“Boundaries aren’t about punishing. Boundaries are about creating safety for yourself.” ~Sheri Keffer
The person sitting beside you at the bar keeps talking to you despite your obvious disinterest. The flirty Uber driver mentions—three times—how beautiful you are. Your cousin’s new boyfriend gives you a too-long hug with wandering hands.
In awkward situations with strangers, we tend to hope that non-verbal cues will be sufficient to set a boundary. We use silence, crossed arms, uncomfortable laughter, and glares to communicate discomfort. But some folks cannot—or will not—take the hint.
Here, we find ourselves at a crossroads: We can either set clear verbal boundaries or tolerate the uncomfortable behavior indefinitely.
For the longest time, I struggled to set boundaries in awkward situations with strangers. Throughout childhood, I was taught how to be kind, nice, and open-minded—but never how to have difficult conversations and advocate for myself. I worried that setting firm boundaries was mean, so I tolerated uncomfortable behavior in silence, which allowed the awkward situations to escalate even further.
Eventually, I realized that setting firm boundaries is a form of verbal self-defense. It is our responsibility to advocate for, and protect, our time and space.
My goal for this article is to demystify the process of boundary-setting and offer concrete suggestions of language you can use to be clear and direct. These are phrases I’ve crafted, edited, and re-crafted over years of boundary-setting practice. My hope is to help you make awkward situations as not awkward as possible.
Before we dive in, let’s get clear on five key principles for boundary-setting:
When we refuse to set a boundary, we prioritize other people’s comfort over our own needs. Setting boundaries is a courageous act of putting ourselves first. It’s a great way to break the people-pleasing habit and practice the art of self-care and verbal self-defense.
Difficult honesty is not unkindness. It’s not mean to stand up for yourself. It’s actually the most truthful and authentic way to interact with others.
You can manage your boundaries or manage other people’s feelings, but you can’t do both. The bottom line is, your boundaries might make people feel frustrated or resentful. That burden is not yours to bear. As the saying goes, “The only people who get upset about you setting boundaries are the ones who benefited from you having none.”
It’s not your job to protect people from feeling uncomfortable. Remember: the folks imposing on your space aren’t giving your comfort a second thought—so don’t twist yourself into knots trying to protect their feelings. As Registered Clinical Counselor Jordan Pickell says, “It makes sense for people to feel bad and weird when they have crossed a line.”
Safety first. If you ever feel unsafe or threatened, do whatever you need to do to get to safety. Don’t be a boundary-setting hero.
For consistency, the examples below use “Bob” as the generic name of our boundary-violator. However, folks of all genders, ages, races, etc., violate boundaries.
Certain suggested phrases are direct and firm. Others are lighter and playful. Experiment with the language to find the tone that works best for you.
Case #1: The Handsy Hugger
Maybe it’s an eager fan who approaches you after an open mic performance. Maybe it’s your step brother’s uncle who you see twice a year at family barbecues.
Handsy Huggers comes in many shapes and forms, but they all have one thing in common: they hug you for an uncomfortably long time with wandering hands.
My recommendation: In a scenario that runs the risk of uncomfortable physical contact, it’s better to avoid a hug altogether. Next time a Handsy Hugger approaches you, give yourself permission not to enter his outstretched arms. Hang back, offer a smile (or not), and when he looks at you quizzically, say, “I’m not in the mood for a hug today, Bob.” In the next breath, redirect the conversation to literally any other topic.
Case #2: The Flirty Uber Driver
I have been asked, by two separate Uber drivers, if I would consider marrying them. I’ve sat in the backseat as Uber drivers have commented on how much they liked my clothing and eyed me from the rearview.
When you’re in someone’s Uber, you can’t exactly escape to the ladies room. Some drivers will continue bantering with you even if you put headphones on and stare blankly out the window.
My recommendation: Depending on your mood, you can use a casual or direct approach.
Casual: “It’s been nice talking with you, but I’ve had a long day and don’t really feel like talking right now.”
Direct: “To be honest, your comments are making me uncomfortable. I’d prefer not to talk right now.”
(Note: If your rideshare driver makes you feel unsafe or threatened, report them through the app immediately.)
Case #3: The Non-Stop Texter
You meet a nice man named Bob at the bar or on a hike. You exchange numbers. Within hours, your phone begins buzzing. Bob asks you a litany of questions. He sends a greeting every morning. Throughout the day, your phone erupts with Bob’s favorite Youtube videos of tap-dancing cats.
You don’t reply, but your silence doesn’t deter Bob from sending text after text after text. You consider ignoring his messages wholesale, but you’re concerned that if you run into Bob in public, you’ll feel guilty and awkward.
My recommendation: Despite the rising popularity of cell phone boundaries, some folks seem to feel entitled to your time and space via your inbox. They’re not. You’ve got two options:
If you hope to keep this person as a friend but adjust how often you text, try this: “Bob, I like to have healthy boundaries with my phone and I’m not interested in texting this often. Next time we meet up, let’s have a conversation about our expectations for communicating when we’re not together.”
If you feel overwhelmed and want to cut the cord entirely, try this: “Bob, I’m not open to a friendship with you at this time. You’ve been reaching out a lot recently and I feel overwhelmed by it. I have no hard feelings toward you and I wish you the best.”
Case #4: The Person At the Bar Who Won’t Stop Talking To You Despite Your Obvious Disinterest
I like to write in my journal at bars. I’m a sober lady and I don’t drink, but I love feeling comfortably anonymous in a social atmosphere.
Despite my hunched posture, downcast eyes, and scribbling hand, many a barstool neighbor attempts to strike up a conversation with me. The first one or two questions are fine—a pleasantry, really—but often, my bar neighbor will continue on, chatting at me despite my obvious disinterest.
I can’t count the number of times I have diverted my eyes and offered muttered “uh huhs” and “yeahs” before throwing a twenty onto the bar and escaping into the night, feeling resentful.
My recommendation: Especially when alcohol might be involved, it’s best to set a firm boundary as clearly and directly as possible. Turn to your barstool neighbor and say, “I appreciate the chance to chat, but I don’t feel like talking right now.”
Case #5: The “Harmless Older Person”
Ah, yes. The older lady or gentleman who uses your age difference to justify being “harmlessly flirty” with you. Any of this sound familiar?
“If I was your age, I’d have swept you off your feet by now!”
“You’re a real beauty, you know that?”
“I just love the sight of a spry young man.”
“As my father used to say: Just ‘cuz you’re married doesn’t mean you stop lookin’.”
It doesn’t matter if the speaker is 20 or 200—if someone’s flirtation makes you uncomfortable, you have every right to shut that commentary down.
My recommendation: Keep it simple. Try this: “I know you’re trying to be kind, but please don’t make comments like that. They make me feel uncomfortable.”
Case #6: The Uninvited Mansplainer
There’s nothing quite like the particular fury of having a man 1) assume you know nothing about a certain topic because you’re a woman, 2) explain said topic authoritatively, indefinitely.
Merriam Webster defines mansplaining as “when a man talks condescendingly to someone (especially a woman) about something he has incomplete knowledge of, with the mistaken assumption that he knows more about it than the person he’s talking to does.”
Ladies, you might be familiar with mansplaining if you’ve ever bought strings at a guitar store, watched a sporting match, or discussed anything related to cars, electronics, or grilling. Opportunities for mansplaining abound.
My recommendation: Make it clear that not only do you know this information already, but you’d really like them to stop. Try this: “I’m really familiar with (insert topic here) and I don’t need any more information. Thanks anyway.”
Case #7: The Personal Space Invader
You’re standing on the subway, or in the check-out line, or at the club, and someone’s body is too close for comfort. Maybe it’s intentional, which is creepy. Perhaps they aren’t aware of the space they’re occupying. Regardless, you’re not enjoying their front near your back / the smell of their breath / their odor.
It’s time to set a boundary.
My recommendation: “Excuse me, could you please move back and give me some space? Thanks.”
Case #8: “Can I Have Your Number?”
You’ve been chatting with a stranger, Bob, for a few minutes. As he gets up to leave, he asks for your number. You’re not into it.
This circumstance tends to elicit boundary-white-lies, such as “Sorry, but I have a partner,” or “Oh, I don’t give out my phone number to strangers.”
I understand that white lies might be your most comfortable entry point into boundary-setting. I am, at heart, a boundary-setting pragmatist. That said, when you’re ready, experiment with a firmer approach. It might be scary, but it will certainly be empowering.
Bringing Boundaries To Life
By now you’ve probably realized that, in each of the cases above, the words you can use to set boundaries are pretty straightforward. It’s actually saying them that’s the hard part.
With this toolbox of phrases in hand, you can bring these boundaries to life using three simple steps:
Step 1: Practice boundary-setting aloud.
Many of us have never fathomed speaking up this directly. Our ability to boundary-set is just like any other skill: it takes time, effort, and practice.
In the comfort of your own home, practice stating your boundaries aloud. Get used to wrapping your tongue around the words. Consider standing in front of a mirror and using a firm, confident tone.
At first, it will be uncomfortable and strange—guaranteed. You may find yourself worrying about being “mean,” “rude,” or “harsh.”
These reactions are totally normal and totally surmountable. Practicing your boundaries alone makes them easier to retrieve when you’re feeling burdened by the tension of an uncomfortable situation.
Step 2: Role play with your friends. (Yes, really.)
Once you’ve developed an arsenal of failsafe boundary phrases, practice with a friend or two.
Give each other feedback. Tell your friend when she sounds overly apologetic. (“Stand in your power, girlfriend!”) Tell your friend when she’s sounding like a huge, mean jerk (“Okay, maybe take that down a notch.”) Have fun with it.
If you want to uplevel your boundary-setting game, ask your friends to push back against your boundary. (Psychologist Harriet Lerner refers to this as a countermove: a “change back!” reaction.) Practice re-asserting yourself in the face of annoyed reactions. This way, when you begin setting these boundaries out and about, it will feel natural and familiar.
Step 3: Practice
As with all new skills, don’t expect perfection immediately. Your first few boundaries in the real world might be clunky, awkward, or embarrassing. Maybe you’ll speak too quietly and the offender won’t be able to hear you. Maybe you’ll boil over in rage and feel terribly guilty afterwards.
All of this is normal. Be patient with yourself as you strengthen your boundary-setting muscle.
P.S.: What About Silence?
Is silence ever an effective form of boundary-setting? To answer this question I like to refer to writer Courtnery J Burg’s take, which she published on Instagram this year. She writes,
“I’m all about boundary work. But sometimes the healthiest, best way to keep your sanity is to just walk away. To not respond. To not answer that text or that call. Sometimes the answer is no answer at all. This isn’t the same as avoiding. It’s acknowledging what is yours to carry + what isn’t. It’s remembering that not all situations must be handled with delicate gloves and deep, heartfelt energy. That occasionally, no response CAN BE your response and that you have nothing to feel guilty for and no one to explain yourself to for it.”
Generally, I advocate verbal boundaries because 1) they’re most effective, 2) I spent many years trying to be “good” and “quiet” and I’m rebelling, and 3) they’re a great way to practice your boundary-setting muscle. However, certain awkward situations with strangers are most effectively curtailed with silence.
As a rule of thumb, I use silence as a boundary with:
Catcallers. Silence or the middle finger tends to do the trick.
Strangers who message me insistently through social media. Most folks with public social media profiles will occasionally receive a deluge of creepy messages from strangers. Don’t engage. Block the account.
Arguers. Suppose I set a firm boundary and the stranger argues my point — asking me “Why?”, urging me to reconsider, etc. You do not owe a stranger any justifications or explanations. Your work is done.
With time, boundaries that once felt impossible or too-awkward to assert will be second-nature. By practicing this skill of verbal self-defense, you will give yourself the gift of moving confidently and powerfully through the world. You deserve it!