A reader writes:
I have a job overseas, and sometimes it feels like every week I have another person contacting me to help them get a job, an internship, etc. over here. I’d made myself available to the alumni community from the university I attended, and while I don’t typically mind when students, friends, or acquaintances, etc. get in touch (that’s why I’ve made myself available!), when they are demanding, I start to freak ever so slightly.
The most recent example that’s pushed me right up to the edge: A friend of a coworker of my sister (see the many levels of removal on that one) has decided she’d like to intern at an organization in the city I live in. It’s not where I work or even my field, but she’d had no luck getting ahold of someone directly. By that, I mean she’d emailed the general email on their website and has yet to receive a response. So when her friend told her that her coworker’s sister lived there. . . she dropped me an email to see if I knew anyone and could help her out. A few days later, another email (I was on holiday at the time of the first one and hadn’t replied). Then, my sister tells me her coworker has been asking her why I haven’t replied. Then, the friend herself starts turning up and bugging my sister directly, while she’s at work. Finally, another email arrives, this one stressing how it was VERY IMPORTANT that I provide the contact info soon, and help her set this up ASAP, as she had to have it all confirmed by the end of the month. Now, I don’t know this organization she’d like to work for. I do have one or two friends in that field, but connecting people always runs the risk of having my neck put on the line. Plus the entitled, demanding tone of the emails is rubbing me the wrong way; it’s like she thinks I owe her to give her my own personal contacts, and get her this internship. Besides, these are my personal contacts: why should I use up professional favours on a stranger?
All of this makes me feel like a bad, bad person.
This is an extreme example, but smaller things happen all the time: a friend who is moving here soon expects me to help her find an apartment, get a phone, get a bank account, and even advise her on the negotiations with her new boss, etc. An acquaintance wants me to circulate their resume. A student contacts me to hook them up with hiring managers in the city, and would I mind putting a good word in while I’m at it? I know I probably sound incredibly unhelpful but c’mon: I’m starting to feel like the babysitter. Sometimes I can help, but when I help once, say forwarding an email or directing someone to a job board, does that mean I’m obligated to keep helping? How can I politely set boundaries or even (gasp) say no to the Mad Emailer without seeming like a selfish, unhelpful bitch?
This is well timed, because I’m obsessed lately with the concept of setting boundaries and saying no to people who feel entitled to things from you that they’re not entitled to. In fact, this topic may become an entirely separate post at some point, because NO, random Internet stranger who has never interacted with me before, ever, I will not let you place an ad-disguised-as-a-guest-post on my blog, and I will not let you “pick my brain” over the phone for free, and it’s bizarre when you act put off by that.
Oh, whoops. Tangent. Back to you.
Okay, so. To some extent you signed up for this when you volunteered to help alumni from your university. The reality is that while everyone should be polite, non-pushy, and appreciative, they just aren’t. If that’s always going to bother you, you might be better off taking your name off that list … but an alternative is to simply develop more assertive strategies for fielding demanding people.
Start by figuring out some boundaries that will allow you to be a nice, helpful person without becoming a gopher for virtual strangers. For instance, if you get a lot of queries about the same topics, like housing and jobs, you could create an email that you can copy and paste from as needed, with some general info about neighborhoods and links to helpful job sites, useful networking groups for your industry, and so forth.
Then, once you’re clear on reasonable boundaries, you need to have a series of phrases ready to help you say no in a way that’s firm but still something you’re comfortable saying.
“I love to answer questions about XYZ field, but I don’t have expertise in yours, unfortunately.”
“I can’t really hook you up with hiring managers, but if you have questions about work culture here, I’m glad to help!”
“I wouldn’t have time to do much on the apartment front, but here’s a great website with info about local housing. If you start looking and run into specific questions, feel free to check back with me because I might be able to answer stuff about what a particular neighborhood is like, etc.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know anyone at that organization. Good luck!”
“I wouldn’t feel right telling you I could help set up your phone, because I’m swamped at work and not sure when I could get to it.”
And when someone starts getting inappropriately pushy — like your sister’s coworker’s friend — make your stance clear: ”Hey, I got your email. I haven’t been online very much but I will get back to you when I’m able. If you need an immediate response, I’m probably not the best person for you.” And if she’s pushy after that, then default to: “I’m sorry, I don’t think I can be helpful here.”
Oh, and your sister needs to learn all this too, if she’s letting someone show up at her workplace (!) and nag her about why you haven’t responded to her.
By the way, at the same time that you’re setting boundaries, make sure that your irritation about the general situation doesn’t cause you to go overboard in the other extreme and start saying no to people who you’d probably want to help if this weren’t happening against a backdrop of you being bombarded with requests. (For instance, you might help your best friend out with apartment-hunting whereas you wouldn’t do that for someone else.)
So in sum, the basics: Be clear on what you’re willing to do, help out to an extent that feels reasonable, communicate assertively when you aren’t able to help, be nice to people who deserve it, and lay down the law with anyone who’s pushy or demanding. Ta-da — boundaries!