be taken for specific content, they're saying "I'm watching you outside of our conversations". I know what car you drive. Next is, I know where you live?

Or maybe he's just awkward and trying to make conversation. But if my gut said he was creepy, I'd listen.
posted by ctmf at 5:49 PM on September 25, 2022 [3 favorites]

With the added context: "Over the past while, I've come to realize that I get more out of my relaxation and exercise time when spent in quiet contemplation. So, I'm going to forego further conversation. Cheers, and no hard feelings."
posted by dobbs at 9:54 AM on September 26, 2022 [3 favorites]

As I get older, I've found it easier and easier in social circles to just walk away when someone that I don't like speaks to me. No explanation needed, and once you've done it a few times, they stop speaking to you. Works like a charm. The first time you do it is strange, though. But after awhile, it becomes empowering. My good friend cannot do it, and she ends up stuck in awkward conversations with people she can't stand. I don't.
posted by Furnace of Doubt at 12:44 PM on September 26, 2022 [2 favorites]

The only thing I can add to the ideas you've gotten is don't be afraid to use gestures. The first few times you cut him off, whether it's "gotta go" or "I come to the sauna to relax in the quiet," don't be afraid to hold up a "stop" hand. It reinforces what you're saying, and eventually you might be able to cut him off with the hand and a quick head shake, because by then he knows exactly what you're going to say. I've had this work with people sometimes.
posted by Well I never at 6:17 PM on September 26, 2022 [3 favorites]

My go to with conversations I don’t want to have - usually things like conspiracies, woo, fat shaming, conservative anti minority or misogynistic values - is ‘oh I am not here for this’

When they ask what I’m not here for, if it’s not clear, I say what it is I’m not here for.
‘Oh, I’m not here for anti vax stuff. I’m here to have a nice dinner with friends’ shrug
‘I’m not here for critiques, I’m here to enjoy my Y time’ shrug, say it again til it sinks in. ‘Dude, as I said, I’m definitely not here for this’
posted by honey-barbara at 8:26 AM on September 30, 2022 [3 favorites]

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