By SUSAN CALLAHAN, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
You know those novels that begin, "then one day a Stranger knocked on her door". These days no one opens the doors to Strangers, at least not in the physical world. But many of us still do open doors to Strangers in the cyberworld.
As someone who considers herself a person who actually enjoys helping out, I think it takes a lot to make me feel put upon. But that's exactly how I felt this past week. Last Friday a week ago, I didn't know who Chris Baker, not his real name, was. Now last Friday feels like an eternity ago.
Here is what happened. My life's serenity changed when I opened my e-mail on Saturday morning. Among the usual entries was one I didn't immediately recognize. The sender was a Stranger named Chris Baker and he had gotten my name and e-mail from an organization I belong to (more on this later). He was planning to move abroad to Europe and wondered if I could help him answer some of the logistical questions he had about visas, getting a bank account and 15,000 other things.
Why didn't I simply ignore the e-mail? I guess it was that part of me that remembers how lost I felt when I was in his shoes. So I answered, giving him practically a dissertation and a road map.
Satisfied that I had gone above and beyond and once again had earned that lifelong distinction as a Nice Person, I went on to handle my other work that day.
I am Nice But the Stranger? Not So Much
A day later, on Sunday, opened my e-mail to see that the Stranger was back, this time with follow-up questions. The follow-up questions list was just as long as the initial questions. Are you kidding me? Is this guy for real?
Here are the words that came to mind: pestering, pushy, bold as all get out, nervy, line-crossing, intrusive.
This time I used Time as an answer. I let a few days pass by before answering.
And when I did answer I let him know that I was quite tied up at the moment and suggested that he keep reaching out to other names on the list of the organization. I mean, the only reason I didn't just blow him off was that I didn't want any bad interaction to get talked about in the organization whose list sent him my way in the first place.
The Stranger guy wouldn't quit. He wrote again, telling me he really "understood" the time pressures I was under but he was also under pressure and needed an answer and would "really appreciate any help i could give".
This time, I answered him correctly and effectively. I did not respond to his e-mail.
Strangers Can Be, Well, Strange
What is it about some people that they keep forgetting that you do not know them? You. Do. Not. Know. Them.
Since you do not know them, you do not owe them. You. Do. Not. Owe. Them.
Boundaries are meant to separate your persona space from the outside world. Strangers are by definition the outside world. So, introduce them to Boundaries.
One way to set a boundary is to establish at the outset that, by answering or doing them a favor, you are not enlisting as a soldier in their army. You are not available to them to use as they wish. I should have said the following in my first e-mail response, rather than that general happy to be of help pablum:
I can only give you limited information since I am short on time and am about to leave for a remote area of Tanzania for several months. But, for what it's worth..... Good luck with your transition. "
This should put off all Strangers except the stalkers. If they reply too often after this, consider blocking their e-mail.