There’s this guy who was head-over-heels for one of my friends. After she moved away, he latched onto me, and… well, he’s annoying. It’s been years since she moved and he’s still trying to talk to me, even though there’s no connection since my friend left. I sound awful when I say this, but I desperately want to get rid of him.
He’as told me that he has depression, so I know I need to be sensitive. I’ve tried to distance myself and hoped that he’d get the message by blocking him on Snapchat, muting his notifications on iMessage, and trying to hint that my attention is focused elsewhere when he approaches me at school. But the other day when I was walking home, he ran up to me and it turned out he was going in the same direction my house was. I was trapped, and had to talk with him until I got home.
Right after I went inside, he texted, “hi.” I didn’t bother responding, since I didn’t want to get close after I tried so hard to widen the gap. Next day, “sup.” Next day, “Sorry for bothering you.” I felt bad, but I still didn’t answer. The next day, I asked one of my closest friends for advice and showed her the messages. To my surprise, she pulled out her phone and showed me he had sent “Sorry for bothering you” to her at the same exact time, so now I’m suspicious that he just wants attention. That day, after I talked with her, he texted an “lol.” The next day, he messaged me on Instagram, “Am I annoying you?”
I haven’t responded, and worry that he’s soon going to approach me in person about it. Auntie, how do I try to tell him I don’t want to talk with him anymore without sounding rude and hurting his feelings?
Well, here’s the awkward truth, Sparkler: you can’t.
Which is of course the big frustrating problem with boundary-oblivious chaps like this one. I mean, let’s be real: most people would not need to ask “am I annoying you?” after sending four text messages in two days with zero response. But this guy isn’t most people. This guy is a clod, and either so desperate or so oblivious that ordinary signals of non-interest just don’t even ping his radar. And where other folks would rightly understand that your radio silence means you don’t want to talk, this one simply won’t get the message until or unless you deliver it with all the subtlety of a ten-pound cheese log being thrown through a plate-glass window.
Hence, there’s no outcome here in which you successfully tell this guy to back off without feeling rude and hurting his feelings. And that’s okay. The truth is, this kind of “rude”—the kind where you assert yourself firmly with a person who is either unwilling or unable to recognize more subtle signals to back off—is a totally acceptable thing to be. And if it hurts this guy’s feelings to learn that he’s bothering you, then of course that’s unfortunate, but it is also kind of the point: rejection doesn’t feel good. It isn’t supposed to! Even the gentlest rejection is still meant to hurt—not in a sadistic way, but in an instructive one. The way it makes you feel to realize that your attention is unwanted (foolish and wounded, usually) is also what deters you from continuing to pursue someone who wants to be left alone.
So when you’re asking him to back off, the goal isn’t to do it without hurting his feelings. It’s to be firm and effective enough that, ideally, you only have to hurt his feelings once.
In your case, here’s my suggestion: when, inevitably, this guy pops up again to ask if he’s bothering you, just call his bluff: “I’m sorry to have to say this so bluntly, but yes, you are. Please don’t message me anymore.”
And look, I know it isn’t easy to do that—and maybe more to the point, this guy knows that, too. Even if it’s not exactly conscious on his part, he’s relying on it when he asks a question like “am I annoying you?” (which is a question most people will feel very pressured to respond to by assuring him that he’s not, regardless of the truth). But if you want to be left alone, being able to say so—just once, in way that’s polite but direct and leaves no room for misinterpretation—is a vital life skill. Because once you’ve done it, you’re done. And in the unlikely event that he doesn’t back off, you won’t have to wonder if it’s because you weren’t clear enough; you’ll know that the problem is him, and you’ll be able to proceed accordingly.
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