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Boundaries and Boundary Function

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Sidewalk, Bar, Boundaries

At Asian Efficiency we like to talk about the social aspects of productivity. We think it’s one of the most overlooked areas of being productive, mostly because people tend to associate being productive with being introverted and “quietly effective”. What that association neglects to touch on is that working effectively with other people is often one of the best ways to get things done. And one of the ways to do that is through a social toolkit called boundary function.

Boundary Function is a social tool that helps you get things done more effectively. At its core, it is the ability to say yes or no, regardless of social constraints or what other people expect of you at a given time. People who really understand and have implemented boundary function in their lives see the world in a completely different light, and are treated by others better, and with more respect for their time and attention.

Quick Summary

  • Boundaries are a fence for what behaviors you put up with – or not.
  • Exercising boundary function requires some tact.
  • What happens when boundaries contact the real world.
  • A note on Pulling Your Own Strings.

Defining Boundaries

Boundaries are the fencing or, well, “boundaries” for what behaviors you are willing to put up with – or not – in a social context. This includes both behaviors from other people, and from institutions you interact with, like companies and society at large.

Boundaries are crucially important for the modern world. Why you ask? The simple reason is that people from most cultures have no problem crossing the boundaries of others, until they are told otherwise. You can think of boundaries as teaching others as to how they should treat you. It’s about setting up standards of behavior with the people around you to help you get where you want to go faster, and allowing you be more productive in contexts where other people are involved.

Here’s a simple example to help cement the idea.

Without enforcing boundaries:

You: Hi, I would like to get the address changed on my bank account.
Bank Representative: I’m sorry sir, but we can only do that during 9am-5pm Eastern time. You’ll have to call back during those hours.
You: Oh ok then. Thanks.

You then proceed to wait yet another day to resolve a situation that could have been solved today.

Enforcing boundaries:

You: Hi, I would like to get the address changed on my bank account.
Bank Representative: I’m sorry sir, but we can only do that during 9am-5pm Eastern time. You’ll have to call back during those hours.
You: Hmmm. Are you absolutely sure? It would be really great if I didn’t have to call back and navigate through the call menu for 15 minutes again. Do you think you can help me out?
Bank Representative: Hold on a minute while I check sir. Hmmm yes, it seems that we can still update your address details. What would you like it changed to?

In the above example, it could simply be a case that the bank representative didn’t feel like doing an address change at the time of the call – they are just human after all.

Having boundaries means not letting other people walk all over you in life. You can also think of it as a way of stopping people from passively or actively manipulating you towards their own agendas.

A Warning: As you’ll see below, exercising boundaries can get quite heated. But boundaries are NOT about being aggressive or picking fights – though a lot of people misconstrue them that way.

Exercising Boundary Function

Let’s look at how we actually exercise boundary function.

The important thing to remember about boundaries is that they are a matter of escalation. What you are essentially doing is raising the level of social tensions and anxiety with the other person until a resolution is achieved. Think of it as a verbal escalation match, until one side can’t take it anymore. Astute readers will probably be asking at this point, well what happens when you can’t escalate anymore?

At that point, things either escalate from verbal to physical (not recommended), or as Jim of Not Your Average Lawyer would say, you “unceremoniously eject them from your life”. What this means is that you essentially walk away, and cut all ties with that person. In the context of a personal relationship, this really does mean walking away. In the context of dealing with say, a representative of an institution, it will mean escalating to that representative’s manager or supervisor.

In order to exercise boundaries however, you must first determine what behaviors are acceptable to you, or not. Now this really depends on you, and what you see as right or wrong in the world. And it will absolutely vary from culture to culture. If you’re reading this, you probably have a pretty good internal compass for what is reasonable and what is not, so this should not be difficult to personally define. A good approximation that can be used is what would be considered reasonable to a neutral third party.

Note: Keep in mind though, that in the beginning stages of a relationship (personal, professional or otherwise) you may have to let some smaller boundaries slide in order to build rapport. More on this in the section on Boundaries in the Real World.

Using Boundaries as a Tool

Now that you have a rough idea of what behaviors you consider acceptable or not, let’s look at how to utilize boundary function as a tool.

The first thing to remember is that boundary function is a social tool, not a way of life. You should only use it if it gets you what you want (or closer to where you want to go), and you should never use it to throw temper tantrums.

At its core, exercising boundary function is simply saying yes or no. And you do this by escalating the level of social tension and anxiety. In a social setting, this can be done in front of others – also known as calling out bad behavior.

For example, upon splitting the check when at dinner with friends:

You: Hey guys, we’re short about $10. How much did everyone put in?
Dave: $30.
Amanda: $35.
Sarah: $25.
You: OK… Dave, I think you need to put in a bit more.
Dave: Nah man, look at the menu – my meal was only $30.
You: Yes, but you forgot about sales tax and the tip.
Dave: Oh yeah, here’s a couple of dollars.
You: Actually, it should be closer to $7. Here, take a look (hands him iPhone calculator).
Dave: Oh, ok. Got it.
You: No problem.

Note how in the examples provided none of the escalations have been harsh or polarizing. In fact, it is usually better to not be harsh when drawing boundaries – it is best to soften them with either humor, or “feigned ignorance” at first. Especially in some parts of the world (like Asia), you want to let the other party save face if possible.

You can probably tell by now that exercising boundaries can be a little uncomfortable. That is because social anxiety is uncomfortable to both you and the other person. If you’re going to learn to use boundaries, you need to be OK with this, and realize that over time, the level of social anxiety you can tolerate will go up. It’s also important to keep in mind that the best reaction when escalating social anxiety is no reaction – even if this means being unnaturally still and staring blankly on occasion.

In most situations, people will realize their mistake and offer you a solution upon the enforcement of a “small” boundary (like in the dinner example above). But if they don’t, you want to keep on escalating until they do, in which case they normally apologize – and here’s the important part: you want to reward their apologetic behavior. By doing so, you are essentially saying “this is the way I expect people to behave around me, and as long as it stays that way, it’s all good.”

Now escalation can get out of control at times. In general, it’s best not to go crazy-big with escalation unless the other person has crossed a large boundary (something that you would never, ever find acceptable, ever). There will always be some give-and-take in social situations, and over time you will learn to recognize what is OK and what is not.

Boundaries in the Real World

Now that you understand how to use boundaries, let’s look at how they actually work in the real world, and how people often react to them.

The (unfortunate?) truth is that most people walking around today lack boundaries. Most people let others push them around in life. In fact, it is relatively easy overcome people’s objections and viewpoints if you have strong boundaries and some basic social skills. That being said, remember that boundaries are a tool – and it’s up to you to use them responsibly.

Boundaries tend to work better in the real world when you have some degree of position or authority. This can be real or perceived. For example, you may be: the de-facto “leader” of your group of friends, an important decision maker within a team at work, or a valued customer at a bank.

We touched on the idea of using humor and feigned ignorance to soften boundaries earlier, and here’s a more structured way to do it. Essentially, you want to think about the boundary you are about to enforce, and work out how to say it more pleasantly.

For example:

  • Could you help me out a bit with X?
  • Sorry, it’s been a really busy day. Can you explain to me again why we can’t do X now?

What you are essentially doing is playing the “false victim” – even if it is fake, it is more socially palatable to most people than being told that they are outright wrong. This is great for dealing with the often-difficult customer service at most companies. Simply make it appear like you don’t really understand what’s going on, and appeal for their help. If that doesn’t work, remember that you can always then pull out boundary function afterwards.

Some gents reading this may not like the idea of playing the “false victim” – OK, I get it, it tends to be easier for women to pull off. Another way to approach it is to pin the “blame” on “the man” or “the authority”. Whether you actually believe that or not is irrelevant – it is an idea that most people can easily relate to, and the other party is more likely to help you get what you want.

Examples of Boundaries in Different Situations

Traffic Boundaries

Let’s look at some different situations and see how to enforce boundaries in those.

Boundaries with strangers
As a general rule, it’s not worth drawing boundaries with absolute strangers. Why? Because you don’t have anything to gain from it socially (or otherwise). Now if someone’s behavior is egregiously out of line, then yes you will want to enforce a boundary. But most of the time, it is simply not worth it. A good rule is this: if you plan on having any sort of relationship (personal, professional, social or otherwise) with the person, then boundaries are important. Otherwise, just ignore them.

People pushing in line
This is culturally dependent. In the US or other western countries, simply tell the person that there is a queue/line and they will usually apologize and go line up. In other cultures (China comes to mind), queuing is a foreign concept so people really won’t care. The exception I would personally make is that if it’s only you or a couple of people in line and it’s super obvious that they are just pushing their way through, then yes, draw a boundary.

Waiter/Bank Teller/Customer Service person being difficult
There are a lot of times when a customer service person just won’t do what you want them to, even though you know it can be done. Remember – they are only human, and sometimes people just don’t feel like doing the things they’re supposed to. This would be the perfect place to play the “false victim” or to “blame it on the man” to appeal to them first. And only if that doesn’t work, then escalate using boundaries – which usually means talking to their supervisor.

Personal Relationships
Where you choose to draw boundaries in your personal relationships with your partner, children, relatives and so on is really up to you, and the culture of your family.

Boss and Co-Workers
This is a tricky one. Your (financial) future does depend on how you handle your boss and co-workers, so tread lightly. Definitely draw boundaries, but not to the point where you are isolating others. You need to make it clear that you aren’t a dumping ground for other people’s responsibilities, but at the same time, you need to get along with everyone. A good standard to aim for is respect.

Traffic and Driving
If someone cuts you off in traffic, there’s no point in getting road rage – you can’t do anything about it, so just let it pass.

Meaningless Conversation
People like to talk, often about things that don’t actually mean anything. And this can be incredibly frustrating, especially if you’re a busy person or someone who watches his/her own productivity and time very carefully.

Whether you draw a boundary here is dependent on your relationship with the person in question. Remember that sometimes meaningless conversation is good (and important) for building a stronger relationship. In which case, it is only worth cutting them off and drawing a boundary if there is something that you urgently need from them, or to get to.

Asian Efficiency Rules for Boundaries

Two good rules I developed while traveling to help me decide where to enforce boundaries or not are:

  1. If I’m not going to remember it tomorrow, let it pass.
  2. If it’s not helping me get something done, let it pass.

These two rules will cover the majority of everyday situations, and will also prevent you from going insane in places where there is a little less logical thinking and a little more boundary-pushing – for example, most crowded cities in Asia.

A Note on Pulling Your Own Strings

The closest thing available to a reference book on boundary functions is Wayne Dyer’s book, Pulling Your Own Strings. It has an endless list of examples and explanations, and yes, it is indeed worth reading.

If you do decide to read it however, do keep in mind that you don’t want to implement everything written literally – or you’ll just end up being antisocial. A better mix to keep in mind is to use the lessons on boundary function from this article (and from Pulling Your Own Strings), and to temper them with lessons from How to Win Friends and Influence People (link/notes).

Editor’s Note: Another good book on boundaries is Thick Face, Black Heart.

In Closing

  • Recognize what boundaries are and why they’re important.
  • Know what sort of behaviors are acceptable to you – or not.
  • Have a play with boundaries in the real world, but remember to temper them with humor and softening structures.
  • You don’t need to enforce boundaries all the time – it’s OK to let the small and inconsequential things slide.

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Posted by Joe jansen  | November 28, 2013 at 5:52AM | Reply

Excellent material
There is a good book on Boundaries by that name by a Dr.Henry Cloud.

Posted by Bill G  | September 9, 2012 at 7:21PM | Reply

Everything. I have on your site has been fantastic, PLEASE keep up the good work :-)

Posted by Thanh Pham  | September 11, 2012 at 1:53PM

Thank you Bill! We’ll keep on trucking :)

Posted by Torbjorn  | August 23, 2012 at 11:41AM | Reply

Love it. Setting boundaries IS a tough issue because -as you touched on- so many people do have social anxiety so they’re unable to assert themselves. I read once that one of the easiest ways to stay happy is to often let others know how they can keep you happy — it takes a lot of bravery to do just that. Really does, but it works.

THis is great, I’m stoked that I found your blog and I’ve only read one or two of your pieces. (added to my reader RSS!)

Keep it up,

Posted by Aaron Lynn  | August 23, 2012 at 10:39PM

Thanks Torbjorn, glad you’re enjoying our articles!

– Aaron

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