Setting boundaries and graciously saying no
March 5, 2008 3:01 PM   Subscribe

I am NOT good at setting boundaries with people. For example I have a male neighbor who is as nice as he can be but is VERY talkative and boring to me. He drops by our house unannounced and has hours to spend talking with me. I have to cut him off and I am not good at it.

It is probably my co-dependence. I seem to want to be nice to him even though I am bored out of my mind. Also, I am not good at thinking of excuses at the drop of a hat to give people when I do not want to do something.

I am an otherwise confident person but in this area I am a PEOPLE PLEASER!

My biking partner can almost always talk me into a ride even when I do not want to ride! My neighbor can have me stand there listening to him for a good half hour! This winter he asked me if he can have me over for iced tea next summer to discuss my time in France and I said sure. He is just being neighborly (he is married and so am I) and I do not want to go but could not quickly think of why I could not go to his back porch for tea next summer!

I am not able to quickly think of a plausible excuse when I am asked to do something I do not want to do. I cannot lie quickly on my feet!

Anybody know how I can learn to take care of myself and be gracious at the same time?
posted by seekingsimplicity to Human Relations (25 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have very good advice to help you with your problem, but I will advice you to be careful! Last thing you want is your neighbor being upset at you for giving him the cold shoulder. Can your spouse save you?
posted by nickerbocker at 3:07 PM on March 5, 2008

Anybody know how I can learn to take care of myself and be gracious at the same time?

You probably can't. It sounds like your problem is that you value graciousness more than taking care of yourself -- and other people have learned that, and are taking advantage of you.

Taking advantage of you in that way is inherently rude -- and rude people don't deserve to be treated graciously. Not that it means you should be blunt and insulting, but taking care of yourself is your right, and it's apparent that you're not adequately defending yourself against this kind of exploitation by others.
posted by Class Goat at 3:07 PM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

This winter he asked me if he can have me over for iced tea next summer to discuss my time in France and I said sure.

Something this far in the future is just a polite nothing anyway. If he ever gets around to inviting you over for tea this summer, simply say, "I'm a little busy right now, perhaps another time," or something similar. You don't need to invent excuses for why you don't want to do something. Something asks you to do something you don't want to? "Oh, no, I don't think so," said politely is sufficient. If they press, they are the ones being rude. An example:

Biking partner: "Let's go for a ride."
You: No, I don't really care to right now. Maybe another time
BP: Oh, come on.
You: No, thanks.
BP: Why not?
You: I don't feel like it right now. change subject or say goodbye
posted by frobozz at 3:08 PM on March 5, 2008

Instead of agreeing immediately to doing something, instead tell them, "I'll get back to you. I have to check my schedule." You are then temporarily off the hook and are able to think at your own pace as to whether you would like to engage in whatever activity. You can then call them back and let them know. This also allows you time to practice what you are going to say and how you will tell them "no."
posted by Sassyfras at 3:10 PM on March 5, 2008 [3 favorites]

But I agree totally with frobozz, above, if you don't want to do something, simply say, "no thank you."
posted by Sassyfras at 3:11 PM on March 5, 2008

Count me in as another person who values graciousness and politeness and, alas, finds herself being run over by rudies. I'm learning, though.

In general, avoid justifying yourself or giving excuses for not doing something. If you do, the pushy ones will try to "yabbut" you into submission. You're tired? Yabbut a ride will perk you right up! You're too busy today to come chat? Well, how about tomorrow then?

Remember, as Class Goat said, it is those who take advantage of your good nature who are being rude - not you for refusing. Say "no," pleasantly and politely, and keep at it. "Want to go for a bike ride?" "No, sorry." "Awww, c'mooooonnnn!" "No." "Pleeeeeeeeze? Pretty please?" "I said NO." Most people will give up after the third "no." As for your neighbor, meet every invitation to come over and chat with a "sorry, I'm really busy, perhaps some other time." He'll get the message.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 3:14 PM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've always found a good "I only have a couple of minutes, but I'd love to hear a bit about it" is always good, and make sure they don't come in the house.
posted by davejay at 3:15 PM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh, one more thing: if you're terrible at lying but can't stand to tell someone they bore you, simply have a task that you never do, sitting around, that needs to be done sooner or later.

Then if you get pressed on why you only have a few minutes, you can simply -- and truthfully -- state that you're doing that thing. That thing should be (a) only a solo effort, nothing they can help you with, (b) something that they can't see you do, either offsite or in your house away from a window, and (c) something that it would be rude of them to attempt to interrupt.

In other words, don't make it "clean your garage."
posted by davejay at 3:18 PM on March 5, 2008

I think you had your finger on it when you mentioned "codependency."

I don't know how much you have delved into this, but, this is going to sound so cheesy, you have to learn to love and value yourself.

I have no idea what made you codependent. Learning to value and take care of yourself is a tough process that involves finding a good therapist and working really hard, but it is incredibly rewarding.

If you do that, you won't have any trouble with the above.

Good luck.
posted by frumious bandersnatch at 3:20 PM on March 5, 2008

This may sound harsh, but people-pleaser is such a nice term. A more accurate term would be that you fear feeling like you're a mean person by refusing someone something - which is completely different, because it's about you not wanting to feel bad, not about pleasing someone else.

Look at it from the other person's perspective. Do you really want someone to martyr themselves and listen to you jabber while they're sitting there thinking, "God, you're so boring. I wish you would just shut up." No, of course not. We have pride. We don't want people to sit there accommodating us because they want to feel like nice people. I think we all want feedback about our behavior - we don't like getting the bad news, but ultimately it's good for us - and so the polite excuses, while they make you feel like a better person, are detrimental to say, your neighbor, because he's not getting accurate feedback about his effect on you. Remember: your neighbor doesn't want to bore you. Your neighbor wants you to like him just like you want him to like you. :) We just all wanna be loved!

My first suggestion would be figuring out why talking with your neighbor is so boring. I find that people are much more interesting when I listen to them and pay attention to them - I read an article lately in Scientific American Mind that positively correlated concentration and enjoyment of an activity. But then again, there really are people who just are that boring, and for their own good, I think we need to let them know (in polite, non-personal ways) that maybe they need to work on figuring out their audience and how to engage someone in a meaningful manner. It's how we learn and grow as people, right?
posted by reebear at 3:29 PM on March 5, 2008 [5 favorites]

I have this problem somewhat, mainly because I don't want to be rude generally but also because I grew up around really prickly people who would sometimes take totally normal stuff the wrong way. As a result I can sometimes do the doormat thing, much less so lately. This is partly because I want to be gracious, but also partly because I have a minor fear someone's going to flip out if I am not gracious.

What works for me is basically making myself much more of an agent in what happens. So, if I get buttonholed in talking to someone, my framing isn't "that person buttonholed me!" but "I allowed myself to get buttonholed again, I hate that. I need to do better next time" I mean sometimes it just makes sense to have conversation that YOU may find boring but that are useful for some other reason [maybe you're at work, maybe you are at a family function, maybe you're trying to impress someone but didn't get enough sleep, etc] but a lot of times you're just stuck and the fact that you've been stuck for 5 minutes already makes it a lot harder to pass off the "I have a cake in the oven" excuse. So, what works for me.

- exactly what Rosie M Banks says. Stay on message. Say no. Mean no. If you mean "no but maybe another time" say exactly that, Do not say it if you don't mean it. Concentrate on speaking truthfully as well as politely to move forward on this. One thing that is hard about having been the person who says no and means maybe is that people WILL psuh you at first. Once they realize you're trying to change things around some, they shoudl back off. Otherwise, as Class Goat says, they're the ones being rude and it's okay to step up the "no, please don't push me on this" responses.
- your neighbor. You may need to figure out his deal. making a plan to have ice tea over the summer strikes me as a little weird especially if he's also doing the overtalking thing. You may need to reframe your relationship with him in a way that is not so much with the always talking thing. Or bring your spouses into it and have official social time. I had a guy from up the road who would do this when I was working in my front yard. Walk by and lean on the fence and talk my ear off while I was working and at some point I basically told him that I had stuff I needed to do, he was welcome to help me but that I had to keep doing what I was doing. This particular chatterbox decided he liked talkign but not working. See if you can put your neighbor to work, if you do enjoy his company but regret the wasted time, and have more productive nieghbor time.
- lying. It is not a lie to say that you need to go do something else or that you have to go inside or that you have to get back to what you were doing. You need to legitimize your own activities the same way you try to be accepting of others' While it may seem like a "technical" lie because you are just screaming in your head "STOP TALKING TO ME" it actually enables you to do what you want which is not be talking/listening anymore.

So, think of some decent ways to extract yourself from the conversations. Wear a watch "oh look at the time" Say you have to go to the bathroom and segue it into a "so goodbye." Assume that it's gracious of you to indicate when you are done with a conversation and a little more ungracious to let people talk and bug you when you are stricken and bored. That's really the way I look at it. If we both want to have a good social experience, part of that is making sure it works okay for everyone. Not bad for you and good for everyone else, but okay for everyone. You have a small amount of chitchat with the nighbor, less than he wants, more than you want, and then you politely excuse yourself.
posted by jessamyn at 3:35 PM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

I had a similar experience with a neighbor of mine in the apartment building I used to live in. I worked from home and he worked evenings most of the time, so guess who was his favorite person to visit during the day? Me. When I had to work. It took some time for him to get the clue that I wasn't interested in "hanging out" during the day, but I persisted in telling him that I had things I needed to do. Eventually he just stopped coming by.

Sounds as if this guy has a lot of idle time on his hands and just wants someone to talk to. If you are not interested in being the person that he comes to when the urge strikes, then you need to be more conscious of how you handle the situations when he does pop up. For instance, why do you let him in the house in the first place? There is no rule that says you have to let someone in just because they show up. Tell him you're busy. There are tons of excuses- you're on the phone with a friend, in the middle of a project, cooking dinner, not feeling well, etc... or just don't answer the door at all. When someone is persistent it can be hard to keep the excuses rolling (unless you really are super busy), but eventually they'll get the idea. Just make like your schedule is jam-packed even when it isn't.

You don't mention how long this has gone on for, so that can be a factor in suddenly changing matters. I would never suggest changing your own habits to avoid someone else, but in some circumstances it can be a good option. For instance, stop being home at the times he normally stops by, things like that.
posted by ISeemToBeAVerb at 3:36 PM on March 5, 2008

FWIW, I had a chatty neighbor with a lot of time on his hands so every time he dropped by, I put him to work. Had him help me lug out trash cans, wash the car, rake leaves, pull weeds. Came this close to getting him to help me pull a stump out of the yard before he stopped dropping in and nowadays when he sees me outside, he quickly ducks back inside his own house after a nervous wave. YMMV.
posted by jamaro at 4:06 PM on March 5, 2008 [12 favorites]

The toughest situation you referred to was your neighbor showing up at your door and unannounced. It is much harder to graciously extract yourself when you are feeling trapped in your own home. My suggestion is really a two parter for that particular problem. The next time he comes over, I would let him in and I would be polite and talk for a little while. Then I would say that I really needed to get back to work. During that conversation, I would bring up an old neighborhood custom that you grew up with where people would call before they came over so " there would be more time to sit down without rushing", or "just to be sure that the time was going to be good for both parties". It's important to remark about how well that worked out for everyone", or even more directly, if it felt comfortable at the time, you could say that is what you prefer. The vast majority of people will remember this and call the next time, and really there is no reason to believe this neighbor is any different. When he calls the next time, give him a yes or no based on your mood in that moment. Right now you may find him to be boring, but who knows, that may change over time. Someday you just might enjoy the company. In any case, this little change in process will go a long way to having longer term harmonious relationships with neighbors. I think we can all agree that harmonious relationships with neighbors isn't such a bad thing.
posted by LiveLurker at 4:12 PM on March 5, 2008

People that talk incessantly are used to being interrupted and shooed away. You don't have to feel bad about doing it, and they won't really be surprised by it either. Just as people that push their own agenda are used to being told no.
posted by sero_venientibus_ossa at 4:47 PM on March 5, 2008 [3 favorites]

Here's something that a friend of mine does to get out of conversations. She's the daughter of a diplomat, so she's got some serious people skills.

If you find yourself stuck in conversation with BoringNeighbor, listen politely for a little while, then start backing away and make other "I'm-leaving" signals with your body language while saying, "Well, I'll let you go. I don't want to [hold you up/take up your whole afternoon/keep you from that fascinating gardening you're telling me about], and I've got an appointment to run to."

It's a graceful way of getting out of a conversation in a way that makes it difficult for the other person to say "Oh wait, but I want to talk to you for another half hour about my geraniums." Unless, of course, they are entirely lacking in social skills -- in which case you just need to avoid them like the plague.
posted by hazelshade at 4:49 PM on March 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

On the other hand, wouldn't a cup of iced tea on the porch and a finite bit of casual conversation be a great way to spend an hour on a hot summer afternoon?
posted by Aquaman at 5:23 PM on March 5, 2008

You may find it helpful to read When I Say No, I Feel Guilty, by Manuel Smith.
posted by russilwvong at 5:24 PM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seconding the body language. When I'm bored out of my mind, my whole body tends to just freeze in place. But my boss mentioned doing it once as part of trying to leave this very crazy conversation with some (literally) crazy person, and then I realized he'd ended conversations with me that way probably 20 times. I'd never felt he was rude, never noticed he'd been doing it. I'd just realized, "oh, look, it's 12:08, our meeting has run over time," and quickly wrapped up. Since then, I've been using it, and it's been amazing how well it works. Start packing your bag, putting on your jacket, or look at your watch.
posted by salvia at 5:44 PM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

P.S. If you call this "co-dependence," there will not be a term for people who stay in relationships with drug addicts and abusive people with the real belief that if they care enough or say the right thing, the person will stop using / drinking / beating them. A lack of assertiveness skills is not the same as making other people's problems your own life-absorbing problems and living in near-complete-unawareness or denial about the pain it causes you.

It may be a difference of degree, but I'd leave the term for the serious cases, speaking as someone who once applied it too liberally.

Questions like "my boyfriend is an alcoholic and it's ruining our lives, how can I help him quit?" (with no indication that he wants to) sound co-dependent. But you, you're annoyed, you recognize you're letting them waste your time, and it sounds like you just haven't found the way to ask for what you know you want without causing a greater harm. That said, I realize assertiveness is a good keyword, and something called the assertiveness bill of rights (?) -- try googling those up.
posted by salvia at 6:12 PM on March 5, 2008

Keep some kitchen rubber gloves by the door and when he knocks, you be wearing them and say "sorry, can't talk now, I'm in the middle of something".
posted by 45moore45 at 6:51 PM on March 5, 2008

To stop the unannounced visits, you could do this:

If you're the same gender as your neighbor, answer the door with only a towel wrapped around your waist. Be polite, but lay the "I'm really in the middle of something" vibe on really thick.

If you're not the same gender as he, have your spouse answer the door wrapped in a towel.

If you really can't bring yourself to be deceptive, I agree with others who suggest creating a viable, truthful excuse.
posted by Rykey at 11:56 PM on March 5, 2008

When a neighbor knocks on my door uninvited I step outside to talk with them, pulling the door nearly closed behind me. This is the first message: we won't be going inside to sit around and socialize. (And of course, if you actually change your mind, you can say, "oh, hey, I have about a half-hour free, why don't you come in for a cup of coffee?").

Next I listen to what they have to say with all attention - for a few minutes. If they keep going, or show signs of just wanting to hang out there and talk, I start making the body motions: stop making contact with their eyes and start sort of glancing around, like I have something else on my mind (I do); put my hand back on the door knob like I'm getting ready to go back in; shift back closer to the door. This usually prompts a finish-up on their part, but if it doesn't, I say something concluding ("okay, yes, we'll have to do something about that X thing; give me a call') and then, "I better go, I have something on the stove/I'm expecting a call/I need to get some work done."

With friends (like, I assume, your biking partner?), it can be a lot easier. Why not tell them, "look I have this problem with saying 'no', and end up doing things that I really don't want to do because of this, and I need you to help me out with this and not insist when I say I don't want to do something"? Of course, it need not even be that complicated... you really can just say, "no thanks, luv - I just really don't feel like it right now" and stick there. So simple, so true, and no one will hate you for it. Sure, if people are used to pushing you to do things, and succeeding, it may take a few times before they realize this won't work anymore, but it's like tearing off a bandaid, kid. You can do it, I promise!
posted by taz at 12:39 AM on March 6, 2008

Many years ago my friend Vickie and I were roommates in Scottsdale and had way too many out of town guests that had just shown up uninvited. She would come home from work, stick her head in the house and say "hi evreyone I'm on my way out, Does anyone need anything like a RIDE TO THE AIRPORT?"! My favorite Vickyism was when we wree walking to class together in college in the middle of a snowstorm (This time in
Wisconson). A flasher jumped in front of us, opened his coat, and flashed, asking us "Do you know what this is?" Vickie looked down over her frozen fogged up glasses and replied "well, it looks like a penis---only SMALLER!" He shriveled up and ran away. I learned a lot from having a friend like Vickie who always handled those types of situations much better than I did. But since I can't loan you Vickie, I reccomend reading anything by Ayn Rand, try taking the flower esence "Centaury"and spending time observing friends who have learned to create and maintain good healthy boundaries while staying friendly, likable, and empathetic.
posted by Lylo at 1:20 AM on March 6, 2008

My favorite, easy to remember way of saying "no" to [x activity] is:
[big smile, eye contact] "Aw, I would love to! But I just can't! But thanks!" or "That is so sweet of you to offer but I can't. Thank you for offering though!" (Believe it or not, this is *really* effective and usually ends it right there with even the most insistent friend/acquaintance.)

For BoringNeighbor, I agree with jamaro!
posted by hecho de la basura at 7:20 AM on March 6, 2008

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