Understanding Boundaries

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 31 August 2012

A frequent topic in gaming and game socializing has to deal with respecting personal boundaries. Just about everyone has a line (or multiple lines) that they prefer people don't cross. Sometimes they are common boundaries, part of our culture and/or subcultures. Other times they are personal and often point to our individual traumatic experiences. These boundaries may shift, for instance I know my husband has different boundaries from my close friends and they have different boundaries compared to complete strangers.

One of the difficulties we face, particular online and at gatherings where people outside our core social groups might be present, is a misunderstanding over boundaries. I feel there's a tendency to normalize the behavior of our friend groups and assume that new people we meet, especially ones that seem similar to our friends, will welcome the same behavior. When we act in ways that others have welcomed and the person ends up not responding in the expected way, it's a form of rejection. That can be hard for many people to take, especially people who haven't experienced it before.

We also have an additional problem, at least in the US, of certain sayings that minimize and or dismiss the boundaries set by women in particular. "Boys will be boys," "you can't blame a guy for trying," etc, these all are meant to tell women that they should keep quiet when faced with someone who doesn't respect their boundaries and they tell men and women that the boundary crossing is normal and expected. It's not the person violating the boundary that's at fault, it's the woman who complains.

I bring this up because I've received quite a few comments recently that attempt to defend a person who disregarded either my own or another person's boundaries.

Do you like ribbons?

The first I'd like to bring up is a benign interaction that happened to me in a GenCon hallway. Sunday morning I rushing to get to a morning meeting. As I walked down the hall, someone came up to me to ask a question. From what I could gather in the brief interaction, he had seen that my badge had some ribbons, he wanted to play Settlers of Catan, and asked if I wanted to play. I told him thanks but no, I had a morning meeting to get to. He said ok and we went our separate ways.

For the most part, not much going on there. Except it did bother me a bit. I couldn't figure out why he thought he should stop me, even though I was in my city-walking pace, to play a game. There were a fair number of other people around. I don't think I made eye contact with him first and I was walking pretty quickly, not sitting or standing. As far as I can tell, I wasn't anywhere near the actual games area, although he could have interpreted the ribbons I had gotten from Susan Morris and E Foley to be Catan resource ribbons. Was it because I was wearing a skirt? Or maybe he was hitting on me? I didn't know at the time and still don't know.

I wrote about this experience on G+ not to say that the guy was horrible, because he wasn't. However, I did feel a little uncomfortable and I wanted to explain why, partially in a naive hope that it would enlighten people about the ways some women think. The response from some people, however, was quite disheartening. They wanted so hard to defend the guy and explain to me why I had no right to feel uncomfortable.

Example comments:

Note to self - if inviting a random stranger to play a game at a con, read badge and make sure it's not +Tracy Hurley because, holy crap.

But I also think that sometimes an invitation to play Catan is just an invitation to play Catan. And if every time a male has to read the mind of every female before inviting her to play a game at a convention? Screw it. He'll just ask other dudes to play.

Sorry everyone, if my defense of random ConGoer's completely normal and not-at-all inappropriate actions translated into me being a bit of an ass. It's probably this penis I have that's causing all the problems. Stupid penis!!!

If I am reading this right, you are interpreting a guy inviting you to a game as hitting on you. And making a pass at a woman is bad because she may not be comfortable?

No offense, but if that is the case you are taking it a bit strangely. People interact with strangers all the time and sometimes they want to follow their biological urge to reproduce. That's life.

okay, that detail wasn't clear to me. the stopping you while you were obviously in a hurry has nothing to do with being a horny guy. It's just rude. But life is full of rude people, so I stand by "that's life"

That being said, don't blame guys for being interested in women. That's what they do. Men try to be agents, they see women as goals to be attained. This is biology.

Tracey, you can find it as fucked up as you want. Humanity is not pretty, it's a biological-social mess. I don't blame you for wanting to vent when a person inconveniences you, or makes you feel uncomfortable, but dudes are gonna try to do what their body tells them too. Maturity is the control of these urges. You dealt with an immature person.

Throughout these comments (by two different men, but lots of men said awesome stuff, so keep that in mind too), there are some common themes. The first is a bit of myth about men and masculinity, that is men can't help themselves whenever they see a woman they are attracted to. We see this a lot in classical mythology and the motif is repeated in many stories since. People who buy into this sometimes believe it's hatred of men to be made uncomfortable by this "fact" of male sexuality. The issue is that men are more than capable of comporting themselves and not violating another person's boundaries even when their passions are aroused. It's a skill people learn as they grow up. The problem is, if you tell them they don't have to learn it, some won't.

Another common theme is the belief I'm supposed to care more about the man's feelings in this than I am my own. That the man's desire to tell me something or interact with me should be given more value than my desire to move from point A to point B in a timely and efficient fashion, and that by not valuing that person's desire more than my own, I'm not being nice and am someone who should never be randomly invited to play games. But here's the deal, the context is all wrong for those conclusions to be the ones drawn. If I had been in the gaming area, or come up to a group playing a game, the question, as asked, would have had a context that would have removed the elements that made me uncomfortable.

Some of the responses to the story made me much more uncomfortable than the event itself. I was getting the clear message that I was not allowed to establish boundaries if they violated what some people feel are men's rights to chase women.

Who uses the word banging anyway?

A few days before the Catan incident, I was at a bar near GenCon relaxing with some friends. Trevor Kidd and I were sitting on bar stools having a nice chat when this guy comes over and starts talking to Trevor. I listened to the conversation for a bit and at some point the guy realizes that he mistakenly thought Trevor was someone he talked to earlier. He decides at that point to introduce himself. They exchange names and then the guy turns to me and says, "Hi girl who's banging Trevor." Yeah. I had a choice to make there. I could have let that ruin my evening. I could have gotten mad. But you know what, I was having a pleasant evening. I was enjoying hanging out with Trevor. So Trevor and I just sort of looked at each other and laughed.

I'm glad I was in a place where I could do that, surrounded by friends who probably would have understood if I hadn't taken the laugh it off approach. But it also made me feel nervous and uncomfortable. I was with a bunch of other people are in the industry. I have a column for Wizards of the Coast, I have a well known blog, I freelance, and I do podcasts. I was on a panel the next day. Yet, to this guy, the main thing he considered about me was that I must be there for a sexual reason. If I hadn't known the people so well, I probably would have been really embarrassed and would have felt unsafe enough to leave the bar.

Telling people they make you uncomfortable is disrespectful?

This story isn't about me, but it has some of the same themes. Recently, my friend Chelsea had a guy on twitter who was saying things to her, at first over DM but then publicly, that made her feel uncomfortable. He made it clear that he paid enough attention to how often she tweeted to be able to assume that she was asleep, a comment he sent via direct message. After she unfollowed him, he started making comments to her publicly, including telling her that she needed to know that she is pretty. Even though she rarely replied to his messages and had even unfollowed him, he didn't get that he was making her uncomfortable.

When her boyfriend told him to stop contacting her, the guy went after him, doubling down and saying he had a right to say what he wanted, that it was freedom of speech and that she should just ignore him if she didn't want to hear it. He even went on to seek out some of the people who were providing her support.

At some point, she realized that this guy who wasn't respecting her boundaries also was a customer at the store where she works. That made her feel uncomfortable and she said so. The person responded by claiming she was disrespecting him and sending a tweet to the corporate twitter account of the place where she works. He claimed that she should not be able to say this about a customer because he was not acting creepy.

I've seen this a fair bit unfortunately. Some people, in many of my experiences men, get upset when people point out that they feel uncomfortable around them. That someone finds them creepy is disrespectful and must be "corrected." But here's the deal, when you not only ignore someone's boundaries but claim you don't have to respect them because you have a right to something, you are being creepy. Being creepy isn't about particular actions or behaviors (although there are some behaviors that are highly likely to cause that response within a particular culture), but it often is about not respecting a person's boundaries. Yeah, I get that sometimes it's hard to know what those boundaries are going to be in advance and that not everyone is great at picking up on non-verbal cues and that there are some medical conditions that make it much harder to discern these things. Most people I know get that too. But, there's a difference between unintentionally crossing someone's boundary (at which point, it's probably best to just apologize or at least step back a bit) and claiming that they have no right to set that boundary in the first place.

These repeated violations of boundaries and the arguments that women's boundaries don't have to be respected if they conflict with traditional male behavior are wrong. They make some women feel that it's better to opt out of the community and are one of the biggest barriers we have to getting more women to go to conventions and to participate in public spaces.


I don't have a lot to say here besides, thank you for speaking about this. The more voices that get added to this discussion, the better.

Thanks for this post. I'd like to add that crossing personal information boundaries can be just as creepy as boundry-crossing that hints of "boys will be boys" predation.

A couple of years back, I had a LiveJournal blog. Someone started posting cryptic hints that he was someone from my past, that'd he'd been lurking but would reveal himself soon. He kept at this for a while. People started emailing me about it, advising me to take steps against what was apparently a stalker. When I blocked him on the blog, he started emailing me. It turns out he was a guy from my high school class, someone I knew only by name. At the time, he seemed like a nice enough kid, but we certainly weren't close. In fact, I don't recall having a single conversation with him.

By the time he made the "big reveal," I was thoroughly creeped out and more than a little pissed off. When I told him his behavior made me uncomfortable and other people worried, he laughed it off. "Oh, you know I'm not a creep!" (Actually, at this point I wouldn't have sworn to it.) Then he proceeded to grill me on my religious beliefs. I told him, politely but firmly, that this was a personal matter and not something I intended to discuss. He didn't get this, and kept pressing. To his way of thinking, people should WANT to talk about their views and values. And if you decline to supply virtual strangers with this very personal information, it can only be concluded that you don't HAVE any. After making this conclusion, he began to press me for details about events in my life that led me astray. Any suggestion that he was being presumptuous and insulting was brushed aside. He was a Nice Guy! I should know that. Talking about religious couldn't possibly be out of line. And hey--he just Wanted To Know. Couldn't possibly be anything wrong with that.

A sense of entitlement often leads to missed cues and crossed boundaries, whatever those boundaries might be. It's very difficult to explain to some people that WANT does not impose OBLIGATION. Spoiled children assume that people who do not meet their demands are "mean." Some people need to grown out of this mindset.

In my naive and young past, I hold my hand up and say I've been that guy. Not the douche on twitter, but the guy who made you feel uncomfortable with his game invite. This is not me jumping to his defense, or trying to justify my own actions based on my inexperience. I cocked up every once in a while. Not in a 'boys will be boys', but in a "people will be people" way. I hear this rumour going round that none of us are perfect, but what we should all hope, is to do better.

What I like to take it from it though is that I do my damnedest to make sure I only make a mistake once; more often than that and you're an idiot. What I'm saying is that I hope that guy has seen your posts, or this blog, and has realised that behaving like that is just not on. As you say, context is everything.

I also wonder as to the multitude of douches out there who don't seem to be able to learn from experience. I wish I had an answer for that, and just hope that eventually something gets through, and every guy out there who has cocked up, makes the effort to apologise, backs off, and learns from it.

Yeah, I also don't want him to feel like he made me too uncomfortable. On the scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being worried about my safety, it was about a 1 or 2. However, the comments from people that I should not bring it up at all because look, he's just a nice guy who wanted to get enough ribbons to get 50% off a game, those were much worse.

I agree with you there, it comes down to people being quick to jump to the defense of someone who could have been harmless, without thinking about the person they affected, and what they thought of it. even putting themselves in your position wouldn't guarantee that they'd understand, as most people like to think of themselves as being thick skinned enough to let stuff like that wash off them, but unless they were actually there, and actually you, they won;t quite get it, and saying that you're wrong to worry about stuff like that is just a tad insensitive...

" I cocked up every once in a while."

I think we have all had those moments. Learn from your mistakes, learn who you can say things to and those you cannot. With strangers, wait until they speak first!!!

You realize if everyone followed that advice no one would ever speak in the first place?

I agree that there are creepy people in the world. Not just men, but women also.

From what I read into the first guy and the Settlers of Catan, I would probably take that as a fan who recognized your name and said to himself: "Wow! It's Tracy." This is what I said when I met you. I just though it was cool to meet you in person. Some people are brash enough to even stop someone(in your case and think the same thing I did) and ask them to play a game.

Your other stories are disturbing. The banging guy (the laugh off was great BTW) just seems to be the type of guy that sees a line and constantly steps over it. Uncouth and uncalled for to say the least. I would only say something like that to a friend or a group of friends.

I have experienced a very similar thing that your friend experienced. Phone calls(before twitter) at home and at work. Waiting for me after work etc... I have a huge personal space and the way I get around it is to:

a. put up with it as much as I can(try to excuse myself, or keep seated with 8 other people around a small table etc..) or
b. tell the person straight up what is bothering me. (I told the girl that I was uncomfortable with her and severed all communication with her. I never slept with her or lead her on, she was just a friend.)

example is at GenCon a guy was constantly bouncing his leg and the tablecloth kept bouncing off mine, so I politely asked him not to bounce the tablecloth. He could have said F-off I can do what I want, but instead chose the oh sorry and stopped bouncing.

It is a touchy subject and one that affects both sexes.

No, the Catan guy had no idea who I was. I'm used to people who know me from online stopping me and, for the most part, have absolutely no problem with that.

Hmmm! Sometimes I would love to get into some people's brains to see what they are thinking.

In this case, he probably was thinking that he wanted to get more ribbons. Apparently people get desperate on Sunday because if you collect all the Catan resource ribbons, you can get a discount on Mayfair products. I'm not really upset he asked, and I don't think asking was necessarily wrong, but it did make me feel a bit nervous about having worn a skirt.

Basically it comes down to this: no matter how wrong / annoying / misled a person is, you don't get to decide his/her boundaries. If a person tells you to back off, then backing off is what you do. There's no need for you to justify your actions any more than the other person should have to justify why they don't like you.

You may get a hurt feeling, but I swear to god everyone would be happier if you just walk away and let it go. Laboring under the misconception that it's the other person's job to accomodate you until they figure out you don't mean anything by whatever it is your doing is egregiously foolish. Even if you feel you are being completely harmless.

It's not a matter of right and wrong, and can even be taken out of the context of sexism (although that is a heavy thread in this case, but we can remove it). It's a matter of having enough grace and interpersonal skills to accept that not everyone has to like you and to let it go when someone decides they don't.

That's what respecting a person even when you disagree with them means.

Thank you for making this post, Tracy. :)

Thank you for posting this! So many good points, I couldn't possibly list them all.

Thanks for posting. I think our gamer community has more than its fair share of socially challenged individuals. Building awareness of social mores is good for the community. Part of the life we live is learning. Learning, to me, implies changing behaviors that get socially sanctioned in some way. Human interaction being the complex thing it is, it sometimes takes multiple events to trigger change. When you're the recipient of event one, itay seem incredible that this person crossed that line. You can look at it hopeful that they'll learn from their experience with you, and step back.

In sum: if a man does it, it is just life. If a woman doesn't like it, WHY ARE YOU A MISANDRIST?

First off, regarding banging-guy and twitter-stalker: these guys are assholes. Banging-guy is disrespectful. Twitter-stalker doesn't stop being an ass even after being told that his behavior is unacceptable. I think there isn't any question that these two have terrible social skills.

The first scenario, though, is different. It sounds as though this man approached you respectfully and backed off equally respectfully as soon as his offer was rejected. If that's so, than he's perfectly within his rights. This is an assumption, but if the man who had approached you had been someone you found really attractive, I'm guessing you probably would have walked away flattered rather than disturbed.

My guess is that you feel that "walking briskly and not making eye contact" were enough of a social boundary that he should have noticed and stayed away. I'll agree that for most people, that would have been enough. Con-goers are not always the most social-savvy folks, so cut the guy some slack.

Nope, even if the guy had been attractive to me, I wouldn't have walked away flattered, but thanks for spreading that stereotype and telling me how/what I think! I've cut the guy plenty of slack. In fact, all I did was note that he ignored a boundary that is common among many people and how it made me feel. Thanks for playing.

It's the "Nice Guy" concept that is key to the problem.

Full disclosure: I was clueless about this very behavior and wondered why people, women especially were so "suspicious" or "mean." It was finally my wife who explained it to me (small words, short sentences) that being overly friendly when it was not appropriate was, in fact creepy. It helped that about that time I had a co-worker who was even worse (we were both in our forties). I could see his very obvious creepiness; my wife pointed out to me that mine was a matter of degree, not of substance.

Ouch! Of course, she was right. And I got it. Who said "truth comes with blows"?

So--about the "nice guy." Why do guys go all "nice" on a woman? It is a way of being manipulative. Now, maybe you are just naturally a pleasant person, but if you are, then you can hear someone's "NO" and respect it. If you can't, than the fundamental approach is flawed--you want something from the person, and you will do anything to get it. Violating someone's boundaries makes them uncomfortable, so don't. And when the approacher gets his feelings hurt, and thinks "but I'm a nice guy," well, too bad. Pay more attention next time. And if you are so "nice," catch the clue, respect the "no," and walk away clean.

Sometime it’s hard because people, especially women, tend to imply the no rather than bluntly stating it. This is, however, no excuse. Pick up your cues.

If you think that that person owes you anything at all because you are "nice" that is a pretty clear sign you are acting “nice” to be manipulative.

Another part of the problem is the way we teach our daughters that it is more important to be polite to a stranger than to take care of one's own safety, especially if you are a woman. Sounds ridiculous when you put it so baldly, but don’t we teach children that, but make it sound more sophisticated? I am reminding my daughter constantly that "no" is always okay--even to her father. But I knew she was going to be okay when I heard her , aged three, tell some little alpha male at her day-care, "No. Because I don't want to."

That is the only reason one needs. And you shouldn't even have to explain that.

Gavin De Becker has written two excellent books on the subject:

    The Gift of Fear


    Protecting the Gift

, the latter about what and how to teach our kids to take care of themselves. I highly recommend them. In Protecting the Gift he spells out the manipulative techniques of the predator. They are disturbingly similar to much of the “nice” manipulative technique.

Tracy, thanks for putting this topic up for discussion. I figure if I can learn to hear and respect the “no,” just about anyone can.

I completely understand and empathize with the latter two cases, but I have some questions about the Catan Guy if you wouldn't mind helping me to understand this better.

Did this fellow do something wrong in your view? And if so, what? I understand that you're not trying to attack him, and I understand why you would feel uncomfortable and why you would want to express that. I openly talk about feeling uncomfortable over a lot of innocuous stuff.

But I'm curious if there's something about what this fellow did that I, or others, should avoid doing in general.

One thing people do is forget to consider what's going on with the other person. We come up against this time and again in these stories, from this one to the Rebecca Watson story about being approached in an elevator. Asking random people not near the gaming area if they want to play requires more consideration than if there was any sign they might be interested, in my opinion. Trying to boil it down to right and wrong is a fool's errand. He's not wrong for trying to get another player so he can get ribbons although I might question the efficiency of his tactics. On the other hand, I'm not wrong for wishing that he hadn't made my task harder.

That's why I said the encounter with the Catan person was benign. I mean, it's not easy to know what an individual's boundaries are going to be upfront, although I might suggest there are some cues that people might want to pick up on: use of headphones, reading a book, walking at a fast pace, etc.

However, some of the responses to the story state I'm wrong for even wanting to set boundaries. Those people are incorrect and their belief that I should value his wants/needs/desires higher than my own is problematic.

The shit people say to any woman who expresses any discomfort around any man ever is despicable. There's no question about that.

I just hope to understand what's wrong with this situation a little better. Like you said, he's benign, but I get that he ignored some relevant social cues.

Thanks for the response.

"The shit people say to any woman who expresses any discomfort around any man ever is despicable."

Any, any, any? Ever?

Some woman walks past a man who is minding his own business. A man who is minding his own business. A man who happens to be of another color. The woman opines loudly to her companion that "people like him" shouldn't be allowed in her neighborhood (city, country) because they "make her uncomfortable".

By your account it would be despicable for her companion to say some shit like: "Your comment is out of line and your racism is ugly.". Heaven knows what kind of sin you'd name it if the man himself in the same tone and at the same volume "said shit" like: "If only someone would round up the racists and relocate them."

Black men (and women) were forced to ride in the back of the bus in part because for them to ride in the front would make certain ignorant people "uncomfortable". Black men were publicly and legally beaten for making white women "uncomfortable" with simple, brief eye contact.

By your rules *any*one who might have "said shit" in defense of the oppressed man and/or the manifest ignorance of the woman in calling for the man's persecution would have in doing so behaved badly. No, despicably.

My question to the commenter or anyone who cares to respond is this. Are there in your view no limits, ever, to the boundaries that a woman can set and try to enforce? No limits to the acceptable range of means of "expression of discomfort."

This question is not a reflection on the behavior and thoughts of the author above, from the account of which I learned and for which I'm thankful. They are a reflection on the rule of: "any any any ever = despicable" presented by the commenter.

Thank you.

In your example, the woman's comment is not about his gender but his race. We should be able to have conversations about that and call anyone out on racism. Intersectionality is a thing and I encourage people to look it up.

About Catan-invite guy: It's impossible to know what was going on in his head, whether he was acting with complete innocence or had other reasons. Under those circumstances--I'm at a gaming con, I'm looking for someone (anyone) to come play the game, I see someone who looks approachable (as you often do, Tracy) who's wearing Catan ribbons--I might very well do much the same thing, not realizing that you were headed somewhere. Granted, the guy should have been more aware and may indeed have an issue with social cues. If it's any consolation, it sounds very possible it was just an innocent mistake.

This in no way is meant to suggest you're over-reacting (you're not) or don't have a right to your feelings (which of course you do). And if the guy was indeed scamming on you in some way (which he did amazingly poorly), then you're quite justified in what you did. One should always follow one's instincts.

Also, a big slice of fail cake for banging guy (what a tool), stalker guy (what a potentially-criminal creep-bag), and those guys harassing you on Twitter (which is exactly what they're doing).


Oh yeah, the main part for me in the Catan story was explaining how things made me feel, not making him out to be a bad guy. The really difficult part...the ribbons I had had nothing to do with Catan. I had Susan's Hero and e's "Sorry guys, I'm taken" speed dating ribbons. But I can understand how at a distance, the guy would have no idea. He handled it great. It's the people afterward who thought I should have been nicer (I was nice to begin with) who bug me. They suggest I shouldn't be able to set boundaries in my interactions at all.

Send feedback using the contact form or through twitter, @sarahdarkmagic.

Resources for FAQs



Syndicate content