My coworker is very distracting and keeps sending me cat memes. He doesn't separate work from fun. He's an alright guy and I do find them funny and want to let him down gently. Anyone have any solid advice?
Then let's approach this from a somewhat abstract perspective. First off, Ailurophobia is know type of phobia. Perhaps a lesser know one, but a legitimate phobia nonetheless.
he's a sensitive soul
Then you can take advantage of this in that he's likely to be very understanding of your situation. To go one step further, he would probably feel worse if he ever found out you've been hiding this.
You can just gently explain you're a ailurophobe, make sure he understand what that is, and he just needs to hold back on the cat memes. If he shares other amusing content, feel free to express he can continue to send those.
The key, like many similar interactions is to not be a jerk about it. This may even make you better work-friends.
Previously, I mentioned a friend with a eating disorder and when she wished to not be offered something, she said something like "thanks, but I'd prefer you not offer any more of that." in an over apologetic tone to not sound confrontational.
I would address this somewhat directly, personally. When it comes to someone who is well intentioned making you uncomfortable essentially by accident or ignorance, there is generally a good success rate just by being friendly and honest.
No lolcats plz
Ask him in a friendly, non-blaming way to stop sending you cat memes. Approach with a presumption that he is not aware that it's seriously upsetting for you.
I know most people like cat memes, but I am not a cat person and I really don't enjoy them. I don't mean to be rude; would you mind not sending any cats? I would really appreciate it.
If it's at least somewhat true, and you like this coworker otherwise, you may want to soften the blow with,
I way prefer talking about [shared interest] to memes anyway.
I do like the [other kind of memes] that you send. [Specific one] was really funny!
If you wish to disclose that you actually have a fear of cats, you can replace "not a cat person" with a more direct description of how you feel about them, but it's not strictly necessary to disclose your fear for this approach to work.
If your coworker knows that the cat pictures stress you out and takes this as a challenge to send you MORE cats, then it's definitely time to take it to management, as that can be a form of harassment. Right now it appears to be a case of nothing more than mildly thoughtless attempts to bond with you.
Reducing Memes in General
If sending memes at all is an issue for you, and you want him to stop entirely, you should tell him gently, with something like,
I've been so swamped with emails lately, and I'm really trying to reduce my inbox. Would you mind taking a break from the non-critical email?
This works because it places the responsibility squarely on your needs (I need to reduce how many emails I have to process each day) and doesn't directly criticize him (you and your many emails are annoying).
If you're fine with meme-related bonding but just need to decrease the number of times I day you get your work flow broken by a photo of a pig in tiny rainboots, you might try a joke, like:
Woah, so many emails! Is there anyway I can subscribe to your daily digest instead of the live feed?
This is a friendly way to convey that you enjoy him and the memes, but would like to reduce the volume. I generally have good success with using mild humor to broach possibly-awkward subjects when dealing with friends and friendly coworkers.
I found myself in a similar position at work. I set up a new, separate web mail account and asked if the funny messages could please be sent to that account instead. You can say that it's "to keep them separate from my work emails". You can check the web email account every so often if you feel you have to, but you needn't be distracted by it.
If the unwanted messages keep arriving to your work account, politely reply with a reminder that you have another email address you'd prefer was used for this.