Recently someone I don’t know well requested a small favor. It required a few minutes of my time, nothing more. The favor meant a lot to her and didn’t pose any hardship for me. “Sure,” I said. “Glad to help out.”
By way of thanking me, she sent an email saying that she knows some other people who could use a similar favor. “I’ll stop by and discuss this with you,” she said. Notice that she didn’t ask. She unilaterally announced this pop-in. Apparently my contribution to the meeting would be to shut up and take names of those for whom I’d be volunteering.
In response to her pronouncement, I thought: “No thanks, I’m trying to quit.” I didn’t actually say that, of course. Instead I responded with silence. And I arranged my calendar so that any meeting between us in this lifetime is impossible.
Isn’t it remarkable how blithely she went from “could I ask a small favor” to “now we’ll line up some more favors for you”? What’s wrong with this picture? Her blindness to my boundaries—that’s what’s wrong.
There are at least two explanations for this kind of behavior: (1) The person lacks the emotional intelligence to recognize and respect someone else’s personal boundaries, or (2) the person knows exactly what he or she is doing and doesn’t care that it’s an imposition. Social incompetence or calculated manipulation—either way, the consequences are the same.
Reasonable people don’t pop in on acquaintances that they barely know to burden them with unexpected demands. They don’t presume an ongoing obligation on the part of acquaintances who merely grant small favors. I think most people would find it unreasonable, even with close friends, to declare, “I’ll show up unannounced and we’ll have a meeting.” Call it emotional intelligence, or common sense, or manners, or life experience, we expect people we interact with to have enough of it to avoid making us uncomfortable.
That sixth sense of unease is an important warning that your boundaries are being crossed. You may not be able to identify exactly why you’re feeling that way. It doesn’t matter. It also doesn’t matter that the other person may seem nice and normal. Ignore your unease at your own peril. (I'm not suggesting pathological suspicion, just awareness.)
As far as boundaries go, you’re entitled to them. You may not be aware that you even have a particular boundary—for example, a boundary for how much whispering you will tolerate during a meeting—until someone violates it beyond the point of tolerance. Personal boundaries are essential to your mental well-being. In fact, weak or non-existent boundaries can be symptomatic of personality disorders or psychosis.
Having boundaries doesn’t mean that each and every one of them has to be rigid and non-negotiable. When we travel in the coach section of an airplane, we allow strangers to sit uncomfortably close to us out of necessity. Under those circumstances, we adapt because it’s unavoidable. If the same person sat down that close to you on an otherwise empty park bench, you’d go into fight-or-flight mode, and with good reason.
Neither does having boundaries mean that you become paranoid about other people’s motives or that you should behave as a prima donna about the sanctity of your boundaries. It just means standing up for yourself when you need to, but picking those battles carefully. Other people have boundaries too, and the reach of your behavior and mine should stop where their boundaries (reasonable ones, that is) begin.