my coworker has become needy and wants a closer friendship than I want

A reader writes:

Over the past year, I have developed a casual friendship with a coworker. Think: occasional happy hours, venting to each other about rough days, etc. She’s about a decade older than me and has very different personal interests so we’re not really friends outside of work.

The problem began two months ago when she told me she was having minor surgery and didn’t have anyone to pick her up from the hospital. I volunteered to do this for her, and to let her recover in my guest room for one night after the procedure. The surgery was without incident and she took a couple of weeks off after that. When she came back to work, it was like she had a personality change. She was suddenly incredibly needy. She emailed me and texted me several times during her first week back to ask to take me out to dinner as a thank-you. I was really busy during that time because I had just transitioned to a new role. Also I am not very sentimental. So I told her it wasn’t necessary; I was happy to do it, etc.

It’s been two months and she just won’t stop bothering me. For example, if she invites me out for a happy hour and I say I can’t because I’m working late, she will encourage me to try to get off early and hang out anyway. (This is not consistent with how she was before the surgery). If I say “hello, how are you” when i see her in the office, a few minutes later I will get an email saying “Is everything ok?” because apparently my greeting wasn’t enough. If I don’t respond to the email, then I get a text. I’ve been distancing myself from her but she doesn’t seem to get the picture. Last week she emailed me to tell me she wanted to give me a dress that was too small for her. AWKWARD. When I didn’t respond immediately, she came to my desk, interrupted what i was doing, and asked me if I wanted to see the dress. How do I get this to stop?? I don’t want to hurt her feelings.

You’ve got two choices here: You can be very direct, or you can come up with an excuse/cover story that should hopefully still get you the outcome you want.

I’m a big proponent of being direct with people, but if you can get the outcome you want without hurting someone’s feelings, often that’s the better way to go.

So in this case, it’s possible that you could tell her something like, “My schedule is crazy so I’m not really able to hang out outside of work. And during the day, I’m pretty swamped so if I seemed rushed, nothing is wrong — I’m just focused on work. Same thing goes for texting during the day — I can’t really do it so don’t take it personally.” The idea is to re-set her expectations and give her a framework to understand what’s going on. You’d then keep reinforcing it — so for example, if the dress thing happened after that, when she showed up at your desk, you’d say, “Oh, I’m really busy, can’t talk.”

The more direct option would to say something like this: “Can I be honest with you about something? I need more space than what you’re giving me. I enjoy occasionally going to happy hour, but for me it’s a once-every-couple-of-months thing, and I’m not up for going more often than that. And if I don’t immediately respond to an email, I need you to give time to answer it rather than texting or coming by my desk.” If you wanted to, you could add, “I know your surgery was a tough thing to go through and I was glad I was able to help, but it’s important to me to keep my work relationships professional — more like how we were before that.”

Realistically, this is likely to be an uncomfortable conversation, but I’d look at it as short-term awkwardness that will buy both of you longer-term peace (you because it will hopefully get this to stop, and her because she’ll be able to recalibrate her expectations with something more realistic).

It’s also possible that she’ll be chilly to you for a while, which is okay. Continue to be warm and polite to her, don’t be tempted into any “are you upset with me?” follow-up conversations, and let her decide if or when she’s interested in resuming something more like the casual friendship you had before this all went down.

{ 314 comments… read them below }

  1. SJ*

    Last week she emailed me to tell me she wanted to give me a dress that was too small for her. AWKWARD.

    I once had a coworker try to give me several old pairs of shoes and it was SO AWKWARD, especially because she just brought the shoes in without even asking first. Apparently one day she’d overheard me telling a coworker my shoe size, and she and I were the same size, so on that particular day she just strolled into my office holding like three boxes and told me to try them on. UGH.

      1. jm*

        Yeah, the dress thing just sounded like she was trying to be nice. I’ve had a few co-workers/acquaintances give me clothing and accessories over the years, because they were my size/style and no longer fit the giver, but it never struck me as awkward — I either kept the items or donated them to Good Will.

        But I could see how OP would find this gesture to be too much attention from this person, on top of everything else.

        1. MegaMoose, Esq*

          I wonder if this might depend on people’s feeling towards used clothing in general. I shop almost exclusively at thrift stores, so wouldn’t think twice about being offered clothing from friends or coworkers (both of which have happened). I also wouldn’t think twice about saying “thanks, but that’s not really my style/I’ve got one just like it already/it doesn’t fit right”, or turning around and dropping it off at a Savers. But I know some people are skeeved out by the idea of wearing used clothing in general.

          1. jm*

            Good point – we have used furniture, clothes, dishes, etc., so I don’t think anything about it, but you’re right that many people do feel grossed out by other people’s items.

            1. MegaMoose, Esq*

              The only purchased-new furniture in my house is our bed and dining-room table. I even buy used shoes, which I’ve noticed a lot of people who are cool with other kinds of used clothing will avoid. The trick is that plenty of people donate shoes that have only been worn once or twice, so you just have to keep an eye out.

              1. Temperance*

                I do the same thing, but I’ll only buy really expensive/designer shoes and then I Lysol them to death.

              2. Candi*

                If you have a common size, they tend to disappear fast. Plus I need a wide, which can be problematic to find in new shoes that are both nice and that I like.

          2. SophieChotek*

            I agree. and good point.

            Also depends in the spirit it was given. If it was “I hate the way you dress, so here are some of my clothes that might fit you” (yes, this happened to me with a co-worker), vs. what MegaMoose Esq. says it depends. I don’t think twice about offering clothes to friends; I don’t know that I know any coworkers well enough to offer clothes….

          3. Jill*

            Ha! I bought a pretty floral printed skirt at a thrift shop. A co-worker saw it and the next day brought me what was, apparently, the matching blouse. She had bought it on clearance not knowing it was actually part of a set. She gave it to me and said one of us should have the complete outfit. It was a fun surprise.

            Other than a situation like that….I’d feel weird about wearing a co-worker’s cast-offs, even though I routinely shop at thrift stores.

          4. CanCan*

            I buy and wear used clothing at work. But I don’t advertise it, – being a member of a generally well-paid profession, though not quite as well-paid when in the public sector, I feel people would judge me for being cheap. (I guess I am cheap – I’d rather spend/invest into my kid’s education than in new clothes – especially since I often make mistakes when choosing clothes, and I’d prefer the mistake to be $7 rather than $70).

            I wouldn’t want a coworker passing on her old clothes to me unless (a) we were close; and (b) she could assure me that she hasn’t worn the item at work. Would be weird to have somebody else think: didn’t I see Jane wear the same orange checkered dress last year, how come now it’s on CanCan?

        2. Ellie H.*

          My favorite article of clothing I own, my cat sweatshirt (cat face on the front and paw prints up the sleeve) I got from a bag of clothes brought in to work by a coworker who had 2 daughters a little older than me. She brought some in every so often and I found other great things too. It was a bookstore (retail, casual, very friendly environment). So happy it found me!

          1. many bells down*

            I used to work for a YMCA in a very wealthy neighborhood. Every year we had a fundraiser yard-sale thing and some of the donations we got were fantastic. I got some clothes that were FAR nicer than anything I could have afforded at the time from that.

        3. Lala*

          I had a coworker once tell me how she’d lost a bunch of weight. Then she offered to give me all of her old clothes since they were too big for her.

          Even though I’m 90% sure she was trying to be nice/generous, it was humiliating and insulting. Like “yo, here, you can have all my fat clothes of fatness for your fat ass.”

          1. Cath in Canada*

            This sounds kind of like the time some people at work organized a used clothing swap one weekend. I was new and showed up without knowing who else was coming. All the other attendees were definitely on the “very petite” end of the spectrum; I am not. Nothing fit me, and nothing I’d brought fit anyone else. It was super awkward, even though everyone was too polite to mention anything – I felt like the literal elephant in the room! I bought a scarf that I didn’t even like all that much, while everyone else tried on whole piles of clothing and gushed over their new outfits.

            Oh well, all the money raised and all the left-over clothes went to good causes, so it wasn’t a complete waste of time!

            1. Ms Yoyo*

              I’m up an down, weightwise, depending on my stress and activity levels. I’ve brought “thin clothes” in to the office for coworkers who gave list weight. I hope they weren’t insulted!

          2. Ostara*

            One summer my mom lost a ton of weight and gave me her old clothes. Whenever she saw me wearing them she would ask if they were her old clothes and commented how much she missed being able to wear them. When I finally called her out on how humiliated it made me feel that she constantly had to remind me that I was wearing her fat clothes she got angry at ME and I had to listen to how unappreciated/hurt/disappointed she felt. Ugh. Still upsets me when I think about it.

      2. Bwmn*

        My old boss – who is about 9 inches shorter than me asked if I wanted a coat of her’s. It was an odd gesture at an odd time in our working relationship – but as it turns out, I love the coat.

        It was an odd moment, but even at the time one that made me smile.

        1. MegaMoose, Esq*

          This reminds me of one of my best hand-me-down stories: so when I was in law school I must have mentioned in front of a classmate that I needed a more formal coat for job interviews in the winter. This is someone I knew fairly well and was friendly but not super close with – we’d hang out after class sometimes, but more due to mutual friends than anything else. So one day out of the blue she shows up to school with this amazing off-white wool coat. It turns out that it had belonged to her mother and my classmate had thought of me when her mom wanted to get rid of it.

          I love that coat. It’s a PITA to keep clean, though, so I only wear it to cold-weather interviews and fancy-events.

          1. Bwmn*

            This boss was one of those true shouty, mean, difficult characters – and working for her was not easy. And why she thought I wanted or needed a coat, I’ll never know, but now that I’m not there it serves as a fun reminder of a time in my life.

      3. paul*

        I don’t think anyone in my office has bought baby or toddler clothes; we just kind of keep passing all theo nes we’ve gotten at showers back and forth. Maybe it’s a bit informal, but eh, no big.

      4. SJ*

        Are you close with your coworkers? I wasn’t close at all with mine, and getting an out of the blue offer like that was the weird part, not the used shoes part. (I thrift shop all the time.)

    1. Anon in NOVA*

      I’ve had this happen to me a few times, I also find it very awkward. There’s no nice way to say “No I don’t want your old clothes”…. but I don’t.

      1. LD*

        Sure, there is! The nice way is to use what MegaMoose, Esq. said above. You can say, “Thank you for thinking of me, but I’m good.” or “Thank you but I’m purging my closet and don’t really want to add anything.” Or any similar version of “Thanks, but no.”

      2. Emma*

        Heh. My reaction to people foisting stuff off on me is, “Sure!” followed by a trip to either Goodwill or the local homeless shelter, depending on the items. (Meaning: I check with the shelter first but sometimes they can’t use/don’t need the thing in question. I’m pretty sure no one needs rooster salt shakers, for example.)

        I basically figure these people are like my grandpa – need to get rid of things, can’t quite let them go completely, so they prefer it goes to someone they know. What happens after the item is mine they don’t need to know about.

        1. Mallory Janis Ian*

          Ha. My mom would hate to know that someone was holding back a set of rooster and hen salt and pepper shakers; she loves chicken and rooster kitchen stuff.

      3. many bells down*

        When I was teaching and pregnant, I had one of my student’s dads offer me … his wife’s old maternity panties. As he’d already crossed a line I didn’t worry too much about whether my response was polite enough!

    2. FD*

      I think this is a ‘know your coworkers’ thing. One of my coworkers gave me two bags of old clothes that were close to my size. Some fit me, some were a bit off and went to Savers. I got a great skirt and someone else will enjoy the rest.

      But part of this is that I buy nearly all my clothes from thrift shops, so trying on other people’s clothes isn’t weird to me at all.

      1. Not the Droid You Are Looking For*

        This! I have a former coworker who was just coming back to an office environment after 5 years as a SAHM. I had just lost some weight and in the course of a conversation, we figured out that my old size was her new size.

        I gave her several boxes of clothes, all with the caveat that I wouldn’t be offended if I never saw her in any of it! She kept some, gave away others, and both of us were happy with the exchange. But I would have never done it without the initial conversation and explicitly asking her.

      2. SJ*

        I should have clarified in my original comment that I wasn’t close to this coworker at all, so the out-of-the-blue offering of shoes was the weird part to me, not the fact that the shoes were used. I thrift shop all the time!

    3. Elizabeth West*

      I had a coworker do this with me once–she said, “I have a dress that you might like.” Despite my protestations that I didn’t really wear dresses, she brought it in and HOLY COW it was the ugliest thing I’d ever seen. I couldn’t gracefully say no in front of everyone, so I took it, but I never ever wore it and eventually it went bye bye.

      1. Anon in NOVA*

        That’s why I find it so awkward, no one with similar taste to me ever offers up their clothes! If someone was like “here’s this cute banana republic blazer” i’d be like SCORE! Also, I hear the “just take it and donate it” thing, but that’s signing myself up for an unexpected errand, and adding clutter in my car or house until I accomplish that errand.

        1. OhNo*

          That was basically my thought. If I don’t politely refuse, then I’m basically just signing on to do their errand (dropping off the clothes at a thrift store) for them. No thanks. I’d rather have a slightly awkward conversation and spare myself the hassle.

        2. Emma*

          Eh, I get that on the errand bit, but in my case the places I donate stuff to are right by my house, and I know people sometimes have hangups about donating their own stuff. I figure if it helps get it to people who can use it, it’s my good deed for the day.

          I might feel differently if this happened all the time, mind.

          1. Emma*

            Also, I think part of “taking it and donating it” is that, if you really do find it too awkward to refuse, it can be the path of least resistance. If you’re comfortable refusing, obviously, that’s fine, but if you’re not, instead of making it awkward, there is that other option there.

      2. Stellaaaaa*

        Aw, I was gifted a dress from a coworker once and I actually liked it! The coworker had accepted that she wasn’t going to lose all the baby weight so one day she handed me a casual t-shirt dress.

      3. Not So NewReader*

        I have had to do that, too. Sometimes it’s just the gracious route to go. I keep a plastic bag with stuff to be donated next to my closet. This reminds me to sort as I go, if I suddenly decide I am done with something I can toss it into the bag. The unwanted gifted item goes into that bag also. When that bag gets full I take it with me when I am headed in the direction of the place I donate to.

        I have to chuckle. Over the years, I have gotten a thicker layer of skin. If someone INSISTS I take something, I can bring it home put it in the bag and never feel guilty. If a person let go of their manners and be insistent, I can let go of my guilty feelings.

        I cannot remember a time in my life when we (society) had more material goods than we do right now. It seems that stuff just floats from person to person. I think it has to do with the times we live in also.

        This does not help you much, OP.

        I do have one thought that might help. Tell her that you see that she seems determined to pay you back. Tell her that you don’t want to be paid back and if she still feels she must do something then ask her to pay it forward. Tell her to be on the watch for someone who could use an extra hand and help them out if it is doable for her.

        1. RWM*

          Your tip about putting unwanted clothing and gifts into the bag and taking it to donate whenever it gets full is so smart!

        2. Whats In A Name*

          I think telling her to Pay It Forward here is great advice for the OP. I too was under the impression that part of the neediness is the need for the co-worker to show her appreciation in some way.

        3. Candi*

          I wound up giving my dad all my kids’ outgrown clothes to take to his church. They have a small room where anyone can leave stuff they don’t need, and pick out stuff they do.

          Apparently used boys’ clothes in good condition are crazy popular.

    4. Angela*

      One of the strangest things I have ever seen at OldJob was when a coworker’s mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer. This coworker very quickly had her very long hair chopped and donated to some Locks of Love- type charity. Another coworker came in about a week later with a plastic bag full of hair from a haircut she had given her husband and handed it over as…a gesture of goodwill…?

    5. Ruffingit*

      I had coworkers once who thought I wasn’t wearing an appropriate bra size so they offered to give me their old bras. UM…NO! Seriously?? It’s one thing to loan someone a nice dress or something, but a used bra? Nope. And for what it’s worth, I was fine with the bra I was wearing so I didn’t really care what they thought, but geeze. Some people just don’t think things through.

  2. Tequila Mockingbird*

    As usual, Allison is right! When it comes to setting boundaries, as uncomfortable as it is, you need to be direct.

    Blowing someone off with “I’m busy” will (a) be ignored by a person who thinks they can change your mind; (b) get construed into a whole new line of pestering: “Why are you ignoring me? What did I do?” Someone who doesn’t get the hint the first time isn’t going to get the hint the 15th time. You have to be really clear–especially if you want to put a stop to the incessant emails & texts.

  3. Mae*

    Sorry you have to go through this. I feel sorry for her, though. Instead of labeling her as this needy leach, I would try to see it from her perspective a bit (so as to frame your communication properly). Lonely, scared, and just trying her best as we all are at times. I’m sure she doesn’t want to be that way, and I’m sure her intentions are good, as are yours. That said, I prefer Allison’s second response. The first one won’t drive the point home and will leave the door open for further boundary-breaking. I’ve always had admiration for people who have been direct as opposed to gentle “ghosting.”

    1. JB (not in Houston)*

      Yes, and it really may not be that she’s “needy,” she just really misinterpreted things and is continuing to do so. Like, she thought the OP having her stay in her guest room was a signal that they’ve leveled up the friendship. That’s not entirely out of nowhere–I have casual work friends I’d offer to drive home from the hospital and get them settled in at home, but I wouldn’t invite them to stay in my house after the surgery. Because it’s not something I’d offer to a casual work friend, if someone offered that to me, I’d probably think that *they* thought of us as being closer friends that I’d previously thought.

      She’s really missing the OP’s cues, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she’s needy. But it does mean that either a conversation needs to be had or the OP will have to endure an uncomfortable period where she resets boundaries.

      1. Mallory Janis Ian*

        Yeah, I think if a co-worker with whom I’d always been friendly at work offered me a guest room, as opposed to just a drive home and assistance settling in, I might misinterpret it as more of an overture of friendship than intended. It sounds like the coworker thought the gesture meant more than it did, and now she’s ramped up her expectations of the friendship accordingly.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          That is the first thing I thought of, too. OP, you knocked yourself out for this lady, she probably thinks of you as a really good friend.

          Another way to help her reframe is to explain to her that you do stuff like this people from time to time. Let her see that this is you way of going at life and it does not necessarily mean you guys are besties.

      2. Seal*

        Agreed. Inviting a coworker to spend the night in your house, regardless of the circumstances or intent, is a above and beyond what most people would do for a casual work friend. Not that it wasn’t a kind or gracious thing for the OP to do but it may have had the unintended consequence of leading the coworker to believe they had taken their friendship up a notch. Also, seeing someone when they’re in a particularly vulnerable state, such as when they’re recovering from surgery, will often change the nature of a relationship regardless.

      3. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I think this part is decent evidence of neediness: “If I say “hello, how are you” when i see her in the office, a few minutes later I will get an email saying “Is everything ok?” because apparently my greeting wasn’t enough. If I don’t respond to the email, then I get a text.”

        But I agree with your larger point.

        1. Stellaaaaa*

          Well if someone had previously done me a huge favor and then visibly tried to scale back the interactions, I would try to figure out if something was wrong or if I had done something to offend her.

            1. fposte*

              I’m trying to push back on the needy thing, because I do think it was reasonable if mistaken for her to see this as a close friendship, but texting if you don’t hear back from personal email–at work to boot–isn’t something I can wave away. That’s over all the lines.

              1. Stellaaaaa*

                Not if you’ve previously acted like a very close friend. If someone who helped me through a surgery waved off a “hey, good morning!” with a shrug and a raised eyebrow, I would send a text saying, “Wait, is everything okay? Did I do something wrong?” OP acted like a BFF and now wants to scale back but isn’t saying anything.

                1. Lissa*

                  But, she didn’t wave it off with a shrug and a raised eyebrow — OP says she *does* say “hello, how are you”, it’s just that coworker is seeing it as not enough. Maybe I’m reacting like this because I’ve had casual friends read things into my tone if I’m not “enthusiastic” enough, but I know that that sort of behaviour would be inclined to make me pull back because then I’d be worrying all the time that my greeting wouldn’t be enthusiastic enough, my smile wouldn’t be warm enough etc…

                2. Stellaaaaa*

                  I’m not into nitpicky “omg are you okayyyyyy” when it’s just a normal day, so I hear you there. But I still don’t think it’s wrong for the coworker to fall back on her normal mode of friendship interactions with someone who has acted like a close friend and has yet to speak up about not wanting to be friends.

                3. fposte*

                  Even if you’re previously acted like a close friend. You don’t send texts nagging somebody to answer the email they’re not answering.

              2. Not So NewReader*

                Since the neediness was not there before the surgery, I am wondering if the coworker is still going through some healing up in some way. I have seen some uncharacteristic behaviors out of people after a surgery. It usually passes.

                Ironically, if OP does not say what she wants, then the coworker is probably just going to keep pressing the issue. She could be thinking, “You did all this stuff to help me and now you can barely say hi to me? What’s up?” I can picture the coworker thinking that this is all very strange. But I do understand OP’s perspective. I think that just talking to the coworker is going to help.

            2. Stellaaaaa*

              If you put this into the context of, say, the stuff that’s discussed in the open posts, where we talk about how hard it is to make friends as adults, how sometimes you need to make a big first move, I can 100% understand why the coworker thought OP was making a big, sudden gesture of new adult friendship. Now she’s responding coldly to interactions that would be normal between friends.

              I do think that the OP miscalculated a bit and maybe needs to recalibrate her norms here, since she gave every indication that she wanted a friendship and is now feeling weird about the fact that someone read the situation that way. “Someone likes me and did me a huge favor because she wants to be friends” is the more natural and common train of thought than, “this person endured inconvenience and washed bedsheets for someone she doesn’t even put in a friend category.”

              1. OP*

                Hi – This is the original letter-writer. Thanks for all the comments. Just a point of clarification on the overnight stay: Coworker’s doctor insisted that coworker would need someone to be with her overnight on the first night, just in case there were complications. The overnight stay was presented to me as part of the package of offering the ride home. I offered to let her stay at my house for one night, rather than stay at her one-bedroom apartment, because I thought it would be more convenient for me to have her at my place rather than me staying on her couch. So I don’t think she could have interpreted this invitation as me leveling up the friendship.

                In hindsight, though, I wonder if she feels uncomfortable with me seeing her in that state and that has contributed to the change in her behavior.

                1. NonProfit Nancy*

                  Yikes, hearing that she requested it is kind of worse. She’s *really* missing the cues if none of this was your idea.

                2. PK*

                  I’d be hard pressed to offer a room to a coworker or stay at their place without a level of friendship that extended beyond work. I think she may have interpreted that way even if you don’t personally see it that way.

                3. Grits McGee*

                  Now that I think about it, could she maybe be afraid that you resented having her spend the night, and that’s how she’s interpreting your distance/business after she came back? It might explain why she wanted so badly to take you out to dinner or find a way to pay you back (maybe via the dress)?

                  I could see someone getting nervous that they had damaged the friendship and then to fix it that they end up causing even more damage. It might also explain why she’s reading so much into your greetings and so insistent about asking you what’s wrong- maybe she’s trying to get you to “admit” that what you’re upset about is the overnight stay, and then she can address it and fix it.

                4. fposte*

                  Oh, boy. I think she absolutely interpreted as leveling up on the friendship, unfortunately; you basically had a sleepover with her. Not that you’re wrong to have seen it differently–it’s just that I think you’re not seeing how she viewed it.

                  I’m increasingly annoyed with her, because this is kind of a bait and switch–you agreed to help with a medical need, but it was a Trojan structure for an emotional need.

                5. fposte*

                  @Grits McGee–oh, you may well be onto something there about her fearing that the OP resented her.

                6. Not So NewReader*

                  Grits McGee, you are on to something here.

                  When I have hit some rough patches in life, I have always been very concerned about being a burden to others. The worst thing that could happen is that someone helps me and then vanishes from my life. I worried that they think less of me somehow and somehow I was a burden. ick, ick.

        2. Mae*

          By its very definition, yes, that behavior is reflective of neediness. Thought neediness is a mindset and a sign of insecurity, it’s also triggered by something. Even if blown out of proportion, coworker probably picked up on something feeling off and wanted validation. I think there was a communication breakdown all-around, which is why at this point the direct (but kind) approach is best.

        3. LD*

          I can also see it as an attempt to repay the favor. In the view of the coworker, OP when above and beyond in offering the overnight stay and attention. OP sees it as a good deed, but not one that requires repayment. Coworker sees it as, “OP went to such enormous trouble to take care of me in my time of need! I must repay her somehow! So, I’ll give OP stuff. I’ll be nicer and more attentive to OP at work.”
          Would it be okay to tell the coworker something along the lines of the second verbiage, and maybe adjust to include something like, “I may not be reading this right, but since I helped you after your surgery, it feels like you are trying to make it up to me. I was happy to help! If you want to do something, just help someone else. I’m good. Pass along the favor to another person, ala, paying it forward. Now I have to get back to work; see you around.”

          1. NonProfit Nancy*

            Wow we made the same point (and reached a similar conclusion) below. Jinx! Granted, I don’t think the “unbalanced favor” concept is the most likely scenario; I think it’s more likely that the coworker really does think they’re close friends now, or wants to be, and the OP will have to do something to deflect her. But still, great minds :)

      4. Mabel*

        Also, she didn’t have anyone to help her after the surgery. Seems to follow that she may not have many (any) close friends and was hoping the OP could turn into one. Just a possible explanation for the change – OP still needs to set boundaries.

        1. Michaela T*

          Yeah, I thought that as well. I’d probably spin a bit if I realized I had no family or good friends around whom I could depend on to drive me home from surgery.

          1. Anonacat*

            You can’t take a cab, either. I had to hire a girl off the internet to take me home :-( (new city, jerk neighbors, unemployed)

          2. TrainerGirl*

            Absolutely. When I had surgery last year, it was amazing to have a friend who could drive me and my mom (who came to help me recover) to the hospital and back home. My mom is not from the area that I live in and was nervous about being able to get home if I was groggy and couldn’t give directions (we had to take major highways to/from the hospital). We gave him a gift to show how much we appreciated his help. He may have thought it wasn’t necessary, but having someone there who doesn’t mind helping you is invaluable.

        2. LisaD*

          I relate to this. I’m having LASIK soon and if a good friend hadn’t moved here recently, I wouldn’t have had anyone to lean on. I have friends here, but Uber has made “giving a ride” into a BEST FRIEND thing rather than something everyone does for friends occasionally. And honestly I just don’t wanna uber home after even a minor procedure!

      5. fposte*

        I was thinking the same thing–this is kind of a friend love languages thing. To some people, this would be “we’re practically sisters!” To others, it’s more a “eh, doesn’t cost me anything, so why not?” I think the OP was on the second wavelength and the co-worker read it as the first.

        1. Lissa*

          Totally! I don’t think either person did anything wrong in interpreting things the way they did. I’ve been on both sides of this, a) wanting a closer friendship than the other person does, and b) feeling “chased” and uncomfortable by someone I wanted to keep casual with.

        2. chumpwithadegree*

          I think I would frame it as “the kind of thing I would have done for anyone I know who needed this help”; that is, picking her up and letting her spend the night. I think she sees it as the beginning of a great friendship, whereas you were just doing an impersonal good deed.

        3. Grits McGee*

          I agree, and tbh the idea that this situation is entirely the OP’s fault because she did a favor for the coworker makes me really uncomfortable. In general, I think most of us would agree that we’re responsible for our own reactions and emotions. We’d never tell a woman who wrote in that she owed a man a romantic relationship because she’d him sleep on her couch, and I think we should apply that same standard non-romantic relationships.

          1. fposte*

            I don’t see this situation as a fault one on either side, really (though Texty McEmail needs to keep that stuff out of work). I wish that mean it were easier to disentangle, though.

            1. Grits McGee*

              Oh no, I completely agree- it’s definitely a case of misaligned expectations. I just feel bad for the OP because it seems like she’s in a no-good-deed-goes-unpunished situation, both in real life and in the comments here. :)

              1. fposte*

                Agreed, and I think this is a bit of an outlier. I was thinking that I would rather have the hospital drive and bed for the night without the friendship than the friendship without the hospital drive and bed; my problem would be the bed would be a big enough deal to me that I’d feel guilty drifting from the person who lent it to me.

                1. Elizabeth West*

                  A coworker I’m friendly with–we chat a lot but only at work–told me after my hospital stay that I could have called her to come get me and take me back up to the other hospital where I left my car (they transported me between facilities and I had to call a cab to get back). Of course this was after the fact. I would have been grateful (though uncomfortable about dragging her out, since it happened on a weekend). For something like that, gas money and to take her to lunch would have been sufficient–I certainly wouldn’t expect us to be super best friends forever afterward.

      6. Ruthie*

        I’m glad someone said this. I think an offer to be driven home and spend the night could very reasonably be interpreted as a new level of friendship.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I think that’s absolutely reasonable (and I think most commenters here agree). The issue is that the coworker hasn’t picked up on the cues the OP has put out since then.

          1. fposte*

            And it doesn’t oblige the OP to anything either way; whether the co-worker overreached to consider this a friendship or not, they end up in the same situation.

        2. Not So NewReader*

          OP is actually a fine, fine person. I admire her willingness to pinch hit in this situation. I think that going forward, OP, if you find yourself in this spot again, let the person know where you are at. That can be as simple as:

          “Oh, I have done this for people before. It’s no big deal. You don’t owe me anything. If you want to do something pay it forward somehow. But you and I are square here, I don’t need anything.”

          Say it early and say it a few times. This lays the foundation for expectations in the future.

          1. fposte*

            Oh, I really like that, especially the “pay it forward”–that makes the recipient part of an exchange, even if it’s not with the giver, rather than just an eternal recipient.

  4. Murphy*

    I agree that the direct approach is probably the best, as uncomfortable as that conversation will be. (I’d totally be uncomfortable too.) The coming over to your desk right after sending you an email is really a bit much. I think only a direct conversation would put a stop to behavior like that.

    I feel back for OPs coworker as well. She sounds like she’s probably lonely, although this isn’t OP’s responsibility to fix.

  5. SeptemberGrrl*

    I think the best option is to try the indirect approach first and if that works, it’s all good. If it doesn’t you can then move to the direct confrontation. The thing about the direct approach is that it *will* hurt her feelings – the message is “I don’t want to be friends with you as much as you want to be friends with me” and it’s not possible to get that message across without it hurting someone, it’s a hurtful message (that’s not a criticism of the OP; at times, we all have to tell people things that we know will hurt their feelings).

    1. Bwmn*

      I’m with you on this one.

      A failed friendship can be a bummer – but eventually I think that adults get over these things. Even if the boundary setting is a little awkward at first. However, I think trying to formally “dump” her will be far more embarrassing and awkward.

  6. Hannah*

    In all fairness to the coworker, offering to pick her up after surgery and letting her stay with you kind of took your frkendship to the next level. That’s taking it from just work friends to not just outside-the-office friends, but outside-the-office friends who have sleepovers. I am not sure how you can step it back to just work friends now. Others have given good advice. You should be kind to your coworker since she’s not crazy to have interpreted your actions as meaning you were really good friends now.

    1. Lissa*

      I think friendship levels is a good way to look at this! (also I am a huge nerd so think of things like this a lot.) IMO friendship levels can cause awkwardness in two ways; if one person has the other “ranked” much higher than the other, or if your ranking definitions vary wildly. So it’s bad if I like you an 8 but you like me a 3. But it’s also bad if my definition of a 7 friend is “picks me up at the airport, goes to the play I’m acting in and is always available to talk” but your definition doesn’t include those things.

      I don’t think either party is “wrong” here, as there’s no actual universal definition, but it sounds like coworker saw “letting her stay in guest room” as a much higher friendship level thing than the OP did. This might be somewhat of an age thing too, since you mention she’s older — I know when I was younger I was way more cavalier about having people stay over, because I was still transitioning out of that “of course you can crash on the couch!” phase in my life.

      I agree OP should be kind but I don’t think she did anything wrong by letting coworker her stay in her guest room and wanting to keep a mostly-at-work friendship (especially since I personally wouldn’t see letting someone stay at my place after surgery as the same as a sleepover).

      1. NonProfit Nancy*

        If you read OP’s comment above, she didn’t ever make this offer – the coworker asked for her to stay overnight, and it ended up being at the LW’s house. This makes the coworker even more out of line, in my opinion.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          The coworker probably realizes OP got stuck in a bad spot and that realization might be making things worse now as the coworker feels OP went above and beyond.

          Someone has to put the brakes on here. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on where we stand to look at this, OP wrote in so she gets the burden of stopping this whole thing.

        2. Brock*

          Or possibly (quite possibly, IMO, since the coworker and I seem to be on the same page regarding the friendship-level implications of staying overnight), the coworker thought that if the OP wasn’t ready to level up the friendship, she would have used her words and found a polite excuse to say no to the whole thing.

  7. Stellaaaaa*

    I think you inadvertently gave her the wrong impression. If someone volunteered to pick me up from the hospital and offered to let me stay over during recovery (as in, she didn’t ask; you proactively volunteered) I would assume that she was making a serious friendship overture. These little details also suggest that she doesn’t have much in the way of family or friends, or they would have picked her up. You don’t even have to be very lonely to read into that situation and infer that you were making an effort to be more friendly.

    You didn’t do anything wrong here! But I have to say that I understand why your coworker thought you were trying to build a friendship, and I don’t think you can shut that down without hurting her feelings. People naturally read friendship and perceived closeness into spontaneous acts of extreme generosity. She’s not violating boundaries because you haven’t established any yet. You were with her through a medical emergency and then you invited her into your home. You can’t expect her to read your mind here.

    1. fposte*

      I think that’s right about the mindset, but I think a “what’s wrong?” email following a morning greeting and succeeded by a text if you don’t answer the email is a violation of everybody’s boundaries–you don’t need to explicitly establish a boundary where people aren’t allowed to just keep bugging you until you answer them.

      But I think your really important point is that yes, this woman will have hurt feelings. But that’s okay–they’re the kind that are a part of life and not the result of cruelty and we all deal with them, so the OP shouldn’t feel like she has to support this one-sided friendship just to avoid causing the slightest twinge of pain.

      1. Stellaaaaa*

        I can’t really speak to that, since (as I’ve said), I think nothing of sending one text and one email a day to a friend-seeming person who seemed distant and who has been ducking a dinner invitation for a few months.

        In terms of dating, I sometimes get into a mode where if the dude’s been ignoring me, I’ll text whenever I want because if he’s going to blow me off, I at least want to try and get an answer. If OP keeps saying, “I’m fine, I’ll do dinner when I have time” and then never follows through, she needs to understand why this other woman is getting anxious. She knows she’s being blown off and she probably thinks she did something wrong if the person who helped her through surgery now won’t even go to Red Lobster with her.

        I think this is nagging at me because the question isn’t “Why isn’t the coworker reading OP’s mixed signals and magically coming to the exact right conclusion?” The question is, “Why on earth hasn’t OP said anything yet?” with a bonus dollop of “FYI, don’t randomly do huge favors for people you don’t actually want in your life, k?”

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Well, I think the reason the OP hasn’t said anything yet is because this is tremendously awkward; there’s no way to do it without causing pain.

          But I’d hate for the conclusion to be “don’t do favors for people you don’t want in your life.” I think most people are capable of picking up on cues and even if they’d originally misunderstood the friendship level, the OP’s signals would have made it clear. This coworker isn’t picking up on those cues, but that doesn’t mean they don’t work with many other people.

          1. Stellaaaaa*

            I think you can’t invite someone to spend the night in your guest room and then, in lieu of nothing, pick up on the idea that they wouldn’t be welcome to stop over for coffee. You can offer to give someone a ride home from the hospital, sure, but inviting someone to stay over implies that they’re always welcome to come over.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              What!! I strongly disagree that doing that favor for someone implies they’re always welcome to come over! I think this is revealing very different ideas of friendship and social interaction because that seems utterly bizarre to me.

              Also, it’s not in lieu of nothing — the OP has given many, many cues that most people would have picked up on. This person isn’t, which is why the OP will need to get more direct, but most people read cues like the ones she’s been sending out just fine.

              1. Stellaaaaa*

                Personally, I would not invite someone over to spend the night if I didn’t feel comfortable having a general “come over and hang out” friendship with them. I was speaking loosely…I wouldn’t be happy if friends came over unannounced, but IMO the OP removed a barrier to close friendship and has put it back up without saying anything.

                1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  It’s of course your prerogative to feel that way personally (that you wouldn’t issue the invitation if you didn’t want that level of friendship), but don’t you also have to recognize that lots of other people don’t look at it that way? (Many of them are in this thread so they’re not hypotheticals or unicorns!)

                2. Stellaaaaa*

                  I think it’s because I don’t think “ghosting” is ever the way to deal with people. Say what you feel and move on. Don’t say, “I can’t meet up for drinks because I’m working late.” Say, “I can’t have drinks because I don’t want to.” I’m coming down to the fact that despite all the non-verbal cues, OP is still saying words to indicate that she does eventually want to hang out.

                3. PlainJane*

                  You have a right to feel the way you do, but I have to say that this approach bugs me. Declining multiple invitations is a gentle way to let someone know you don’t want to hang out. You might prefer to just be told directly, but a) many people wouldn’t and would be really hurt by that, since it’s outside of many social norms, and b) it puts the person refusing in the position of having to be rude and hurtful. I absolutely hate it when people put me in that position.

                4. ket*

                  But this was not “come over and stay the night for fun!”

                  This is more like, I saw the 8-yr-old neighbor kid outside on a snowy day without a coat, locked out of the house accidentally after school. I let him come inside and gave him hot chocolate, because I’m not a jerk who lets 8-yr-olds get hypothermia for forgetting that the door locks automatically. However, this is not an open invitation to come over any time, 8-year-old.

                  It makes me uncomfortable that you are implying the response to, “I am having a medical event and I need a ride & some help” must be, “Sorry to hear about that! Hope you can find someone online to hire!” rather than, “I’m not busy that day, and I could help with this unusual and stressful thing.”

                  It’s a total fallacy if that you do one nice thing for someone ever you are obligated to be friends and obligated to hang out.

              2. SarahTheEntwife*

                Agree. I wouldn’t recommend putting it this directly because there’s no way to say it without sounding really hurtful, but there are lots of people who I feel basically positive toward and might do a significant favor if I saw they needed it, but that doesn’t mean that I really like them and want to hang out socially. It *could* be an overture of friendship, but if I were the friend being helped I’d look for more cues as to whether this was a “hey, I like you and so am going out of my way to be kind” or “This wasn’t too much trouble and I didn’t want to leave another person stranded when I could help out” sort of couch offer.

              3. Product person*

                Just chiming in to entirely agree with Alison. I can seem myself offering to have someone as a guest for one night (and even a full week) if I’m told they have no one to take care of them and they are recovering from a surgery and needed the help. I’d be appalled if the person then felt they are now in a “come over and hang out” friendship with me.

                And the opposite is true: if someone was kind enough to offer to have me for the night after I mentioned I needed help, I’d never assume our work friendship had received an “upgrade” for that reason.

                1. Gov Worker*

                  I would. Having someone as a guest in my home is very personal to me, and I highly value my privacy.

                2. Pixel*

                  I’m trying to think about this from the co-worker’s perspective: “I was in a bind, Jane was kind enough to pick me up after surgery and let me spend the night at her house, and now her attitude toward me is cool. Have I done something to upset her? Was I a rude guest, did I not thank her nicely enough? If I’m super-nice to her, would this make up for what I may have done wrong”?

                  Another thing – it’s tough receiving help, knowing it was a pity invitation. Maybe in Jane’s mind, “if OP is my friend, she must have helped me because she liked me, not because she took pity on me, right? RIGHT?!”. Maybe I over-empathise because I was once the new kid in town, feeling lonely and isolated. We received what must have been several pity invitations, and realizing that this did not mean a friendship is ever going to materialize stung quite a bit.

              4. Not So NewReader*

                Maybe it’s cultural, maybe it’s what her family taught her. Some people believe that if “You bail me out, then we are friends for life”.

                Just as people can be aware that some folks help then leave, people can also be aware that some folks perceive a hand up as something bigger.

                I honestly do not think that setting boundaries is that hard here.

                OP, here’s a thought:

                “Coworker, I know you mean well. I do know that. I have helped a lot of people over the years and, honestly, I do not want anything in return. I really don’t. You don’t have to bring me clothes. We don’t have to do lunch/dinner/whatever. It’s not necessary for you to go through all that. I see you are doing better. I see you at work each day being healthy, instead of being sick, and that is enough for me. I am happy to see people up and running and back to normal. I do not need anything else.”

            2. Elizabeth West*

              Ehhhh I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I’m pretty much in the same boat as the coworker–I live alone, have no close friends or family here I can call (well I have friends and family; but some are not dependable and others work nights).

              Maybe it’s just because I have low expectations of people, but I’d just take it in the spirit it’s given–that the person saw I needed help and helped me.

              1. PlainJane*

                I’m not sure that’s having low expectations but more like reasonable expectations. I’d take it the same way. If I were the helper, I’d probably offer to take the person out for lunch as a thank-you, but if she turned down the invitation, I’d leave it at that. I

            3. Marcela*

              Oh, no. My guests are not vampires, ergo each invitation is valid only for a given date and time. They know they can be banned from my place if they don’t behave. Even if they do behave, they have never expected to be received forever just because they were invited once…

              1. Stellaaaaa*

                It’s less about the guests and more about the comfort level of the host. I would not extend the invitation to someone I didn’t trust and like very well. I’m frankly a little confused that so many people seem to think nothing of inviting work acquaintances to spend the night and possibly helping them with minor maintenance of medical stuff. I would not volunteer to do that for someone I wasn’t already close friends with or someone that I was wanting to become closer to. I just don’t invite acquaintances to spend the night for whatever reason.

                1. MegaMoose, Esq*

                  Yeah, I think people have very different comfort levels with guests. I get that I’m pretty far to one side on this, too. The only people who’ve stayed at my house are the occasional out-of-town immediate family/very close friend type-visitors, and a couple of (again) close friends sleeping it off after a late night.

          2. Gov Worker*

            But feelings would still be hurt whether you pick up on tbe signals or not. I’m with Stellaaa. It’s just not kind to mislead someone like this, needy or not (I don’t think that is the issue at all). Let social services handle situations like the coworker’s, and just don’t get that involved if you really don’t want to change relationship status. OP has issues here too, in my opinion.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Whoa, no, I can’t agree with that! It would be a terrible shame if people didn’t do favors or acts of kindness for people even when they genuinely want to and the other person desperately needs the help, just because it might cause a misunderstanding later (which for most people will be pretty easily cleared up).

              1. Lissa*

                Yeah, I just don’t see the OP’s actions as “misleading”. Yes, they *did* cause confusion here, but that doesn’t mean they always would have. There are a lot of things that can cause this type of misunderstanding, and I really don’t see “letting somebody crash at your place after surgery” is something that is *obviously* going to change the relationship status. I feel like I don’t agree with either conclusion that could come of that — a) the OP did something that 99% of people would consider to be massively leveling up the friendship and is in the wrong objectively or b) nobody should ever do a favor *just in case* that person interprets it that way. And judging by the variety of responses from posters here, I think my impression is borne out that it’s not something universally considered “only a best friend would ever do this.”

        2. Mona Lisa*

          I agree that there are definitely some mixed signals here, but the definition of a “huge favor” obviously varies person-to-person. I’ve let plenty of people I know nominally through grad school or summer programs sleep on my couch or in a guest room when they’ve had auditions or interviews in town so they didn’t have to pay for a hotel room. They do the same for me if I’m travelling through their area. I could easily see that, if the co-worker was commenting about how she needed someone to pick her up/a place to stay the night, the OP might have felt slightly pressured into offering the spare room but that it also wasn’t a huge deal for her. She’s tried to signal it wasn’t a big deal by turning down the thank you dinner, and the co-worker didn’t pick up on that.

          It might be easiest to have a forthright conversation, but I can’t blame her for the ghosting tactics either.

          1. Lissa*

            Totally agree. I disagree the OP did anything wrong by letting the coworker stay. I think it’s a misinterpretation of signals that is going to end in hurt feelings, and that is sad, but I actually don’t see “letting coworker stay in guest room after surgery” as “huge favour that means major friendship upgrade”. I’m not arguing that some people would but I don’t think it’s the objectively correct interpretation — because I don’t think there is one here.

            1. Stellaaaaa*

              I don’t think she was “wrong” to let the coworker stay over. I think OP needs to recognize that she’s letting things drag on and that she’s not tapping into the common societal norm that moving an interaction from work to home (and throw in a medical emergency) invites assumptions of closer friendship. She did someone a favor and won’t let her coworker reciprocate. Just have dinner with her! Who cares, ya know? I think it’s a little odd to resist the dinner so much.

              1. SarahTheEntwife*

                But she doesn’t want to be closer friends. She isn’t letting it drag on; she’s trying to politely scale things back to how they were before and the coworker isn’t picking up on any of the cues. If it was just a matter of the coworker feeling like there was an unpaid social debt going to dinner might make things balanced, but here I don’t see how it would do anything but encourage further unwanted dinner invitations.

                1. Stellaaaaa*

                  I realize that my responses here are getting skewed…I think the unspoken (unwritten) thing I’m trying to get across is that this is a “lesson learned” type of thing. I’ve been in the OP’s shoes before, which is why I’m somewhat confused as to why she didn’t expect her coworker to pursue an extended friendship. I won’t say that she SHOULD have expected the coworker to presume they were friends now, but….I think it’s a little strange that she’s so surprised and that she doesn’t know that it’s okay to say, “Woah, you’re getting intense here.”

                  Even outside of work, it’s completely common to spark up a friendship with someone and then later feel like that person’s friendship isn’t something you want. And yeah, two months is a really common shelf life for this type of fast friendship that ends up trickling out.

                2. PlainJane*

                  This. She’s sending pretty clear signals that she doesn’t want to become close friends without being overtly hurtful.

                3. Stellaaaaa*

                  I would agree with you two months ago. However, it’s clear that this person isn’t getting the hint and I feel it’s a little obtuse to keep lying to this person and then wondering why she’s believing the lies. You can’t keep doing the same thing (saying you’ll go out when you’re less busy) and being confused as to why someone would keep drawing the same conclusions (that you’re telling the truth about wanting to go out). “This person has made it clear that she has boundary/social issues and takes everything I say at face value. So why isn’t she overlooking my verbal statements of invitation-acceptance in favor of my nuanced hints that I don’t intend to follow through?” She doesn’t pick up on cues. OP needs to stop with the cues and move on to words. Lots of people would have picked up on it by now. THIS person has not. From a problem-solving standpoint, the approach needs to change. It’s also maaaaaaybe possible that the coworker knows the OP is lying and is just pressing that bruise. Plus if I my personalize here, I think a few white lies are okay, but continuing to build up a whole other social and work life out of lies (“I’m busy with other friends tonight”; “I’m busy with works”: “Not tonight but next week for sure”) isn’t the way to avoid hurt feelings when the coworker has given every indication that she will not take these lies as a reason to stop asking.

              2. TrainerGirl*

                Who says this is a “common societal norm”? It might be YOUR norm, but not the OP’s. I get it…some people are hugely private, can’t imagine doing this, don’t let anyone but close friends/family/a unicorn stay over at their home, but I don’t think that you can say that this is an automatic level-up on a friendship and can only be interpreted that way. I think that the coworker did, and yes, OP should at this point be more direct, even if it hurts coworker’s feelings, just to not drag it on. I don’t think resisting dinner is odd…I think coworker not picking up any of the hints that OP is dropping is a little odd, but either way, coworker needed not to assume, and OP needs to just be direct so they can both move on.

        3. fposte*

          I think we’re back on the love languages thing, then–several of my best friends are at my workplace, and if any of them sent me two messages in one day about our friendship and my need to respond them (again, this is all going down at work, when I’m supposed to be working), I would be furious, and I would take a big step back from the friendship.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            But these are established friendships, right? At some point you probably let on that you do not appreciate personal interruptions at work. Or perhaps you just silently role modeled that by not taking any personal calls at work.

            It doesn’t sound to me like OP and Coworker have interacted enough to intuitively realize or directly indicate each other’s boundaries.

            I could have missed it, but is the coworker calling OP up at home? If no, that would show some sort of boundary to me because coworker only interacts at work.

            1. fposte*

              Oh, yeah–it’s just that Stellaaa seems to be saying that this kind of answermeANSWERME approach is something her friends *do* do, and my head kind of exploded.

              Good point that she’s not, as far as it sounds, doing it to the OP at home.

              1. Not So NewReader*

                Am laughing. Answerme, answerme. The local newspaper kept calling here to get me to subscribe. The last straw came when a strange man was standing on my front porch at 2 am. I almost had heart failure. I found out later he was giving me a copy of this paper that I DO NOT subscribe to. I guess they were checking on how my surprise mini-subscription went when they called the last time.
                I told them every time they called me to subscribe it would be another FIVE YEARS before I would even THINK about subscribing.
                It’s been about 10 years and they have not called since that last time.
                answerme, answerme: NO. No is an answer. ;)

        4. NonProfit Nancy*

          There’s some excellent advice I saw on a Captain Awkward post about attachment styles that might be at play here too. Some people are more avoidant, some are more anxious. They can apparently arise from childhood. Anxious people seek out reassurance when they feel like the connection might be threatened, while avoidant people are quick to write others off. OP (and I) might be more avoidant while the subject of the letter and some of the commenters seem to be more anxious.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I wouldn’t even say the OP is quick to write others off or is avoidant. She’s just not interested in this level of friendship with this particular person.

            (The attachment stuff is really interesting in general though.)

            1. OP*

              Hi, letter-writer again. So, I think NonProfit Nancy is on to something — I tend to be very avoidant, especially if someone has made me uncomfortable or I feel like I’m being put upon (both apply in this case).

              I ended emailing her about the dress issue, just saying that I’m sorry for not responding early. My work is super busy so I don’t have much time to hang out — and thanks for thinking of me, but I’m purging my closet and can’t take anything new. So far, it seems like that may have done the trick!

              1. Stellaaaaa*

                If that doesn’t do the trick, stop blaming it on being busy with work. Tell her some version of the truth. That’s why she’s not getting the hint.

                1. Pari*

                  Agreed. Cues are basically just clues. Some people will figure them out and some won’t. You have to rely on hoping they figure it out. It’s much more effective just to be clear.

                2. Stellaaaaa*

                  Plus, I gotta wonder about the effectiveness of “I’m busy at work” when they work together. The coworker might be saying, “Ooooh, I noticed that Jane’s desk is finally empty, and she said we’d go out when that happened, so I’m going to ask her now.”

                3. TootsNYC*

                  I don’t know–I’m a fan of ghosting in situations like this.

                  I like leaving the other person, and myself, with “plausible deniability” and saving face.

                  I’d rather have them say, eventually, “Oh, we’re not that close,” than have to say directly, “I don’t want to be a close with you as you want.”

                  I might go with the, “I feel like you’re placing too much emphasis on the overnight stay. It’s the kind of help I’d give to anyone I know who truly needed it. You don’t need to do anything in response or feel obligated.” And hope the “and be a better friend” message would be behind it.

                  I’d say things like, “I’m pretty busy with my friends after work lately, so I can’t go for a drink. Maybe we can get lunch next week, after my big deadline?” Idea being: “my friends” does not include you, but lunch during work hours is a friendly but limited overture.

                  Only if it truly became a problem after a LONG time would I say, “I was happy with the friendship where we went for drinks every couple of months–can we go back to that?”

                4. Stellaaaaa*

                  The problem with ghosting is that, well, it only works when it works. When you decide to avoid someone without telling them why, you can’t really act like they should still somehow be gleaning this information: you have deliberately made the decision to not give it to them.

                  This is all fine and good if the other person picks up on it, but if they don’t get it and then want the information that you are knowingly withholding, I think you need to tell them. The whole point is that they’re NEVER going to get it.

                5. Stellaaaaa*

                  And also, don’t say “let’s get lunch next week” if you don’t want to! That’s where all of this trouble is coming from.

                6. Elizabeth West*

                  I might go with the, “I feel like you’re placing too much emphasis on the overnight stay. It’s the kind of help I’d give to anyone I know who truly needed it. You don’t need to do anything in response or feel obligated.” And hope the “and be a better friend” message would be behind it.

                  I really like this wording. It did occur to me that the coworker might be feeling some kind of obligation and the repeated friendship overtures were her way of awkwardly trying to return the favor. This acknowledges the coworker’s assumed gratitude and at the same time sets the tone of “I would do this for anyone; we’re not bffs,” without overtly saying it.

                7. Not So NewReader*

                  Stellaaaaa, you have made some really good comments though out this question.

                  OP, she’s right. Stop hinting and start explaining if this problem continues. If we try a hint a couple of times and it does not work we have to switch to directness.

                  We were talking about spoons in a previous post. I have felt that I have a finite amount of energy and that is my allotment for the day. Something like this would cause me to tire out quicker than usual.
                  Of the choices of
                  a) allow the situation to go on and on, so I can keep walking on eggshells or
                  b) go talk to the coworker and get things squared away,

                  I would eventually HAVE to chose b, because it would be less tiring to confront the situation than it would be to continue to avoid the situation.

                  Basically, I can see that you mean no harm. But by avoiding her you could be hurting her feelings. Her life experience could be such that only close friends do what you did. She thought you were a close friend. The longer this goes on the more hurtful it can get.

                  I am flashing back to a point in my life where someone was saying,”Didn’t you get the HINT???!!” No, I didn’t. I was pretty frustrated with that person’s demand that I mind read. At some point, hinting turns cruel, OP. I am not sure where that point is, but I do know it does exist. While your message might be hard to listen to, it is fair. It’s fair for you to say, “hey, not interested in being besties.” You have the right to turn down a gesture for friendship.

                  I have never been big on “hints” and this is the reason why right here. Things drag on and on and people can get really hurt.

              2. Gov Worker*

                I find your situation interesting. I am very private and few people get invited to my home. No way I would have offered to nurse a recovering coworker after surgery if we were not the best of friends. It seems that having dinner is a small thing after they have laid in one of your beds.

                So, I get the coworker’s interpretation of your actions, even though with you, her interpretation is wrong.

                There will be hurt feelings. Explain to her that you were almost acting like a social worker, not a friend, when you helped her, and that you did not form a greater attachment to her because of it.

                FWIW, I don’t think the coworker is entirely at fault here or is just a clingy psychological mess. OP, I would check myself before doing big favors for people that you do not want to bond to you or show gratitude.

          2. aeldest*

            I always find Attachment styles really interesting because I feel like I’m a weird mix of anxious and avoidant. I’m avoidant in terms of the actions people take towards me (I get easily annoyed by people I perceive as needy, etc), and so while my first instincts in my own actions towards people are always on the anxious side of things (reaching out constantly, acting “needy”), I consciously draw back and act avoidant towards them as well–probably overcorrecting to an extent, unfortunately, too.

          3. Emma*

            Interesting. I’d fall pretty squarely into what they call dismissive/avoidant, and their description of an anxious-type person gives me the heebie-jeebies.

        5. Emma*

          Bluntly, though, it’s not the OP’s job to manage the other woman’s anxiety – though I do agree being direct would be kind, since the woman isn’t taking the hint. Also, if you pestered me asking “what’s wrong?” after a normal interaction, I would tone any friendship way down. That to me is excessive neediness, and I find it incredibly offputting.

    2. pussycats and toast*

      Honestly, the stand-out for me was less the offer, and more the fact that the co-worker had no one else in her life willing or able to pick her up or stay with her after. I don’t think it’s that out of the norm for OP to offer, but that little detail kind of made me wonder if the co-worker isn’t glomming onto a new friend out of loneliness, desperation, or a skewed sense of what constitutes an act of friendship.

      Not to say that the OP needs to feel any guilt, and I do think the co-worker has gone a little overboard in her assumption of friendship. Honestly, if someone had done me this great favour and then repeatedly refused to let me take them to dinner or treat them, I would take that as a sign not to push for their company.

      1. Bend & Snap*

        I have nobody to pick me up from surgery. Divorced and living in a new area far away from family will do that.

        I don’t think it’s fair to characterize the coworker as desperate. She’s just not on the same page as the OP, and that’s okay–or it will be once she understands.

        1. pussycats and toast*

          Sorry, you’re right, that’s a strong word. Just that detail read to me that the co-worker might not have any close relationships in her life and jumped on what she perceived as a new friend with extra gusto.

          1. Stellaaaaa*

            It’s a weird quirk of medicine in general, the whole “someone has to pick you up and stay with you overnight” thing. You don’t have to be a lonely or friendless person to struggle to come up with someone whose life situation and job would allow them to dedicate that much time and energy to one person. I’m assuming that you couldn’t just say, “Okay, you can sleep on the couch and when you get up I’ll have already left for work. Here’s the number for the local taxi service and make sure to lock up on your way out!” I’m guessing that this is why the coworker read so much friendship-intimacy into OP’s offer, since it’s something that a lot of people can’t reasonably offer. I’m an adult with a fair amount of close friends and I’d only feel comfortable asking my mom to do something like that for me.

            1. Gov Worker*

              I agree so much with this. A truly avoidant person wouldn’t want just am acquaintance sleeping in their spare room, would they?

  8. That Would Be a Good Band Name*

    I volunteered to do this for her, and to let her recover in my guest room for one night after the procedure.

    This seems way past casual work friends to me. If someone that I was willing to become closer friends with offered this, I’d definitely take it as the friendship had moved to a much higher level. I’m sure she’s on the other side of this baffled as to why someone would offer to do something that seems (almost) intimate and is now ducking calls, emails, texts and didn’t even want to do a simple thank you dinner. Not that you have to become her best friend now, but this doesn’t seem like it just came out of left field to me.

    1. NonProfit Nancy*

      It’s fascinating reading the comments how people have very different reads on how intimate having someone over after surgery is. Some people are saying this is the kind of thing they would offer to anyone in need, while others interpret this as a major gesture (it would be for me, I admit). The range of responses probably also reflects the conflict between OP and their coworker, if OP thinks this is not a huge deal and the coworker thinks only someone seeking true friendship would make this offer.

      1. MegaMoose, Esq*

        The first thing that jumped to mind is that this might have something of an introvert/extrovert element to it. I once lived with a close friend who had an almost open door policy when it came to letting people sleep on our couch. We finally had to have a serious talk about it, because it caused me immense anxiety to think about strange people in my home. I have a spare bedroom now and have occasionally let close friends or family stay, but it’s still someone invading my space. Honestly, if I had a coworker in a situation like the OPs, I would pay for a hotel room and stay there with them (or stay at their house, of course) rather than invite them to stay with me.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          This! I am more introverted so for me to invite someone here would take a bit more than “I know you from work.”

          However, I have friend who is as close to pure extrovert as they make ’em. He has well over 1000 friends on FB and any one of those friends could stay at his house on the spur of the moment.

          Differences in people.

      2. PK*

        Yea, it is interesting to see all the different ways that folk interpret it. Personally, my home is my sanctuary and that’s what my opinion of this issue hinges on. I’d be hard pressed to invite anyone into my home for a sleepover unless we were good friends. Therefore, if someone invited me into their home overnight, I’d likely view it as a gesture of friendship in return.

        1. ThursdaysGeek*

          And my spouse has invited total strangers to spend the night at our house, after finding them stranded at the side of the road and offering them car help.

        2. Emma*

          Yeah. I will feed you (I love to make food for people), I will help you get to your place, I will happily hand you cash or buy you clothes or whatever, hell, I’ll come over to your place and help you with your repairs or whatnot. But I won’t take care of you or your pets, and if you tried to crash at my house I’d be doing my best impression of an angry cat.

      3. SarahTheEntwife*

        If anything I think I might pull back a little after that kind of favor until I saw how the other person felt, because it’s putting us on a much more intimate footing and yet wasn’t a situation that was entirely optional — they might just feel really awkward about having to ask that of someone they weren’t really friends with and want to go back to the occasional lunchtime coffee and politely pretend the sleepover hadn’t happened.

      4. Myrin*

        Right? The comments have made me very interested in myself right now and I’m finding that I’m of two minds even within my own person! I’ve realised that if I was the un-surgery-ed person, I wouldn’t offer to have someone use my bedroom unless I was already friends or open to the possibility of being friends (maybe; not sure about that last one), however, if I was the surgery-ed person, I’d have no problem staying with someone I like reasonably well and I wouldn’t view it as an offer of friendship on their side and wouldn’t try to pursuit it any further. Hmm.

      5. TootsNYC*

        I would stay with someone else, but I wouldn’t necessarily offer to have them over at my place. Even if it was less comfortable for me. There’s something about the optics of having them in my home. Hospitality is a gift. Even if my hospitality is more luxurious.

      6. PlainJane*

        It really is fascinating, and I’m learning something from this conversation. I’m an introvert and usually a pretty private person, but I’ve let near-strangers crash on my couch (not frequently) when they’re in a tough spot. I did it out of kindness and concern for their safety, not as an attempt to encourage friendship. The idea that helping someone translates to an expectation of friendship bugs me. I’m a big believer in helping people and not being hurtful, and I hate it when I’m put in a situation where I have to be hurtful to get someone to leave me alone.

        1. Karanda Baywood*

          I’m with you. The OP helped out a work friend. The work friend now wants to be a “real” friend, and can’t see where the boundaries are.

        2. TootsNYC*

          I think the “danger” is far lower with a total stranger than with a “moderate” friend. That medium closeness might leave room for someone to think that there’s a greater emotion behind it.

        3. Moonsaults*

          This is how I am as well. I’m all about helping whenever possible, including long unplanned trips to help someone out have been offered multiple times before. However that doesn’t mean we’re bosom buddies by any means, it just means that I don’t dislike a person and have at least a level of trust in them to not steal my things or hurt me in my sleep, etc.

      7. Emma*

        Yeah. And honestly, I wouldn’t even have offered, because one of my less lovely personality quirks is I can’t stand being in a caretaker-type role, even for a night, even when I know it’s probably nothing major. I mean, I would grit my teeth and do it for, like, my mother, or my best friend, but I’d be hiding in my own bathroom half the time.

        I would’ve been pretty taken aback to have been asked, to be honest.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          I think it’s fine to say no. They’d probably have to check her in overnight at the hospital if there was no one to keep an eye on her. I know that I have been told directly that the only reason I was not staying overnight in the hospital was because I was going into another home with family. If I did not have that home, I would have been admitted.

          Added complexity, I will take on certain medical situations and other situations I will not deal with. So my reason for saying no varies with the medical issue at hand, too.

  9. Caroline*

    I agree that the direct approach is probably best for both of you. She sounds incredibly lonely and like she’s grasping onto you as her first proper friend in a long time. I actually really feel for her, loneliness can be absolutely soul destroying, but it isn’t your responsibility to fix.

    I think being kind but honest is best, if only to avoid the possibility of you getting increasing frustrated and eventually blowing up at her. (Not saying that you’d do this OP, only that I might end up doing so in a similar situation.) And that would probably hurt her far more in the long run.

    1. NonProfit Nancy*

      Agree, it’s possible after having this surgery and realizing there was no one else in her life to ask, she has resolved to Make New Friends! Starting with YOU! Sadly, you do not want to be closer friends and there’s no way around this without bruising her feelings a little. But it has to be done, so she can go Make Other Friends!

  10. Caroline*

    If I find myself in this situation, I find that putting some structure into your friendship helps the friend know what to expect from you. For example:

    “Want to do a happy hour today?”

    Instead of just “Sorry, have to work late today!” say, “Sorry, I can’t do it today. How about next week? (Or some other date in the future you’d be be happy to meet her). That signals “Hey, I do still want to do the occasional thing with you, I’m making plans myself!” but gives you from the current moment until that date to be excused from happy hour obligations.

    Same with interactions at work. If she texts you about something, you can say “I’m super busy right now. I’ll stop by your desk at the end of the day to say hi, though!” Communicating whatever frequency you feel like you want to interact with her in that way may help her manage her own expectations while at the same time getting out of a pattern of her always bugging you and you always putting her off.

    1. EddieSherbert*

      I really like this approach (assuming OP is still okay with hanging out with her coworker occasionally).

      Even if it’s “Sorry, my work schedule is crazy right now, but do you want to grab lunch with me two Fridays from now?”, I think it manages to give you some space and reassure her that she didn’t do anything “wrong” (which she seems to need).

      1. TootsNYC*

        And the size of the time gap, and the type of interaction you offer (quick lunch at work vs drinks in your relaxing evening time) send cues as well.

    2. Mona Lisa*

      That’s such a great idea because it allows the OP to structure in when and where she talks to the co-worker! Co-worker still gets some level of contact so she knows the OP isn’t mad, but OP gets more control over the situation.

    3. MegaMoose, Esq*

      This sounds like an excellent thing to try, assuming of course that you’d prefer to maintain some level of friendship with this person.

    4. HannahS*

      Yeah, this is actually a really great way to ease in a boundary, I’ve found. It feels bad to say “no” all the time, and it can get frustrating, too, when the other person seems pushy. I’ve found that a, “I’m super busy, but why don’t we schedule a dinner for week after next’ to be a nice way of taking charge of an interaction. I get what I want–peace and quiet–and they get a reassurance that I want to see them, just not RIGHT NOW.

    5. Meg Murry*

      Yes, I agree that if OP is willing to still socialize with this person as a work friend, setting a concrete date for the next time they can go do something together is probably the most polite way to handle this. FYI, this also works well for in-laws and parents – my MIL will constantly invite us to do things or suggest she stop by, but if we have a set next event with her with a date and time picked it makes life much easier.

      If OP really isn’t into hanging out with this person, could she at least suggest the next industry event, or a lunch or afternoon coffee break? So she could say “I’m not really doing happy hour much right now, but are you going to the Society of Teapot Engineers meeting next week? Maybe we could catch up then?” Or invite her to join OP when their department is next doing happy hour, etc?

  11. Merida May*

    I’ve had some experiences with people who go from zero to a hundred in the friendship zone, one particularly memorable occurrence being with a co-worker I met during an internship. It went from casual happy hours to her locking me in her apartment so I could listen to her sing over an entire Beyoncé concert, and I had to listen to her entire, uninterrupted performance before I was allowed to leave. The slow, consistent fade out worked for me in that situation, but it was definitely at the cost of whatever friendship we’d had at the beginning of the relationship. I’d love to know if there is anyone who was able to successfully de-escalate a friendship, because in my experience people who get really intense quickly will either want to ramp up or completely cut ties.

    1. Kelly L.*

      Oh wow!

      Did she also drop a couple grand to have a gigantic portrait painted of the two of you? ;)

    2. Myrin*

      She locked you in her apartment?!?! :OOO
      I am honestly surprised that a fade out worked with this person, because that sounds super scary and beyond needy, really.

      1. LD*

        The fade out sounds like the safest way to manage at that point, vs. the scary possibility of cutting off contact and having the person escalate. Because normal behavior and expectations of friendship do not include locking your friend in your apartment!

      2. Merida May*

        It didn’t hurt that soon after she wound up getting a job in another department so I eventually stopped seeing her all together, but I was also pretty surprised that it worked at the time!

    3. Emma*

      I am not even joking, I’d’ve busted a window. Being locked in someplace is one of my biggest fears.

  12. Darkitect*

    Perhaps this is a lot to ask, but it would be kind of the OP to continue some form of social interaction with her coworker. Clearly, the lady has few, if any, family or friends. I would guess she is both introverted AND shy. (The double-whammy.) Maybe something like a book club, where she could be introduced to other people in a small group with OP as her wing(wo)man. OP could limit her interactions to those occasions, while coworker would still have a social activity and an opportunity to make new friends.

    1. Stellaaaaa*

      Yep, when I make friendly gestures toward someone who clearly is a bit lonely (this woman is 10 years older than the OP and apparently single – it’s not uncommon to find yourself without friends and family once you reach a certain age) I keep it in mind that I’m setting myself up to potentially be on the hook for future outings or conversations. It means that I’m occasionally short with people that I don’t want to nurture friendships with, but it also saves me from prolonged interactions with people I dislike for whatever reason.

      1. TootsNYC*

        This reminds me of how, in Victorian England–ish days, men had to be REALLY careful about how friendly they were with young women, because there was such a “hunt” for husbands.

        1. YaH*

          Or, how in modern days, women have to be really careful about how friendly they are with men because of how dangerous it can be.

          1. TootsNYC*

            That danger was there in the past as well. But part of the danger comes when people have different standards for “what is low-level.”

    2. Temperance*

      I think that’s really a lot to ask for a casual work friend that she isn’t even interested in being really casual friends with. I wouldn’t feel comfortable with this, as it would just further encourage the relationship and keep LW elevated as a BFF in this woman’s mind.

    3. BettyD*

      Enh, I get the impulse, but it’s not really on the OP to be this coworker’s social cruise director. It’s one of those issues of putting way too much emotional labor on women in the name of “nice” to me.

    4. neverjaunty*

      Yes, it is a lot to ask. The co-worker is not a child needing guidance; she’s a work acquaintance who the OP wants some distance from and owes nothing.

      1. Gov Worker*

        Hopefully, coworker will see this as a life lesson that not everyone who is nice to her wants to be her BFF, and she will more thoughtfully consider her attachments. Or, maybe she won’t meet many more people who send out mixed signals like the OP did. Hopefully, the OP will be more mindful of how her actions may be interpreted. Good can come out of this. The OP may not owe the coworker anything, but to me that is a bit harsh. The same kind instinct that led the OP to help in the first place doesn’t have to abruptly end. Kindness, people.

    5. ZVA*

      Yeah, I think this is way too much to ask. I’m an introvert, I used to be super shy, and never in my life would I have wanted someone to do something like this for me! The coworker is an adult and deserves to be treated as such—which to me means trusting her to handle her social life herself, no matter how challenging that might be.

      (There’s also no indication from the letter that she’s an introvert/shy, so far as I can tell?)

      1. cataloger*

        Yeah, I would be mortified if somebody invited me to a random book club because they were trying to wipe me off there onto other people.

    6. Emma*

      Oh god no. The other woman’s feelings and friendships are not the OP’s responsibility, and the OP wants to deescalate her friendship with this woman, not enmesh herself even more.

    7. Not So NewReader*

      I don’t even read this much into the situation. I think that Coworker thought OP was a close friend and OP disagrees. OP needs to just say, “sorry, not interested” and most of this will clear up.

      The reason I am not attaching a lot of significance to the behaviors is because Coworker was not like this before the surgery. I think it is just a big misread on the part of the coworker.

  13. Mona Lisa*

    I thought you were talking about my co-worker for a minute! I, too, have a ten years older co-worker with whom I tried to be friendly (chit-chat, lunch every month or two, etc.), and she immediately took that as a sign to start telling me really intimate details of her marriage and home life with which I wasn’t comfortable. I’ve essentially implemented Alison’s first strategy, which was the advice I got from several commenters here on open threads.

    Anytime my co-worker engages in conversation, I end up re-directing back to work after a few minutes of pleasantries. I try to shut down a lot of lines of discussion by not even engaging or pretending I can’t hear because I have headphones on. (Spoiler: I actually can’t concentrate with music so I pretend to have some on.) I make non-committal responses to invitations for lunch or suggestions that we should go on walks together during the work day. This shut-down on my end has probably led to a lower level of friendliness than I would have initially wanted, but my co-worker keeps proving herself incapable of staying within boundaries when I try to relax them a little. (I tried asking about her weekend last week and got a 15 minute blow-by-blow of the entire two days.)

    If you want to dial this back without the awkward conversation, you’re going to have to slowly “ghost” on her and keep her at arm’s length. Decide what your boundaries are and keep enforcing them, and eventually she’ll understand what is and isn’t acceptable. Or she’ll just give up, which it doesn’t sound like you would mind.

  14. Collie*

    I’m wondering if OP declining the thank you dinner is what’s setting this off. OP, you’re of course not obligated to accept a thank you dinner/coffee/whatever, but I get the sense that thank you might be something really important to Coworker, hence the behavior. If it were me, and I truly didn’t have time for a full thank you dinner, I might go with, “Oh, you really don’t have to, I was happy to do it. [Coworker protests.] Well, I can’t do dinner, but I’m always up for a quick coffee! How’s [day and time that works best]?” I see a lot of people saying Coworker is misinterpreting, and I think that might be part of it, too, but I also really believe Coworker just really wants to thank you in the way she sees as most proper.

    1. NonProfit Nancy*

      That’s true, I suppose she might be feeling really imbalanced now knowing that she owes someone a huge favor and they won’t let her pay it back. However, if I were OP I might suggest a way to “pay it forward” rather than seeming to encourage further closeness since she’s pretty clear that she doesn’t want to increase her intimacy with this coworker.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        This is a good idea. When I moved to Santa Cruz and was looking for a place to live, I found a great house with these super awesome women, but the realty company was asking more than I could afford for rent. We were all disappointed, but there was nothing to be done.

        They let me stay there for a couple of weeks without charging me a dime and told me not to worry about ever paying them back, just do something for someone else when I could. I never forgot that, and I’ve since done it a couple of times when helping someone out.

    2. Mae*

      Yeah, regarding the dinner, the coworker probably misinterpreted the “It’s not necessary” RSVP as frigid behavior and rejection. Not saying that was your intent, but that probably started the domino effect that led up to the, “Is everything ok?” I personally would have agreed to do dinner- that’s not really outside any norms. I think she knows she has insecurity issues and also maybe feels embarrassed. I have been on both ends of the spectrum.

  15. Grits McGee*

    Urgh, trying to re-establish a lower level of friendship with a coworker is the worst. I was in a similar situation when I was younger– a coworker I had hung out with a few times discovered that we shared a medical diagnosis and (probably unconsciously) tried to force a verrrry close friendship/on-call therapist relationship in the course of a couple of weeks. Unfortunately, she didn’t interpret my declining her invitations to have lunch and dinner together every day (oh yeah, she also lived two doors down from me) and hang out 8+ hrs every weekend as a sign that I needed space.

    Say something ASAP and see if you can re-set the boundaries of your relationship. With my coworker, I was focused on studying for the GRE and applying to grad schools, and I let it go on to the point where I just didn’t want anything to do with her at all and ghosted on her (while we worked in the same small office, and lived in the same building in a very small town). I got very good at sneaking around, but 0/10, would not recommend.

    1. NonProfit Nancy*

      This is hard – but I also think people should also notice when their attempt to take a friendship “up a level” are not being reciprocated! If you make more than one offer of an opportunity to hang out, and they refuse without suggesting alternatives, that is a soft no! Let it go! However yes we don’t live in that world where people pick up social cues so sometimes you have to be more direct even though it results in hurt feelings.

      1. Job Hopper Extraordinaire*

        This entire thread is so interesting to me, because I just don’t pick up on these cues AT ALL. I’d never heard of ghosting until reading this blog (although I’m in the UK, maybe it’s a specifically American term). I’d never heard of a soft or a hard no in social situations. Tbh, all of this to me sounds so – the only word I can think of is manipulative (but then again, I’m the kind of person who feels that all social interaction is to some degree manipulation). The idea that you’d put that much thought into how you come across to other people is really … unusual to me. I try to be kind, I try to be diplomatic, I try not to hurt other people’s feelings if I don’t have to – but I don’t have strategies for how to deal with people. Either I’m incredibly lucky, or incredibly simplistic – or I just blunder through life totally oblivious (up to now!). I often suspect it’s the latter. Sounds like Co-Worker is like me, oblivious. If it were me, I’d appreciate the direct approach.

        1. Stellaaaaa*

          Ghosting is much more common in dating, where (typically) the man tells the woman he’ll call and then doesn’t do it. He then ignores the woman when she tries to call or text, and no matter how reasonable or calm she is (and even if she only texts once), the man then proceeds to call her a crazy woman. So he can lie to her about his intentions and she’s the crazy one for believing it and wondering why he hasn’t called. Some women handle this more gracefully than others, but it’s somewhat ingrained in progressive circles that the man is on the hook for having not told the truth.

          That’s why I’m a bit appalled that so many people here are advocating that a woman treat another woman that way. “Tell her you’ll have dinner next week but don’t go, and then continue to think she’s needy a week later when she wonders why the dinner you committed to isn’t happening.” I’m a bit of a stickler for honesty when it comes to this stuff, and given the amount of people in the open posts who note that it hurts them when their friends do stuff like this, I don’t understand the cognitive dissonance here.

  16. Cat steals keyboard*

    You may hurt her feelings but what about yours? Be gentle, but also mindful that having someone step over your boundaries isn’t nothing.

    Captain Awkward would be a good read for you I think OP.

    1. fposte*

      The other thing is that she’s already hurt–she’s unhappy and anxious about the OP’s responses and lack thereof. Keeping things as they are doesn’t avoid hurt.

  17. Volunteer Enforcer*

    After reading this post, I recognise myself as being somewhat like the woman the OP describes. With a male colleague, who is the head of the department I used to work in, if I see him unexpectedly, I feel a whole cocktail of emotions and overthink even going to say hi. If I don’t see him when I was expecting to, I feel really miserable. However, I’m fine if I see him or not when I’m expecting to. I’m trying to reframe my expectations and feelings, but is there anything else anyone would recommend? Thanks in advance.

    1. Anon 12*

      So you have a sort of a crush on him? This too shall pass. Your awareness is key and just have ready a scripted getting or response so you don’t blurt or do something physically awkward (creepy hug) that will haunt you. Maybe talking to somebody would help. Does your company have an EAP?

    2. Lissa*

      I’d look at where it’s coming from — is it a crush/infatuation, or was he maybe really friendly to you for awhile and then stopped suddenly? Aspirational where you want to be like him? I think if it’s a garden-variety crush it’ll probably dissipate on it’s own in time, if it was a broken friendship that might take longer. I can’t tell from your post if you guys have much contact in or outside of work and I think that would play into it too.

    3. NonProfit Nancy*

      Ok this is probably totally off base – but someone once told me that when you experience very strong feelings for someone, especially if it’s somewhat inexplicable, it may be because there’s something about them that you want *for yourself.* Your results may vary, but this resonated so strongly for me – I didn’t always want to date or be friends with people I was drawn to, I wanted to be them. It made it easier for me to realize that I should focus on being more artistic / more of a leader / more outdoorsy / whatever myself, and stop making it about the other person.

      1. Ellie H.*

        Same!!! This is so true. Also the principle of mimetic desire. This happens to me all the time in real life and I was so interested in reading and writing about it in the literary theory context when I was in grad school. So many applications.

        1. Volunteer Enforcer*

          Thank you for the great advice. I think I am overthinking and a scripted greeting will do fine. As for the relationship, Nonprofit Nancy’s point hits home as I am jealous of friendships he has. I am getting counselling about this, alongside depression and anxiety. To describe the relationship in more detail: I used to have a romantic type crush on him, now it is more like a casual friends crush as I really enjoy his company, but nothing further than that. The work context is that he was originally my direct line manager when I started as a volunteer, then he was promoted to department head. Now I am in a different job (different department, same organisation) and work in the same building though not the same room, so I still bump into him. Also, I recently joined a local gym and his gym schedule sometimes overlaps mine. I do want to be like him in some ways. He is just as friendly as when I worked in the same department, I just suppose the number of interactions has decreased.

      2. Elizabeth West*

        I wonder if this applies to people you’re repelled by as well and can’t figure out why.

        There’s someone here I don’t know and haven’t really talked to, but whenever I see her, I’m kind of like, “Errrghhhh.” I finally figured out that she always looks very confident and that I wish I were like that.

        1. Nonprofit Nancy*

          Ha, I feel like it could be the inverse of that too – when I dislike someone, it’s often because they remind me of something I don’t like about myself! Especially if it’s something I’ve worked hard to change, and then I see them leaning into it – instant frustration!

    4. Not So NewReader*

      This is more of a general thought. People like this remind us that something is missing in our lives.

      Life is a movie not a snapshot. This guy is a snapshot. Whatever he represents to you, only you know for sure. When you are thinking of him, what are you AVOIDING thoughts about?That could be your telltale right there. Think about the movie that is your life, what is right what is wrong and what would you like to change.

      Sometimes the answer is as simple as, “He is a vacation from my own reality.” Beef up what is going on in your life, see where that puts you.

  18. Jaguar*

    It’s worth pointing out, since I don’t see it here, that, “I want to be friends with you at a level lower than you want” is a rejection. People have wildly different ability to deal with that sort of rejection. I think you realize this, OP, given that you have been hesitant to have the boundaries conversation. But if you do value the friendship with this person, I think it’s important to point out that there is a serious, permanent risk with the boundaries conversation.

    1. neverjaunty*

      There is, but the risk of not having a boundaries conversation is much worse. It’s very important to realize in tough social situations that there is a cost to doing nothing as well as a cost to doing something – framing it as “bad things might happen if you enforce a boundary” puts a thumb on the scales.

      1. fposte*

        I agree that nothing is the worst situation, because it means neither the OP nor the coworker are getting what they want. And rejection is okay! We all get rejected and we all reject, all the time; none of us can embrace everything.

        I do think there are more possibilities than nothing or a boundaries conversation–a good solid ghosting, the “post surgical anxiety” angle that animaniactoo mentions, etc. But right now the co-worker is being fed just enough to keep her going; she needs to be talked to about a change or starved out.

      2. Jaguar*

        Well, I was responding to the idea that the boundaries conversation was the best option idea that’s floating around in the comments. I don’t agree with that. I didn’t mean to put a thumb on the scales, as you say (and don’t believe I did). I didn’t think giving even consideration to not addressing the situation was necessary since that’s what OP is already doing and the consequences of that caused OP to write in – I assume OP is aware.

        I’ve been in situations where someone was more interested in being friends than I was (I imagine most of us have). I’ve always been able to reset boundaries without explicitly explaining them. There’s a period of uncomfortability, but that’s what life with other people is like some of the time. My advice, OP, is continue having the level of friendship you want with the person and let them readjust to that level. If it doesn’t work for them (because they want more or because they feel hurt and want nothing at all), then that’s their choice.

        1. neverjaunty*

          Resetting boundaries without explicitly explaining them is still a rejection. And, as the OP noted, her efforts to make it a ‘soft’ rejection have not worked: “I’ve been distancing myself from her but she doesn’t seem to get the picture.”

          1. Jaguar*

            There’s another possibility here (and given my own experiences with this, I think it’s actually the more likely explanation): the OP’s co-worker is getting the message and it’s out of whack with what they thought the friendship was (this also better explains the “are you okay?” stuff) and is potentially ignoring them. In that case, just continuing to decline will eventually work – it’s extremely rare that people continue on this fruitlessly – and I think OP has a much better chance at maintaining the friendship they have with the coworker in the long run.

        2. Stellaaaaa*

          “I’ve always been able to reset boundaries without explicitly explaining them.”

          OP isn’t able to do that because this person doesn’t have the ingrained ability to pick up on social cues, at least not in this instance. There are a million diagnosable, situational, and socialized reasons for why “This is how people should interpret my subtle non-verbal cues” can’t always be the only option. It can be the first option, but when it doesn’t work, you can’t keep resisting the need to try something else.

          1. Jaguar*

            As I mentioned above, I don’t believe it’s proven that the co-worker lacks the ability to pick up on clues. The “are you okay?” stuff is evidence that she does have the ability and what she’s picking up match with the friendship she thought existed.

            1. Stellaaaaa*

              She’s not picking up on what the OP wants though. I simply don’t see how feeding her the same vague assurances will ever produce different results.

            2. Jaguar*

              Anyway, the point of what I’m trying to say is that having a serious conversation with someone about laying off is really intense and is hard for a lot of people to hear and I don’t think that’s factored in when people give that advice. I also don’t think the “you have to nip this in the bud before it gets out of control” is at all correct – there’s a risk that the coworker will go Single White Female or feel hurt anyway by the tacit rejection, but there’s also a very realistic conclusion where things go back to normal.

              1. Stellaaaaa*

                I agree and disagree here. There was an initial misunderstanding, which is a neutral “whatever” thing. I think right now there’s this hurdle of “I want what I want, but I also don’t want this unreasonable and clueless person to be mad at me.” I get that no one wants to cause awkwardness at work, but bending over backwards to accommodate the extreme reactions of an unreasonable person isn’t the right long-term move here. If OP is sure that she doesn’t mind losing this person’s friendship, I don’t think it’s wrong to tell the truth and let the pieces fall where they may. If I do something logical, calm, and reasonable, it’s never my fault if someone goes off the deep end over it, you know? If this coworker responds by doing something weird or intense, that’s on her. As of now, all she’s doing is saying, “Hey wanna get lunch next week?” because the OP has yet to give a hard NO.

                As for the “realistic conclusion where things go back to normal”…that’s not realistic anymore. Part of being an adult is accepting that you can’t always do what you want and expect other people to never get mad at you….but you also don’t have to care if those people get mad at you. Let her get mad.

              2. animaniactoo*

                The thing is, this “giving the message by not giving the message” thing? Doesn’t REALLY work all that well.

                The other person goes through a period of confusion and hurt before they sort out for themselves that they’ve been rejected. For many people that’s actually colder when they’ve put themselves out there than a brief as kind as possible “Sorry, I’m not up for that.” kind of explanation that focuses on what one is able to do vs any flaws in the other person.

                And it’s this kind of trying to “soften the message” by giving it via clues that leads people – particularly women – into situations where they’ve thought they’ve been very clear that they’re not into someone, only to have that someone become increasingly pushy and then blow up at them or try to stick a tongue down their throat as “the next move” because they’ve been able to “imagine” all these interactions for lack of a clear-cut message that says in no uncertain verbal terms “No, I’m not interested in that with you.”

                Giving the message can hurt in the moment – but in the long run it tends to hurt a hell of a lot less, and it’s a lot quicker to get over than the 2 months (or more) somebody spent trying to figure out why someone keeps turning down their lunch invitations.

              3. animaniactoo*

                And also to say the likelihood that someone will go all SWF is a lot slimmer than the likelihood that people will just get the message, recalibrate, and move on.

  19. Anon 12*

    I feel sorry for the co-worker who obviously needs friends (remember there was nobody to pick her up after surgery other than a lightweight work friend) and has issues with social cues. On the flip side, OP is not her social worker or therapist. Setting boundaries in a respectful ‘it’s not you it’s me way” is the only way to go and there’s not really a way around her possibly being hurt by it. The longer it goes on, though, the worse it’ll be so best to get on with it.

    1. NonProfit Nancy*

      Sometimes you can use “I’m too busy to give you what you’re looking for” as a it’s-not-you-but-also-no … but a determined clinger can overlook that and just hear, “when I am less busy I want to hang out with you, so definitely keep checking in!”

    2. neverjaunty*

      If the co-worker has issues with social cues, it is MUCH kinder for the OP to be explicit about boundaries than to leave her to try and guess what the OP wants.

      1. NonProfit Nancy*

        Is it though? I’m not criticizing, I’m genuinely asking. Personally I would much prefer to “save face” by realizing the other person did not want to hang out with me after they awkwardly decline a couple invites in a row, rather than be sat down and friend-broken-up with. However, I’m not one to miss small cues – if anything, I overthink them – and it’s possible if someone is socially struggling they may prefer the clarity.

        This is kind of like the “would you rather be broken up with by text, ghosted, or broken up with in person” conversation. There’s not a great way to do it when the news is bad, but I would rather not do it face to face when my reactions are less controlled. Other people are adamant that the ONLY way to do it is face to face.

        1. Stellaaaaa*

          It depends on whether you have the wherewithal to keep wasting time with gentle lies or if you just want to solve the problem.

          1. NonProfit Nancy*

            I suppose it’s also the outcome you’re looking for. Presumably OP has to keep working with this person and needs them to come away feeling okay about the relationship. Being too blunt could mean the two are irreconcilable, thus creating ongoing awkwardness at work.

            1. Stellaaaaa*

              It’s the two personalities that come into play. In my own life, I’ve sometimes placated pleasant yet needy people by having dinner or a drink with them. I’m free that night, I enjoy going to new restaurants, so what’s the harm? Being out and appearing to have a good time is a great way to strike up friendships with other people and potential romantic partners too, so I never say no to something like that, even if I’m aware that I have to manage the needy person a little bit. It can even be the entryway to stamping out a once-a-month schedule. Sometimes I’m even the one who’s temporarily lacking for stuff to do so it helps me as well.

              On the other side of things, if OP has come around to possibly actively disliking this person, I don’t feel it’s necessary to preserve the semblance of friendship. OP doesn’t want this person in her life and that’s okay.

        2. neverjaunty*

          You just answered your own question. If someone has issues with social cues, especially small ones, then you cannot communicate with them through social cues.

        3. fposte*

          Yeah, I tend to prefer being ghosted, and I’m not always good with social cues. Cue-literacy isn’t a binary; just because she’s not picking up on them as fast as the OP likes doesn’t mean she’ll never figure it out.

          Not saying the OP couldn’t talk to her, just that I don’t think it’s cruel or doomed to failure to just cool things way down.

          1. Brock*

            I don’t think it’s necessarily an issue with social cues, just a really, really bad mismatch of the friendship- expectations of staying over. If I were the coworker (and, until reading this thread and realising how much variance people have on this issue), I definitely would have assumed that we were now quite close friends, and the social cues would have me thinking about the following possibilities:

            1. She’s really withdrawing into a shell lately – something really terrible must have happened to her lately, and the fact that she doesn’t seem to want to talk to me (her good friend) about it must mean it’s really terrible. I must continue to show her I’m available and concerned.

            2. Just possibly, maybe I inadvertently did/said something to upset my good friend! Surely she’d say something, though, if I had? I had better continue to show my good will and friendliness so that we can get over it.

            3. Um, maybe there’s a tiny chance that she really is only a work-friend, only wants to be an work friend, and let me stay over anyway? Horrible to think I might have inadvertently imposed on someone like that! – but since that would be an enormous imposition on anyone, she would have just made a polite excuse and said no. Very low probability, practically nil.

            4. Maybe she’s just a manipulative two-faced bitch who cranked up the friendship to 11 (by having me over) and for no discernable reason is now virtually blanking me out? Extremely horrible to contemplate, low probability….but there are probably more people in this category 4 than category 3. Also a terrible thing to think of another person without good reason, so I will continue to assume either 1 and 2 until disproven.

            Until I read this thread, I would not have even considered 5. she really is only a work-friend, only wants to be an work friend, and the stayover was simply ‘no biggie’ for her. I normally think of the ‘no biggie’ stage as college students at best (will have to revise that! :) ).

  20. BadPlanning*

    After reading through the comments, it dawned on my that I’ve been through a similar situation. The coworker asked for a ride to the airport and I said sure, as it was a convenient time/location for me. When I dropped him off, I asked if he needed a pick up and gave him my number so he could let me know when his flight was in.

    Seemed innocent and kind at the time. In 20/20 hindsight, bad idea. Bad, bad, bad. Said coworker started calling me at home, asking me to do things. I did pull him aside and tell him that we could be coworkers, but not out of work friends. It got worse before it got better and I believe he was struggling with a serious mental illness (he was out on leave a couple times and we weren’t told directly why, but it wasn’t too hard to guess).

    So I don’t really have good advice for the OP other than I commiserate with the accidental friend leveling up.

    1. NonProfit Nancy*

      It’s really sad when you feel like you shouldn’t do a human kindness for someone out fear of “leading them on”! Either in a totally platonic or potentially romantic scenario. And yet there a few favors I immediately regretted offering since the person used it as an opening to try and get closer.

      1. Salyan*

        This! I’ve had situations in the past where I was neighborly (chatted at the door) with guys in my apartment building – and they got the wrong idea. Now in my current building, I’m almost rude to the men living here – cause how can you dial down ‘neighborly’ to anything other than ‘politely ignore’?

      2. PlainJane*

        Exactly this. I don’t ever want to become someone who is unfriendly and unhelpful, but it’s really frustrating when your good deeds are punished.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          A couple things to consider:

          Not every story turns out bad.

          We can learn to BETTER pick what situations we will go in on.

          We can also know our limits.

          We can commit to calmly and clearly stating our limits. This one I LOVE. People are amazing, they are terrific! I have seen so many times where I have said, “I will do x and y with you, but if you want z you are on your own.” Most of the time the response I get is “Thank you for telling me up front what you are offering. I will take x and y. Then I will figure out z later.” I am shaking my head. The funny thing is that if someone says something like to me, I only feel grateful for the parts they can help with. I very seldom think about the parts left undone, so I guess that is why.

      3. Lissa*

        I know right. This thread is making me paranoid! it had never once occurred to me that letting somebody crash at my place in an emergency(ish) situation would mean that I was setting myself up as a really close friend in some people’s eyes!

  21. Temperance*

    Okay, I’m providing advice here for dealing with a socially inappropriate person from the perspective of the child of a socially inappropriate/mentally ill person. This is not work advice, but social advice. My mother is a Stage 4 clinger. She has a personality disorder, and a lengthy and humiliating history of acting inappropriately close with people who are casual acquaintances at best, like cashiers and the like. Your coworker might not be as bad, but I think this is still okay.

    I would probably stop hanging out with her one on one, ever, and call out her weird attempts at contact, like her asking if everything was okay. Put up boundaries. Be polite and cordial, but don’t feed her attempts to get you super close, since you are coworkers and you have to see her.

    1. Stellaaaaa*

      I’m reading some of this into the situation too…my mom has codependency issues. That’s why I have a mental map of “Don’t do huge favors for people and assume that you’re not shifting the relationship in some way.” My mom goes out of her way for people and then gets mad when they don’t repay her. OP did someone a favor and is wondering why it’s not being forgotten. You open the door to any amount of weird feelings and obligations when you do something for someone that other people aren’t willing to do.

      1. NonProfit Nancy*

        I’ve heard this called “favor sharking.” Someone does you an unsolicited favor for you, and now you “owe them” what they want. Yep, so many ways that boundaries are necessary in the world!

        1. Stellaaaaa*

          It’s rough all around. My mom has a strained relationship with her living family members (she knows she’s the least-favored child of her generation) but she also values having any kind of family over having none. It’s something she’s aware of and I can’t help her change that so I just focus on getting through Thanksgiving unscathed.

          That said, I don’t think it’s unusual for me to view favors as social transactions. That’s why I don’t volunteer to do “heavy lifting” for people that I’m not interested in adding to facebook.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        More great advice. People up above thought it was odd the the friendship went up a level. Yes, OP moved the relationship when she helped out like she did. It blindsided her, which is not OP’s fault, if you have never seen it before how would you know? The only wrinkle here is the hinting and avoidance. Coworker is someone who needs a direct message.

  22. Viola Dace*

    Is there any possibility she could have a crush on you? Not necessarily sexual (although not out of the question), but the kind of intense feelings a lonely and perhaps socially awkward person might develop. She may have had those feelings and when you extended the offer of staying with you, it threw gasoline on that particular fire. And now she can’t understand why you’re pulling back. Sadly, you will probably need to cut all ties. For her sake as well as yours.

  23. Jenny*

    I’m actually curious how the coworker staying in OP’s guest room came up. If OP offered it along with the ride, I agree that coworker could easily have read into that. But if coworker brought it up, asked to stay, guilted OP into it, etc., I would read that differently.

    1. TootsNYC*

      In case someone missed it upstream:
      Our OP has reported that when she said she’d provide the ride, she found out that the doctor wanted someone to stay with the coworker all night, in case of complications. It was part of the package.
      So since our OP has a guest room and the coworker has a 1BR, the OP said, “Why don’t you stay at my place?” (Presumably thinking that she’d get to sleep in her own bed.)

  24. animaniactoo*

    I think that I would start this conversation by asking her if she was okay.

    If she says everything’s fine, I would use that as a lead in to frame her current behavior against her previous behavior “Since your surgery, you seem to be very anxious if I’m not available to hang out, or haven’t responded quickly. If I say hello, you’re concerned that something is wrong if it isn’t as “warm” as you were expecting. It’s so different from how I’m used to seeing/talking to you that I have started to feel boxed in by it, and I wanted to check in with you and just see if you’re okay or if there’s something more going on on your side of things.”

    She may have some genuine anxiety stuff going on brought up by her surgery and she’s continuing to latch on to the person who was helpful during surgery, or she may have thought that you guys were going to be closer now. In either case, it lets you gently(ish) tell her directly that whatever she’s seeking from you is not available from you and is making you feel worse. If it’s post-surgery anxiety, hopefully she can figure out where to take it herself, and if it’s thinking you guys would be closer, it just lets her know that no, no you really aren’t going to be. And either way, it allows her to respond in a way that can save a lot of face on her end.

    Note: If it is some post-surgery anxiety, she may not be able to calm herself and you’re going to have set stronger boundaries. It will hurt her, but sometimes the main goal can’t be “not hurting someone”, it has to be “hurting them as little as you can *while* decently defending your own right to choose what works for you.” How little that is sometimes is not in your control much – because so much of it is on them and how they respond. Things that are outside of your control. Within your control is only delivering the message as kindly as you can, but without the expectation that there is a “perfect” way to do it which is foolproof against hurt feelings.

    1. animaniactoo*

      Also to say – I would genuinely be concerned if someone I knew had that much of a personality change and would be asking out of genuine concern and not just as a method of delivering a “you’re asking too much from me” message. The latter would actually be kind of obnoxious, so please do keep in mind that this is previously someone you liked well enough to hang out on occasion and care enough to give them the benefit of the doubt about this.

    2. NonProfit Nancy*

      I like this, although I worry that having a Talk like this is still kind of acknowledging and reaffirming the intimacy ofthe relationship, though. My sense from OP is that she wants this woman to return to casual-coworker status.

      1. fposte*

        I think you’re right, but I think that changing the last line would mitigate that problem; I also think that framing this as a post-surgery thing gives a helpful out that’s easier to hear than “I don’t like you the way you want me to.”

      2. animaniactoo*

        The thing is that even though it wasn’t a big deal to the OP, it does dip towards a less casual more intimate relationship, and doing something like this can help wrap that up and encase it in its own bubble of “this happened in that moment, but it’s not going to stay that way, we’re going to recalibrate back to the way we used to be”. It’s also the kind of concern you might have for a friend for whom you did not do anything for at all, but they have started acting differently after surgery, etc.

        And it leaves room to say “I was happy to help you out, but I can’t be there for you the way you seem to need. Is there someone else you can talk to about this?” if it is post-surgery anxiety or something along those lines.

    3. Jules*

      I like this method best. Re-establishes boundaries without offending.

      You did her a great favor. She might feel obligated to be extra nice. Or maybe she feels you can be BFFs now. Just re-establish boundaries and go from there. There is no need to be extra kind or hurtful. Be firm and direct.

    4. Phoebe*

      “Since your surgery, you seem to be very anxious if I’m not available to hang out, or haven’t responded quickly. If I say hello, you’re concerned that something is wrong if it isn’t as “warm” as you were expecting. It’s so different from how I’m used to seeing/talking to you that I have started to feel boxed in by it, and I wanted to check in with you and just see if you’re okay or if there’s something more going on on your side of things.”

      I like this approach. It’s gentle but firm and I think it lets her save a little face. I would be wary though that she may spend some time actually telling you about her anxieties. If she does, try to be patient and understanding and listen to what she has to say, but stand firm on your boundaries.

  25. ZVA*

    Whoof, this is tough. I like the more direct approach—but I’d definitely be prepared for chilliness. My bet is you’ll never go back to the casual friendship you had before… but maybe you don’t even want to at this point!

    (When I was 8 or 9, I was direct—but kind!—w/ my closest friend about something she was doing that I didn’t like, and it ended the relationship forever. Different situation, I know, but it made me wary of honesty for a veeery long time after that.)

  26. Pokebunny*

    As someone who is about to have minor surgery and have no one available to pick him up from the hospital, I’m bookmarking this so I don’t start developing inappropriate friendship with co-workers.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      I hope it goes well!

      See if the hospital can give you a cab voucher. They don’t always, but your doctor’s office might be able to arrange something. Or they might know of a medical transport service you can arrange ahead of time.

      I have to think of these things because I ain’t go nobody either.

      1. Pokebunny*

        Uber/cab won’t work because they won’t put me in surgery unless there’s actually someone standing next to me answering “yes, I understand the home care needed for this guy”, even though it’s really just driving (I’ll be under IV sedation but not completely unconscious, so really just no driving).

    2. Adonday Veeah*

      Some communities have a volunteer service where they will drive you to/from doctor’s appointments and stay with you as needed, for just these types of situations. I don’t know what you’d google to find it, though. I’d start calling organizations that support the elderly population and ask for referrals.

      Good luck!

    3. nonymous*

      You can ask at the local community college/nursing school if someone would want to make money by babysitting you for the night. It would be cheaper than using a service. There are people who do this kind of work for a living (overnight medical supervision), but it’s usually long-term, like for elderly rehab

  27. Marisol*

    I am wondering if this exchange is a lot more transactional in the coworker’s mind than the OP thinks. There seems to be an assumption that the coworker’s neediness stems from wanting a closer friendship. What if it’s just anxiety about wanting to complete the transaction? The coworker wants to “repay” the favor. Some people are like that. Personally, I don’t like it if I do a favor for someone, or give someone a gift, and they insist on reciprocating, as if we were keeping score and they are not comfortable with feeling indebted. To me, it cheapens my gesture and downgrades the relationship. But many people do that sort of thing and think it’s normal, and it seems to me that since a quid-pro-quo dynamic is less intimate, it might be desirable in this context.

    So I wonder if the path of least resistance would be for the OP to just allow the coworker to reciprocate, in the form of a hand-me-down dress, or a thank-you dinner, or whatever, just once, and then be done with it. Maybe allowing the coworker to get that closure would be a kind of reset for the relationship—she would feel like balance was restored and she could stop obsessing. And if not, then the OP can always be more explicit about setting the boundary.

    1. Emerald Teapot*

      I agree. She could just accept the dress, say thank you, and then donate it to a thrift store.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        That is probably what I would have done. Sometimes it is just easier to let people thank us and be done with it.

    2. Mephyle*

      If I imagine myself in coworker’s position, this would be me (except that I hope I wouldn’t come off as needy as she does). It would initially feel wrong to me to keep treating OP with the same casualness as before and I can see myself trying repeatedly to pay back the favour until I feel that we’re even again. Oh, she doesn’t want this? Well then I’ll try that. And so on.

      And what would fix it for me would be OP warmly insisting that I pay it forward (as someone suggested upthread). Coworker, I don’t know, but me, I would get that.

  28. Truth is Better*

    I think OP needs to be direct, but kind, about it. I had a situation similar about 15 years ago, but I was the supposedly “needy” one. I noticed the slight chill and backed off but coworker would invite me to things (dinner parties, ask to go shopping) and introduce me as her “friend from work”. She would also ask me to go to lunch, ask my opinion about things, etc. Some days she would be super chatty and some days she seemed oblivious to my existence. I would send an email asking is she was ok. I never texted her or showed up at her desk, though.

    Then one day I invited her a party at my house and she said “Look, I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell you that I really don’t want to be close friends with you. I want to be friendly and go to lunch and shopping but other than that, it’s a no-go for me”. Of course I thought she was loony tunes because she had the one doing 95% of the inviting. But once she told me that, I realized what she wanted was strictly someone to eat with and go shopping but other than that, I was not welcome in her life. Of course it hurt my feelings because every other week I was invited to something (lunch, dinner party, shopping). The friendship never quite recovered because I felt it was very one-sided and I was only needed to keep her from eating and shopping alone.

    TL;DR- Tell her the truth as kindly/gently as possible instead of using avoidance tactics. You are stringing her alone instead of being honest. Instead of excuses of being busy, just tell the trught.

    1. NonProfit Nancy*

      That was weird of your non-friend, IMO. It’s okay to have a “shopping friend” or a “hobby friend” and communicate to them that you are not interested in leveling up your friendship beyond that. But it’s weird to invite someone to a variety of things, frequently, while assuring them that you do not really care about them. She sounds like a piece of work.

    2. Stellaaaaa*

      She just sounds weird. She invited you to parties but balked when you invited her to one. She might have been the type of person who doesn’t really care who she’s hanging out with as long as she’s getting out and doing something, but still has a somewhat arbitrary list of people she’d consider close friends.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        My bet is that she did not like going places alone. Going with a quasi-friend was preferable than going alone.
        She sounds kind of controlling to me.

    3. Moonsaults*

      That’s actually a very vile personality and I’m sorry she hurt you like that. Selfish and nasty come to mind. “I only want you when I want you, okay!” Ick.

      Friendships go both ways and if you don’t at least want to have someone ask you to hangout sometimes or talk to you on their terms as well, get bent I say. Just ick ick ew!!!

  29. seejay*

    I’ve had to deal with this type of friend from two different angles:

    Friend #1 was just lonely and needed some redirection. He had just moved back into our city after being away for a few years for school and latched onto me as the only friend instead of reaching out to any of his other friends he used to have (either because they weren’t interested in welcoming him back or because they were gone or whatever, I’m not sure). My solution was to bring him out to my group of friends and introduce him to them: “Ferdinand, these are the guys. Guys, this is Ferdinand, he needs some buddies. Hang out together.” It worked out well and he started hanging out with them as well as me.

    Friend #2 was also lonely but also had some mental illness problems, combined with anxiety and abandonment issues. I handled the whole friendship badly because I didn’t realize this going into the friendship and let her latch on and didn’t set healthy boundaries and expectations in the beginning. This meant that when I did need to set boundaries, every time was a huge drama ordeal and bomb because it turned into a huge mess/fight with “WHY ARE YOU LEAVING ME?” There was no way to handle it if I wanted to maintain any sort of friendship with her, it was all or nothing, so I spent a few years juggling that mess as best I could.

    Hopefully the OP can set up boundaries and doesn’t have a drama bomb and can, at best, get some chilly responses and nothing worse. Good luck, Alison’s advice is spot on for workplace relationships!

    1. Not So NewReader*

      That is an art when you can blend your friends. A family member (FM) started at my school. She was overwhelmed by the size of it and the number of students, etc. I mentioned to my friends that FM was floundering. They all jumped in, greeting her randomly through the day, helping her find her classes and so on. I was very proud of my friends helping FM like that. Her home life was not easy at all, my friends made a difference in her life.

  30. Artemesia*

    Off topic but this is an amazing thing about the US health care system. Most places in the world, a person who needed to be taken care of after surgery would spend the night in the hospital. I just spent 4 nights in a hospital in France having surgery and recovery for a fractured elbow. I had the surgery on Friday and they wouldn’t release me till late Monday after observation, X-rays and removal of wound drainage and then final casting. In the US they send women home same day after mastectomies with surgical drains. It is really tough for people without family to take care of them.

    And it costs MUCH more for this level of US non-care than for more attentive care elsewhere.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      My aunt had a double mastectomy and she went home after a short period of time, disoriented from the drugs and everything. They said she was fine to go home. There is no way on this green earth she should have been at home. grrr.

    2. Panda Bandit*

      Hope you have a speedy recovery.

      My friend had surgery on her spine, to remove a bad disc. They sent her home the same day. Smh.

  31. Stranger than fiction*

    For a minute there, I thought this was me writing in, until the surgery part. In my case, I’ put up boundaries when I’m too busy and she’s “trained” well in that regard now. But when I’m not terribly busy, I just listen and be supportive now. I’ve come to feel sorry for her, actually, she’s like the underdog here, so doesn’t annoy me as much as she used to.

  32. Emerald Teapot*

    I’ve been on both sides of this scenario. Friendship level miscommunications happen. It doesn’t have to be a big deal.

    I think the kindest thing to do is to try to have a direct conversation about it and phrase things in terms of your own needs. Just say you’re introverted and you need a little more space than most people. Something like that. And say it in a friendly way. I wouldn’t be indirect; that can come across as passive-aggressive and, frankly, pretty hurtful.

    Once you’ve had that conversation, if she doesn’t back off, it would be ok to start ignoring her. Not responding to her texts or emails, or taking a long time to respond.

    Another thought that crossed my mind. You say this started after the surgery. Is it possible that she could be on a medication that’s affecting her mood? Or could it be a side effect of the surgery? Sometimes people have weird reactions to pain meds. Or she could be on something like prednisone or cortisone (hormones). Or she could have some chronic pain. If you think it could be a medical issue and you feel comfortable with this, you could try mentioning that she’s been acting different. I agree with others that offering to have her stay over might have created the impression that you wanted to be closer friends. But, without a lot of info to go on, the medical thing is another possibility.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I agree that the hinting can get hurtful after a while. Part of it, I think, is allowing it to go on too long.

  33. Emma*

    You know, I’m just gonna say it – you might upset her, but her feelings aren’t your problem. They’re hers to manage. I mean, don’t be a jerk, but you don’t need to beat around the bush or just hope she gets the hint.

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