how do I get a boundary-violating dude at work to back off?

A reader writes:

I’m having an issue with a coworker that I’m not sure how to handle. Fergus and I do similar jobs at our work. We don’t work in the same building, though we are on the same complex and often interact due to shared committee work and professional events. He would stop by my office sometimes to chat if he had a reason to be in my building and that was fine. We are also part of a group of colleagues who occasionally meet outside of work for social events (happy hours, sporting events, etc.). We I were casually friendly until this summer, when he learned I was getting divorced.

Since then the dynamic has changed considerably. The occasional office visits turned daily and became lengthy (and very hard to shut down other than with a direct “I need to get back to work now”). We live near each other and will sometimes be on the same bus and he insists on interacting. Today I said “Hi” and then pointedly turned back to my book, headphones on. He reacted by sending me a text message to get my attention and when that didn’t work, poked me in the arm. I’m probably going to change when I leave my apartment to avoid him because I can’t handle that kind of emotional labor first thing in the morning.

At the last happy hour, his attention made me visibly uncomfortable enough that another (female) coworker noticed and talked to me about it the next day. Apparently he is known in our community for glomming on to any available single woman and then completely misreading any interest. Stories include his leaning in for an unwanted kiss and then blaming the misread on drink and then blithely continuing on. It’s a frustrating reality that no one seems to know how to address. Apparently one woman straight up lost it on him until he got a clue. The rest got boyfriends and he backed off.

Fergus and I will have to continue to work with each other going forward and I don’t want to jeopardize that. I know I have to calmly and directly call him out on his shit and re-set the boundary, but I have no idea how to do that. Any suggestions for how and when to approach the situation would be welcome. He’s an otherwise likeable guy (the usual excuse) and this is just so awkward. I keep wondering what the hell I did to make him think that this is okay. How did I fuck up the boundary so that he could slide in like this?

You didn’t do anything to make him think this is okay. He’s thought this was okay since long before he met you.

And you didn’t fuck up the boundary. You treated him like a normal person who would follow normal social conventions, until he revealed that he wasn’t, and by that point he had already slipped by the boundary.

People like this — mainly dudes, although not entirely — take advantage of the fact that people — mainly women, although not always — are socialized to be polite. Maybe that’s intentional, or maybe it’s not. Either way, to shut it down, you’re unfortunately going to have to go against that socialization and tell him directly to stop.

And even though he’s the one being rude, you’re going to feel like you’re being rude too, because you don’t normally have to be so direct in telling people to leave you alone. This is important: Don’t let that fear stop you from acting, because that’s exactly what lets boundary-violators continue. Go into it knowing that feeling a bit rude or unkind when you handle this will be unavoidable. That way, when those fears come up, you’ll know they’re normal, you’ll have expected their arrival, and you’ll be better able to push past them.

So, let’s talk specifics. First, for the next few weeks, when he stops by your office for a lengthy chat, tell him that you can’t talk. You’re on deadline, you’re about to get a call, you need to make a call, you need to focus on a project, or so forth. If you feel weird about suddenly saying that every time he stops by when previously you had been letting him stay and chat, you can say something to explain the change. For example: “Hey, my workload has gotten crazy so I’m not going to be able to chitchat anymore.”

If he bothers you on the bus, be direct about shutting it down. Say, “I’m reading and can’t talk right now” or “I’m not up for talking right now.” Since you have to work with the guy, say it nicely the first time you say it. But if he keeps pushing you (or escalates to poking you for attention — what the hell?!), then he doesn’t get Nice You anymore. At that point, shift to a stone-faced “I can’t talk.” Don’t smile, because apparently he takes you being nice as an indicator that you don’t really mean what you’re saying. And it’s okay to sound irked; this is a thing that you get to be irked by. You aren’t being a jerk by using a serious tone with someone who is stomping all over your boundaries and who thinks that his desire for your attention trumps anything you want. And really, sounding serious isn’t rude. (Isn’t it weird that we’ve come to worry that it will be?)

If he gloms onto you at happy hours or other events, say a polite hello and then explicitly end the conversation. Say something like, “I’ve got to go find Jane — see you tomorrow at work,” or “I need to go talk to Ryan — have a good time tonight!” and walk away.

At some point, he might confront you about what’s going on and ask why you never talk to him anymore. If that happens, you have two options. You can go the easy-but-possibly-not-as-effective route of “I’ve just gotten super busy.” This is hard to argue with, but it lays you open to the possibility that he’ll keep checking in over the coming weeks to see if you’ve become any less busy. The other option is to be more straightforward and say something like, “Since I told you I was getting a divorce, you haven’t been respecting my boundaries when I can’t talk or don’t want to talk at work or on the bus. That’s not cool with me.” If he argues (and he will), you can respond, “We don’t need to have a big conversation about this. But you asked, and I wanted to give you an honest answer. I’m still happy to work with you on projects and so forth, but I need you to respect it when I’m not up for talking.”

There’s a risk that this will make him hostile, but it sounds like other women in your office have successfully called him out on similar behavior and he’s moved on. But if for some reason he does escalate or act in ways that concern you, at that point you have something actionable to report and can loop in his boss or HR, who can tell him to cut it out with consequences attached if he doesn’t.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 458 comments… read them below }

  1. JB (not in Houston)*

    I know where you’re coming from, OP, but he’s not an otherwise likable guy. Someone who consistently, persistently ignores obvious, common boundaries and social cues, the same someone who did not have a problem observing those boundaries and cues while he was married, is not a likable guy.

    1. Dankar*

      Agree. You didn’t do anything to eff up the boundary, OP. He would have behaved this way toward you from the beginning had he not known you were married.

      Men like this see a relationship as a kind of ownership on your partner’s part. He respects that you “belong to” another man, not that you’re not interested in him regardless. That’s not a likable guy–that’s a chauvinist.

      1. Sleeping or maybe dead*

        Thank you for explaining this so eloquently. I was always irked about this nice guys type, but could never really put the finger on it.

    2. Artemesia*

      This. One incident is ‘awkward’ but a pattern is just him taking advantage of women’s tendency to be polite to pursue their attention. The guy is a creep so if the softer approaches advocated by Alison don’t work out don’t feel sorry about getting firmer and if necessary escalating to HR. The guy has a reputation he has earned by being a creep.

    3. Cobol*

      I think the OP is right to not attribute malice. He seems from her description super awkward. Not ignoring boundaries, but unaware.

        1. Cobol*

          When she was married she wasn’t available. Now she is. Not to Fergus since OP is not interested, and OP should feel no need to humor him, or do anything other than say stop. My point is he may be extremely socially awkward, as opposed to intentionally violating boundaries.

          1. EmilyG*

            I think you should re-examine your notion of being “available.” I’m divorced–does that mean I’m automatically “available” to OP’s coworker? It certainly does not. Women are not a community commodity to be distributed. We’re autonomous people with our own plans and preferences.

            1. Cobol*

              I’m sad that you believe that is what I said or think. I’m speaking to why Fergus would act differently. In a broadly general catch-all way yes, people in relationships are unavailable and people not on relationships are available.

              1. Sleeping or maybe dead*

                I see your point, but it is terrible when people assume you are automatically available when you are single. It is like open season. If I was single at my office I would definitely wear a fake ring.

                The problematic aspect is that people refrain themselves when you say you have a boyfriend, yet they don’t care when you explicitly tell them that you are not interested. That is telling.

                1. Cobol*

                  Agree. And available is different than interested. I think 99% of the time social conventions work. It sucks that OP has to deal with this.

                2. Sleeping or maybe dead*

                  @cobol, that’s an interesting point, because social convention does not work 99% of the time for women. That is the open season I was talking about.
                  99% of the time we will be dodging and dreading unwarranted advances from male co-workers and it is exhausting and frightening to us, no matter if they are genuinely nice guys or if they are sleazy creepers, because we have no way of knowing.

                3. Sleeping or maybe dead*

                  @cobol, by the way I apologise if my comments come across too agressively.
                  I am glad that you are engaged and that we can talk about this matter.

                4. Cobol*

                  There you are sleeping!! Sorry phone, and trying to work. Nothing you said struck me as aggressive, but thanks for the kind words.

                  I don’t envy the position women are in, and especially in the workplace. It can be tough for guys too (although nowhere near as tough as it is for women. I feel like I need to make that 100% clear that I know that), because so many people meet their SOs at work it can be a guessing game to tell if they are interested. It’s unfair that women have to deal with all that. No idea what the solution is.

                5. ScarletNumber*

                  > it is terrible when people assume you are automatically available when you are single

                  Umm, that’s the definition of single

                6. Zahra*

                  No. The definition of single is “not in a relationship”. That doesn’t mean you’re available. You could be single and taking time to figure stuff out, going to therapy, etc. and commit to staying single until you feel like you are better equipped to be in a relationship.

              2. Kelsi*

                “I think 99% of the time social conventions work.” (downthread, but it won’t let me reply that deep)

                I’m making an assumption here, but I’m guessing you’re a guy. For women, this is absolutely not true. Social conventions make it harder for women to push back when their boundaries are being trampled on, and easier for men to keep violating those boundaries without consequences even after they have been clearly and repeatedly expressed.

                Other women can weigh in, but in my experience, social conventions work, oh, a solid 40% of the time at most.

                1. Cobol*

                  I am a guy. Totally trust you on the 40% number. I know (well I guess am aware of. I don’t know) how hard it is to be a woman or minority in general, and in the work force.

                2. seejay*

                  @Cobol: exactly. You’re a guy who doesn’t get the receiving end of this behaviour, you’re not aware of it, and you don’t understand it. You have multiple women here telling you that they’ve experienced this, it’s *exactly* what it looks like, and you’re trying to find excuses for it. What you’re doing is also something we’ve seen multitudes of times, which is excusing the behaviour which also allows it to continue, because we’re not believed.

                  Why not take us at our word and trust that we know what we’re talking about instead of trying to find excuses and *maybe it’s not that bad*? Do you think we’re exaggerating or misconstruing these actions and maybe just this one guy out of the dozens of encounters many of us have had is just that one exception to the rule? Except that everything the LW has written in her letter has said the total opposite that he’s the exception. She’s outlined a pretty standard typical case of a creeper. The only thing that’s missing is the tattoo on his forehead saying CREEPER in big blingie lights.

              3. Shambala*

                @cobol, I’m a woman (if that matters) and i get what you’re saying. Basically, it’s not whether the woman is ‘available’ or not – but that some (creepy/thirsty/desperate/other) guys automatically construe ‘single’ as synonymous with available. I agree with your comment cos, having been single for eons, I often come across men who assume I ‘must be available’.

                This is not right but I agree that part of this socialization. Some guys are taught to assume that, as men, they are God’s gift, and every single woman is on the lookout and a woman’s ‘no’ could sometimes mean yes. On that note, I agree with you that he may not be socially aware of women’s rightful boundaries. Some guys will get a clue, but in OPs case I def think spelling it out in clear words may be what he needs. But, again as a woman, I’d always want to do that in a safe environment and be cautious that the guy I’m letting down won’t escalate into violent retribution or stalkerish behaviour. I’d also want to let my manager know what’s going on in case the issue escalates and I’d need back up.

                @Op it sounds like this is his pattern of behaviour so I def don’t think you did anything to deserve this! I hope you sort the situation out and let us know how it went!

          2. Susana*

            But… she’s not available to him, and she’s made that clear. He’s not just socially awkward. He’s someone who thinks of women as like groceries on the shelf or a cat at the SPCA – if no one else has scooped them up, they’re there for his taking. Nothing “nice guy” about that.

            1. Not a Morning Person*

              I agree that too many guys do see that an unattached female is automatically available, but I’m not seeing that OP has made it clear that she isn’t interested. It sucks that the dude isn’t acting on the clear signals of avoidance, and maybe he is being a creeper, but OP is asking for what else to do and having the actual conversation that, no, she’s not interested is good, but uncomfortable to implement, advice. Again, he started the situation and isn’t taking hints, so if OP wants things to be different, she will unfortunately have to do the hard work of getting the courage to address it directly. As Alison has said before,in better form, “if someone is doing something you don’t like and you want to stop, you have to speak up.” At that point, she’ll have information that the dude will either back off, or if not, she’s got evidence to take to her manager or HR. Good luck, OP! I’m sorry you are having to deal with this.

      1. KHB*

        What does that even matter though? Whatever his motivations, his behavior is not OK and needs to stop. If I’m standing on your foot, whether I meant to do it or not, the right thing to do is to get off your foot, apologize, and try not to do it again.

        1. Cobol*

          Absolutely it needs to stop right away, and OP did not do anything wrong to lead him on. My comment was simply Fergus may not be aware of his pattern.

          1. Solidad*

            If he’s not, he should be. Being “blissfully unaware” is something privileged people get to do. It’s a cop out to stop from thinking about other people as independent human beings with wants and needs.

            If he were gay and hitting on straight men, I can guarantee you he would not excused. Also, black men who hit on white women do not get to do this (usually).

            What you are asserting is why we have “nice guy syndrome.” It’s putting the onus on thinking and acting on the victims of the unwanted attention instead of on the actor.

            The default should not be set to “only until someone complains.” It should be set to “no, unless I see some indication it’s welcome.”

            If he truly doesn’t know, it’s clearly on him to learn. If he’s a functional adult who goes to work, he can learn.

            1. Cobol*

              You just name dropped a ton of protected classes, assumed I would react a certain way if OP was a man, and decided that everybody had your background.

              I assume OP is a nice guy, and not a “nice guy” because OP said he was, and taking OPs at their word is a core tenant of this site.

              1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

                No, the point was factual — that behavior like the OP describes would not be handwaved as “awkward” coming from any of the groups Solidad named. This has nothing to do with whether you personally would “react a certain way.”

          2. Jiggs*

            Fergus has literally been yelled at about this by other coworkers. If Fergus doesn’t know, it’s because he doesn’t want to know.

          3. Liane*

            Considering **at least one** of the OP’s colleagues has told her “Fergus does this to all single women” I think it very unlikely that Fergus isn’t “aware of his pattern.” He is aware; he just chooses Option 1–Keep On Violating Boundaries over Option 2–Cut That @#$% Out NOW! Because he doesn’t care what these women want or how they feel about his icky attentions. He just cares about Fergus Getting What Fergus Wants.

        2. Katniss*

          Get Off My Foot is one of the most valuable tools I’ve ever read. Full text is:

          If you step on my foot, you need to get off my foot.

          If you step on my foot without meaning to, you need to get off my foot.

          If you step on my foot without realizing it, you need to get off my foot.

          If everyone in your culture steps on feet, your culture is horrible, and you need to get off my foot.

          If you have foot-stepping disease, and it makes you unaware you’re stepping on feet, you need to get off my foot. If an event has rules designed to keep people from stepping on feet, you need to follow them. If you think that even with the rules, you won’t be able to avoid stepping on people’s feet, absent yourself from the event until you work something out.

          If you’re a serial foot-stepper, and you feel you’re entitled to step on people’s feet because you’re just that awesome and they’re not really people anyway, you’re a bad person and you don’t get to use any of those excuses, limited as they are. And moreover, you need to get off my foot.

          You can google “get off my foot Hoyden” to find the link.

          1. Formica Dinette*

            Thank you. This is something I’m still learning, and you’ve given me an easy way to remind myself of it.

          2. SarahKay*

            I cannot tell you how much I love this. It makes me want to frame it. It makes me want to sew it in cross stitch and then frame it. It’s wonderful.

          3. Cobol*

            I originally didn’t comment on this because I felt my agreement would hurt the cause in this thread, but this is such a good point.

          4. SusanIvanova*

            Reminds me of the Daria theme song – sung in the tone of someone who is Done Dealing With That:

            I’ve got to be direct -la la la
            If I’m off please correct – la la la
            You’re standing on my neck – la la la
            You’re standing on my neck

      2. Artemesia*

        Someone who does this repeatedly and has to be confronted in the past by several other employees is not ‘unaware’ and ‘awkward’ poor baby — he is just intent on having what he wants.

        1. Cobol*

          I disagree. I don’t think Fergus is a poor baby or a victim in any way, but think it’s unfair to assume an intentional predatory act.

          1. logicbutton*

            The onus isn’t on other people to figure out Fergus’s intentions, it’s on him to keep them from having to worry about it in the first place.

          2. BethRA*

            He’s clearly capable of not overstepping when he knows someone has a spouse or a boyfriend, and he’s had to be told – repeatedly – to back off. He’s clearly capable of controlling his interactions with women and he’s been given plenty of notice that his behavior towards single women isn’t welcome.

            He may not fit your mental image of a “predator” but his behavior very much is predatory.

          3. Nea*

            When it happens repeatedly to people of a specific demographic (single women), to the point of sexual harassment (unwanted kiss) and women needing to cause a scene to make him back off? Yes. It IS an intentional predatory act.

          4. Solidad*

            Then why is it this is something cis-hetero men do in the workplace, but not men? It’s because they can.

            He knows. You are trying very, very hard to bend over backwards and excuse it.

            This isn’t the 1950s.

            1. seejay*

              Rape culture will continue to exist as long as we have men that won’t believe women when we say “hey, this is creepy sexual harassment behaviour and we need you (men) to believe us and stand up for us and start ostracizing the men that do this instead of making excuses for them”.

          5. Sleeping or maybe dead*

            The probability he’s only an awkward guy is not non-existent, but that doesn’t mean op owes him the benefit of the doubt.
            Giving the benefit of the doubt to awkward nice guyss who I treated politely got me 2 stalkers. One of them still harasses my friends asking if I will ever “forgive” him, 10 years after I cut him off because he. Wouldn’

            So yeah, sure, maybe Fergus is just an awkward nice guy, but op is entitled to say no. She doesn’t owe him anything.

            1. Cobol*

              I absolutely, unequivocally, 100% agree that OP owes Fergus nothing. I’ve never said anything else.

              1. Megan Johnson*

                Cobol, just throwing this out here, I appreciate your participation in this conversation.

        2. DArcy*

          Exactly. If this is not an established pattern, it’s fair to extend the benefit of the doubt *once*. Since other coworkers have reported that this is a pattern, it’s safe to assume that he’s a creep and that you need to escalate appropriately. Use firm, direct language without regard for his feelings and document all interactions so you have a record to show HR.

          1. NoNoNoNoNo*

            Also look at the bus incident.

            He deliberately texted her to take her attention away from what *she wanted to be doing* and when *that* didn’t work … he poked her.

            He is demanding her attention. He has a history. This is sexual harassment and she needs to go to HR.

      3. seejay*

        Wrong. Dudes that do this know they’re doing this and they’re *relying* on the fallacy of women believing they’re socially awkward or unaware so they can get away with it.

        He’s 100% totally aware that he’s being a predatory creeper and he’s getting away with it because women are conditioned to be nice and polite and let guys like him get away with it because we don’t want to rock the boat. He needs to be told in very clear, loud and strong terms and shoved right back where he needs to be shoved, by both women *and* men, and stop having his behaviour excused… and this includes having his behaviour excused and passed over by men so he knocks it off.

        1. Cobol*

          You can not know that he’s 100% aware, any more than I can know he’s 100% unaware (or 50% unaware).

          I know a guy at 40+ who can’t read women (or men) and knew other guys who took longer to learn. I also know guys who could read cues and took advantage of predisposition. They were predatory creeps.

          I never once said let it slide. OP can stand up for herself and Fergus’ behavior can be not at all okay, without Fergus being an intentional habitual creep.

          1. Clever Name*

            Do an internet search for “Schrodinger’s Rapist”. It’s about how I as a woman have no idea of the intent of the man approaching me on the street at night. I have no idea if he’s a rapist or a nice guy who just needs directions somewhere. What men fear most in interactions with women is getting laughed at. What women fear most in interactions with men is getting raped or killed. Think about that for a long time before you come back to talk about intent. Intent doesn’t matter.

            1. KHB*

              Actually, the original Schrödinger’s Rapist piece was about a man trying to get to know a woman socially, not just walking by her on a dark street. Not that it matters all that much – the basic premise holds in just about any situation – but I’ve seen people who think it’s just about scary men on the street at night, and then they think they’re cleverly refuting it by pointing out that most rapes are committed by perpetrators who know their victims socially.

              1. Cobol*

                Response to both. The difference in this case is she does know him. I mentioned in a different thread, but in the case where Fergus is an unknown OP should definitely assume the worst.

                1. Clinical Social Worker*

                  His intent doesn’t matter. If you ask someone to stop doing something and they continue to do it, it really doesn’t matter WHY they are doing that thing. They don’t respect that you’ve asked them to do it. She has done the polite version of no in every way possible. He doesn’t care. That may be because he’s a rapist or it may be because he thinks they are meant to be together…it’s still creepy af.

                2. Cobol*

                  Responding to clinical. She hasn’t said no “I have to calmly and directly call him out on his shit and re-set the boundary, but I have no idea how to do that”

                  My advice to OP is to tell Fergus stop. She owes him nothing more and did nothing to egg him on. Allison already said that, which is why I made my comment to JB, not OP.

                3. Cobol*

                  Oh and for what it’s worth if OP was writing in saying she told him to stop and he was continuing, even in an indirect manner, she should go to HR and not worry about what happened to Fergus.

                4. BethRA*

                  Yes, she knows him – but what she knows about him is that he has violated boundaries with multiple women in their office and has been told off by those women on multiple occasions. He’s left them alone and moved on to other targets. That’s pretty intentional behavior.

                5. Margo*

                  True, but she is also known to him. There is zero chance he hasn’t noticed the change in attitude from her. At this point if he’s not getting the signals it’s because he doesn’t want to.

                  A woman put headphones on, turned away, and ignored his text. This is no different than locking your doors and having someone break in anyway. They don’t then get to say, “Well, I’m awkward so I didn’t understand how bad it was because you didn’t tell me to stay out in words.”

                  If men really want to help dudes like Fergus, they wouldn’t tell women to be kinder. They’d kindly tell Fergus to knock it off. The word of dozens of women hasn’t been enough for this guy to change, but guaranteed one or two of his male peers chiming in would quickly shut it down for good.

                  But that’s rarely what happens. Instead people focus on just telling women to be kinder or more understanding about awkwardness, even when we have to tell a dude point-blank to knock it off. Which is why comments like yours tend to get the reactions they do.

                  Women get judged unfairly for our behavior every day, in ways that risk not just our feelings but our physical safety. Put in that context, maybe it’s understandable that we don’t have a lot of sympathy for the “but well, maybe he’s just awkward” comments. I wish my awkward misreading of social situations could just result in people thinking I’m a jerk or not wanting to sleep with me. I wish that were the worst that could happen.

                6. Indie*

                  I really disagree. When you go from being a married woman to being single you have to review what you ‘know’. I was shocked that my nice cool coworker of many years became a sleaze, and that I wasn’t his first target. These guys are very charming to other men and married women.

          2. Kathleen Adams*

            I agree that it might not be meant in a predatory way. It certainly might, of course, but yes, there are guys who are this clueless.

            But really, the treatment is the same whatever the reason: The OP has to tell him what boundaries he’s crossed and that he has to quit crossing them. It’s as simple (and as awkward) as that. “Fergus, this attention is making me uncomfortable. I need you to stop. I want us to continue to have a working relationship, but that’s all I’m interested in.”

            1. Cobol*

              I feel like I owe you a response, so I just want to say I agree 100% with all this. Frankly, I don’t think OP even needs to go into detail. She doesn’t need to tell Fergus how he’s being creepy if it makes her uncomfortable. Just stop is enough.

              1. Liane*

                You keep stating your position in ways that make a lot of us think you are defending something (and someone) that can’t and shouldn’t be defended.
                What’s up with this?

                1. Cobol*

                  I don’t know that this is a reflection on me or others. If you look at my responses in other threads they don’t seem to be getting similar responses. I’m assuming you are being genuine, so I’m responding in kind.

                  My official POV, OP did not do anything wrong and should tell Fergus to stop in whatever way she feels comfortable. I personally think the more direct the response the better in this case, but totally get why she wouldn’t want to do that (and why in other situations that are different, but related, women are rightfully hesitant to do so).

                  If you look through everything I’ve said this has been consistent.

                  With regards to this thread, I don’t think it’s warranted (nor really germane to how OP should respond) to accuse Fergus of intentionally crossing boundaries in a predatory way. It makes him into the enemy, which I believe is counter-productive to solving OP’s problem. (for the record if OP felt he was doing this in a predatory way he would be the enemy)

                2. Sylvia*

                  Could you explain how Cobol seems to be defending this guy’s behavior? Saying that it isn’t intentionally malicious (which I wouldn’t really agree with, but that’s beside the point in my response to your comment) isn’t much of a defense.

                  After suggesting that, Cobol has this to say. “I never once said let it slide. OP can stand up for herself and Fergus’ behavior can be not at all okay, without Fergus being an intentional habitual creep.”

                  That sounds reasonable to me, a woman who has been harassed.

          3. seejay*

            As others have pointed out, awkward people, when pointed out how they’re awkward, will apologize, feel bad, and also show awkwardness around both men and women.

            Creepers that prey on women are only “awkward” around women, get defensive when their behaviour is pointed out to them, and have very predictable patterns that is recognizable to women and is commonly dismissed by men. How man women in this thread alone are going *RED ALERT RED ALERT* because we’ve been on the receiving end of it? We’re pretty good at picking up genuine awkward versus creepster demanding our attention. Everything he’s done has shown that he’s got very predictable patterns: he targets women as soon as they’re single, he ignores and bypasses clear signs of disinterest and boundary laying, he pushes into unwanted touching and he only backs off when another man “lays claim” or someone loses their crap at him. This isn’t an awkward guy who can’t read signs or takes long to learn… this is a guy that knows what he’s doing and is picking specific targets to go after. Is it because he’s an *intentional predator*? Probably not, but it doesn’t make him any less of a predatory creeper who’s still intentionally doing what he’s doing and doesn’t need to be chalked up to socially awkward.

            1. Dankar*

              This is totally correct. I see a lot of people online saying that the only thing that determines whether behavior like this is creepy or acceptable is how attractive the perpetrator is to the victim. NO. It’s always unacceptable behavior, and women have every right to listen to their gut instincts and push back against it. People making that argument fail to see that unwanted attention/touching/conversation is never flattering.

              If this guy is doing this unintentionally (which I sincerely doubt), then he’ll be apologetic and OP can proceed from there. It’s not up to her to determine his intentions before she tells him, in no uncertain terms, to back off.

            2. Cobol*

              But OP says in her letter that she thinks he is a nice guy (not a “nice guy” which I know is different). So why aren’t we trusting her judgement?

              1. seejay*

                Because she’s *blaming herself* from the very beginning for his behaviour. She’s already said in her letter “what did I do to make him think this is ok?” Women are conditioned to take the blame when we let someone stomp on our boundaries because we don’t want to be mean about pushing back, we feel guilt-ridden and anxious about standing up for ourselves and unless someone does something horrific, we keep trying to chalk up their actions as “well they didn’t do anything terrible so they’re still a nice guy”.

                This dude? He’s not a nice guy. What he’s done is absolutely positively *awful*. He texted her and she ignored him, so he goes up and pokes her to get her attention? Do you know what that says? That clearly says “what you’re doing and your interests aren’t important, my desire to talk to you trumps that, you need to pay attention to me”. That is absolutely positively *stomping* all over her boundaries and her attempts to be polite and nice about it. Holy crap I would have lost it on a guy that did that to me (unless he was actually asking me something important, not demanding that I just pay attention to him).

                This isn’t about taking her at her word, she’s downplaying it because she’s feeling trapped in thinking that she’s in the wrong. She wants to navigate this situation and be nice about it, when he needs a good hard shove back. He’s crossed the line from someone being nice and polite and needing a good hard kick backwards because he’s crossed the line way too far.

                Speaking from the “been there, done that way too many times, have far too many t-shirts, and still struggling to deal with this kind of crap because boundaries are hard and guys don’t know how to listen to the soft no”

                1. Cobol*

                  I like this response for what it’s worth. I still disagree to an extent (ignoring a text is an active event for OP, but not necessarily for Fergus. I’ve forgotten to respond to texts I’ve meant to.). My picture of OP is someone who’s largely sure of herself, but it’s totally valid to think she’s giving Fergus too much credit.

                2. Sleeping or maybe dead*

                  Gosh, I wish teenage me had someone like you around when she had her first stalker.
                  Thank you seejay.

                3. seejay*

                  @Sleeping: I wish I had an adult me around when I was a teenage me cause it would have saved me a lot of headaches too. :/ My first cyberstalker escalated to physical stalking because I didn’t know how to push back because it felt like I was being “mean”, and I’ve had issues with boundary pushing jerks even into my 20s and 30s. It’s something you always struggle with since it’s so hard to recondition yourself with what society and culture has taught us about how we should be nice, polite, demure, whatever else. I’m 42 and I’m still fighting the urge to use the “soft no” or light excuses because I don’t want to be mean about pushing back and hoping that someone will take the hint, then getting myself super anxious when they don’t and they push harder and harder. Some of it is me not being able to be clear, but some of it is also just dealing with the outright creeper behaviour and it’s when all the red flags are flying because it’s the latter, you definitely get the panic, anxiety, fight-or-flight syndrome going as well.

                  It doesn’t help when there’s a culture that protects the creepers either. :/

              2. Margo*

                I think maybe you’re missing the part where she ignored a text right in front of him. If I send you a text and you don’t answer right away, that’s normal. If I sit down near you, we both say hello; then I immediately send you a text and literally watch you ignore it, that’s a clear message.

                1. Cobol*

                  I did miss that. I’ve been defending my POV in this, because I think it’s a reasonable POV. We don’t know if Fergus is predatory or not, and I don’t think it matters for OP’s response. (If OP feels like he is that’s a different story), but I don’t want people who allow for unknowns/discussions to think that I don’t think OP should view Fergus as harmless if she doesn’t think he is.

                2. MCMonkeyBean*

                  Cobol, we do know that Fergus is predatory because his behavior changed significantly when her marital status did AND she has been told by other women that this is something that has happened multiple times. This is his *pattern* of behavior. That is not okay. That is absolutely predatory.

              3. Indie*

                He was nice to her as she was married but of course she just read that as ‘nice person!’ Now he’s changed so dramatically she blames her change of status not his change in behavior.

                1. Cobol*

                  And she shouldn’t. Fergus is creepy and it has nothing to do with anything she’s done. I’m only commenting that I don’t think we should assume he’s being creepy intentionally.

            3. Clinical Social Worker*

              Yeah this guy is a probable rapist… I mean not that we know that * for sure * but men who act like this, who can’t hear no? Men who can’t hear no don’t care about consent for touching your arm or anything else.

              1. TextbookAquarian*

                Whoa! Yes, this guy is creepy and needs to stop. Yet calling him a “probable rapist” is taking this to unnecessary extremes. The OP doesn’t need a behavioral analysis that jumps to conclusions like this. She simply needs reassurance to deal with the immediate situation.

            4. M-C*

              Totally agree seejay. I think the OP needs to go complain to HR asap, document every ‘awkward’ interaction with the creep (that she remembers now, and especially future ones after she tells him point blank to leave her alone), and stop making excuses for him. Nothing will happen if serial victims keep being encouraged to ignore bad behavior.

          4. Solidad*

            I have autistic, low IQ clients who KNOW this stuff is wrong. I have worked with Amish boys who have never spoken to women outside their communities who know this is wrong. If this guy doesn’t, there is something seriously wrong with him.

            There is no legitimate reason a functioning adult in a city with bus service in 2017 should not know. If he doesn’t, it’s truly willful ignorance and selfishness. He’s selfish, sexist, or both.

          5. AJHall*

            But on the evidence he does it habitually, and the behaviour is creepy (on an objective standard; see the kiss incident) so he IS an habitual creep and his intentions can reasonably be inferred from his actions. One of the first things that one gets taught at law school is about mens rea (guilty mind). That is the biggest mistake non-lawyers make about intention; it’s only an intention to do the act, in the possession of relevant knowledge, which is needed to show mens rea. One doesn’t have to speculate about motivation behind the act. So when OP says, “Stories include his leaning in for an unwanted kiss and then blaming the misread on drink and then blithely continuing on” we know that he intentionally tried to kiss someone, was informed that the person did not wish to be kissed and kissed them anyway. That is, he intended to do an act with sexual connotations, knew there was no consent to that act, and continued in the absence of consent.

            If you’re saying that he’s not aware that is legally not ok and antisocial to boot, well, ignorance of the law is no defence. He may not be aware that downing half a bottle of whisky and getting behind the wheel is illegal, either, but I don’t think you’d be doing that “He’s probably not intentionally trying to harm anyone” if it was that flavour of antisocial behaviour he habitually indulged in.

        2. Clever Name*

          This. And even if he was unaware, it’s not OP’s job to teach him manners and social rules he should have learned as a child.

          1. Cobol*

            My initial comment was not to OP. It was to JB. It was not about what OP should do. Allison addressed it. It was simply let’s not jump to malice when the evidence doesn’t support it. There is a ton of projection that I don’t feel is warranted.

            1. DArcy*

              But the evidence *does* support it, and even when it doesn’t people really *shouldn’t* extend the benefit of the doubt to creepy behavior.

            2. Misc*

              The problem here is not that there might be levels of cluelessness, privilege and malice, but that worrying over the exact level of each is pushing the burden implicitly back on the OP/women at the receiving end in general to:

              – do all the emotional labour of figuring this out before responding
              – treat accidentally being slightly too mean to a clueless person as worse than defending themselves from a malicious person
              – which then will affect how/whether she responds in real life because it sows doubt and guilt and a belief that she is somehow responsible for his feelings
              – which is something women are already socialised to be vulnerable to generally, so they will pick up on that aspect much more strongly than you might intend, so these kinds of comments can be much more harmful than you would ever mean them to be.

              The burden of these things should be on the person with power/privilege in a situation. In this case? that’s the guy, not the OP. This kind of dialogue is the equivalent of going ‘well we can’t MAKE Older Son not start fights so I guess his smaller and better behaved sibling should be responsible for keeping the peace’ because it’s much easier to deal with them than police constant fighting. It’s saying his freedom from pushback is more important than her freedom from invasiveness.

              Analysing if he truly *deserves* that pushback is at best, distracting, at worst, actively designed to persuade people like the OP to just let it happen so even the best intentioned attempts are already tainted by all the genuinely disingenous people making the same comments.

              It’s completely fair to figure out why he does stuff and where he’s coming from… if we were talking directly to him to help work out the best way to explain things to him/help him stop doing things, preferably in private. We’re not. And there’s no practical difference for the OP where he falls, and giving her cause to second guess herself when just pushing back at all is going to be difficult is emotional sabotage.

              …long comment is long :D I was just thinking Lots Of Stuff reading through, and I can see why it’s easy to get sidetracked wondering WHY he ended up in that place and identifying with him in some ways and never actually thinking he did anything that was okay, but in context, that can be *actively harmful*.

              1. Misc*

                Oh, and the other thing it does is that it signals to other people that it is the OP’s job to manage his feelings, so if she ignores them in favour of boundaries she will get more pushback from others/men being pushed back on will feel more outraged.

                (This has a lot of parallels with the ‘don’t hurt someone’s feelings by pointing out they are being racist’ thing. Prioritising their feels while trying to stop them hurting you because privilege).

                1. Misc*

                  And also the ‘few men are rapists, but all rapists think other men are all also rapists’ thing. Arguing that he may just be misunderstood from a perfectly honest viewpoint usually sounds like justification/leads to very easy justification that makes the ones who are ACTUALLY deliberately creeping comfortable and camouflaged.

            3. Mephyle*

              How does the evidence not support it? Multiple boundary violations, escalating to touching. One might even ask, what will be next?
              Maybe ‘malice’ suggests something different to you. OK, choose a different word if you so prefer for this inappropriate, unwanted behaviour – he’s doing it, it’s not right, and a polite, reasonable person should know better than to do the things that he has been doing repeatedly and increasingly.
              Perhaps there is projection, but I see every reason to believe that it’s warranted.

            4. Soon to be former fed*

              Cobol, the evidence does support it. I don’t understand your persistence about this.

              1. meat lord*

                Yeah, the evidence seems pretty obvious! I also sorta think I understand Cobol’s persistence. Reading through this thread a couple days later, it seems like Cobol has a personal, emotional investment in this idea of a genuinely innocent/ benign/ well-intentioned Serial Boundary Violator.

                @Cobol, I think your feelings about the socially inept friend that you mention here are preventing you from noticing that Fergus is acting predatory. It’s true that we can’t ~truly~ know if he’s acting with awareness/intent, but he is definitely being predatory. You are not helping your friend or other genuinely awkward and well-intentioned men by continuing to argue for Fergus’s innocence/ lack of malice/ non-creepiness. You are also ignoring a lot of women’s lived experience and expertise in the matter of Dudes Being Creepy, which is A) does not help dispel the cloud of cultural BS that allows so many men to creep and B) is….. not a good look.

            5. Susana*

              Cobol, I know what you mean, but I think we’re just parsing the meanings of “malice” or “predator.” Now I hate “predator” because it puts a wide swath of people in one category – from a genuine rapist to someone behaving very boorishly. And there’s a big difference (like it’s a big jump to say he’s a likely rapist).
              The point is… I think many of us are tired of the social standard – some guy keeps pestering us for dates/attention/touch. We’re sending every signal we’re not interested, and he keeps doing it, like we’re some game he’s trying to win. And if we finally say, stay the hell away from me, we’re the bee-yotches. And Poor Man is regarded as just the sad rejected romantic or the clueless guy who, poor thing, just didn’t know that a woman putting on her headphones and ignoring him when he’s sitting right next to her means she’s not interested in talking.
              The fact that he only started this when she was going through a divorce means he does understand boundaries. He just thinks only men get to set them – so if she’s no longer “taken” by a husband, he gets to have her if he wants. It killed me when the OP wondered what *she* had done to bring this on .. and sad to say, that’s how a lot of society would look at it.

        3. Allison*

          I was sexually assaulted at 19. At a party. In front of everyone.

          I honestly bought the whole “socially awkward nice guy who just doesn’t know how to talk to women” act until it was too late. I thought he was everyone’s buddy, I thought that if I fought him off and told him to get the actual fork away from me, everyone would be angry with me for being so harsh to such a nice guy who just didn’t know any better and just wanted someone to love him.

          And of course, it took the social group as a whole a long time to realize he wasn’t just clueless, he was a serial assaulter and a horrible person. He assaulted numerous women in our group and in the local rave scene, and took advantage of people in other ways – his mother died, and then he lost his home to Hurricane Sandy, so people took pity on him and took him in and he just sat around mooching off people, and it took a lot for people to decide he wasn’t just some poor, unfortunate soul, he was a scumbag and no one wanted anything to do with him.

          Lots of scummy, greedy people put on a “nice” act in order to get people to not only trust them, but feel guilty for saying no to them.

          1. Cobol*

            I’m sorry for what happened to you. I’m not going to be able to type a good response on my phone. So I’m just going to say sorry, and obviously nothing was your fault.

      4. Cyrus*

        You seem to be the first person to bring up malice. You’re technically correct, there’s no reason to think he’s malicious. So what? He still seems to be acting in a sexist way here. The sexism is probably inadvertent in some sense – he mistakenly thinks the strategy is likely to work, he’s genuinely misreading the OP’s actions as interest, or this isn’t a strategy at all and just genuinely how he is – but that is also beside the point. Malicious or not, knowingly sexist or obliviously, he isn’t entitled to the OP’s politeness or time.

        1. Cobol*

          “but he’s not an otherwise likable guy.”

          Is the comment from JB I was addressing. We are not taking OP at her word.

          1. Kelsi*

            We are taking her at her word. We’re believing every instance of his shitty, unlikeable behavior that she described. For some reason you’re choosing to elevate her throwaway “he’s a nice guy” over her extensive explaining of how he’s NOT.

            1. Cobol*

              I’m viewing him as somebody who can’t read social cues. He may not be, and that’s a fair thing to surmise.

              1. This Daydreamer*

                Please stop. Seriously. What this guy is doing sets off countless alarm bells in women because people who act like that don’t just annoy us. They make us feel unsafe. It’s invasive. It’s threatening. It’s the way a rapist often acts. I am not exaggerating and I’m not being hyperbolic. Guys like this are the ones we avoid being alone with because we’ve learned that they are dangerous. He is not a nice guy who can’t take a hint. He has established a pattern of not respecting the wishes of the women in his life.

                1. Anonosaur*

                  Thank you. This kind of behavior causes me immense amounts of stress and fear. My stomach gets tied in knots and I break out in a sweat. Someone ignoring our signals of disinterest and annoyance to further violate our boundaries simply because they want to is someone who is dangerous. If a man ignores my “I’m reading don’t talk to me” face, what other signals of mine will he ignore?

                2. NoNoNoNoNo*

                  The fact that almost every single woman on this thread…and a few men as well are reacting so negatively, seeing him as the creep that he is, only underscores how common this behavior is and how we’ve all been subject to (and likely blamed for) it more than once.

              2. Brogrammer*

                Dude, if he couldn’t read social cues he would have been this way since Day 1. He didn’t magically lose the ability to learn social cues the day he heard about OP’s divorce.

              3. Renee*

                I totally get what you’re saying here, and I wonder if you’ve ever looked at anything by Dr. Nerdlove (I think he’s the one that wrote about this). He addresses the whole awkward vs. creepy concept and talks about how these guys know that the women are uncomfortable or uninterested but persist because she hasn’t been “explicit.” There’s this sort of identification of this behavior as “not reading social cues,” but the reality is that these guys generally have read the clues, and just want to try to persist past the rejection like there’s some kind of loophole because her words haven’t said no even though her conduct clearly has. The guy may (wrongfully) feel justified in some way because he hasn’t been explicitly told no, but he read the clues just fine. He just refuses to accept them. Predatory may be a strong way to describe it, but the act of persisting past resistance is intentional and shouldn’t be described as awkwardness.

                1. Cobol*

                  This it’s a long (very good) response. I’m a little burned out on responding here (and yes ironic because OP is putting up with much worse), but I owe you a response. I’ve read them some, but not extensively.

                  I mentioned below I have a friend like this who knows something is wrong with how his interactions with women turn out, but cannot for the life of him see what happened, not recognize when it is happening (it happens with his platonic relationships with men too, although I don’t know if he realizes that). People have mentioned that they think Fergus is a creep because he only has these “blind spots” with women, and is successful at work. My friend is unsuccessful all around, so I can totally see how he and Fergus aren’t the same.

              4. Soon to be former fed*

                Cobol, but he can read social cues because he behaves appropriately with married women. Again, I do not understand your persistence about this. Not helpful to the OP at all.

              5. Wanna-Alp*

                STOP giving him camouflage! Every time you imply he didn’t mean it, you are trying to give him camouflage, you are trying to minimise his behaviour.

                There is every indication that this dude knows exactly what he is doing (which you have had pointed out repeatedly to you). By trying to minimize such behaviour on the grounds of an unrealistically-optimistic view of his intent, you are promoting a culture that does not support women who get harrassed.

                Just STOP it.

          2. Mpls*

            Yes we are listening to the OP. OP explained multiple actions that indicate he’s not actually a nice guy, which contradict the OP’s preface about being a nice guy. Which I would translate as the dude seems like a nice guy if you only interact with him occasionally (isn’t a jerk right off the back), so his not-niceness is even more insidious because it’s not as obvious as if he was being a visible jerk. His not-niceness is demonstrated in the actions OP has mentioned – which are boundary crossing, not-nice things.

            Actions speak louder than words, so when people *show* you who they are, believe them.

      5. I am not a lawyer but,*

        Nice humans show concern about divorcing colleagues; they do not go into attack mode. He thinks she is vulnerable, which is probably the only type of woman he will (or can) date. I watch the lowlifes at my part time job prey on polite new coworkers and it’s revolting. The newbies don’t stay long.

        1. Indie*

          I couldn’t agree with you more – their intent is patently obvious. Also even if I could be persuaded that someone is *genuinely clueless* – that is MORE scary! If someone genuinely has never heard that women need to openly respond or reciprocate to advances – that they believe women are happy to be scooped up into grocery baskets –
          then they’ve never heard that women are people. Which is as bad or worse than not caring about their autonomy.

          It’s like hiring a mechanic who has never heard of the internal combustion engine. Is he worse at the job than the mechanic who is knowledgeable but doesn’t care about it working well?


    OP, **YOU** did nothing wrong here. He is a jerk, full stop. That he only backs off when women are seen as belonging to someone else is so monstrously gross it is indicative of him and his attitudes towards women and sex as a whole. You didn’t give a weird sign. You got divorced. That was the “sign” he read.

    He’s gross. I personally would skip right to telling him to back off, but I get that not everyone can do that. So AAM’s plan of action is a good way to start if you aren’t comfortable doing that.

    Also, if you end up going to HR, you might want to ask others he has harassed to join in. He has a pattern and it needs to be stopped yesterday.

    1. I GOTS TO KNOW!*

      Alison, I hate making more work for you. Can you tell me why this was flagged for moderation so I can avoid it in the future? Thanks!!

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        No idea. The spam filter sometimes flags things randomly. If it keeps happening to you, let me know, but otherwise write it off to randomness.

      2. Nonny Moose*

        IGTK! and Alison, my guess (as a web admin) is that some content – that’s -perfectly- appropriate within context – triggers the moderation/spam algorithm, such as caps, asterisks, or the word ‘se.x’ Just a hunch.

      3. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I removed a comment here attempting to figure out what words trigger the spam filter, since I don’t actually want to have people trying to get around them.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Oh, sorry, Alison! I thought I was being responsive to I GOTS TO KNOW!’s request, not trying to coach folks on how to avoid the filter. I’ll avoid mentioning trigger words in the future, as well.

    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Seriously, this guy is a missing stair if ever there was one. He needs to be stopped, and it’s awful that so many women are aware that he does this until someone is another guy’s “possession,” at which point he backs off. I cannot adequately describe the expression on my face as I got to the end of the letter, but it’s something in the “contempt” and “rage” category.

      1. Starbuck*

        In all of this, has OP actually politely but firmly told this guy, “Your behavior tells me you want a romantic relationship. But I’m not interested in a romantic relationship with you, and it’s not going to happen. You need to STOP bothering me on the bus and at work.”

        I doesn’t sound like she’s actually said that. Even AAM’s advice was to respond with things like “I’m reading and can’t talk right now” or “I’m not up for talking right now.”

        Why beat around the bush? Tell him point-blank you’re not interested, and he’ll move on.

        If he had a reputation for being violent or stalking, I’d say differently. But it doesn’t sound like that’s the case with him, only that he has trouble reading social cues.

        1. heatherskib*

          This. Sooo much this…. If this guys issue is indeed a lack of reading social cues this ends the game. If it’s more than that it actually starts a firm record of telling him to back off.

        2. hbc*

          Because inevitably, he will deny romantic intent. He hasn’t done anything overtly romantic, right? Nothing wrong with poking a friend in the arm, or stopping by for a chat. This whole approach is designed to keep maximum deniability. Heck, he even went for a kiss on someone else and played it off.

          She needs to address the behavior she doesn’t like (either one instance at a time or as a whole), and not the motivation, no matter how obvious it is.

          1. KTMGee*

            Yup! As he tries to save face, he paints her as crazy. Tried and true for guys who are creepy.

          2. TootsNYC*

            she can talk about not wanting any personal friendship as well, not wanting anything but work interactions.

            And the fact that he will deny romantic intent shouldn’t change what she says. If he says, “Oh, I don’t have a romantic interest,” then she can say, “Good, I’m glad. That should make it easy for you to leave me alone now.”

            But at least she had flat-out said it. No more “plausible deniability” for him.

          3. Infinity Anon*

            Yep. In the end, it doesn’t matter why he is acting this way. He is making the OP uncomfortable and needs to stop. If she focuses on the behavior rather than on the presumed motivation for the behavior, he can’t argue that she is wrong. She doesn’t want to talk to him and he keeps trying to talk to her. That is undeniably true.

          4. JessaB*

            But that doesn’t matter. If I don’t want to be talked to by someone who has absolutely zero interest in me, I don’t want to. If the bus to work is my place to zen out before I have to go into work, I don’t want to be bothered by anyone, including my best friend. In this case the OP needs a “not interested” message. In other cases it might be a “pretend I don’t exist on the bus, I don’t want to engage with anyone,” message. But whatever the message the OP is entitled to not be annoyed by people. In this case however I agree that an “I am not interested,” message is important.

        3. Tyche*

          Because usually this kind of men tend to respond to a direct confrontation negating the evidence, saying something like “I’m only friendly” “You misunderstand me!”
          She stated clearly she didn’t want to talk to him, he disregards her boundaries and the boundaries of other women and we should be happy that he not violent but only awkward?

          1. heatherskib*

            While I do see that point- I’ve dealt more with the other side. When I’ve had to deal with this it’s been guys who did not stop without a direct confrontation, to the point that one guy started showing up and watching my tennis lessons. (Turns out he lives in the apartment complex I was taking lessons at.)
            Maintaining silence and giving the cold shoulder doesn’t stop the behavior. Even if he eventually catches on with OP, he will move on to another female. There are enough female coworkers to establish a behavior pattern. I’m assuming the male coworkers don’t have this issue. Time for an intervention.

        4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I like A Bug!’s suggested response, which threads the needle between being direct without accusing someone of romantic intent (because then you get into an argument with the offensive person about whether you’re so full of yourself to think they’re hitting on you).

        5. TootsNYC*

          I think this is what she should directly do.

          I wouldn’t leave it at “I’m not interested in a romantic relationship.”
          I think I’d extend it to say, “I’m also not interested in a personal friendship with you.”

          Something like this:
          “Fergus, I get the impression you are trying to create a deeper friendship with me. I’m sorry to say that I’m not really interested in that. I am definitely not interested in any romantic relationship with you, and I’m also not interested in a personal friendship with you. I’m of course your colleague, and I hope we can always be pleasant to one another, but I don’t want to chat with you outside work or hang out with you at work functions.”

          I do NOT think he has trouble reading social cues–I think he is determined to ignore any social cues he doesn’t want to be bound by.

          But I think it’s probably best to just assume that he hasn’t gotten the subtler message, and to simply directly tell him.

          1. Merci Dee*

            Only thing I’d change in your script is leaving out the part about “I’m sorry to say . . . .” It’s language that softens the rest of the message, and the OP’s letter doesn’t make it sound like she’d be at all sorry about not starting up a relationship with him. I know that it’s usually considered something polite to say, and I totally agree that this phrase has its place. I just don’t think that the place is =here=, in this particular conversation, with a guy who’s shown that he’ll take any little opening and try to run with it. Or that he’ll just try to bust right on through and make openings of his own.

        6. Panda Bandit*

          So, there have been studies done on the whole social cues thing. It turns out that guys understand social cues just fine but are deliberately ignoring them.

          1. SarahTheEntwife*

            Yep. People who actually have trouble reading social clues have trouble in other areas of life. If Fergus were legitimately clueless — especially given that he’s really outgoingly “awkward” — he’d also be missing signals from his boss, inadvertently offending clients, and having trouble interacting with married female coworkers.

          2. Solidad*

            I have worked with autistic and low IQ clients. I have worked with the Amish. I have worked with immigrants. None of those groups have trouble understanding when contact is unwelcome.

          3. Sylvia*

            I’ve noticed that people who are awkward and don’t understand social cues try very hard to work through that, and they would stop if they noticed someone was uncomfortable.

            I’ve noticed that other people who “don’t understand” suddenly develop understanding when it suits them: When speaking with their manager, with people they want to like them, with people they don’t want to irritate.

        7. Oranges*

          Can he understand the “soft no” normally? Does he get into trouble at work because he doesn’t understand his boss? I’m guessing not.

          The thing about people who are socially clueless about “soft nos” (the majority of our “no”s) they’ll be clueless ACROSS the whole of their social life.

          If “I didn’t understand your cues” only crops up in romantic situations, you’ve got a person who thinks their “I want” trumps your “Nope!”

        8. zora*

          I agree with this one. It is SO UNCOMFORTABLE, and really really hard to say it the first time. I have totally been there, multiple times, and I know how hard it is and how awkward it feels. But it works, and it is so helpful to get used to saying it, and be able to say it more easily in the future, because in my experience, this will happen again.

        9. NoNoNoNoNo*

          The default should be that she’s not interested…particularly when she is actively ignoring him (the bus). It should not be her job to spell it out for him. Unless she says “yes,” its a “no.” Full stop.

          If he *is* this clueless he needs to be locked away for the safety if society in general.

  3. Myrin*

    Oh OP! Without knowing either of you, I can one hundred percent say that you did absolutely nothing to make him think this behaviour was okay and you didn’t fail in setting boundaries, either! How can I tell? Well, because this guy has only started to behave like this since he’s learned of your divorce and he’s also done it before and to others. That tells me that he isn’t interested in a person but rather in the idea of a (any, really) single woman he has in his head.

    (As a sidenot, people like this are a mystery to me – like, why do you think you’re so amazing that everyone who doesn’t have a partner must be interested in you? Confidence is great and all but this is like a million times too much! – but they seem to exist pretty widely.)

    1. I GOTS TO KNOW!*

      It is the same mentality that “friend zone” comes from. They believe if they are nice to women the women automatically owe them sex. It is gross.

      I honestly feel like this guy needs additional training from HR on how to behave properly in the work place.

      1. Myrin*

        Which will never not be bewildering to me. Being nice, that is such a low bar. Almost everyone I interact with every day is nice to me! I rarely meet people who are outright hostile or impolite! And yet I don’t want to jump them/want them to jump me. I’d love a peek into a brain like that, just to wrap my own around it.

        I like the idea of some sort of councelling but can that realistically be achieved in this case? A stern word by his supervisor should do the trick as well, but I’m not sure how that would work – unless he boundary-violated all over her, too (which would be a different problem entirely)!

        1. KHB*

          And they’re not even actually all that nice. So really it comes down to “I want sex from this woman, ergo she owes sex to me.”

          Which seems completely absurd, but then you look at all the fairy tales where the helpless passive princess is totally happy to go along with whichever of the brave knights wins the duel, romcoms where the leading man and leading lady lock eyes and Just Know they both want exactly the same thing, poems and songs about how women are “cruel” or “crazy” merely for not wanting what the men around them want them to want, and so on. This is what we’re all soaking in.

          1. Queen of the File*

            Dont’ forget the one about how if you’re persistent enough eventually she’ll change her mind!

            1. EmKay*

              uuuuuugh, seriously

              And then your friends/his friends tell you that you should really give him a chance, he’s a good guy!

              I will punch all of you mofos in the throat. I said no, I mean no.

          2. Decima Dewey*

            Even that makes it more personal than it is. It’s not “I want sex from this woman” so much as “I want sex with a woman. She’s a woman. And she’s not ‘spoken for.'”

          3. Liane*

            I have long maintained that binge-watching romcoms, or binge-listening to love & “gotta win ’em (back)” songs, may be good self-medication for broken &/or lonely hearts.
            But under **No Circumstances** should ANYone mistake those plots/lyrics for advice on dealing with broken &/or lonely hearts.

      2. Jesca*

        I am having this issue right now! And by a much more arguable worse type. I have been considering writing in about it, because the situation is different (not to mention TONS of juicy gossip and bizarre circumstances that should be told!)

      3. MashaKasha*

        I’ve got to share something one of our office creeps did in an OldJob. (His contract was not renewed, mainly because of multiple incidents of this nature.) He took a framed photo of a coworker’s 21yo daughter off the coworker’s desk. Walked around the office, photo in hand, until he found the coworker. Upon which, he asked her if he could put the photo on his desk, so he could look at it all day. You can probably imagine the coworker’s reaction.

        1. AnonEMoose*

          EEEEEWWWWWWWW!!! Wow, the thing with the photo is so seriously gross. If he was working through an agency, I really hope that your company said something to the agency when his contract wasn’t renewed.

            1. MashaKasha*

              This guy also snuck up on me from behind once, kissed me on the cheek, and started walking away. I stopped him and said “never do this to anyone again. This will get you in trouble.” He then proceeded to sneak up on my male teammate from behind and kiss him on the cheek too. Outside the norm does not begin to describe it.

        2. kb*

          I hope coworker quoted Stanley from the office: “Have you lost your damn mind? I will find it for you.”

        3. SunshineOH*

          Holy mother. And I’m sure he was confused by co-worker’s reaction – because it was a “compliment”. The nuts on some people.

        4. Snark*

          “You can probably imagine the coworker’s reaction.”

          Do I win a prize if I guess it was composed largely of profanity?

        5. paul*

          That…that might make me go to HR. Creepy as hell. And if he came around my house (we do have employee directories after all) well, all bets off.

          That is skeevy.

      4. TootsNYC*

        It’s really less that she “owes” them sex in return for their niceness.

        It’s that they think of women as objects–sort of like a saucepan that you purchase. They do not think women have agency here.

        You want a saucepan, so you go to the store where there are saucepans available for sale, and you pick one, and pay for it. It’s now yours. The saucepan doesn’t owe you anything, it just belongs to you.

        So there’s a single woman, which automatically means she’s available to any person who wants her, so he “pays” by showing interest, and now assumes she belongs to him.

        It’s somehow worse than him thinking, “hey, I was nice, and now she owes me sex.”

        1. Artemesia*

          I remember reading a story about a UN employee who was enraged that a woman working at the UN wouldn’t have sex with him because he knew she had dated and had an affair with another man who worked there, so ‘wasn’t he good enough’ to ‘have her too.’ Exactly the mentality many immature men have and perfectly described in your saucepan purchase analogy. It isn’t fair that any woman available is not available to him.

        2. Nea*

          I’ve used a credit card rewards program analogy in the past. The “nice” is using the credit card, wherein every transaction is earning him points to cash in when and how he pleases.

          And when she doesn’t see herself as a reward, he’s furious because he thinks she’s not upholding her side of the transaction.

          1. TootsNYC*

            but it’s even not so much that she’s a reward. She doesn’t even have THAT much agency, to have the power to reward him.

        3. MashaKasha*

          Doesn’t even have to be a boyfriend with those guys. Any man who can claim any kind of ownership will do. When I was separated from my ex-husband and getting the divorce finalized, my kids and I lived in an apartment complex. A guy who looked old enough to be my dad, that I met there in the laundry room, asked to go out for drinks. I made it very clear that I could not date anyone. I was also very clearly not interested. Nonetheless, the minute I got into his car, he put his hand on my knee and said, “Tell me about yourself. You said you had two kids? Boys or girls? How old?”

          I said: “I have two boys. They are both over six feet tall, they’re both in high school, and they both know I’m out with Mike from the fifth floor.” Mike took his hand off my knee right away. No romantic advances were ever made by Mike for the rest of our stay in that apartment complex. I agree that it is absolutely ridiculous. When he thought I had no one to protect me, I was fine for him to hit on. But the minute he learned that a 14yo guy and a 17yo guy owned me (???), I was off-limits.

    2. BlueWolf*

      Having dealt with similar situations before (although not at work), I don’t think it’s necessarily confidence that leads to this type of behavior. That may be the case for some men, but in my experience it tended to be socially awkward guys who maybe haven’t had much luck with any women. I see it more as a way to hedge their bets. If they just try to hit on every woman, one eventually has to work out, right?

      1. Myrin*

        What a sad way to go about life. Even if that strategy works initially, it’s bound to lead to problems down the road since these guys apparently don’t look for compatibility or even just “Do I actually like this woman?”. My goodness.

        1. Mookie*

          Honestly, for men who behave this way, they don’t “like” women and can’t ever fathom doing so. Women are interchangeable and useful for things, but those things are not friendship or companionship or mutual respect.

      2. Snark*

        Yeah, this is the sort of fellow who thinks that monopolizing a woman’s time and doing her small and unsolicited favors are coins he can feed into a meter, and then they get infuriated when the woman doesn’t hold up her end of the transaction and put out for him, and rant about how women all seem to friend-zone him.

        1. Gazebo Slayer*

          This, 100%. They don’t think of women as people with our own wishes, goals, and opinions; they think of us as vending machines, there to serve a purpose for them, and rage that the machine stole their quarters when they don’t get what they think they’re owed.

        2. Humble Schoolmarm*

          This reminds me of a Fergus I ran into in a foray into online dating who complained that I wasn’t returning his messages promptly and asked if I was messaging with someone else(!) and then wondered “why women kept coming on to dating sites if they just wanted to make friends”. Oh…dude… I had no qualms about ghosting him as the alternative was a strongly worded email about how getting possessive with people you haven’t even had coffee with is in no way attractive. (Not that possessiveness is ever a good thing, but to go there that fast was a vip invite to the International Red Flag Convention).

          1. Nea*

            a vip invite to the International Red Flag Convention

            I’m totally stealing that for future use.

          2. Jesca*

            Online dating. What can ya say? People lose their shit on that! And really I have tried it so many times, until I made the connection that a dick pic is essentially experience like a minor assault every single time. Like would you walk up into a bar to a chick and whip out the dick? No. It would assault. Then why would you message a chick and send an unsolicited pic of your dick? Crazy. Same thing there. Would you yell at the chick in the bar who was asked a question by a friend while you were talking to her? Nope. Cuz that’s creepy.

      3. Bostonian*

        I’ve seen it go the other way (due to confidence). There was a Fergus at my last job, and he really thought he was the Best Boyfriend ever and that any girl would be lucky to have him. Example: talking about how he couldn’t understand why his ex-gf broke up with him because he “treated her like gold” by buying her things and doing things for her. Welp, there’s a lot more to relationships than that!

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          This reminds me of Chris Rock’s skit about people bragging about things they’re supposed to do, like taking care of their kids. If you have to brag about something that’s considered a basic norm of human behavior—regardless of whether you’re in a romantic relationship—then you do not understand how this stuff works.

          1. Sheworkshardforthemoney*

            I remember that, it was hilarious. It goes with fathers who call looking after their kids “babysitting”. It’s not babysitting, it’s called raising your kids.

          2. Mookie*

            Yep. That bit amply demonstrates what “parenting” — or, in this case, forming bonds with women — is good for: namely, impressing people, collecting cookies, and martyring yourself over your ‘sacrifices.’ If a potential relationship with a woman only looks like work to you (the paycheck for which is sex or something), don’t pursue relationships with women. If occasionally spending time with your children requires fanfare, don’t have kids.

        2. LawPancake*

          Hah, I’m reminded of a HS friend’s ex-boyfriend who couldn’t understand why she broke up with him.. his actual literal quote was “I didn’t hit her, I didn’t call her names, I treated her like a queen!” Uhh… sure buddy.

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            I’ve heard guys say this, and it always makes me wonder what their home life was like. Because if your standard for treating someone “well” is not abusing them, then I have to wonder what your models for good relationship treatment were.

          2. Anonymous for this post*

            Oh dear god> I’m having horrible flashbacks. “You can’t leave your boyfriend, he’s a gem! He doesn’t curse at you, yell at you, beat you or cheat on you, he doesn’t go out at night, he doesn’t flirt with girls”

            Relationship with that person aside, it was absolutely demoralizing to see how poopy the standard for mens behavior was in some peoples eyes.

          3. Infinity Anon*

            No one should feel the need to add not being abusive to their list of good qualities. That should be the default. Only variation from the default needs to be told.

          4. librarylass*

            One of my favorite literary quotes: “When I go down into the ground at last, as God is my judge, I pray my best-beloved may have better to say of me than ‘he didn’t me.'”

        3. nonegiven*

          More likely she was never his girlfriend and she broke up by reporting him to HR or getting a RO.

      4. Allison*

        Yeah, it’s sort of the “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” and “don’t let the fear or striking out keep you from playing the game” mentality. But it sucks that they see it as a game, where we’re the prize they win for saying the right things or something.

      5. Brogrammer*

        The “cold calling telemarketer” approach to dating. Because that’s such an attractive and romantic image to invoke.

      6. Cobol*

        I have a friend like this. He doesn’t even consciously do it. He’s just missing any ability to click with anybody (includes the inability to click with men on a platonic level). It’s sad.

      7. anon for this one*

        As someone who’s been one of these guys in the past, when you have no idea what success / reciprocal interest looks like, you have no idea what to look for when it comes to signals that she is or isn’t interested. All those little hints that you thought were obvious just sailed over his head. You need to clearly let him know you aren’t interested, and involve HR if he persists.

          1. Kathleen Adams*

            No, but it is up to the woman to clearly say “no.” And I don’t think she has.

            Not that I blame her – it’s an awkward conversation and the guy really should be able to pick up her not-all-that-subtle hints. But he hasn’t, and odds are decent that the reason he hasn’t is because he truly is that clueless. So if her answer is “I don’t want to have a romantic relationship with you – I just want us to work together,” that’s what she’s going to have to say.

            1. Formica Dinette*

              I disagree that it’s up to the woman to clearly say no. Women who clearly say no to men who want to date them often face negative consequences. In this case, OP is concerned that saying no will make it difficult to work with him in the future.

              Also, she stated in her letter than another woman told him no and it only stopped him from behaving that way with that one woman (“Apparently one woman straight up lost it on him until he got a clue”).

              1. KHB*

                It’s not the OP’s responsibility to keep him from creeping on all women everywhere. If she can successfully get him to leave her alone, she can regard that as a successful outcome, even if it means he starts bothering someone else.

            2. Infinity Anon*

              It is not a woman’s responsibility to say “no” if they haven’t been asked anything.

              1. Kathleen Adams*

                But by that reasoning, it’s not the guy’s responsibility to hear “No” if he hasn’t asked anything either. Don’t you see? Somebody has to step up and bring the situation at least somewhat out in the open so that there can be some resolution.

                The OP’s choices are: 1. to continue doing all this stuff that hasn’t worked or 2. to bring the topic up at least semi-openly. The guy apparently isn’t going to do 2, at least not for a while, and in the meantime, the OP is going to continue to be uncomfortable. So enough with all that. She needs to just tell him clearly (and politely, at least the first time) what her expectations are.

                1. Soon to be former fed*

                  She should go to HR, this shit doesn’t belong in the workplace full stop and she should not have to upset herself getting ugly with Mr. Clueless. Some of us are more comfortable with direct confrontation than others, and that’s OK.

            3. Solidad*

              Women who clearly say no often have very negative responses. Some even get killed. We need to move away from this notion that a woman must clearly say no.

              I do not understand why you think the default is yes until she says no instead of the default being no unless she gives him signs of a yes.

              This is why we have rape culture. It’s not the big violations. It’s the small ones. We put the onus on the victim. That’s precisely what you are doing.

              She’s already told him no in 10000 ways. She told him no by ignoring him on the bus. He chose to poke her.

              He KNOWS it’s a no and doesn’t care.

              1. KHB*

                It shouldn’t have to be a woman’s job to say no, but in some situations it’s still the best course of action. In an ideal world, everyone would respect a “soft no” when they hear it, and everyone would recognize that ignoring a “soft no” is a boundary violation. But that’s not the world we live in, and that’s not the situation the OP is faced with. So it’s helpful to have ways of saying no that are assertive, unambiguous, but not outright mean. (Not that I’d fault the OP for being outright mean to Fergus if she wanted to. But it sounds like she doesn’t want to.)

                Fergus has been told no by a number of other women, and he hasn’t killed any of them. It sounds like he’s quite skilled in keeping his behavior just this side of an HR complaint, and he’ll probably continue to do that in the face of rejection from the OP. He’ll probably get passive-aggressive with her (which is bad enough and I don’t mean to minimize that), but I doubt he’ll go straight to the worst imaginable behavior.

              2. Sleeping or maybe dead*

                ^^^^ so much yes!
                Been there, said no in every way possible. “No” isn’t a magic word, even though it should.
                In rape culture, you risk your safety by saying no, and you are blamed for not saying it. And, even if you do say no, it will oftenly be dismissed.

              3. Clairels*

                So…if it’s not her responsibility to tell him “no,” what would you suggest she do now? I’m not being snarky, I’m curious. Just about the only thing left is complaining to HR, which will have the same outcome, because he’ll know it was her who complained.

                1. Misc*

                  She may still *have* to tell him no, that’s not the same thing as it being her responsibility.

                2. Soon to be former fed*

                  HR can appropriately discipline this guy. I’m sick of him and I don’t even work with him what an effing tool.

      8. Queen of the File*

        This is kind of how I have experienced it too… really wanting a girlfriend but knowing 95% of the time they get rejected, odds of success are better if they approach every single woman they know.

        Obviously it’s a gross lack of respect etc, but I wouldn’t categorize it as the person believing everyone wants them.

        1. Serin*

          I have no problem with a guy who makes dating a numbers game in the sense that he will “approach” multiple women by saying, “Would you like to go on a date with me?” (allowing for a nice clean Yes or No) — as long as he’s willing to take no for an answer.

          The annoying thing is guys who “approach” women by gradually encroaching on their time and their personal space, then becoming possessive of them and sulking if they’re not granted an ever-increasing share of their attention, without ever asking a question that their target could say No to.

    3. Say what, now?*

      I think it may be the opposite, low confidence. Maybe the thought is “I will never find a partner if I don’t take every shot with every available woman regardless of compatibility.”

    4. Emma*

      Alison got this square on. Women are socialized to be polite and always make people (men in particular) comfortable. Men often take advantage of this (whether consciously or not) and so women are forced to be what they feel is rude to set a perfectly reasonable boundary. You’re not obligated to talk to someone outside of work (or about non-work things at work). Full stop. He’s the one being rude by forcing you to put your foot down.

    5. Rat in the Sugar*

      In my experience people that act like this don’t think of the opposite sex as being people the way they are–guys who think of women as being interchangeable barbie dolls, women who think of guys as being sex-crazed dogs/idiots (I’ve seen way fewer women like this, but they’re out there too). To them, it’s an equation–women want attention/money/a Nice Guy/whatever, if I offer it then they should accept and have sex with me. He doesn’t distinguish between them (other than dividing women into attractive/unattractive, I’m guessing) so he doesn’t even think of them as individuals with different desires. Isn’t he offering what women want? Why isn’t she accepting? Must be a bitch.

      I’ve seen it even simpler the other way around–men want sex, I’ve offered sex, why isn’t he accepting? Must be an asshole (or gay, I’ve heard this assumption). I’ve seen women seriously refuse to accept that straight men do not automatically want sex with any woman who offers it. They also don’t seem to differentiate between men or see them as being full people with desires and the entire spectrum of emotion.

    6. paul*

      but I’m not a miserable asshole and that makes me romantically interesting right?! Gaaah. People like that are so damned delusional.

  4. voyager1*

    To me the boundary really got crossed with the text/poking incident and then off the cliff with the outing where others were noticing his attention towards you.

    I would just skip to the paragraph about the divorce that AAM used. Some guys have to get a no with real finality to get a clue.

      1. Cobol*

        Agree. Decide what you want and then tell him. He can’t (or potentially isn’t) read(ing) social cues. Be nice, but direct.

        1. Soon to be former fed*

          Sometimes, niceness and directness are mutually exclusive. Fluck that, this jerkwad is interfering with the lws right to work unmolested. Let HR deal with him, it’s sexual harassment. Most people have the sense to leave that mess outside the office and not shit where you eat. And if you do, expect to get wiped up.

    1. paul*

      My I-wish-it-worked-this-way advice would be to handle it with mace at this point. Sadly, not an option.

      1. Liane*

        What kind of mace? The modern spray type, or the old-fashioned heavy metal ball on a big stick, guaranteed to penetrate heads too tough for a clue-by-four?

    2. Shadow*

      When hints (even obvious hints) don’t work it’s time to elevate the response and be direct. I don’t think it’s worth it to debate whether people should or shouldn’t pick up on clues, the fact of the matter is they didn’t so that’s what you have to deal with.

  5. Lisa*

    I never like the keep making things up to say why you can’t talk approach. I like the more direct but kind approach. I would call out the attention as unwelcome and that you are not interested in a social relationship with him. I would do it kindly but make it clear that the attention is unwelcome. People like this don’t get the subtle (or even unsubtle) hints. I get really squidgy when I see using excuses to get points across rather than the truth.

    1. Anna*

      They also don’t tend to hear the words and only the way you said them, which is why direct kindness isn’t always the best option. The problem isn’t the maybe lie, it’s that this dude doesn’t get that she doesn’t want to interact.

    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I agree. You have to be brutally blunt with someone with this level of boundaries-lacking, particularly a repeat offender. You can still be kind, but you can’t leave any room for debate or hope; it’s a “give an inch, take a mile” situation. It’s going to feel rude/difficult, but OP has to remember that enforcing your boundary isn’t rude—it’s the person who’s violating all social norms that’s out of line.

      1. JessaB*

        Yep its the reason people keep gambling on slot machines, or kids keep screaming in the store, or someone calls and calls. because a certain percentage of attention happens. If a kid knows at 30 minutes parent will cave, they yell for 3o minutes. If you tell someone no and they call 20 times and you answer on time 20, they know you will answer. It has to be A: shut down and B: never, ever given into.

    3. Amber T*

      Agree! I would jump right to Alison’s last bit of advice – “Since I told you I was getting a divorce, you haven’t been respecting my boundaries when I can’t talk or don’t want to talk at work or on the bus. That’s not cool with me.” You’re not accusing him of liking you or wanting a romantic relationship (because “noooo of course he doesn’t omg why would you think that??”). It’s direct, states what your problem is, and lets him know that it’s Not Okay. Bringing up the timing of your divorce subtly lets him know you know where he thinks this is going and shutting it down without giving him the chance to deny it.

      And to reiterate many posters above, you did NOTHING. The problem is (which is 100% his problem) in his mind, the only reason you weren’t hooking up before was because you were property of someone else but hey now you’re free so you totally want to hook up with him because obviously who wouldn’t.

      1. Artemesia*

        Great advice. By pushing the ‘not respecting my boundaries’ bit you are not going to hve to engage the tedious ‘oh she just thinks I am hitting on her because she thinks she is so hot and she is soooo not’ nonsense which arises when twits like this are rejected.

    4. Antilles*

      Read the second paragraph – after she said hi, she was “wearing headphones while reading a book”, then visibly ignored his text message. That’s about the most blatant signal for No Desire To Talk that you can possibly send without physical violence…and yet, he still thought it was fine to poke her in the arm till she responded.
      There’s no way in heck that a subtle hint about ‘busy’ or ‘other plans’ or whatever is going to work.

      1. Allison*

        When I started reading on my commutes, I would put bulky headphones over my ears, plug them into my iPod, and not play music, to help muffle background noise and in the hopes of sending a clear, visual signal that I was trying to read in peace and did not want to stop to chat, or discuss my book with guys who pretended to be interested in it in order to break the ice. It did not work. Headphones were on, guy asked what my book was about. I silently showed him the cover for a few seconds and went back to reading, and he asked if I liked it, so I explained to him, as politely as I could, that I just wanted to keep reading.

    5. CarolynM*

      I am with you completely on this, Lisa – well said! And while I understand that it isn’t always the most comfortable thing in the world to be direct, the more you do it, the easier it becomes and that is a good thing!

      I also agree with you that direct is not the same thing as unkind and that is a really important point to make – if you have been conditioned to feel that being anything less than perfectly accommodating and gracious to every person you cross paths with, you are going to feel outrageously rude establishing and enforcing boundaries the first few times, but it gets easier and one day you are going to realize the huge favor you did for yourself when you swallowed hard and stood your ground that very first time!

      Life with excellent boundaries is so much easier and much more pleasant … take it from a reformed people-pleaser! :)

    6. Kathenus*

      I agree as well. The added benefit of the direct approach is that you can have one awkward conversation that hopefully resolves the problem, versus the potential of several awkward ones trying to get the point across with coming up with reasons to not talk each time. Since awkward is unavoidable at this point, pulling off the band-aid all at once has it’s benefits.

  6. SarahKay*

    OP, you haven’t done anything wrong. *You* haven’t got the boundaries messed up, and the only thing you did to make him think he could behave like this is to be single and female. He is way out of line, and Alison’s advice is excellent.
    Stick to your guns – and keep reading your book on the bus! As a non-morning-person bookworm myself, you’d have all my sympathy for that alone, never mind all his other intrusive behaviour.

  7. LizB*

    Alison, I love all of your advice on this, and I have question: since this is a well-known pattern, would it be something that the LW (or the LW + a group of coworkers) could potentially talk to management about? If one of my direct reports were systematically pestering his single coworkers and not stopping until they either flipped out on him or stopped being single, I would absolutely want to have a big picture conversation with him about professional boundaries. This kind of thing would go against my organization’s code of conduct, so it would legitimately be a performance issue that I could address with our formal disciplinary process if need be. Obviously not all managers/organizations are going to be as inclined to treat this as a performance issue, but if the LW feels their management might be sympathetic, would it be worth raising?

    1. Ann O. Nymous*

      Agreed – I think if multiple women in the company have experienced this behavior, it’s definitely worth them coming together and saying something to HR/management. As said above, women are often socialized to be polite to the point where they don’t feel comfortable or they feel guilty speaking up, and saying something could possibly help to curb this guy’s behavior, or at least get it on the company’s radar.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yes, although the OP will be more effective if she first tells him directly to stop, since HR is likely to ask if people have done that.

    2. Amazed*

      It sounds like the LW has other coworkers who have been on the end of this guy’s behavior. It would be difficult for management to brush all of them off at once.

      1. NoNoNoNoNo*

        One would hope but the Bill Cosby rape accusations (for example) gives lie to the idea that women, even in large groups will be believed against the words of a single male.

    3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Also agreed. I said this upthread—this guy’s a missing stair. If the company/employer is at all functional, several women complaining together should make any decent manager or HR department pay attention and do something.

  8. High Score!*

    After being raised to be polite myself and then learning better, I always told my own daughter that while politeness was nice, she didn’t owe politeness or kindness to anyone and no one had the right to touch her if she didn’t want them to. I drug her to martial arts classes with me where we learned that when someone puts any part of their body on you, it is a gift for you to use however you want. When someone pokes me, I like to grab that finger and practice joint locks. And That’s OK.

    After decades (centuries?) of being told to be nice, polite, etc… Let’s start telling each other that it’s OK to protect ourselves, it’s OK to set boundaries and being direct and assertive is not rude. Polite is awesome for those who deserve it and rude is fine for those who try to abuse our politeness.

    1. fposte*

      Honestly, I don’t think polite ever meant the same thing as passive, but it got commandeered somehow along the way. It was always polite to say no to people, eject people from your house, insist they not touch you, etc.

      1. High Score!*

        Of course polite and passive are not the same, but OP is proof that to many women they are. I think things are getting better, but growing up, I was always told: be nice, be kind, be polite, don’t ever get in a fight ever, no one likes a bad girl, give uncle you don’t remember a big hug, kissy for weird aunt, etc… Many women are taught to kindly give what their told to, not how to set boundaries. It’s time to explicitly let people know that setting boundaries is not rude.

        1. fposte*

          Oh, I agree that that’s in the socialization stream; I just like to keep politeness’s good name free from that crap.

        2. D.W.*

          I absolutely agree with all of this.

          OP, I think it’s important for you to be very direct in setting boundaries for him. Do not give him an inch. And I have to agree with a previous comment about not making up excuses (even though it’s difficult for some). Telling the truth may be the best route. And don’t engage him in conversation after you’ve said your peace. He will have some sort of rebuttal.

          Also, I don’t have kids, but when I do, I want to be very strategic with what I teach them in regards to control over their body. Such as telling them, “You don’t have to hug, kiss, touch, or be touched by anyone you don’t know and/or feel comfortable with.” This includes family. They should be in complete control and know how to set boundaries for themselves. I hated having to do that as a child myself. I always felt helpless and like my comfort didn’t matter.

      2. animaniactoo*

        Somewhere between “don’t make a fuss” and “it’s not polite to comment on other people’s manners”.

        One of the things I strongly advocate for irl and I’ve mentioned here before is that one of the things we need to do as a society and as parents is to teach our children not just not to make a fuss over things that can’t be changed or aren’t that big a deal, but also to teach them WHEN to make a fuss. To stand up and be loud and blatant and not accept the treatment you are being given in no uncertain terms.

        1. TootsNYC*

          I think it would be great if we could also teach them HOW to make a fuss. What the words should be, what tone of voice is both firm and not seen as angry or mean.

        2. BF50*

          The problem is that as a parent you want to shelter and nurture your children and shield them from bad situations. And while there are obviously people are looking for children to take advantage of, those are predators. The everyday unfairness of the world is often shielded from children because many people who would take advantage of an adult still won’t screw over a child.

          Basically, many children with upper middle class upbringings don’t face that type of adversity until they are an adult and out of their parent’s home. It’s hard to teach to a situation that hasn’t happened yet.

          I was “lucky” enough to encounter my first guy like this at my first job in highschool where I had my mom and aunt to carefully coach me on what to say to say to get him to back off. If it had happened at my first professional job, I don’t know that I would have thought to mention it to my mom or anyone outside of my peer group until the situation was truly terrible.

          I say lucky there because he was a teenage boy with low social skills. I explicitly told him I wasn’t interested in him and to get out of my personal space and he stopped. He was still a creep but he stopped, not just harassing me, but harassing girls at work in general. I do think that having done that at 16 prepared me to be able to do it again, even though generally I am non-confrontational.

          1. animaniactoo*

            Actually, as a parent, I don’t want to shield my children from bad or awkward situations – I want to teach them how to avoid them, work with them to avoid them, and I want to teach them how to handle them themselves when you can’t avoid them.

            Large chunks of my parenting have literally been discussing situations that haven’t happened to them, but have the potential to happen because they’re common kinds of things that people have to deal with, and talking about what to do, why to do it, what the logic behind some kinds of things are. The core logic of what they get to choose and why (nobody has more right to say what goes into your body than you do – you’re the one who has to taste it, so you’re primary and they don’t HAVE to get offended – they have a choice about how to react just as you do, so choosing to be offended rather than understanding is in their ballcourt and you don’t take it on as yours to do for them; stuff like that.).

            Some of them were great conversations, some of them were them rolling their eyes at me while I was up on my soapbox (and then they tease me about my soapbox stuff), but one kid has now thanked me several times for teaching him this kind of stuff. Made me really proud recently when he was talking about negotiating stuff with his boyfriend and the boundary lines he was drawing clearly in the face of stuff bf said that just didn’t work for him.

            1. BF50*

              I don’t disagree, but I think I wasn’t clear in my first sentence. It’s instinct to shield your child. Many parents who aren’t always mindful about all their parenting moves don’t always think about the need to let their child fix something when the can fix it themselves.

              Also, my children are 3 and 4, and while I do have these types of conversations with my children, there are more along the lines of “well what could we have done if Johnny took your block?” It’s easier with the 4 year old.

              1. animaniactoo*

                lol, yeah, those are the building blocks. My kids are now in their 20s, and they were tweens when they became mine.

            2. JessaB*

              But it’s also important to model this stuff. Telling a kid one thing and then telling them they have to hug Aunt Z is an issue. Also adults need to go to bat for their children in awkward stupid dress code things, or situations where females are told that males cannot control themselves and they are responsible for dressing so that the boys don’t get distracted. I hate the heck out of that. I swear. I want to scream. Why is it that the parents of girls are up in arms about the dress code and the parents of boys do not scream louder that “if my son can’t pay attention then you need to tell him to pay attention and just because Sally has a tank top on has not a damned thing to do with him.”

              1. TootsNYC*

                I’m on the “how dare you give my son the message, even subliminally, that not only is it OK for him to be an asshole, but that you EXPECT him to be an asshole?”

                You are sabotaging my efforts to raise a real man.

        3. Marisol*

          I basically agree but I think you can usually set boundaries, at least in the beginning stages before a situation escalates, without making a fuss per se. Saying something like, “please don’t poke me” is assertive but also pretty low-key, as well as polite. I’d like to see children (especially girls) be taught to pay close attention to their own feelings and needs, so that they can speak up for themselves without needing to make a fuss. And having a good awareness of feelings and needs, as well as a solid self-esteem, will give someone a healthy sense of entitlement that will allow them to make a loud, blatant fuss when necessary.

          1. JessaB*

            Honestly, the “please” softens something that needs to NOT be softened. You can be polite and say “Do NOT touch me.” Please leaves wiggle room.

            Also we need to stop telling kids to share everything. It blurs boundaries and ownership issues. And if my kid’s school is poor then organise to raise funds to get backpacks of stuff for the kids. Do not tell my kid that their crayons have to go into some communal box. They’re teaching kids that their property and person are not under their control and it’s wrong. Kids have a right to say that’s my toy car and I want to play with it and NO I do not have to let you.

            1. animaniactoo*

              I disagree – it’s fine to say “please” the first time. If that doesn’t solve the situation, then you escalate from a clear request to a much firmer statement. That’s one of the things I’ve also worked on with my kids, in terms of assuming the benefit of the doubt and making an attempt at solving it peacefully first rather than going all in.

              The benefit of this is that most people don’t actually intend to irritate you, etc. so keeping it in a tone where that’s not assumed and you’re not super-defensive about it having happened resolves the situation without any bad blood on either side. If bad blood happens – you tried. If they don’t listen or take offense – that’s on them. And that means you go up to the next level of boundary drawing and defending your own right to not be touched/poked/etc.

              Unless it is blatantly clear that the hand on your arm is meant to restrain you, etc., in which case, you skip straight to “Get your hand off my arm right now.” and physically removing it yourself in whatever means necessary if that doesn’t happen.

              1. Annoyed*

                Actually I think LW should have addressed it thusly:

                “WTF dude? Did you *not* see me reading *with headphones on* and *ignore* your text message? *Then* you freaking *poke* me?”

                “WTH makes you think that’s ok ever? Could you not see that I **did not want to be disturbed?***”

                “Oh wait, what you want matters more than what I want even if it’s my own time/space right?”

                “Never, ever touch me ever again.”

            2. Zahra*

              Yup. My son really likes sharing snacks when I bring some and, around 3, he had to learn the whole “your snack is yours to share or not, but it doesn’t mean other people have to share in return. Sally’s snack is hers and she gets to decide if she shares or not.” He’s got it now and has for quite some time.

          2. NoNoNoNoNo*

            Not “please.” Thats a request. Make a clear, declarative statement: “do not touch me.”

            Its not a negotiation.

    2. Hills to Die on*

      I was going to suggest that OP just tell him that she has a boyfriend, but then I read this. <3

      1. Snark*

        That would just reinforce the attitude that women get “claimed,” and that any unattended one is fair game for getting slobbered on.

          1. Squeeble*

            Which, in some work-specific situations, is the best solution. But here I agree that OP should just be direct.

            1. Just a lurker 'til now*

              I read through all the comments up to here just to see if the ‘easy out’ had been mentioned as I wanted to add a voice for this option. I do think that more direct language is preferable where the OP wishes to do so, but the OP certainly didn’t pick this fight and if she doesn’t wish to engage with it directly, I think it’s OK to pretend to be in a new relationship just so the behaviour stops. Especially as the OP would know more about possible consequences of the direct route – maybe Fergus is best buddies with her boss and she’s struggling to make rent; maybe Fergus runs the local professional organisation which has a bit of a monopoly over career development opportunities; maybe OP had seen instances that suggest Fergus might escalate and OP and Fergus have to work overtime sometimes when no-one else is in the office, etc. I know that’s a lot of maybes that weren’t in the letter (Sorry, Alison), I just don’t want anyone to feel guilty in this situation for taking the ‘easy out’ for personal reasons when it should never have been their monkey s#@t-filled circus to clean up in the first place.

              1. Grapey*

                Agreed 100% with wanting an easy out. Being feminist doesn’t mean being a teacher to cure all of society’s ills 24/7.

                However it sounds like going this route will cause OP to do more mental exercises over the long run to come up with excuses for why her SO isn’t at work events for example, which may not be an easy route after all.

                In other situations, like travelling with a cheap “wedding ring” while single, is what I think of when I hear “easy out”. It’s what I did when in Europe since I would have rathered spend my time enjoying life instead of batting off strangers that I’d likely never see again.

    3. Havarti*

      “…when someone puts any part of their body on you, it is a gift for you to use however you want.”
      Love it!

  9. KR*

    Yes OP, please keep in mind it’s okay to not be nice all the time. It’s okay to be rude if someone is being rude to you. Don’t feel like you have to apologize here or even use softening language – you want your space and that is perfectly valid. Another good idea when he gets particularly egregious (poking, ect) is to look at him with shock and say, “Why would you poke me? I’m clearly reading.” Or something similar. I know it’s hard – my dad used to tell me regularly when I was a kid and teen to be polite every. time. I left the house alone. You would have thought I went around cursing people out as a hobby. Really, he just viewed any thing that wasn’t upbeat, accommodating, and friendly as rude and argumentative when it came out of my mouth. Women are conditioned to be constantly nice, smily, and polite even when people don’t deserve it at all and we don’t have to be. The men will survive. You have an advantage that this man has a history of doing this – believe me anyone who thinks you are rude for setting boundaries is judging you based on their sexist beliefs or doesn’t know the whole story and in both cases their opinion does not matter. Good luck and girl power.

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I would argue that it’s not even rude to ask someone why they’re poking you! Being direct ≠ being rude. Women are socialized otherwise, but we have to remember that it’s perfectly ok to call out bad behavior in a calm, “wtf are you doing” tone. I like to channel Mary Poppins when I do it.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          This often happens to me, too :( (I am not fast enough for the commentariat!)

    2. Cobol*

      I would argue too that OP is being nice by straight up saying no, not interested. I know a lot of times women can’t do this because of the risk of an unpredictable (violent) response from the person they are saying no to, but in this case it sounds like there’s no fear of that.

  10. MashaKasha*

    Why is this creep still employed? I’ve seen male coworkers lose their jobs and have their contracts terminated for stuff like this. You did nothing wrong, OP. But he is apparently being enabled by the entire workplace, up to and including the management. How come everybody knows he’s a creeping creep, everyone has known for years, and nothing is being done about it, because he is “otherwise likeable” (oh give me a break he is not).

    1. all aboard the anon train*

      Unfortunately, I’m not surprised. I’ve seen such things happen at past companies, as well as my current one, and there’s always some justification for keeping these people, like “but they’re such a good worker” or “they’re so likeable!”

      It’s awful, but people really do like to come up with justifications for other people’s bad behaviors.

      1. BF50*

        I’m guessing no.

        This is all stuff that’s nebulous enough that people don’t report it. An individual manager or two may not like the guy, but I doubt the company as a whole or management in general has a good idea of how much this guy is making people uncomfortable.

    2. Starbuck*

      He’s probably still employed because the worst he’s done to OP was poke her when she was listening to music and try to interact with her on the bus. Without more, that make him a nuisance but not a stalker or harasser.

      Even when it comes to the other woman he’s interacted with, he leaned in for a kiss but didn’t force himself on her and seems to have backed off when he didn’t get the kiss. Also we don’t know that woman was an employee, only a member of the community. Nuisance, yes, harassment/hostile workplace, not quite.

      You’re right that OP did not thing wrong, but not every bit of social awkwardness needs immediate firing.

      1. MashaKasha*

        I understood community as the group of coworkers who get together for happy hours and social events outside of work. The woman that talked to OP was a coworker. And she said it was not just OP and one other person, it was every available single woman. The reason I asked is, from my experience, the management starts to really pay attention when there are multiple people involved. Which is understandable. When there’s one person in the office, no matter how likeable, that makes workplace a minefield for multiple people, that’s not conducive to overall productivity. I admit I’m not HR and do not know how these things work. I’ve just seen it on several occasions that a guy would disappear and I would then hear about there being complaints from multiple women in the office.

      2. pope suburban*

        A pattern of boundary-trampling behavior directed only at women who are not in relationships, on the other hand, goes beyond “a bit of social awkwardness.” It’s the kind of thing that creates an uncomfortable working environment for a good many people. It’s the kind of thing that may lead to women resigning from the company to escape this guy. It’s the kind of thing that might inadvertently send a message to female employees that they and their comfort are not priorities for the company.

      3. Soon to be former fed*

        Bull. People have a right to be left alone in the workplace, especially not to be sexually harrassed. The employer should hurry up and shut this shit down.

  11. KHB*

    So many of Alison’s scripts are of the form “I can’t talk right now.” I don’t know how effective that will be as more than a temporary band-aid. Creeps like Fergus like to rationalize everything to themselves, and they’ll hear “can’t talk right now” and think “Oh, so it’s totally cool for me to try to talk to her later.”

    Ideally, you’d want to give him as little plausible deniability as possible. There aren’t a whole lot of great ways to do that without “straight up losing it on him,” or sitting around just waiting for him to really cross a line.* But you can get a lot of mileage out of the phrase “I don’t know if I’m reading this wrong, but…”** E.g., “I don’t know if I’m reading this wrong, but I’m not interested in a relationship with you outside of work,” or whatever happens to be true for you.

    *For my money, I’d say he already has.
    **Full disclosure: I’ve never actually used this line. I’ve only had it used on me. But it worked.

    1. Thinking Outside the Boss*

      I agree that OP will have to be firm with Fergus. The problem with saying “I can’t talk right now” is that he will come back later, and the pattern will repeat.

      I like the idea of being direct–“I don’t want a relationship with you, Fergus.” At a bare minimum, saying that you don’t date coworkers is acceptable. Even if OP’s ex was an employee, OP can say, “and because of that experience, I’m never doing it again.”

      Fergus is counting on his “nice guy” persona to keep OP from turning around and going to HR about how Fergus is crossing boundaries and creeping her out. That’s how these dudes roll.

    2. Starbuck*

      Exactly. “I can’t talk right now” implies she CAN talk later.

      The guy misses social cues. He doesn’t understand putting on headphones or typing loudly or being ignored.

      1. KHB*

        I think it’s more likely that he understands them, but he rules-lawyers around them to himself because he’s too focused on what he wants and it hasn’t occurred to him that the OP is an autonomous person who might want something different.

        There have been studies that found that people who seemingly don’t understand these social cues and “soft no’s” can actually understand them just fine once they’re translated into a context that has nothing to do with dating or sex.

    3. Jessie the First (or second)*

      The problem with “I’m not interested in a relationship with you outside of work” is that you may well get a barrage of “You are reading it wrong, I don’t want that either, you’re so stuck up, you think you’re so great?!” type insults.

      Being direct is good, but I’d steer clear of assigning a motivation to him – I’d say some version of ‘this is too much social time, and I don’t want to socialize this much. I want quiet during the commute and I prefer to stick to our work projects at work’ statement.

      (Actually, I am terrible at uncomfortable situations and pushing back on crossed boundaries, so I would not say any such thing – but I recognize that something like that could and should be said!)

      1. Jessie the First (or second)*

        To clarify – because IME, after the insults, then you get not enough of a reduction in efforts to be social. Like, he thinks he’s appropriately fended off your “no” by saying that there was no need for it. And he’ll keep trying.

      2. KHB*

        Yeah, I retract my suggestion in favor of A Bug!’s below. Which has the added benefit of being all about the behavior and making no assumptions about his intentions.

      3. Allison*

        That’s the sucky thing about this situation. When you’re 95% sure someone’s into you, and they’re just sort of hovering around you, waiting for you to fall in love so they don’t have to make a move, or waiting until they get drunk enough to slobber all over you, you can’t reject them. You can’t turn someone down when they haven’t made a move, and they know that, so they don’t give you a chance to reject them, they do everything they can to get close to you, and making it almost impossible for you to ask them to go away without looking like a monster. It is possible to tell them you’re getting a vibe from them, and if you’re right, you’re so sorry but you just don’t see them that way, but that conversation takes so much tact and emotional labor, and there’s so much risk in having that conversation that most people don’t bother, they just try really hard to avoid their admirer and hope they find someone else.

      4. TootsNYC*

        ” you may well get a barrage of “You are reading it wrong, I don’t want that either, you’re so stuck up, you think you’re so great?!” type insults.”

        I don’t know why this should change the OP’s tactics.

        She can just say, “Oh, good–then it won’t be a problem for you to leave me alone.”
        And, “Goodness, Fergus–there’s no need to be insulting.”
        And in fact, the direct insults would be a gift, because she can take them to HR as a definite. Calling your coworker who says, “I don’t want to be friends outside of work,” a bitch can get you fired, when bugging her on the bus won’t.

        1. Jessie the First (or second)*

          Because I can say “I don’t know if I am reading this wrong, but I do not want a relationship” and 90% of the time that means then somehow we have to have a conversation about whether he wants that or not, and sure, I can shut that down after as well, and if he starts insulting me then I can go to HR…. but doesn’t it just seem smoother to take that out of the equation, and simply say “I am not interested in being social on the bus or at work, let’s stick to our work projects.”
          Because it does not *matter* what his motivation or intent are – she is uncomfortable and wants it to stop, and therefore it needs to stop, whether he is trying to hit on her or not, whether he wants something romantic or not. (And I assume that a truly toxic Nice Guy who creeps knows enough not to start insulting right away at her face, but will do so behind the scenes, which takes longer to ferret out sometimes. Ask me how I know.)

          Really, though, I love A bug!’s response

          1. KHB*

            So, my comment to you above still stands, but when I suggested saying “I’m not interested in a relationship outside of work,” that was meant to include all kinds of relationships – romantic, friendship, friendly acquaintanceship, etc. – and was meant as a way to sidestep the question of whether he’s interested in dating or just chitchatting on the bus. Because “I don’t want a relationship,” full stop, runs the risk that he’ll come back with “Oh, of course I don’t want that either – I just want to be friiiieeeennnnddds,” and then all of a sudden he’s around you all the time and still trying to weasel his way into your pants.

            But I know I’m not very good at writing these kinds of scripts, so take that with as much salt as you like.

    4. Reluctant Meddler*

      I agree, but I think those scripts are probably meant as a “last chance” for Fergus to back off without a direct confrontation. It’s likely they won’t work considering how pushy Fergus is being, but they can be a first step.

      I would avoid specifically explaining away the lack of availability as work just being really busy, though, since that’s likely to be interpreted as reassurance that the problem isn’t him.

      1. nonegiven*

        Last chance, first chance, next chance. This guy needs to be told at the first opportunity. “If you poke or touch me again, you better be willing to permanently lose the use of whatever you use to do it.”

  12. Natalie*

    First, for the next few weeks, when he stops by your office for a lengthy chat, tell him that you can’t talk.

    The only thing I’d add overall is that when you do this initially, expect him to not comply; that is, you’ll say “I can’t talk” and he’ll say “Oh, okay” but will keep talking. Some persistent boundary violating people get into the habit of verbally acknowledging the boundary but ignoring it in practice. So it might help to plan for this so you aren’t thrown and have a plan. Repeat yourself, put in headphones, start typing very loudly (even if it’s just GO AWAY GO AWAY GO AWAY), get up and go to the bathroom…

  13. Snark*

    “He’s an otherwise likeable guy (the usual excuse) and this is just so awkward.”

    Someone who repeatedly and insistently intrudes on womens’ boundaries, personal space, solitude, and lips and refuses to let up the pressure until he’s either screamed at or the woman is “claimed” by another guy is not actually a likeable person even if he can put up a pleasant front at times. He’s not a nice guy. This is the kind of guy who gets online and whines about how all the stuck-up women he knows keep friend-zoning him even though he’s “such a nice guy.”

    And this is awkward because it’s really hard to use social cues, nonverbal communication, and hints to get through to someone who thinks he’s entitled to a crack at any single woman in his social or professional sphere. He’s not dumb or clueless, he’s ignoring your comfort because he’s hoping to make you feel so indebted to his unwanted friendly overtures that you’re obligated to humor him.

    I think it is 100% okay for you to say things like, “Fergus, you’re really monopolizing my time tonight and I’d like to socialize with the whole group.” Then walk away, in midsentence if you have to, and rejoin a group. Ask people to provide covering fire, if you need to. Or, for the office chats: “Fergus, these long daily chats are an interruption to my work and I’d like them to stop.” “Fergus, I’m reading a book and I don’t want to be interrupted right now, so please stop trying to get my attention.”

    And then if it continues, I think you can shut it all down. “Fergus, we’ve been friendly in the past, but ever since my divorce you’ve been monopolizing my time and paying too much attention to me in a way that makes me really uncomfortable, so I need our relationship to be strictly professional from now on.”

    1. KHB*

      “I’m such a nice guy” = “Deep down, I believe that all women everywhere deserve to be treated badly, but I don’t treat them quite as badly as that myself, and therefore I deserve praise.”

      It all makes so much more sense that way.

      1. Snark*

        And it’s also “Not treating them as badly as I could is the gold standard of human interaction and they owe me for the effort.”

        1. D.W.*

          This is an eerily accurate portrayal of this particular frame of mind. And society *specifically women* have been so inundated with this language, that we use it to excuse and isolate clearly UN-likeable behavior, and separate that behavior from the man’s overall character and personality. Instead of using the unlikeable behavior as an indicator that this is person is wholly unlikeable.

      2. Mookie*

        YES. “I’m a nice guy” tacitly acknowledges and condones the second-class status of women. Instead of going to bat for us, Nice Guys want to gaslight us into thinking they’re doing us a favor by temporarily treating us like people.

    2. Snark*

      Or, honestly, I think you could err on the side of not being polite. “Why in the hell are you poking me? I obviously want to read right now.” “Fergus, you’re making me really uncomfortable and this conversation is over.”

      1. Decima Dewey*

        And follow it up, if necessary, by dropping your voice into its deepest register and saying. “I SAID THIS CONVERSATION IS OVER.”

    3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Yeah, and the fact that he refuses to take ownership for his bad behavior is also an indication that subtlety will not work with this one (and I agree that he is not a nice guy or otherwise likable—people who behave this way are not nice or likable at all).

      I like all the scripts, and I’d urge OP to put them into heavy rotation, along with abrupt body language and being willing to literally walk away when he’s mid-sentence if he doesn’t comply with OP’s requests.

      1. Snark*

        No, all mine are too wordy. Check out what A Bug! said below. It’s so great I can hardly stand it.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Oh, it was really elegant. I kind of dream of having the poise/presence to say something like what A Bug! wrote.

  14. cleo*

    Once again, the photo they chose at NY Magazine is PERFECT!

    And LW, Alison is right – you didn’t do anything wrong, your co-worker did.

  15. Ann O. Nymous*

    Oh OP, I’m so sorry. This kind of behavior is A Tale As Old As Time. As a woman I’ve definitely experienced this kind of tone-deaf-at-best, obsessive-and-harassing-at-worst attention from men before, and most women probably have had this happen to them at least once. You did nothing wrong, and you shouldn’t feel bad about firmly telling him off.

  16. Undine*

    You can absolutely request that he never touch you again. You can do that regardless of his intent, and if he does it after you ask him not to, you can report him to HR. This is a tangible (!) violation of your space, and you don’t need to prove what his intentions are in order to escalate it. I have told a married, clearly-not-interested coworker not to touch me, and you can do it too.

    1. Undine*

      I mention this specifically because a lot of this stuff, he will pull the line “Oh, I don’t mean anything by it, can’t I just be friendly, etc., etc.” But if you pick a good case like being touched and make clear it’s a hard line, then he knows there are boundaries he can’t cross, and that undermines his whole MO.

      1. TootsNYC*

        “can’t I just be friendly,”

        “No, you can’t. No, Fergus, we are not friends. You are my colleague, and I am content to have a pleasant relationship with you as a colleague. But you are not my friend, and we aren’t close enough to chat.”

        1. Snark*

          He’s burning the friendly colleagues bridge, though. If he gets the message and backs way off, he might earn his way back to “politely collegial” or even “distantly pleasant.”

    2. Gandalf the Nude*

      Yes! My friend had a coworker sneak up and tug her ponytail just yesterday. She is incredibly self-assured and immediately whipped around and said “You do not get to touch me, and don’t you EVER touch me again unless I give you very explicit permission to do so.” He is now absolutely terrified of her. No reading of intent. No room for excuses. Just “no touching ever.”

      1. Catalin*

        I’m mentally high-fiving your coworker (but only if she’s cool with it.)

        Knowing that the guy takes the same bus, I’d be really cautious about whether he knew where I lived. If he’ll bug you on the bus, he’ll show up at your door because he was ‘in the neighborhood’.

      2. CarolynM*

        Good for your friend! It’s important to speak up to A) put the creep in his place and make it clear that you won’t be treated like that and B) model to others that the world will not come crashing to a halt if you stick up for yourself.

        Recently, there was an incident at work – a coworker whose behaviour towards others had been rubbing me the wrong way finally decided to cross a line with me. I am not his supervisor and it was not my place to fight other peoples’ battles, but when he decided to call me a b*tch (not to my face, of course … but to several coworkers and visitors!) I finally had standing to do something about it. I demanded our boss address it and I demanded an in person apology made in our boss’ presence. My boss tried to apologize on the guy’s behalf but I held firm, got my apology, had a brief chat with my coworker on why it is problematic to call your coworker a b*tch, and now? I have noticed a lot less cringe-worthy behaviour out of him … not just towards me, but in general. It’s worth saying something – not just for your sake, but for others watching and for others who he might think twice about bothering again knowing at least one woman was not going to accept that treatment.

        1. Gandalf the Nude*

          I know it’s the next day now, but I just have to say that stories like yours and my friend’s always put me in mind of Maya Angelou. “Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.”

    3. chocolate lover*

      I’ve been in a similar situation, with a male, not at all interested, former position (we still worked at the same organization.) He was trying to needle me, like a younger brother, except he was much older than me. I had repeatedly told him not to touch me, and one day I finally had enough and said loud enough for colleagues nearby to hear me “I have told you repeatedly to stop touching me. If you do it again, I’m filing a complaint with HR.” Granted, I don’t know if HR would have done anything, but calling attention to it in front of reliable colleagues that I knew would verify my story, convinced him to back off.

    4. JanetM*

      In my admittedly non-creepy experience (both business and social), “Don’t touch me” doesn’t work.

      I have never been a touchy-feely person, ever. There are maybe, maybe half a dozen people in the whole world I’m comfortable hugging. (This despite that I hang out in very touch-dominant subcultures.) I am told that even as an infant, I was anti-being-touched; that I would tolerate it until my immediate need was met and would then go completely stiff and angry until I was put down again.

      About 15 years ago I was in a car accident that left me with sensory nerve damage in my back. Most people get the hint when I say, “No, I’m not a hugger,” and most of the rest acquire clue the first time I shriek, “Don’t touch my back — don’t touch my back — don’t touch my back!” But there are some who just do not remember, and a very few who insist that they get to hug me anyway. And, apparently, 54 years later, my reflex is still to go rigid and silently resentful.

  17. Brogrammer*

    OP, by “otherwise likeable,” do you mean “people he isn’t actively harassing seem to like him?” Because I’m pretty sure that’s what you mean.

    1. fposte*

      I think it means “pleasant to chat to” and “isn’t mean.” Which is, of course, why he can get close enough to violate boundaries.

      1. Brogrammer*

        Somehow I missed this yesterday – I think it’s fair to say that this guy was pleasant and not mean before he started harassing her. Now he’s neither of those things, but because the change in behavior was so drastic, OP is blaming herself. It shouldn’t have to be said that it’s not her fault, but here we are. =/

  18. A bug!*

    “I liked the dynamic we had before I told you I was getting a divorce. Can we go back to that, to where you saw me as unavailable and you treated me like a normal coworker? Because that’s what we are and I have no interest in changing that.”

    1. Dankar*

      Oh, I like this! This is definitely the route I would take, since I’m not sure that the OP saying she’s busy will have much effect in the long run. He’ll just keep checking in for all of eternity until she shuts him down completely.

    2. Snark*

      Honestly? This is perfect and awesome and forget every other sample script on this page. It’s a thing of beauty and power.

    3. Snark*

      “Remember back before I got divorced and you had some god damn chill, Fergus? Those were good times.”

    4. Starbuck*

      No because (as with many scripts here) you’re asking his permission. He will read “can be go back to that” as a request that he can decline. OP needs to tell him point-blank that she’s not interested in a more romantic relationship.

        1. Dankar*

          Plus, you can remove the question mark altogether by saying, “I need you to go back to seeing me as unavailable and treat me as a coworker…” if it needs to be even more unambiguous.

          I would be tempted to add “as a coworker not a conquest,” but maybe that’s not professional.

      1. Jessie the First (or second)*

        It’s just a rhetorical device. Like when I tell me son, “Can you unload the dishwasher?” He has never once mistaken that for an actual, you-have-the-freedom-to-say-no request.

        OP can look firmly at Nice Guy without a trace of a smile, and it will not read like asking permission. But it’s easy enough to say “We need to go back to…” instead, if that matters.

        A bug!, I love this response.

        1. JessaB*

          But a lot of people do not understand rhetorical. If you have a question they A: reserve the right to say no, and b: often ignore it.

          Honestly if someone asked me can I x? I’d say no if I couldn’t. If someone wants their kid to empty the dishwasher, you say “Kid, empty the dishwasher please.” Not “can you.” Because the kid then gets the idea that if someone asks a question they have to say yes.

      2. hbc*

        Well, yes, and he can also read “Will you get the eff back to work?” from his boss as an optional request, but I bet he doesn’t.

        If he doesn’t interpret this very clear communication correctly, he probably shouldn’t be out and about in human society. You’re way past the “oh, he’s not getting all your subtle signals” territory here.

    5. SarahKay*

      This is awesome. It’s polite, firm, and leaves no room for him to start denying that he’s attracted to you, because it only addresses his behaviour (fact, and hopefully undeniable) and not the motivations for that behaviour (speculation and potentially arguable).

    6. D.W.*

      Amazing! It’s succinct, direct, leaves no room for bartering/rebuttals, and requires that he acknowledge the crap he’s been pulling.

  19. Sue Wilson*

    I keep wondering what the hell I did to make him think that this is okay. How did I fuck up the boundary so that he could slide in like this?
    Boundaries are just “do not enter signs”: you don’t have to fuck them up for someone to ignore them. Just because someone climbed over the fence doesn’t mean you have to worry about whether your gates were open. The scary thing about other people’s perceptions of their actions is that they don’t necessarily have anything to do with us. And you’ve said that he’s done this to other people: I’m sure you don’t think they’re responsible for his actions, so there’s no reason to think you are either.

    Second, the problem with people being far more personal with business relationships than is warranted or wanted by another person is that you can’t stop the personal without having the possibility the business is affected. But this dude was obligated to be professional in the first place, so return consequences to sender. If he becomes unprofessional, handle it like you would any work relationship that became unprofessional.

    Third, the best way I’ve found to lessen negativity in response to boundary-pushing is to be very matter-of-fact, like you expect them to recognize and conform to your expectations of reasonableness. The social pressures to not make a big deal you’ve found working on you, work on other people too. If they can’t find a precipitating reason to escalate, they won’t (or they would have anyway). When he pokes you, “don’t touch me” calmly and go back to whatever you were doing, if he does it again, calmly “I don’t want you to touch me and I’m moving” and then move to another seat. It might be work for you to do this calmly but it’s the best way I’ve found.

  20. Hey Karma, Over here.*

    “Fergus and I will have to continue to work with each other going forward and I don’t want to jeopardize that.”
    You aren’t jeopardizing that. You are bending over backwards not to jeopardize that. And that is OK, because you have to protect yourself and your job. But you don’t have to protect him. He is jeopardizing his working relationship with you – in dozens of ways everyday. He is jeopardizing his professional position and reputation by acting like an awkward teenager. At least, he and his job should be in jeopardy, but nobody wants to point it out. “He’s a nice guy.” “He means well.” Nope and nope. He’s a selfish jerk who wants what he wants when he wants it.
    LW, I understand how you feel, like your personal feelings about this guy will hurt him. Your feelings aren’t the problem. It’s his actions that will and should affect his life and career. They are wrong. Please tell him to stop.

  21. overcaffeinatedandqueer*

    I had a guy like that on my last work assignment (I am a contractor and work with different people a lot).

    Thing is, he was actually nice, just awkward, so I don’t know if the boundary stuff is just awkwardness or predatory. He often talks a lot during work, which is allowed but needs to be limited/quiet. He also seems to think people are closer friends to him than they are, or his friends when they’re not.

    Sometimes he says off-color things, but not personally directed-e.g. laughing and mentioning the “tiny hands” comment a lot.
    I do enjoy his company, because he’s awkward and smart like me, and was very kind the day my father-in-law died but I had to keep working despite it (no PTO until a city ordinance forced it this month).

    Once, he told me it was too bad I was gay, because he’s single, and he once also made a joke about my “not liking sausage” because I said I don’t eat pork (we were discussing favorite foods). But, I told him the latter was inappropriate and “don’t go there, okay?” He then apologized without going “but it was a joke!” and hasn’t made similar comments, and other women haven’t complained about him saying things.

    I don’t know where the line is always for “creep” vs. “doesn’t get it,” but I’ve avoided hanging out alone with him much. Still my field is very niche, so it’s important to get on with everyone.

    1. AnonEMoose*

      Something I read (maybe on Captain Awkward or Paging Dr. Nerdlove?) is that someone who is genuinely socially awkward, when told they have violated a boundary or done something inappropriate, will usually apologize and accept the correction. Often, they’re horrified and sad that they said/did something that upset another person.

      Someone who is a creep and using “maybe socially awkward” as cover is more likely to get defensive and try to put it back on the other person. “Well, I was just joking..” “I didn’t mean to…” “I didn’t mean it like that…” and so on.

      It’s not 100% of course, because few things are, but it’s a guideline. Since the guy in your example apologized without excuses and hasn’t done it again, I’d tend to lean more toward the “probably awkward” explanation. But I haven’t met him, so obviously can’t know for sure.

      1. Snark*

        It’s a good guideline. Because nobody has ever said, “Oh, lighten up, it’s just a joke” in good faith. It’s just never happened. When people with decent intent inadvertantly offend or insult someone, they apologize profusely and wish for a hole to crawl into for the next several days.

      2. Kathenus*

        I was thinking the same thing, about “someone who is genuinely socially awkward, when told they have violated a boundary or done something inappropriate, will usually apologize and accept the correction. Often, they’re horrified and sad that they said/did something that upset another person”

        When I read this part of the letter – Stories include his leaning in for an unwanted kiss and then blaming the misread on drink and then blithely continuing on, I read the guy as doing this more intentionally than due to social awkwardness.

        As hard as it is, I’d be clear and direct with him now, to give him the chance to stop his behavior. If he is well-meaning and/or clueless, he’ll stop. If he doesn’t, agree with others about trying to get others who’ve experienced this together to report to management. If they won’t, do it yourself anyway.

      3. the rent is too high*

        Yes, precisely. I have problems with social cues, but the thing is, I am aware that I am bad at them and I do my best to get better. This one time at work, I was in a room with a few admins and then something came up and they needed to have a confidential discussion and so had to kick me out of the room. They were like “we need to have a private discussion about work matters” and I nodded and left the room. No hard feelings on any end.

      4. JanetM*

        Also, I recently read something (maybe screenshots from Tumblr?) to the effect that, “If he’s only ‘awkward’ with women and not men, he’s not awkward.”

        1. Liane*

          It’s semi-analogous to an FBI profiler’s explanation for laypeople of insanity as a legal defense: Police [officer] at the shoulder: If a criminal can restrain themselves from committing a crime when there’s a cop right there in plain sight, then the criminal is not insane enough to be unable to tell right from wrong.

        2. A. D. Kay*

          JanetM, this was the exact comment I was going to make. People who are generally socially awkward are unable to be selective about their awkwardness! They will be awkward with women, with men, with their coworkers, with their managers, with their managers’ managers… etc.

    2. Kenji*

      I think, (or at least hope, as someone who has often tripped into the “doesn’t get it category”) that the line usually lies in how they respond to being confronted. Your friend is a perfect example – you told him he crossed a line, he apologized and made an effort to fix it. He doesn’t get it, but he cares that he made a mistake and wants to correct it. A creep doesn’t care – when OP’s coworker lost it on this creep, his reaction wasn’t “I screwed up and need to change my behavior,” his reaction was “I have to transfer my behavior to someone else, without acknowledging my mistake or changing anything.”

      (I also try to acknowledge that no one I unintentionally make uncomfortable owes me an explanation of why-it’s helpful, but figuring it out and correcting myself is ultimately my responsibility, not theirs.)

      1. paul*


        I can be awkward (I’m always working on it) but if you’re told something’s rude/bad/not done/making someone upset 99% of the time the correct response is an apology and knocking it off rather than arguing it. Possible exceptions are things like the tutoring lunches from yesterdays letter I suppose, but most of the time…

    3. LawPancake*

      I think the line for “creep” vs. “doesn’t get it” is where you’re avoiding hanging out with him alone, I think your intuition has made that decision already. When my gut says “don’t be alone with this person” I’ve learned to ALWAYS trust it. If I’m completely wrong and the person is just a nice but awkward guy who makes me a little bit uncomfortable, the only consequence is that I don’t have to hang out with a guy who makes me a little bit uncomfortable.

    4. Brogrammer*

      I think the line is that if he apologizes and stops when you tell him to stop and doesn’t do it again, he was awkward. If he gets mad and/or does it again, he’s a creep.

    5. Sutemi*

      Truly awkward people are awkward for almost everyone, including men and women, young and old, cis and het, boss and subordinate.

      Creepy people are awkward around people they think they have power over.

      1. ByteTheBullet*

        As a truly awkward person, I can attest to that. I’m awkward with pretty much every living entity on this planet.

  22. CityMouse*

    Way back when I was workijg in a large reyaio environment we had a similar creep who targeted women like this. Dude would not stop touching my hair, for instance and made all.kinds of comments. A group of us had to go to our boss together because individual complaints got waved off. Get some of this creep’s other harasees to go to HR with you.

    1. Decima Dewey*

      When my father worked for a Delaware newspaper, they had a Fergus on staff. Women left the paper over his antics, but all management did was make Director of Special Projects and hope that he’d realize his first special project ought to be to find a new job.

      Didn’t work. And whenever the higher ups ran into female former employees and asked “When are you coming back to work for us again?” The answer was always “Is Fergus still there?”

  23. ...with a K*

    Alison’s advice is solid (I also recommend Captain Awkward and her archives for similar advice).

    I’d like to add that it’s extra gross to me that this guy backs off when the women get a boyfriend. Because he respects some random faceless dude more than the woman he works with. Ugh.

  24. Aphrodite*

    I find it a bit sad that it seems like none of the women he has bothered before have filed an official complaint. If that is the case, then it might be that his behavior is borderline, doesn’t quite come up to official h-arrassment standards but is close. OP, if you can be the leader of a group who have, more or less, the same complaints maybe it might rise to that level given that his behaviors are apparently routine. And please stop thinking of him as an otherwise nice guy. He really isn’t.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yeah, what’s described doesn’t sound like it rises to the level of sexual harassment in the legal sense. But taken all together as a pattern with numerous women, it’s something HR might be interested in.

      1. Solidad*

        It doesn’t have to be sexual harassment for them to act.

        The office is not a dating pool. If his attempts to score are so wacky that it’s to this level, he needs to be very strongly reminded of that and informed of the consequences if he continues.

        It really doesn’t matter that the boundary crossing isn’t sexual harassment. Good HR would be equally peeved if, say, he were trying to sell Avon and everyone was telling him no.

    2. ...with a K*

      There is a creepy guy in my office that has (for YEARS) followed women home from work, threatened them, given them unwanted gifts, etc and these women have been telling HR and their bosses for years. Recently, the guy threatened to hit his male boss with a rolled up magazine and now the guy is removed from the workplace (awaiting results of psychological evaluation).

      1. Anon today...and tomorrow*

        That pisses me off! The guy preys on female workers for years and nothing gets done despite their safety being compromised. The guy threatens a male worker with rolled up paper and HR decides that this is the line in the sand he had to cross before they step in??

    3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I think he keeps it just low-level enough to avoid scrutiny. So if anyone individually complained, it would not add up to a legally actionable issue.

      But I think if the women who’ve experienced this go together, as you’ve advised, it would escalate a “not big enough” problem into a “wow, this is a pattern and a Problem” issue. If I were a manager, I would want to know based on even the one-on-one issues. If I were HR, I would absolutely want to know that this is a pattern.

      1. Snark*

        My thought exactly. Nobody who’s unconscious of what they’re doing toes a line that adroitly.

      2. Sylvia*

        Isn’t it interesting that sometimes people who are just awkward, you know, they don’t know how to talk to [people they bother]… Know how to keep their behavior from crossing the line into what they know will be considered harassment?

  25. bopper*

    I highly recommend this book: “The Gift of Fear” by Gavin DeBecker. I am not saying this guy is a psychopath, but you are doing the typical “I am a nice person” thing by continuing to interact with him even though you don’t want to. Creepy/Toxic/Dangerous people take advantage of this.

    This book recommends that if you don’t want a social relationship wiht him, then don’t have one. That is, don’t have the chit chat. And be consistent, otherwise all he learns is that it takes 10 times before you will chat with him.

    1. High Score!*

      Yes! That is the best book! Actually, the techniques in that book helped my husband get his stalker psychotic ex to back off.

    2. Tangerina Warbleworth*

      Darn, you got there first with my suggestion. Points for speed, though. ;)

      I would add, maybe print this post and response off and put it on his desk with the copy of GdB, and also highlight and bookmark this line: “When a man says no, it’s the end of the conversation. When a woman says no, it’s the start of a negotiation.”

      Also, just, ew.

    3. JessaB*

      deBecker does however have some issues with the gender violence/domestic stuff. I really wish he’d do a new book and take into account that things have changed and some of his advice is kinda problematic now. That book is great and I love it and I’d give it to anyone in this kind of situation, but I really, really wish that all his fans’d write and say “we need a new version. update please.”

  26. Tomato Frog*

    For the bus situation, you might try a blanket statement along the lines of “I’m not really up for chatting on my commute” or “Hey, I prefer to zone out in the morning, see you later”. You still may well have to reassert that boundary, but I’ve found “Not now and not ever” statements work better than just “Not now”, or at least make me feel more confident in redrawing the line if I have to.

  27. sam*

    Reading this, I started having flashbacks to the guy in college that I finally started referring to as my stalker. He was a perfectly “normal” part of our friend circle most of the time, whenever I had a boyfriend, but the minute he found out I had broken up with someone (once, literally within minutes), he would show up at my door with flowers/to ask me out/to hit on me/etc.

    The first time, my friends (not me) thought it was charming, even after I “broke his heart” by turning him down (gently, of course – wouldn’t want to hurt such a “nice guy’s” feelings!).

    After the FIFTH time it happened? I basically had to tell him to stay the fuck away from me, and started avoiding any social situation where I thought he might be present.

    I thought I was well rid of him by the time I had graduated from college – I hadn’t really seen him at all since I moved out the dorms after sophmore year. Until several years later, when I was working at my first law firm job. Fun fact – law firms like to put attorney bios and pictures on their websites because being a lawyer is essentially a personal-services job. Take a wild guess as to who google-stalked me and emailed me?

    In addition to (obviously!) not responding, I the tech people at my firm block him from contacting me again.

    1. BF50*

      I had one like that. I think he honestly thought he was being romantic and we were part of some drama. Some deeply romantic story where I would suddenly “see” him and we’d live happily ever after and have lots of babies.

      He did show up after college. We had no mutual friends but I still “accidentally” ran into him regularly. Once he even showed up on the date to his female equivalent in my husband’s social circle. That was hilarious. He also showed up at festivals and concerts. I’d see him at Target and play against him in kickball. We don’t live in a small town. In fact we live in different, but adjacent cities with populations over 100k for his city and over 95k for mine.

      The last time he showed up was teaching at my children’s daycare for the summer. He is a teacher and coaches basketball, so he did part time work with activities, athletics, and covering vacations. That was creepy, but I think unintentional. He did not come back the next summer, thank god. It was a couple years ago and I haven’t seen him since. Perhaps having children with someone else finally drove home the point that I wasn’t interested in him.

        1. MashaKasha*

          I once bought a DVD of an old romcom that I’d vaguely remembered liking a lot way back in the 90s; and tried watching it with my then-bf, now, in the 2010s. The main character was so creepy and stalkery, we could not finish watching. No idea why I saw nothing wrong with that movie in the 90s.

    2. Anon today...and tomorrow*

      While I was in high school there was an upperclassman who decided he liked me. I didn’t like him like that, but he definitely liked me. Christmas Day- sophomore year – we came home from visiting at 9pm. No sooner had we carried everything into the house than there was a knock on the door. My mom flipped out. I was standing there quite baffled as to why he was there when my mom asked him “were you waiting for her to get home?” He said he’d had. My mom knew that he had to have been sitting there for a while waiting and watched us walk into the house. She told him he was a creepy motherf-er and that if he ever even looked at one of her kids again she wouldn’t call the police, that she’d take care of him herself and that she knew places that nobody would look for his body. She slammed the door in his face then told me I was grounded from the phone for three months and that if I ever talked to him again she’d send me to a Catholic boarding school. As my mom was strict but usually more laid back than how she reacted, I took her at her word. The guy tried to spread a rumor about me but it never got any traction as my mom called all of my friends parents and warned them about him. To this day my mom swears she doesn’t know why she reacted that way, she says it was instinct. Turns out my mom’s instinct was right! About 8 years ago I went to an ill-fated reunion-esque thing with some of the people I went to school with. One of the kids I’d been friendly with at the time who had been friends with this guy told me he was in prison for raping his girlfriend’s middle school aged daughter.

        1. Nea*

          At high school age, I would have seen that as a punishment I didn’t deserve. At a mother’s age, I can see a frantic, furious parent making darned sure that an impressionable child wasn’t able to be contacted by him (no phone) or was swayed by his trying to explain himself (don’t talk to him).

          In other words, that “punishment” kept Anon safe from him trying to gaslight her or lure her out until mother had a chance to spread the word among Anon’s cohort that there was a danger.

          1. Gazebo Slayer*

            High school you would have been absolutely correct that it was a punishment you didn’t deserve. (I am 35.)

            It still sent the message that she was wrong and dirty and to blame and that she’d done something awful. It still isolated her from her friends because of something HE did – acthally making her MORE vulnerable to abuse. It still revictimized her.

            There is a long and ugly history of women’s freedoms being restricted to “protect” us.

            The way to ACTUALLY protect your daughter, as opposed to punishing her for accidentally being sexually attractive to a creep, would be to explain to her why the guy’s behavior is creepy and threatening and tell her that you have her back and that she has absolutely no obligation to do anything with him or anyone else that she doesn’t want to.

        2. Gazebo Slayer*

          Seriously. Punishing your daughter for being the target of a creeper is misogynistic, victim-blaming, and just cruel, even if you think you’re doing it to “protect” her.

  28. Govt Atty TX*

    This makes me think of the Today Show scene in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt:

    Cyndee: “Yes, I had waited on Reverend Richard a bunch of times at a York’s Steakhouse I worked at and one night he invited me out to his car to see some baby rabbits and I didn’t want to be rude so…here we are.”

    Matt Lauer: “I’m always amazed at what women will do because they’re afraid of being rude.”

  29. nonegiven*

    It worked for the other woman. I say have a melt down in public and scream, “Leave me the f*** alone! And for &*() sake, NEVER F *(*)ing TOUCH ME AGAIN!!!”

  30. animaniactoo*

    Honestly, I would skip over most of what Alison advises here (although I understand why she does).

    The next time he comes to your office to chit-chat, I would use that as the opportunity to have a sit-down conversation with him.

    “Fergus, I’m glad you stopped by. There’s something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about, and this is a good time to do that. You may not realize it, but there are a number of things you’ve done in recent months that are making me very uncomfortable. I want to be clear about this with you because it’s gotten to the point where even though I value our work relationship, all these things have built up to make me fairly uncomfortable around you and I would rather address it head on with you. I’m sorry that I have not previously been clear about these things, but I thought they were rather obvious from my reactions. However, since you keep doing them, it seems it’s not as obvious as I thought.”

    Whatever blustering and apologizing or defending he does – simply stand your ground. “I understand. I’m not saying I thought you intended to make me uncomfortable/etc. and in fact that’s why I’ve been reluctant to bring it up with you. It’s just what’s happened, so I’m hoping to explain so that you know these things do bother me going forward. Like on the bus – in general that is my time to relax, and I’m not ready to hold conversations on a regular basis.”

    At points during this, you’re probably going to need to say something along the lines of “Fergus, please let me finish. It will become clearer if you let me finish”. So be prepared for that and ready to do it.

    “Other things I would appreciate are more circulating and talking to others when we’re both attending the same group social outing. Lately it feels like my time is being monopolized and I want to hang out with everyone, rather than regularly speaking to the same person.”

    Another statement you want to keep in your pocket is “I’m sorry that you feel offended/insulted/whatever by this, I actually value our work relationship and that’s why I’ve chosen to be clear with you about this. Why don’t we stop here, and we can discuss it again in a few days when you’ve had some time to think about what I’ve said.”

    And way way back in your pocket, for the 2nd conversation if it happens and if he keeps pressing his innocence and trying to back you into a corner of accepting his attention: “I’m not sure if this has anything to do with it, but you seemed to change how you treated me after I mentioned that I was getting divorced. It’s the changes that have made me uncomfortable.”

    1. Barney Stinson*

      I disagree. Any time you have a ‘come to Jesus’ conversation with someone you’re setting up for them to say you’re being overly dramatic, you misinterpreted them, blah blah blah.

      You have to deal with them on a case by case basis. You ignore him on the bus with your book and he texts you? Block him on your cell. He pokes you in the arm? “Please don’t touch me again.” He does it again? “DON’T TOUCH ME EVER. I MEAN IT.” He follows you around a happy hour? “I’m mingling with other people now. Have a nice night.” He shows up in your office? “I’m busy. Please close my door on your way out.”

      I wouldn’t normally be even that nice to someone, but I’m very allergic to yelling at people at work. But the ‘let’s have a long talk about this’ approach just doesn’t work.

      1. lowercase holly*

        yes, block his number. he doesn’t need your personal cell number. he’s is a coworker.

  31. Amber Rose*

    If that one person who noticed the creepiness can be your back up, then maybe enlist them. I mean, definitely tell this guy to back off and go to HR if he doesn’t and do all the procedural stuff. I’m thinking more along the lines of your feelings of comfort/discomfort and how this treatment can really impact your health. It’s already doing that: you’re blaming yourself, you’re considering changing your schedule, you’re fearing for your ability to do your job going forward. That’s not cool.

    You can take away his power to make you feel this way without guilt, this internet stranger offers permission. None of this is your fault, and it’s not your responsibility to make his work life comfortable when he’s so thoroughly screwed up your comfort. And it’s totally within your rights to ask other people around you to help, to not be expected to shoulder this whole miserable thing alone.

  32. Lily Rowan*

    I used to see several coworkers on the bus to work, and we all had a silent agreement not to talk until we got off the bus (we might nod hello). I appreciated it at the time, but did not realize just how bad the alternative could be!!

  33. Alienor*

    Oh God, OP, you didn’t do anything wrong at all. I dealt with this exact guy a few years ago – normal until he found out I wasn’t married, and a creepy creeper from that moment on. I told him that I didn’t date and wasn’t interested in starting, and it didn’t slow his roll one bit. (He actually told me that he thought I was “just shy because your husband died,” which made me want to drop-kick him through a window.) I only ended up getting rid of him because he was involuntarily removed from the activity we were both participating in, so I don’t have any real advice, but tons and tons of sympathy.

  34. beatlesfan*

    I recently had something similar happen to me. There is a guy that I was basically shadowing when I first started my new job. Even before I moved to that section, he would come out and check on me, say hi and see how I was doing. I thought he was just being nosey and trying to evaluate my work ethic. When I did move back to the section where he worked, he “took me under his wing” and taught me a lot. We were becoming work friends and we would talk about more than just work when we would go do work orders (I work in IT). About a month later, he started flicking me in the upper arm. It was annoying but I shrugged it off. After a while, it was really bothering me so I asked him to stop right after he flipped me one day. (He would do it everyday and would even mention if he forgot to do it one day and make up for it.) When I told him to stop, he looked confused. Then his response was, “Well I’m not going to stop because you said to, but because I’m just going to see how long I can go without doing it.” WTF???!!!! No you are going to stop because I’m telling you to and if you don’t I will make a formal complaint. Around the same time, I really started to see how he treated everyone- like crap, except me. You could tell that he singled me out and was nicer to me, and other younger females, than anyone else. He turned out to be a super creep- he was married, too and knew I am married. Apparently he was like that will all decent looking females. I have since transferred to another section in our same building and he comes into my new office and just stands there until I acknowledge him or his just says “I was just coming over here to see what you’re doing.” He has texted me to see what my new desk number was- I ignored the text. And will ignore every subsequent text or attempt to socialize. Luckily, he should be accepting a new job in another state and will hopefully be gone soon. I have had several conversations with him in the past about his rude behavior to fellow coworkers, but he of course never saw his actions as rude but a no nonsense type of work ethic. Rumor has it he was caught kissing another female a few years back at work. I like to think of her as a victim that fell prey into his web of creepiness- and yes he was married then, too.

    1. Gazebo Slayer*

      “Well I’m not going to stop because you said to, but because I’m just going to see how long I can go without doing it.”


      It’s like he has this compulsive need to prove that no one can tell him what to do or not to do, even if the request is totally reasonable. Or likely more specifically no WOMAN can tell him what to do.

      How does someone like this end up as an adult with a job?

  35. Stop That Goat*

    Just turn the guy down and explain that you aren’t interested in anything above a cordial coworker relationship. I’m not sure what the point is of beating around the bush. Just get to the point so that both of you can move on.

    1. CB*

      There hasn’t been anything to turn down. This kind of situation often involves a lot of unwanted personal attention but with the plausible deniability of his not having actually proposed anything – so the woman never has a chance to say no. (That said there is some good language above so that she can basically say ‘hey I may be misreading this but you seem like you want something, and I’m saying no’ – that’s a lot of work to make her go through, but will probably be worth it.)

      1. Stop That Goat*

        His interest seems rather obvious. Regardless of his intent, friends or more, cut both off by explaining that you want a cordial working relationship but that’s it. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with just getting to the point.

        1. DArcy*

          His interest is obvious yet completely deniable, which as multiple posters have pointed out is a classic passive-aggressive creep strategy. This behavior pattern allows him to “innocently” harass her for as long as she doesn’t slam the door and then play the “misunderstood / socially awkward” card to undermine her boundaries once she done so.

  36. Machiamellie*

    Personally, I’d go straight to the “I am uncomfortable with the amount of attention you’ve been showing me lately, and I’m not interested in a relationship.” But I’m a fan of straight talk and not hemming and hawing.

    That said, I’m not what one would consider conventionally attractive – not trying to get people to say “oh I’m sure you’re pretty,” I am not and it’s fine. I have a very happy life :) But I do *not* get men hitting on me, ever, so I don’t have to deal with any of it. My way of dealing with it would be different from a woman who’s more used to it and who might have reason to fear a man getting violent about it.

    1. EmKay*

      Things is, guys like this will turn it around and make jokes that your full of yourself because you think he’s hitting on you, and he was just being friendly, haha, omg. I’m just being nice. ACCEPT MY NICENESS.

      1. Stop That Goat*

        That’s his problem to deal with though. Since he’s not seeing the unspoken boundary, just be clear as day that you aren’t interested in a friendship. Then move on. If he still can’t leave her alone, it’s easier to then move it up the ladder.

    2. Tealeaves*

      I was wondering if being direct would be better as well because this seems like it’s dragged on long enough to become a pattern. But don’t bring up the relationship bit since he hasn’t explicitly said he is hitting on you, and could make him defensive and focus on the wrong part of the message.

      I thought maybe: “Can I be honest with you? As coworkers, I really need more space than you’ve been giving me, especially recently. Although we take the same bus in the mornings, I need that time and space for myself. Please understand if I don’t interact with you until we get to the office. And I really didn’t appreciate you poking me the previous time, please don’t do it again. At the office, I would prefer if you cut down on visiting my office for chats because it’s actually quite distracting from my work. I’m happy to help if you have a work-related question, but not if it’s just to chat.”

      If he doesn’t listen or acts hostile, maybe email him a follow-up of your message so you can use it for HR if this turns out badly.

    3. Mephyle*

      It’s worth mentioning here what has been said in a few other threads that discussed this.
      If he denies, it can be met something like “Good. You’re not seeking a relationship. So you will have no problem leaving me alone/going back to the way you used to treat me.”

  37. Looc64*

    What happened to the woman who lost it at him? Even if she wasn’t his coworker, the community’s reaction to that could give you useful data on what would happen if you called this guy out on his shit.

  38. EmKay*

    You haven’t done anything wrong. This guy is a dillhole. Be blunt and to the point.

    “Don’t talk to me on the bus anymore.”
    “What, but why, etc.”
    “Just don’t.”

    You’re bending over backwards to be polite and considerate of this guy’s feelings, and he doesn’t deserve it. He will act wounded. He will sulk. He will call you a bitch, to your face or behind your back at the office. So what? You are not responsible for his emotions.

    1. Jillociraptor*

      Like, I get this but I really want to be able to just live my life without having to attack men coming at me with their entitlement issues. You know?

  39. Julia Gulia*

    Everyone mansplaining and excusing Fergus in the comments: stop being part of the problem.

    1. Maya Elena*

      Not sure how anything we here say can contribute to “the” (OP’s?) problem in a material way…. On the contrary, her problem is closer to being solved with a lot of constructive advice.

      I think people who “make excuses” might be trying to put his action in perspective rather than absolving him. Fergus may be gross and out of line, but is not a rapist or stalker or abuser or phallic cast artist, and a poke is not a butt pinch or grope or wolf whistle or other harrassment move du jour.

      I’m also not sure how that constitutes a mansplanation.

      1. DArcy*

        Mansplaining and excusing Fergus’ actions as “social awkwardness” is *undermining* the constructive advice being given, not adding to it.

      2. Mookie*

        This is a pervasive political problem that goes beyond Fergus, hence the many women here expressing solidarity with the OP, sharing their stories, and making recommendations.

        but is not a rapist or stalker or abuser or phallic cast artist

        What an incredibly low bar to set.

  40. Amy*

    You’ve done nothing wrong here. Fergus did. (I also suspect Fergus does actually know better, since he manages to be likable when he’s not around his current target. People who can pull off ‘likable’ 90% of the time don’t just forget those skills around a specific person–they decide, for whatever reason, that they can get away with behaving badly around that person.)

    I think you should start with calm-but-blunt-and-serious. Fergus stops by your office? “Fergus, I’m working right now and need to focus. Please leave me alone.” Fergus talks to you on the bus? “Fergus, I don’t like to socialize on the bus. Please leave me alone.” Fergus pokes you? “Ow! Why would you do that? Please don’t touch me!” Fergus makes kissy faces at you in the bar? “Fergus, I don’t want to kiss you. Please stop.” If I’m right about his behavior, he’ll likely bluster something about jokes or misunderstanding or you being rude/cold/mean, and then eventually stop boundary pushing because he’ll realize that he can’t actually get away with it with you.

    If that doesn’t work: You actually already have a last-resort plan. We know that “Apparently one woman straight up lost it on him until he got a clue.” That means that if whatever else you try doesn’t work, you know that straight up losing it on him will! (And given his reputation, I doubt it would reflect badly on you at all.) Don’t be afraid to use this!!!!

  41. Indie*

    This guy came at me in multiple forms when I got my divorce. Like I was in a 50pc half off sale. Soft nos didn’t work, nor did curtness or aloofness. You could hear them thinking “you have no owner now and I have office status: therefore no does not compute”. My script was “So I’m probably misreading you but I’m not interested at all in dating you”. When they denied all (because this guy doesn’t come at you directly with a date request for a reason) I said “Phew! So glad to be wrong” and they skulked away. When I didn’t work with the guy I was less polite.

  42. KelJohnson*

    I do not give half a f*ck as to WHY he is doing it, it must stop. His mental state is not your problem, OP. AT ALL EVER. Next time he pokes you, can you yell (if on the bus, maybe just loudly talk in the office) “DO NOT TOUCH ME!”

    Lather, rinse, repeat. And take it to HR now so there is at least the start of a documentation trail.

    As someone who’s had a stalker, with police involvement etc., I empathize, I really do. If I ever feel that way since the stalking, my reaction is, in the words of Neegan (The Walking Dead) “I WILL SHUT THAT SH*T DOWN”

  43. AJ*

    +1 To all comments re: it is *not* your fault. I recently read an interesting article, the jist of which is “there is no female equivalent to “he’s basically a good guy”. It’s on Motto titled “The Harmless Sounding Phrase that is Terrible for All Women”

  44. Purple Jello*

    I’ve never done this, but what if…
    She asks him why he’s been spending so much time in her office. Does he need someone to teach social cues? Doesn’t he know that poking people is impolite? Turn the tables and ask HIM some uncomfortable questions, with prepared responses depending upon how he answers.

    1. Marisol*

      I love this approach, the “teachable moment” approach, generally speaking. If done properly, it can really lead to some insight in the other person, while preserving a sense of goodwill, which you need in office relationships. It’s the kind of thing that women shouldn’t be *expected* to do because it’s another form of emotional labor, but if someone has the emotional resources to spare and thinks it will get you the results that they want, I say go for it.

      I wouldn’t expect the conversation to get uncomfortable though, and I definitely wouldn’t strive to create an uncomfortable dynamic. But yes, the person doing the teaching should probably have a tolerance for discomfort.

  45. Stone Cold Bitch*

    It doesn’t matter what Fergus intentions for acting like a jerk are. You are feeling uncomfortable and that is what counts.
    He is making you leave your home just so you can avoid him on the bus! And he claims it’s just being friendly – classic predatory behaviour. Your feelings don’t matter because he is awesome.

    My advice is take it to HR, mention it to your manager. And start keeping notes on whenever this occurs. If Fergus is stopping by your office, constantly taking up your time it will affect your work. This will also give you a base for taking things up with HR. You are not being sensitive or misredaing situations, Fergus is an actual disturbance.

    Also – Fergus has a pattern of harassing women in your company. Have your male colleagues confronted him about this? Or are they ok with this behavior?

  46. Greg*

    I’ll preface this by emphasizing that what I am about to say is in no way a defense of Fergus:

    Those who say Fergus knows exactly what he’s doing are wrong. The version of Fergus who knows exactly what he’s doing doesn’t beat around the bush with texting and poking and such. He just straight up makes his move. He targets women who may be more emotionally vulnerable (and probably does a few more things to increase their vulnerability, like “neg” them). In a nutshell, he grabs them by the p***y.

    What Fergus is doing is far more pathetic (but no less objectionable). He not only lacks the social skills to pick up on the cues OP is putting out there, he lacks the empathy to view the situation from her perspective. He puts women on a pedestal and views them as a prize to be won, but because he refuses to recognize their own humanity, he makes it impossible to ever actually “claim” that prize. I guarantee you Fergus would be shocked to discover OP is creeped out by him.

    Think about the line at the end of “There’s Something About Mary”: “I mean, none of them love you, really. They’re just fixated on you because of how you make them feel about themselves.” That’s Fergus.

  47. NoNoNoNoNo*

    This is sexual harassment. Full stop. You need to file a complaint with HR immediately. YOU did NOTHING! This is ALL on HIM.

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