Dear Prudence: My friend is threatening to humiliate me online.

Help! My Friend Is Threatening to Humiliate Me Online.

Help! My Friend Is Threatening to Humiliate Me Online.

Advice on manners and morals.
May 18 2017 6:00 AM

What Are Friends For?

My pal is threatening to humiliate me online.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg

Sam Breach

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Dear Prudence,
I made a long-distance friend a year ago who is very unstable. He seemed normal at first, but as the time went on, he grew more abusive, and later admitted he suffers from untreated anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder. I myself have anxiety, so I try not to judge, and originally I just figured his abuse wasn’t too much of a problem because he lives far away and we don’t talk that often. However, he has started sending me long texts telling me why I’m a terrible person, even though I’m his only remaining friend. He also harasses his family members and was recently uninvited to his sister’s wedding. I’ve tried to explain to him how his behavior hurts me, but he dismisses me as being “dramatic.” Negotiating is not an option. I know cutting this guy out of my life is a no-brainer, but he’s threatening to blackmail me online. The good news is he doesn’t have any evidence of wrongdoing on my part, but I have told him some of my more embarrassing personal stories, and I fear that he will attempt to slander me in public. He doesn’t know where I live, and I have him blocked on Facebook, but he has managed to track down some of my real friends, and I fear he will harass them, too. He also threatened to make fake dating profiles of me and give my number to strangers and sure enough, today I got a message from an OkCupid member. Did I mention I don’t have an account? Prudie, please help! I know this is a toxic friendship, but the fear of public humiliation is a big one for me. Do I stay friends with this monster and keep the peace? Or should I rock the boat in an attempt to finally free myself from him?

—Keep Friend Close?

Even if you did stay in contact with this man, his behavior suggests that he is likely to try to humiliate or harass you in some form regardless, because he is unpredictable and vindictive. Please stop considering him your friend. I don’t think maintaining contact would protect you from his ire; sooner or later you will inevitably run afoul of his constantly bad graces. But I think you don’t have to worry that anyone who knows and loves you would take this man’s word about your character. To some extent all of us live in fear of being found out and “exposed” as a terrible person, so I understand your paranoia, but surely any reasonable person who heard this man slander you would realize they were listening to someone delusional and cruel.

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What you should do to protect yourself is this: Tell your friends that there is a disturbed and volatile man who is seeking to hurt you, and that they should under no circumstances give him any information as to your whereabouts. Speak to your former friend one last time, but only to tell him never to contact you again, and that you will not respond to any future attempts at communication. You may want to consider changing your number, which I realize is a not-insignificant hassle in this day and age, but may be worth it if you think he’s going to start giving it out to other people. The same goes for using a different primary email address, if he has been using your current one to set up accounts under your name (the risk with closing the account is that he may take it over). You should have recourse with sites like OkCupid by complaining that someone is impersonating you. But in any case, start logging his messages and keeping a written record—if he continues to harass you, you may need it if you go to the police. Laws about what constitutes criminal online harassment vary, and you might not find police action to be especially helpful, but it is an option you should consider, if only for some point in the future. Of course the idea of someone who knows you well turning on you and trying to humiliate you publicly is terrifying, but giving in to his demands for attention will not keep you safe from his wrath. The thing that scares you the most—telling the other people in your life about this man’s targeted harassment—will be, in fact, the thing that helps you.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
My roommate is a fabulous person with one pretty obnoxious flaw: She gives the worst apologies. Like all of us, she occasionally does stupid or thoughtless things, but the problem is that whenever she apologizes she feels the need to offer a dozen excuses for what she did. It feels compulsive—half the time these excuses simply aren’t true. She doesn’t lie under other circumstances, only while apologizing; usually for grievances so minor that I’ve already forgiven them. I’m not especially upset about these occasional slip-ups, but these lies leave me angrier than I was before!

My current solution to the problem is to tell her that I forgive her and that whatever happened wasn’t a big deal, but then also point out that the excuse(s) she’s given aren’t true. This strategy leaves her feeling awful, and it doesn’t shake off my annoyance at being lied to needlessly by someone I love. Is there a better way to handle this situation?

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—Endless Excuses

Your current solution is a fairly good one. It’s unfortunate that your roommate feels bad, but she has the power to amend her behavior once she decides she’d like to feel better. If it helps, in the moment, when she’s offering an addendum to her latest apology, you can stop her before she really gets going and say, “I appreciate your apology. I don’t need you to offer an explanation—we all make mistakes, and I’d rather just move past it.” If it still doesn’t get any better, you might have a bigger-picture conversation about why she feels so motivated to offer an excuse—any excuse—for the kind of garden-variety apology most of us make a few times a week without overthinking. She may appreciate the help figuring out what’s driving her, what she’s afraid of, and what things might look like if she tried another strategy. But if she’s unwilling or unable for the introspection even that would demand, stick with the polite interruption.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I was pretty badly bullied in high school for my appearance and being two years younger than everyone else. In college I started lifting weights, “blossomed” into my looks and life got much better. But the emotional scars remained. Earlier this year I started a new job and discovered the administrative assistant for my group was one of my bullies from high school. I know she recognized me because she made a joke about how much I’d changed and said we had to “catch up sometime.” I was cold but polite for the sake of our professional relationship, but she must have mistaken it for forgiveness, because last week at a work happy hour, she apologized again that “everyone” was so rough on me in high school—then she hit on me.

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I was so infuriated that I ended up being very cruel and mocked her until she left in tears. It turns out revenge doesn’t feel so good after all, and I’ve been avoiding her entirely. I’m afraid my boss is going to start asking why I’m wasting time on things the admin should be doing. Still I don’t feel like apologizing to her, because what kind of jerk hits on someone they used to treat like dirt? Should I tell my boss what happened? I know he values me highly, so he might be willing to let me work with his administrative assistant, but I’m afraid that might come off as childish.

—Did I Bully My Bully?

I don’t want to rub your face in what might have been, but you could absolutely have brought this issue up with your boss before the incident occurred. Had you told him it would be difficult for you to work with your former high school bully, he might have been able to set you up with his own administrative assistant before things got to the breaking point. Now you have two issues: One is whether or not you will be able to work with a person who treated you terribly all through high school. The other is how to apologize to a co-worker you reduced to tears in public. The former has, I’m afraid, absolutely nothing to do with the latter. You had the right to refuse her come-on, you had the right to tell her that she made your life very difficult as a teenager and that you were not interested in developing any sort of after-work friendship with her, but whatever your residual feelings toward her, you should have been able to restrain from berating her in front of your colleagues until she fled the room crying. I don’t doubt it was painful to be picked on as a teenager, but you’re a professional adult and this can’t be how you handle personal issues with co-workers.

So the first thing you have to do, I’m afraid, is apologize to her. You can keep it brief, but you need to apologize for behaving cruelly and mocking her in public. Don’t mention the fact that she bullied you in high school—good apologies don’t include justifications or explanations (as we’ve just seen), but focus on the relevant behavior and offer to make good. Tell her what you said was inappropriate, that you’re sorry, and that you won’t do it again. You don’t have to be her friend or beat yourself up, but you absolutely do need to say you’re sorry, then drop the subject and leave her alone unless you have something work-related to discuss. If you’re both willing and able to move ahead and treat each other like disinterested colleagues, so much the better. If you (or she) can’t—if the history between you two is just too tangled and painful—then you should talk to your boss and ask for his help finding alternate arrangements, even if it feels embarrassing to ask for help. It’s already fairly apparent that you two are having difficulty interacting with one another, so the time to worry about what the situation looks like has passed.

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* * *

Dear Prudence: I Think I Love My Cat More Than My Wife

Dear Prudence,
My best friend of more than 15 years lives in a different state. She’s been struggling with mental health issues over the past six months or so and has been hospitalized several times. She says she doesn’t want to talk about what’s happening, and I’ve been completely respectful of that while also reminding her I will support her no matter what. However, I do worry when I don’t hear back from her. This week, she didn’t text back when I asked how she was doing. I told myself to just relax and give her some space, but then I found out she had been admitted to the hospital again. I had no idea. I want to be there for her, but she wants to be left alone. I feel like a bad friend because I’m not helping her through this struggle. I also feel like our friendship may not be as real or close as I thought it was since she doesn’t want my help. What should I do?

—Left in the Dark

While it may feel painful at present, please try to remind yourself that you are actually giving your friend what she has asked for when you give her space. It may not feel good to you, but she is in the middle of a crisis right now, one that may very often inhibit her from behaving the way she would ordinarily wish toward a friend. At present she is doing her very best to stay alive, and keeping people (even people she loves) frequently updated on her status may be well beyond what she’s capable of. If her mental health issues are serious enough to merit repeated hospitalization, then that doesn’t mean she doesn’t value you if she doesn’t respond to your texts or calls right away. It means that she’s in the middle of an ongoing emergency, perhaps with no end in sight, and is unable to do anything other than mental triage. You can offer periodic (not overwhelming) messages of support and reminders that you’re available if and whenever she wants to talk, but if what your friend needs from you right now is some space, and you give her that space, then you are helping her. If there is a mutual friend or family member who lives closer to your friend who is able and willing to provide occasional updates on her health, you might consider connecting with them so you can help one another to support her, but in the meantime, follow her lead.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
My fiancée and I are getting married this summer, and we’ve been excitedly checking the mailbox for RSVP cards over the last few weeks. While we’re ecstatic that so many will be able to join us in celebration, I admit I’m a little offended that almost none of my family members will be in attendance outside of my parents and grandparents. Only 20 percent or so have even responded at all. There is no family strife that I’m aware of, and I feel like I have a happy, cordial relationship with all of them—I’ve attended many of their weddings, in fact. It’s also not a destination wedding or an extravagant affair, so cost doesn’t feel like a factor for a generally middle-class family like ours. There may be something going on behind the scenes that I’m unaware of, but even still, this feels very disrespectful to my soon-to-be-wife and me. Should I be offended that so little family will be in attendance, or should I not feel entitled to a certain level of family representation? Is this behavior normal? Am I overreacting? How should I respond to this sort of thing, if at all?

—Waiting on RSVPs

Call them! It is completely appropriate to make a follow-up call to people whose presence would be meaningful at your wedding. Just last week I received a friendly reminder to RSVP to a wedding—and this was the first I’d heard about it, because I’d never received my invitation. It’s not likely that every single family member lost their card in the mail, but you can absolutely send a friendly check-in or even call to stress how much you hope to see them there. Some of them may have received their invitations, have every intention of attending, and completely forgot to RSVP. It happens! You don’t have to worry about overreacting until you’ve checked in with everyone. Just be prepared to offer a cheerful, “We’ll miss you! Hope we can get together and celebrate another time,” if they give their regrets.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I’m a thirtysomething woman who works in a bustling downtown area of a major city. On a recent lunch break, I took a short walk down a busy thoroughfare and I accidentally bumped into a man walking beside me. I apologized and kept walking. As I paused at the next stoplight, this man (who looked to be in his 60s) asked me where I was headed. I said, “Work,” smiled politely, and hoped to end our conversation there. But he persisted, asking me where I worked (A store? A restaurant? No, and no.). He seemed perfectly nice, and spoke slowly; I think English was not his first language. He asked if I spoke Spanish, I smiled and said, “No, I took French in high school,” and then looked into the distance to encourage an end to our conversation. I was uncomfortable, and I am sure it was visually apparent. The light turned green, and I walked away quickly.

On the one hand, I can’t help but feel I was terribly rude when this fellow was only attempting to engage with me in harmless chatter. I’m a fairly introverted individual, and I honestly detest making small talk with strangers—be it a fellow on the street or a teller at my local bank. On the other hand, I believe that often men make demands on strange women’s attentions and ask invasive questions. What do you think? Should I have been kinder to this gentleman, who in the bright light of day, on the busiest boulevard in my city, posed me no risk?

—Zipped Lips

You just described a perfectly polite conversation. By your own account, you smiled repeatedly, spoke civilly, and continued on your way back to work. Do not beat yourself up for answering a stranger’s questions in a honest but perfunctory manner. There is nothing rude about saying “work” when asked where one is going; there is nothing rude about neglecting to lay bare your soul to a stranger who is making banal conversation. This was an entirely successful social interaction.

It is true that sometimes having an unexpected talk with a stranger can be delightful. It is also true that men often behave inappropriately toward women in public, and one cannot always tell the man who will let a conversation come to a natural close from the man who suddenly says, “Oh, so you’re too good to talk to me?” and become abusive. The bottom line is that you do not owe strangers conversation even if they address you politely, but in this instance you decided to. In this instance, it worked out quite well, and you did nothing wrong. If in the future someone you do not know asks you where you are going, you do not owe them an answer if you do not care to give one, no matter whether or not you bumped into them earlier. (Asking a stranger where she is going, in fact, falls closer on the socially inappropriate side of conversation than “nice day, isn’t it?”) Apologizing for having bumped into him, does not mean you were obligated to engage in chitchat.

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