When “sorry I have a boyfriend” just isn’t cutting it

We’ve all been there. That nice-ish guy in the Laundromat, Starbucks at 8:00am on a Monday morning, even the library (yes, I said library) that just can’t take a hint that right now is not  the time to try to ask you on a date. You act disinterested, give him one word responses, reference being a relationship – yet he will not be deterred. He wants to know about you, your favorite movie, how old you are, and finally, asks for your number. Because after forcing you to talk to him for 15 minutes and making you late for your train, you now really want to go on a date with him.

I, as well as most of my friends, have been dealing with unwanted male attention for years. While it can be flattering, there is certainly a time and a place when it is appropriate. Unfortunately for us, some guys just don’t seem to get it. For example: a recent trip to my local library. I was wandering the new release section when I turned to see a man about my age approaching me with his hand out. “Hi,” he said, “I think you’re attractive. I’m John, what’s your name?” All I’m trying to do is get my Sookie Stackhouse on and pick up the newest True Blood novel, yet this guy thought it was a good idea to attempt to act like we were at a college bar at 2am. His pick up line told me that he’d been creeping on me from behind the Children’s Book section.

In this case, at least the conversation had a humorous ending: I learned that I was the fourth (!) woman he had tried to talk to this afternoon, and he had actually been banned from the library a few minutes before by a security guard. Then, he had the nerve to complain about the women he talked to before me turning him down. Hello? Maybe because you are trying to pick up women at a library? Luckily for me, the security guard appeared from the elevator yelling “I TOLD YOU TO LEAVE” and he bolted for the door.

After the conversation, I contemplated my own behavior. I didn’t have anything against this guy, even with his whining about unsuccessful third floor non-fiction section pick up attempts – but I really just wanted to find my book, check it out, and leave. I didn’t want to have a conversation with him, but I found myself responding to his questions out of a desire to be nice and not hurt his feelings. I felt obligated to talk to him out of politeness – but where was his consideration for me?

After all of these years of agonizing how I was going to end conversations without hurting the guy’s feelings, it hit me: why am I the one agonizing? Why didn’t he have the foresight to think hey, that girl is cute, but she looks pretty busy reading/walking to work/talking to her mom/buying groceries/running a 10k so maybe it’s not a good time and I shouldn’t bother her? It’s certainly a problem that men don’t have to deal with, and in my experience discussing this with men, it is often dismissed as women “complaining” about being attractive. We should suck up. We should be grateful.

But receiving compliments is not the problem here; the problem is that I’m expected to entertain and accommodate anyone who comes up to me on the street.

On a deeper level, why do we, ladies, always hate to say “no”? Why do we always struggle to extract ourselves from these conversations but make sure the man’s ego isn’t damaged? In our culture, we are socialized to be passive and accommodating, especially to men. Women who are nice don’t say “no” – especially not directly. Learning how to say “no” to these sorts of interactions is to refuse the societal pressure to be “nice” to a guy who hasn’t taken 30 seconds to contemplate that he might be interrupting your day.

Yes, it’s hard to break this pattern. And in the heat of the moment, it’s easy to revert back to a people-pleasing mentality, but I think that is worthwhile to figure out ways to break it. I polled my friends to come up with five tips on how to disengage from a situation like this – without pulling out the tired and common “I have a boyfriend” line (unless, of course, you have a boyfriend!).

  1. If you’re in the middle of doing a task – reading, picking up your laundry, researching for a project in your local coffee shop – lean on that. Try saying “sorry, but I’m here to [do work, find a book, pick up my laundry] and I don’t have time to talk right now. Have a nice day!” Continue doing your task.
  2. “I’m flattered, but I’m not interested and don’t want to waste your time.”
  3. If he is interrupting your conversation with someone else, just return to it. “I’m with my friends right now” can suffice.
  4. Cell phones can be the ultimate conversation killer. “Nice to meet you – have a good one!” and turn your focus to your phone.
  5. If the conversation isn’t pleasant, or whatever he is saying makes you feel uncomfortable, say so. “You’re making me uncomfortable, please stop. Thank you.” Sometimes, guys don’t realize that they are making you feel that way and are quick to apologize. If he persists after you politely decline him, don’t hesitate to ask him to leave you alone. Saying something like this, especially when people are around you, can alert them that something isn’t normal about your conversation. Either of the above tips can be used as follow up to 1-4.

Bonus tip: my old professor suggested picking your nose to dissuade unwanted male suitors. Use at your own risk.

There is nothing radical about these tips. In fact, most of them are variations on how to tell someone you are not interested – but having them in your back pocket can help break the pattern of always saying “yes” and help learn to say “no.”


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  • Reply June 24, 2013

    Lars Lazarus

    I understand that none of you will agree with me or even want to hear my opinion on the matter because I am a man, but here goes.

    I understand how uncomfortable this type of approach will make women, therefore I never try it. But boo-fucking-hoo, someone approached you and is interested in you. Many women go through life with no one even giving them a second glance, they live and die alone. They would probably do anything to have someone approach them, even if they are busy BROWSING BOOKS AT THE LIBRARY, like really? get over yourself. Second, why do you feel the need to be nice to these guys? He is approaching you because he wants to touch bodies, don’t be so naive. Be very clear that you want nothing to do with him if that’s how you feel.

  • Reply June 24, 2013


    Hi! First, I want to say thanks for reading! The article’s main point is to help women understand that it is okay to be very clear and communicate when attention is unwanted, just as you say. Women are socialized to be passive, accommodating, and exceedingly “nice” from a very young age, which is why, as I explain in the article, it can be difficult to break the people-pleasing mentality in situations like the one at the library. This post (http://captainawkward.com/2011/03/23/the-art-of-no/) has a much more detailed and in depth look at the “art of no” and why women have difficulty overcoming the socialization of being “nice,” if you are interested in learning more. However, I have to disagree with you that many women “would probably do anything to have someone approach them” and say that many women would enjoy being approached in a way that respects their personal space, humanity, and also whatever task they are doing at the time! Contrary to many romantic comedies like to tell us, women are usually not desperate for male attention.

  • Reply June 24, 2013

    Jack Donna

    I feel bad for guys who confuse confidence with obnoxiousness. I also think the guy from the is clearly having issues with women to try these tactics in a very desperate manner. People are going to get rejected and need to understand that success isn’t determined by the number of times they get rejected. That being said, I certainly don’t mean to suggest men should repeatedly try to hit on women in the library with such bravado. There seems to be clear clues that people give off that warrants comfort with another person. If you make eye contact and she smiles, then it’s probably okay to say hi etc.. Learning how to read body language is an extremely valuable skill and I suggest that any guy who doesn’t see the difference here to do some research. Then again, what about the people who would like to be told they are beautiful but are very shy or introverted, is there a way to let them know that you think they are beautiful that isn’t inappropriate? I think a bit of discomfort is a characteristic of growth and could it not be something that is good for the individual? I know it’s not my responsibility to make others feel good about themselves, but it makes me happy knowing that I made someone else happy.

  • Reply September 12, 2013

    anonymous typical girl

    I have to say I’m a little disappointed in the way this article was written. I get the message you’re trying to send, but you do come off a little as complaining….

    As someone who’s engaged (and has a ring) if I feel uncomfortable with a situation, i will not-so-subtly show my hand — I know, I know, I have an easy out.

    But you make it sound in this article that you and your friends are constantly harassed because you are attractive. While I don’t know you personally, it seems highly unlikely that you all have drop-dead-gorgeous-your-life-is-made looks…and even if you did that, that you are all constantly on the receiving end of ‘unwanted male attention’, to a point that it’s getting in the way of your day to day life.

    If you’re at the library, doing work at a coffee shop, or doing other activities that make you interact with other citizens of the community, you are (gasp!) going to have to interact with other people! If you don’t want to, then work from home or be quick about your browsing. It seems that you are really exaggerating the point of unwanted attention.

    Many of my friends (and me too) have met our significant others while interacting with people in public. Not everyone has been set up or been childhood sweethearts. If guys didn’t ask girls out for fear of running into someone with an attitude like yours… many of my married/engaged/relationship-ed friends would still be single.

    I think your article was trying to focus on the fact that women are generally pleasers and it’s hard to say no. I get that, I just don’t think it was a good way to explain that.

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