Dennis Hackethal’s Blog

My blog about philosophy, coding, and anything else that interests me.

Published · revised (v2, latest) · 4-minute read · 1 revision


A friend of mine likes to send me videos. Mostly they’re interesting or funny but sometimes people genuinely get hurt in them, physically, either through violence or accidents.

Him: *sends a video where somebody gets hurt*
Me: I don’t like seeing ppl get hurt, pls don’t send such videos anymore.
Him: *sends other videos for a few days, then another where somebody gets hurt*
Me: please don’t do that again
Him: sorry I thought it was funny. *sends other videos for a few days, then another where somebody gets hurt*
Me: Pls don’t send those. I have to take a break. I won’t check your messages for a week. *mutes him for a week*
Him: *sends other videos during that week, then another one later on where somebody gets hurt*
Me: Why do you keep sending me videos where ppl get hurt when I’ve told you it makes me uncomfortable?
Him: sorry I thought it was a funny video, also the guy in the video didn’t get hurt badly.
Me: I wont watch any more videos you send me.
Him: *keeps sending videos*
Me: why do you keep sending videos? I won’t watch them.
Him: nobody gut hurt dude. why are you so negative? what’s wrong?
Me: what’s wrong is that you won’t take what I say literally and that you don’t respect my boundaries. you just keep going. it’s pretty toxic and mean honestly
Him: *sends another video the next day*

Contrary to what you might think, I don’t believe he’s playing dumb. He’s a good guy and doesn’t understand what’s wrong. He’s also lagging behind on what’s happening – he still thinks about my previous criterion of not wanting to see violent videos in particular (which he now seems to honor, judging only by the videos’ thumbnails), even though I have since extended it to not wanting to see any more videos at all. (Accordingly, I wonder if extending my criterion one step further – say, by requesting not to message me again at all – would finally cause him to stop sending me videos while continuing to send me text messages, which I would be okay with.)

Here’s another example. Somebody else I know, who lives in Europe, once wanted to visit me. Due to the distance, it would have needed to be for at least a couple of weeks to be worth the long trip. This back and forth actually extended over years, but I’m shortening it to give you the gist:

Her: Can I come visit you in California?
Me: Maybe, I’ll think about it.
Her: *after a few weeks* Can I come visit you?
Me: I’m still thinking about it.
Her: *after a few more weeks pass* What about now, can I come visit you?
Me: I haven’t decided yet. I’m feeling pressured. Just so you know, the more you ask me, the less inclined I’ll be to say ‘yes’.
Her: *lets a couple of months pass* I’d really like to come visit you. These dates would work for me. This is how much a ticket would cost, can you cover that?
Me: Please wait for me to bring up the topic myself.
Her: *lets some more time pass* Can I come visit you now?
Me: No. Please don’t ask again.
Her: Don’t tell me what to do. You’re trying to control me.
Me: No, I’m showing you my boundaries.
Her: *months later* Why didn’t you let me come visit?

Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt as well and say she also wasn’t playing dumb. Let’s say she really didn’t understand what went wrong, either.

As you can see, she was particularly insistent, despite my explicit warning that it would reduce the chances of my agreeing to a visit. Her claim that I was trying to control her was disgusting because it implied that she had a right to violate my boundaries.

Showing someone your boundaries means you care about the relationship; you’re offering ways you can grow together. I could have decided to ignore her, never respond to her, etc. But I took the time to tell her what would and wouldn’t make a visit more likely.

In both cases, it’s as if what I said explicitly didn’t matter one bit. Both people should have backed off immediately after I said that my boundaries were being violated. My friend from the first example should have been careful, right after my first request, not to send any more videos with even a hint of violence. But when he did, and I pointed it out, he found an excuse (he thought the video was funny). Both of them ignored my pleas, then wondered what went wrong.

Here’s a third example. Somebody once asked me for an introduction to someone at the company where I was working at the time. He wanted to do an internship there. For reasons that don’t matter here, I was hesitant to make such an introduction and needed more time to decide. But he followed the same sad pattern: he asked me again after a couple of weeks. Then again. Worse, when he still hadn’t gotten the answer he wanted, he got somebody else to ask me for him – as if the problem had been that he was asking me! I told them it wasn’t the right time and that I wasn’t willing to make the introduction. Then they finally backed off.

If you found yourself in any of these situations, I imagine that, like me, you would feel cornered and pressured. An analogy I like to use – I think I may have gotten it from Christopher Canwell’s book Atomic Attraction – is tennis. Imagine somebody serves you the ball – i.e., makes a request (‘can I come visit?’). Instead of waiting for you to return the ball to them, they serve another ball. Then they serve another. You feel bombarded. You remind them that the rules of the game state that they should wait for you to return the ball, but they don’t care. They won’t talk about the rules. They don’t consider that you may be keeping the ball in your court for good reasons. They don’t consider that you may know something they don’t. Obviously the game can’t work that way, and you stop playing. You look for other people to play with.

Likewise, there are rules around the game of social dynamics (though, as opposed to the rules of tennis, they are largely unstated). I think it’s fine if somebody asks once, maybe twice, after a reasonable amount of time has passed, to see if you just forgot to return the ball. After all, real life isn’t synchronous like tennis. But the third time may come across as socially aggressive. At that point, they should let it go. The odds of you getting back to them are actually greater if they back off. Even if you really did forget, their reminding you a second or third time won’t help either of you.

Something of note: everyone involved in these three examples was German. I don’t believe I’ve observed the same socially clueless behavior in the US, and I find it quite plausible that Americans are, on the whole, more socially competent and gentle. I’m ashamed to say that, since I grew up in Germany, I must have displayed similar social cluelessness in the past. I know of one instance that Elliot Temple pointed out to me, where I doubled down on a request even though he had already communicated that he doesn’t have more information, so my doubling down didn’t make sense. (I got the phrasing “socially clueless” from him – it’s what he called me.) Interestingly, I already knew at the time that this behavior bothered me in others (the can-i-come-visit-you incident was well underway at the time), yet I failed to see the same behavior in myself. I think that tells us something about social dynamics: people can reliably fail to apply their ideas of how they don’t want to be treated to how not to treat others. As an unintended consequence, they end up making exceptions for themselves. For that reason, I should point out that the previous paragraph applies as much to oneself as it does to others.

It’s worth asking why the two people from the first two examples remain clueless, even after I’ve explained the problem. I guess it’s because I went meta, and they didn’t want meta. They wanted a certain kind of reaction, and I didn’t give them that. So they ignored what I gave them instead. It’d be good to find out how to make people more receptive to that kind of meta feedback so that conflicts can be solved more easily.

Thanks to Logan Chipkin and Kitt Johnson for commenting on an early draft of the first example.

What people are saying

What are your thoughts?

You are responding to comment #. Clear


Markdown supported. cmd + enter to comment. Your comment will appear upon approval. You are responsible for what you write. Terms, privacy policy
This small puzzle helps protect the blog against automated spam.