Dear Prudence

Unprofessional Distance

My colleague keeps asking me out, and I keep telling him no. How do I get this creep to leave me alone?

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg

Sam Breach

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Dear Prudence,

I am a thirtysomething, single woman who has worked in the same small company for years. During this time a few of my male co-workers have approached me for dates. I have never had an issue with kindly turning any of them down, until now. One co-worker is irritatingly persistent. He constantly inquires about the relationship status of every woman that breathes. For years he has asked about me. I began by deflecting his interest politely, but after years of it I have had to up the level of aggression in my dealings with him. I now give one-word answers and don’t look or smile at him when he talks to me. It’s exhausting to be so rude. I try as hard as I can to avoid him when he is in the building. If I see him in one department I turn tail and put off my task until later. Unfortunately, whenever he feels chatty he corners me in my office. At that point I try to look as busy as possible, but he doesn’t take the hint! I can’t keep working like this. His behavior is making it difficult for me to do my job.

We don’t have an HR department. My boss respects me, and I him, so I could speak with him about this, but I don’t want to give him the impression that I’m a damsel in distress, and I don’t think the creep needs to be fired over this behavior—he just needs to respect boundaries. This week he asked me to a movie and I said no, but his behavior has not changed. I know I need to be more direct, but we will continue working together—so how can I keep what I say professional while making it clear that I am not interested in dating him?

—Back Off

You are not being a “damsel in distress” by asking your boss to help you with an issue that makes it difficult to do your job! This is very much a work matter and falls precisely under your boss’s purview. Talk to your boss today, and tell him what you told me—that this guy has asked you out repeatedly even after you’ve clearly indicated your lack of interest, that he frequently enters your office and prevents you from getting work done to try to charm you into changing your mind, and that you feel uncomfortable being in the same part of the building with him because he can’t maintain a professional distance. You have the right to be treated professionally by your colleagues, not as an eternally captive audience for date-finagling.

None of your own responses, as you’ve described them, have been rude. Nor would it be rude to address him directly and frankly. The next time he comes into your office uninvited, feel free to say, “If there’s something work-related you need to discuss, please send me an email. If it’s not work-related, I need you to leave my office so I can get back to my work.” If he tries to ask you out again—or just hints at it—say, “I’m not interested in going out with you. I need you to stop asking me about that. Can you do that, or do we need to ask [boss’s name] for help keeping you on task?”

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Dear Prudence,

How do I discourage strangers from touching me? I’m a wheelchair user, and strangers often seem to feel like they have the right to touch me on the head, shoulder, or arm for no reason, without even asking first. But I have chronic pain, and strangers touching me frightens me and also causes me physical pain.

—Stop Touching Me

I’m publishing your letter in part to serve as a general reminder to anyone who reads this column that touching anyone you don’t know without asking is rude, unnecessary, and unwanted. It’s one of the most basic lessons in courtesy and respect, but so many people seem to forget those when they encounter someone with a disability. You have every right to say, “Don’t touch me” or “Please stop” to anyone boorish enough to do so.

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Dear Prudence,

We just moved into a new building that has three doormen. Two are wonderful, and the third has never once opened the door for us. I’m embarrassed that I even care about this, but I have kids and a dog and frequently stand at the door juggling multiple bags of groceries, a stroller, and a child while I search for my keys, and he’ll just stare down at his phone and not move. I’ve hesitated to say anything to management because I don’t want him to get in trouble or even fired, and I don’t want to come across as high-maintenance. (I’m really not.) He’s just lazy and doesn’t want to do his job.

I’m not willing to speak with him directly. Should I just suck it up? My inclination is to just keep sending angry texts to my husband because I’m worried management will tell him it was me who complained and then it would be super-awkward.

—Subpar Doorman

You have, I suppose, three options. You can live as you would if your apartment had no doormen at all and occasionally spend a few extra seconds standing in front of your door looking for your keys, even if it means putting your bags down or rearranging things. You can ask him, “Would you please get the door for me?” when you’ve got your hands full, even though you feel reluctant to do so. Or you can complain to management and run the risk of feeling uncomfortable if he finds out it was you who raised the issue. Personally, I’d take the first option, but you are free to decide which option is most worth it to you and pursue it accordingly.

Dear Prudence: How do I tell my friend she smells bad?

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Dear Prudence,

My stepsister is very close with her father but strongly dislikes my mother (now his wife) and me for “replacing” her own dead mother. Since my stepsister left the house three years ago, she’s become very wealthy and started seeing a new man we’ve only met once. I think I’ve seen him three times in total, mostly over FaceTime. Recently, we received a very impersonal wedding invitation from them, without even having known that they were engaged. The ceremony is to be in Rome in a month, a trip we can’t afford on such short notice. My stepfather pushed for us to attend but conceded we’d need to borrow the money from my stepsister. I called her and told her we’d be unable to afford it, hoping she would offer before I had to ask. Instead, she replied, verbatim, “Maybe it’s not in the budget, then. Send a gift if you can’t come.” Did I just get uninvited from my stepsister’s wedding? Does this merit further conversation?

—Wedding Woes

This merits celebration. You have been uninvited from what would almost certainly have been a deeply unpleasant event. I’m also more than a little surprised that your stepfather suggested you call and ask his own daughter to borrow money to attend her wedding—that was rude and presumptuous of him. Regardless, your stepsister did you a favor by telling you in advance that you were not particularly welcome (although your money apparently is), and you can congratulate yourself on having escaped incurring an unpleasant debt to an unpleasant woman. For the sake of politeness, send a small gift (whatever’s cheapest on the registry), offer her your perfunctory congratulations, and consider that bullet dodged.

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Dear Prudence,

My boyfriend is still friends with an ex, which is something that I have no problem with in theory. However, I have known him for three years, and we’ve been in a relationship for one and a half, and she always seems to be in some dire situation—health problems, job problems, on the verge of getting kicked out of her apartment, etc. I understand that some people have more problems than others and this may not be her fault, but it seems to me like she’s really comfortable playing the victim. When my boyfriend and I got together, he said he felt bad telling her about it because he knew she still wanted to get back together with him. This was two years after he broke up with her! I don’t suspect that he has feelings for her, so I’m not threatened. But I do feel like she may be using his guilt about breaking up with her to manipulate him. I’m not sure what I can do about it—my partner and I are both very independent and would balk at the idea of someone forbidding us from being friends with someone. But I find this relationship troubling. Should I bring this up or keep my feelings to myself? I haven’t actually met her in person yet (they don’t hang out very often) so I may be judging this wrong.

—Ex a Con Artist?

You’re not contemplating telling your boyfriend he is forbidden from being friends with his ex. You are contemplating being honest with him—for what sounds like the first time in your relationship—about your feelings and concerns, and I think you should do so. It’s not an off-limits topic, and you’re not trying to control his behavior or restrict his independence. Confine your remarks to what you’ve observed without speculating extensively about her motives. Say, “It seems like she’s often in the middle of a crisis and that you edit what you say to her about your own life out of a fear that your good news will somehow hurt her,” rather than, “I suspect her of manufacturing her own misfortune in order to guilt you into taking her back.” You acknowledge, too, that you may not have the full picture because you don’t know her personally. The answer to this is not for you to get to know her better, but you can acknowledge that you know you don’t know everything about your boyfriend’s friendship with his ex when you raise the issue with him and that you’re interested in hearing what he thinks of their relationship and whether he shares some of your worries. Since your boyfriend doesn’t see her often, it’s likely that simply talking about what you’ve noticed and having a conversation with him will go a long way toward alleviating your concerns.

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Dear Prudence,

I am a woman who has always identified as bisexual. I’ve been pretty open with my friends about that fact, although up to this point I’ve only dated men. My parents used to be convinced I was gay because I never brought boyfriends home, but then I dated a man for five years and those comments stopped. That was about five years ago and I haven’t been a relationship since, so between that and the fact that I play football on a women’s team, I think my family is starting to wonder if they were “right.”

I recently started seeing a woman I really like, and I think we might have long-term relationship potential. I know I’m lucky I won’t be disowned if I were to come out, but I do think there would be a lot of speculation about whether I’ve been a lesbian all along. I don’t have a problem with that identity, but it’s not mine! I feel weird about having my past relationships discounted and I’m hoping for a bit of help figuring out what to say if this comes up that doesn’t also feel like TMI for my parents. I can’t just say, “I like having sex with both men and women” like I would to my friends.

–Not Switching Teams, Still Play for Both

You say you’ve always been open about your sexuality with your friends, but that you’re worried about overloading your parents with “too much” information, which makes me wonder if you’ve ever actually told your family that you’re bisexual. If you haven’t, there’s no time like the present—don’t wait until you’re introducing them to your girlfriend! Whether or not things work out with her specifically, odds are good that you’ll date other women in the future, and more than that, it’s an important part of your identity that you want to share with them. If at first they seem inclined to think you’re “really” gay and all your past relationships were a cover, you can correct them: “I’m not gay; I’m bisexual. I really loved Baron Harkonnen when we were together, and I’m really happy with Princess Irulan now.” Sexual orientation is about more than just sex; you don’t have to get into what you enjoy in bed when you’re talking to your family about someone you love and want to be in a relationship with.

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