how to say “stop following me” at an event

A reader writes:

I was wondering if you could help me with a professional problem that seems to be coming up more and more lately. I am fortunate to be fairly well-known in my field, and attend a lot of professional events. I try to meet as many new people and existing contacts as possible during these events, as part of my purpose in attending is to make the contacts I need to do my work. At the last few events, though, I’ve met individuals who really monopolize my time and are resistant to social signals that I want to end the conversation. For example, I’ll say, “Sorry, there’s Wakeen, I’ve been wanting to talk to him!” and they’ll follow me and join that conversation too. Then I’ll say, “I got to use the restroom, see you later,” and they’ll follow me there and wait outside.

Usually these are people I’ve never met who are in the same industry and are familiar with my work, but sometimes I have a minor professional connection with them (for example, my old company was their current company’s customer, and we were in the same meeting once two years ago). Occasionally they have a purpose for the the conversation, such as wanting a job at my company, needing help with a project, or even romantic interest, but usually they are just fans of my work who want to hang out with me but don’t have anything specific to say about it.

Even worse, people have started to approach me when I’m walking somewhere nearby the event, ask me where I’m going, and then join me. This gets awkward if I’m doing something personal and I even once ended up not getting something I needed at the drugstore because someone had followed me despite my protests, and I didn’t want them to know about the medical problem I needed it for. I’ve also had people sit down with me at an empty seat at a restaurant I’m eating at without asking, including once when I was celebrating my anniversary with my boyfriend! Also, this has started happening occasionally outside of professional events when I’m not at work and out around my home.

I was wondering if you could think of some polite but direct ways to say “please stop following me,” “I want to end this conversation right now,” and “I want to do what I’m doing right now alone, even if you were planning to do the same thing.” I don’t want to be rude to these people, as it’s a small industry and word gets around, but this is really impacting my ability to do my work.

I’d look at this as needing two different levels of response: (1) a polite version that will work with a lot of people, and (2) a more direct version that might feel uncomfortable but is still reasonable to say.

For the polite version, I’d take another look at the wording you’re using to signal that you want to end conversations. Some of the wording that you’re using might just need to be tweaked a bit. For example, you’re saying “Sorry, there’s Wakeen, I’ve been wanting to talk to him!” — and that will work for many people. But to make it clearer for the group who won’t get it, include a more explicit conversation-ender like “It was nice to meet you — enjoy the conference!” or “Good to meet you — maybe we’ll connect again down the road” or “I need to grab someone I just saw so I’ll have to end this here, but it was great to meet you.”

It’s certainly true that “I’ve got to use the restroom, see you later” should be a pretty clear sign that you’re not suggesting the person wait for you outside the bathroom … and the fact that they’re waiting anyone suggests that you’re dealing with people who are (a) pretty determined to continue talking to you and/or (b) oblivious about normal social cues. Given that, I’d just be assertive about controlling your own time if you exit the bathroom and find someone still waiting for you. For example: “Nice talking to you earlier, I’m going to circulate — enjoy the rest of the event!” and then walk off.

But if those strategies don’t work, then you need to move to the more direct approach. For example:
* “I’ve got a lot of people I need to talk to today so can’t continue our conversation and need to say goodbye now.”
* “I need to talk with Jane one-on-one.” (If needed, you can add “so unfortunately I can’t ask you to stay with us.”)
* “I need to handle some personal business so I can’t have you accompany me.”
* “Thanks for offering to walk with me, but I actually prefer to do this alone. See you back at the conference!”
* “My boyfriend and I are on a date, so need to get back to our one-on-one time now.”
* “Hey, I need some space here. Thanks for understanding.”

These approaches are going to work with 98% of people. If you get someone who’s still following you around despite trying the above, at that point that person is breaking the social contract and frankly I think you can just say, “I want to end this conversation now” or “please stop following me” or so forth. I get that you don’t want to be rude and you don’t want to get a reputation for being a jerk — but at that point you’re dealing with someone who’s being pushy enough (and ignoring really clearly stated boundaries) that it’s not likely to reflect badly on you if you tell them to cut it out. And people who have seen you deal with others politely are likely to assume the problem in this particular encounter wasn’t you.

{ 251 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Victoria

    Yeah, I think if someone is ignoring all social cues, being blunt is fine. It’s not on you, OP, they’re the ones making the situation uncomfortable.

    Reply
    1. Augusta Sugarbean

      And I get that it’s a small industry and the OP doesn’t want a reputation of being rude but in a small industry, the person who follows you to the bathroom(?!) is more likely to have the bad rep. Bad news like that person gets around

      Reply
      1. fposte

        I don’t know that it’s as outré as it first sounds, though. I’m thinking of conferences when the OP talks about professional events, and there’s a lot of this benign glomming going on at conferences; it’s acceptable there in a way it’s not in other situations. I’m not saying it’s cool to lurk outside the bathroom and wait for somebody, but I think we’re talking somebody who thinks they’re walking with the OP to a hanging-out stage or destination, so waiting while she stops to go to the bathroom or do an errand isn’t completely out of line in that conception.

        This unfortunately means usual boundaries are less inherently opaque and that the OP has to find a way to draw them explicitly; Lil Fidget has some good examples. I also think that if she’s not on the venue grounds that’s a really good excuse (“Sorry, I really keep the work talk to the meeting space and don’t chat to people while I’m doing errands–see you at the convention center!”).

        Reply
        1. Pollygrammer

          I agree that boundaries can be a little fuzzy at conferences, especially if you’re speaking. Think of a small college classroom–there’s often an expectation that a professor will be available for a little while after class to speak with any student who has questions, it’s essentially part of the job. And none of those students who linger expect exclusive attention, it’s going to be a group conversation, even if it’s one student’s question being addressed.

          (That’s not to say that the deeply invasive, oblivious behavior OP describes is normal or acceptable though).

          Reply
        2. Connie-Lynne

          I do a lot of tech conferences, as a popular speaker and a woman, and I guarantee you that, at least in that situation, waiting outside the restroom for me is super creepy and outside the norm.

          “I need to circulate ” works really well, but I’ve also gone with the less polite “I need to talk to other people now.”

          Reply
          1. Oenonono

            I am also a woman who speaks at tech conferences. I am also a human with anxiety issues that sometimes make me oblivious to cues others–and even I myself in retrospect–consider obvious. I’ve been on both ends of many uncomfortable, but otherwise benign, versions of this interaction. I have found that being prepared with a polite but explicit detangling prompts is worthwhile. On the other end, I deeply appreciate someone being kind enough to be straight with me instead of communicating with funny looks, frowns, and turned backs.

            I’m surprised, however, to see some basic tips omitted from what I’ve read so far. Some conferences and even businesses have staff prepared to assist or step in if pestering or harassment is occurring. Worth checking on in advance of a conference.

            Plus, the obligatory but still true: if the situation feels threatening, get somewhere secure and in company–always prioritize your safety.

            Reply
    2. Lil Fidget

      Agree. The escalated version could be something like, “I really need to be alone right now,” or “Excuse me, I have something private to discuss with so and so.” Make eye contact and don’t smile when you say it. It takes some practice and feels weird at first, but these are really not rude things to say (rude is, ‘ew, get away from me, you lame-o – you suck!’). We are just so socialized to be nicey-nice all the time that we forget what it looks like.

      Reply
      1. Anony

        Smiling isn’t necessarily bad and could make the interaction feel more comfortable so long as the words are direct enough. It depends on whether you want to convey, “I’m busy right now but feel free to talk again another time” or “I’m not interested in talking to you period”.

        Reply
        1. Lil Fidget

          YMMV. I’m young, and I find that if I smile when I talk, people don’t really listen to a firm message because I look inviting or like I don’t mean what I’m saying. There’s probably a powerful, competent smile that I haven’t mastered that doesn’t undercut what I say.

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          1. Snark

            There’s a certain tone and expression I find works well for me when I’m trying to be nice but forceful – kind of a kindly crinkle to the corner of the eye but not quite an actual smile, one eyebrow a bit cocked, the suggestion of a chuckle to an otherwise neutral tone. Sometimes I sort of bring my hands together with a thwup for punctuation, or slightly tip my head and torso forward like a slight but emphatic nod.

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              1. Mookie

                If only I could trade in my resting bitch face for the kindly brontosaurus posture. I am tickled to bits that there is a name for this.

                Reply
          2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

            I find that if you make it clear you’re leaving (i.e., low, authoritative voice—the same you’d use to give commands to a dog) and smile warmly while walking away, it usually works. I think the tone of voice makes a big difference when you’re young and look friendly/inviting.

            Reply
              1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

                I know it sounds funny, but it’s true!

                As a person who is naturally friendly, looks young, and has a relatively high-pitched voice, when I switch to “issuing commands to small children/dogs” tone, it’s generally more effective with others. I think it’s because of the undertone of authority in my voice. Same goes for when I give presentations—I channel my “late night radio DJ” voice.

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                1. EddieSherbert

                  Yeah, I hadn’t made this connection myself, but I do the same thing. My coworkers, friends, family, and (yup) dog all know when I have my “stuff just got real” voice on.

                2. Catarina

                  The fastest way to learn this voice is to spend a week substitute teaching. You will develop a commanding tone in no time!

                  (Having a child also works, but gestation takes longer than getting a sub teaching certificate.)

                3. SallyForth

                  The “issuing commands” tone really works. A friend role-played this at a pro-d workshop and taught it to me. Tilt head slightly to the side, lock eyes, lower tone, and set the boundary firmly. Apparently if you don’t tilt the head, the straight on look reads as aggression rather than assertion.

            1. Anony

              Yep. Smile while walking away. Not slowly try to move away. Smile, turn while waving and brisk walk away. Someone who follows no longer gets the smile.

              Reply
              1. fposte

                This reminds me a little bit of the occasional post we’ve gotten about a person with phone duties who has difficulty with cold callers. The mistake they tend to make is that they’re waiting for the other person’s signaled acceptance that the call is over rather than just declaring it on their own, and that’s kind of what’s happening here (as the OP is realizing); the same thing is true here. “I’ve got to move on now” and just disconnect without waiting for the other person to tie up the loose end.

                Reply
                1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

                  Ooo, this is a good analogy. And very true! In both cases, a person has to get comfortable with ending the interaction without acknowledgment from the other party. It feels odd at first, but it’s really about ending an already uncomfortable interaction by enforcing one’s own boundaries.

                2. Mookie

                  YES. Giving yourself permission to say “I’m done now” without needing the other party’s consent or approval.

          3. Super Anon for This

            Agreed. Smiling, no matter how tight or polite the smile is, undercuts everything I say. I really think people pay more attention to how you *act* than what you say. Smiling – happy, friendly. Not smiling – serious, important business is being discussed For me I know if my supervisor was discussing an important or serious thing, or reminding me not to be late, smiling would make it feel like they don’t mean it as much.

            Reply
            1. Safetykats

              Yes. And this issue – a smiley demeanor undercutting the message – is actually a problem regardless of gender. My last boss was the kind of guy who smiled and laughed even when he was delivering a serious message. People were always shocked when they got poor performance appraisals from him, even when they had counseled multiple times about performance. They would say “But he always smiled when he said that!”

              Unfortunately I think the problem is worse for women, who may not be taken as seriously even without the smile. A firm tone of voice – as has been mentioned – will help. Any kind of upspeak is also undermining in this type of situation, as it tends to be read as uncertain or open to negotiation. Remember, you’re telling them the interaction is over – not asking for permission to end the interaction.

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            2. J.

              There’s a very funny moment in the tv show Better Off Ted where an inexperienced female staffer is put in charge of a group and loses control. She goes to her boss and he gives her the same advice, which she ends up using very literally at one point, saying to them: “Listen to my tone, not my words.” HA.

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          4. CanCan

            There are different kinds of smiles: the nice, warm, welcoming smile, or the “I’m trying to be polite here, but you’re a jerk smile.” Purse your lips and slightly stretch the corners of your mouth. Almost the kind of smile you give a coworker when their dog died.

            Reply
      2. Emmie

        One of the keys is also the goodbye. It signals the end of the interaction really kindly. AAM does this well. “It was nice meeting you! Enjoy the conference. Good bye.” “Oh, I got to talk to her. I’ll catch you later.”

        Reply
        1. Snark

          I’ve met people for whom “Oh, got to talk to her, catch you later” meant “You can come back and keep talking at me the literal second I finish talking to that person.”

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          1. ZenJen

            Exactly–they do NOT get subtle hints. I’ve actually said to people “I need to go have a private discussion with Person A. It was very nice chatting with you. You should definitely go and mingle with others, since meeting new people and networking is a great benefit of this conference. Bye!”

            That way, I am off to talk to someone else and I’ve explained that THEY SHOULD ALSO GO talk to others.

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            1. Jean (just Jean)

              This is effective because in addition to setting your own boundaries (which may end up being heard as “NO” or “rejection-rejection-rejection”) you’re describing a positive option for the person who ignores your original message. Why fight an uphill battle for your private time and space if you can simply redirect their connective urges towards other people? Ingenious!

              One more instance of “it’s easier to steer oneself or others _towards_ a positive than _away_ from a negative.” I really have this concept on the brain. It must be related to the idea of New Year’s resolutions.

              Reply
      3. M-C

        Another dimension to this… I think we have a good clue of underlying gender imbalance here when the ‘we’ who are socialized to be nice (and worry about being perceived as unfriendly) leaves the ‘them’ who won’t take a hint outside the bathroom door. So it’s not unreasonable for the OP to worry that a too-strong reaction will bring down the house around her ears. But this is something we all have to practice, no matter what the topic of the pursuing is..

        Reply
        1. Lars the Real Girl

          So I also hetero-normed the OP in my head by the “boyfriend” comment, but I tried to check that assumption. Maybe Alison or the OP can clarify gender, but I definitely think there may be a gender-norm-people-pleasing-taught-to-not-say-no aspect to this scenario (and many others).

          Being clear and authoritative in saying no can still be polite, once you start worrying about actually saying no and less about being polite.

          Reply
          1. Kate the Teapots Project Manager

            I think even if the OP is a gay man or an enby who has a boyfriend there is a certain amount of socialization most minorities get around being accommodating and polite, so it could be a factor even if OP isn’t female. It’s certainly worse for women, but everyone who isn’t a cis straight white dude gets it to some extent.

            Also, this can be regional – if you are from the Southern US or the UK you basically don’t say no even if you are male.

            Reply
        2. GreenDoor

          My husband (male, straight) has had super-fans (other men) following him at conferences and some of them are so clingy that even as a male he gets creeped out. He even had a superfan from Mexico that spoke no English (we’re in the States) who wouldn’t leave him alone. Now how do you shake someone when you don’t speak the same language?? :)

          Reply
          1. Librarygeek

            “No” is the same in English and Spanish! More seriously, I don’t know how one would shoo someone away politely without a translator.

            Reply
      4. Mike C.

        FWIW, I’m with you here. When you’re at the end of your rope, you need to be blunt. These folks are being selfish and transactional.

        Reply
    3. Anony

      Yep. I think it should go
      1. Normal social cues
      2. Blunt but nice (Being direct but softening it with “I’m sorry” or “Unfortunately” and maybe a “It was nice to meet you but”
      3. Very direct, could be construed as rude

      Anyone who forces you to go to step 3 has crossed a line.

      Reply
      1. I'll come up with a clever name later.

        Agreed. It’s interesting to me how many people really are willing to cross that line though. Like, I want to know what goes through their head in the moment. I was watching a talk show with an actress from GoT and she said she was actually *IN* the toilet stall when a fan put her hand under the stall wall with a phone to ask “selfie? Seriously? I wonder what that fan said once she returned to her friends. How do you explain that to people?

        Reply
        1. Snark

          “She was such a bitch! I just wanted a selfie with her, and, like, she was like, “NOOOOO.” Whatever. Celebrities are assholes.”

          Reply
        2. Anony

          Definitely true. I found it helpful to define for myself that if I am blunt but nice and they ignore my explicit statements, that they are being rude and I no longer have to be concerned with how they will perceive me. Some people think nice means that you won’t enforce your boundaries and they can keep doing what they want. Once they cross that line I am ok with them thinking I am mean.

          Reply
        3. EddieSherbert

          Oh my gosh, that’s awful. I’d probably freak out and stomp on the phone and/or hand without even thinking about it.

          Let’s just NOT point cameras towards anyone when they’re pants-less, okay?

          Reply
    4. NoMoreMrFixit

      Sometimes you have no choice but to be blunt. I once had somebody follow me into the bathroom to try continuing the conversation. When somebody is that oblivious or plain rude then it’s time to drop diplomacy and get harsh with them.

      Being popular isn’t always a great thing.

      Reply
    5. JokeyJules

      +1
      I think it would be strange for someone to think YOU were being rude if you were bluntly asking them to stop their uncomfortable (and rude) behaviors. I know it’s common as a woman to feel like you need to be uber accommodating and never EVER make anyone uncomfortable, but if there is any discomfort in the situation, it is because of them, not you! Don’t hold yourself responsible for making everything better when the other person made you or the situation uncomfortable.

      Reply
    6. Snark

      Ultimately, I think it’s not even being blunt; it’s that, but it’s also just communicating your boundaries in a clear and forthright manner. My feeling – and my apologies and immediate retraction if this is not the case – is that OP tends to use a lot of padding language, kind deflections, and subtle cues in these situations, and when someone is fanboying/girling out on her, their enthusiasm is blinding them to the (should be) obvious.

      I had the great good fortune to complete my PhD with an advisor who was shy, kindly, and retiring and also a massively respected and famous figure in our field, who produced a ton of innovative and practical research that most in the field are familiar with and cite heavily. He had a tendency to just avoid people who wanted to fanboy/girl all over him or awkwardly walk away from them, so they tended to then attach themselves to my labmates and I, as proxies. And I repeatedly found, over and over and over again, that it was necessary to be astonshingly blunt with fan types. I tried as best I could to add a little suggestion of a chuckle to my tone and keep a bright look on my face, but….

      “I need to do this errand alone, so I’ll need to ask you to head back to the conference now.”
      “I’m sorry, but I’m about to present and I need the next hour free to practice, so I need to wrap this up.”
      “I’m sorry, but we’re talking shop, and I can’t have you here right now.”
      “I’d like to speak to Dr. Smith privately and I need you to give me some space.”
      “I’m sorry, but this table is for our lab only, and we’re not inviting anybody else tonight.”

      Reply
      1. Snark

        That said, I think you can let an edge creep into your voice when they do something REAL rude like sitting down at your table. “I’m on a date with my significant other, and you’re interrupting us; please leave.” “I was expecting some quiet and privacy at dinner tonight; please don’t sit down with me.”

        Reply
        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

          Also, when someone comes over and asks if you have a minute, I find it’s helpful to say no but that you’re happy to follow up by email or at another time. And if you don’t want to follow up, then just say “No—now is not a [good/appropriate] time.”

          Reply
          1. Anony

            Yes. Redirecting to email works well. A redirect doesn’t feel like a rejection and if they have a legitimate need to talk to you they will email.

            Reply
      2. Bette

        “I’ll need to ask you to go back to the conference now” is a bit of an overstep, really. If anyone said that to me, I’d laugh in their face. “I need to do this errand alone, so I’ll leave you here” has the same effect, without sounding like you’re their parent, or a police officer.

        Reply
        1. Snark

          Well, yeah, that’s kind of the point, and that’s exactly what I said when I left a conference hall and made it halfway across a parking lot with a dude talking at my back about his research question and how I could help him check his stats. When someone chooses to ignore , treating them like a bit of a child is warranted.

          And if that gets a laugh, then the tenor of the conversation becomes incredibly unpleasant, and at that point, I’d have been pretty much down for whatever.

          Reply
          1. Working Hypothesis

            The problem is that it can sometimes be less effective, rather than more effective, to communicate something that isn’t your right to decide for them.

            You absolutely have the right to set boundaries around their being/not being *with you*, so it’s it’s reasonable and can be very effective to say directly, “I’ve got a personal errand to run, so I need you to leave me alone now.” But to add that you want them to return to the conference center is controlling where they go AFTER they leave you alone, and tends to get a lot of people’s backs up. “It’s a free country — I can go anywhere in public I want,”** and that kind of thing.

            **Which they legally can’t, incidentally, if they’re only doing it because you’re there… it’s harassment to follow somebody around, even in a public place, meaning that they’re allowed to be in the same aisle of the drugstore with you, but not because they followed you there from the hotel after being asked to stop. However, it’s generally best not to let it escalate there if you have a choice in the matter, and from what I’ve seen it gets less of that sort of reaction if you stay within the boundaries of what you have a right to demand of them. Which is that they go someplace you aren’t, rather than that they go to someplace specific.

            Reply
            1. Snark

              Like I said: it has worked for me. I think it’s got the effect of rhetorically wrong-footing them, and it forcibly pushes them back on their side of appropriate boundaries. That said, I’m a guy, so I – admittedly, frankly, and wrongly – can get away with monkey-level chest-beating like that with another man, to an extent a woman dealing with a certain type of man can’t always…..so if a less prescriptive script works better, by all means use it.

              Reply
              1. Bette

                Yes, being a man is a privileged position. If I, a small woman, said this, the reply could easily be “f*ck you c*nt, you’re not my kindergarten teacher”. I’d rather avoid that.

                Reply
                1. Laura

                  Well, I’m a woman who’s barely 5’3″, and I could definitely say “I need you to go back to the conference centre now” with a blend of authority, firmness, and kindly head teacher doing it for their own good. I don’t care if they actually do it but they certainly walk off in that direction. The difference, I think, is the “doing it for their own good” tone. Snark doesn’t come across as monkey-chest-beating to me at all, but men don’t need to add this bit in for other men.

                2. Snark

                  If you believe that to be a possibility, I encourage you to pick any other sample script that seems right for you instead of continuing to nitpick mine.

        2. INeedANap

          But for someone who is overstepping boundaries, and either is incapable of or refuses to acknowledge more polite attempts at ending the interaction, why wouldn’t you want to sound like a parent or police officer?

          In fact, sounding like someone that the oblivious/rude person ought to listen to and obey is exactly the point of it all.

          When someone crosses a line like what’s being described in the OP, forcing someone to use that type of script, the overstep is on their end.

          Reply
          1. Bette

            Because you’re neither? I don’t understand why condescension is necessary. It’s certainly a frustrating situation, but you just sound like a jackass if you say “run along to the conference center, now, little wo/man”. There’s no way of enforcing it. Again, it’s laughable.

            Reply
            1. Indie

              I think it only applies when someone is trailing after you like you’re royalty. It’s awkward having to dismiss someone, but when they’ve put you in the position of social superior (because they want to impress you) you’re it and you have to be the teacher. It’s so naive that so you either use a teacher tone, early on to kindly direct and save their blushes or you let it dawn on them late at night that they followed you into the bathroom.

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        3. kb

          Jumping to that could also backfire if they also needed to go where you’re going, especially in the pharmacy example. “I’d prefer to run this are and alone,” is clear and gets the point across while still allowing them to separately buy some contact solution without making it weird.

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        4. Pollygrammer

          I might use “okay, it’s been nice chatting for a minute, we’ll have to part ways here!” I don’t think that’s rude. Or “actually, I’m taking a solo walk, I need to make a phone call.”

          Reply
  2. Nobody Here by That Name

    I read in an article that Gal Gadot offers an immediate “Thanks!” as soon as a fan takes a photo with her when she’s out and about as a way of politely signaling the encounter is over.

    If you know anyone at the event, such as a friend or a co-worker, it can also help to have a “Get me out of this conversation!!” signal. For example a friend of mine and I have one where we’ll run a hand through our hair in a certain way if we’re trapped talking to someone and need an escape. When we see it we know to go over to the other with some kind of excuse to get them away from whoever the person trapping them is. Just make sure the signal is something that can be easily seen in a crowd without being obvious. For example, a signal like putting a hand in your coat pocket seems good until you realize that anything below the shoulders tends to be invisible if you’ve got people standing around you.

    Reply
    1. Ted Mosby

      This is usually good advice, but I feel like the subtle “thanks” taype cues aren’t going to work with anyone who waits outside the bathroom door while you pee.

      Reply
      1. Snark

        In that case, I’d go with a neutral but firm “I’m not comfortable that you’re waiting for me outside the bathroom. Our conversation is over; enjoy the rest of the conference.” Because jesus, people.

        Reply
    2. Lady Blerd

      Many celebs understandingly have a strict no photo or autographs policy when they’re out and about with friends and family and wil politely tell you so in no uncertain terms. I’m amazed how people assume that any level if notoriety implies that said known person’s time is of public domain.

      Reply
    3. LawBee

      That Gal Gadot article (if it’s the one I’m thinking of, with the sandwich) was a GIFT. <3 So freaking charming.

      Reply
  3. Ramona Flowers

    I don’t have this problem but I had a related one: people kept coming up to me in public and starting conversations, sometimes about really personal things (eg my son attempted suicide, my mother died…) Often when I was on my way back from the therapy training course I was doing as I left my listening face on and responded warmly even when I didn’t feel it out of guilt and feeling trapped.

    I had a clinical supervisor who worked with me on strategies to stop this, including:
    – Not making eye contact while they talk
    – Not smiling or making encouraging noises like mm-hmm
    – Looking or turning away

    We also worked on my beliefs around whether it was okay to not listen or just walk off. I had to really start believing that was okay before my body language changed enough to enforce boundaries.

    Reply
    1. Temperance

      This happens to Booth regularly, too. It’s always been so strange to me when we’re sitting at a bar together and some random person comes up and starts nattering on, uninvited. I’m far more guarded of my personal time/emotional bucket than Booth is, so I’ve just more or less tried to edge the person out of conversation, and when that doesn’t work, move to another spot at the bar. (He’s fine with this, BTW, he just feels rude doing it. I don’t care about rudeness.)

      Reply
    2. EditorInChief

      Agree with this strategy 100%. Your body language and words need to be consistent with each other or people who can’t or won’t read social cues will not understand that you’re serious.

      I feel your pain OP. I’m an executive at a company that is very hot right now and have alot of people contacting me to put a good word in for them. I was speaking to a woman at a networking conference and after ending our conversation (“Nice speaking with you, need to use the ladies room”) I went to the ladies room. When I came out of the stall she was standing right there waiting to continue our conversation.

      Reply
      1. True Story

        If appropriate, is this a time when you could explicitly say something like: “If you were looking for a job at this is not the way to go about it.”

        I feel like it might be a kindness to the loo lurker to tell them outright that following you into the ladies will put them firmly into the “lacks soft skills” or “bad cultural fit” pile.

        Reply
    3. LJL

      My mother and I also have RNF (which I’m going to adopt as a term). The way we describe it is that our faces say “I care! I really do!” even when we really…. don’t.

      Reply
    4. Snark

      I have a friend to whom this happens all the time. He’s had perfect strangers blubbering out insanely personal stuff within 10 minutes of sitting down next to him on a plane or bar or whatever. He’s got a friendly, open face, so I can kind of see why, and he’s a friendly, open guy to a point, but after that point it’s insanely uncomfortable, and he sometimes has to be like, “Hey, you need to find a therapist or a priest to talk to about this, because I’m a perfect stranger and this is too intense.”

      Reply
    5. AMT

      Funny, I’m a therapist with the same problem. I go to a few social meetups where people tend to latch onto me and often launch into some very personal stuff. I’m not super gregarious, but I’m friendly and make it a point to talk to new people. I’m also young, which doesn’t help things (they’re LGBTQ meetups and some participants have the habit of jumping on younger people). Fortunately, it’s helped me get waaaaay more assertive about physically removing myself from the presence of people who are making me uncomfortable. I used to be worried that I’d be seen as a jerk, but after watching these people corner other participants, I’ve realized that they’re the ones who are embarrassing themselves.

      Reply
    6. Pollygrammer

      I have a less serious problem–I have resting “I know the area, ask me for directions” face and I get stopped ALL THE TIME. I usually resort to “I’m sorry, I’m not from the area.”

      I am from the area–I’m just deeply terrible with directions.

      Reply
      1. RL

        I have this exact problem. If there is someone in need of directions and I’m in their line of vision, they will bypass anyone to single me out to ask. Grrr. I guess I just look like I know where I’m going, even when I don’t.
        And I also fail at actually giving directions. You’re better off asking google people.

        Reply
      2. Artemesia

        This happens to me all over the world. Anyplace where most people are Caucasian I get treated like a local who knows where the nearest metro or pharmacy or whatever is. I have had it happen for example in Salzburg when I had literally been there for half an hour and just walked out of my lodging to take a walk.

        Reply
      3. schnauzerfan

        My friend and I are both librarians… I can’t tell you how many people have stopped one or both of use to ask… whatever. Where is? Can you recommend? Etc. Resting “ask me anything face?” And there’s that compulsion to pull out the cell and google it for them.

        Reply
        1. Not a Morning Person

          I feel your pain. That happens to me too…I’m not claustrophobic, but I don’t like getting too close in crowds and so tend to leave a little space between me and the person in front of me. I think that’s why I so often end up with the line crossing right in front of me.

          Reply
      4. teclatrans

        Hm. I am out in mind of my first boyfriend. I saw him walk into a store with an air of supreme confidence and mastery. Turns out he worked there, and was good at his job, and felt a sort of ownership over the public face of the business. Butbehen he walked in, I just saw the comfort and confidence. I wonder if people who get asked for directions regularly have a way of looking comfortable and confident.

        Alternatively maybe it’s a matter of looking approachable, like you are the one who will listen and try to help them. Sort of like looking for your keys near the lamppost because it’s got better light…

        Reply
  4. Malibu Stacey

    For the conferences, I bet some of the people are glomming on to you because they feel more comfortable around you than other people and they feel self-conscious about starting/joining a conversation with people they don’t know or standing around on their own. It’s too bad they putting their awkwardness on you.

    Reply
    1. Brigitha

      Yes, and it’s ok to make it clear that you want to move away now. Other people’s awkwardness does not place a social obligation on you to help them manage it.

      Reply
      1. MCM

        My boss has horrible social interaction skills and has a tenancy to latch onto one person during events and just stands there listening to everything. Refuses to walk around & be social, which is actually part of her job. There is one person in particular she does this too, and this person is working the event & needs to be social and finds her presence a hindrance. She’s able to get away from her some but not always.

        Reply
    2. Pollygrammer

      Sometimes you can introduce them to someone else and then extract yourself. Pass-the-shy-person-parcel.

      Reply
  5. Mishsmom

    I know it’s a bit of a different situation but would the principles from ‘The Gift of Fear’ not apply here? This book really helped me in learning to set boundaries with people I am not close to in life and who to even set boundaries with at all.

    Reply
    1. HRish Dude

      I’ve never read that, but it seemed more in that sort of territory to me. When they’re following you around your neighborhood and sitting at a table with you uninvited in a restaurant, that’s not networking anymore.

      Reply
    2. Nic

      I just finished reading it a few hours ago. I would absolutely say that if nothing else it might give the OP a bit more comfort in their ability to discern who is an awkward follower and who might be something more than annoying.

      I’m not sure that was the main point of the question, but it’s a good point nonetheless.

      Reply
  6. WillyNilly

    Great advice but one tweak: say “it was great speaking with you” or “seeing you” instead of the words “meeting you”. This way, if you have met the person before you are not offending them by having forgotten. It also subtly indicates you are done speaking with them; its an acknowledgment you spoke and are now wrapping it up.

    Reply
    1. Penny Lane

      Another tiny tweak – “it was nice to have met you” or “it was nice to have spoken with you.” That puts the encounter into the past tense, since it’s over now.

      Reply
  7. Temperance

    LW, you can absolutely lie about where you’re going if you don’t want cling-ons. If someone pointedly asks if you’re going to Super Awesome Networking Dinner, you can say that you’ll be there later but have to do something else first, and then say something about catching up inside and start walking. Another great line is “it was so nice to chat with you”, said while walking away.

    I’m not sure of your gender, but generally speaking, women are taught from girlhood on that being seen as rude is the worst thing ever, so we’re taught to placate other people’s boundary stomping and rudeness.

    Reply
    1. Lil Fidget

      That’s true, if you’re uncomfortable being “rude” by telling people the truth, you have my permission to offer a white lie that extracts you from the interaction, OP. That’s the social purpose of the white lie anyway, to reach a desired outcome without ruffling feathers.

      Reply
    2. Jennifer M.

      And for a certain type of creep, when a woman politely enforces a boundary, all of a sudden she is a “stuck up b!tch who thinks she’s too good to talk to me just because she’s an industry hotshot”. It can feel like a no-win situation.

      Reply
      1. Mints

        I recognize that this was objectively terrible but I couldn’t help to laugh:
        One time I was walking then at a red light, waiting to cross. A man came up to wait too and said “How’s it going” I nodded and gave him a tight smile. Then he said something like “It’s been hot, hasn’t it?” And I nodded again in agreement. Then he said “Whatever I hope you get hit by a car bitch” And I was so surprised I laughed.
        Women are definitely expected to be more friendly than men

        Reply
        1. strawberries and raspberries

          I think I was approached by the same guy! Except he said he hoped I got run over by a truck. Did he have a medium-length dark ponytail and glasses?

          Reply
          1. Mints

            I don’t think so, more likely it’s something too many men say to too many women (the appropriate number is zero)

            Reply
        2. Falling Diphthong

          More innocuously, it’s fascinating to contrast how often I, a small woman, get asked for directions. Versus my husband and his brother, who have far better navigational instincts but are male and very tall, so not approached.

          Reply
        3. Katniss

          Yup. And there are men who believe women are basically there for their entertainment, and if we don’t comply, we’re the glass bowls, in their mind.

          Reply
        4. Susana

          OK, in the “terrible” category – years ago, I was walking home after a bad night. I’d been sick, had a worrisome (ultimately fine) diagnosis, a setback at work and my boyfriend broke up with me. I was walking home in the nice sundress I’d worn on what turned out to be our last date, and I guess I must have looked pretty sad. Not crying, but distraught. And this man walked by and said, “don’t you know pretty girls are supposed to smile?” I turned to him and said, “f— off.” It was rude, I know – but you should have seen his face!

          Reply
          1. Lilac

            Nah, it wasn’t rude. He was pressuring you to do something that he wanted, out of the blue. You don’t have to smile for anyone, and what you said to him was 100% correct.

            Reply
          2. Cheshire Cat

            When my father was in his final illness a few years back, I flew out to spend time with my parents. He passed away while I was there, and I flew home a couple of days after the funeral. My seatmate, a man about my age (50ish) told me I should smile because “it can’t possibly be that bad.” I stared at him in disbelief before telling him I’d just buried my father, so yeah, it really *was* that bad.

            He didn’t try to talk to me for the rest of the trip.

            Reply
            1. Susana

              Perfect! It’s not just the women-are-here-to-look-pretty-for-us men thing. Its the idea that a woman’s life is so frivolous she couldn’t possible have anything so complicated or troubling in her pretty little head to make her *not* smile.

              And I’m very sorry about your dad.

              Reply
              1. Indie

                Yeah I really hate that idea were sit in powder pink rooms, longing for a man to need our nice decorative lady services. Even Geishas had other stuff going on.

                Reply
            2. Cheshire Cat

              Looking back on it, I wish I’d said something else about his expectation that women should always be decorative. Oh, well. I’d like to think that my reaction made him hesitate to say that to other women, but am not optimistic.

              And thank you for the condolences.

              Reply
          3. TootsNYC

            honestly, I think this should be the default reply all women use to that “smile!” command we get.

            And this guy would get the full version, which is: “F off, a.h.”

            Reply
            1. Properlike

              This leads to a question I’ve been wanting to ask Alison, but maybe you guys could help. This happened to me at a professional conference a few years ago. I was heading up the escalator, in my own world, when an attendee (older white guy, naturally), yelled at me from two escalators away, “Why don’t you SMILE?!”

              It’s probably inappropriate for me to yell back, “Why don’t you F*** off?” but seriously, what are the options? Follow him downstairs and launch a full and uncomfortable inquiry into why, exactly, it’s so important to him for me to be smiling?

              Reply
              1. one of probably 3.4k Jessicas

                Loud wow, with a judgey, “every life choice you’ve ever made is horrible, and I bet your mom is ashamed of you” face. Ideally paired with a somewhat derisive, “I can’t believe he was so inept/rude/etc as to say that” or “what YEAR is this” half-laugh directed to the people around you. People are herd animals on some level, and really strong signals OF COURSE this is completely out of bounds and so OF COURSE they all agree this guy is ridiculous can really help even relatively unenlightened or indifferent men think you’re handling this well and will often cause them to look over at original gross dude with scorn/surprise (the women will either already be on your side or hopeless anyway).

                Obviously only good in spaces you feel you’re going to be safe from the potential super negative response, but professional enough and effective on a lot of out-of-line but still in touch with the social contract dudes. Men like that *hate* women laughing at them, and you’re putting the awkward back where it belongs.

                I have repeatedly told men some variation of “Go F Yourself” loudly in public for telling me to smile (I live in NYC, have RBF, and often work in midtown, so this happens way more than it should). But when I’m somewhere directly representing my job in one of our (public) locations, that’s not a great option. I also can’t make people leave the location for being creepy unless they really cross an actionable, the police will respond line. But I have found the right balance of judgement and pitying laughter can drive unpleasant but not actively dangerous men permanently from a space, or at least have them leave the area as soon as I am called to come over in deal with them.

                Caveat: really do not try this somewhere where you’re not physically safe or on anyone who seems actively mentally unwell. I don’t hesitate to tell people off in midtown/downtown/most places where I am not at work, but I don’t engage with the K2 addicts in East Harlem because that’s not a safe decision (and cursing out homeless/mentally ill people feels shitty to me even if they are being unpleasant).

                And you do need to practice the face. Part of my job is training the junior staff in the art of forceful “you will do this thing because it is part of my job to tell you to do so” body language and tone, so you can learn, but I was blessed with an overabundance of judgmental confidence fueled by feminist rage that makes it a lot easier to pull off getting strangers to be on team you against the jerks of the world.

                Reply
          4. Ozma the Grouch

            I was at a grocery checkout counter feeling absolutely drained after one of the most tragic nights of my life. The jerk behind the counter was being cocky and cheerful, looked at me and said really loudly and in front of the long-ish line of people behind me “jeez lady, WHO DIED?” I looked straight in his eyes with the full force of my b*itch essence in that moment freshly restored and said “My Mom asshh*le”. The color in his face immediately drained and everyone in the line went quite. What can I say. For that brief moment right after my mom died I felt a little high on life putting that guy in his place.

            Reply
              1. Ozma the Grouch

                I am so sorry for your loss as well! Don’t feel bad about not having something more to say to that guy. Sounds to me like you handled it well enough and probably made a bigger impact on him than you realize. Especially with having to sit next to a person for an extended period of time. Honestly the irony of my situation was that after dealing with being so distraught for almost a week leading up to my mom’s passing, having an opportunity to take it out on someone was somewhat cathartic. So being able to drop a bomb like that for such a brief encounter was perfect.

                Reply
          5. sap

            A couple of years ago, my husband was taking me to a medical station at an event where I’d become extremely sick. While we were walking by someone with a megaphone, the guy screamed “smile, you’re at [event].”. My husband (prettymuch carrying my whole body weight) turned around and snapped “she’s having a medical emergency, you enormous [expletive,]” and since he was supporting my body weight and I’d turned around with him, my body had the good sense to choose that moment to puke again, and it went all over megaphone guy’s shoes.

            No guilt.

            Reply
        5. Artemesia

          I think most men truly have no sense at all what it is like to be a woman and evoke this kind of rage for nothing at all. If this toxic masculinity doesn’t get us nuked in the next 3 years, I hope the recent visibility of vile men in various industries and their comeuppance will change this in the future. I don’t expect to see it change significantly in my lifetime.

          Reply
    3. Ama

      I work a lot of multi-day conferences as part of my job and it’s very easy to get to one of the rare short breaks in my schedule and then run into an attendee in the elevator or lobby and get sidetracked into a conversation about work stuff. I find “I have to go run take care of something but catch me at [session when I’m back on the clock]” is a great way to extricate myself without a long conversation. They don’t need to know the place I’m running is my hotel room and the thing I’m taking care of is me (by getting a break).

      Reply
  8. Michael in Boston

    “I need you to leave me alone. You are making a poor impression on me. Your behavior is not acceptable. Please stop following me or I will alert security/call police” -this one for the creep who followed you to the pharmacy! Seriously, back off! For the restaurant guy, if anything more is needed beyond “This seat is already taken” then you have a real impolite person. Or maybe it’s just Tommy Wiseau from the Disaster Artist.

    For more polite/direct: “It was nice meeting you, I have to go now.” “Excuse me, I need a moment to myself right now.” “I know you want to make a good impression and connect, but I need you to respect my privacy/time.”

    Reply
    1. Yorick

      This is too extreme. The person isn’t a stalker. They just thought they could make a nice networking connection by accompanying OP on her errand. Saying something like, “I prefer to go alone” would be sufficient.

      Reply
      1. Temperance

        Alas, poor Yorick.

        I honestly think this is straight up stalker behavior. You don’t normally tag along to the drugstore with someone, because they could be buying something sensitive. Also, if someone doesn’t invite you along on an errand, they don’t want you there.

        Reply
        1. deesse877

          If this is a conference-type situation that (a) is for a field where people think of their work as a “vocation” or life-long commitment [academia for example], and (b) attracts very junior people, like grad students or interns of some kind, then…they really can be that dumb and intrusive. Funny story: I was in school with someone whose hair went completely white at a very early age (under 40, I think), and who also had a very self-assured, low-key manner. We were at a conference, and grad students kept assuming my friend was someone important! And following like so many ducklings.

          Reply
          1. Yorick

            I agree. I’m in a small academic field and have approached and been approached by people inside and outside of the conference hotel. It’s quite normal to approach someone and have a lengthy conversation that is then joined by others, or to be interrupted during a conversation or an errand. It can sometimes be difficult to see that the interaction is over and you need to leave. Some people give clear signs, but other people don’t.

            We know from this blog that people think they’re being direct but they actually aren’t. As someone said below, OP might have said something like “you don’t have to come with me” and the person may have heard “you may find this boring so it’s ok if you don’t come.”

            I’m often going to CVS to buy something like advil or toothpaste and I’d have no problem at all with someone tagging along. I’m not sure I would remember that someone else might be going for something more sensitive.

            Reply
      2. DaniCalifornia

        If someone is not actually being a creep but is SO DENSE that they would follow her to a pharmacy outside of the event they were both attending without an invitation, the OP might have to be more direct. Maybe they wouldn’t have to start with the security/police line but something as direct as ‘Please stop following me’ or ‘Please leave me alone now’

        The OP did state “because someone had followed me despite my protests” I am taking them at their word when they said protests. If someone is following you despite you telling them not to, that is not a good thing.

        Reply
        1. TootsNYC

          well, it’s also possible the protests were “you don’t need to” or “I’m fine on my own” or “I’m sure you have something better to do.” And not, “I want to go by myself, this is a private errand” or “I want to go by myself.”

          Now, people should take a freaking hint.
          But Alison’s encouragement is, Be more direct.

          Reply
    2. Ted Mosby

      All OP said was that someone joined her going to a pharmacy. If OP says “Sorry, I’m heading to CVS” and someone says “Oh, I need some dental floss, I’ll join you,” it’s annoying but telling that person you’re going to call security or even just “I need you to leave me alone is pretty aggressive.” Starting off with a simpler “this is actually something I’d prefer to do alone, but I’ll see you around!” seems more logical/appropriate.

      Reply
      1. Specialk9

        Despite their protests. “I even once ended up not getting something I needed at the drugstore because someone had followed me despite my protests…”

        Reply
  9. Amber Rose

    And on your personal time like dinner or drugstore trips, it’s completely reasonable to say, “This is a bad time to talk. Maybe I’ll see you at [event]?”

    You’ll probably get some pushback or resistance but it’s ok to then interrupt and say, “As I said, this is a bad time, so I’ll need to cut you off there. See you around!”

    If you stop engaging they will eventually leave.

    Reply
    1. Amber Rose

      Also if someone is waiting outside the bathroom, it’s not rude to ask for it to stop. Return Awkward to Sender. “Hey, I’m not comfortable that you waited outside the bathroom for me. Please don’t do that.”

      Reply
      1. shwerve

        I’m a fan of calling out the behavior by requesting clarification on it, “Were you waiting outside the bathroom for me?” People will often be uncomfortable enough to backpedal themselves out of the situation.

        Reply
        1. Courageous cat

          Yes this is what I do too. I just ask very quizzically, like, surely you weren’t actually doing THAT.

          Reply
      2. red hot teapot

        Yes, Captain Awkward has some great advice for this sort of thing, and that’s one of my favorites :)

        Reply
    2. MCM

      I like the “bad time to talk” statement. I think it gives a clear message. The one sitting down at my table while I’m on a date without asking …. would piss me off and would negate any need to be polite.

      I think you have a right to be bitchy at certain times. I see no reason that you cannot be ” Jane is so nice, unless you interrupt her at dinner” would be quite acceptable. You can state you do not want to socialize at this time. You can also say that to the individual that you do not like having your dinner interrupted. If they get pushy, ask them to leave.

      OP, how did you get rid of the individual that invited themselves to your dinner date? I wonder if sometimes people see bad behavior on sitcoms and translate it to acceptable behavior? I’m thinking of Frazier, but I know that there are other sitcoms out there that have “out of the norm” conduct in work environments. My mother refuses to watch NCIS because of the head slapping. It’s a total turn off to her and I understand where she’s coming from.

      Reply
  10. Lynca

    It should be noted that it’s not rude to set boundaries to ensure you can go to the drugstore or eat in peace. It is incredibly rude to sit down at the table of someone who hasn’t invited you to dinner and is in fact having dinner with someone else.

    I wouldn’t think poorly of anyone that flat out told them to leave or how rude they’re behaving.

    Reply
  11. Lil Fidget

    Also, some people are really easily offended but you can’t let that stop you from having clear, calm boundaries. I asked politely this morning for some people who were chatting near me to please keep it down, as I was trying to concentrate; although I thought I asked calmly and without being rude, they were clearly very offended and immediately stomped away. I’m sure they’re talking about what a monster I was to them, the nerve of me, asking them to stop interrupting my work in a workplace. But does that mean I was in the wrong to ask? No. Let them have their feelings, I can sleep at night. This attitude takes practice to cultivate (as a younger woman, I would have been devastated to have anybody think ill of me) but it can be done!

    Reply
    1. Bookworm

      Yes. It’s ok to not have the thickest skin in the world (I feel uncomfortable for a bit if I’ve offended someone) but it’s better to suffer through that discomfort for fifteen minutes than it is to let people’s reactions control you.

      And for what it’s worth, often people who are defensive or offended in the moment will calm down later and recognize their error.

      Reply
      1. Lil Fidget

        So true! I have done this myself. If I’m uncomfortable in the moment I may not react the best, but later I can admit the other person was in the right.

        Reply
    2. Footiepjs

      Also, you got what you wanted. Stomping away is extremely silly on their part when they’re ultimately doing as you asked.

      Reply
    3. Dr Wizard, PhD

      Absolutely this; some people will always be offended.

      I once had to get past two women walking beside each other in slow lockstep in a corridor; I politely said ‘Excuse me’ and they let me through, only to say in stereotypical ‘pissed

      I was – I was trying to get to an exam – but asking people to let you through is a perfectly reasonable request. Also people, please do not entirely block corridors/footpaths/whatever when slowly walking with your friends, or at least be aware of people trying to overtake you!

      Reply
  12. Don't Blame Me

    I can’t remember where it was but I saw someone describing how George Clooney handles fan encounters and they said basically he has a really warm smile and says something like “Great to meet you, thanks,” but he never stops moving, even while shaking someone’s hand, he’ll just subtly keep moving himself forward and then when the handshake is over he walks away. Basically that he manages to leave the interaction really quickly but still leaving the person feeling warm about it. If I can manage to find it, I’ll come back and link it here.

    Reply
    1. Funbud

      In an appreciation of the late Natalie Wood on Turner Classic Movies, Robert Redford said that she had taught him the same thing in his early Hollywood years: be gracious to fans but never stop moving.

      Reply
    2. Squeeble

      I love that! I do a similar thing when I’m walking downtown and a solicitor flags me down or a tourist asks me for directions. I’ll be polite and friendly but I never actually stop walking, which makes it easier to end the interaction.

      Reply
    3. Crystal

      Yep. I saw Giancarlo Stanton at the World Series game I was lucky enough to go to and he literally did not stop moving. I said he was like a calm shark through rough waters, I mean it was a CROWD of people surging and chumming around him and he just kept walking, signing stuff, smiling at people and maintaining swift pace. He’s also a giant guy made of muscles but it was still impressive to see.

      Reply
    4. Cochrane

      When David Byrne from The Talking Heads got stopped by a fan, he’d give them a business card that read “you have just met David Byrne”. While they would look down at the card to read it over, he would make good his escape.

      Reply
  13. locally famous

    I picked up a great trick for this: just say “Excuse me,” and walk away. No explanation. Just say “excuse me” and walk away, as if to a specific destination even if you are just giving yourself a break. I picked this trick up from watching a white male politician work the room at an event, and it has worked well for me too since then.

    Basically, imagine that you’re President Bartlett and Leo McGarry has just caught your eye to indicate that he has something important and confidential to tell you.

    Reply
      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

        Ditto! “Excuse me” tends to be really effective and doesn’t require explanation or apology.

        Reply
      1. Elizabeth H.

        I don’t think it does! I’d be surprised to hear if people automatically understand this as that they are coming back. You’d have to say “excuse me for a moment” to start having that type of implication.

        Reply
        1. Andraste's Knicker Weasels

          Agreed. Like the thing where a kid has to ask, “may I please be excused?” From the dining table*. That’s clearly meant as leaving because they’re done, not that they’ll come back.

          * I never was, but I saw it on tv, heh.

          Reply
  14. Van Wilder

    This is 100% a problem and worth writing in about, and well answered. That said, I sincerely hope to be in the position to need this advice someday.

    Reply
  15. Tuesday Next

    A simple “please excuse me, I need to go now”, is polite and unambiguous.

    “This is a private conversation” is also pretty clear without being rude.

    And “(why) are you following me?” with a look of surprise should also be effective.

    Anyone who follows you to the bathroom, or sits down at your table in a restaurant, is unbelievably rude. Any awkwardness that results is really on them and not you.

    Reply
  16. kittymommy

    If someone is trying to sit down at a dinner with you and your significant other that’s noir ignoring social cues, that’s someone who doesnt t care about them. While on one hand i would love to tell a person following me into the bathroom (wtaf??) “This is probably something you don’t want to be here for”, that’s not the most polite, I say be very blunt.

    Reply
    1. EddieSherbert

      “This is probably something you don’t want to be here for” – Hahahaha, I just snorted at my desk. I just hope someone weirdly follows me into a bathroom sometime so I can use it!

      Reply
    2. TootsNYC

      One thing that might work is to stand up. And maybe step away from the table a bit. So it’s really clear you’re interrupting.

      Reply
  17. ResuMAYDAY

    I’m a speaker at conferences and business meetings and have this same problem (but to a lesser degree). My best strategy to get rid of someone is to introduce them to someone else, and then gracefully but quickly extricate myself. I usually pawn them off on one of the conference facilitators or another speaker. Some people reading this may think that’s playing dirty, but it really is difficult to get away from someone who sticks to you like velcro.

    Reply
  18. mf

    For the people who approach you on the street and/or at dinner (with you BF, no less!), what about something that draws the line between the personal and professional? “I’m on a date/running an errand. This isn’t the time and place for a professional conversation, so I’ll need to end this conversation here.”

    Reply
  19. (Different) Rebecca, PhD

    I try to address the feeling they’re projecting (or that I assume they would be if they were rational, reasonable human beings), add a bit of polite apology, and firmly name exactly what I’m doing, for example “so sorry for abandoning you, but I’m on a schedule…” or “sorry to drop you off on your own here, but I’ve got to run…” Naming my action leaves little room for argument, and naming how they feel (abandoned/on their own) validates that they want something from me which I’m not going to give them, and the sorry-ish phrases stop the whole thing from being overly aggressive.

    For the table-sitter, I’d definitely go with ‘we really can’t accommodate you at the moment.’ Like, who even does that…

    Reply
    1. Teacher

      This is good. It leaves no room for them to think you just didn’t understand that they wanted to continue talking.

      Reply
      1. (Different) Rebecca, PhD

        Works with boundary-challenged friends, too (“Sorry to kick you out, but oh my god am I getting up early tomorrow…)

        Reply
  20. memyselfandi

    I had a colleague who does this. In every other context she is fine, but get her at a conference and she follows me around and interferes in my attempts to talk with anyone else. We no longer work together but every once in a while we end up in the same place and she does it again.

    Reply
  21. Wehaf

    I would also strongly recommend picking a few of these and practicing them, *out loud*, at home, until you are comfortable having them roll off your tongue. Having those neural and muscle pathways primed will make it much, much easier to say these in person when the time comes.

    Reply
    1. Lil Fidget

      Especially if during the elevated version, you decide not to smile! Seriously, I have to practice not smiling when I’m saying something uncomfortable (it’s more of a pained grimace really but some people can’t tell the difference). I’ve made some improvement – I used to laugh :(

      Reply
  22. Gandalf the Nude

    Alison, I can’t help but wonder if this has ever happened to you. I imagine you have enough of a following for it!

    Reply
    1. Carpe Librarium

      I’m now imagining Alison being faced with this problem and writing this letter to herself, like “Well, this is ridiculous; If one of my readers had this problem how would I tell them to handle it?” and the thought experiment just takes on a life of it’s own. :)

      Reply
      1. Andraste's Knicker Weasels

        Fellow introverts, unite! Separately!

        My husband and I call our home our Fortress of Solitude.

        Reply
  23. ZenJen

    For the restaurant interruptions, maybe LW can put her coat and/or bags on the extra chair, to occupy it? OR have the restaurant staff take the empty chair away. If chair isn’t available, that can help a bit. Or tell them “Sorry, I’m not available outside of the conference to discuss this.”

    Reply
    1. Connie-Lynne

      This seems to put a lot of responsibility on the OP, who has done nothing wrong, vs the fans, who have. “Um, this is our anniversary dinner, it’s private,” or “I’m trying to eat dinner with my boyfriend,” followed by a long silent stare, is a lot less work than having extra chairs removed or leaving her things out for theft every time she goes out privately.

      Reply
  24. Purplesaurus

    These approaches are going to work with 98% of people.

    Alison, I’ve seen you use percentages like this in a couple responses before, and I’m curious if you’re using it to intensify the concept of “most people,” or if you have some really interesting statistical information. Because… that would be some really interesting statistical information to see, ya know? Please?

    Reply
    1. Lil Fidget

      I’m sure she just means “there’s always one or two oddball outliers that you just can’t predict” – not a real statistical analysis.

      Reply
  25. Basia, also a Fed

    My husband works for the state and reviews and approves project permits. He unfortunately has stopped attending conferences because so many consultants follow him around – “hey, can you expedite my submission?” – “can I talk to you before I send this in so you can just do a cursory review and approve it when you get it?” – “here’s why you should approve my submission, even though it’s not administratively complete or has technical errors.” It’s shocking how many people want to be his friend, and he’s pretty introverted, so it’s torture for him. Lots of people go to these conferences just to suck up to him and others in similar positions. I can’t believe they don’t see how incredibly unethical it is.

    Reply
    1. Elle Kay

      When I worked for state government I had the same problem. My answer was always to carry a TON of business cards and a small purse. “Sorry, I can’t take your proposal/etc right now; email it to me and we can talk. I’m in the office 9-5” and hand over business card. Smile, nod, move on.
      This manages to remind most people that this is not actually business hours (IE: when they should be contacting me!) and is just passively, socially-embarrasing that most people don’t push it.

      Reply
    2. LurkNoMore

      It’s bothersome but is it really unethical? I attend trade shows and if I have a chance to meet/talk with the person that’s responsible for purchasing products similar to what I sell; then it’s my job to get a meeting with them. Even it’s just a few seconds where I can introduce myself to try and establish some type of contact. This person’s business may keep 45 production line people on the job for the next year – is it unethical to try and make that happen?

      Reply
      1. Basia, also a Fed

        I see your point. I don’t think it’s unethical that they want to network with him, get to know him professionally, build a rapport with him, and make him trust them (he’s annoyed by that, but it’s part of the job). The unethical part is that now that they’ve chatted with him, offered to buy him a beer (which he always politely declines), and followed him around telling him how he’s the most reasonable person in his agency, it seems there is often an expectation that he’ll bump their project up in his priorities, just do a cursory review, or overlook deficiencies in their submission. Even if he wanted to do so, he could lose his job if he did.

        Reply
      2. JessaB

        There’s a difference trying to sell to someone and trying to unfairly get a leg up on having your permits approved. One is sort of reasonable if you’re not a horrid hard sell, never leave em alone type, the other depending on how bad it is could be illegal. Circumventing permitting procedures can be dangerous. They’re there for a reason. And it could be also maybe taken as an attempt to bribe the guy. Not good.

        Reply
        1. Artemesia

          The people who get grants approved are pretty much mostly people who have a leg up though; it is a frustrating part of the process and generally important to have at least one member of the team who is connected all the way up the line.

          Reply
          1. Not a Morning Person

            Not that I’m aware of or have seen. Sure, it can happen, more particularly with political interference and legislative approvals. But regular contracts by state and federal employees? There are sunshine laws and everything is fair game for the front page or the lead story on the evening news. The people who “get a leg up” are the ones who follow the law and follow the RFP guidelines.

            Reply
        2. TootsNYC

          yeah, there’s a big difference between business and government.

          In government, ethics are far more important, because you are acting in trust for all the taxpayers/citizens of your jurisdiction.

          That’s why of course a businessman would meet with members of a foreign government to get information that might help his business plans. But a political candidate (or his supporting cast) should NEVER do that.

          Reply
    3. Mike C.

      It’s not that they don’t see, it’s that they don’t care. They might justify it to themselves as just “friendly banter”, but they only care about the bottom line.

      Reply
    4. Lynca

      One of the ways I stopped this is telling them no but explaining why I can’t do that. Our approval process is meant to be equitable and you’re processed based on when it was submitted. If you have questions about what is required or something that isn’t clear, that’s something that can be addressed via email or in person if it’s something quick. But I’m firm that you have to do an official submittal to be reviewed.

      So far it hasn’t hurt my standing. I don’t view it as people trying to be my friend when they try to leverage a working relationship. I think that helps. There’s nothing friendly about what they’re doing and they’re not doing it for anyone’s benefit but themselves.

      Reply
  26. Liz T

    Would the actual word “goodbye” help? I’m seeing a lot of phrases that mean “goodbye” to people who are respecting social cues, but perhaps actually saying that word will help some.

    Reply
  27. Guacamole Bob

    So this must be incredibly annoying, but I have to say I kind of have sympathy for the people who are doing this. When I was first starting out in my industry I got all sorts of advice about how important it was to network at industry events and conferences, but I didn’t know anyone and had no idea how to do that. I tended more to the “stand awkwardly in the corner” school of awkward coping than to the “follow important people around” method, but it was still painful. And at events where I only knew a couple of people I may have glommed on more than intended because I didn’t know what else to do.

    Now that I’m more established I often really enjoy these events because I already know enough people to mingle more easily and I just feel more self-assured overall, and since I know more about the industry now when I do meet new people I can have more interesting conversations with them. And I’m happy with where I am in my career and generally don’t need anything from the people I’m meeting, which helps immensely.

    I think all of the advice here is great and you should totally maintain your privacy and boundaries. I just recognize where some of this behavior might be coming from and I’m cringing sympathetically.

    Reply
    1. Lil Fidget

      It’s true, networking is by nature super awkward. I agree with fposte that some of the things that seem really egregious in a social context – like following someone around all night or waiting for them outside the bathroom – are more understandable at a conference where you don’t know anyone and are desperately trying to “network” whatever that means. (Not that I’m saying these behaviors are okay or that OP shouldn’t shut them down, just – as you say, I can see where they’re coming from).

      Reply
    2. Minister of Snark

      The thing about networking is that it has to be subtle and quick. You get in, make a good impression, get out. With luck, you will see that person at a later time, and build on that good impression into a more meaningful connection.

      There’s a big difference between “Hi, it’s so nice to meet you at this cocktail hour. I’d like to make small talk for a few minutes to leave a good impression and then move along so I’m not hijacking the rest of your evening.” and “Hi, I’m going to make it so uncomfortable for you to separate from me, that I can use your presence as a means to get introduced to other important people.” You can’t make it obvious that you’re using someone for their connections and trying to insinuate yourself “above your level.” It’s insulting to the intelligence of the person you’re using and trust me, it gets noticed.

      Not to mention people who are at a certain level of success in any given field tend to have friendships/personal relationships. When they get together at conferences, they just want a few minutes together where they can relax and they don’t have to be “on” for other conference participants. Glomming onto someone in that group and inviting yourself along to their dinner reservation/conversation/drinks plans changes that dynamic, annoys the other people in the group and actually puts tension on the relationship with the other people in the group and the person you’re glomming onto. People are only hurting themselves when they do this.

      Reply
      1. Lil Fidget

        Yeah, but this is master-level social intelligence, and most of the people following OP to the bathroom are more like EQ 101: Don’t Try To Join Other People’s Dates.

        Reply
  28. blackcat

    Sometimes you just need to be firm. A colleague of mine had this problem with a few people at a conference. One time, she excused herself *to go pump* and the person invited herself into the pumping room!

    After that, she had a pretty hilarious strategy. Whenever someone didn’t take the “I’m going to head on now” type of cues, she would tell that story!

    Reply
  29. Murphy

    All of the suggestions I’ve seen here are good ones. Particularly when you’re not at/around a conference and are in no way doing anything work related, I think you can definitely be more direct in shooting it down. And also, remind them that your life is more than your work! “Nice to see/meet you but I’m actually off the clock right now/enjoying some downtime.”

    People wait outside the bathroom? *shakes head* Come on, people…

    Reply
  30. Employment Lawyer

    A final brushoff, if this is what you do for a living, is to say
    “If you want to continue this we’ll have to set up an appointment, on the clock,” and hand them a business card.

    Reply
  31. Anonimal

    Wow. I have two things to say:
    1. Congratulations on being such a baller that people have that much interest in you. That is just really cool and must feel great in a lot of ways.
    2. I’m sorry people are not respecting your boundaries and I would bet a lot of money that you are a woman. Seems like no one would dare do this to a man. Just a feeling and I’m curious if it’s correct. So frustrating.

    Reply
  32. Emilitron

    It doesn’t help for situations where you’ve been glommed on to at a conference, but for some of the situations you’ve described, you can just say “I’m off the clock, why don’t you (email me next week, catch me back at the conference center, stop by my office after lunch, call me on Monday).” It doesn’t matter if you’re ever “on the clock” in a literal sense, it’s still a nice phrase to point out that they’re asking for your professional self, and the professional self is unavailable.

    Reply
  33. krfp13

    If you are not already, when you deliver your polite closer, make sure you end with, “Bye!” and perhaps a wave. Then, if necessary, you could remain still, looking at them expectantly, until they start walking away.

    Reply
  34. A Bit Wordish

    I’m a writer. I thought the stories about writers following agents into the bathroom while trying to pitch their books were urban legends. But my agent has had multiple people slide manuscripts under the stall like Gwendolyn Christie describes in the Graham Norton clip. (This does not work. Do not do this.)

    I’ve had hundreds of lovely respectful interactions with readers and other writers politely asking for advice. I’ve also been followed into public bathrooms at conferences, into elevators, into restaurants where I’m meeting my husband or other writers, and one notable occasion, someone acted as if they were going to follow me into my hotel room – all while I’m trying to extract myself from the conversation and trying to point out our surroundings, to get the person to realize that they were following me into a pretty intimate space or a private social situation to which they were not invited.

    Other writers have given me pretty good advice for these situations. For instance:

    If someone follows me into the bathroom, “You’ll have to excuse me. I prefer my privacy here.” If they’re still waiting for me when I walk out, “You’ll have to excuse me, I’m on my way (somewhere else). I’ll catch up with you some other time.”

    If they try to follow me on an errand or join me on plans/meals outside of the hotel, “You’ll have to excuse me. I prefer my privacy when running this errand.” or “You’ll have to excuse me. I need some time away from the conference to decompress. That means quiet time when I don’t have to be ‘on.'”

    If someone is following me to the door of my hotel room, “Well, it’s been nice talking to you, but this is where I leave you. I’m sure we’ll see each other around the conference.” and if they don’t take the hint and try to invite themselves into my room. “I’m not open to having company right now. I’ll see you some other time.”

    If someone is following me into a restaurant where I’m meeting other people “It’s been great talking to you, but I promised my husband my undivided attention tonight.” or “We’re in the middle of dinner right now, but I’d be happy to catch up with you some other time.”

    Generally, when you point out your surroundings to people (i.e., “Yeah… you’re about to walk into my bathroom stall with me.”) they snap out of their focus on their own conversation and realize they’re breaking the social contract and bow out. I’ve had a few people get persistent with the “but we’re having such a good conversation!” But previous posters are right, “Excuse me” and then walking away is very effective. As is, telling them, “We’ll continue this some other time.” with a firm note of finality in your voice.

    It sounds like your coworkers are also doing this to you while you’re “at home” and trying to blur your private, out of office time with work talk. I would get very firm about this. “Wakeen, I’m off the clock right now and I value my private time. I’ll catch up with you at the office.”

    Good luck.

    Reply
      1. A Bit Wordish

        That’s so believable, it’s scary. At least once, every signing, I have an older gentleman come up to my table and spend 15-20 minutes explaining to me why he would never read a “book like mine” and then tell me this amazing idea he’s willing to let me turn into a book. I can do all the work and give him half the money!

        This is another, “do not do this.”

        Reply
        1. sap

          Hey, by telling you that they’d “never” even try to read your work, at least they’re being explicit about not thinking what you do has value before asking you to do it for them below market rate. It’s *almost* refreshing amid the sea of “you’re so amazing and in demand, also free things?”

          Reply
    1. Lil Fidget

      I think I might drop the “some other time” language if I was done interacting with this person though. There are some good sample scripts in the comments that I think are clearer for the socially challenged. To me there’s a chance that the “some other time” language implies you might be eager to speak with them in five or ten minutes.

      For someone a member of the public expects to meet only once – like a famous author or a movie star – I think fans get extra deranged because there’s not much chance of an ongoing relationship anyway, so you just want to “win” that autograph or get that script into their agent’s hands even if they think you’re a jerk. It’s a special case compared to networking at a conference, where people are presumably trying to strike up a professional connection and are just going about it awkwardly.

      Reply
  35. Catarina

    I can’t help but think I would be so flabbergasted by being followed to a pharmacy that I would do something comedy-sketch worthy, like start filling a shopping cart with hundreds of maxi pads or something. In reality I’d probably just stand there making a “confused bird” face.

    Reply
    1. sap

      I’m now imagining that this becomes LW’s strategy for ditching people. Take them to the pharmacy, fill a shopping cart to the brim with maxi pads and extra small condoms, then ask the person to hold LW’s spot in the checkout line and just leave.

      Reply
    2. Circus peanuts

      I had the opposite thing happen. There was a movie being filmed in my town and my friend and I went to the grocery store for feminine supplies. Since we were college students, we looked for the bargain so the largest size of the red river is flooding pads was picked up. That package had to be at least two feet tall. We got into line to pay only to discover that we were behind Scott Bakula (who is even more good looking in person). He did us the favor of no eye contact and we did the same after our eyes almost bugged out of our heads.

      Reply
    3. Lil Fidget

      Oh I don’t know, others have suggested if you’re traveling for a conference you might just need to pick up floss, a toothbrush etc and not realize the other person wants extra max strength tampons or something.

      Reply
  36. GreenDoor

    I used to work for an elected official. He never left home or office without a supply of business cards. He used those to help convey “I am ending this conversation but I am not blowing you off” (even if he actually did want to shake them). So it’d be like:
    “Gosh, Bob. It’s an interesting idea but I have to meet my wife. But hey, here’s my card….why don’t you send me your proposal.”
    “Wow, Mary! I’m so sorry that the garbage men keep skipping you? Can you email me your address and I’ll speak to the supervisor? Here’s my card….and I’m so sorry but I see the Mayor waving me over.”
    So…not ignoring problems he was elected to solve, but still getting away when he needed to.

    Reply

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