my coworker thinks it’s funny to try to scare me

A reader writes:

I have been having a mild problem with a coworker since I started at this new company a little over a year ago.

He tends to like to sneak up and scare us while we are working. We both wear earbuds while we work so it’s easy for us to not hear him and to be distracted with what we are working on. He’ll come up and make a loud noise or pop up suddenly around the entrance of our cubicles (he does this on purpose).

I have anxiety and am incredibly jumpy. He knows this too because I’ve mentioned this to him. I even jump when people say “good morning” or people that just pop into my cubicle to talk about work without meaning to scare me. I think once he saw my reaction to being scared, he likes to make me jump and I hate it! It takes my body a little while to even calm down once he’s left my cube.

I’d like him to stop but he’s otherwise an incredibly nice man.

I’ve also had this problem outside of work. When people find out how jumpy I am, they seem to be entertained by how easily I will react to any sudden noise. It’s really annoying in general, but even more so at work because it does take me a bit of time to recover from the anxiety of it and how annoyed I am!

My coworker is quite a bit older than I am, and I notice he does this with me and another coworker of mine. We are both younger women. He doesn’t do this with any older coworkers or any male coworkers that I’ve noticed.

I’ve just been putting up with it because he’s been so kind to me since moving here and starting a new job, and I’ve been managing my anxiety pretty well. Recently, though, my anxiety has gotten worse and I wish he’d realize what this does to me.

Is there any nonchalant way of trying to get him to stop? I don’t want it to come off as though I’m incredibly bothered by it, one, because he has been so nice to me and two, he seems to like to see a reaction out of me when he teases me like this so I’d like my reaction to be more casual so maybe he won’t get whatever entertainment he seems to get out of teasing me.

I believe you when you say he’s a nice man because you know him far better than I do, but this one thing he’s doing is not at all nice. And it’ll help to get really clear in your mind about that, because it’ll hopefully make you more comfortable telling him very directly to cut it out.

And for what it’s worth … there’s nice and then there’s “nice.” The fact that he’s only doing this to young women is (a) not surprising and (b) pretty gross. I’m not saying he’s a monster — if you say he’s been lovely to you in other ways, I’m sure that’s true. People are complicated creatures, and they can be wonderful in some ways and awful in others. And there are lots of genial older men who act in incredibly sexist ways toward younger women and seem to think that’s charming. In fact, it’s neither charming nor okay, and it’s okay to tell them to cut it out … especially when it’s impacting your feelings of well-being the way this situation is.

As for how to do it, I don’t think nonchalance will work here. This is someone who enjoys scaring you. And sure, to give him the benefit of the doubt, some otherwise kind people have a bizarre blind spot when it comes to this kind of thing, like the people who genuinely believe everyone enjoys being tickled. But what matters here is that, based on his behavior so far, this is not someone who is going to get the message if you try to deliver it nonchalantly.

You said that you want to your message to be casual because you don’t want him to think it’s funny if you try to address it more seriously — but if he thinks it’s funny to hear you seriously tell him that he needs to stop scaring you, then he is not a kind person anyway and you should stop thinking of him that way. But if you’re right that he’s a kind person, then he should want to know that he’s doing something that upsets you, and he should stop once you tell him. So you should do him and yourself the favor of delivering the message in a very serious way, so that he can’t possibly misunderstand it or think that you’re joking.

Say something like this: “I don’t like it when you try to scare me. It’s extremely unpleasant and distracting, and it’s not something I find funny or welcome.” If you want to, you can add, “I know that you thought this was in good fun, but it’s not. Please cut it out.”

Say this without smiling. It’s important that you look and sound serious, so that he can’t possibly think you’re joking around with him. (It would be delusional for him to think that, but people do it all the time in this kind of situation.)

If you’re right that he’s a nice person, that should solve the problem.

But if he doesn’t respond to that with an indication that he’s taking you seriously and will respect your request, then say this: “You need to respect a clear no.” Say this in a pissed off tone, and then turn back to your work — don’t chat with him or otherwise let him think things are fine.

That’ll probably stop it because once you refuse to play along in letting him think he’s having a fun, charming interaction with you, he won’t be getting what he wants from the encounter anymore.

But if for some reason that conversation doesn’t stop it, then you’ll know for sure that you’re dealing with someone who’s not nice at all, and you should feel free to proceed accordingly — meaning no more friendly relationship, and complaining over his head if you need to.

{ 544 comments… read them below }

  1. MuseumChick*

    “Hey Fergus, please don’t sneak up to me and try to scare me. You know how jumpy I am, it’s really distracting and makes me less productive.”

    If it happens again: *confused/slightly hurt voice* “Fergus, did we talk about this? Please stop, I know you don’t mean any harm but I really don’t like it.”

    Third time is time to bring in your boss/HR.

    1. Future Analyst*

      Agreed on the rest of the content, but I would remove the “please,” and “I know you don’t mean any harm” to indicate this is not optional. The more curt, the better– if he thinks there’s even a shade of give, he’ll keep doing it.

      1. Snark*

        Seconded. This is not a message that needs softening. It’ll be a jolt and he might have feels about it, but even so.

        1. Wintermute*

          Yup, this. If he has bad feelings, that’s called shame and it’s social reinforcement. It is not the job of the person being put in the awkward position to sooth over the feelings that result from being told you did an unacceptable thing after doing an unacceptable thing to someone!

      2. NoMoreMrFixit*

        I agree. This isn’t funny and he isn’t being cute. This is workplace bullying and you don’t need to worry about hurting his feelings. He is in the wrong here. If it happens again then escalate.

        1. Safetykats*

          Yes. This is definitely workplace bullying, and it’s not okay. OP needs to state clearly and firmly that it’s not acceptable, that she views it as bullying and that it must stop. The very next time it happens, she needs to report it.

          The other thing OP really needs to do is figure out why she feels the need to apologize for someone who is clearly a bully, who clearly is taking pleasure from upsetting people he sees as weaker or lower in status than himself. Is everyone at the workplace so toxic that someone who is obviously, if only episodically abusive is the nice one? Or is she unable to recognize that abusive behavior is unacceptable even if followed up with a smile and a compliment? I can’t tell what makes OP conclude that he’s a nice guy, because I don’t see anything nice about this.

          Honestly ladies, we collectively need to stop worrying about being rude to bullies and abusers. We need to stop feeling like being treated professionally is some kind of favor we have to ask for. And we need to stop asking for it with a smile and a laugh, as if we don’t really mean it.

          1. tangerineRose*

            OP might be trying to be nice because of occasionally needing information that this guy has.

          2. NaoNao*

            A lot of “ladies” are worried about not being nice to abusive men because they have already proved that they are more than willing to break the social contract by bullying, harassing, teasing, or whatever negative, crappy behavior they’re doing.
            This creates a very real fear like “if this person is capable of not caring about appearing nice or actually being kind/good/polite/respectful to the point where they’re doing this *what else are they capable of*?”

            Things like spreading rumors that get you fired
            Things like sabotaging your work or being an obstructionist
            Things like upping the ante on the harassment or abuse
            Things like going to HR with a false complaint about you
            Things like freezing you out, going to his work buddies who manage you or have control over your assignments, promotions, bonus, work, hours, perks, and what not, and insinuating [whatever will hurt you the most]
            Things like waiting for you in the parking lot to scare you worse or even actually hurt you
            Things like showing up to work after being fired for harassment and committing a workplace shooting.

            So yeah, “ladies” kind of have a *really freaking good reason* to smile, be nice, and tolerate abuse.

            In theory, yes, it would be wonderful if all women could easily, without fear of reprisal, stand up for themselves cooly and professionally. Still waiting for that day.

          3. Aquarian*

            OP also mentioned she has anxiety. I, too, have anxiety and often feel anxious in confrontational situations. It’s a weakness that I’m well aware of, has caused problems for me in the past, but is very difficult to overcome. I admire my female coworkers who can be blunt in that way. I hope to get to that point too, but anxiety is a beast to overcome.

          4. TrainerGirl*

            I think being worried about being rude completely undercuts the message with guys who continually do this. This guy scared you, realized how jumpy it made you, and then continued to do it. He is not nice. Soft language is not for this guy. I have anxiety as well, but bullying is one time when I’m able to handle confrontation. I worked with a guy in my 20’s that was harassing the ladies in our group, and when I found out about it, I jacked him up in the men’s bathroom and told him to cut it out or I was going to the director. Not recommending this for anyone else, but apparently it was the language he understood and it worked.

          5. ellen*

            I’ve worked in places where really inappropriate stuff happens, and the younger women will complain and the older managers will brush it off. One very “handsy” man was given six months to clean up his act, and everyone knows that this is not his first six month warning, that he will behave for six months, then start it up again.
            I just made sure that I commented, loudly, when I knew he could hear me but might not know that I was aware of that fact, that I “Sure hoped he wouldn’t do that to me! I’ve had some past experiences that get to me, and I work with knives…”
            Oddly enough, he’s left me completely alone. This might be because I am SLIGHTLY outside his preferred age range, but is most probably because he believes me. Yes, I could have gotten into trouble for my comment. It stands. I’m done with being nice, I’m done with putting up, shutting up, and hoping it stops when he (whomever it is) finds a new target, I’m DONE. I’d rather be unemployed in a ditch. I wouldn’t be for very long, anyway.

      3. ZVA*

        I get where this advice is coming from, but some people feel much more comfortable with softer language the first time around… It’s all well and good to tell someone they should be curt, but that’s tough for some of us! If that’s the case for OP, I think Alison’s and MuseumChick’s scripts — both of which start off firm and clear, but not curt — are a perfectly fine option for her first try with this guy. And if that doesn’t work, she can get firmer, go over his head, or both.

        1. Wannabe Julia*

          Agreed. I fully agree that she doesn’t have to be polite. However, right now she’s at “can’t bring myself to say anything at all.” She’s not going to move straight into an epic Julia Sugarbaker smack-down, however much we all wish that could happen.

          OP, I’m a “nice” Southern soft-spoken woman in a traditionally female field. When I’ve had conversations like this, even knowing 100% that I was correct, it was hard at first. Each time you set boundaries, though, you’ll get more confident with it. I’m still not at Julia Sugarbaker levels, but I’m getting there, and you will too.

          1. Michelle*

            Miss seeing Dixie Carter smack down rude folks! I wish we could all summon up Julie Sugarbaker when we need her.

          2. MuseumChick*

            That’s exactly why I suggested the softer language. I used to be exactly like the OP. I could not bring myself to say anything at all even when I was uncomfortable and knew I was right. Using soft language was the first step for me, it’s hard/near impossible to jump immediately into very direct/curt language.

            I usually do suggest more blunt language, dropping the “please” from requests, etc. But in this particular case I think the OP will have an easier time speaking up with a soft-language script.

          3. nonegiven*

            I would have already punched this guy in the nuts, “Damn! Don’t startle me like that! It’s making me so jumpy!” Worked in 6th grade.

        2. Penny Lane*

          There are times to be pleasant and soften the language, and there are times to be curt. We do the young women of today no favors by acting as though all situations deserve or require only the soft language. This is one when firm, direct, and if needed curt are fully appropriate.

          I am continually amazed on AAM how so many young women don’t feel empowered enough to send a clear “cut it out” – in whatever expressive style — to anyone doing something that bothers them. This lack of empowerment isn’t all that different from “well, I went and slept with him when I really didn’t want to because he seemed like a nice guy, he paid for dinner and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.” Where are we going wrong in modeling for these young women how to stand up for themselves? Why is “avoiding hurting the feelings of someone who doesn’t care that they are hurting mine” a value?

          1. Only here for the teapots*

            I agree. Maybe AAM isn’t a broad enough slice of the ‘young women’ demographic, but I have noticed a consistent pattern of being extremely apologetic in reacting to harassment, in the comments. Where are the Amazons?

            1. Jadelyn*

              Living happily on Themyscira, and sadly, the rest of us have to muddle on as best we can without them.

              Like, I get the sentiment here, but I also don’t think it’s doing women of any age a favor to demand they be “Amazons”, with an undertone of disdain and/or shaming for those who aren’t at a point where they’re able to step up in such a fashion.

              It’s a process. There’s a learning curve. And as many of us have discussed here before, there can be real consequences to a woman speaking out in ways that can be construed as curt or brusque. I think there are times when kindness is the better part of valor, especially since nobody is suggesting that women – young or otherwise – soften their language out of concern for the delicate sensibilities of the men involve, but to encourage those women to be comfortable speaking up at all by helping them to start small rather than demanding a face-first leap into breathing fire.

              1. tangerineRose*


                Also, in the workplace, I’ve noticed that pleasant but firm frequently works better than curt.

                1. PlainJane*

                  Exactly. Unfortunately, being overly curt can lead to the original issue being ignored. Instead, your “attitude” becomes the problem. Start firm but courteous and escalate from there if you need to.

                2. PlainJane*

                  One other point: often firm but courteous is sufficient. It always amazes me how often no one tells someone to stop a jerk move. Sometimes the person really is otherwise nice, just clueless that they’re causing pain when they think they’re being funny.

                3. Chinook*

                  As well, you have room to escalate once firm but courteous doesn’t work. As long as you are clear on what you want, the courteous part does not make it less clear.

                4. Blue*

                  I’m a youngish woman, and my job involves a lot of telling people more important than me that they can’t do a thing they want to do. I find that direct and clear but pleasant works 95% of the time. When it doesn’t, I escalate to something firmer/more curt. And in the very rare event this Plan B doesn’t work, I get someone with a fancier title to back me up (and I know they always will, bless them).

                  That said, the down side of “direct and clear but pleasant” emails is that they can take AGES to write. Walking such a delicate line is not always easy.

                5. Blue*

                  I’m a youngish woman, and my job involves a lot of telling people who more important than me and who don’t really know who I am that they can’t do a thing they want to do. I find that direct and clear but pleasant works well 95% of the time. When it doesn’t, I escalate to something firmer/more curt. And in the very rare event this Plan B doesn’t work, I get someone with a fancier title to back me up (and I know they always will, bless them). So yeah, I think there are advantages to starting a bit softer, especially if you’re concerned about maintaining the relationship moving forward. But I do think it’s important that you’re prepared to escalate quickly, if necessary – it needs to be clear that you’re not messing around.

                  That said, the down side of “direct and clear but pleasant” emails is that they can take AGES to write. Walking such a delicate line is not always easy. Interestingly, my (older) male counterpart hasn’t traditionally put as much effort into trying to walk that line, and he was reprimanded for being too harsh. He has now massively over-corrected on his tone.

                6. Annie Moose*

                  Ugh, Blue, I know that delicate line all too well. Threading that needle with clients in particular is so hard. I have to simultaneously balance 1. being respected as a technical expert while 2. not coming across as rude or condescending and 3. not coming across as a pushover for being a nice young woman. Oh, and 4. not being intimidated by people who make a LOT more than me who have a LOT more clout than I do.

              2. myswtghst*

                “Like, I get the sentiment here, but I also don’t think it’s doing women of any age a favor to demand they be “Amazons”, with an undertone of disdain and/or shaming for those who aren’t at a point where they’re able to step up in such a fashion.”

                Yes, thank you! It isn’t a moral failing to want to be polite, or even just a little less direct, when dealing with difficult situations (especially at work, and extra especially when you’re early in your career dealing with someone more senior). I know I’m not the only person who has been punished for being “too abrasive” when trying to be curt or firm, so I’d rather we help people speak up in ways which are a little easier for them to manage than expect them to go all in on the first try.

            2. AKchic*

              We’re here.
              Honestly, I agree that sugarcoating and being soft-spoken isn’t worth it here.
              He’s targeting specific victims. Young female employees.
              He has a victim-type. Again, the young female employees.
              There is a power dynamic. He is a senior (in the “I’ve been here longer than you” if not “I am your chain of command superior”) employee, as well as in age dynamics.
              He is doing this purposely to scare them, which is disruptive to workflow, productivity and their peace of mind.

              He was not hired to scare young women. They were not hired to be scared. He is not a nice man. He is a nice *acting* man who likes scaring young women because it makes him feel powerful.

              Don’t feel like you have to be nice when telling him to knock his ish off. And he only gets one “knock it off”. He doesn’t get to “forget”. I’d even be blunt and say “the optics of an older man purposely trying to frighten younger female staffers looks like a psychological game on your part and won’t play well if I take it to HR should you ‘forget'”.
              Small, impotent people play these “games”.

              LW should be documenting all of this in case HR is needed, and then HR fails to act.

              1. Specialk9*

                I feel like “he’s not a nice man” is going too far. He’s decidedly doing something that’s not nice, but I mean, we all do not-nice things on a regular basis. Not that that means this is acceptable – it’s not. But it doesn’t means he’s a garbage person with no redeeming value.

                In the end, OP’s actions are the same no matter who he is – firm clear boundary setting and enforcement, to HR and manager if necessary – but it has a bit of grace in it. That approach recognizes that we all fail sometimes, and sometimes a firm correction is a much needed lesson. I can think of some lessons that were hard at the time, but I needed to have my motivations or impact pointed out.

                1. Anonymoose*

                  Exactly. WE DONT KNOW HIM. OP does. It may be entirely possible that he’s an overgrown adolescent goofball who is actually intimidated by attractive woman so he relies on childish pranks to break the ice. I’m not making excuses for him, merely pointing out that we don’t have the info to decide whether he’s not nice or merely socially inept. In either case, it should first be handled with fair and clear indication of OP’s needs (the ‘firm but polite’ approach), and then to escalate from there.

          2. MLB*

            Agreed, and in addition saying no. No excuses needed. No is a complete sentence and not rude or mean.

            1. Specialk9*

              ‘No is a complete sentence’ is great advice for a certain type of person – narcissist, addict, etc – but is *terrible* advice for the rest of the population. It troubles me how often it’s said here, for everyday situations. Not everything one may learn in Al Anon (or wherever) is applicable generally.

          3. Leslie knope*

            Well, because of what you just stated. Many women do not feel comfortable being “curt,” especially in an environment where that can brand you as unpleasant. As Alison often says, we need to react to things as they are, not how we wish they were, and a blunt “no” or similar is going to come off as needlessly aggressive. There are a lot of people who don’t want to risk that, and that’s fine. This seems to come up a lot here and I don’t really understand why.

            1. Anonymoose*

              “Many women do not feel comfortable being “curt,” especially in an environment where that can brand you as unpleasant.” I personally cannot wait until this is no longer a thing. Stupid male ego apologist BS. (sorry AAM dudes, I’m sure you’re perfectly lovely and fair!)

          4. Observer*

            It’s worth realizing though, that Alison is not saying that this requires softening. In fact, she is very explicit that it would be perfectly ok for the OP to be genuinely rude. However, Alison takes a pragmatic approach on the matter. So, better to soften the language and SAY SOMETHING, rather than not saying anything because you can’t bring yourself to be curt.

            1. Anonymoose*

              Alison also has cajones of steel and comes to this situation after dealing with a LOT of personal experience hand holding douchie bosses. OP has neither at this point. Like a commenter said above, learning to communicate takes time/years. If OP does a 180 in her communication it will likely come off so extreme that she won’t be taken seriously, unfortunately.

          5. myswtghst*

            “I am continually amazed on AAM how so many young women don’t feel empowered enough to send a clear “cut it out” – in whatever expressive style — to anyone doing something that bothers them.”

            Really? Because I’m not. I’ve seen plenty of women punished (subtly or not-so-subtly) for not being “nice” enough when standing up for themselves. I’ve seen women branded as “unpleasant” or “abrasive” for not just enduring bothersome behavior, especially at work.

            “Why is “avoiding hurting the feelings of someone who doesn’t care that they are hurting mine” a value?”

            For me, it isn’t about it being a value – it’s a calculation of how direct I can be without risking my reputation / career / safety. I agree that the world needs to change, but I don’t think we can put it all on the shoulders of young women who may lose a job (or something more) if they approach the situation as we want it to be, rather than as it is. And I’d much rather help people (regardless of gender identity) find ways to speak up which take into account their comfort level and situation, than shame them for not doing it “the right way”.

          6. Specialk9*

            Penny Lane, this is a pretty crappy thing to say. It’s basically telling women that we have to work around broken stairs, AND that the missing stairs are our fault.

            Sorry we’re not meeting your standards for curtness at work. Should I put links to all the studies that show why women learn not to do your way? Maybe dial down the implied contempt?

            1. NaoNao*

              THANK YOU.
              Women have *very real and valid reasons* not to bark out harsh single word “no”! like they’re training a dog when the relationship needs to continue, and she may need his friendship or cooperation in the future!
              A side note, please don’t drag “one night stand regrets” into the discussion as if to paint all women with the “gee, I just don’t know my own blown dandelion of a mind”. That’s gross.

          7. NaoNao*

            Lecturing “young women of today” on how they *should* be behaving, including dragging sexual conduct into it (why?) is condescending and unwelcome.
            Knock it off.
            Was that direct enough for you?

        3. Lissa*

          Yes, thank you! Very often the “please” and softening language is not for Fergus. It’s for the speaker to feel OK with speaking up. It’s easy to sit there on the Internet or across a table at coffee and encourage friends to “be super curt and strict” but it’s a lot harder to do in the moment, and some people will freeze up entirely, so I think it’s useful to provide alternate scripts. I don’t think that putting a “please” in there is going to make Fergus LESS likely to listen. It’s not that he “deserves” kindness, it’s that it can make it much easier to speak with a script like this.

          1. Safetykats*

            The “please” actually does make the Ferguses of the world less likely to listen, and much less likely to really hear the message and comply. The body language – the smiles and the laugh – override the words. If you do some reading on effective communication styles, this is really clear. The soft language makes it so much more likely that this guy continues only because he doesn’t take the pushback seriously; the smile and the laugh (even if it’s a nervous laugh) give him plausible deniability that maybe she was just joking.

            I get that this is hard if you were somehow raised to believe that clearly stating your requirements is somehow rude or abrasive, that you have to soften everything with a smile or a “please.” OP should find a friend to practice with. Say it over and over until it feels at least marginally okay. Be prepared to feel bad afterwards. But OP, know that you’re in the right. You have the right to demand to be treated professionally. Someone who takes obvious pleasure in your discomfort is not a good person, and is not your friend.

            1. Jennifer Thneed*

              Since when does using the word “Please” automatically include smiles and laughing? You have explicitly linked the two in a way that doesn’t make sense to me. You’re lumping word choice in with tone of voice and body language as though they’re inextricably entwined.

              I agree that a joking request to stop doing a thing isn’t a real request at all. I disagree that the use of the word “Please” has the same effect.

              1. tangerineRose*

                It is possible to use “please” in a way that conveys “If you don’t do this, you will regret it.” You want to use it almost like you’re using that instead of a swear word, only a little more politely than that.

                1. SimonTheGreyWarden*

                  Right? My mom is southern and a master of “Please don’t make me kill you for disobeying me” facial expressions and I don’t think I have ever mistake a Please for a smile, and I have never seen anyone dismiss her for it either. There’s a way to keep your eyes and face neutral/serious while saying it.

                  (Nothing was more terrifying that my mother hissing “Please sit still” during a Mass when I was a child, knowing I was in for a tongue lashing when it was over.)

              2. AKchic*

                Well, in the English language, when you say the word “please”, your mouth automatically makes a smiling expression, which can be taken as a smile in and of itself by some types. Which is why some people just smile while they say please, and it’s easier to condition yourself to smile (sweetly) while saying please.
                Having RBF can be your best friend sometimes.
                And depending on the kind of person this Fergus is, he may very well hear a “please” and think that he is still being asked/begged and feel that he is in control of the situation and isn’t actually being “told”, but being “asked/begged” and that it is his right to choose whether or not he stops, and he is still in control, still has the power.
                Of course, not knowing this Fergus, I can’t really tell if he’s just a short-sighted, slightly creepy buffoon who enjoys the control and titillating thrill of scaring young women; or if he’s more narcissistic than that and this is part of a bigger problem.

                1. Natalie*

                  Are you sure about that? I just tried in front of a mirror and my mouth made a slight “O” shape (for the plosive) but nothing resembling a smile.

                  Even if it was true, I have a hard time believing that someone’s mouth making an upturn shape while they’re talking reads the same way to people as “smiling and laughing.” Smiling is more than just the lips.

                2. Specialk9*

                  What Natalie said. When I raise my eyebrows like a frontier schoolmarm and say “please don’t …” it decidedly doesn’t appear like a smile.

                  It’s worth saying – as Alison did – that the OP shouldn’t smile, apologize, or sound joking when drawing the boundary. But just saying please doesn’t undercut… and in fact can help with the report-back to the manager on how professional the OP was when saying this.

            2. Lissa*

              I get what you’re saying, but I was specifically talking about the word “please”, not smiles or laughter. I actually find that adding “please” can sometimes sound *more* stern, depending on how it’s worded. I think there’s a really big spectrum here, and that people who are going to take a calm “Please don’t do that; I don’t like it” as a joke or not seriously are unlikely to respond better to the same phrasing without the please, in my personal experience.

            3. Observer*

              You are right that the body language is important – which is why Alison also explicitly states that this should be said without a smile and with a very serious voice and face.

              But the reality is that not saying please does not make the Ferguses of the world less likely to listen. And even when it does, it still had a better chance that NOT SAYING ANYTHING.

              Also if (or when) the OP needs to kick this up to HR, and they ask her if she’s asked Fergus to stop, she can say yes. Unless they are utterly incompetent, they are not going to claim she wasn’t clear enough because she used the word please. And if they are that incompetent, they will ding her for NOT saying please, too.

              1. Jennifer Thneed*

                Thank you! And anyone around them who hears this conversation will note that OP spoke flatly, with no tone of joking, and that she said “please”. She will very much look the bigger person.

                OP: you should absolutely do this such that other people can hear it.

                Also OP: Please talk to the other woman who gets this jackass treatment too. You’ll probably each be more comfortable saying something if you know the other will also say something.

          2. sb*

            It’s also for the co-worker who hasn’t seen the build-up but happens to be walking past, who might think “Wow, OP is rude/overly strict” instead of “OP is being appropriately firm” because they don’t know the history (or are raging sexists, but let’s assume they’re not). Don’t laugh and make it a joke, but softening/gentle language that is still clear is fine. “[I know you meant it to be funny, but please] don’t do that again” isn’t any less clear as to what is being asked than the version without the bracketed language, to anyone reasonable, and hopefully at least the person you’d be documenting this to if it went to an escalation process is reasonable even if Fergus isn’t.

      4. Coldbrewinacup*

        Same here. At this point, “please” isn’t going to work. It’s not being rude to be firm.

        On a side note, my boss likes to do this too. He’s never done it to me, but he enjoys doing it to my female coworkers. And it is gross.

        1. echidna*

          I agree that soft language is not helpful when asking someone who sees himself as higher in the pecking order (older male) to change their behaviour. He won’t hear it. (Another long time engineer here – it seems that we tend to have come to the same conclusions, no matter which culture we are in). Using “Please” is ok, as long as the rest of the sentence is as clear as a bell. It is, after all, a request.
          My main piece of advice, consistent with Alison’s script, is don’t bring your feelings into it. He doesn’t care. Keep it work focused, and don’t leave any room for argument. It’s not about you, it’s about his bad behaviour disrupting the work of the company.
          For example: “Please stop trying to make me jump. It’s disruptive.”
          or “Please don’t interrupt my work by startling me for your amusement”.

        2. TardyTardis*

          And do you ever say anything about it? Of course not, because you like your job. This is why it’s expecting a bit much out of younger women relatively new to the workplace, who also need their jobs, to be more courageous than some of the men in the office who also see what’s going on.

      5. Anonymous Engineer*

        Or instead, “It doesn’t matter if you don’t mean any harm – it makes me uncomfortable and it has to stop.”

        1. else*

          That might work, but there is a not-small group of men like this who will take a self-righteous tone about how they’re “helping” get you over your “issues.” That sort will seize on any acknowledgement that they might not mean harm to justify continuing their activities. And yes, I did say men, because everyone I have met who is like this is male.

      6. Jennifer Thneed*

        I really disagree. I mean, I think that this LW absolutely needs to go full-0n firm and unsoftened. But for random person who encounters this once and is responding to the first time? Go with the please, go with the face-savers. Give the person a chance to blow it *after* the warning before you go full-on “I Am Not Kidding Around Here, Bucko”.

        (Again, this is NOT in regard to the OP.)

      7. Observer*

        I’d do it a bit differently, I think. “I know you don’t mean any harm, but that doesn’t matter. I do not like it and it needs to stop.”

        Short circuit the whole “I don’t mean anything”, “it’s just a joke” “lighten up” shpiel. Make it very clear that you know that he sees it differently and you do not care. And, to be clear, that is JUST FINE. You don’t have to care that he likes doing this, thinks it great fun, etc. YOU get to decide what is a joke to you, and you get to set that boundary.

      8. Nerdling*

        “Please” does not have to mean “optional.” In fact, “please” very rarely means that in my world when it’s not said as part of an interrogative. It’s said to acknowledge the person you’re talking to is indeed a person to whom you are being polite. I try to always say please and thank you to my child, regardless of whether I’m asking him to do me a favor or telling him to brush his teeth, because I respect him as a human being and I want him to carry that behavior forward. What distinguishes the two is almost always tone: if my tone is steady and low, I’m not asking but telling; if I’m asking something truly optional, I’ll often pitch my voice higher and use a more upbeat tone. It allows me to use a continuum of vocal force, wherein he knows that if I’ve dropped the “please,” he’s passed over into territory that will shortly include negative consequences.

        If a first grader can pick up on that, so can an adult.

        1. Nonnon*

          Ah, the stern “mum” please. The one where you have ten seconds to comply or you lose playstation privileges for a week. I think it’s one of those things that gets installed in your brain stem or something.

          (I was recently in a supermarket and was looking at food when I heard some random woman say “put that down, please, [my name]” in that tone. And put what I was looking at back on the shelf and nearly apologised until I realised she was talking to her kid with the same name as me.)

    2. Gorgo*

      I don’t know if any explanation is necessary. I would probably firmly, icily say “you absolutely HAVE TO STOP doing this. Don’t try to startle me ever again.”

      1. MechanicalPencil*

        This is where my immediate thought of “Dude. Stop.” would probably work. Which I use on my dogs…coincidence?

        1. Lora*

          Oh wow, I don’t think I’ve ever used my dog training voice at work more than once – caught a guy being obnoxiously unsafe and had to yell at him to get his butt down from there NOW. It works on large, stubborn dogs who are trying to counter-surf roast beef and cheese, too.

          1. rldk*

            I’ve used my pet voice with a friend who I play board games with – he likes to cause chaos by adding in extra cards to muck up play, but it’s only funny once or twice. So when I know he’s hoarding the extra cards, out comes pet voice

            “Drop it!

    3. Julie*

      Acting confused is a great strategy, especially if you ask Fergus to try and justify himself. “I’m confused. Why do you keep doing this when you know it bothers me?” Then wait for an answer. Let the silence be uncomfortable.

      1. MuseumChick*

        Ahhhh, yes the uncomfortable silence my best friend, lol. The OP could even uses that exact like “I’m confused. I’ve been pretty clear that it bothers me when you sneak up on me. Why do you keep doing it?”

        If he comes back with: “Oh its just a joke!” The OP can say “Ummm, aren’t jokes supposed to make people laugh? This bothers me, it does not make me laugh.”

      2. LBK*

        I love using feigned confusion. I’ve found it’s a good alternative to when you don’t feel comfortable being so blunt but you’re concerned that using softening language will weaken your message too much.

        1. Oranges*

          It’s good for a multitude of things I have learned. My mom was in insurance claims and she told me that you always start with “politely confused” when you’re complaining. Eg. “I’m confused. My bill has $300 of service charges for ‘dancing ducks’?” Then ramp it up if the answer you get isn’t correct/acceptable. The ramp: Confused -> Normal -> Firm -> Talk to your manager.

          1. Chinook*

            I use this technique as well. I find that polite confusion allows the other party to save face of there was an honest mistake. And, as you escalate, different personality types back down at certain points more readily.

      3. Eh? Non Y. Mouse*

        Although, from what OP says, she’s just been putting up with it. So it’s entirely possible he DOESN’T know.

        1. LBK*

          I inferred Julie meant to use this method if he keeps doing it after the first time the OP asks him not to.

    4. Lujessmin*

      I had two coworkers like that – one was a young guy (25 or so) who loved to come up behind women, goose them, and yell “boo!” I told him if he ever tried that with me, the second thing I would do after I slapped him upside his head was report him to HR. So, he never tried that with me.

      I’m also one who startles easily, and another coworker liked to come up behind me while at my desk and just stand there till I noticed him (and usually jump out of my skin). After asking him quite firmly to stop that, he then gave me the silent treatment, wouldn’t talk to me at all, because “he didn’t want to startle me again.” Glad I’m out of the business world.

      1. Ellen N.*

        I’m genuinely asking, not being snarky. What is the best way to get the attention of someone with a strong startle reaction? I used to have an assistant who startled very easily which was compounded by the fact that she wore earbuds. As we were in cubicles and constantly being hushed, I couldn’t talk as I approached. I tried saying her name. That startled her. I tried standing in front of her until she noticed me. That startled her. I never figured out how to approach her without startling her.

        1. Not a Mere Device*

          In Lujessmin’s case, Annoying Boy 2 clearly wasn’t even trying to get her attention without startling her, given that when she said “don’t do this thing that startles me” he gave her the silent treatment.

          More generally, ask the person what works for them. In your assistant’s case, you could reasonably have asked her whether she would rather leave the earbuds in and continue to be startled, or take out one earbud, or if she had other ideas of how to address this.

        2. zora*

          I agree that the best way is to have a conversation about the problem. If I was the assistant, I would ask some way to shift my position so I could see people approaching, because it always makes me anxious to have things happening behind me that I can’t see.

          I think different people have different reactions to these things, and the best thing to do is talk about it and work out solutions together.

        3. tangerineRose*

          Move so that you are at least mostly in the person’s sight and wave at them. Try not to be too close to the person when you do it.

          1. Trinka*

            I work in a large, dark building, and several of us have taken to whistling when we walk around in places where we might not be expecting to meet each other. It’s a constant “Here I AM!” reminder as well as a reassurance. Random building-invading-ax-murderers rarely whistle.

            1. Ellen N.*

              Unfortunately, we were under orders to always be very quiet. I literally had to whisper when I was on the phone so we wouldn’t have been permitted to whistle.

        4. Massmatt*

          If someone startles so easily and wears earbuds so calling their name has no effect and is sitting in a cubicle with no way to approach them visibly then IMO some of this is on THEM. What steps are they taking to not get so startled by routine work requirements? I would suggest stop using headphones at work, or perhaps installing a mirror at your desk so you can see people behind you.

          1. Ellen N.*

            I agree that she could have taken steps to mitigate her startle reaction, but she didn’t. I don’t know why people here think I was coming up behind her. I was approaching her from the front. She would be sitting, looking down at her desk. The cubicles had “walls” that were about a foot tall.

            1. Close Bracket*

              Was she self aware enough to know that she startled easily? If she was, and she still did nothing to allow people to approach her without startling her, then there was nothing further you could do. If a similar situation occurs, ask directly. “I seem to always startle you! Should I make more noise when I approach?” Or something like that.

              I can’t speak for anyone else, but here’s my Easily Startled Person experience. I get hyperfocused and forget that there is a world around me. I don’t use headphones or earbuds. When people approach me in a normal manner, say, knocking at a normal volume on my door or cube wall or saying my name at a normal volume, and I startle, I don’t mind even though it’s not that pleasant for me. If anyone asked me what they could do not to startle me, my answer would have been, “Well, nothing, really, bc I startle easily. Soft knocks are better than loud knocks, but I still might startle bc that’s what I do.”

              Now, those jerks who sneak up and yell, they can rot in each circle of hell successively. That doesn’t sound like you, though.

              1. Ellen N.*

                No, I certainly didn’t sneak up and yell. I felt bad whenever I startled her. Also, it was time consuming as I had to wait for her to settle down before I could talk about whatever I’d come over to talk to her about.

                I wasn’t permitted to make more noise when I approached. We had moved from an office with offices to an office with cubicles. Many employees were upset that they could hear people and complained endlessly. I was told that I must whisper when I talked on the phone.

          2. xms967*

            I agree. I’m easily startled. Some of it is people shouldn’t take advantage of that, and some of it is I do what I can to mitigate it (sit with my back to the wall, &c), and some is just “that’s how I do”, and I let the other person know it’s not their fault at all, it’s all me.

        5. SaltTooth*

          I am so similar to your assistant. I get startled when I’m popping champagne even when I know there is going to be a loud noise because I’m the one opening the bottle. I usually try to sit my desk in a way that allows me to see people approaching, but I always seem to work with managers who are more concerned with seeing what I’m doing on the computer, so I’m always startled when people approach from behind.

          That said, if someone unintentionally startles me I just do some deep breathing and move on. If people are purposefully trying to startle me it makes me anxiety flare up bad because then I’m always on edge.

    5. Fiennes*

      “Fergus, my anxiety has been LOTS worse lately. If you keep doing this, I may react unpredictably.”

      Then he does it again, and you harness that panic to shove him WAY back. I’m not advocating actually hurting the guy, but demonstrating a very real risk of scaring people. As soon as he realizes there’s an immediate physical response to his shenanigans, I bet he knocks it off.

    6. OP*

      Letter writer here!
      I didn’t know where to reply and I haven’t gotten through all the comments yet but wanted to answer a few things that seem to be coming up.
      I am seeing a few people people that say my coworker must be horrible for doing this to me but I want to clarify it seems to be just a nice person who does this bad thing. Overall, he’s a good guy I just think my reaction to what he’s been doing might have created a misunderstanding. I haven’t directly told him to stop. I have mentioned I have anxiety and he knows this is why I am so jumpy and I think I just assumed he’d understand that having anxiety makes what he’s doing unpleasant for me. As some pointed out I tend to do the awkward laugh after he startles me so he may very well be interpreting it as fun. However, he recently startled me the other day by snapping his fingers near my face and I was so startled and that I yelled “STOP IT!” while that’s not really as direct as I should be he’s been out sick ever since this happened so I’m not sure if that’s enough to stop it so when he gets back to work I’ll have to be more direct if he does this again.

      I did see somebody suggest he may not being startling me on purpose, but he is. He will yell “BAH!” or “WHAT ARE YOU DOING!?” He used to wave at me from afar until I noticed him because he knew I was easily scared I appreciated that but for some reason he’s not consistent about the waving, he hasn’t been doing that lately.

      I also don’t think he does this because he’s senior to me and he likes the “power” of it I get more of the feeling that he might be going for more of a parenting-type role and it’s more of a teasing because “we’re just that friendly” kind of thing. Either way, I’ve had a coworker try to parent me and neither is a great scenario. I’ll try taking a bit of everybody’s advice and be more direct when he gets back.

      1. tangerineRose*

        Thanks for telling us more about this. He might think that this is a funny game to you too. Either way, I’m glad you’re going to talk to him – that’s the first step.

  2. Clorinda*

    “I wish he’d realize what this does to me.”
    Oh, he knows. He knows EXACTLY what it does. That’s the fun part for him. Tell him once more, clearly and unequivocally, and then escalate hard. Document and take it to HR.

    1. Lehigh*

      Eh. I don’t think we have to assume he has ill intent. People who are not jumpy themselves don’t necessarily associate the “jump” reaction with distress. It always just looks like a reflex to me, and when occasionally someone does startle me/make me jump I don’t typically have a longer reaction than the moment. I can see how it would bother me if it were frequent and intentional, but I can also see how someone amused by the reaction wouldn’t necessarily “get” the underlying emotions.

      But either way, OP, being super clear and (as Allison noted) super serious is going to be the way to go. If he is not thinking beyond, “Gee, that’s an amusing reaction,” it’s time to break through the fun times to let him know this really makes you very uncomfortable.

      1. Q*

        I don’t know if I buy that completely. I jump when startled, and even though I’m not usually scared at all, people apologize like crazy despite me showing no other signs of distress. People recognize that “jumpy” is not a good thing.

            1. Q*

              Exactly, which is why I don’t buy the “he doesn’t realize what effect he is having” explanation.

        1. GreenDoor*

          Q is right. Normal, professional people avoid doing things that they know scare, hurt, or upset a coworker. This guy is getting his jollies off this, as further evidenced by the fact that he’s never seen doing it to older women or male coworkers and by the fact that he was specifically told it upset her and he keeps on doing it.

          I’m a big believer in giving people the benefit of the doubt, but not when the evidence is this clear.

          1. tangerineRose*

            It could be that the other co-workers have told him to stop. Then again, if everyone else has told him to stop, how can he still think this is OK?

        1. Snark*

          He really may not, but that’s not a reason to coddle him or soft-pedal the message to cut it directly out.

          1. Murphy*

            No, definitely not. But if OP says he’s otherwise a nice person, I wouldn’t immediately jump to ill intent.

            1. PlainJane*

              This. I know there are jerks in the world, but sometimes people are just really clueless. It doesn’t cost much to assume that’s the case and set him straight without being super-harsh. Then if it happens again, drop any shred of courtesy and escalate.

          2. Specialk9*

            Absolutely agree about not coddling or changing the firm boundary setting behavior by the OP.

            But I have had enough therapy to know that all of us have some things lurking inside, that when we pull them out and examine them, they’re clearly not true or healthy. But it can be so hard to see them, when they are these half formed driving ideas deep below conscious thought. So I think there’s a chance that the previously suggested “I’ve told you I don’t like being scared, but you keep doing it. Why is that?” could make him think, and realize some of His Stuff.

            Not that this is OP’s job, she just needs him to stop dammit, and now – but it may help OP with the cognitive dissonance of thinking he’s a nice person, but seeing behavior that is unkind and sexist.

        2. else*

          If he doesn’t “realize” it, he’s too stupid to belong in the work world. He’s clearly doing this to amuse himself and doesn’t care that she is being hurt by it. I don’t get this impulse to try to find a reason to make people’s bad behavior less bad.

      2. Jesca*

        There are people on my floor who enjoy a game of “who can scare who” and generally all participants are well acquainted and take pleasure in it. They seem to recognize that not everyone wants to participate and do not just randomly go around and do it. As in, they pick up on boundaries of others naturally. But there will, as it always is, come a day when a new person will join the fun but not have the ability to pick up on everyone’s boundaries. They will likely do something like this. Not everyone has the ability to see boundaries in personalities.

        BUT this person is ONLY doing it to young women. That in and of itself and sort of telling in its own way. But despite the reason for this person not being able to pick up on boundaries naturally, being direct is what is needed in order for it to stop. If OP hasn’t already had this direct conversation, going in with tons of anger isn’t going to help. It is always best to start with a firm “please stop this” conversation and then escalate from there. Unfortunately for women, going “angry” the first time, especially with those who are sexist and not cognizant of their sexism, generally ends in that person making the woman complaining look unstable and over-reactive.

      3. Thlayli*

        I agree with Lehigh. We don’t have enough info to assume he definitely has bad intent.

        It seems like OP has not actually told him it bothers her at all. I read the letter twice and nowhere does it mention her asking him to stop or telling him she doesn’t like it.

        She told him she has anxiety, and is jumpy, but it’s entirely feasible that he thinks that just means she jumps, then it’s all over. Not that she is feeling upset for a significant time afterwards.

        Lots of people (including me) do not understand what anxiety is and how it affects people. (FYI I’m not looking for an explanation of what anxiety is here – I have an internet so if I ever want or need to know I will google it.)

        Given how nice he apparently is otherwise, I think there’s a very good chance Fergus *doesn’t* know he’s actually upsetting OP and thinks it’s a harmless or funny interaction. We know it isn’t harmless – but he doesn’t necessarily know that.

        OP take Alison’s advice to start out by informing him that you don’t like it and it’s not the good fun he thought it was. Don’t jump straight to the conclusion that he already knows how much it upsets you.

        1. JessaB*

          This. Some people do not understand that anxiety can last or be different than just you jump and it’s over. They think it’s a fleeting thing and if you don’t tell them that for you personally it’s not, they don’t get it.

          Everyone reacts differently. Some are fine, some are not and visibly it looks exactly the same. You can’t tell from someone who jumps and is fine and who jumps and their heart pounds for an hour. It looks the same.

          OP you need to specifically tell them. And if necessary be detailled. “You understand when you startle me I spend the next hour with my heart beating like crazy and shaking inside and can’t work properly,” or “It takes me 20 minutes to recover from that thing you do and that’s a problem.”

          1. CM*

            And there are people who enjoy being scared because they like the adrenaline rush. People who like something can have a very hard time understanding why it would be distressing to others. I wouldn’t assume ill intent until he has actually been told to stop and ignores it.

            1. JanetM*

              And someone can both like being scared consensually (going on a roller coaster, watching a horror movie) but not like being scared / startled non-consensually (a co-worker sneaking up and going “Boo!”).

            2. Klew*

              Except he is only scaring the two young women in his office. His intentions are not totally innocent and unaware.

              1. Scary*

                Well, unless they’re the only ones who give the reaction that makes it fun for him. If there aren’t jumpy guys in the office, of course it’s going to look like he’s targeting women.

                So for me, it’s suspicious, but doesn’t automatically indicate sleaze.

              2. LBK*

                He may not be consciously targeting young women; that’s the whole idea of implicit or subconscious bias, that your brain may lead you a certain way without you realizing it. That doesn’t make it excusable, but it does mean there’s a genuine possibility he doesn’t realize he’s only doing it to young women.

          2. Haligolightly*

            No. Just no. The LW doesn’t owe Fergus a detailed explanation of *why* his reindeer games bother her.
            It’s enough that she asks him to stop. His behaviour isn’t welcome. End of discussion.

          3. Yorick*

            I’m not sure she should explain it to him, because if he doesn’t get anxiety he’s likely to tell her she’s overreacting.

            Stick to “I don’t like that you do that and I want you to stop”

          4. Sylvan*

            My experience with people who do this kind of thing is that the joke, to them, is the other person’s overreaction (or “overreaction”). Telling him how it affects you might, unfortunately, not really deter him.

        2. Arya Snark*

          Being startled easily can also be a symptom of PTSD and yet another reason why scaring people to see their reaction is just not right.

        3. neverjaunty*

          I find it very baffling to read comments that insist we can’t assume someone has bad intentions, but we can certainly decide that he “is” nice. Why is it ok to come to snap judgments about people’s true character and inner feelings as long as they’re positive?

          1. Jessie the First (or second)*

            Because the OP has explicitly said that in he is nice to her. His action here screams “not nice” and so there are plenty of “well, if you say so, but…..” type comments, but I think people are trying to take OP at her word.

            It’s got really nothing to do with some big-picture philosophy on snap judgments about people’s character, and everything to do with trying to believe what letter-writers say.

            1. Jessie the First (or second)*

              (And I say this as someone trying to bite her tongue hard about this, because…. keep your damn hands to yourself, random dude)

          2. Thlayli*

            Because the commenting rules specifically tell us to take letter writers at their word. LW states that he is nice. Ergo, we base our comments on the assumption that LW is correct and he is actually nice.

            There’s a link to the rules right above the box where you type your comments.

        1. CM*

          My impression was she told him she was jumpy, not that she wanted him to stop startling her. It should be an obvious connection, but some people are dense.

        2. Natalie*

          She has told him that she’s anxious and jumpy, that’s not the same thing as telling someone they’re distressing you and need to stop the behavior.

      4. echidna*

        I think we can consider it a power play – and therefore ill intent.. He only does it when “kicking down”.

      5. Observer*

        We don’t need to “assume” ill intent. We have evidence. Maybe someone who is startled is not always AS distressed as the OP. But anyone who has ever been startled knows that it is NOT a pleasant thing. So this guy must know that he is doing something unpleasant to OP – yet he keeps on doing it deliberately </b. Repeatedly doing something deliberately that is unpleasant to someone is the definition of ill intent.

        It’s also notable that he only does this to the young women in the organization. He KNOWS what he’s doing.

      6. Bleeborp*

        I AM very jumpy but not in a serious way like the LW describes but I definitely have an outsized reaction to being surprised and that’s amusing to people so some folks I work with will try to startle me. I know it isn’t evil intent, it’s just funny to see someone react in a weird way (when it’s harmless, which it is for me.) If the first time it happened I said “please don’t do that, it legitimately stresses me out” then yeah, if they kept doing it that would then become some kind of creepy power thing but I laugh, they laugh, it’s fine.

    2. PugLife*

      Yes exactly. He may not know the emotional extent to which it bothers the OP, but he knows she doesn’t like it, and doesn’t care. It’s a power move. And it’s gross af.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Yep. He’s not nice.

        In my mind, when people say “Except for this one really gross, sexist thing, Fergus is nice,” it means that THEY’RE nice. Nice people have a hard time believing that someone acting in objectionable ways could be doing it because they lack that same quality, especially when Fergus isn’t overtly a jerk in other situations. And they want to think well of everyone. This is an admirable quality, but it can be detrimental when they need to be assertive.

        It’s the same thing as when someone says, “Except for photocopying his genitals and faxing them to vendors he thinks are hot, Fergus is a really good employee.”

        1. General Ginger*

          +1. “Except for this one gross thing, Fergus is nice” = Fergus really isn’t nice at all. You just haven’t seen all the rest of the gross yet.

        2. Specialk9*

          Oh that’s a really good frame that I’m going to mentally bookmark. The nice one is the person giving the benefit of the doubt.

    3. BeenThere*

      Yes, yes, yes to the “document” it. Right now, write down every time you can remember his doing this. Write down each response you’ve made to him. Write down who you’ve observed also being scared this way (i.e., just young women, no men). You may never have to use this documentation, but if you do need it, it will show a pattern of behavior over time and your repeated requests for it to stop. This documentation will make it much harder for anyone to dismiss your complaint.

    4. Penny Lane*

      So let’s see, OP. You wish he’d realize what this does to you, but you haven’t told him. You wish he’d stop, but you haven’t told him. The place you’ve boxed yourself into — “I can’t possibly say anything, it’s too scary” — isn’t working for you. What can you tell yourself to make it work? Assuming he is indeed a nice guy doing a jerky thing — what’s the worst thing that happens — he’s momentarily hurt? So what? He’ll get over it.

      Why are you taking on his emotional burden?

      1. tangerineRose*

        In my experience, dreading telling someone to stop doing something like this is usually worse than actually telling someone to stop doing it.

        1. tangerineRose*

          Sometimes when someone is a bully, telling that person “no” clearly is enough that the bully will back off because of not wanting to get into trouble. Not always, but it’s worth a try, especially in the work world, where there is HR and management who don’t want people doing obnoxious unproductive things.

      2. NaoNao*

        If you read her remarks, she barked out a “stop it!” at him.
        Your tone to other commenters and OPs in your comments is really harsh, snarky, and unpleasant.
        You seem to enjoy making comments dripping with barely disguised contempt. I don’t understand why you would want to hang around “The Woke Olympics” that are full of “young women of today” who can barely eek out a word for themselves in between calling out isms.
        If the tone, content, and type of comments is so objectionable to you, exercise your right of free association and find a “life’s tough, get a helmet” group to hang out in.

  3. Detective Amy Santiago*

    Genuinely nice people will not do something that deliberately upsets another person.

    Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself.

    1. McWhadden*

      Right. A nice person may think doing this could be funny the first time (nice people aren’t necessarily better at judgment than anyone else) but they’d feel terrible after the reaction. And especially after being told to stop.

    2. Legal Beagle*

      Yes, precisely! If he is nice, he will want to adjust his behavior once he’s made aware how much it bothers you. If he doesn’t, he’s not nice, and this behavior is for his own gratification – at your expense! – and totally inappropriate for a workplace. (Or anywhere, really.) Tell him with a serious expression and tone so he gets that this is not a joke, or a slight preference, it’s an absolute requirement for you.

    3. Science!*

      This! If he’s a nice person, he should care that it bothers you and stop when asked. If he does not stop, he is not a nice/good person.

    4. robot*

      Yep. Like the LW, I have anxiety and occasionally a pretty extreme startle response. My coworkers have occasionally frightened me pretty badly when I have my head down in code. And when they see me startle, they usually apologize, even if they didn’t actually do anything wrong. I reassure them that I was just startled, and they didn’t actually do anything wrong, and they (without me saying anything) tend to be more careful to stand in my field of vision rather than coming up by my side, etc. Because they don’t want to scare their coworkers, and they want to have a good working relationship with me.

    5. EOA*

      Insisting that the OP question her own assessment not only doesn’t help her but is likely counter productive. If she feels he is nice to her, then that’s the way she feels. Telling her to not trust her own judgment doesn’t empower her.

      OP, it’s a good thing that your coworker is nice to you otherwise, but he is acting inappropriately here. You do have to verbalize firmly that his behavior is having an impact on you and that you’d like him to stop it. You are allowed to both like him otherwise and be firm that this is behavior you don’t like from him.

      1. Observer*

        No one is telling her not to trust her judgement. They are telling her that it’s ok to pay attention to everything that he does and to come to not so complimentary conclusions about what she sees.

      2. Lindsay J*

        In my experience, it’s also easier mentally to deal with situations than absolutes.

        It was difficult for me to come to the conclusion that my ex was abusive and I was being abused because he just didn’t act like I envisioned an abusive person to act – in that he wasn’t a monster 100% of the time. And I couldn’t accept that he didn’t love me, because he did do things that showed he loved me.

        It was much easier for me to accept that he was nice 80% of the time, and that he did things that were abusive 20% of the time, but that that 20% of the time still wasn’t okay – that I could expect to find someone who did abusive things 0% of the time.

        One of the things that snapped me out of it the most was someone pointing out that I could love him, that he could love me, and that he could still be abusive, and that still was a reason to leave rather than to try and fix it.

        And with more distance I came to realize that the amount of time that he was nice was a lot less than 80% of the time, that either I was just not keying into other bad things he was doing because they weren’t quite as bad as the really abusive behaviors, or that the nice parts were part of the abuse cycle where he needed to get me to stay with him, or that he was otherwise manipulating me during those times. But I couldn’t see that until I got away.

        And I wouldn’t have gotten away until I could accept that I needed to get away. And I wouldn’t have gotten away if all anyone ever told me was “he is an abusive jerk” in absolute terms like that, because that didn’t feel true to reality as I was experiencing it.

        1. Kewlmom*

          This sounds like very hard-won wisdom. I am sorry that you had to go through what you did, and glad that you were able to get out of the situation.

    6. Klew*

      The guy at my office that used to do this to me stopped after the second time when I yelled “What the f**k, dude! Seriously not funny or cool!”
      He wanted to act all upset that I, loudly, called him out but darn it don’t ever assume that the target will think it’s funny. I like to joke around and don’t shy at dirty jokes and stuff but this is too much.

    7. LavaLamp*

      This. I have two parallel situations that come to mind.

      Situation one: in middle school there was a group who liked to try to grab my feet and trip me. I asked them multiple times to stop, and they never did. They knew they were being buttheads. It finally did stop when one of them tried it on the icy walkway outside and I got mad and told them that if I broke any body parts falling it would be their fault.

      Situation two: in high school, a friend used to like to come up and put her hands around my neck. it scared the crap out of me and I asked her to stop. And you know what? She immediately apologized and didn’t do it again. That’s how nice people work. They might misjudge, but as soon as they’re corrected they don’t do the thing to bug you again.

      1. Specialk9*

        My kindergartner niece was recently teased hard by two 1st grade boys. She was upset, talked it through at home, then on her own she went into their classroom and confronted them, and when they mumbled apologies she told them she couldn’t hear them, until they apologized properly. They haven’t bugged her again, and in fact have been extra nice to her.

        I feel like I need classes from this 5 year old on how to be a woman, and how to be an adult. She clearly intuits some big concepts.

    8. Sylvan*

      Yep! If he wanted to be nice, he’d stop.

      I used to have a couple of coworkers who liked pranks and a couple who didn’t. So the ones who liked pranks kept it to themselves. That’s what nice people do when they realize someone doesn’t like pranks.

    9. Bleeborp*

      I’m not sure if the LW has clearly expressed how upset it makes her. I don’t consider being startled as the same as “upset.” I startle easily and some people apologize profusely and some people startle me because it’s funny how jumpy I am. I am not jumpy for any really negative reason, so it’s not stressful to me (I think it’s funny, too, how even I can hear someone coming and try to prepare myself but I still jump!) LW needs to be very firm and direct, obviously, and I still think it’s possible this guy isn’t awful….we’ll know he’s awful if she tells him in no uncertain terms to stop and he keeps doing it.

  4. Hills to Die on*

    I could have written this letter, and Alison’s advice is perfect. The vast majority of people will be contrite and won’t do it again. Some others are just daft or rude and need a more serious conversation to shut it down. The people making me jump weren’t bad, they just were trying to be funny and didn’t know when to quit. Good luck, and let us know how it goes!

    1. Nerd in Purple*

      I could have written this letter as well. I have always startled easily and it takes a while for my body to realize that we’re not about to be eaten by a lion afterwards. I will never understand why so many people think it’s HILARIOUS to startle me on purpose.
      I actually left my last job because my boss took great joy in startling me. He’d hide under my desk, behind doors, in closets, or even slam his whole body against my ground floor office window in order to startle me (he did the body slam thing in the mornings while it was still dark outside for maximum results).

      It got so bad that I was in a constant state of flight or fight for the whole 9+ hours I was in the office. I asked him repeatedly to stop, but he would just tell me to not be a “stick in the mud”. HR was no help either. So very glad I’m not working there anymore.

      1. Jesca*

        God, that is horrible. That is when you know it is passed “not picking up boundaries” and is straight in to “doubling down because its your problem.” I would not want to work there either! It isn’t fun if the other person isn’t having fun!

        1. Nerd in Purple*

          That place was toxic all around but the constant fear that at any moment my boss would pop out of some unexpected place in order to scare me was the worst thing about working there. I saw him in passing a few weeks ago (our industry is small) and he mentioned that he missed “being able to scare the piss” out of me everyday.

              1. Sally*

                I wish you could expose his name and org here so we could all send him emails telling him off.

                1. Nerd in Purple*

                  Lol, I wish I could as well, but I work in a very small industry and would rather not burn bridges.

          1. That Would Be a Good Band Name*

            I would have never thought of it in the moment, but it would have been so satisfying to point out that behavior was exactly why you left and that he should think about why he likes to have abusive behavior towards his employees.

            1. Nerd in Purple*

              I did bring it up in my exit interview…but it wasn’t very satisfying unfortunately. The bottom line is I was “only” the office manager and he brought a lot of industry contacts to the table. Since I left in October they’ve lost 3 of the remaining 5 staff members.

              1. Nerd in Purple*

                Haha! It’s my firmest hope that someone eventually punches him for being a jerk. It’s a small industry, I’d hear about it.

          2. Emi.*

            If your “startle reaction” included “accidentally” kicking him in the face, no jury would convict you.

          3. Observer*

            This person really is sick.

            The fact that he’s still in this job and HR doesn’t see an issue with it pretty much sums up how toxic this place must be.

        1. Observer*

          I was wondering the same thing. The lengths this guy went to, just puts him in a class of his own.

      2. Detective Amy Santiago*

        I have no words for how absolutely horrid this is. I’m also very glad you don’t work there anymore.

        1. Nerd in Purple*

          Me too. I’ve actually been able to decrease my anti-anxiety medication now that I’m not in a constant state of panic.

        1. Nerd in Purple*

          Yes, I did. This was just one of many, many reasons I left.

          HR’s only response every time I complained about him constantly scaring me was that my ex-boss and I had “cultural differences” that I should be understanding of. I’m pretty sure that people from his home country would think he’s an ass as well but he’s not my problem anymore, thankfully.

          1. Mr. PB's house*

            “Cultural differences,” i.e., you’re human and he’s toxic e. coli. Sheesh.

          2. Close Bracket*

            Why couldn’t HE be understanding of YOUR culture, which includes not startling people!

      3. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

        Oh. My. God. I’m not super easily startled, but if someone jumped out from under my desk or slammed his body against my window in the dark… What the hell is wrong with this person??? Why on earth was HR no help?

        1. Nerd in Purple*

          It was their opinion that we were just having “cultural differences” and that I should cut him some slack. I’m pretty sure he was considered an ass in his home country as well. Honestly, I think it was that he brought a lot of contacts to the table and they didn’t want to lose that. I was expendable as the office manager.

            1. Nerd in Purple*

              Per my old HR it was. But the thing is, our industry is multicultural. I’ve worked with many people from that part of the world and every single one of them was a normal human without any discernible predilection for being a jerk. I find it really hard to believe that being an ass is a cultural default setting.

              1. Massmatt*

                Translation—he brought in $$$, therefore its a cultural issue, why aren’t you being understanding? If he were an office temp or intern they’d can his ass and quickly.

                1. Oranges*

                  The only time a-holes should get a pass is if their touch cures cancer. Otherwise the business cost is usually not worth it.

          1. Lora*

            It’s amazing how that works, isn’t it? Weirdly, when I’ve come across actual, legitimate cultural differences, HR isn’t nearly as understanding or sympathetic.

            Yes, such people are definitely a-holes in their home countries as well.

          2. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

            What on earth?!?! OMG. I admit, as someone who’s frequently been the only, or one of the few, immigrants in an office, my mind immediately went to “cultural difference” = “you are from another culture and need to learn to understand the old-fashioned American-bro window-bodyslam”. Which would, I guess, be even worse. But this is awful too! I cannot think of a culture where what this guy does is okay! I don’t care what he brings to the table, he’s making the workplace intolerable for other people and is making them quit. Ugh, ugh, ugh. Good for you to be out of there. And sorry you had to deal with all of that.

      4. Anony McAnonface*

        I’m sorry. I’m stuck on the idea of a grown man hiding under your desk. What, I pray you, the actual f?

        Gosh. I know a number of people whose fight or flight response leans towards the fight. He’d have got a good wallop or kick if he tried it on them. I don’t wish your ex boss’ behaviour on anyone, but I kind of hope he tries it with someone whose instinct is to lash out. I doubt he’d do it again after a broken nose.

        1. Nerd in Purple*

          That whole period of my work life was one long journey into the ridiculous. Unfortunately, my flight or fight leans heavily toward clutching my heart and praying not to pass out. I did throw a note book and pen at him once, but it just made him laugh harder.

          I’ve never felt more helpless rage in my life. HR was no help…they were in a different state and told me I’d have to be understanding of “cultural differences”. I’m pretty sure that this behavior is frowned upon in ex-boss’ home country as well but that’s the story they stuck to, even in my exit interview.

        2. Tardigrade*

          My partner took a throat chop upon startling me in the shower once, and never surprised me in the shower again.

          1. Merci Dee*

            My goodness. I hope that throat chop wasn’t very hard.

            When I was about 13, I was soft pitching some balls for a friend so that he could practice his batting. He decided he was really going to wallop the next one I pitched to him, and he really did wallop it. Only bad part was, he hit the ball on a perfect angle to send it right back into my throat. I will never forget those 5 – 10 seconds that I was trying to gasp in that first breath after impact; not very long when you safely sit somewhere and count them out, but without a doubt the longest handful of seconds in my life.

            1. Tardigrade*

              I’m sorry for your experience and appreciate the concern for my partner. It hit on the side, so I guess it was more of a neck chop? and somewhat cushioned by shower curtains, and “only hurt enough that I won’t do that again.”

        3. miss_chevious*

          Yeah, I’m a fight person, and the first time he popped out from behind a door, he would have gotten a door slammed into his face. And then I probably would have been in trouble for “overreacting” (because that’s how these things usually work out) but…::shrug::

        4. Dinosaur*

          I kicked a coworker in the balls after he startled me in the warehouse. Like Nerd in Purple it had become a game to a lot of my coworkers to startle me. After that, though, no one ever tried it again. It was my first job and looking back on it I’m surprised I wasn’t disciplined, but it would have been worth it.

      5. Lindsay J*

        wt actual f.

        Hiding under your desk? I’d want to kick him on purpose for doing that. That’s so not cool.

    2. Aleta*

      I couldn’t have written this letter specifically, but I am WELL familiar with “person does thing that’s upsetting and insists it’s just all in good fun/loving behavior.” With a side of “Well not being able to do this thing upsets ME so you’re really the selfish one for asking me to stop!” whenever I push back on it. It’s a hill I’m willing to die on, and people usually back off if it ever gets bad enough that the realize it’s a hill I’m willing to die on.

  5. Midge*

    How awful! If you follow Alison’s advice and he persists in trying to scare you, it might not hurt to let yourself yell loudly each time he scares you followed by a very serious, very loud, “Fergus I’ve told you to stop sneaking up and scaring me. I do not appreciate it and need you to stop.” I’m guessing that even though Fergus is the kind of jerk who thinks it’s funny to make younger female colleagues uncomfortable, he’s wouldn’t appreciate that being publicly broadcast for everyone in the office.

    1. Amber T*

      +1! While usually I wouldn’t recommend publicly calling out someone like this, I think sometimes it’s necessary, and if you bring it up one-on-one with him and it doesn’t stop, the way Midge describes it I think would be appropriate.

      From a bystander’s perspective now, if they’re seeing a ‘nice old guy’ scare a younger woman and she seems “okay” with it by doing that awkward nervous smile/laugh combo I know I always end up doing, the bystander might be questioning what to do – do they stop it? Should they speak up? Is OP really ok with it and should they just go along? But, if as a bystander, I heard “I asked you to stop and you haven’t,” now I know a) this is an ongoing problem, b) Fergus is pushing boundaries, c) Fergus is probably a creep, d) OP is standing up for herself and I’m 100% on her side.

      So yeah, calling it out like this is not a first step solution, BUT it is absolutely a solution if other attempts do not solve anything.

      1. Lora*

        Can confirm this method works, especially when punctuated with cusswords if you rarely cuss. You get a rep for being the humorless one, but the offenders will stop scaring you.

        1. Penny Lane*

          Right. And who cares if you get a rep for being humorless? What’s better, to be thought of as having a sense of humor and yet having people continually startle you like this, or to be thought of as humorless and be able to spend your work day in peace?

          Too much focus on “what others think.” It is reasonable for you to tell him that you don’t like this and you want it to stop, now. If he pushes back with “god, what a sourpuss you are, don’t you have a sense of humor, I was just teasing,” etc. the answer is — no, I don’t have a sense of humor on this topic, I really need you to stop it.

        2. Midge*

          That reminds me, I’ve had a coworker pretended to lunge in my direction when I was walking by him holding with a full mug of (cold) water. He’s probably a foot and a half taller than me and a good 10 years older. I very much doubt he would do that to someone a) male, b) his age, c) his size. There’s a very high likelihood that if it happened again, I would be carrying hot water instead of cold. So I decided that if that happens, I’m going to swear loudly (in our open plan office) and ask why he would do that.

            1. Someone*

              Yeah. That’s exactly what I would do, and I reckon it’s be effective.

              Bonus points if you manage to aim for the crotch area.

        3. Jennifer Thneed*

          Miss Manners has your back.

          I don’t have time to go searching for cites now, but she essentially recommends that a person react VERY LOUDLY with a lot of “Oh my goodness, I didn’t see you, you startled me” performance of being apologetic, but the important part is the VERY BIG REACTION. Because it removes every iota of deniability the other person has.

      2. Gorgo*

        I was thinking this is a good opportunity to “reflexively” throw your coffee behind you. Or, if he’s close enough, snap out an elbow.

        Oops, you startled me.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          Yeah, I was thinking the same thing have a cuppa coffee on standby. But reality is that OP would have to keep dumping coffee on this guy. Take the higher road, OP, tell him to his face.

        2. Kiwi*

          Good thought. One cup of coffee to the crotch would probably do it. I don’t think I could bring myself to do that but it’d be tempting.

        3. miss_chevious*

          I’ve done the elbow before. Very effective, especially in the groin area. Especially because you can apologize your way out of trouble.

      3. HollyTree*

        I once asked someone why they enjoyed repeatedly startling an assault victim (me). What was about specifically startling someone who had been literally attacked everyday for years made them feel happy inside?

        I had already asked them to stop startling me, touching me and otherwise screwing with me, and told them why. But it was the exact two sentences above that made them stop. This might not be everyone’s cup of tea to do something like that, but it fits my dry personality and willingness to make a scene. My other option in that moment was screaming, because I was that angry but option one has worked so far…

        (Obviously, you switch out assault victim for anxiety suffering or complete stranger or young woman half your age or whatever. I’ve used the young woman one on a creepy flirty old man and it also worked.)

        1. Not So NewReader*

          She might be able to say, crime victim or similar wording. Many folks have experienced at least one crime in the course of their lives.

          I would really like to ask him why he does not do that to men also if is so much fun.

      4. BeenThere*

        I had a co-worker who did that to me. I worked in a printing plant, and part of my job was to cut stencils using an exacto knife.
        One day he tickled me again, and this time I had a knife in my hand. I was startled so much that I swung around in my rotating stool, and as my body swung around, my knife missed his face by mere inches. I didn’t do that intentionally, and it happened very fast. He could have been badly cut.
        After that, he didn’t tickle me again ever.

        1. Trig*

          WHAT possesses people to TICKLE someone who is not their own spouse or child?! Uuuuggghhhhh gross.

          1. Only here for the teapots*

            Enforcing gender norms, as ‘agreed upon’ by perptrator and victim, unless victims stop playing along.

    2. BadPlanning*

      Yes, this has worked for me. I had a guy in a college class that kept poking at me. One day, I yelped, “Stop touching me. ” I think we were both surprised. And he totally stopped.

      If he doesn’t stop, then he’s a jerk and an idiot.

      1. Gorgo*

        This is one of those situations where it’s helpful when your automatic response to being startled is a long string of profanities.

        (The part where the same response happens when the offender is an elderly family member is a little less beneficial).

    3. Adlib*

      I’ve been intentionally loud (I yelled) when someone sitting near me in an open office/call center environment would not stop bothering me. It was more of an unintentional reaction from being at the end of my rope, but guess what? It worked, and he STFU.

    4. Future Homesteader*

      Yup! I had a guy at work (I was part-time college help, he was an older full-timer) and he used to come up behind me and “tickle” me (more obviously line-crossing than this, but I don’t consider them too much different). I always shrieked and jumped, but he finally stopped when I turned around and just kept. screaming. “Oh, you scared me! Wow I was really scared and surprised and you snuck up behind me, etc etc etc” until he kinda backed away and never did it again. I got to pretend it was just a natural consequence of his actions, and I got him off my back. That said, I wish I’d told him to stop and reported him, but…youth.

      1. So Over This*

        I once had an older ‘gentleman’ sales associate come up and do this to me while I was shopping. I was looking at the various features of an appliance and he came up behind me and shouted “Boo!” at my. My first response was to not react, my second response was to yelp loudly. I actually remember the “don’t react” followed by “why not react, he’s out of line!” go through my head.

        So, Yeah, I yelped. He was horribly embarrassed and apologetic, as he should have been. Hopefully he thought harder about his approaching the customer sales technique in the future.

  6. Snark*

    Just as a general, universal kind of guiding rule for the workplace: do not attempt to scare, startle, play jokes on, horseplay with, or otherwise act like a 12 year old with your coworkers, especially but not exclusively if there’s a gender, age, or power gap between you. No, my friend, it’s not actually funny or appropriate for work. Yes, my dude, some of your coworkers think you’re a cut-up and encourage it; stop anyway. Yes, mi muchacho, I really do mean you and your “harmless” pranks, those are included. Just don’t. Stop.

    1. fposte*

      I like Alison’s script, but depending on the relationship and my inclinations, I might even bring his disproportionate focus on younger women into the conversation. It can be couched as a “friendly” alert about optics if you don’t want to directly challenge the pattern, or a request that you get the same treatment as the guys.

      1. Snark*

        That’s interesting, but I might advocate for reserving that point for the second request, if one is necessary. “Fergus. We’ve talked about this. I don’t appreciate it and you need to stop. I can’t help but notice you only do this to young women, so if you can’t do it out of basic consideration for my feelings, you need to clue in on how this would look to HR – because I’m talking to them next.”

        1. fposte*

          Yes, that’s possible too–for me it would depend on what I’d said to him already and what the relationship was like–and I really like your wording.

        2. fposte*

          Oh, I’d missed that the OP hasn’t said anything to him at all yet. Then I definitely agree that that’s too much for a first conversation for somebody you’re not enraged at.

        3. Not So NewReader*

          Amen to this.
          I was that young woman. I have seen first hand what some older men think is okay. I am angry that society has not moved on from this by now. Thirty five years ago I put up with this crap, too. That was a long time ago, and I thought I needed to just toughen up.

    2. Anon for this particular thing*


      I have worked with many combat veterans and have PTSD from an assault several years ago. Startling people can get you badly injured.

      1. Snark*

        Yep. I know people who, if you startle them from behind, will lead with a sharp elbow and apply apologies later if warranted.

        1. animaniactoo*

          [raises hand]

          That would be me, depending on how close to me you are and how you’ve startled me. I once accidentally broke someone’s nose. He was actually a friend, but didn’t realize how strong some of my inbuilt defenses are. He tugged on my ponytail – a little hard as he was trying to get me to stop moving so he could catch up to me, and was blindsided when I automatically punched up and over my shoulder (the elbow arm being full of backpack).

            1. animaniactoo*

              To be fair – it really wasn’t a hard pull at all even if it was completely inappropriate to try and control me by my hair. He mostly grabbed the easiest thing to grab from our height differential (he was taller than me).

              He was very unfortunate that when I didn’t want to go somewhere when I was a kid, my birth mom pulled me by my hair. My trigger on having my hair touched or tugged on as the lightest pull is significantly higher than the average person’s. I apologized some. He apologized a lot.

            2. Oranges*

              I could see me doing this. And then apologizing and asking if there’s anything I can do besides never ever to do that again. A faint tug on the ponytail = tap on the shoulder for me. Everyone has triggers and when you hit one the best thing to do is stop doing it for that person. If you find a common trigger? Stop doing that thing for all peoples.

              I don’t know how common a trigger a hair tug is. For me it reminds me of my dad tugging on my hair when he wanted to show affection when I was real little. Like a head-pat only a hair tug?… if that makes sense.

          1. Snark*

            Yup. A friend of a friend came out of an alley/side street on a pedestrian mall when we were all drinking and clapped hard and yelled right behind her. Flying elbow strike and a trip to the dentist!

        2. K.*

          I actually did elbow a coworker in the stomach when he snuck up on me. I was in the kitchen, deep in thought, kind of tuning everything out – I was turning a work problem over in my head. My back was to the entrance and I was stirring tea. Coworker snuck up behind me and clapped his hands on my shoulders and said “HEY!” really loudly, and I gasped really loudly and threw an elbow, purely instinctively. He made this ” … Ooof” sound and backed away. I was like ” … Sorry, but you really shouldn’t sneak up on people.” He never did it again.

          1. neverjaunty*

            What is it with these dudes who failed to absorb “keep your hands to yourself” back in kindergarten?

            1. SoCalHR*

              Oh you must have never gotten the other side that talk: “if they tease/tickle/scare/poke you, then they just like you.” I think that gets stuck in men’s minds.

              1. The Ginger Ginger*

                Which sucks, because that is literally the worst thing to say to anyone, let alone children. It’s teaching something truly, truly terrible.

                Oh, female child, that male child is only hurting you/annoying you/making you uncomfortable because he LIKES you! You should feel complimented, not unsafe! And if you do feel unsafe, it’s because you’re wrong! Now I’m not going to address it with male child at all because he’s just being a boy and doing boy things! And I’m going to call it cute and refer to him as your boyfriend, even though you’re both 5! It’s not like applying an adult sexual/romantic relationship modifier to this situation is creepy at all! /endsarcasm (not directed at you SoCalHR, just to that awful dynamic in general)

          2. Elizabeth West*

            Scared a coworker at Exjob who accidentally scared the shit out of me. She came up behind me and startled me while I had headphones on and was concentrating really hard on something. I ripped my headphones off and jerked around so fast I nearly upended my chair, and she practically pole vaulted over the cube wall. After that, she would knock before she came up behind me, LOL.

        3. JessaB*

          When Mr B first moved in with me I was doing dishes and he came up behind me. He forgot I am hearing impaired, and he was met with an elbow directly behind me and an attempt to pick him up and put him through the window in front of me. I hadn’t had someone living in the house since my father died, so wasn’t used to someone yet and he came up too quietly. PTSD sucks.

            1. JessaB*

              *fistbump* yeh I saw a reflection in the window over the sink and brain was like “no other human in house whiskey tango foxtrot?” He’d only been there for about a week at that point.

        4. AKchic*

          *raises hand*
          Elbow, punch to the throat, knee to the groin… yeah… I don’t startle easily, but when I do, people should not be close to me. I don’t *mean* to do it, but my flight/fight response ensures that I incapacitate what my panicked brain assumes is going to hurt me.

        5. Emi.*

          A friend of my first karate instructor snuck up on him in the pet store to try to startle him. Friend found himself suddenly flying through the air and then landing abruptly on an enormous bag of dog food. Friend was not pleased. Instructor was not sorry.

          1. Anony*

            Something like this happened to me once. I was in a Jiu-Jitsu class with a teenage guy who had just started the process of enlisting in the Marines, and I wiped the floor with him on a regular basis. One night, I was leaving the 24 hour grocery store at midnight when someone grabbed me from behind. He was on the ground yelling, “Aaaaauuuggh it’s Justin, don’t break my arm!” before I knew what had happened. Muscle memory is a thing, and I hate being startled.

            1. tangerineRose*

              Wow, grabbed from behind at midnight. If someone did that to me, I think my scream would be heard in the next county. I’m not sure I’d be able to defend myself so well, but I hope I’d try.

              One of my big fears is being attacked late at night when I’m outside and at least mostly alone (which is one reason I avoid lonely areas after dark).

          2. Chameleon*

            My karate instructor (about 5 foot tall blond woman) told the story of when she was at a grocery store and someone came up behind her, threw his arms around her to pin her arms to her side, and started grinding his pelvis against her.

            She immediately dropped into a low stance to break the pin, threw an elbow back as hard as she could, and did a foot sweep to knock him to the floor. She then turned around to see the guy writhing in pain on the floor, gasping out the words “you’re not Jennifer!”

            Dude, if you are going to grind on women at the store, make DAMNED SURE they are actually your girlfriend. (Or, you know, just don’t pull that crap on your girlfriend either).

        6. Sunshine on a Cloudy Day*

          Yup – back in the day I was in a very crowded music venue in a college beach town (read: lots of people looking to hook up). Someone came up behind me to try to “dance” with (more like pelvic thrust against) me. Something about the abruptness with which they came up behind me and maybe the fact that they also grabbed my hips, but instinct took over and I just jammed my elbow straight back. Got them in the gut so hard that they had the wind knocked out of them. Didn’t feel bad about it either.

        7. CS Rep By Day, Writer By Night*

          A guy in my office who knows very well how easily I startle showed me a jump scare video at work on his phone. I screamed, punched him in the shoulder and I think I called him an ass**** too though it’s kind of a blur. I followed up by glaring at him and yelling “Dude, so not funny!” and he walked away mumbling an apology.

        8. SarahKay*

          That would be me. I got fed up at university when friends found I was ticklish and started to think it was funny to come up behind me to dig me in the ribs and watch me jump. I cultivated a response of ‘elbows backwards, hard!’ which (thank goodness) rapidly brought the whole thing to a stop.

          And in fact, my family has form for this. When my Dad and Mum were dating at college, Dad came up behind Mum while she was working at a desk, put his hands over her eyes, and was about to do the “Guess Who?” thing. Never got the chance. Mum was (genuinely) so startled she reared up and backwards and broke his nose with the back of her head….

          1. Gorgo*

            It’s really important to remind people that laughter≠enjoyment. Tickling is the biggest example, but a lot of people, especially women, do the nervous chuckle, and it really, really doesn’t mean they find something funny.

        1. Detective Amy Santiago*

          Or have a cup of hot liquid sprayed all over him.

          I’m a fairly jumpy person and I have nearly spilled my tea so many times when someone came up behind me and I didn’t realize they were there. If someone deliberately came up and scared me while I had a cup in my hand, it’s entirely possible that they would get doused.

    3. RVA Cat*

      This crap was out of line at OldJob when it was between two men with a power and size difference. The fact he’s targeting young women makes this Oh Heck No.

    4. Bunny*

      Spin around and “instinctively” punch the old goat just once because you were scared and adrenaline took over.

      Don’t actually do this.

      1. Gorgo*

        “As a heads-up, even if you think [current target] doesn’t mind, it looks kinda creepy to others, and it’s a bad habit to get into.”

        I’ve had to have a relatively similar conversation about inappropriate language, because the argument was “but [x] doesn’t mind!”

    5. GreyjoyGardens*

      + a million. Horseplay – no matter how friendly – has NO PLACE at work. Unless you’re an actual horse.

      1. Jennifer Thneed*

        I think that if you’re a horse, and at work, then it’s actually horsework, and therefore completely appropriate.

    6. Massmatt*

      I was about to say something like this, I believe this is the first comment to the point that this is incredibly inappropriate and bizarre behavior. This is WORK, wth is the matter with people like this?

    7. PurpleNovember*

      Oh, man. This happened to me once– “Chad”, a guy in his early 20s, thought it was funny to grab a female co-worker by the arm and yell in her ear. He did it to me, I reacted by slamming his arm into the nearest flat surface, which happened to be the wall. (FTR, this was 20+ years ago. I’d just got out of the US Army about 2 months before taking this job; I was basically just filling in a few months before starting college.)

      He complained to our manager, and we both got a verbal warning… but Chad never touched me again (and possibly none of our other co-workers, IIRC), and actually quit about a month later, claiming that he felt uncomfortable around me.

      I was okay with that.

  7. Keep Your Eyes On The Prize*

    I have very poor peripheral vision which makes it easy for people to startle me. I’ve explained this to co-workers and they respect that. This person is downright mean and needs to be reported for harassement because that is what he is doing.

  8. Administrator excellante*

    This so could have come from me. I too have coworkers that think it’s funny to scare each other and I’m a jumpy person who hates it when people sneak up on me. I refuse to live in fear, so I shut that nonsense down. I told everyone in no uncertain terms, that if they sneak up on me and try to scare me, ever, I would respond by punching them square in the face. I’ve never had to make good on my threat. I was clear and direct and now I am not a part of the horrible, sneak up and scare people game. Probably not the most professional response, but neither is lying in wait and jumping out at people

    1. Amber T*

      I’m a flail-er who purposely doesn’t put herself in scary situations (first and only haunted house was at 10 years old, when I punched a guy in a Scream mask that popped out at me – it’s funny when a 10 year old does it, but I’m a full grown adult now and I don’t want an assault charge).

      I had a coworker who thought it was funny too until she made me slip and fall and nearly break my ankle. “Oh hahaha it was an accident!” “No, it f-in wasn’t, you’ve been popping out at me on purpose since I’ve started here. Do NOT do that again.” It’s hard to keep your dignity as you hobble out of the bathroom but I managed to do it. She stopped!

    2. Detective Amy Santiago*

      WTF is wrong with people that this is a thing in multiple offices?

      If I was a supervisor who saw this going on, I’d be giving everyone more work. Clearly they have too much free time.

        1. Administrator excellante*

          It’s so annoying! I don’t get the appeal at all. It’s a thing 2 people in my department of 10 do to everyone else, and I refuse to participate.

      1. Clorinda*

        Or less work. A LOT less work. As in, ‘you don’t work here any more’ amounts of less.

        1. tangerineRose*

          Exactly. If I were a manager, I’d also be concerned about lawsuits. Besides which, does anyone work well a few minutes after they’ve been scared? I don’t.

          I have been startled deliberately a couple of times. Both times, I let out a shriek. Neither person ever did it to me again. I guess they realized I didn’t think it was funny.

      2. WellRed*

        I have always worked at laid back places but this is not something that ever happened. Who are these people?

      3. dr_silverware*

        I think it develops out of naturally startling people all the time: a “come drop in” culture + cubicles where your back is to passers-by + being distracted & plugged in to headphones = people may physically startle you. And then if you’ve got jerks around who enjoy the startle? It’s already part of the office culture.

        1. Femme d'Afrique*

          I’ve seen it in teenagers with the “let’s throw this person into the pool” nonsense. Which only stops when they throw that one person in who can’t swim. I guess these people grow up to “jokingly” startle people at work, which is unbelievably depressing.

          1. else*

            I remember seeing a news story a few years ago about someone who did that to the bride-to-be at a bachelorette party, and she was paralyzed from the neck down. :( It was really sad. Supposedly she forgave them, but that didn’t fix it.

      4. NaoNao*

        I am thinking the same thing! WTF? I have had a similar issue with (yep, only men) pushing me to do, watch, or participate in things I’m either visibly terrified by or disgusted by. (We’re flipping through channels and a slasher flick comes on, we’re at an amusement park and I decline “the Vomicoaster” and so on). They get this pushy, almost acquisitive gleam in their eyes, lose sight of friendship, respect, and kindness, and push to the point of harassment for me to do or watch something I REALLY don’t want to.
        I finally asked one “Why do you want me to suffer?”
        The answer in so many words “I don’t believe your reactions, emotions, boundaries, or thoughts are valid or important. I know better. And I want to do this with you by my side, so do it.”
        People: STOP DOING THIS.

    3. Chatterby*

      Seriously, she just needs to smack or sucker punch him really hard “on accident” because she was “so startled” once and I bet he’d never try this again.

    4. LaurAxe*

      Haha I had something similar… one coworker who’s more of a joker and occasionally likes to “scare” people. He hid behind the office door once day when he saw I was coming, when I walked in he jumped out to startle me. However, I was holding a fresh mug of tea at the time so I (professionally?) exclaimed “[Co-worker]! That’s really not cool! I could have spilled this hot tea on myself, or you! And what if I had been holding a knife?? I could have accidentally stabbed you!”

      So I’m not actively advocating for the LW to threaten to stab her coworker if he doesn’t knock it off, but I will say it worked for me.

  9. Archie Goodwin*

    I used to work with a fellow who did stuff like this once. Nice guy, but his sense of humor could be a bit immature sometimes. And once he took it into his head that the best way to get my attention in my cube was to come in behind me and stick his hand in front of my face.

    It happened a couple of times before I blew up. I don’t remember why, exactly – he’d caught me on a bad morning, for some reason – but I bellowed loud enough that I’m sure they heard me halfway to the other side of the office. I told him off in no uncertain terms and it scared him from doing anything like it again.

    I mean, I’m sorry I yelled…I don’t like to yell. But it did the trick.

    1. LQ*

      I definitely yelled once when a coworker did it intentionally and “got me good” which was the worst. And I yelled. It was loud. I’m a loud person. And I’m a real good yeller with a real good set of lungs. I worked in a call center. Other people lectured him to never ever do that again to anyone. He never has.

      1. LQ*

        (Yelled for me was a scream of terror in response to what my brain was entirely sure was my imminent demise.)

      2. Archie Goodwin*

        So far as I know nobody said anything to him about it – my reaction was enough.

        I’m a tenor – of COURSE I have a good set of lungs. :-)

        (True story: in high school I – the non-sports-participating choir nerd – and one of our football players did one of those lung capacity tests for biology class. I beat him by about a point…he wasn’t happy.)

        1. LQ*

          Hah! When I was little and long distance calls were expensive I would just yell the half mile across the swamp to the neighbors to ask them if they wanted to come play :)

    2. Wannabe Disney Princess*

      I don’t like my back touched…even by people I know. I jump and flail. Very, very quickly and with a lot of force. It’s not on purpose, it’s just instinct.

      One coworker thought it was funny to sneak up and rub people’s shoulders while they were sitting. (I’m aware of the myriad things that are wrong here.) He did it to me.


      After narrowly avoiding a black eye, he never did it to anyone again.

    3. The New Wanderer*

      Yep, someone snuck up on me on college and tickled my side. He got an elbow to the nose. He didn’t try it again.

      Another guy tried to tickle me and I said, very loudly, “Do NOT touch me.” He didn’t try it again.

      I’m pretty sure my reaction at being deliberately startled in a work environment would involve loud profanity. Fortunately I’ve never had to find out.

    4. Argh!*

      I blew up at a coworker who was a pain and invasive in other ways. I felt badly about it, but not badly enough to apologize. Even though I’d been yelling, I was yelling about what she was doing, not insulting her, so there was that at least. She wound up apologizing for being a jerk and left me alone after that. I hate it that blowing up at people works, but some people just don’t “hear” you until you yell!

  10. First time buyer*

    The dude is an ass who is exploiting a power dynamic.

    It’s not cute or funny and I’d skip talking to him and head straight to his manager and ask them to write him up for it.

    1. Snark*

      He might be an ass, but it would be a bad move to escalate without talking to him first; if someone came directly to me complaining of something like this, I would assume they were doing so because direct engagement hadn’t worked, and I would not particularly welcome being the first resort. Alison’s scripts will be effective for about 90% of asses.

      1. tangerineRose*

        I agree with Snark. She can always go to management if talking to him doesn’t work. Besides which, if the guy honestly thinks she’s OK with it, talking to him first is the kind of option which will probably preserve a workplace friendship or at least not make him an enemy.

    2. Natalie*

      I’m not sure if you’re coming from a specific kind of environment (I’ve never worked anywhere that did “write ups” outside of retail) but I think most managers would ask you if you had addressed this directly with Fergus first.

    3. Tia Maria and Coke*

      You’re probably right about the first part, but the OP needs to firmly and directly tell him to cut it out before considering escalating to management if he doesn’t. If one of my subordinates came to me with this, the first thing I’d ask is if they have clearly and directly told him to stop. If they said no, I’d ask them to go back and do so, and then come back to me if it continued. I mean, I’d be compassionate about it, but I’d expect them to do that before I would consider doing anything myself.

      1. Snark*

        Exactly. We’re all adults here. Try to resolve an interpersonal issue yourself first; your boss isn’t the playground monitor.

    4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      He’s definitely an ass, but it also sounds like OP has not told him to stop. Generally speaking, a manager is going to ask if OP has spoken to Fergus. When OP says no, the manager is going to ask OP to speak to Fergus.

      OP, don’t be nonchalant or blase—be very firm and serious and tell him to knock it off. Don’t worry about offending him; he’s already behaving badly, and it is not offensive for you to call someone out for their bad behavior (especially when it’s affecting you this way).

    5. Penny Lane*

      An emphatic no. That just perpetuates the notion that she’s not empowered to handle dealing with situations herself and has to run to management (“mommy”). That’s precisely the lack of empowerment that keeps her doing nothing while this guy continually startles her.

      It is a HUGE life lesson for her that she needs to know that she has the power to say, “Stop doing that” to this guy, rinse and repeat if needed, and only then, if he doesn’t comply, bring in the bigger guns.

  11. Wannabe Disney Princess*

    If he truly is as nice as you say, a serious conversation about this will be all that’s needed. He might even be upset (at himself, not you) when he realizes the actual distress it puts you under.

    If he keeps it up after that, he’s not nice.

    1. dr_silverware*

      I agree.

      What he’s doing is really not cool, and he’s displaying a, hmm, selective blindness to reading the room. But that doesn’t mean on the face of it that he’s never going to change.

    2. (Mr.) Cajun2core*

      I think Wannabe Disney Princess put it best. I have a strong feeling that he will feel awful once he realizes that it really does distress you.

    3. SarahKay*

      OP, the other thing you might find helpful is to practice what you want to say in front of a mirror. Work out a script that works for you, and then say it to yourself in the mirror, with a serious face. Repeat until you feel more comfortable with what you need to say and how you need to look.
      It doesn’t have to be a cross face, and you don’t have to use harsh language, but do make sure you’ve clearly told him it upsets you and that he has to stop, and do make sure you’re not smiling.

      I know you want to be nice, and it’s hard to be direct because that can feel like being mean, but you do need to give a very clear message to him. Hopefully, he’ll understand how much this upsets you and he’ll stop – problem solved.
      And if he doesn’t stop, then you probably need to re-assess whether he really is a nice guy, but at least you have more information on what you’re dealing with.

  12. Captain S*

    Gross. The very people who are most likely to give him the reactions he wants are the most likely people to be actually hurt by this behavior – people with PTSD and women.

    So of course he only does it to women. At best, this dude is utterly clueless. Good luck with him OP, I do hope that telling him directly to cut it out will bring him back to Earth.

  13. LQ*

    I’m really jumpy so when people come up and knock on my cube (standard) I will startle. Most people are apologetic. These people are nice people.

    I’ve found in general having a serious demeanor rather than a laughing demeanor in the “I recognize this is no longer a threat to my safety” moment is really helpful in getting people to stop. If you laugh people think you enjoyed it. If you let yourself be a little visibly upset with zero humor or laughter, or my preferred a stern that was not ok, it stops a lot faster. I can’t seem to get the startle reflex to go down, but I can change my reaction to the moment has passed and that helps to make others understand that you don’t enjoy it. Doing this even in a standard jumpy kind of situation (person knocks on the cube), will avert some of these people from ever starting doing it.

    1. Lumen*

      This. The vast majority of people I work with either apologize for startling me, or at very least don’t make it a big deal. Sometimes they laugh, but it’s in the “oops, sorry”/uncomfortable way, because they feel bad. And these people are fine. We all move on. The people who are ‘making a big deal’ out of startling coworkers are the ones who intentionally do it over and over again like a particularly annoying 10 year old.

    2. Shiara*

      Right. My college friend group misinterpreted an easily startleable friend’s laughter post startle as meaning she was enjoying herself, and so eliciting semi-intentional startle reactions from her continued until she very seriously told us that it was really upsetting and to please stop, at which point we all apologised and did our best.

      Semi-intentional and our best because part of the problem is that she gets very into conversations, and I naturally move very quietly, so if they were all standing around and talking, she wouldn’t notice me approaching until I was suddenly there and looming (she was quite short, and I’m on the tall side). Our friends started deliberately saying hi as they saw me walk up/I started interrupting the conversation from further away to try to prevent further incidents. (They also gave me one of those pretty metal belts with a bell on the end of it for my next birthday)

  14. Murphy*

    My friends used to do this to me! I’m also very easily startled, especially when I’m working. But they were my friends, we were in grad school, and I never asked them to stop. It also wasn’t on purpose all of the time. Even without headphones I just wouldn’t hear them approach sometimes. I’m somewhat embarrassed about how much I jump, but otherwise I can recover quickly and wasn’t really bothered.

    But if you’re bothered by it, which you definitely have every right to be, definitely ask him in no uncertain terms to stop. Alison’s script is good and that would be enough for any reasonable person to cut it out.

  15. foolofgrace*

    I also have an exaggerated startle response, and I wouldn’t be as nice as many of these suggestions are — I would find it almost to be a reflex to, the next time it happens, say “Sheesh, stop doing this!” I wouldn’t be quiet about it either — I wouldn’t be able to because I’m still in “startle mode”. He’s being rude and doesn’t deserve, and probably wouldn’t be affected by, a polite request to stop. If you said this, he’d probably look startled himself — don’t back down and soften the blow, let him look shocked. Good luck, and keep us updated!

  16. Glomarization, Esq.*

    I am so angry for the letter writer, I’m ready to pack a bag, head to her workplace, and open up a bottle of lost-it sauce on her co-worker for her.

    In other words, I think it would be perfectly OK for the letter writer to actually get up in her co-worker’s face and seriously raise her voice when she says, “You need to respect a clear no.” I know Allison advises against yelling in the workplace, but I think this is a situation where it would be both appropriate and effective.

  17. Undine*

    Definitely talk to him and do your best to shut it down. This can be very hard to do — especially with anxiety — but your awkwardness will actually reinforce the message that this is difficult and unpleasant for you and you Need It To Stop. And if he keeps doing it, another thing to try is to get up and walk away without speaking to him. He needs attention, so don’t feed the troll.

  18. Rae*

    Ah OP I’ve been in this exact same situation! It’s a running joke now in my workplace that I’m so easily startled. I’m even startled when I can see the person approaching me. Most people have learned to approach me carefully, sometimes waving their arms from a distance, which looks ridiculous but works well and they’re happy to do it because generally people don’t like to upset others.

    I had one colleague who enjoyed sneaking up on people. He liked to see how close he could get without being spotted and took joy in seeing people jump. I asked him nicely to stop but he carried on, because it’s a mostly harmless office prank and nobody else asked him to stop. So when it happened again I told him firmly to stop. He apologised, and he never did it to me again. I hope that your colleague can be this understanding and stop quickly. Please don’t be afraid to stick up for yourself.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      OP, you and your other coworker could watch each other’s backs and simply say “behind you” whenever he tries to sneak up on either one of you.
      I am offering this suggestion as a secondary suggestion after addressing the situation with him.

      1. Gorgo*

        Probably also worth asking coworker if she’s willing to present a united front about stop-doing-this. Because if she’s one to laugh it off it does make the message a little harder to emphasize.

  19. SLB*

    “Fergus, you’re usually so kind that I’m surprised you would do something as unkind as deliberately scaring me when I’ve told you it makes my anxiety worse. Please stop doing it.”

    1. Esme Squalor*

      I love this response. It’s kind and straightforward, but there’s a major sting in it.

    2. Thlayli*

      She can only use this line AFTER telling him it makes her anxiety worse. You skipped a step.

    3. E*

      Or “what kind of person doesn’t stop doing something so horrible after being asked to stop?!” Make him think about if he wants to be that person in the office.

    4. Yetanotherjennifer*

      I like this approach, but I don’t think her anxiety needs to be a part of it. Kind people respect boundaries no matter why they’re set and she doesn’t need to validate her dislike of being startled.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Yeah. Really it’s inappropriate behavior, period. Any personal concerns OP has should not have to be used to gain leverage. When she says, “Stop”, he needs to stop or she should move the problem up the hierarchy for more action.

  20. Rachel Green*

    I am also very easily startled, sometimes I’ll just open a door and if someone is standing there when I don’t expect them there, I’ll gasp. I believe I inherited it from my mother, who is also very jumpy. But, never in my life have I had someone intentionally try to scare me or make me jump. Most people actually apologize for startling me, then I apologize to them for my jumpiness. This man is truly exhibiting some very bizarre, not-nice behavior and you absolutely should not have to put up with it. If you were in high school and both teenagers, then I could understand the situation in that context. But this is a grown man in a workplace. Very bizarre.

  21. Slow Gin Lizz*

    I personally despise being tickled and if someone were tickling me at work (and anywhere, actually) I’d have no qualms at all about telling them to stop. In this case, sure, OP is not being physically touched by co-worker, but *is* being physically harmed by co-worker, and that’s not okay. OP, I agree with the advice above and would add that if co-worker does not stop after you asked him to, you should definitely escalate to HR. I hope your company has an HR department.

    1. Bleeborp*

      My mind definitely went to the Tickle Wars of the letter where someone tickled their coworkers toes. It’s wild to me how much people differ on these kinds of issues- opinions ranged from “mildly inappropriate” to “physical assault.” I am jumpy and don’t mind when people are amused by that because I think it’s kind of funny, too but I also wouldn’t freak if someone tickled my toes in a weird lapse of judgement BUT what it all boils down to is that in the workplace everyone is coming from different experiences and have different boundaries we should really avoid touching or messing with anyone intentionally…but it obviously happens (because of everyone’s different boundaries, sense of humor and/or people being thoughtless jerks) and hopefully the LW can just be very firm with the startling coworker and it actually stops (and agreed would need to escalate if it doesn’t.)

  22. dooleyn0ted*

    Not that I’m advocating violence, but it sure is satisfying when these jerks come across someone who’s startle response is to throw an elbow or a punch.

    1. Goya de la Mancha*

      This could totally come off as an accident, an over dramatic flailing of the arms/limbs. Not saying I know this from experience….. ;)

    2. Lumen*

      Reminds me of two things:

      1) Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt screaming “I DON’T LIKE THAT” and shoving a guy to the ground when eh thought it would be cute to sneak up on her.

      2) The scared-of-birds guy from this site.

    3. Rena*

      I definitely did this once.

      I worked in a bakery, shift started at 6 am. 6:15 am and I’m half asleep in the very packed walk-in freezer, intently focused on the cakes I was pulling for the day, freezer fans masking any other sound. My coworker saw me, and thought it would be hilarious to scream this awful inhuman scream into the freezer at the top of his lungs. My fight or flight kicked in and I went straight to seeing-red rage – screamed, cussed, and punched him in the back several times as he cowered. He was a trained fighter/body builder and I’m not trained in anything, so I didn’t do any kind of damage. He apologized profusely and never did anything similar again, but it’s still a really vivid memory, several years on.

  23. LouiseM*

    My apologies, OP! I too am very jumpy and startle easily. Actually, last time someone tried something like this (sneaking behind me while I was sitting at my desk) they were rewarded with a swift and very sharp elbow to the balls. I have excellent ergonomic desk posture and all the stars just aligned! Truthfully, in my case it really was just a reflex, but you might consider developing a similar “reflex” if Captain “I’m So Manly I Need to Frighten Women” won’t leave you alone.

  24. dr_silverware*

    I think this would also be an effective conversation to have outside of any kind of scaring incident. That way, it won’t be read as an immediate response and part of the spook. Alison’s advice is really good, of course, but

    Here’s what I’d say. “Fergus, do you have a second? I wanted to talk to you about something. For a little while now, you’ve been trying to startle me by sneaking up to my cube, making a loud noise, all that stuff. I know I’m easy to startle, but I really do not like it, and I’d appreciate if you did not do that in the future. If you send me an IM before you head over, you won’t have to get my attention through my earbuds.” If you want to, you can also add, “No hard feelings, but please don’t do it in the future.”

    I’d also recommend doing this not in your cube, so you have the opportunity to leave when you want to. This will feel very very tense leading up to the conversation, so put ALL your self-care effort into it.

    I actually had almost exactly this conversation with a coworker who habitually called me “young lady,” and he stopped. I also–on Thursday of last week in fact–had almost exactly this conversation with a coworker who had poked me in the forehead at a going-away event on the previous Wednesday night. It’s possible to get this to stop–especially if your coworker is indeed fairly nice!

    1. Snark*

      I like the approach, but again, I find the scripts a little too conciliatory – “no hard feelings” and “I’d appreciate it if” don’t have quite enough of a spike on the end. If he worries about hard feelings, that’s a legitimate worry.

      1. dr_silverware*

        You’re not wrong that the wording looks conciliatory on the page, but it has a couple pragmatic advantages. One, it’s easier to say. Two, it sets up a way for the other person to save face, which helps in making sure they don’t dig in. Three, it draws on the friendliness of the relationship in the past.

        Besides that, it’s more that it’s my personal tone & style. It’s like, if I’m a little formal and over-polite in the beginning, then break into a more casual style after the person has apologized, it helps with the narrative arc of the conversation, I guess.

        1. Snark*

          Oh, interesting point. I’m not sure it’s the approach I’d advocate, because I’m me and I almost never advocate for managing the other person’s reactions, but I see what you’re doing there and I understand the reasoning.

          1. animaniactoo*

            In a lot of ways, what you’re doing is making it easy to for them to give you the response that you want. Because most people are automatically defensive, and even more so when someone comes at them hard.

            So as a first approach – particularly with someone you want to have an ongoing at least casually friendly relationship with – creating the space in which you can most simply get the response you want is the most effective path to getting the whole of what you want. You’re managing *your behavior* in that.

            It’s basically tailoring your script to your audience (and general human behavior response) – your job is to try and make the communication as effective as you can, to reduce the chance that there will be miscommunication or poor receipt of the message.

            Note that’s only *reduce* the chance – not avoid it altogether. Because what you’re not responsible for is how they respond to this attempt, or to continue to try it ad nauseum when they aren’t responding to it. Then you’ve tried it, and you firm up the boundary and tone almost immediately if it doesn’t go over well. “I don’t care about that. The important thing to me is that this doesn’t happen again.”

          2. dr_silverware*

            Yeah–and it’s entirely likely that coming from you it would seem incredibly condescending and infuriating, or make you look weak–you’ve got the best possible handle on your IRL vibe. I’d be pretty off-base to recommend an approach like that to you for handling a peer.

          3. Emi.*

            You say “managing the other person’s reactions,” I say “manipulating the other person’s reactions so he gives me what I want.”

            1. Aleta*

              Yup, this is how I think of it too. It’s work, but it’s work to preempt an emotional response I don’t want to deal with, so in the end it’s easier.

          4. Not So NewReader*

            Some folks aim to create a message that their targeted audience will actually hear and absorb.
            Additionally, OP recognizes that she needs to get along with people at work.
            I have noticed as I age I worry less and less about the latter. I don’t have too much problem with cohorts, but if something comes up I will mention it. It does take practice to find our own voice and to keep our work persona in line with our real life persona. This takes time. I had one event in particular that was my turning point, after that event it got easier to explain what I wanted/needed.

            OP, one trick I have learned is that the longer we let stuff go on the harder and harder it gets to deal with it. Make it your practice to nip it early, as best you can.

        2. oranges & lemons*

          Yeah, this is the kind of tone I would be more likely to go with for the first conversation too. It lets the other person save face while there is still some chance they just don’t realize how much of a jerk they’re being. If they ignore you after that, though, then the gloves come off.

          1. oranges & lemons*

            Also, part of this calculus is that it’s probably better to try to preserve a veneer of friendliness with a coworker. If someone I didn’t have to see every day did this, I wouldn’t be so polite about it.

      2. Oranges*

        Depends upon the culture. In my neck of the woods the above script would be seen as middle of the road between hard and soft so if the LW is in Minnesota this would work well as a first script. Because we do not do direct at all*. If we’re in the direct phase then it’s a “serious” issue and the person has not picked up on all the subtler ways we have told him to cut it out. Conflict avoidance is big here.

        *As a whole.

        1. 5 Leaf Clover*

          I think it’s great as a first script but would certainly drop the niceties if they didn’t work the first time. I am in Minnesota and with a recent employee first tried softened scripts, then quickly learned that she ignored anything but “you MUST do it this way. You are failing to do your job.” It’s hard as a person who is sensitive to any form of feedback to understand that other people may have much different thresholds for hearing requests to change behavior.

    2. dr_silverware*

      To add, I think this kind of conflict is related to giving an apology. When you’re giving an apology the structure is, illustrate that you understand what you did, acknowledge your fault, and briefly explain what you’ll change in the future.

      When doing this confrontation, the structure is: illustrate what the context of the situation is that upset you (“you poked me in the forehead last night”), what your feelings are (“I did not like it”), and what you’d like in the future (“please do not do that again”).

      In the dang forehead-poking incident I’m using as an illustration, I didn’t actually care about receiving an apology so I didn’t request one; in other conflicts like this, basically all I’ve cared about has been receiving an apology and felt that the situation was resolved when I received one.

      Also, to be clear, this is a first step that will work on a reasonable person. If it doesn’t work, then it’s certainly time to escalate; it may also help to mention to a boss that you’re having this conversation and conflict.

      1. Jessie the First (or second)*

        I’d ease way up on the pleases and I’d apreciates you have in your script, though.

        What the coworker is doing is the sort of thing that a reasonable person should realize is not okay – as in, most people will apologize when they realize they have scared someone. If they know someone has anxiety (LW says she told coworker she does) this *should*, in a reasonable person, be a clue that scaring is not okay.

        Which leads to the conclusion that coworker here isn’t reasonable. He may be nice in other ways (I suppose), but he is missing an important aspect of reasonableness. To me, this means there is extra need to be clear and firm and direct. Nothing approaching hinting. Nothing that makes it seems like a request that is open to debate or that can be declined. Firm, clear boundary. No “please.” Just “I need you to stop trying to scare me or make me jump with surprise. I don’t like it and need you to stop.”

        1. dr_silverware*

          Maybe. I just think there’s a huge difference between “oh, wow, gosh, my foot sure is hurting lately,” and “please stop stepping on my foot. Thanks.” And less of a huge difference between “please stop stepping on my foot. Thanks,” and “stop stepping on my foot.”

          1. Aleta*

            Tone also matters. There’s a big difference between “thanks” in a firm tone and “thanks” in a cheery tone.

          2. Jessie the First (or second)*

            I guess my concern is that with this specific Fergus, he seems so blind that I’d be careful of making anything sound remotely like a request or favor.

            In general, I’m with you in that phrasing things in such as way to make it seem as if you’re enlisting people to be on your side to solve this together is a good approach. The goal is to get a thing to happen (or not happen) and not to Make Someone Feel Bad. But Fergus’s behavior is just so odd, and targeted, that I doubt the efficacy of that approach here.

        2. TootsNYC*

          I want to also suggest the short, simple sentence, “I need you to stop.” Just exactly like that. No “…and I need…” And don’t say another word after you say “I need you to stop.”

          So start with a very short, matter-of-fact explanation: “When you scare me, it spikes my adrenaline and it takes a long time for that biochemical reaction to go away. It’s really unpleasant for me. I need you to stop.” And then stop talking.

          Tone is important–Alison is so right that it needs to be firm and not smiley in any way. Be serious. (If you’re having trouble, maybe try my favorite tactic for getting the right mindset and tone of voice: I call it “channeling my inner daycare worker.”)

          Then if he does it again, get just a little bit pissed off. And maybe even yell just a little bit back at him. I personally might throw in a “goddam it!”

        3. Penny Lane*

          I think “please” can be delivered in an ingratiating manner as if it’s really a favor being asked and the requestor is ok with a no, but I think it can also be delivered with a cup full of ice. In other words, the subtext for the latter is — “I’m saying please because it’s good manners and I am not going to ever be accused of not having impeccable manners, but let me make it perfectly clear, buster, you need to stop XXX.” That kind of please isn’t really the same please as “would you mind?” or “would you consider?”

          1. Natalie*

            Agreed. At the end of the day, the LW’s attitude and tone will carry more than whether or not she says please or it is phrased slightly request-like-but-only-if-you-squint-this-way. If he’s the type to rules-lawyer every bit of her wording, he’s going to do that regardless of how perfectly crafted the statement is, and you’re probably going to end up escalating anyway.

        4. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

          I think it depends a lot on delivery and individual style. I can absolutely deliver a “please” and “I’d appreciate it if…” that come across as being 0% request.

  25. Myrin*

    Oh OP, that sounds genuinely awful – I’m so sorry you have to deal with such unpleasantness!

    Do you have good rapport with some of your other coworkers? Maybe an older woman? Because if so, you can try to enlist them to help you out here – I’m sure there’s at least one person who would gladly do so.

    I’ve made it one of my explicit life goals to help younger/more timid/shy/inexperienced women out of uncomfortable situations like that. I can do that because I have a naturally loud and angry voice and have been described as a “bulwark of emotionless-ness”, even though I’m actually quite small and pretty young myself. Find that person in your office! I’d be more than glad to help you out and tell Fergus to knock it the f*ck off, so you might well have someone like that at you place of work, too.

  26. Roker Moose*

    Wow… I could’ve written this letter. In my old job, I had an older male colleague who loved doing this to me and the other young women in our department. It was upsetting, but he found it hilarious. As far as I know, there was no resolution— he’d been working there 25+ years and everyone just said that was his way. I moved to a new department so it wasn’t my problem anymore, thankfully.

    OP, I’d suggest escalating this to a manager or HR. He doesn’t sound like the sort of person who would stop on his on. Best of luck!

    1. Katie the Fed*

      Ehhh. I wouldn’t escalate to HR or manager yet – they’re going to ask if OP has let Fergus know that this is unwelcome. And she hasn’t.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      that was just his way…

      Amazing, isn’t it? Yet if he did it to men that behavior would be squelched in a heart beat.

  27. KWu*

    OP, it’s not worth suffering through this in order to protect his feelings from the slightest bit of challenge. Maybe you wish you weren’t as affected by it as you are, but you are the way you are. You are allowed to be free of being intentionally frightened at work.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      As a supervisor, I would stop it if I saw it. This is creating a safety issue period. If I knew it was only happening to young women, that would be a whole ‘nother paragraph or five.

  28. Bee's Knees*

    A good friend of mine is this jumpy. There have been times I’ve been standing next to her, and said the words ‘sneak attack’ while looking her in the eye, and then poked her and she’s jumped. It’s all in good fun, and most of the time, she thinks it’s funny. However, she has always been clear and upfront about when she’s had enough. Just a simple, “Ok, please stop now,” or “I’ve had enough” has always been sufficient to get people to stop. If not though, she is willing to follow up with a polite, but firm, “I have asked you not to scare me. Stop.” in her ‘I mean business’ teacher voice, which works well.

    1. fposte*

      In case you haven’t done this, though, I’d ask her sometimes when you’re chatting generally if she’d prefer you just quit this entirely. If she says no, it’s fun, then it’s an opt-in tease, which is a solider structure than one that relies on people having to opt out.

      1. Bee's Knees*

        We have talked about it! I wouldn’t want to make her uncomfortable, and so I’ve asked if it’s ok. I only do it on the rarest of occasions. Actually, we once kept count of how often people could scare her, although it was entirely her idea, and only in casual settings. It’s different than OP, because she says she is uncomfortable, and her coworker is being fairly unprofessional about it.

        1. fposte*

          If you’ve got her opt in, then that’s cool! My concern was that waiting until somebody else says something isn’t okay, when that thing often isn’t welcome, means not only that the onus is on the recipients but also that they have to unfairly undergo unpleasant times before they get to asking for cessation. But that’s different from an opt-in joke that just sometimes picks the wrong moment.

      2. Former Govt Contractor*

        I would just stop it already. You know she has issues with it at least part of the time, so why make her ask you to cut it out?

    2. TootsNYC*

      I have a friend who is also very jumpy. Her startle reflex is galvanic.
      I patiently waited about 8 feet away for her to finish concentrating on her task; she looked up, saw me across the room, there was a beat, and then she jumped. It was hilarious. But it was only funny because I’d done everything I could to avoid triggering her startle reflex.

      It wouldn’t be funny if I did it on purpose! That would be mean.

      I think it’s horrible that your friend ever HAS to tell people to knock it off. They shouldn’t be doing it.

      I think deliberately triggering a startle reflex is mean.

      (The only time I might excuse it is the time I had the hiccups, and a cubicle neighbor crawled up on her desk to say “boo” over the partition in hopes of scaring them out of me. I didn’t get startled at all–“that didn’t work,” I told her. But it did–the hiccups went away, oddly enough. If I had jumped, bcs of the hiccups, I wouldn’t think it was rude)

      1. LizB*

        The other morning, my boss popped his head into my office and said “Good morning!” super enthusiastically and I nearly jumped out of my skin — I had been absorbed in writing an email and hadn’t heard him approaching, and I startle super easily. It was hilarious, but only because it was an accident (and he was mortified and I know he won’t do that again).

  29. Katie the Fed*

    OP – from a 37 year old woman who put up with WAY too much crap when I was younger: the sooner you get comfortable setting and defending boundaries and not worrying about offending people when you do so, the happier you’ll be. It’s incredibly empowering. I wish I’d learned this at 18.

    1. Katie the Fed*

      Also – if you think he’s doing this all in harmless good fun, remember that he’s not doing it to any men. That alone gives you permission to stop being nice about it.

    2. Lil Fidget*

      Yeah this is the problem when people say they want there to be no hurt feelings. There are already bad feelings going on – your bad feelings! You are scared and annoyed at work. You have to honor those even if it means spreading out the hurt a little bit – by asking him to stop doing something, risking making him feel embarassed / awkward/ maybe even a little irked – before it resolves. I promise it’s worth it to ride out that moment of discomfort.

      1. Lumen*

        Accurate. When people want there to be ‘no hard feelings’ they are often talking about men’s feelings. Men’s feelings need to be protected…often at the expense of women’s feelings. It’s absurd.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      I can’t tell you what you should think, OP. But in my younger day I decided that it did not matter how nice the person was otherwise. This one habit stood alone as cause to just avoid this person. Notice I did not say like/dislike the person. I skipped that part of deciding if I liked the person, I just avoided them.
      One nice guy locked me in the freezer. The situation had been building with a series of annoying jokes etc. Finally one day he locked me in the freezer. Once I got out, I screamed, “Don’t you EVER do that to me AGAIN. EVER.” And I avoided the dude as much as I could after that.
      This was totally a dumb move on his part, he was okay other than these random acts. He ended up alienating half the people in the place and he quit.

      I do remember thinking, “If work is this hard, I don’t know if I will make it in the work world.” His actions rattled me to my core.

      1. Lumen*

        I am so sorry that happened to you. That is beyond the pale and could have been quite dangerous. That was not okay or safe.

      2. tangerineRose*

        He locked you in the freezer!!! Absolutely horrible thing for him to do. If I were a manager and found out someone had done that, at the very least I’d think he’d need to be suspended without pay for a while so he’d have some time to think about what he’d done and that a job is useful when paying for rent and groceries. And if he just walked off not worrying if you froze to death, that seems like the action would call for police involvement.

  30. bopper*

    Another option is to set up your environment so people don’t surprise you as much…like facing the door or having a mirror.

    1. Curious Cat*

      Although it seems like OP is in a cubicle, so she may not have much say on desk arrangements. (also she shouldn’t have to rearrange her desk and buy a mirror just so she can see this guy trying to scare her! he needs to just not scare her).

    2. Facepalm*

      More than a few people at my work have strategically placed mirrors. Not that you should have to do this, but it helps

      1. TootsNYC*

        Mirrors are great; that’s what you do to help with well-intentioned situations where people just normally walk up to talk with you.

        But that’s not the main solution in this instance. This guy needs to stop.

      2. LBK*

        FWIW, I’m a very jumpy person and someone unexpectedly appearing in my desk mirror would probably freak me out just as much as someone shouting or touching me unexpectedly. One of my worst nightmares is that thing in horror movies where someone opens a medicine cabinet and then there’s someone behind them in the mirror when they close it. Thank god the interior of my current medicine cabinet is also mirrored.

  31. Curious Cat*

    Since it sounds like there are two of you he’s doing this to, I would also follow some of Alison’s other usual advice that things work better in numbers, and try to get your fellow female coworker to join with you in telling him to stop. Both of you together can hopefully “convince” him to stop if you think he’s inclined to think you’re joking on your own.

  32. aka Duchess*

    I am the exact same way! (severe anxiety, very jumpy, constantly has headphones in)
    Something helpful – I once had a coworker come up and touch the back of my neck (!!!!!) He said -“You are always so jumpy.” I immediate shut that shit down with “I just don’t expect my coworkers to touch me, nor do I want them to.”

    Fun anecdote – My coworkers now have found great ways to ensure I don’t get scared. Most just stand 30 feet away from my desk and shout “Hey, I am going to come talk to now!”

    1. seejay*

      Mine would knock on the long desk so I’d feel the vibration from 10 feet away! Worked great because I could sense it through my hands and it’d disrupt my concentration enough that it’d break me out of my zone and through the earbuds.

  33. PugLife*

    People do this to me too, and get offended when I get mad at them. I used to have people sneak up behind me and actually grab my hips. What about me existing in the world make syiu think it’s okay to grab me and scare me, and what right do you have to be offended at me when I tell you that not okay?

    In any case, say directly, “It’s not okay ehrn you try and scare me. It’s not funny. Do not do it again.” and if there’s any pushback or it happens again, go straight to your manager or HR. If this dude kept doing it after a clear No, I would feel threatened, and it’s absolutely not ok or funny for him to be doing this in the first place.

    1. Lora*

      Sneak up and GRAB you? Christ. Last time someone did that to me was on the subway, and they got their foot stomped with a stiletto heel and a talking-to by the MBTA police for their efforts.

      1. PugLife*

        Granted this was when I was in high school and was working retail but I used to SCREAM and my also-high-school- aged coworker thought it was funny. Customers did not. Neither did I. Said coworker eventually got fired for harassing me and just generally being bad at his job, but not long after got a new job at the same chain in a store about 10 miles away.

  34. animaniactoo*

    “Fergus, I need to talk to you about something serious. The scaring me on purpose thing – I hoped you would stop, but you haven’t. I know that I laugh and appear good-humored about this, but really I’m not. That’s how I react to the relief that there’s nothing seriously wrong, and my attempt to peel myself back down off the ceiling. I know you think it’s fun, but it’s actually not fun for me at all and I need you to stop.”

    Dismiss any defensiveness and say “The important thing to me is that it doesn’t happen again, okay?” – because he will quite likely try to defend it or explain why it isn’t that bad, or any number of things. Don’t get drawn into that. The answer is “That doesn’t matter to me right now, the important thing is that it doesn’t happen again, okay?”

    If he keeps going or he does it again “I’ve told you I need this to stop. How seriously do you need me to deliver that message? Do I need to go to manager/hr/etc. to get it to stop? Because I need you to understand that I take this seriously enough that I will do that. It’s one thing when it happens by accident. It’s another thing entirely when you do it to me on purpose.”

    If HR/Manager/etc. thinks it’s not that big a deal by any chance? “I don’t care how minor you think this is. I have the right not to have things that I find unpleasant done to me deliberately for no reason than someone else’s amusement.”

    1. Oranges*

      Another thing is that sometimes when human’s are called out on bad behavior they can have a “guilt spew” and try to make it up to the other person. Best response I’ve seen to this is: “I don’t want you to [insert favor] the best way to make it up to me is to not do it to me or anyone else in the future”.

      1. Lumen*

        Really good point to bring up. I would add that when someone does this ‘guilt spew’ they are just demanding more of the what you were doing when you were not speaking up for yourself: “Manage my emotions and comfort for me, thanks!” Screw that. They need to take care of their own feelings and maybe even sit with the fact that someone doesn’t like them much anymore because they were a turd.

        Though outwardly, your response script is perfect. And much more appropriate than “No, you turd, go deal with your own guilt, it ain’t my problem.”

        1. Oranges*

          I think there are two different motivations. One is for reassurance that you are a good person and the other is in our society “apology gifts” are a thing for larger social infractions between friends.

          This situation, I think you’re right that it’d be more of “reassure me” than repaying a social infraction.

  35. Meg Murry*

    While I agree with all the advise OP has been given (this guy needs to stop and OP needs to tell him so in no uncertain terms), I’d also suggest OP consider whether wearing earbuds is really the best thing for her, given how jumpy she is. If just someone stopping in to say hello is making you jump to the point where you have to take more than a minute to recover, and it happens more than once or twice a day, the concentration benefit you get from earbuds might not be worth the heart racing jumpy trade-off. I know for me personally, I can’t do 2 earbuds in at work – like OP, I jump and startle so much when someone tries to get my attention that it just isn’t worth it. Instead, I go for one earbud in plus one dangling, and try to position my desk so people can’t come up behind me. Or perhaps large, over the ear headphones would work better with your (non jerk) co-workers so they know you can’t hear them coming up, and approach you more gently.

    Not victim blaming here, the guy who is purposely startling her is not ok – but it might be better for OPs personal sanity if she could limit the ways people could sneak up on her when they AREN’T trying to startle her.

    1. seejay*

      If you’re the type of person that startles easily, it doesn’t matter if you’re wearing earbuds or not. You zone out and people coming up out of your line of sight are going to startle you because you don’t hear them approaching you. It didn’t matter if I was listening to music or not, I’m focusing on my work, not on whether or not someone was coming up next to me.

      Plus the OP is likely listening to music because she wants to and it helps her work. She needs her coworker to stop being a wankpuffin instead.

    2. Natalie*

      As seejay said, for me it never mattered. This is also why one of those cubicle mirrors never helped – I was concentrating enough that I didn’t notice someone’s head showing up in the mirror. The only thing that ever worked is having my desk face the way people approach. If that is physically possible within your cubicle construction, LW, it might be worth asking about.

      1. NotMyRealName*

        I actually rearranged my desk so that I face the door more to avoid being startled. I like not jumping so much, but the other arrangement actually gave me more work space.

  36. Adele*

    While I might start off firm but nice the first time, the next time the words “bullying” and “harassment” would be included.

  37. Q*

    Alison’s advice is spot on-this is not a nice person. I’ve worked in the most laid back environments possible and this would not have been tolerated. You could frame it that he’s breaking your concentration and it’s affecting your job. Ultimately you’re there to do a job, not be nice to shmucky people doing inappropriate things.

  38. seejay*

    There is so much *NOPE* to this, I would lose my shit at a coworker that intentionally did this.

    I’m easily startled. To the point that I throw things when people scare me (unintentionally). They think it’s funny when it happens (because it is, my mouse goes flying, I jump and my arms wave around) but the difference is that my coworkers feel *bad* when this happens and they don’t intentionally try to startle me. It just happens because I zone out so easily. I don’t mind when they do it because I know they’re not going out of their way to do it.

    Anyone that did go out of their way? It wouldn’t matter how nice they were any other time, they’d be getting one warning from me to never ever intentionally try to pull that crap with me again, or I’d be going to HR/their manager about it. I don’t need the anxiety and potentially injury from falling over in my chair or throwing something at someone from the reflex.

    People that are nice don’t poke your phobias/anxieties for funsies after you tell them to knock it off.

    1. TootsNYC*

      , I would lose my shit at a coworker that intentionally did this.

      I keep envisioning the OP standing up suddenly, throwing something down on her desk, and barking, “GodDAMMIT, Fergus! Stop doing that!”

      And if the calm, firm, “I need you to stop” followed by “You need to stop” doesn’t work, this IS what I’d advocate. She should get pissed off–she’s entitled to be pissed off.

      1. seejay*

        The only reason my mouse never went more than 2 feet away was because it wasn’t wireless. It *did* go straight up in the air multiple times though.

  39. Higher Ed Database Dork*

    OP, I had a coworker who was very nice at first, and we got along pretty well when he started. Then he began doing things like this – scaring me, badgering me about non-issues, various other things that would be seen as “all in good fun” but were very anxiety-producing for me. I was polite at first, but the final straw was when he came into my office one day and shook my chair while I was sitting in it. I jumped up and nearly yelled at him to knock it off and leave. He just laughed and left, and then pestered me about it throughout the day, asking why I didn’t think it was funny. I told him very directly it was rude and unkind, and not funny. And then he did it again. The second time he did it, I got very stern, told him he was no longer welcome to talk to me about anything non-work related, and to leave me alone for good. He finally got the message (though he pouted about it for WEEKS and kept asking people why I was mad at him).

    I get that he’s been nice and helpful to you, I do! It’s hard to say something that might been seen as harsh to someone who has been nice. But really…him repeatedly scaring you is definitely NOT NICE and it does not have to be tolerated. I truly hope that he does not go the way of my coworker, but please know that it’s perfectly okay for you to tell him directly, and seriously. It does not have to be casual. Direct and serious can be a kindness all on its own – it’s not something to avoid.

    1. Snark*

      Oh, the pouting would make me volcanically pissed. “But whyyyyyyyy is she mad at meeeee” *taser*

      1. Higher Ed Database Dork*

        Oh I wish. He was a piece of work. He charmed my manager so even when I did bring things up to our boss, Boss would just brush it off, like “Oh he never does that to me!” Of course he doesn’t. You’re a man, and you’re our boss. Thankfully Coworker left me alone after that, and then quit for another job shortly after.

    2. dr_silverware*

      Oh god, reading “kept asking people why I was mad at him” made me feel like someone was squeezing my lung out of desperate annoyance on your behalf. Good lord!

      1. Liane*

        Yeah, makes me wish HEDD had had an office full of coworkers–including several men–chorusing in reply: “Dude! She’s mad at you because of your rude, jerky, bad, so-not-cool, behavior, dude!”

    3. Oranges*

      Also known as: “Whhhhyyyy won’t she just let me do what I want without consequences?” The cry of the man-baby* everywhere.

      *Yes, both females and males can do this. Only females have an exponentially higher social push-back when they do so they tend to… not (because the cost/benefit analysis is different).

    4. I like French braids*

      I see you worked with my ex-husband! “I don’t know why you’re upset with me! I don’t believe all the reasons you told me! It must be you just being hysterical!” And we worked together so it made things so much worse that last month.

    1. Emily*

      Do not put your faith in a cape and a hood, they will not protect you the way that they should!

  40. boop the first*

    My prevention to stuff like this is usually to be as boring as possible. Deadpan. Blank stare. If he immediately follows up after the startling with a chuckle and a “haha, oh did I scaaarree you?” don’t play into it. It’s the acknowledgement they want.

    I was nervous when I started my last job because I noticed it was a bit of a sausage party and the one other woman was tormented constantly by the young men. They would say shocking things to her, throw small items to get her attention, insult her, micromanage everything she did. But she responded so readily to all of it with “oh my goooooodddddd!” and otherwise reacted dramatically to everything so it was a team effort for sure. If they would try that on me I’d either pretend I heard nothing, slow blink at them or give a monotone “yeah, totally”. I wasn’t as fun to tease so they were actually quite nice to me!

    1. LilyP*

      This may work for you, but I think it’s a really bad mindset to get into. If you’re being harassed by other people it is never your responsibility to modify your behavior to “get them to stop”. Your coworker who screams and gets obviously upset is just as entitled to a calm, harassment-free workspace as you are, and I hope she realizes that and either goes to HR to get it stopped or finds a new job

    2. SoCalHR*

      Totally agree with not acknowledging the bad behavior, if that’s possible. But in this case its a guttural reaction for the OP, so there’s probably not a way she can just deadpan react. I know when this happens to me (not at work, luckily), I can actually be brought to involuntary tears.

    3. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      “A team effort”? That’s… a pretty messed-up way to look at it.

      Not all bullies will knock if off if you don’t respond. It sounds like you were lucky not to run into the ones who decide to escalate instead.

      1. Liane*

        I haven’t met one–thankfully–but yes, there are plenty of bullies (and worse than bullies) out there who would think, “Wow! She didn’t call me out or do anything to let other people know I was being a jerk/creep/a-hole. Perfect! Next time I don’t have to worry about staying in plausible deniability territory–I can do whatever…”

        1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

          Yep. I got the kind of bullies who escalated. They know damn well that it takes a lot of effort to deliberately ignore people, and that feeds them as well.

  41. Boredatwork*

    OP – I also scare very easily. And it takes me awhile to calm down and I had my own “nice guy”. The last straw for me was when he snuck up behind me and pushed the back of my chair down. I screamed so loudly they could hear it in the break room, and I then proceeded to give “nice guy” a very loud scolding, like he was a child. This person was 3 rungs higher than me and he eventually apologized.

    If Alison’s advice doesn’t put a stop to it, in the moment, if you can manage it, get mad and yell at him, say it’s not funny. I used a few “sentence enhancers” which was the first time anyone in the office had heard me say something stronger than gosh darn.

    I’ll never forget the look of terror in his eye when I dropped that “F” bomb.

    1. TootsNYC*

      and this is why it’s a really good idea to NOT be someone who swears often. Your f-bomb will detonate really loudly.

      It doesn’t always work, but sometimes anger is powerful. Especially judicious anger.

      1. Boredatwork*

        Fun fact – I have since moved on from this position but run into this person from time to time, in professional settings, and he is SO CAREFUL not to startle me.

      2. tangerineRose*

        “this is why it’s a really good idea to NOT be someone who swears often.” This!

  42. Lumen*

    I get this all the time. I wear earbuds so I can focus in a relatively open office, and I have a high startle reflex because, shocker, of all the (mostly men) who have thought it was really fun to scare/grab/upset me since I was a child. It doesn’t help that I am short, so plenty of people think that means I’m vulnerable/cute/childish and really hone in on that. (I do not think highly of these people, and they are never on my Post-Apocalypse Survival Dream Team.)

    So after a lifetime of this garbage, and after far too many people thought it was HILARIOUS when I would stand up for myself or that I was blowing it out of proportion, and since absolutely no one should need to know my history of abuse in order to respect my boundaries, this is my go-to now:

    Strike one: a calm but serious “Please don’t do that.” I did this just yesterday with a coworker who snuck up on me, in fact. It was gentle, because she’d never done it before, but I didn’t laugh or smile as I said it, and I think the message got across. I could see the wheels turning behind her eyes, and she didn’t question me. Which is good, because I don’t owe her an explanation for why it bothers me. No means no.

    Strike two: a serious and slightly firmer reminder that “I’ve asked you not to do that.” I like to use a fairly flat tone of voice for this, like I’m reminding them of something super obvious, and they’re the one with the problem. Which is true: when someone says ‘don’t do that’ and you keep doing it, you’re the one with the problem. Stop means stop.

    Strike three: a very serious “I don’t like this, I’ve told you to stop, and it’s not okay that you keep doing it. If it happens again, I am going to talk to HR.” Because at that point, I’m a thousand percent okay making them uncomfortable. If it’s particularly egregious (like tickling or grabbing me) then I’ll just say “Stop. Doing. That.” loud enough for others to hear. I’m not the one who needs to be embarrassed about this.

    Because this is completely correct:

    “…if he thinks it’s funny to hear you seriously tell him that he needs to stop scaring you, then he is not a kind person anyway and you should stop thinking of him that way.”

  43. Katniss*

    I’m furious that so many women here have experienced this. I have as well. What kind of sociopath finds a startle response like that hilarious and entertaining?!

    Anyway, much like catcalling, I think the vast majority of men who do this know they are upsetting women. That’s WHY they’re doing it.

    1. Lumen*

      Yeah, this comment section is a good example of how common this behavior is, how often it is aimed at women, how much most people hate it, and it’s just making me angrier. The point of this sort of behavior is not to be cute or funny or friendly; it is about control and fear.

    2. Detective Amy Santiago*

      They have to find a way to keep us bitches* in our rightful place.

      [*deliberate word choice as a callback to yesterday’s post]

  44. SadieMae*

    A good tip for people who need to speak up but are scared to assert themselves: Choose or write a “script” to follow (AAM’s is very good here) and then practice actually saying the words. Just sit on your couch alone and say them over and over. Or practice saying them to a friend or family member, preferably while making eye contact. It will get easier as you practice. And if your brain gets used to saying the words, you’re much less likely to freeze up when the time comes.

  45. theletter*

    I am also a jumpy person. I had someone in currentjob accidentally startle me and I yelled loud enough that half the floor thought we were under attack. Since then, people use IM.

    You should absolutely be direct with him, and if he does it again, scream as loud as your instincts allow, all the way to HR.

    1. LizB*

      IM is great for us jumpy folks. My best work friend calls out “Person approaching!” as she walks up to my office door to talk to me, because if I’m absorbed in my work I won’t notice someone’s on their way and will startle really badly when they start talking.

    2. Not Alison*

      +1 Screaming at the top of your lungs was exactly what I was going to suggest. The fact that he isn’t doing it to the men or to the older workers tells you that he knows what he is doing and is happy to be a jerk for this particular thing. Asking him quietly and nicely hasn’t worked, so go ahead and be loud – – – let the scream alert your co-workers to what this guy is doing and likely he will stop as he doesn’t want to be the one who is the cause of the scene.

      Good luck with this – I am totally on your side!

  46. Dankar*

    I love scaring my family members with this sort of stuff. We’ve all been doing it for as long as I can remember (seriously, my uncle was sticking his stocking-covered head in the car windows since I was 8 years old). I’ve pulled my partner into it now, too.

    But at work? With people you don’t really know and love? Good lord! And I can’t even cope with how many people on this post have said “I could have written this letter…” Who are these coworkers? This is so inappropriate.

  47. Ms. Ann Thropy*

    How about an immediate and loud “Knock it off!”? This guy is not nice, this behavior is not professional and you don’t have to put up with it. If you need to practice it at home, do that, so the next time he tries to sneak up on you he will be the one getting a surprise.

  48. LilyP*

    Another thing to realize is (consciously or not) he’s taking advantage of one of our society’s many Catch-22s around women’s behavior — as long as you tell him to stop in a casual/friendly manner he’s free to ignore you and say he didn’t realize you were serious, but as soon as you get really actually serious about it he can play the “it’s just a joke why are you ~~freaking out~~” card. I hope you can read this answer and comments and build up a little bit of righteous anger for yourself. You’re not being unfair or overreacting by asking him seriously to stop. People who ignore polite, casual requests to stop doing something have brought the serious, angry requests on themselves! Also, if he does escalate this after being told seriously to stop that is 110% time to get your/his manager and/or HR involved, and that would be entire his fault for ignoring an absolutely reasonable request and not at all something you are doing to him

    1. Wannabe Julia*


      Especially “society’s many Catch-22s around women’s behavior — as long as you tell him to stop in a casual/friendly manner he’s free to ignore you and say he didn’t realize you were serious, but as soon as you get really actually serious about it he can play the “it’s just a joke why are you ~~freaking out~~” card”

  49. Anon For This, I'm sure you understand*

    oh HELL no. I have PTSD and have since childhood, it makes me very jumpy. People think it’s very, very cute to scare me because I react so strongly, but it’s related to something serious. As far as I’m concerned, it’s no different than tossing someone out of a wheelchair and then laughing and saying it’s “so cute” that they’re laying on the ground and not getting up.

    They walk away with a chuckle and don’t give it a second thought, but my alarm bells are going off for about an hour, my mind is racing and I can’t concentrate on anything, and it really impacts the rest of my day. I might not even sleep that night.

    I find it especially problematic that it’s an older man doing it to younger women also. You’re not his daughters or his toys, and he shouldn’t be treating you any differently than he would his 50-year old male co-worker

    1. Lumen*

      This. Women are not “push a button, get a reaction” toys for men. ESPECIALLY in the workplace, ffs.

      Also, I’m sorry people trigger your PTSD like this, AnonForThis. That’s another reason this sort of thing is NOT OKAY, and why we need to be careful with our ‘jokes’. You never know which of your coworkers have invisible disabilities or are in recovery for something, and there’s no reason for coworkers to know these things about one another, or for someone to have to disclose their history in order to be treated with respect/

      And the most basic part of respecting others is doing what you can to avoid harming them, even if you “didn’t know” that you could cause that harm. It’s not like sneaking up on on someone or mocking depression or teasing someone about what they’re eating is necessary at the workplace. People just need to stop doing that crap.

      1. TootsNYC*

        This is so important; I think it often -is- the instinct behind this sort of thing (even among friends, like Bee’s Knees upstream who plays a poking game with her easily startled friend).

        So I’m just going to put it here.

        “push a button, get a reaction” toys

        And yes, that is not cool.

        1. fposte*

          I think it’s like tickling–it *can* be cool and okay if both parties are okay with the joke. It’s just that’s often not how it’s deployed.

  50. Foreign Octopus*

    Honestly, this could have been written by me a number of years ago. I had to stop and think over whether I’d written this letter or not.

    I worked with the exact same guy, who did the exact same thing. He knew exactly how jumpy I was and would delight in making me jump. I told him to knock it off time and time again and it didn’t work. My colleagues got involved when I was visibly upset and he said that he still wouldn’t stop because it was funny.

    It only stopped when my dad got involved (I was young and still living at home). I came home in floods of tears and he sat down with me and wanted to know what was wrong (obviously, because he’s my dad). I told him through the sobbing and after he’d calmed me down, he went up to where I worked (village shop) and had a word with the man, and the manager, in a loud enough voice that the customers in the store overheard at the same time. Apparently, my dad’s presence (he’s a tall, broad man who inadvertently intimidates because of his size but he’s really a soft teddy bear) and the fact that I was well-liked by customers had a number of them writing into head office to complain about my treatment.

    The behaviour did stop after that but the man acted like his favourite toy had been taken away. I didn’t get an apology from him or management but it did stop.

    My dad also picked up some ice cream for me so it wasn’t entirely a wasted experience.

  51. Suda Nim*

    I’ve always been extremely jumpy. No one at work has ever tried to scare me on purpose, but people forget, and sometimes they would come up behind me in my cubicle and just start speaking.

    So the problem was just forgetfulness, not malice. My solution was to put a strip of butcher’s paper across the entrance to my cubicle (I used markers to put a “No Startle” logo on it). People loved it, and would obligingly walk on it to make a crinkle that alerted me.

  52. Cait*

    OP – There’s lots of great comments. I just want to emphasize this is not a *you* issue, this is 100% on him. He is the one being weird in the office and acting unprofessional.

    It doesn’t matter that you have anxiety, or wear earbuds or anything. The point is he is doing something rude and unkind and that is all on him. Do not feel that you need to be the super nice one here. HE is the one that is acting inappropriate. You’ve already told him it bothers you, he sees your reaction. He is being rude and malicious.

  53. S Stout*

    “Please stop,” said in a serious tone while looking straight into his eyes. Why on earth do you want to be nonchalant? I also recommend practicing before you say this. If there is a next time, I would escalate, but I’m a bitch.

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*


        And it can be really hard for some women to overcome that societal conditioning to be nice and polite all the time. The older I get, the less f*cks I give and the more willing I am to speak my mind.

        I’m all for empowering other women to stand up for themselves, but I also won’t shame them if they have a hard time doing it.

        1. Penny Lane*

          No, but if they don’t put in the effort to learn how to stand up for themselves (which is the baseline of normal), they’re going to be walked on — in both personal and professional situations.

  54. Flask Manager*

    Ted Bundy liked to sneak up behind women and startle them. He would hide and jump out at them to make them scream. Ann Rule wrote about it in The Stranger Beside Me.

    1. AKchic*

      I’m the type that would bring that up very casually, tilt my head at Fergus, look him up and down as if I’m appraising whether or not I think he’s actually capable of being Bundy-esque, then look at my othe coworkers knowingly.

    2. Oranges*

      Did he do it as any sort of “boundary testing” also? Like yes, he liked the power play but the victim’s reaction to it could possibly tell him if they were easy prey. Because predators want to prey on people who are easier for whatever reason.

  55. Willow Sunstar*

    I had one like that too. She was a manager, but not mine. I still had to do stuff for her. She would literally sit on your desk and watch you do what she wanted. I constantly got good reviews by my actual boss, so Iknew it wasn’t me. She would go off the deep end whenever we asked her a question.

    This was the lady who eventually got fired from my old dept. that I left last year. I was told whatever she did, it was worse than how she treated us.

  56. Karyn*

    I TOTALLY feel you on being extremely jumpy. Because of some past trauma, I get startled easily when someone approaches me and I don’t see them coming. It was problematic at my last office job because I worked right around a corner, and people would come out of nowhere all the time. I almost smacked my boss once out of sheer fright when he said hello without me knowing he was there first. I solved the problem by putting a small rear-view mirror on the side of my monitor, but I realize that doesn’t really help your situation.

    I agree with everyone else – you need to be firm, and make clear that you’re not kidding around. Any sane, nice person will understand and back off. If that doesn’t work, go to HR.

  57. Polaris*

    I’m very easily startled – at least once a day I get startled by people coming around blind corners, and I flinch at things at the corner of my eye. I’ve got diagnosed anxiety, and I’m vision impaired – without glasses I’m toeing the line of legally blind, and my peripheral vision is pretty bad. Because I feel even more awkward if I yell when I’m startled, I’ve trained myself into a mostly-silent jump-then-freeze response. I think people can tell how much it upsets me, because they always apologize. I’ve never had someone who tried to deliberately scare me the way OP’s co-worker is. If someone did that to me enough times, I’d probably end up bursting into tears in front of them, which would definitely be an effective shaming, I think.

    I hope you can get him to stop soon, OP, by whatever means necessary. You shouldn’t have to live like this.

  58. Lily in NYC*

    I also startle very easily and one of my coworkers found it hilarious to scare me. We were very friendly outside of the office as well and he knew that I am very easygoing so didn’t really think that it might upset me. I asked him nicely to stop and told him that there are two things that get me angry – tickling me and startling me on purpose. He didn’t take me seriously (again, I am rarely serious so I don’t really blame him) and did it again a few weeks later. I got very angry and yelled at him – no one EVER sees me angry so he was floored and apologized and it never happened again. So sometimes getting mad is your best option.

  59. a-no*

    If you feel the need to defer a little bit you can just say “Fergus, I know you mean it in good fun when you scare me but I have a medical condition that makes it really hard to calm down after so I need you to stop scaring me.” Which is true, anxiety is a medical condition (I am assuming it was doctor diagnosed) that does cause issues with the calming down.
    And if he is as nice as you say he is, it won’t be a thing.

  60. theanagrace*

    I had a similar situation happen when I worked security. I was wearing gloves in the control room because it was super cold (half server room), and about 5 of us guards were in there chatting. One of the other guards (who were all older-than-middle-aged white guys) said “Why are you wearing gloves? Can I see your gloves?” I held up my hands, he tried to grab my glove, I firmly said, “You can look with your eyes.”

    He then grabbed the back of my neck and shook me lightly, saying “Aww come on, I just wanted to see them!” I lost it, I’m not good with people in my personal space, and I have neck problems which make me very uncomfortable with people touching my neck. I pulled away and looked him right in the eye and said “Don’t touch me. Don’t touch me. Don’t touch me. That’s not funny, that’s not cool, that’s not work appropriate. Don’t touch me.” He tried to play it off as a joke, but I was able to stay serious and firm. He didn’t pull that shit again.

    I had already been working there for a year and a half at that point, and I was actually his superior on the shift, but I don’t think I would have been able to do that if I hadn’t been there that long. It took me a while to be comfortable enough to call them out on their racist/sexist/etc. b.s.

    1. tangerineRose*

      “He then grabbed the back of my neck and shook me lightly” I have no words. What is wrong with people who do that kind of thing?

  61. John Thurman*

    I remember this youtube video where a guy wearing a halloween mask pops out of a garbage can, and the guy getting pranked is startled and socks him right in the face.
    Another idea:
    Knock your drink on the ground. Insist that he clean it up and get you another one.

    But I agree talking is the way to go. Extra mild phrasing could be “Hey, these pranks are getting kind of annoying”.

    1. LadyKelvin*

      I startle easily and I also swing when I am startled. My coworkers know this and try not to scare me, but I told them its going to happen so not to sweat it too much. We do sometimes laugh about how easily I startle and I warned them, don’t get to close to me when I’m startled, I will punch you. I used to work as an animal care technician in a medical research lab and had a coworker who thought it was awesome to scare me. Thankfully it stopped because you can’t be loud around the animals and he got in trouble for making me scream in the hallway. Unfortunately, that’s what it took though, me asking him to stop was not enough.

      1. seejay*

        My dad worked underground as a miner for 30+ years. It’s dark, it’s loud and noisy, and they wear noise-cancelling ear protection. The younger men thought it was hi-lar-i-ous to sneak up on the older men and scare the beejeebers out of them when they were alone and concentrating on their work. Cause you know, working underground in the dark in the noise with loud HEAVY DANGEROUS machinery isn’t life-threatening at all. Nosiree.

        They stopped when my dad, a small man, turned around and clocked some guy right in the nose and laid him flat on his ass. My dad is just as jumpy as I am, except he doesn’t have the restraint that I do when it comes to swinging a punch (I *sometimes* swing when I’m really badly startled, but I’ve managed to refrain from it when I’m at work). Heck, he’s almost punched *me* when I’ve startled him (by accident).

        If someone’s been warned and they continue to do it, they run the risk of getting hit if someone’s got a reflex reaction like that and I have no sympathy. :/

  62. Strawmeatloaf*

    Eww, definitely sounds like a power move on his part because he knows he couldn’t get away with this if he did it to men, and it’s definitely harassment. I’m not sure what I would say, but if it happened to me and the way I react, I may accidentally bop him in the nose because of it.

  63. JuniperGreen*

    I also scare easily. My coworkers also think it’s hilarious, but their reaction has been to kindly let me know when a buzzy new movie/tv show has some jump scares or especially tense moments! It’s good natured and friendly, and I quite appreciate my personalized scaredy cat warnings :)

    All this to say, if someone identifies something that makes you uncomfortable and chooses to exploit it, that is a problem. I really hope you speak up and tell this guy in no uncertain terms that he needs to stop.

  64. Dust Bunny*

    Punch his [deleted expletive] lights out!

    Seriously, this guy is a jerk. I don’t startle easily and I would still run out of patience with this in very short order. What are you, in elementary school? It’s way past time for this clown to grow the Hell up and start acting like the employed adult he’d presumably like to continue to be.

  65. nep*

    Great script by Alison.
    LW, sorry you’re having to deal with this. It’s not great being put in a position to confront a co-worker about something like this, but you must — more importantly you’ve got every right and then some.
    This line from LW really struck me: ‘I’ve just been putting up with it because he’s been so kind to me since moving here and starting a new job, and I’ve been managing my anxiety pretty well. Recently, though, my anxiety has gotten worse and I wish he’d realize what this does to me.’
    I realise it’s easier said than done — but it will be oh so much better for you in the long run: Don’t put up with it. His being kind to you in other ways does not mean you owe it to him not to put him in his place about this.
    All the best.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      He doesn’t have to realize what this does to you, OP. It’s inappropriate and it needs to stop a cold, hard stop.
      Nep is right, you have every right here and don’t doubt it for a minute.

      If he makes excuses, tell him, “Well the point is to never, ever do that to me again.”

  66. Marvel*

    I am also jumpy and have panic attacks, and if someone was doing this to me, I’d probably feel like bursting into tears every time. To be honest, I might give into the impulse in this case, just for the reaction–in the past I’ve purposely let the symptoms of a panic attack show because it often makes the person realize “hey, I am controlling my reaction most of the time, but I AM STILL HAVING A REACTION and you need to stop doing this.” …But I’m also male, and that doesn’t carry the same risk for me of not being taken seriously in future, etc. for me, so I’m not actually recommending it. Just commiserating that it sucks when people are too willfully ignorant to realize that, when you say something upsets you, it does in fact actually upset you. Every time. Even if they don’t always see all the consequences.

    I think these scripts are really good. If your coworker does not listen to you after you use them… I think he’s maybe not actually a nice person. It’s easy to act nice when it costs you nothing. It’s harder when it requires adjusting your own behavior, and that’s where “nice” people tend to reveal their true natures.

  67. Aiani*

    Just want to agree with everyone saying that a nice person will stop when you ask them to stop. And if he feels bad about his behavior when you tell him to stop, that’s okay. Sometimes we need to feel bad in order to motivate us to make change.

    When I was much younger I thought it was funny to punch my guy friends in their stomachs. I believed that because I’m a small lady with small hands that somehow my punches must not hurt. Finally one of my guy friends told me that it hurt when I hit him and he doesn’t really like his stomach touched so would I please stop. I apologized and I stopped hitting him and it made me rethink the whole idea of doing that to any of my friends. Now I’m older and I don’t do that anymore. I’m glad my friend spoke up, he made me realize that I needed to change that behavior.

    If this guy is a good person like you believe, then he will stop when you tell him to stop. He should apologize and maybe he’ll rethink his behavior. It’s not your job to make him rethink his behavior, but he ought to.

  68. jw*

    I had a coworker like this in my previous job, except his favorite way to startle me was to grab my shoulders or even my waist from behind.

    He stopped. After I yelled at him in front of two other guys (who had both seen him do it before and made no comment.)

  69. Lady Phoenix*

    Bad Advice: Maybe a good “reflex” reaction like a punch to the face or a kick to balls would get him to stop. Afterall, you can never predict what people do when they are scared… /badadvice

    Yeah, this older coworker of yours does not seem to “get” that this behavior upset you. You need to tell him straight up, no smile or joke, that he is being a jerk and it needs to stop. If that fails and he does it again after your request, you need to get a manager/upper management person involved.

    With some people, I understand that they are “good but flawed”, with some flaws being big (like my ever loving mother… that does not accept my possible bisexuality)… but that does not mean those flaws don’t hurt people and need to be called out on it.

    When they ignore your request and continue the harmful attitude, THAT is when you know they are a bad person.

  70. Oranges*

    I don’t startle often and when I do it doesn’t take me long to “come down”. So as someone who has never experienced what you have: “You are being reasonable. What you are asking for isn’t ‘hard’. The end.”

  71. Nerdling*

    OP, it’s totally possible for someone to be nice in some aspects and 100% not in others. People are complicated and problematic; it’s very rare that someone is completely nothing but a jerk, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, just as rare as it is that someone is completely nice and awesome, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We’ve all got our flaws.

    Because of that, it’s absolutely ok to feel conflicted about calling him out. You’re trying to reconcile this not nice behavior with all his previous nice behavior. Just don’t let feeling conflicted about the motivation stop you from correcting the behavior, because it IS not nice behavior, and it spikes your anxiety. Serious Face, serious but not angry tone: “Hey, Startling Dude, I haven’t said anything before, but I need you to please stop startling me. It’s not fun for me, even though I try to laugh it off. Thanks.” There’s a please and thank you in there, but your tone can and should communicate that you’re using them for politeness but not pleading.

    If he’s more nice than not nice, he’ll back off immediately and hopefully apologize. If he protests, stay serious: “I just need you to stop doing it. Thanks.” If he does it again, Serious Face and Tone but drop the please and thank you – feel free to channel your favorite stern figure: “I’ve told you to stop startling me. If you do it again, I’m going to take it up with Boss.”

  72. Steve*

    I once dated a woman who would pull my hair. I told her many times to stop. She thiught it was funny. So once i told her if she lulled my hair again i would pour my drink (coke) on her. She did and i did and it stopped. So tell him next time he sacres you, you will pour a srink on him, then do it.

  73. Queen of Alpha*

    I have PTSD and react extremely when people try to scare me, come from behind or grab my shoulder from behind. Usually it only takes one fist or kick for people to realize I wasn’t joking when I told them not to do it again. I have no empathy for people that don’t have boundaries and especially in the workplace.

  74. Noah*

    I’m very sympathetic to OP’s problem, because I have it somewhat and used to have it a lot (jumpiness at being sneaked up on, that is). But I’m not sure Co-Worker is trying to scare her and her other co-worker.

    I know OP says he’s trying to scare them, but when she describes his conduct, it sounds more like he’s just trying to get their attention because they are wearing headphones. OP has expressed to him that she’ll be jumpy even if he just says, “hello,” so what possible incentive does he have to take a less noisy path, especially when that path might not work because she is wearing headphones?

    It’s also not clear to me how he is supposed to get their attention if he is not allowed to make a noise louder than their music. He presumably needs to make a noise to be heard. The alternative, I suppose, is to touch them, but I don’t think that’s a fair expectation of a coworker, who risks exposure for other sorts of problems if he does that, and anyway may not be comfortable touching his coworkers.

    1. Wannabe Julia*

      Let’s take her at her word that she knows what’s going on. Don’t make her doubt herself or feel like she’s overreacting. Just…cut it out.

      “He’ll come up and make a loud noise or pop up suddenly around the entrance of our cubicles (HE DOES THIS ON PURPOSE).” [caps mine]

      Also, it’s pretty unlikely that these two young women are the only earbud-wearers, and she specifically says he doesn’t do this to older people or men.

      1. Noah*

        Right — he makes the loud noise on purpose. I agree. I don’t see the cruel intent in that fact. It seems like it’s necessary to get somebody’s attention.

    2. seejay*

      My coworkers figured out ways to not startle me. It involved approaching from the side while waving their arms like loons, knocking on my desk from 10 feet away so I could feel the vibrations, or sending me an IM with “I’m coming over right now to talk to you”.

      They still startled me at times but I could tell they were genuinely *not* trying to startle me on purpose which is why I didn’t get mad at them. The one time one person did intentionally try to scare me, he got told off with very colourful language. Those of us that startle easily know damn well when someone’s doing it on purpose versus inadvertently triggering the response.

      OP’s coworker can figure out better ways to approach her that’s not going to trigger her anxiety instead of being a wumpus about it.

      1. tangerineRose*

        “approaching from the side while waving their arms” This!

        And maybe send an IM first saying you’re coming over.

      2. Noah*

        That may or may not be possible with the layout. I’ve had a cube where this wouldn’t have worked. It’s also a somewhat unreasonable expectation to expect somebody to act like this. Not all offices have IM.

        Look: If co-worker is actually trying to scare her, he’s awful and I agree 100% with all of the criticisms. If this is just the most realistic way to get her attention–and she doesn’t clearly exclude that possibility–I still feel really bad for LW (again: I quite literally know how she feels), but I’m not sure co-worker would be acting badly in that context.

        1. Observer*

          She actually is quite clear that he is trying to scare her, even in the original letter. This is the kind of situation where it makes sense to take the LW at their word.

          In addition, she adds some detail in the comments which make it abundantly clear that he knows exactly what he’s doing.

  75. EmKay*

    On some level, he knows what he’s doing. Tell him, politely but firmly to stop. Say “please” if you must, but also try crossing your arms and frowning a little. If he apologizes, say something to the effect of “that’s fine, just don’t do it again”.

    If he does do it again, go ahead and be direct to the point of curtness. “I told you before, knock it off. This is neither funny nor cute.”

    If he does it AGAIN, talk to his your boss and/or his boss.

    Fun fact: I once punched a good friend in the nose for tickling me. He’d do it until I could no longer breathe, then do it some more and laugh at my distress. The last time it happened, I pointed my finger at him and said “If you do that again, I will punch you in the face.” He did it again, immnediately. I hauled off and walloped him. He was upset. I was moreso.

    1. Observer*

      What makes this guy a “good friend”? He did something that harmed you and he LAUGHED about it. Then he did it again when you told him with total clarity that he needed to stop. And THEN he got upset at you for defending yourself, even though you warned him!

  76. Argh!*

    I was the victim of a few street crimes and took a self-defense seminar after that. Years later, a coworker snuck up behind me and put her hands over my eyes (my glasses, actually). Fortunately, the seminar included practice in looking before you strike, because my coworker was *this* close to getting an elbow to her face.

    And seriously, why do that to someone wearing glasses? That hurts! And you have to clean up the handprints later.

    I explained to her that she came close to having a broken nose and asked her never to do that again. Fortunately, she didn’t.

    Even though I wound up not hitting her, I absolutely believe that physical touching justifies a physical response. HR may not agree, though, so start with the verbal approach.

  77. Elan Morin Tedronai*

    Oh gosh… I once cracked a classmate’s eye socket with my elbow because he did precisely that back in university. It was mortifying. Fortunately, he acknowledged it was his fault and I was spared paying his medical bills, though I offered.
    OP, I just want to echo the sentiments of most folks here and say that you need to stop thinking of taking the nonchalant tone, because you’ll be less likely to be taken seriously if you do. Alison’s script works, and if he doesn’t take that seriously, escalate this the very next time he does it again, as you’ve probably had this done to you many times before, so it’s no longer a 3-strike thing. The fact that you have anxiety also means that this kind of thing affects you more than usual, so too much of this could be harmful for your health.

  78. Meißner Porcellain Teapot*

    Next time it happens: “John, you may not realize this because I’ve been trying to be a really good sport about it, but when you scare me like that it’s seriously uncomfortable and distressing to me and I do not like it at all. Please stop doing that.”

    If he tries to argue: “I don’t care. It’s distressing to me. Please stop.”

    If he does it again: “John, I told you before that I really do not like being scared and that it is genuinely distressing to me. If you continue to harass me like this, I’ll take it up with boss/HR.”

    If he does it again after that: “Fine. I’ll just go and have a word with boss/HR for a minute.” And then get up and talk to boss/HR.

    Three strikes you’re out.

  79. tj*

    “The fact that he’s only doing this to young women is (a) not surprising and (b) pretty gross.”

    I agree with everything in your response except this.

    From my understanding of the letter, this man is scaring these women because he knows that are jumpy, not because they are specifically women…which is how your”pretty gross” statement makes it sound. I’m almost positive he would scare men if he knew they would react.

    This made me roll my eyes. Not everyone is trying to attack women just because they’re women.

    1. LBK*

      And yet, he doesn’t seem to have tested this out on any of the men in the office to find out if they’re jumpy. Unless you think this office just coincidentally has only jumpy women and no jumpy men?

      1. tj*

        is this employee with him all day? Does she know for sure he hasn’t tried? Or is she just assuming?

    2. bookartist*

      I suggest a man, were he so jumpy, would be more likely to react with a physical response, and this guy knows that; hence he only does his thing to the folks he knows are much less likely to strike, or yell, or take aggressive action. That’s why he does it, and your insistence (not suggestion, but you have this odd certainty…) he’d do this to any target he’d get a rise from, were they only available to him, makes me wonder why you rise to his defense.

  80. Nicole*

    As someone who takes medication daily to help control my anxiety, this makes me so mad! A nice person wouldn’t ignore the fact that you have a medical condition and continue scaring you to get his rocks off. A nice person wouldn’t revel in the discomfort of others. He is NOT a nice person.

    Young women need to get it out of their heads that they owe anybody ANYTHING in regards to their emotions, their body, or their attention. It doesn’t matter if the other person is older, rich, or “nice.” He’s being a complete d-bag about this and no amount of niceness excuses that. You need to be firm with him that this is not up for negotiation, and his continued behavior in this manner will be considered harassment.

  81. Sam*

    I would ask though, off-topic as it appears as no one else has mentioned this – why is it ok to wear earbuds/earphones at work these days? It can be annoying to try to catch a co-workers’ attention appropriately, and sometimes quickly depending on what is on hand; and it is certainly difficult to form an appropriate working relationship with someone that you can’t even talk to.

    1. M-C*

      The main reason why many people wear headphones at work these days is because of this stupid fad employers have of open offices, where you’re constantly being subjected to interruptions, where you need to do everything possible to be allowed to concentrate. Don’t blame the victims.

    2. M-C*

      Also, the OP mentions that she wears headphones TO WORK. Possibly she’s talking to clients on the phone or something. There are plenty of jobs like that.

  82. Former Employee*

    I think that someone would only do this to me one time. When someone comes up behind me and startles me, I jump. When they come up behind me and scare me I scream…loudly. It’s reflexive and more like a shriek. Since the entire department/area would stop and stare, that would likely be both the first and last time someone would do this to me.

  83. M-C*

    OP, much good advice here, and I agree that this guy is not nearly as nice as you make him out to be. And I totally encourage you to try some of the strategies discussed above.

    But I wanted to address possible physical improvements to the situation if he proves impervious to demands for reform. Is your desk situated so that you’re facing the door? That can minimize the opportunity for sneaking up on you and scaring you. If you can rearrange your furniture to alleviate the problem, do so. And if anyone questions it, be upfront about Mr Nice Guy’s shenenigans and how you’re just trying to minimize his opportunities since he won’t take no for an answer.

    If you can’t rearrange furniture, then a judicious use of mirrors can help. Same answer if anyone questions it. It’d probably help if you can talk the other victim into taking some of the same precautions at roughly the same time, maybe you can brainstorm solutions with her? Doing this together would maybe alert someone that they have a harassing-young-women problem on their hands, and get you some help in making him stop.

    Or you could bring in a water pistol and shoot him squarely between the eyes next time he tries to scare you.. More seriously, a loud shriek might go a long way toward getting other people to stop him.

  84. Igg*

    LW this is misogynistic harassment. It’s illegal to sexually harass your coworkers and make no mistake it’s sexual harassment. It’s akao bullying bc you’ve asked him to stop and he’s physically frightening you on purpose. I’m frankly surprised and saddened that you would defend him in any way. Please see this for what it is. And have your boss speak to him or HR. This is a firable offense!

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