Background

People:

Bob, John and Alice are old acquaintances of mine. They are a little older than me, mid-to-late twenties. We are not close friends, but we get along together well and see each other regularly.

Problem:

I needed to deliver something to someone in another town. For several reasons, I didn't want to employ a delivery service (among them: valued personalty, also personal experience). Traveling to the town myself would have cost me almost a whole day.

This was not a complicated or time-consuming task, not big, not heavy, not illegal, not immoral.

Solution:

Bob knows the person I wanted to deliver it to, and he also happens to commute there regularly - in this case the next day, actually. The delivery would have cost him maybe additional 10 to 15 minutes. He is friendly and reliable, so I approached him about it.

Situation

I went to Bob, asked him and offered him compensation (a treat - our inofficial currency, let's just call it "Chocolate"). Alice and John were also around. Now, Alice and John got involved. They knew how much the travel would inconvenience me and, before Bob could answer, weighed in.

Alice noted how Bob could ask for much more and John agreed that he shouldn't sell himself short, since I was dependent on him. Alice suggested to Bob (and also to me) that I should expose my chest to him. John noted that touching was also not too much to demand, which Alice agreed to.

I wouldn't have taken that deal. Alice's and John's tone of voice - it was just a half joking layer over a serious core, if you know what I mean. When a cheerful tone is employed to soften the blow.

Bob didn't say anything, but looked at me as if he was hoping for me to agree to the proposed "payment". Alice and John were also awaiting my reaction. This made me feel uncomfortable and confirmed my suspicion about the seriousness of it.

Question

How do I gently decline an indecent proposal on how to pay back my dues?

Since the resulting situation was awkward for me, I'm sure I could have handled it better.

Goal:

My goal is to be gentle, because Bob doing me this favor would have been the best solution for me. I also wouldn't want the situation to become more awkward than it already was. And Bob is essentially a good guy. So I want Bob to help me, but not at this price.

Note that if he felt the deal wasn't good, I could have offered even more compensation - although my original offer was a fair deal.

How it actually went: While they were waiting for me to accept the indecent proposal, we stood there in silence. I finally broke it by saying that there wouldn't be much to see for him anyway. This didn't deter them and the silence continued. Then I looked at him, said "Chocolate, ok?" and he accepted.

Clarifications:

  • My friends sometimes make similar jokes about sexual favors, but no one ever actually did it (at least to my knowledge). They have never asked anything like this of me before.
  • "Chocolate" is not a code word. It's really something delicious to eat, no deeper or hidden meaning.
  • I said "At first I could have handled it better" because at first it seemed like just a lame joke and if they had followed up with something like "just kidding", I wouldn't have felt that awkward. But silence ensued as if they were waiting/hoping for me to accept their suggestion. This made the situation really awkward. But your questions made me realize that maybe it was an awkward situation for me only.
  • An answer doesn't necessarily have to be more assertive; it should still be gentle so as to not hurt anybody's feelings.
  • 5
    How about changing the title to: "How do I gently reject an indecent proposal masked as a joke?"? – Brian H. Feb 5 at 16:27

10 Answers 10

up vote 148 down vote accepted

I think you handled it perfectly. First, a long silence. This is the best way to indicate to someone that their joke, suggestion, comment or whatnot is over some sort of line and not ok. Second, a joke. This gives them a chance to abandon their bad idea by "agreeing" that it was just a joke, ha ha ha, and moving on as though it had never been said. (You don't offer this escape hatch to everyone, but these are long time friends of yours, so I think it's an ok thing to do in this case.) Third, simply repeating the original reasonable offer without even talking about what is wrong with the request they made, thus giving everyone an "out".

How could you improve on that handling? I'm not sure you could. Nobody involved needs a speech about why asking someone to expose themselves or submit to fondling is not cool. They all know it's not cool.

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    Note: old acquaintances — not long time friends. – Wildcard Feb 2 at 3:50
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    Good answer, but I would like to precise that the joke part is not mandatory - especially if the only joke that comes to mind is a little self-deprecating. Long silence giving them a chance to resolve the akwardness themselves is good. If they don't grasp the opportunity, looking at Bob in the eyes and asking, "Chocolate, ok ?" was just the right thing to do, either at once or after a joke to give them a second chance. – Evargalo Feb 5 at 9:43
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    I agree with above. Sometimes a way to make the silence less uncomfortable for you is to call it out. You can say out loud "OK, and now we'll pause for the awkward silence....." Then smile, making eye contact with everyone, count to 5 in your head, and then say to Bob "...Chocolate then?". You've then made the joke be about the awkwardness of their suggestion. – user85627 Feb 5 at 14:30

Sometimes the best way to handle it is to not consider it. After they made their "helpful" suggestions, you could have said something like "so, a box of Godiva dark, then?" to Bob. You don't need to dignify insulting proposals with an answer.

When I was younger and part of a social organization that included some people who were heavy on the flirting (with aspirations), I got propositioned in both blatant and subtle ways. I found that not taking the bait was often the easiest way to make it stop happening. More recently, some in my social circle have adopted the practice of blatant subject changes to redirect any conversation that is becoming uncomfortable (usually politics, but the principle generalizes). One person does this by talking about the weather; the subject itself is a signal, as that's about the most basic "small-talk" topic out there.

  • 1
    Yeah, my first reaction was "I think OP met some swingers", or rather, swinger-wannabees, since they lack the social chops to pull off a respectable proposition. Even a swinger would be put off by their tack. – Harper Feb 3 at 23:53
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    Regarding blatant subject changes, I had a friend that used to use the segue, "Speaking of changing the subject... [insert completely different topic here.]" It usually drew a laugh while also leaving absolutely no room for ambiguity about not wanting to continue the current subject. – reirab Feb 5 at 5:32
  • Exactly. If you don't want to answer the question, simply dismiss the premise of the question. While it's an old trick versus tough questions, it works wonders with proposals like this as well. – Mast Feb 5 at 9:48

My usual reaction to this sort of joking is:

Hmm... (Exaggerated thinking face)
How about... (More exaggerated thinking gestures)
No.

The exaggerated gestures seem to get the point across that I'm being somewhat sarcastic and patronizing, which gives people the impression that I didn't take their proposition seriously and am just joking in return. It provides a plain "no" while keeping a playful tone.

If/when I want to turn it around on them and make them mildly uncomfortable, I'll use something along the lines of:

Ya'know, as much as I'd love to be pimped out by you two, Bob simply can't afford me... (Followed by a knowing wink and nod)

The second approach is definitely off color, and may lead to further jokes. Use only if you're comfortable with that sort of joking.

Using either response requires a certain air of confidence. You're taking control of the sexual joke, and thus taking the power of it and redirecting it. If you're not that confident a simple:

Eww. No.

Tends to take the wind out of people's sails and returns them to the reality of what they just said...

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    Eww. No. Could make Bob feel bad because it could imply that the idea Bob fondling her is disgusting. However, Bob wasn't the one that made the preposition. – clark Feb 2 at 0:55
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    @clark That's assuming a lot... Mostly that making Bob feel a little bad about going along with it is a bad thing. – apaul Feb 2 at 0:59
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    @apaul this is assuming that bob wasn't as confused by the situation as OP. He "looked like he wouldn't have minded it" but he did just do OP a small favor so giving him the benefit of the doubt here. That is why i like the first suggestion alot more, since this is focusing more on John and Alice who have gone a bit far with this. – Andy Feb 2 at 7:47
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    @clark Agreed, but he could also have hinted how inappropriate the suggestion was – Pierre Arlaud Feb 2 at 9:46
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    @clark Honestly, the OP shouldn't care about making Bob feel bad. If the man had any decency at all, he wouldn't have gone along with it as far as he did. – jpmc26 Feb 4 at 9:22

The context: you are all friends in your twenties, men and women.

It is not unheard of (as much as I remember it) that hormones are high on that age. Which may lead to awkward situations when your body reacts faster (much faster) than your brain. Or at least this is how I remember it.

Having been in that case (as Fred, the fifth guy in your party who was watching and whose brain froze when a similar situation happened), the person who is now you responded (I quote her)

Have you fucking lost your mind???

To what everyone moved uncomfortably, did some "humm" and "well" and someone said "okokokokokok. OK".

  • Some people may be offended for life that you have not flashed them. It is my personal opinion that you should get rid of them, these are not real friends.
  • Normal people will just let it go
  • Good friends (as we were) would tease about that for years (making everyone actually more and more comfortable).

Ah, the memories of colocation.

  • 8
    " to avoid being sued." This is not a concern. – eyeballfrog Feb 2 at 23:22
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    The note added at the end is rather demeaningly ableist in itself, much moreso than the actual quoted remark. – R.. Feb 5 at 21:16

Ahahahah! Good one, maybe next time [exaggerating your expression like if this was definitely a joke]. So, do you like extra dark chocolate or white is better?

In other words, dodge the proposal. It's so out of every social norm that you don't even need to think that they were serious. It was a daring proposal of them, as Bob's reaction underlines (not a clear "yes let's do it"). Let them know that they are alone on this.

Also, it's easy to push somebody to do something uncomfortable, less easy to do it:

Oh nice one Alice, you go first and I'll follow, OK? [Said with a sarcastic/exaggerated tone that implies that you won't]

This is a good way to deflate the situation, it puts Alice in your shoes, even if jokingly. This can be a risky approach and it's safe to be pulled if you feel that Alice wouldn't give her consent to random fondling. If she does, well, time to cut down the humour:

Huh wow, things are getting weird here, I'll leave you alone, OK? Bye, enjoy yourself mates.


Not-so-on-topic reflection : Hadn't I known the age of the three people involved in the situation, I'd have though of some clumsy and teenage-y manoeuvre of Alice and John to get you and Bob closer. Might it be that he likes you and Alice and John know it?

  • 24
    No, don't go on the "you go first" path... you'll be in more troubles when Alice will say "Sure, I do it all the time, look! Now your turn!". – Cœur Feb 2 at 4:14
  • @Coeur I think that if it's said with a sarcastic enough tone of voice it won't actually push Alice to do it. I'll edit it into the answer. – LinuxBlanket Feb 2 at 8:26
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    I agree with @Cœur that the "you first!" approach is risky—not just for that specific reason, but because it indicates that you are willing to negotiate. Sarcasm can change the trajectory, but it can also be ignored, meaning the OP must be even more forceful in order to assert their boundaries. – Jordan Gray Feb 2 at 11:45
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    I‘m a big fan of countering silly proposals with silly conditions: „Ok Alice, you go first“ is great. Then if she does, just laugh, point fingers at her and say that you didn‘t think she would be so dumb. Of course you do not follow, „I‘m not dumb“ if asked. – michi Feb 2 at 14:19
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    @Cœur a mid-twenty suggesting that an aquaintance show her breast in exchange for a favor is crossing a line. Getting her a little ashamed and even a little angry would set a boundary for now and next time effectively. Probably your suggested joke would work too, it is the gentler approach as asked by the OP. – michi Feb 3 at 9:21

If the very idea of trading borderline sexual favors puts you off, you can rephrase it to sound closer to what you felt:

"Don't pimp me."

Your answer is not to Bob. It's Alice and John who proposed it. If you want to answer, you answer to them, not to Bob. It doesn't really matter if Bob was interested or not. The deal was being made between you and Bob but the proposition was between Alice and you.

By the way, I don't think that the payment itself was the intention of Alice and John. It sounds to me like they wanted to move your (you and Bob or maybe even all 4 of you) relationship into something more intimate. The payment for a favor seems like merely an excuse to bring the topic up. If Alice and John are a couple, then trying to hook up one of their friends (Bob) with another (you) is a common pattern. It could be even not about you at all, they maybe just want Bob to stop being a third wheel.

The way you've handled it was also good. Uncomfortable silence is uncomfortable to everyone, and that's a perfectly valid way to share your feelings about the situation. Self-demeaning remark could be usually skipped, though. Because "quality of merchandise" is not important here, the nature of the deal is.

You don't have to put "not hurting anyone's feelings" at the top of your priorities. Your feelings have been hurt, sometimes people don't get it unless you hurt them back.

  • 1
    "If Alice and John are a couple" Alice and John aren't a couple and never were. – Anne Daunted Feb 2 at 16:46

Considering they are just acquaintances and not exactly real close friends, the intent behind the jokes might be more than just for laughs.

I would say what actually transpired is a good step, just let what they say kind of slide and hope they catch on that it was strange and whatnot. In a close circle it would have been more laughter and witty remarks than the awkward silence that followed.

Thing is, if it happens again, try to voice out how you feel about them saying such and if it still persists, you need to be more forceful with getting the point across that it's making you uncomfortable and the like.

Also, bob did agree on chocolate, and it wasn't him who made the "change" to the payment. As such, you could have a talk with Bob and say things like:

Alice and John say some crazy things huh? Suggesting X, Y, and Z.

I think he also found it a tad strange and i think he understands it and he'll help you out based on the original agreement. If and it's a big IF he tells you and decides to follow up on the "amendment" to the contract then you've got a bigger problem.

In addition to the excellent answers by Kate and Monica, and following up on Mawg's comment do you think that you have prevented this sort of behaviour in the future?:

I suggest that you follow this up in private with John and Alice: telling them you did not feel comfortable with it and considered it inappropriate. Phrase it so that you are expressing your feelings, not accusing them.

And ask them not to make these sexually tinted suggestions in the future (again, try to use non-accusing language).

The delivery job is irrelevant. Your friends have made a sexual proposition. If you choose not to accept it you can laugh it off - 'Not my style, thanks. But, hey! if I was GOING to get into a threesome, you guys would be at the top of the list!' Or you could get snooty and report them for sexual harassment. Or you could do something inbetween - look embarassed and hope the problem goes away. Which, I see, is what you DID do, and it worked. Try to forgive them!

By rejecting the proposal but also being gentle - to the people, not necessarily to the proposal. This means anything which says "no" unequivocally but does not add negative emotions (regardless of whether they may be appropriate due to the 3rd-party-renegotiation suggestions or the nature of the additional request).

One way to say "no" in this manner without the full awkwardness of just firmly saying "No" and waiting is to lengthen it by adding some words about your refusal which give it some throwaway context which is not self-deprecating, not exactly apologetic, not explicitly open to attempts to change your mind, and not directed at anyone. The example I'm thinking of: "I'm not in the mood." Or "Not today."

I don't think those are the best ways to say "no" for all situations where someone has proposed something indecently; pushy people can/will dig at the mood or timeframe you included around your "no". But I would say this method can be an option for rejecting an indecent proposal among friends (or "friends") without blowing up your chance of closing the original contract you proposed.

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    "I'm not in the mood" or "Not today" heavily imply that you'd be willing to accept a similar proposal in the future, and would likely invite more of such proposals. Nothing in the question suggests that OP would want this. – F1Krazy Feb 2 at 10:10
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    Answer was optimized for only what was asked in the question, not for what was not asked in the question. Answer includes some provisos: "I don't think those are the best ways...". – X Goodrich Feb 2 at 12:43

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