how can I get people to stop misreading professional friendliness as a real connection?

A reader writes:

I’m an events freelancer who works on a variety of projects. Most are just a one-day event, but a number of times per year I will do a longer-term project which spans a few weeks to a month.

An increasing problem I have is people misreading my professional friendliness and problem-solving abilities as true overtures of friendship and support. After the project is over, they will use my personal contact details to contact me repeatedly to ask me to hang out, ask for advice, or just to chat. Slow fades / grey rock works sometimes, but some people just cannot take the hint, because the previous friendliness has them convinced we’ve made a connection. Or because I’ve solved a problem for them or helped them during work, they see me as a resource for ongoing help and support.

I already struggle with correspondence (part of why I find this so stressful), so do not want to get a separate number just for work, and occasionally contacts reach out months after an event with an offer or recommendation for other work, which I don’t want to miss out on. Also, I am often the one recruiting staff for events so I may need to reach out to them myself at some point.

But it is a repeated problem and I’m hoping you might have a script for this sort of issue. Because I am dealing with high level VIP clients, I just slip into my “work face,” which is extremely friendly, agreeable, complimentary, and helpful (no wonder they all want to be friends with that person, who wouldn’t!) and that will extend to all staff and guests at these events. Boundaries and professionalism are already a struggle in this line of work, because the work often is fun and grueling at the same time — camaraderie is often a must-do in terms of getting the best from your team and creating the right vibe for the VIP’s we are servicing.

I’ve tried telling people that I am the world’s worst texter and that I am a hermit outside of events. A few times I’ve even gone so far as to say that this is a work mask and that I’m a very different person outside of work, but this problem still occurs a handful of times a year.

It makes me feel awful to just ignore repeated overtures of friendship when I can feel that people are really trying to build a relationship, especially when there are so many people out there who really struggle to make new friends, but I have neither the interest nor the bandwidth to sustain all of these relationships. Also it’s very apparent that many of these people have fallen for “the mask” and we would have little to nothing in common outside of work — the real me actually has thoughts and opinions outside of “oh wow!” and “great work!” and is nowhere near as cheery as work me.

Is there a polite way to say, “Yes, we’ve had a lovely time working together and if we see each other on another project I’ll be delighted to see you, but if its not work-related please don’t contact me”? Is it that simple? Because I feel like I’ve said versions of that before, but people just do not think I’m being serious because of the prior friendliness.

To some extent, this is just part of the package of being human: sometimes people will want a connection with you that you’re not feeling. You’re just getting a lot more of it because of your line of work. But because this is so intertwined with being human, I don’t think you’ll be able to fully stamp it out — at least not without being rude in ways that wouldn’t serve you professionally.

So your measure of success here shouldn’t be “no professional contact tries to pursues a friendship with me ever again.” You won’t get that. Your measure of success should be “I successfully maintain boundaries with professional contacts and don’t get sucked into relationships I don’t want.” It’s about controlling your side of the equation, not theirs.

The way to do it is to be stay firm that you’re not up for socializing outside of work. The easiest way to do that is to lean in hard to the idea that your schedule just keeps you too busy/exhausted for much else. So when people keep contacting you after a work project is over, these are your responses:

* “My schedule is crazy right now and I don’t have time for much outside of work. But thank you for thinking of me!”
* “I loved working with you and was sorry our project ended! Unfortunately my schedule is so hectic that I’m trying to be really disciplined about not adding anything to it since otherwise I’ll never get to see my family.”
* “You’re so kind to ask! My schedule is awful right now — I’m barely even seeing my spouse — so I’m trying to be really disciplined about turning off my phone at night and on weekends.”
* “I’ve got a family situation right now that is keeping most of my time tied up, so please don’t take it personally!” (This is true; you are part of your family and your time is needed on other things.)

Also, if people are calling you rather than emailing/texting, let calls go to voicemail and reply through text later (“got your message, texting back since I’m not somewhere where I can call,” etc.) since that way it’s easier to control the time investment.

If it’s practical with your work schedule, you might even set aside a chunk of work time to send these responses, which could have the mental health benefit of letting you see this work as “managing professional relationships” rather than “fending off personal incursions.”

Again, it won’t be perfect — people will still continue making social overtures. But I think you’ll feel better about it if you shift your framework from “there’s got to be a way to make them stop” to “as long as I politely and firmly enforce my own boundaries, I’ve succeeded.”

{ 203 comments… read them below }

  1. High Score!*

    Have a phone/email/address for professional contacts and a separate one for personal contacts. That way you can ignore the professional contact methods in your personal time.

    1. The Cosmic Avenger*

      Google Voice is great for that! You can even set it to forward people you actually WANT to hear from right to your personal #(s).

      1. ferrina*

        Seconding Google Voice. I had mine set up so it would redirect to my personal cell phone. I could always answer works calls when I wanted to, but also had space to turn it off.

        Bonus: You can set a separate work voicemail recording. This can help set the tone for folks a little bit. If your voicemail to them is always referencing the professional relationship, that can help remind them that you are a professional connecting over a work thing (not a friend helping them on a personal thing)

        1. HonorBox*

          That was the thing I thought about too when I read the letter. Google Voice keeps you from toting around (and paying for) a second phone, and your VM is going to be completely different. You can spend a bit of time managing those friendly inquiries and build that into “work” time, but you’re going to be able to set a more defined boundary for your clients and (very importantly) yourself.

        2. ZugTheMegasaurus*

          Yeah, Google Voice is great for this sort of thing. My partner is self-employed as a dog trainer and was having a hard time picking up the phone not knowing whether he should be in professional mode or not. I set him up with Google Voice and gave the app a different ringtone, so he knows immediately whether it’s a business call and decide whether he’s able to pick up. It can do texting too, so you can just have all your business contacts in one place and not have to mix it up at all with your personal phone.

      2. TootsNYC*

        my Google Voice has been messing up like crazy lately.
        It used to work fine, but suddenly it hangs up as soon as it connects. It cuts off. Messages take forever to actually appear in the app.

        I think it might be the quality of the connection, but nothing has really changed on my end (unless Spectrum has downgraded my connection, but all the “test your internet speed” things are fine).

    2. Goose*

      This was going to be my first suggestion! It’s worth the piece of mind to pay for a second phone number if this is so much a problem.

        1. ecnaseener*

          Well, you need a second number for a second phone to be any use, and a second number is what they said they didn’t want.

          1. Lizzo*

            It’s possible to have one phone with two numbers if you set up a Google Voice number for your professional work. Google Voice has lots of useful features for voicemail, call forwarding, etc. that can help set boundaries.

            1. ecnaseener*

              Yes, I know. You need a second number for a second phone to be of any use, not vice versa. LW does not want a second number, regardless of which phone it’s on.

              1. Cmdrshprd*

                “LW does not want a second number, regardless of which phone it’s on.”

                Maybe, a decent amount of people use “second number” to mean “second phone.” Without realizing you can have a second number on the same phone. some people don’t want to have to carry a second phone but would be fine with a separate number on the same phone.

                Now, OP might know about things like google voice and truly not want a second number, but OP might not realize she can get a second number on the same phone. It is still a reasonable suggestion.

                1. Ms_Meercat*

                  I am slightly wondering what the benefit is of having a second number but on the same phone though. I mean, the result would still be the same – people contacting OP and it reaching their phone; I understood that OP doesn’t want to have a second phone because they struggle to keep up with important work-related messages or recommendations to other contacts as is, meaning they fear they’d potentially miss that if they had a second phone.
                  I have 2 numbers on my phone, and I just get all the messages and calls on my phone as if I had just 1 number, so I’m not sure what the benefit for OP here is.
                  Maybe I’m missing something?

            2. Clare*

              Regardless of whether the letter writer wants it, a Google Voice number isn’t available in all countries. So it may not even be an option for them. Personally I’d get one if I could, but I don’t get a choice in the matter. Getting a second SIM and a plan is a lot more hassle than just signing up to another Google service.

              1. Tumbleweed*

                does your phone support eSim? helps with some but not all of the hassle. (I’m also in a country where you can’t get Google voice)

      1. Observer*

        Except that Google Voice (or similar services) change the calculation somewhat. Because it doesn’t need a separate phone, and unlike a dual sim set up, in many ways can be managed as though it’s one number while still allowing two different “personas”.

        1. Double A*

          That really stood out to me. I mean that’s the easiest and most obvious solution and the clearest way to draw work boundaries. I mean we can take the LW at their word that it won’t work for them, but it’s such a helpful solution that it’s worth suggesting they re-examine their reasons why they think it won’t work.

            1. wordswords*

              She said she struggles with correspondence and doesn’t want to do this. “Draw work boundaries by making it harder for me to do my work” is not a great solution, and I think we should take the LW at her word that she’s thought of this and respect that she’s concluded it isn’t a good solution for her.

              I mean, yes, I do think there’s room for an aside of “seriously, this is such a helpful solution for many people that it may be worth re-examining what exactly the obstacles are and whether there’s a way that you can make it work for you after all.” But that’s a take-it-or-leave-it aside within broader advice, whereas this whole first thread seems like “You know this thing you said won’t work for you? Do that thing! Problem solved!!”

            2. QueenPalmTree*

              It sounds like a “choose your pain” scenario… deal with something happening a few times a year or actually change something. Two adages come to mind here,
              OP wanting to “have their cake and eat it to” and “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

          1. MCMonkeyBean*

            They said this is only an issue a handful of times a year, so I don’t think it makes sense to make such a significant overhaul to their everyday communication management that they aren’t interested in to address something that only comes up a few times annually.

            I think they just need to get more comfortable saying “I loved working with you and hope we get the chance again, but I keep a pretty strict boundary between my work and personal relationships.”

      2. Tesuji*

        > LW says explicitly in the letter that they don’t want to do this.

        Yeah, that’s nice, but she also wants to keep boundaries between her professional and private life, so pointing out that this is a *huge* factor in making that difficult kind of feels necessary. The answer to “How can I get what I want without making any changes to my life or doing anything I dislike?” is often going to be “You can’t; pick your poison.”

        She needs to decide which she hates more, and having a completely separate number/email for professional contacts vs. personal contacts feels like such a basic step that if she doesn’t want to take that, anything else she can do is basically going to be a rounding error in terms of having an effect.

        I mean, as someone who’s owned their own business for many years, having separate channels for work and personal communications is kind of Life 101 in terms of doing your part to keep those lines unblurred. Not doing that is certainly a choice she can make, but it’s hard to blame customers for not noticing the lines when you’ve made the choice to blur them.

    3. Observer*

      Have a phone/email/address for professional contacts and a separate one for personal contacts.

      Yes. This is exactly what I was going to say.

      Also, meetings don’t happen at your house, but an office, even if it’s a co-working space.

    4. Balancing Act*

      I know letter writer said they don’t want to have a separate number for work, but I agree with the people recommending Google Voice. You can call and text with the separate number on the phone you already have. It’s easy to see which line the call is coming in from. I use Google Voice for work and set it up to record messages outside of work hours so my phone doesn’t ring. You can set it up to send a transcription of any voice message to your email, which I find helpful. And it’s free! This isn’t a paid advertisement–I’m just a big fan of their service!

      1. Charley*

        Ditto! Idk exactly what issues OP is experiencing with correspondence, but a lot of my anxiety around correspondence got better once I had separate work/personal accounts because I didn’t have to feel dread about work messages when opening my personal accounts or dread about stressful personal emails while I was trying to focus on work.

    5. tryptic*

      This is email specific but one thing I found immensely helpful when I was in school and had to deal with multiple email accounts was the send as feature in Gmail (I am unsure if other email clients have this) which lets you send mail from a different address than the one you are logged into. I added my school email address to send as, got my school email to automatically send everything it received to my personal inbox, and basically never logged into my school email ever again. It was set to automatically use the address an email was sent to as the one to reply from so the only time I had to remember which address I wanted to use was when I was starting an email chain so looking at the to/from fields anyway. The rest of the time I could pretty much forget I even had two emails.

      I’m pretty terrible at correspondence myself and absolutely would have missed incredibly important information about my classes if I actually had to log onto a separate account for it. If there’s some other reason that having two addresses wouldn’t work feel free to ignore this but I’m assuming the issue is with the ongoing work of managing two separate accounts. The thing I did does take a little bit of time to arrange but it is a one time thing and if having a this-is-very-obviously-a-business-email address might minimise the problems you are having then I think taking like half an hour to set it up so you can have that address with bare minimum disruption to how you already do emails is probably worth it.

      1. amoeba*

        You can also just use Thunderbird or Outlook and have both (or more) mail accounts on there! It’s what I used to do when managing school/personal e-mail side by side. Works in a similar manner, basically – for sending, you can chose which one to use, and you see all the mail you receive sorted by account.

    6. Jane*

      Since LW was concerned about missing messages, just have the work number and email forwarded to your personal number and email, BUT – tell every client, “Here is my WORK number and WORK email.” I think people would be less likely to send personal messages when they know these are for work only.

  2. Caramel & Cheddar*

    It’s so often that people you’re friends with at work don’t morph into the friends-in-real-life category when you leave a job, so I’m fascinated that this happens so often to you! No advice, just intrigue about these people.

    1. A Simple Narwhal*

      My husband is like this. I’ve pretty much never stayed in contact with any former coworkers or neighbors, but a large number of my husband friends are people he just happened to be in close proximity to and a friendship evolved, even if the reason for being around each other ended. When we were first dating most of the time I’d get to our meetup location and find him talking to a random stranger in the middle of telling him their life story.

      He’s magnetic, kind, and great at conversation, so I think it’s obvious why people flock to him, even if he doesn’t see it – I semi-joke that my extended family likes him more than me and my stock rose when I brought him into the fold ha.

    2. ferrina*

      I’m wondering if this is because part of OP’s job is as therapist/friend who helps you get through a tough thing. That’s part of their job, but it’s not as explicit as with a therapist, so clients don’t realize it’s part of the job. Some professionals are able to weave it into their professional persona, but others are more informal about it. Clients associate it with being a friend, and so they go that way.

      I’ve seen it occasionally in other professions where connecting with the clients is part of the job. I got the sense from a couple wedding planners that this would happen to them.

      1. goddessoftransitory*

        This makes a lot of sense: when someone’s perception of you is “cool in a stressful situation and completely helped me navigate it so I looked great,” it’s understandable that they’d want to keep you around!

        The problem, of course, is that a persona a person’s developed specifically as a skill set for their job can’t and shouldn’t carry over to every aspect of their personal lives. Especially when they’re targeted as a therapist or nanny-adjacent by people they only knew in a professional context.

    3. Sparkles McFadden*

      Each time I’ve left a job or organized activity, I’ve picked up two or more permanent friends. I think a lot of it depends on what kind of work you do and how your job requires you to interact with people. I was in situations where one got to know people very well during long, stressful shifts on weird schedules.

      In this case, I think it’s very much the same. The LW is working closely with people to achieve the common goal of a successful event. That can lead to feelings of kinship in people who are unused working closely with someone in that way. People can develop especially warm feelings towards someone who helped them solve difficult problems. Someone helping you in a time of need feels a lot like friendship. That’s why it’s up to the LW to set tolerable boundaries.

    4. CubeFarmer*

      Instead of lying, why not just say, “I prefer to keep my professional and personal lives separate. Thanks for understanding.”

      1. CM*

        I think this sounds like rejection, even though objectively it shouldn’t. And OP wants to hang on to these people as business contacts. So I like the softer approach of, “thanks so much for thinking of me, I’m so busy and won’t be able to, but enjoyed working with you!”

        1. Ganymede*

          I like this script. I feel Alison’s are too soft. I’d even add something like “it would be good to hear from you if you need an event manager again”, which is friendly but less ambiguous, ie that’s the only situation when I’d like to hear from you!

          1. Banana Pyjamas*

            I think this combination is perfect. It’s direct and polite but leaves no wiggle room. No too busy right now, and no lies, nothing the other person can ask follow up questions about.

        2. TootsNYC*

          it reminds me of the daycare parent who replied (when I reached out about our kids getting together after they’d both “graduated”), “We’re busy with our friends and family.”

          Clearly, my daughter wasn’t “friends.”
          OK, then. It was hard to explain it to her. But that’s simply what it was.

          1. allathian*

            I’m so sorry.

            That said, until about age 5 or so (some kids start having opinions about which kids they like and don’t like earier than others), kids will play with whichever kid is in their vicinity unless there’s some particular reason why they don’t get along, like bullying, significant temperamental differences, etc.

            When he was in daycare, our son played with the kids whose parents I and/or my husband enjoyed spending time with. So he played with his daycare friends in daycare/kindergarten and with my husband’s and my friends’ kids when we got together. Both my husband and I are fairly homey introverts (as is our son), and honestly both of us were happy to drop the connection with those parents we didn’t have anything in common with other than their kids and our son being in the same playgroup when the kids graduated from the playgroup.

            I suspect that the daycare parent simply meant that because they didn’t consider *you* their friend, they wouldn’t make any particular effort to keep in touch just so the kids could play together. Did your daughter miss her friend for a long time?

            Now that the kids are teens, my son no longer hangs out with my friends’ kids, but he’s old enough at 14 to be left at home alone for a few hours when my husband and I visit with a friend for a coffee-and-cake meetup, although sometimes he’ll tag along for the cake. Even as a fairly surly teen he’s capable of making some conversation during the meal, but after that he’ll most probably go sit in a corner and play on his phone rather than attempt to make conversation with the kids of the house. And that’s fine by me, as a teen I really hated it when my parents tried to “friend-match” me with some of their friends’ kids (even if I’d enjoyed playing with the same kids when we were 6) when we had nothing in common except our parents being friends, and I won’t do that to my son.

            Maybe it’d help to reframe this as a rejection of you as a friend, when you probably weren’t even looking for friendship from the parents, and them deciding to prioritize relationships that were meaningful to them, rather than them rejecting your daughter as a friend for their kid.

            But yes, not wanting professional connections to evolve into personal ones is so normal that I honestly question the integrity of those who take umbrage at a perfectly normal boundary.

            I worked retail for years as a teen and young adult, and then I was required to appear friendly to and approachable by people I wouldn’t give the time of day to in my personal time. It’s just the nature of the job. And we’re so much less effusive in customer service jobs in Finland to the point that Americans usually think we’re rude. But over-effusiveness comes across as insincere here, because we realize that friendliness in a professional role *is* fundamentally insincere, the person is being friendly because they want you to buy something from them, not because they like you personally. I wish more people in the US understood that, it’d make working in customer service jobs in the US much easier on the employees.

          2. Despachito*

            This is so awfully worded. I think the parent could have achieved the same result (i.e. “we are not going to organize a meeting”) with much kinder words.

      2. Anon in Canada*

        If this is just used as an excuse, and the person saying it is in fact willing to become friends with people from work and does so, saying that is a recipe for causing hurt feelings if/when the rejected person finds out what the person who rejected them with that excuse is in fact being friends with some other people from work.

        1. MCMonkeyBean*

          But it’s not just an excuse, it seems to be genuinely what OP is wanting to do. They don’t want to be friends with these work acquaintances and I think that is a super normal boundary to draw.

        2. Lenora Rose*

          Well, first, this person isn’t saying they want to be friends with people at work, so it’s possibly moot. But second, a friendship which does form naturally based on shared interests doesn’t oblige a person to accept another based only on a pleasing work mask – nor does turning a person down once oblige one to forever deny others just because the circumstances end up appearing superficially similar.

      3. Lydia*

        Not using that language preserves working relationships better than using it. It also means the OP can manage their boundaries as they see fit.

    5. linger*

      Given last week’s case of the scheduling bot that clients were hitting on, there doesn’t seem any way OP can entirely avoid the problem. But if OP were to send all non-event-related queries to a “personal assistant” scheduling bot, maybe her clients would start bothering that instead.

  3. Cabbagepants*

    Some of these potential scripts sound like you’d be too busy for anything new, even additional professional work, but I think you only want to fend off the personal stuff, right? I think you need to make that distinction in your replies.

    1. Hlao-roo*

      I thought the same thing. I think a few small tweaks along the lines of:

      * “I loved working with you and was sorry our project ended! Unfortunately my personal-life schedule is so hectic that I’m trying to be really disciplined about not adding anything to it since otherwise I’ll never get to see my family.”

      * “I’ve got a family situation right now that is keeping most of my non-work time tied up, so please don’t take it personally!”

      will be enough to make it clear that the letter-writer is not able to be friends, but still able to accept work projects. Might be a good idea to also add on a “let me know if you have another project that’s a good fit for me; I’d love to work with you again,” to make it clear work projects are still welcome.

      1. Lenora Rose*

        I think while the phrasing might need a bit of work to come off naturally, this is the right approach.

    2. Sharon*

      I also think these scripts may imply you’re too busy to hang out NOW but you’d be up for it when things calm down so keep trying. I’d go with “I usually try to keep my personal and professional life separate.”

      1. irritable vowel*

        Yeah, given the nature of OP’s work, I also worry that some of the suggested responses might make people think “this person has so much going on/seems unable to manage their time, I’ll go with someone who has more availability the next time I need this service.” When you’re a freelancer, unfortunately you often have to give the impression that you’re always available if you want to keep getting work. I agree it’s best to be more honest about not wanting to mix your peas with your carrots.

      2. Banana Pyjamas*

        Agreed. CM and Ganymede upthread have the perfect combo.

        Thanks for thinking of me! I keep busy, so that won’t be possible. I enjoyed working with you, and would love to work with you again.

        Perhaps I keep a busy social calendar, for additional clarity that they are not available socially, but are available professionally.

        I don’t like any answers that include additional explanation because lw doesn’t owe any, and this leaves wiggle room for the other person to follow up later.

      3. MCMonkeyBean*

        I agree, this is softer language than I would have expected that seems like it would invite future invitations. If you really want to shut it down then I think I’d make it clear you prefer to keep the relationship professional, but you really enjoyed working with them and hope to have the chance to do so again in the future or something like that.

      4. Weird Workplace*

        The use of “right now” msy leave the work contact thinking they should still extend an invite to their birthday party in two months, since LW’s schedule will have cleared up by then.

    3. Potions Program Manager*

      I agree.

      I actually had a situation recently where I made overtures of friendship towards someone I met doing a hobby (not in a professional capacity). I really appreciated they way they turned me down. They said something along the lines of:

      “I have really enjoyed the time we spent together doing [hobby], but I have to say no. It takes a lot of time and energy to build new friendships and I don’t have the capacity for that right now. You are really great, though. I hope you understand.”

      And I totally did understand!

      1. Dread Pirate Roberts*

        What a lovely way to be clear and kind! And kudos to you for responding well too (hopefully most people would, but I think I know some who wouldn’t).

  4. A Simple Narwhal*

    I am pleasantly surprised that this was related to people wanting to be OP’s friend, I read the title and assumed it was another case of “woman showcases basic humanity, man assumes she’s displaying interest in them”.

    I’m not downplaying the actual question, it’s a real issue, just not what I was expecting.

    1. But Not the Hippopotamus*

      Same here. I completely expected this to be another case of “I said ‘good morning’ and now Joe thinks we are dating” or something.

      1. Cmdrshprd*

        Wait wait, I thought a simple “mornin” meant we were dating and a “good morning” meant the other person wanted to get married?

        1. Hannah Lee*

          And if you’ve ever said “good morning” and then go on to take a leave of absence, it means you’re already married.

          (according to the co-worker who pulled that on a previous LW)

          1. Hlao-roo*

            For those who haven’t read it, Hannah Lee is referencing the “my coworker told everyone we’re married … we’re not even dating” post from October 6, 2020. (There’s also an update, links to both in a follow-up comment.)

        2. goddessoftransitory*

          No, no, you don’t get married until you’ve moved to the “how was your weekend?” phase of the relationship.

    2. Hobbette*

      Dilbert fans may remember this one – from Google Images, search for “Dilbert phony customer service smile” and check out the first one. An oldie but still a goodie!

  5. Jane Bingley*

    Oh, this is frustrating. I get some of it as an EA. I don’t want to make friends at work because I’m in the loop on a lot of HR decisions for our relatively small company, and I don’t like getting caught between a friendship and business needs.

    I’ve had some success with the very direct “I’m so grateful we’ve been able to to work well together! I’m super strict with keeping professional relationships and friendships separate. I love working with you, and I want to keep it that way by not mixing things up.”

    1. daeranilen*

      I think being this clear might also be beneficial to the OP. Alison’s suggested scripts aren’t bad, but I’d worry some of these contacts might receive them as “I’d love to be friends, but not right *now!”* and continue making friendship overtures. Honesty is a gift you can give to these people and to yourself in this situation.

    2. ecnaseener*

      I like a script along these lines better than the “I’m so busy” scripts. It’s clearer that this is a permanent No rather than a “try me again in six months.”

    3. Blue*

      I agree, for what the OP is trying to achieve I think most of Alison’s scripts are two vague. If OP wants to handle the person really lightly, one of those could work for the first attempt, and if the person doesn’t get it, go with something like this. But I think most people who you would actually want to work with, Jane Bingley’s version could be first in line and they would be understanding.

    4. Smithy*

      I think a challenge with those kinds of lines with those of us in more external facing roles, is that part of the goal can often be to build “friendly” professional contacts. Where essentially you’re doing well when you slightly blur the line between professional and personal relationship, so that it’s someone who doesn’t just respect your work but is also happy to work with you but also doesn’t mind spending 5 hours on a car drive together or being together at a conference for days.

      The reality in these roles is that you and another consultant or entity will both be capable, and being “liked” or a “professional friend” can be an edge.

      1. allathian*

        That’s a fair point, but the LW still gets to decide that they don’t want to hang out outside of a “professional friend” capacity.

        And assuming that the LW already has a reasonably full schedule, it’s also totally fine to accept that some customers may pick another business next time because they think the LW wasn’t friendly enough. Others will be equally happy to simply stick to business.

    5. Elitist Semicolon*

      I’ve also found that kind of direct statement to be useful. Also the cheerful and helpful dodge when someone starts dropping hints. Like, “yes, I do enjoy knitting; oh, you want to learn? There are some excellent Meetup groups/knitting classes/folks who are not me and would love to teach you.”

      Then there was the time a colleague who made me want to climb the walls said, “we should TOTALLY hang out sometime” and I blurted out “oh, god, NO” and then had to soften it with “I’m not that interesting outside of work!” Fortunately, she laughed.

  6. Martha S*

    The very people pleasing qualities that make OP so good at their job are the same ones causing these additional boundary issues. I don’t often bring up therapy as a solution, but some professional help learning how to set and maintain boundaries in a healthy and constructive way without bringing up the feelings of guilt and shame, might not go amiss.

  7. Cheap Ass Rolls*

    I have been told that I have a friendly face and demeanor that just seems to be a beacon to people looking for friendship/connection (public transportation is hell) so I feel this letter writer and I think Alison’s suggestions are spot on. I’m integrating them into my own life as well!

  8. formerlibrarian*

    Another tool I’ve occasionally used is re-directing *every exchange* back to work:

    “Hey, I was thinking about you and wanted to reach out”
    “Fantastic. What can we help you with?”

    “I have [Situation X] and wanted to get your take”
    “That’s really outside my scope. Professionally, we handle [Things Y and Z]”

    1. ferrina*

      This is great. I’ve used similar a few times. When I’m resetting a boundary of work vs personal, I redirect convos back to work. Most people get it pretty quickly.

    2. Casual Librarian*

      This is what I was coming here to say (Is it because we are both librarians? A lot of non-friendships at the reference and circ desks…).

      Alison’s scrips are fine, but to me, they don’t establish the boundary-crossing behavior. I’d highly suggest OP lean into some canned responses that gently reminds the person that they hired an event planner and not a Professional Friend.

      For advice seekers: “That sounds really difficult and something you should share with your support system.”
      Also, I’m hesitant to ever play the “Just” card, but it can be a very strategic and useful tool. “Ope! I’m just an event planner. This sounds like something you should talk to your therapist/family/support system about. I can’t be helpful.”

      For the friendship requests, lean into your hired role. It’s like feigning ignorance: “Oh? Did you have another event you needed to discuss using my services for?” If they somehow bumble their way through a response of “I thought…we were friends??” you can say “It’s really common to respond that way after we have worked together since it’s such a bonding experience to work through those things together.” THEN STOP. Wish them well. Say goodbye. You don’t need to justify it with a ‘…but we aren’t friends’

      Random chatters?: “I’m sorry kto interrupt, did you need to discuss another event working with me?” and then again. let them bumble through that they were just chatting and feign the need to take a work call, or go to an appointment. Have dental surgery.

      In general, my job has a lot of the same expereinces of people thinking I’m their friend because I’m a helpful front-line job to people that come in daily, but leaning into “this is a service. when that service is complete, our human interaction is also complete” is the most helpful and productive way to shut down friendship overtures.

      1. CorruptedbyCoffee*

        ha! I was a librarian and was just thinking about this! I got SO much practice redirecting. I will say though that some people reacted with hostility to any attempt to redirect from what they wanted.

        Working in events is a different clientele, so hopefully her audience will gracefully take the social hint. In general, its just a way to set a firm boundry softly.

        1. allathian*

          It’s unfortunate that some people react with hostility to even a mild rejection, but I guess it’s the nature of some customer service jobs. All one can hope for is a manager who has the employee’s back.

      2. tommy*

        “It’s really common to respond that way after we have worked together since it’s such a bonding experience to work through those things together.”

        [someone else left a comment with the core of what i’m about to say, but it seems to have disappeared, so i’m going to paraphrase it because i agree with it]

        this response feels condescending to me. it’s basically saying “ha, you fell into a formula. you thought i liked you.” i would feel humiliated. if i received this response after reaching out socially, i would hesitate to contact this person again even for work.

  9. Ashley*

    I think it can also be helpful to be slightly more clear if needed, so I really like the second response. The others say things like “right now” but “right now” can give the impression that if they just wait a bit and reach out, you’ll be free later. On the other hand, saying full stop something like “my work requires a lot of my time” makes it clear that you have no intention of making time for a personal relationship with them *ever* without making it about that person specifically *and* also not making it seem like you’re too overbooked to do future work.

  10. Not Tom, Just Petty*

    This part is absolute genius.
    If it’s practical with your work schedule, you might even set aside a chunk of work time to send these responses, which could have the mental health benefit of letting you see this work as “managing professional relationships” rather than “fending off personal incursions.”
    It’s a great way to frame the situation and incorporate into the business relationship you want. Only contact people reaching out during business hours. Only respond during business hours. This will calibrate the relationship to business.
    Anything, “hey, I was watching A Movie and the guy said, Blah Blah and I remembered when Jim said Blah Blah during X event. I am dealing with something like it now.”
    That’s a Tuesday afternoon reply.

    1. not like a regular teacher*

      I also work in a field where I get contacted outside of business-hours for friend-adjacent things that aren’t my job and only ever replying during business hours has been an absolute godsend.

      1. Not that other person you didn't like*

        If I was a completely independent contractor, I’d build this into my pricing structure (I need to spend x amount weekly on relationships management — which includes both setting boundaries with current folks and connecting / networking with new prospects — so that costs X to my bottom line). Also ditto to separate business and personal email and phone, and only responding during work hours.

  11. Betty Beep Boop*

    Oof, I know this one. I like Alison’s advice to reframe managing it as part of your admin, not a personal issue.

    I can see how events would be especially prone to this: you worked on their event, which occupies a huge part of their mental and emotional landscape! You were there for some tough times! You saved them from disaster at least once! You saw them in highly emotional states!

    FWIW I work with animals and their owners and I often have to say gently to clients some variant on “it was an honour to be there with you as we figured out how to help Fluffy, but I have to maintain some professional boundaries for everyone’s sake.”

    And it usually goes fine, and the people it doesn’t go fine with were going to be problems anyway.

    It’s kind of about acknowledging that the things you did together were real and you genuinely do have positive feelings towards them and fond memories of your association (which I hope for most of your clients is true) on the way to making it clear it was a warm professional relationship but not a budding friendship.

    You don’t want them to come away thinking that you were being paid to pretend to like them, just that it’s a different KIND of liking.

  12. Goose*

    This is wild to me because I have the opposite problem of being an introvert hoping an extrovert would bridge the “hey you seem cool want to hang out outside of work,” but I get why OP is struggling with it.

    The letter reminds me a bit of the Torah scribe getting the ick at people calling them “beloved.”

    I would also recommend language like, “Thanks for the offer but… will I see you at [work conference].” “…but let me know if you need any more [event planning]” to steer the conversation back to work terms.

    1. I should really pick a name*

      What’s preventing you from proposing a hangout?
      (I may be getting hung up on the distinction between introvert and shy)

      1. Michelle Smith*

        Not the person you asked, but I’m also an introvert (albeit one with mental health issues that also contribute to my lack of social life) and find having to be the one to reach out and plan things to increase the exhaustion of the social interaction.

        1. Lady_Lessa*

          I agree, and after several attempts, I tend to give up. I’d rather find something I can do solo. My favorites are art museums and classical music concerts.

        2. t-vex*

          Agree, and I HATE making activities-type decisions for other people. I spend the entire time worrying that they don’t like it.

          1. Orv*

            Oh man, this. If I arranged the meet-up than I’m responsible if everyone doesn’t have a good time. It’s really stressful. Also if I propose stuff and the person keeps saying no, then I feel like I have to cross them off my list of friends.

            1. Lenora Rose*

              Extra bonus points if you’re both introverts who both do enjoy the outings but find planning them/worrying about the other person stressful.

      2. anon because neurotic*

        Can’t speak for Goose, but after having been the person on the other end of LW’s problem a few times, I’ve learned I really can’t trust my own perception of what kind of relationship I have with people and it’s better to just quietly keep to myself than make someone uncomfortable and/or look like an idiot.

        1. Jaydee*

          Same. I’m well aware of my tendency to like others more than they like me and to see friendship in places where others see polite interaction compelled by circumstances and proximity. If a genuine friendship develops, it develops. But I’m not going to be the one to initiate that jump without *clear* signals that it would be welcome and reciprocated.

        2. Orv*

          Same. I find it really humiliating to try to engage and then get ghosted because the other person doesn’t actually like me.

          1. Dawn*

            This comment seems really important for OP to consider. Some people do not respond to soft, subtle responses, but plenty of people will have a negative reaction to rejection. You get to set your boundaries, but you don’t get to control how others respond to them. This is why I think OP, as a freelancer in a net-work oriented boundary blurring field, should start with the soft, carefully phrased rejections first and escalate to the unambiguous ones only if contacted again.

          2. Lenora Rose*

            That would be awful.

            And this is where work compatibility is extra tricky. They might like you fine as the person to chat with between tasks, or be happy to hang out at lunch or the Christmas party, without wanting to invite you to home to meet cats and kids – which is not the same as “doesn’t actually like me” but the border is fuzzier, and it can be harder still to distinguish while feeling rejected.

            1. Orv*

              I generally just assume coworkers are only being nice to me because they’re required to, and aren’t going to want to hear from me outside of work obligations.

              1. allathian*

                And honestly, that makes me a bit sad, too. I enjoy engaging in casual conversation with my coworkers. My boundary is that I don’t spend time with my coworkers outside of work, but that doesn’t mean I only want to talk about work with them. That would leave me with very little to say at work because my job requires almost no collaboration outside of weekly meetings. I’m an experienced in-house translator working for a government agency in a bilingual country and I mostly work alone. What little collaboration there is tends to be asynchronous, i.e. my translator-coworker and I proofread each other’s critical translations.

                People with limited social energy in jobs that require more synchronous collaboration may be more willing than I am to restrict themselves to work-related talk only.

                1. allathian*

                  I’m also a reformed people-pleaser. I don’t go out of my way to antagonize people, but I also don’t particularly care if people like me or not. Obviously I try to be fairly friendly and professional at work, but performing well at my job doesn’t require much buy-in from anyone else, so I don’t have to engage in that ingratiating customer service mode.

                  This means that if I engage someone in conversation and they seem standoffish, I just shrug and move along because I know that I’m definitely not everyone’s cup of tea.

              2. Lenora Rose*

                I think this is taking it a bit far, and makes me worried.

                I enjoy the company of my coworkers, I’m not just being nice because work requires me to. But I have an existing social circle as well. Inviting in a coworker, should one become close enough to be worth doing so, is awkward because either I end up seeing them socially separate from my other friends, meaning I am making a whole new set of social obligations on top of existing friends, kids, and housecleaning, or I have to introduce them around to a bunch of people, and hope it works out. Only a few people hit the bar of “this is absolutely yes worth it” instead of “You’d be fun to watch a movie with but there’s no extra room in the day…”

                It’s easier to chat with folks at lunch or on the job.

      3. Cyborg Llama Horde*

        I am an introvert and frequently have good success with very straightforward scripts like “You seem potentially friend-compatible; do you want to take a walk after work sometime?”

        For me, the keys to making it work are:
        1) Being explicit about what I am hoping to get out of the interaction (a walk, perhaps eventually friendship)
        2) Proposing something concrete
        3) that is an activity, so even if we run out of things to say to each other after ten minutes, it doesn’t necessarily feel like a failure
        4) Making it clear that I have very little invested in this potential-friendship, and that “Sorry, I’m busy” or “No, I don’t want to” are fine
        5) If the first one is a no, not asking again unless they indicate that it would be welcome, and try not to feel rejected by that
        6) If we do get together and I think it was successful, continuing to ask unless I get a clear indication that it is no longer welcome

        I know that my experience of introvert social spoons is not universal, but this is what works for me. It helps that this is also what I am like after you are my friend, so people who respond well to this approach tend to be the people who are more likely to actually be a friend-fit. I also don’t invest any energy in this-person-as-friend until we successfully hang out.

  13. Goose*

    OP, this would be more work for you, but I wonder if you have any social media presence for your work? A newsletter/Instagram where you could share only work related updates might give people the *connection* they are craving if you occasionally connect with them in that way. As long as the “like” is coming from your work Instagram, you can keep the boundries

    1. desdemona*

      This may help!

      I’m in theater, and the nature of the work means delving into really personal and/or stressful stuff with people for a month or a week, and then maybe never seeing them again. People LOVE to connect on facebook or instagram and promise to stay in touch.

      It used to stress me out (they’re lovely but a girl can only maintain so many friendships well!), so now I have a work-mainly instagram (with “close friends” on for my actual friends!).

      I also have my facebook as not-my-real-last-name so someone has to *ask* to find me, and can’t just add everyone we worked with that week. This lets me at least filter to folks I actually liked working with and don’t mind them seeing my wedding photos, lol.

    2. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      This is really cool.
      Especially since a lot of the contact is “pick your brain…since you know this stuff and are a friend,” v. friendly.
      A nickel’s worth of free advice will go a long way.

  14. Pastor Petty Labelle*

    I think the key here is Alison’s advice — you can only control your side of the equation. You cannot make other people stop reaching out to you in friendship. You can only control your reaction to it. If you stop seeing it as a zero sum game of would these people just leave me alone, it will be easier to manage.

    Her scripts for setting boundaries are perfect. Especially if said with your work mask on which already apparently conveys warm and friendly. People won’t see it as blowing them off, but just well, that’s life.

  15. Adultier Adult*

    I had this trouble quite a bit when I was a consultant. Work hours didn’t hold to typically 8-5 bc I traveled and frequently my responses were at weird hours– We were very friendly (professionally) during their contracts- but they failed to realize I had MANY contracts I supported throughout the country. I just made sure during the contract’s duration, I was as responsive as possible (more quickly responsive for work related items)– After the contracts duration, I snoozed the emails for a week, then would reply very succinctly but kindly.

  16. JaneDough(not)*

    LW, if this is happening with great frequency, then there’s a good chance that you’re contributing in a way that you don’t yet see. This struck me: ‘I just slip into my “work face,” which is extremely friendly, agreeable, complimentary, and helpful … ‘

    Is it possible to be friendly etc. but not “extremely”? Is it possible to dial back on “agreeable and complimentary”?

    You sound like a people-pleaser, and although that’s getting you the acquiescence you want during the project, it’s also getting you something you don’t want. (I used to be a mega-people-pleaser, and your letter reminds me of the time when 23yo me was so compassionate with a cleaner at the office — and so naive about setting boundaries — that, when the cleaner asked for my home ph. no. I gave it — and she called me at 1 a.m. that night to talk more about her troubles.)

    More than 30 years and some therapy later, I’m still a kind, compassionate, and friendly person — but one with boundaries in place. I believe that you could still be the cheerful and efficient planner who gets what she needs from clients while also not (unconsciously) playing a role to manipulate them into never pushing back — a role that has this unintended and unwanted consequence.

    Please take some time to think about what you’re contributing to these interactions that are happening so often.

    1. mb*

      I feel like you’re saying they should be less friendly, so do their job less enthusiastically or something so others don’t get the wrong idea. This is just as icky as the idea that you have to be less friendly to men at work so they don’t get the wrong idea.
      OP is probably just very personable, and really excellent at what they do. This leads to clients thinking how great it would be to be friends with them, not realizing that a large part of the persona is a work face. I’m certainly much friendlier at work, and virtually no sarcasm when I’m quite sarcastic outside of work. It’s normal to have a work persona and OP isn’t “contributing” to this. This is other people assuming something because they didn’t stop to think that OP being this way is PART OF THEIR JOB.

      1. Eldritch Office Worker*

        Yeah I agree. It seems like OP is great at their job! They shouldn’t have to be less great at their job because people lack boundaries.

      2. JaneDough(not)*

        No, I’m not saying “Be less friendly.” I’m saying that people-pleasers (and there are lots out there) are unconsciously seducing others (in a non-romantic/non-sexual way) in part because the people-pleaser’s sense of self-worth depends on meeting the needs of others. In this instance, the LW gets a professional benefit from the seduction: No one pushes back, so the LW’s professional life is easier during the project BUT harder afterwards.

        It is a universal truth seldom acknowledged that if lots of people in our life are responding to us in a particular way, then we are contributing to making that happen. More than half of the population is operating on auto-pilot, based on old instructions from the household they grew up in but that are no longer useful now that they are adults whose life is not literally dependent on the good will of hard-to-please or opaque/inconsistent parents and siblings.

        1. Eldritch Office Worker*

          I’d love to know where you’re getting your statistics.

          Of course how OP is behaving is contributing to this, but that behavior is also *why OP is good at their job*. There should be some key points where they set firmer boundaries – someone else suggested an official closing message on the project, which is a great idea. But this is not about self worth, or social capital, it’s literally how OP runs their business.

          1. mb*

            Yeah, I would normall agree that if you get a lot of the same interactions from people that you are contributing to it partly, but in this case it doesn’t apply.

            Being friendly, personable, problem-solving, etc is part of the job. Doing it well means people see you in a certain way – kind of how some people get inappropriately attached to their therapists – and that leads to these people trying to be your friend.

            If someone seems really cool and friendly, and is possibly physically attractive, that will invite these kinds of things. Some people just have a magnetism that draws people in – saying this is their fault somehow is telling them to either not be who they are, or do their jobs less effectively/enthusiastically isn’t a good advice.

            JaneDough is assuming that they are a people-pleaser seducing people in a non-romantic way. I just don’t think that’s it. I think they are very good at their job, that’s it. They just need to intruduce some boundaries when they get these requests in a good way and there have been some very good suggestions.

          2. Laura*

            Exactly. JaneDough(not), I think you’re projecting your own stuff onto OP in a way that isn’t helpful or accurate.

        2. Yeah...*

          “It is a universal truth seldom acknowledged that if lots of people in our life are responding to us in a particular way, then we are contributing to making that happen.”

          If I could upvote you, I would.

          1. Inkhorn*

            Flashback to my school days where lots of people responded to me by bullying me.

            Yeah, no, I did not contribute to making that happen.

        3. eviltwinjen*

          I had a similar thought, but I was wondering if the letter writer’s friendliness levels are higher than necessary to be great at their job. It seems possible that what the writer thinks are adequate levels of friendliness and helpfulness are in fact above and beyond. They could experiment with dialing it down just a tiny bit! I know for me, I have to force myself to do/say things that feel “rude” to me just to reach a healthy level of self-confidence/assertiveness.

          1. Awkwardness*

            I was wondering if the letter writer’s friendliness levels are higher than necessary to be great at their job

            Exactly this. I completely agree with JaneDough(not), even though I understand where the other reactions are coming from. “people pleaser” already has a judgement included.

            What is considered as “professional friendliness” may vary a lot between people and sometimes one person truly believes she is “only” behaving professional in a way that the majority of people would already consider personal friendliness. Of this is an effect across genders and ages, it is worth looking into it.

        4. I'm the Phoebe in Any Group*

          On that logic, women are responsible for unwanted sexual overtures. This thought pattern is gross.

          1. mb*

            I know, right? The comment about seducing people in a non-romantic way? Eww.

            If your job was a wedding planner, you would need to be friendly, helpful, and problem solving – I think a lot of wedding planners form a sort of friendship with a bride and/or couple for the duration of the planning, help resolve issues that come up, help calm them when something goes wrong, etc. They seem so great that the bride or couple thinks “they’d make a great friend” because they already feel like a friend due to the nature of the business relationship. That doesn’t mean the wedding planner was being too friendly, or “seducing” people. It means they’re very good at their job. The idea is just to politely shut down the person without offending them but leaving future business relationship possibilities open.

        5. Clare*

          But sometimes that happens for reasons we can’t or shouldn’t have to change, though. I experienced a lot of sexist toxicity at an old job just for existing in a female body. I shut it down assertively, but that didn’t help so I left. I wasn’t contributing by being myself, even if I might have received less of it by dressing or acting differently. I went somewhere where the misogyny was less ingrained and whaddaya know, the toxicity stopped without me changing a thing. Not saying that the letter writer can’t or shouldn’t change if they want to, just that they’re not somehow choosing to contribute if they don’t.

          These clients have free agency, they’re not mindless victims helplessly ensnared by the letter writer’s seductive wiles. They’re normal people who haven’t stopped to think twice about the context of why the letter writer is being so nice and doing things friends normally do, and overstepping because of it.

    2. Laura*

      I’m not getting people-pleaser vibes here, I’m getting “This is how I need to act to successfully do my job and occasionally people mistake that for genuine friendship and I don’t want that to happen” vibes.

      I really think this can be solved by getting a separate number for work, although I know OP said she didn’t want to do that and I’m not sure exactly why.

      1. aebhel*

        Yeah, exactly. LW isn’t accidentally finding herself in relationships because she can’t stop trying to make people like her; she has a job that requires a specific demeanor which is very friendly and accessible and easy to like, but she does not carry that demeanor over into her personal life, nor does she want to carry those relationships over into her personal life. A people pleaser doesn’t stop being a people pleaser when they leave work. This is a professional problem, not a personal one.

    3. Helewise*

      I know this is getting a lot of pushback, but I think it’s worth giving some consideration to. I don’t hear this saying that the LW is doing anything wrong – just that the way we show up can affect how people respond to us. People are still responsible for their own selves and it doesn’t excuse harassment. So if I show up as a strong woman in a misogynistic environment, I’ll be at the receiving end of a lot of hostility. If I show up in a docile and appeasing manner in the same environment, I’ll be received much better because I’m following the accepted script. But if I’m met with hostility in twelve different places in a row, it might be helpful to ask myself whether I’ve had the incredibly bad luck of finding twelve bad places or if it has something to do with how I’m showing up. I might not want to change anything regardless! But it can be helpful to think that through so it can be a conscious decision.

  17. Beth*

    I think this is part and parcel of having a strong social persona. I’ve seen and experienced the same thing in both work and non-work contexts–hobby-based communities, volunteer-run events, whatever. When you come off as a cool, helpful, caring, kind, cheerful person…yeah, a lot of people will want to know you better! Like you said, who wouldn’t want to be friends with that person! But my own bandwith is limited and usually full to overflowing.

    Personally I’ve found that my best strategy is calendar management. Work is a set chunk of hours; I want to spend a couple evenings a week chilling with my partner; I have evenings set aside for close friends; I set aside time to call family members and keep in touch; I build in blocks for personal projects and rest time. If I actually put all of that in my personal calendar, then voila, it’s very full and I have very, very little extra time to offer to a potential new friend. It’s both easy and true to tell someone who’s looking to be better friends that I’m booked up. (Could I find time if I felt a strong connection and wanted to explore it? Sure, but seeing the thing I’d have to give up–time with my partner, time on a project, sleep time–really motivates me to only do that if I’m really personally interested.)

  18. Zona the Great*

    Thank you so much for this. I struggle with this in general. I often feel I’ve led someone on when I didn’t realize they took Work Me for genuine friendship. I am about as lone as a wolf can get. But I’m effusive and funny and kind and helpful and enthusiastic so people think they’d like me. I can promise you, they would not like the Real Me.

    I have taken to sort of joking it away but leaving no room for them to try again. “Nope. I live at the fortress of solitude and I must retreat now.” “Oh sorry, I am a full hermit and I don’t have room in my shell for anyone else.” “HA! No one will ever see me outside of work!” “This mask only lasts 8 hours. After it comes off, I’m not even human anymore.”

    1. ferrina*

      but…..wolves live in packs. Lone wolves are often depressed wolves.

      Maybe you are a wolverine? They love a solitary lifestyle and can get really territorial if anyone tries to hang out with them. Plus they have adamantium claws.

    2. Middle Aged Lady*

      This! A co-worker asked me why I didn’t have kids because I was so kind and helpful to my undergrad employees at the library, and my reply was, “you don’t realize how much solitude it takes for me to have the bandwidth to do this all day at work.”
      This question is a hard one because there are a lot of people out there who need friends, and the world is a lonely place these days. I have been the ‘new person in town’ and it’s hard when everyone else had a full life of family and friends, and I didn’t. I admire the OP’s compassion.

      1. Michelle Smith*

        Yep, unfortunately I have nothing to contribute that could help the LW because I have the exact opposite problem – struggling to keep any friendships or make new ones!

        1. Double A*

          So true! At the same time, I would MUCH prefer someone just be honest with me about their bandwidth. It might hurt my feelings a little bit, but you know what hurts more? Thinking you have a connection with someone and them never following through on plans you propose or make. Stringing someone along. People rarely make overtures to me and even though I identify as an extrovert (though I’m actually right on the borderline), it still takes emotional energy and time and brainpower to reach out to people. I do make those overtures but it’s not exactly easy all the time and I’d rather know where I stand.

    3. AnonymouslyEnganging*

      Ha! I have said “I live on the on 30 acres on top of a mountain for a reason, this is all the peopling I can take”

      1. jamlady*

        Me too! I work in a City in an expensive state, and people are always so shocked I have actual land and live in the mountains. It’s just not what people do here. I am always honest in a joking way, similar to Zona the Great, but I always have “no thanks, I’m ready to head back up the mountain to stare at some trees” to fall back on. I’m quite well known regionally as the most extroverted introvert you’ll ever meet lol

    4. CM*

      I agree with this, sadly I tend to be the “let’s be BFFs!” one so I try really hard to take a hint. Someone used a similar “I’m such an introvert” line on me. It did take a couple of times, but then I understood it to mean “…so we will not be hanging out together” and stopped trying.

  19. Liz W.*

    Hoo boy, I have the opposite of this. My spouse thinks that any customer that comes to our farm is a potential “friend” and will keep them far longer than he should. I have to continuously pull him back on track and remind him that someone stopping to pick up products or tour our operation is NOT there for a friendly visit and at most gets the offer of a bathroom and bottle of water.

    1. Dr. Doll*

      He has time as a farmer to do all that? Whew. (Or maybe he doesn’t and you wish he’d get back to whatever job is at hand!). But an extroverted farmer, what a unicorn!

      1. Liz W.*

        We are VERY small so there is time (I’ve 5S’d the heck out of this place and am very good at saying no.)
        Funny part-he is an introvert, but when he is on, he is on and I’m like, “Dude, unless you are going to pay these folks to come help me feed these critters, you gotta cut ’em loose!”

    2. Adds*

      My husband is similar.

      He will talk the ear off anyone who comes to the shop, about any subject. I want the customer to drop their vehicle off and then leave so we can work and at the end I want them to pay, get their keys, and gtfo so I can go back to not being customer-facing. We once hung out with a customer in the (hot as b*lls, un-air-conditioned) garage talking for like an hour. When hubs was finally done talking and the guy headed off I asked him where he knew the customer from. “Oh, I hadn’t met him before today.” You mean to tell me that man is not your friend and it’s getting to be past dinner time? Sir.

  20. ferrina*

    OP, one trick that worked for me was to say the silent part out loud. “My job is to make sure that you are 100% ready for this.” “It’s okay if you’re nervous- that is literally why you hired me!”

    I never had the issue you did (people contacting me after the fact), but I did have a few people get too friendly. I found that when I told them explicitly that this was part of my job, the boundaries were firmer. I never did it in a mean way- I didn’t say “I’m only being nice because I’m paid too”. I would say things like:
    “My job is to make you look good and feel good about this! If you are excited, that makes me really happy!”
    “I’m so glad you’re feeling good about this! This is one of the best parts of my job- when I can help someone feel proud of what they’ve done!”
    or if they say sorry, “No apologies needed! This is literally what you pay me to do, and I’m happy to do this! You’re a wonderful client, and I’m enjoying working with you” (if near the end of the project, I’ll add “hopefully we’ll be able to work together again in the future!”)
    Always upbeat, but gently bringing in that this is a profession for me.

    Some people will feel some way about that boundary being there. That’s okay. There’s always some people that will feel some thing about any boundary.

    1. mb*

      This makes way more sense that an earlier comment that the OP is somehow contributing to the problem. When people compliment OP on something, they can say something like “it’s my job, that’s what i’m here for” or similar.

    2. CorruptedbyCoffee*

      Right! I had to do this a lot working in customer service with a lot of lonely people. Your tone can still be very pleasant and upbeat and friendly. But phrasing should emphasize the work context. Be big and friendly and sincere about giving them the best professional experience and genuinely being excited to do the best job for them. The poster above has it just right!

    3. Jennifer @unchartedworlds*

      I like this. It’s actively framing the connection in the right way, with the kind of enthusiastic tone that isn’t like a rebuff. Even if it doesn’t completely make the problem disappear, it’s good groundwork.

    4. deesse877*

      Agree. This is the winner. Continually define the relationship as professional from Day 1. I do something similar as a professor (undergraduates = POOR boundaries).

      That actually leads me to a second thought: especially if you’re doing something fraught like wedding planning, these folks may not exactly want *you*, but rather the feeling of being cared for and attended to that you provided. On the few occasions that former students have tricked me into hanging out, it has always gone one of two ways:

      1) they reminisce a bit, we exchange compliments, and then THEY note that they’re graduating and won’t see me again, or

      2) they get a weird expression 3-10 minutes in, when they realize it isn’t as intense anymore FOR THEM, and then we never see each other again

      Just something to think about; your situation may or may not be analogous. Meanwhile, I again strongly recommend “it’s my job to help you” language at every available opprtunity.

  21. Potato*

    I also wonder if you could just say,

    “Thank you for thinking of me! I try to maintain strict boundaries between my personal and professional lives for the sake [of my sanity/of my schedule/of whatever you want to insert here], so I won’t be able to [insert activity here]. But I would be happy to work with you again in the future!”

    I personally find it helps to express boundaries out loud! And otherwise I fear you will get repeated offers when people check in to see if your schedule has freed, or expressing concern about your family situation, etc.

    1. Michelle Smith*

      I like this. As a person that struggles to make new friends or connections, having it explicitly stated in a kind way helps me know where I stand.

  22. Maybesocks*

    I would remove “now” from each of these responses. Otherwise you are inviting another invitation.

  23. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

    I would suggest getting more in front of the problem when you are giving out your contact info — be much more “this is work” and not “I am friend.” People DON’T need to know that it’s your personal cell # or you can be reached anytime.

    “Here is my ‘office’ phone # (event-face smile). My office hours are 9am-6pm Mon-Fri… unless I’m actually at an event!” If they press for personal contact info, look friendly-puzzled and reiterate that your office phone, during those hours, is the best way to reach you for any new contracts they want to discuss, or referrals. “I would love to set up a meeting to discuss your new project, but I hold a hard boundary of 9-6 M-F, otherwise I wouldn’t have any personal life.”

    1. Dollars to Donuts*

      I agree with trying to get ahead of the problem. My thought was you could try wrapping up at the end of each engagement with a good-bye conversation or good-bye note, and use that as a way to set expectations. “Please be in touch if you ever have any event planning needs! I’ll be working on a new account, so the best way to get in touch with me would be email. If I don’t hear from you, I’m wishing you all the best.”

    2. Clare*

      I like this! They don’t have to know it’s also your personal number. You could even set your phone up so that it only rings/beeps for your favourite contacts outside of work hours and favourite all your personal contacts to make sure you don’t accidentally pick up a work call.

  24. Lemon Zinger*

    I would advise against using exclamation marks, which can read more friendly/informal. And a work email address and phone number are essential. Google voice is a great solution.

  25. BellyButton*

    I have been on both sides of this situation. I very much have a professional persona that portrays as a charming, engaging, extrovert- which I am when I need/want to be! I also have a tendency to pick out the people in the room who may not know other people or who may not be good at or comfortable with chit chat and have quiet 1:1 conversations with them or ask if they want to be introduced to others. Combine these things and men often think I am flirting with them and then others think I have sought them out to be friends.

    From the other side, it is hard as an adult to make friends! It is especially hard when you work 100% remote, have moved around a lot in your adult life, single, and no kids. So there have been times I have met people in a professional setting and I have wanted to hang out with them. However, I try very hard to read the situation. If they give me their card I will usually follow up with an email and see if there is any sort of interest in grabbing coffee or a drink, but I don’t push it.

    People are complicated!

  26. Awkwardness*

    I was on the other side of this once and it still hurts me that I misinterpretend the relationship so differently.
    There was a grey area where we discussed personal things and if I had a problem, they would ask follow-up questions while trying to suggest solutions. This made me think this person was interested in me on a level beyond professionalism.

    LW, maybe you have everything covered and the following is not relevant for you. I can only point out that being too friendly, too helpful or lending an ear too often beyond purely professional problems might blur the line.
    This is not blaming you for being friendly. I am just encouraging you to take a closer look how well you stick to your boundaries during the projects.

    1. Clare*

      I don’t think it’s the letter writer’s fault that we have a lonliness epidemic in our society and so people are choosing to blatantly ignore the context in which LW is being friendly in the unreasonable hope of “But maybe this is an exception???”. Exceptions are rare. If we assume that everyone being nice to us for their job is only doing it for their job, we’re very unlikely to miss more than one connection in a lifetime, max. And if one single missed work-to-friendship is a big deal in the grand scheme of things, that’s more than LW can solve for a person by smiling 40% less. These people need to build more relationships in the standard ways so they can be more chill. Basically, some people are going to choose to ignore the context no matter what LW does. Let’s not put the blame for other people’s refusal to read the room back on the letter writer.

      1. Despachito*

        I do not think this is blaming the LW.

        Boundaries are sometimes not clear/are read differently by different people, but I would not call that a “fault”.

        I even do not see anything wrong in sticking out some tentacles to see whether the person would be interested to meet me outside work context, but then I think I should be able to read the room well.

        If I propose to grab a coffee some time, I do not think it is too intrusive, and if the person is not interested, they can refuse (personally, I’d go with claiming busyness because I think it is a socially acceptable way to say “I have my priorities and you are not one of them” without being explicit about it). And of course I would not insist then.

  27. skylight*

    Seconding Alison’s advice to use work time to respond. I recently started an hourly job that’s about halftime work from home and thought I wouldn’t like the hassle of tracking hours, but I love it! I don’t respond to correspondence unless I’m clocked in. I feel less harried and my non-work responsibilities feel easier to manage because I’m not interrupted with work communications.

    OP, can you set different ring tones and alerts for the professional contacts and then ignore them when you’re “off the clock?” And some do not disturb features allow for work and personal modes to make it even easier to have boundaries.

  28. Heffalump*

    “My schedule is crazy right now/I’ve got a family situation right now ….”

    “Right now” could give the other person an opening to think that whatever situation will blow over in time. People can be very good at selective hearing in all sorts of contexts. I say this as someone who used to be slow on the uptake.

  29. Heather*

    It seems like a stronger more specific ending related to “work” could be useful to you. Perhaps you would be willing to try something like this…
    “Well, that was certainly an adventure. I appreciated the job and our working time together. You can send my final payment to the same address used previously. If you find you need me again for an event or a job please reach out.”

    1. Distractinator*

      Agreed with Heather, make sure you’re ending the project work relationship clearly, and not implying things you don’t intend to say in that final email. Look at each sentence and be sure you’re not accidentally suggesting things because it’s part of the ritual phrasing – “Please get in touch if there’s anything I can do to help” is a phrase that I use in professional emails and nobody really takes literally (nobody calling me for a ride to the airport!) so societally we overlook that it’s not true and use it anyway… but when you want to discourage casual reaching out, make sure you don’t accidentally offer it.
      “What a great final event last night! I want to take this opportunity to thank you all for your hard work [blahblahblah professional congratulations]. Fergus and I will be meeting one more time to wrap up X [underscoring how over this is] but in case I don’t see the rest of you again, sincere best wishes to the team. It’s been a pleasure working with you all, maybe we’ll reconnect at a future [conference, gala, fundraiser, work event]. I hope OPEvents [reference the business not yourself] can work with you again.”
      Things you don’t say: “please contact me” “any”(i.e. for any thing, at any time) “I’ll miss working with you” “This event was so much fun” etc – perfectly professional phrases but they lean on the personal connections, and aren’t what you actually want to emphasize. The difference between “great team made all those late nights bearable” and “great result made all those late nights worth it”

  30. The OG Sleepless*

    I am continually fascinated with the different ways people react to certain people. The LW is obviously one of those people who makes everyone feel like she’s their BFF, which is lovely. I used to work with a guy who projected an air of the nice, slightly befuddled boy-next-door, and he had a steady stream of older clients who wanted to fix him up with their daughters. I have never gotten either of those reactions from strangers, so this kind of thing is so interesting to me.

    1. BellyButton*

      My ex said I needed to develop a F-off face, because every where I go people automatically think I am their BFF. When we got together he was so baffled at how we would go to eat and have a beer and next thing you know we were surrounded by people. He was 35 when we met and had never once had that happen. LOL.

  31. Junior Assistant Peon*

    It must be exhausting to keep up a fake persona like this. I might be on my best behavior, avoiding controversial topics, etc at work, but I don’t try to change my basic personality like the OP seems to be doing. My advice is to act more like yourself so anyone you hit it off with at work is more likely to be a good match for the real you and not some fake work persona. All you really need to do at work is to behave appropriately, not try to role-play some character that’s completely different from how you act naturally.

    1. t-vex*

      Nah, I’m a lot like the OP. It’s not like you’re creating a fake persona, it’s more like leaning hard into a part of you that usually exists at a much lower level.

      1. Angstrom*

        Yup. When I’m being a trainer my normal level of helpfulness and enthusiasm goes to 11. I do genuinely enjoy that role, and it doesn’t feel fake, but I’m not that intense 24/7. Offstage it gets dialed back to a sustainable level.

    2. Eldritch Office Worker*

      I don’t see where you’re getting that. We all have some kind of customer service face, if we work with people, and needing time to recharge in your personal life by ‘hermiting’ is perfectly normal, especially for an introvert. But that doesn’t mean introverts don’t genuinely like people or enjoy doing this kind of work. It means that energy is hard to keep up round the clock, even if it’s real energy.

    3. ferrina*

      It’s not exactly fake. It’s just accentuating different parts of you. Like how you put on different outfits for different events- you wouldn’t wear the same thing to high tea as you would to paintball. That doesn’t mean that either of them are fake, it just means you are doing different things.

      Can it be fake? Absolutely. If you hate high tea and never want to wear anything more formal than overalls, it is disingenuous to pretend otherwise. You might do it once as a special favor, but to do it every weekend would be awful. But for some people, going to high tea every weekend would be lovely but they don’t want to do it every day.

      There’s nothing in the OP’s letter that says they hate being friendly. They want to be able to be friendly at work but not have asks made of their personal time (i.e., don’t want people assuming friendship). I can relate- I used to have a job that required me to be friendly and professional for 8-9 hours/day, and in my off hours I didn’t want my professional persona. If I’m around clients, I will always be aware that I’m around clients and tempering myself. Happy to do that while working; when I’m not working, I’d prefer not to.

    4. BellyButton*

      For me it isn’t fake at all. I very much love my job and being helpful, engaging, charming, making people feel comfortable. If all I did was the analytical part of my job I would be miserable. If I only did the extroverted part I would be miserable. Having a balance of both is perfect for me.

    5. CorruptedbyCoffee*

      It is exhausting. It can be easier if you genuinely love what you do and everything is going well, but I find there’s a reason most people in high level customer service either burn out or become incredibly bitter. Masking is tough work.

    6. Beth*

      I don’t see any signs that this is a fake persona. It sounds like OP is genuinely a friendly, helpful, caring, warm person who enjoys bringing those traits to her work life. I bet she does behave like that in non-work contexts too. The problem is when people read her behavior as her being friendly *to them* rather than just as her being broadly a friendly person–and that’s a disconnect between her behavior and their interpretation of her behavior, not between her true self and her behavior.

      1. Banana Pyjamas*

        OP expressly states they are different outside of work, and that is where a large portion of discomfort in these situations comes from.

    7. aebhel*

      Nah, it sounds like part of LW’s job is to present this very friendly and helpful demeanor that is totally focused on the client’s needs. That doesn’t mean that LW isn’t a friendly and helpful person in general! But while it’s very addictive to have a person around who is totally dedicated to making you happy, that’s not how genuine human connections work. Most customer service work requires this to some degree or another, and there are a lot of people who mistake professional friendliness as genuine connections even in much less immersive situations than this sounds like it is.

  32. Immortal for a limited time*

    I would hate to use a line that implies my situation might change and they should try again later (e.g., the “my schedule is crazy right now” type of excuse). If it were me I’d say something more definitive like, “I really enjoyed working with (you) (your group), but to maintain a happy balance between my work life and my personal life, I need to maintain a clear boundary between the two. I hope you understand!”

  33. Jade*

    “Sorry, I’ve got to get back to it”. It doesn’t matter what it is. If they persist “I’m sorry, I can’t continue”.

  34. Insert Pun Here*

    If your business is highly reputational, or referral-based, you do have to be very careful with some of the more direct scripts suggested in the comments here—they’re likely to turn people off from referring you. On the other hand, if referrals are a nice-to-have non-essential part of your business, then have at it.

    I work in a highly reputational business, one in which some “clients” (not actually clients but analogous to clients in OP’s example) do actually become friends, or at least friendly acquaintances, with relationships sustained over years or decades. I do make a point of only replying to messages during work hours, which helps. I’ve also used this line with success: “thank you for [invitation to thing I don’t want to do.] You’re ver generous to offer, but I find I need to [not do work stuff on weekends/holidays/evenings/whatever boundary you want to draw], otherwise I’d never have any time off! But I appreciate you thinking of me.” This is warm enough to preserve the relationship and clearly conveys “you’re not unlikeable, I’m just trying to retain some last shred of work-life balance.” Making friends as an adult is HARD, and it’s a kindness to be as gentle as possible (unless someone is truly problematic in some way.)

    1. New freelancer*

      Agreed. I’m a new freelancer who spent most of my career in the salaried world, and learning the delicate dance of enforcing boundaries with some of my favorite recent clients while also ensuring that those relationships remain strong so they refer business/do business with me again. I do think this makes the conversation slightly different from the salaried world, because of the reasons you bring up. It’s also possible that OP feels frustrated because these overtures are potentially cutting into parts of her calendar she normally reserves for billable time with clients?

      Side note – would be great to see this post added to the “Freelancing” category for future findability.

      1. Anooooooon*

        Totally – I have one client who, if I’d met her under other circumstances, would likely be a friend by now. (As a person, she’s awesome, but as a client, she’s kind of disorganized and messy). She’s always trying to get me to hang out socially and I have to keep politely pushing back without damaging the freelancer-client relationship. I would like to keep working with her, plus she’s given me a couple of awesome referrals already, and I’d like more. It’s a delicate dance indeed!

  35. DinoGirl*

    This is interesting. I feel like even a soft rejection here could damage future work prospects…if I reached out and got back, “can’t take this on but let me know of future work!” I can see how it might make me hesitate to contact them again if I had “put myself out there” mistaking a social connection?
    Depending on the career I think you may have to view this socializing as networking, or risk significant impact to your business?
    Could you say, “I have difficulty keeping up on technology but let’s plan on grabbing coffee on X date (a few months out) to catch up!” That may help space it out and limit the expectation in a less rejecting way for the sake of the business relationship.
    I work in HR and am limited in “friendships” at work, so admittedly a little jealous of this problem. In current jobs I sometimes have to try to in a lighthearted way day something like, “in HR we have to be careful about personal friendships at work so I can’t grab lunch, be Facebook friends etc, but maybe someday when we leave!” most people have been understanding/receptive.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      You can’t account for how every person might react. OP DEFINITELY shouldn’t suggest coffee if they don’t want to do that. They deserve to protect their personal space and make it clear they could never casually maintain this volume of relationships.

      If someone reacts negatively to a soft, polite, and professional rejection…that was always going to happen. They probably aren’t someone OP would want to be BFFs with, so that boundary would have to be set at some point. Kicking it down the road and enduring unwanted social overtures just to put that off isn’t kind to either party.

    2. allathian*

      If you mistake a professional connection for a social one, the problem is you. And I expect that service provider like the LW would thrive perfectly well without your business.

      You should learn to err on the side of “this person is only friendly to me because I’m paying them to work for me.” If you do this consistently, there’s no risk of overstepping.

  36. Uhura*

    I recently read a book about how to say No to people and one thing it suggested was to create and enforce personal “rules”. For example, one of my rules is: I don’t friend people I currently work with on Facebook.

    The OP here could create a “rule” that says “I don’t mix friendships with work” or whatever would be appropriate for the situation.

    1. Clare*

      This can potentially be softened even further with something like “I’ve had a negative experience in the past, so I have a hard-and-fast personal rule not to mix friendships with work”. Then the person can mentally blame ‘the person who made you make the rule’ rather than blaming you for having firm boundaries, thus helping keep you in their good books for later contracts. They don’t need to know the ‘negative experience’ was any/every “wanna get coffee” text you couldn’t be bothered dealing with.

  37. Anonymous Koala*

    OP, I know you don’t want to create a work number/email because managing it is a lot, but is it in your budget to hire a virtual assistant part time? They could have access to your work phone and email, screen calls, offers of new jobs, and use a pre-determined script to gently fend off these non-work overtures. Plus once people realize they’re getting your work contact instead of your personal cell, I think a lot of these offers will stop.

  38. She of Many Hats*

    Although it wasn’t stated, I’m guessing the LW is female. People tend to interpret women being situationally pleasant & polite as an invite to have a personal relationship with them even when it’s obvious that the woman has to maintain that civility to get whatever the job is done.

    LW – I’d lean toward something like “With the type of exhausting/exciting/high demand public work I do, I strive to keep my work life separate from my private life.” You can add whatever niceties around that as needed.

  39. NotTheSameAaron*

    It’s a sad commentary about your job that professional courtesy is so rare it gets interpreted as genuine friendliness or even flirtation.

    1. Clare*

      Not necessarily. The letter writer’s job might be an uncommon one like being a marriage celebrant, where people only ever work with a few in their lives and struggle to recognise the ‘professional patter’ for what it is because they’re unfamiliar with the role. Or they could be in a small town where there’s only two or three large venues and these people have made friendship overtures to the events manager at each of them without recognising the pattern.

  40. Serious silly putty*

    Eh… I would push back a little on “being so busy” as the reason why. I think you can leave that part out and stick to the conclusions from that: “I’m trying not o be intentional about not adding more to my plate right now.” “Work Me is fully booked and Family Me is trying to spend more time at home” — or what have you. We don’t want to live in a world where being too busy is the only good excuse, so we need to find other ways to (gently) let people down.

    Also, has the letter writer read the post about the bot that keeps being asked out? You may be in broader company than you realize

  41. Ready to go home soon*

    I once used a therapist who had her social boundaries defined on the agreement I signed before starting therapy. I thought it was a great idea in general. It had information about how she would not accept friend or follow requests, or texts outside of agreed upon services. It defined how she would react if we saw each other in public.

    I know this doesn’t completely equate to your profession but I thought it was a good idea.

  42. thelettermegan*

    If your work ever does any sort of social mixer/gala/conference thing, maybe you could invite them to that? If not, is that something that could be established?

    ‘I’m sorry we can’t get together, but I’ll see you next month at the mixer!’ might be perfect script and way to for everyone to feel connected with minimal effort on your part.

    Perhaps if all these people who want to make friends get together, they can make friends with each other! Having a connected network is its own special joy.

  43. Ticotac*

    Lw, how do you feel about lying? Because this sounds like something that you could probably fix by saying, “I have a personal assistant who checks all of my written correspondence!” and then answering all of their messages as Sam, the personal assistant who is polite and friendly and also very sorry but unfortunately unable to relay personal messages to their boss.

    Obviously people should be able to take a hint and it’d be great if you could just state your boundaries without fear of repercussions, the goal is to be confident and firm and all of that, but also… lying would probably work pretty well.

  44. Baska*

    I work as the secretary of a small church, so I sometimes have similar overtures from our congregants. (People inviting me to church events, or events for people who are part of the church, etc.) My usual response is, “Thanks so much for thinking of me! I try to keep strong boundaries between my personal life and my professional life, so I don’t attend personal events hosted by church members, but I hope you have a lovely time! Looking forward to seeing you at [next church meeting where we’ll both be in attendance]!”

    So long as you say it with your best “customer-service voice” (i.e. pleasant, friendly, but matter-of-fact), people tend to get the message. It might need a few repetations before it sticks, though.

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