Too Nice: Dodging Co-Workers That Take Advantage of Your Good Nature

At last! An advice column that's 100 percent East Tennessee, and twice the advice for the price of one. Each letter gets a response from "Jacki," a 20-something shoe-lover, happy hour advocate, and ultimate Frisbee player, and "Jill," who dishes out advice with the perspective of someone who's decades older and has perfected her advice on soccer teams, fellow Texas Hold 'Em players, and hapless co-workers. On occasion, we ask the letter writer to respond to the advice, and include the Take Three as well.

Dear Take Two:

My diabetic friend constantly asks me to refill her soda—the sugar kind—when we eat lunch at our company cafeteria or this self-service deli near our work. I don't want to serve her all those calories, what now?

—Diet Coke Diva

Says Jacki: When your friend asks you to go get her more Coke, casually pause and ask, "Wait, you want the ‘sugar-free' kind, right?" That will give your friend an opportunity to slow down and really think about what she's drinking. If she insists on sugary soda, calmly say, "That's interesting; I thought sugar was harmful if you have diabetes. What can diabetics drink?" The best you can do is ask questions that encourage your friend to be more mindful about her diabetes. But, ultimately, what she drinks and how she manages her health are both completely her decision, and refusing to refill her soda will only make her feel resentful.

Says Jill: I'm usually not for the passive approach, but here I would simply repeat, as often as necessary, "Oh, I'm only going to refill my own drink," without offering further explanation (or adding any untrue statements). That way, you're in no way enabling her poor health choices, but you're not spending a lot of emotional energy trying to alter the inevitable, either. Realistically, she's going to drink sugary sodas and it makes no difference if she takes a pass on that one at lunch, although it might make you feel better. She may have a sugar addiction, binge eating disorder, or just feel rebellious, but if her diabetes hasn't slowed her down, you, as her friend, are probably not going to have much impact.

Take Three

Says Diet Coke Diva: "I actually ended up with a combination that worked. It was awkward as hell, but I asked Jacki's two questions, and got just a ‘Never mind' from my friend after the ‘What can you drink if you have diabetes?' part. I thought it would never come up again, but it did, and now I'm sticking to the "Oh, I'm only getting my own" approach. I can't say it makes her real happy, but I don't have to cringe every time we eat together any more.

Dear Take Two:

I consider myself a nice person, but it feels like people at work take advantage of me. How can I stop being so nice—the second there is a conflict, I just back right down.

—aka Patsy

Says Jill: This is a long process, but well worth the effort. I'd recommend a snappy sign on your desk to begin with, something like, "Sorry, I forgot my magic wand today," or the old standby, "Your failure to plan does not constitute my emergency." This will alert co-workers you have a sense of humor, but no longer will it be business as usual. Then start, slowly, sticking up for yourself. Set a goal—once a week, once a day—saying, texting, or writing in a memo: "No," or "I can't help you with that problem, but I can help you with the part that's my work, which is the filing," and so forth. There's a real temptation to get snarly and self-righteous, going too far the other way, so don't try, as a friend's mom once told me, "To eat an elephant all in one bite." Keep your kind tone, your sweet phrases, and slowly work your way out of this. Remember, these people have gotten used to you the other way and probably stopped thinking about how they treat you long ago, so they may need lots of gentle reminders to do better. Good luck!

Says Jacki: In the short term, find some stock phrases that you're comfortable using in tense situations. Often, people who can't deal with conflict well really just can't improvise well in tense moments. Think about the worst moments at work, and write out three or four sentences that might address them. And start talking, in the break room, the bathroom, wherever people are gathered casually, about how you want to get better at dealing with disagreements. Even if they don't care or have quality advice for you, speaking openly may remind them you are not there just to fetch them Snickers bars (or whatever similar happens at your place to those who don't stick up for themselves.) More broadly, remember that allowing clods to behave unfairly doesn't do them any favors and, ultimately, isn't nice.