Handling Phone Calls/E-Mails From Intrusive Manipulative People In Your Life

You don’t have to answer the phone. You can even turn off the ringer. No one is going to die because you didn’t answer their phone call.

For the few people in my life who are intrusive and manipulative, I *never* answer the phone when they call. This is effective for at least three reasons:

(1) It trains them to expect that they do not have instant guaranteed access to your attention, and after a while, they will demand it less and less.

(2) It preserves your attention for what you want to devote it to, and protects you from distraction.

(3) It allows you to pick times for communication that suit you, and to calmly prepare any scripts or other tools you may want to have ready before you initiate communication, rather than being taken by surprise and potentially being off balance and not ready to protect yourself as necessary from intrusion and manipulation.

There will definitely be pushback when you start doing this, as there is sort of a social expectation that when someone is home, they answer the phone. So you will have to go through some conversations like this, before callers adapt:

I called you this morning, but no one answered. Were you home?

Yes, I was home.

Really?? Then why didn’t you answer the phone??

I wasn’t able to come to the phone when you called.

Why not??

I was doing something and I didn’t want to be interrupted.

What were you doing that was so important you couldn’t come to the phone??

What I was specifically doing isn’t important. I didn’t want to be interrupted.

What if it was an emergency???

If there is ever a health- or life-threatening emergency, you should definitely call 911 right away so that trained professionals can handle it.


  1. Steerpike says

    We are trained from childhood to drop everything and dash to answer the phone, no matter what. Caller ID and voice-mail haven’t even put a dent in this deeply ingrained habit for most of us, and I admire those who have found a way to break the spell.

    I had a friend years ago, back when telephone answering machines (remember those?) were becoming commonplace (so this must be back in what? the ’80s? God I’m getting old…) and cutesy outgoing messages were all the rage. Anyway, “Bob” habitually monitored his calls–he would let them go to the machine, and listen to see who was calling before deciding to pick up (this was also before caller ID was a common feature…). His outgoing message was, roughly, “Hi, this is Bob. I may or may not be home right now, but you can start talking when you hear the beep, and if I am here, I’ll have a decision to make, so make it good (beep!)”

  2. ArtK says

    One of the cardinal rules in dealing with people like this is to never give reasons. For normal, nice people, giving a reason is polite. They accept the reason and move on. For the intrusive/manipulative people a reason is just the first step in a negotiation. The point of the negotiation (from their side) is to make you realize that you were wrong to ignore them and to never do it again; the point of the negotiation from your side is to get them to go away and leave you alone. Guess who’s going to win as long as you give reasons?

  3. physioprof says

    One of the cardinal rules in dealing with people like this is to never give reasons.

    This is partially correct, but incomplete. When dealing with people you are trying to “train” to behave differently (because you are going to have to deal with them on an ongiong basis), it can be effective to give reasons that emphasize the conclusiveness and definitiveness of your own decisions, coupled with a refusal to explain or justify those decisions. Over time and with repetition, this can eventually train them to just stop trying to intrude and/or manipulate when you tell them, “This is my decision”, because their past experience with you has turned that into a code phrase for “not going to get any further”.

    This is why, in my script above, I am willing to tell the person that I was doing something and didn’t want to be interrupted–i.e., it was my decision that what I was doing was more important to me than answering the phone, regardless of who it is–without any further explanation or justification for my weighting of relative importance. This implicitly makes the point that my own autonomous decision how to prioritize the importance of various demands on my attention is conclusive, not up for discussion, and must be accepted as sufficient justification for my actions.

  4. leigh says

    i’ve gained quite a bit of stress-reduction benefit from following your advice on this topic. certain people have learned not to expect me to answer every call or tolerate every discussion topic, and i’ve thoroughly enjoyed dealing with less of their shit… ahhhhh.

  5. Cuttlefish says

    I’ve done this for many years now. I remember the look of shock on my parents’ faces when, while they were visiting our house, the phone rang and we didn’t make a move for it.

    They learned, eventually.

  6. Art says

    If you wish to shut a prying person down I’ve found that simply remaining silent works for me. They almost always repeat the question and I offer more silence. Eventually they ask why I won’t answer and I tell them that I have nothing to say. They then either give up and slink off or get into a huff. Either way they hang up.

    I heard from the wife of one particularly obnoxious guy that he was so steaming mad after I offered no answer that he couldn’t sleep and got into a fight with his boss. I told her ‘I do what I can to help’ and she broke up laughing.

    I have only recently bought a cell phone, still forget to carry it more often than not, and worked hard to avoid beepers (remember beepers?) and generally make sure that few, if any, get the feeling that they have any right to get my immediate attention.

    Just because I have a cell phone doesn’t mean I’m available 24/7 for anyone who wants to rattle my cage. You are entirely correct that if it is a real emergency people are usually better off calling 911.

  7. Kevin says

    I’m exactly the same way. Caller ID is certainly a boon to mankind. Avoiding some people altogether is a fine mental health strategy. There’s this cousin of mine …

    My friends all now know that I usually don’t answer the phone — nor do I automatically call them back if they leave a voice mail. I’ll see them soon enough.

  8. pipenta says

    I have never jumped to answer the phone.

    But this thing of just offering up silence to those who push and pry with questions I chose not to answer. This I like.

  9. Beaker says

    This is why email is so great. You decide when to read, and you decide when to respond–and you can write a draft and edit it before you send something you might regret later. I am surprised that many people I know under 25 don’t like or don’t use email when a phone/text alternative is available. Email remains superior to phone or text in situations where a protracted back and forth discussion is not required or desired.

  10. says

    I’m completely happy to teach people that my phone exists for MY convenience and not theirs. I’m also pretty willing to simply hang up on people when I’m done speaking to them, if they refuse to get the hint and try to drag out the goodbyes for longer than I’m interested in. Sometimes it can be tough, especially when someone is only occasionally manipulative, but a firm hand early means less stress later.

  11. says

    I’ve heard this referred to as the low contact solution (not talking a lot, not giving anyone ammo, sticking to generic chat, etc). Some folks go no contact, and most of em find it a lot more satisfying than having to be so careful all the time.

  12. ritapita says

    It does work, but you have to understand that some people are so manipulative that they will try other forms of blackmail. I used the same phone method with my former in-laws as you described. Unfortunately, they are so divisive that they then began to call my kids, feign an emergency and play the victim. Therefore, I was compelled not to return their calls at all much to the dismay of my manipulated kids who claimed I was being ‘mean’. (Actually caught my mother-in-law laying on the fake tears to rope me in. Didn’t work.) Next, they tried showering my kids with gifts & favors. What can I say? I love my children, but technically they are adults and I can’t prevent them from seeing their – and I use this term loosely – ‘family’. I simply refuse to be a doormat and will not be roped into a game of using my kids. I feel that that would be disrespecting myself as well as my children. In my situation, no contact with those people has worked the best.

  13. grignon says

    I’ve always found telephony an inferior method for communicating so even though I almost always answer my phone, I make it a point to conclude the call within 60 seconds.
    “I can’t help you with that.”
    “I can meet you at XX o’clock.”
    “I’ll be right there.”
    are the stock phrases.

    Though with my latest standard threshold shift, I can legitimately say “I didn’t hear it.”

  14. says

    My wife’s family all answer the phone no mater what they are doing. Kinda fun to watch. Ifyou want to talk to me on the phone you have to make an appointment, usually via email.

  15. Jet says

    Yeah, I never understood that ‘answer the phone no matter what’ mentality. I always realised it was just an option to answer or not. And the last few years, i’ve developed ‘telephobia’, it immediately ruins my mood if I hear my phone ring, and I never ever answer it unless i’m expecting one of two people to call me.. that’s why I have an answering machine to screen with. Most people don’t even leave a message, so obviously they didn’t really want to talk to me anyways.

  16. NanceConfer says

    If anyone asks, I explain that I screen all phone calls. Leave a message and I might call you back.

  17. Lady Day says

    I don’t even bother to answer questions that attempt to delve into “what I was doing.” Topic gets switched immediately or conversation is shut down. Those kinds of questions are the hallmark of a psychopath and should be a red flag, anyway. Totally inappropriate.

    For colleagues, I try to only use their work phone numbers, even if they give me a cell phone or home phone to use. Unless they ask me to only use one of their non-work numbers (my physician colleagues are prone to giving out cell phone numbers) or unless they have asked me to contact them when they are not at work, there is absolutely no way I’m going to bother them at their personal numbers.

    For mentees or techs, they can call my cell if I’m not available in my office or lab, but none of them have ever asked intrusive questions.

    Family is different – but I’m always accessible via my cell for them. Then again, none of them ever ask intrusive questions, either, so maybe I’m lucky in that regard.

  18. Lady Day says

    In fact, I’d say that the “where were you” types of questions were decisive moments that factored into break-ups with ex-boyfriends, back in the day. The first time a phrase like that came out of a guy’s mouth, I knew he would be a controlling ass, and he would be promptly dumped, without explanation.

  19. steve oberski says

    There is a cross over into telemarketing calls (not that I get many of these any more) and dealing with product support.

    You never, ever let the other side get control of the call.

    You ask the questions and you control the call.

    A typical conversation with a telemarketer goes – are you a telemarketer, what company are you calling from, what is your name, what is the specific business relationship that you have with me, when did you obtain my explicit permission to call me, why is your caller id blocked and/or why does your company name not appear on the caller id ?

    It’s interesting how many telemarketers lie in response to the are you a telemarketer question, the conversation terminates then with observation that it is not possible to establish a relationship based on trust when the first words out of your mouth are a lie.

    The phone number then goes into the call block list and I never hear from them again.

    With support calls, say a broken appliance, you have to always keep in mind that your objective is to get the problem fixed and the person on the other side of the call is either helping you in that endeavor or hindering you and you must always be prepared to jettison them and work your way up the food chain (always politely) at the first sign of obfustication or mission statement speak. You ask the questions – what can you do to assist me in this problem, when can I expect a resolution, do you have the authority to implement a solution to the problem. If they can’t answer these questions to your satisfaction then demand to speak to someone who can.

    Similar tactics can be successfully employed when dealing with emotional vampires.

  20. says

    “What were you doing that was so important you couldn’t come to the phone??”

    “Taking a giant poo, man. Sorry I didn’t bring the cordless phone with me, I forgot it. You should have seen it. CORN EVERYWHERE.”

    …And continue in a similar vein every time they ask until they stop asking.

  21. says

    This post pretty much made my day. I loathe phones… even if I don’t answer, the ringing causes me to lose focus on whatever I was doing. I find that my stress level plummets when I silence or unplug the things. One more thing that’s going to change when I move in a few months: there’s not going to be a house phone, just a cell. Less chance of telemarketing/political/survey calls, a lot more control over who calls and when… plus there’s the option of texting instead if I’m just not in the mood for speech, which is often.

  22. Lady Day says

    Even the texting option is too much for me. Don’t know how people can manage that. Personally, I like phone calls, as long as they are from the people I want to hear from.

  23. Leo says

    About “nobody is going to die because you didn’t answer”: in suicidal emergencies, people are more likely to call a loved one than 911. You still don’t have to answer. People in need are entitled to some kind of help, but not from any person at any time they want. If you have agreed to do that – for example because you’re their therapist – then you do have to, but you still get to fire them as soon as the crisis is over.

  24. gwen says

    I selectively answer my phone. I also selectively answer my front door if you did not let me know you were coming by, and I am in the middle of something I do not want to drop…unless you are someone I really want to see.

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