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The question

I'm forty-something and work in a sea of cubicles. My cube-mate is a fresh-from-university male grad, mid-twenties. The thing is: he's a mooch. At first, it was the odd Kleenex.

Then it was frequent Kleenex usage, without asking. Then the daily inquiry if I have gum. Then: "Can I borrow your hand cream?" A minute ago he asked if I had crackers, then "confessed" he saw some in my cupboard. Sometimes I tell him I have no gum, even though I do. But he catches me chewing, then asks for some. If I hide my hand cream, he'll see me using it, then pounce. Now my cubicle buddy has added spying. He peeks at my screen.

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"What are you working on?" He just asked me to divulge details of a private conversation with a co-worker. What should I do, apart from being blunt and telling him I'm not his mother?

The answer

I'm always telling my wife there are two types in this world: interest-based organisms (pursue their interests in a relatively guilt-free environment), and guilt-based organisms.

Like you, she belongs in the latter category. All anybody has to do is ask her for some kind of favour and the guilt-wheels start turning in her dome.

It could be anything. "Could you wash my dog while I'm in Aruba?" "Would you grab some pink paint and help me throw a fresh coat on my nursery?" "Could I borrow your car to bring some fresh-killed hogs back from the market?"

Then she'll be all: Arggh, agonize, I don't feel like it, but this person really seems to need my help, what do I do, Dave, yadda yadda yadda. Ultimately, she does the favour.

That's because, like you, she is a decent, kind, charitable, giving human being.

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Or, as we used to call your kind when I lived in New York: a sucker.

Yeah, living in New York for a few years knocked a lot of that "guilt" out of me. Someone would ask you for something three times in the course of a city block.

Sometimes quite aggressively. One particular breed trod the line between beggar and mugger. I called them "buggers." They'd follow you around: "C'mon. please, I could use a couple of bucks … "

Then you'd turn a corner and be alone on some side street, and the "bugger" would straighten up and suddenly seem pretty big and tough: "I said I need a couple of bucks!"

Then there were the scamsters. One time a guy came up to me on Madison Avenue, all breathless: "My wife's in labour, my car broke down, I need to get to a hospital!" I gave him twenty bucks.

A few weeks later, same guy, same avenue, same schtick. "My wife's in labour, my car broke down, I need to get her to the hospital … "

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Slowly I came to realize that just because people ask you for something, it doesn't necessarily mean they deserve to have it given to them.

In fact, the most demanding ones are often the least deserving of your charity.

And so in time you harden your heart. Sad, but true. And I think it's time you harden yours vis-à-vis your cubicle "buddy."

Toughen up, sister! Establish boundaries. (Nowhere are boundaries more important than in a "sea of cubicles.")

Wean him off your charity. It sounds like the heart-hardening has begun, and you've started to say no to him. Good. Now increase the frequency.

And don't feel like you always need to have an excuse. Remember: It's your stuff! A simple "sorry," delivered with a rueful smile and shrug, then back to work, should suffice.

Maybe, if you want to send a pointed message, buy him a box of Kleenex with a note: "So you don't have to keep 'borrowing' mine."

If this seems harsh, remember also: This guy isn't really your "buddy." Just a pest. A classic parasite. And pests and parasites should be kept away from all major arteries and orifices.

As a matter of fact, I would exercise extreme caution with this bugger. He could be a rat in mooch clothing. All this folksy whatcha-doin', watcha-guys-talkin'-about, peeking-at-monitor stuff raises a red flag for me. He sounds like just the type to "befriend" you, amass information for a dossier, then turn stoolie to the boss.

If he persists, you may have to get a little stern. As always, be gentle yet firm. But he needs to understand you want him to keep his proboscis out of a) your work, b) your private conversations, c) your Kleenex.

It's for his own good. Maybe in university, everyone festively shared everything from T-shirts to deodorant. But he's in the real world now, and has to start bringing his own supplies to work.

David Eddie is the author of Chump Change, Housebroken: Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Dad and Damage Control, the book. [-space-]

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