my otherwise lovely coworker keeps picking her nose in public (and the return of a niece)

My 13-year-old niece, A., has appeared here before — when she was 9, she and her older sister helped me answer this letter about a boss who was always making out with his girlfriend in his office, and when she was 10, they helped me answer this letter about a boss stopping up a toilet and asking someone else to plunge it. Today she’s back to help me answer another letter.

A reader writes:

I have a dedicated, but slightly quirky, coworker. She is competent, supportive, friendly and hard-working. She has one quirk that I don’t quite know how (or if!) to address.

She picks her nose. I don’t mean that she occasionally gets too eager with a tissue in the privacy of her own cubicle. I mean, in a meeting or while consulting a coworker in their office, she will pick her nose. This is not just scratching or rubbing. She is openly picking her nose and removing the contents into her lap.

This person is very sweet and a bit naive. She is enormously sympathetic and never wants to cause offense or injury to others. She is not originally from the U.S., but I have met many people from her home country and traveled there several times. I have seen nothing to indicate that their social norms around bodily functions are wildly different from those in my community. She has lived here for 20+ years, is happily married, and has a wide circle of friends and acquaintances.

So, what do I do? Should I do anything? I cringe at what others may think of her, but then I feel terrible imagining myself broaching the subject. I am not her supervisor, but I have been with the organization longer and I know she considers me a friend at work. Do I say something in the moment? Or do I wait to address it another time?

I understand that the answer may be “do nothing,” but I’m still curious. How would you address something that (in my mind) is a step or two beyond “unpleasant body odor” or “broccoli in the teeth”? Is it worth the embarrassment to address something that is unhygienic, but also potentially damaging to her otherwise positive reputation?

Here’s the conversation A. and I had about this letter by text.

A: I think that, unless people are making specific comments about her nose-picking, you should let the matter drop. It seems like she is widely liked and is, other than the nose-picking, a generally nice person to be around.

If people are making comments about it, you should have a private conversation with her about what people are saying. You should say that you are telling her this as a friend, and that you only want her to know what other people are saying about her, presumably behind her back.

Me: I think that’s a smart and kind answer. Will you say a bit about what your reasoning is for handling it that way?

A.: There is a possibility that it isn’t bothering other people as much as it is bothering you (although the chances of that being the case are pretty slim). It’s an awkward situation for everyone involved, so it is probably better for her to be told by a friend instead of another (possibly not so well-meaning) coworker.

Me: That makes sense. It would be a really awkward conversation for them both if she does decide to do it. Which isn’t a reason not to do it, but it’s a reason to proceed with a lot of caution and thoughtfulness about whether it’s something she really needs to address.

How do you think someone gets to adulthood without realizing that they shouldn’t pick their nose in public?

A.: I honestly have no idea. It could just be a habit that she has yet to break.

Me: If one of your parents was a public nose-picker, would you say something to them about it?

A.: Probably, considering that they are embarrassing themselves (and me…) in public.

Me: What about if a friend were doing it? (My theory is that it’s easier to call out parents on this stuff than friends.)

A.: I would see if other people are talking about it before confronting them. It depends on how close I am with them, though. If they were my best friend I might talk to them earlier than someone I wasn’t as close with.

Me: You are a good friend! Do you think you’d want someone to tell you if you had a gross habit that you didn’t realize you were doing?

A.: It depends on the situation, and if other people were commenting on it. But I probably would.

Me: One thing that’s interesting to me about this kind of situation is that I think most people feel like we’d want someone to alert us if we were doing something that the rest of the world found gross or offensive or rude … but that it’s actually pretty hard to be the one who speaks up and says something. Why do you think that is? (If you agree with that.)

A.: I do agree with that, and I think that people are worried about the person they are confronting getting offended. When in reality, most people would want to know what other people are thinking.

Me: Yes! And people worry about causing tension in the relationship. Or just having to have an uncomfortable conversation. No one wants to do it.

A.: Right. Just like most people are awkward about telling people that they have something in their teeth or that their fly is down.

Me: Yes, exactly! (This is actually what my book is about — it’s the wording to use for all kinds of tricky conversations at work. Although I didn’t think to include nose picking.) Okay, any final thoughts on this letter, nose picking in general, or awkward conversations?

A.: Not really. Just that people need to remember that if a confrontation about something like nose picking seems awkward, the other person will probably be glad that you told them.

Me: That is excellent advice.

A.: I told my dad my response and he said that you need to *pick* your battles.

Postscript (from me): I do think it’s okay — and maybe even preferable — to let this go if you’re not up for addressing it. You’re not obligated to have an awkward conversation about this, but if you want to, the easiest way for both of you might be to say something in the moment when it’s happening, like “Is everything okay there?” or even “Is your nose okay?” It’s possible that she’s doing it unconsciously and that’ll be enough to make her realize it. Or you could go with something slightly more straightforward like “Hey, you’re often messing with your nose in meetings and I didn’t know if you realized you were doing it.” If you’re really close and/or you’re both pretty direct, there’s “Hey, that’s gross — cut it out” … but that one is hugely relationship-dependent.

{ 153 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Miss Nomer

    I agree with this, and will add that it might also depend on what you know about how she handles awkward conversations. I have one friend that I simply could not talk to about this because she takes everything incredibly personally and as an attack on her as a person. I have another friend who would laugh off the awkwardness and thank me for pointing it out. It depends on the person.

    Reply
    1. Myrin

      Oh goodness, that “takes everything incredibly personally” camp is the worst. My best friend during my later school years was like this – she once sulked for two weeks when I told her I’d had a nervous breakdown and was a general mess due to [exhausting, upsetting, and stressful events in my life] so I’d like to stop doing [activity I did with her regularly] for a couple of weeks. I’ll never get over that because it was such a bizarre situation. Weirdly, that particular personality trait ran in her family and she saw it very clearly in her dad and grandma but somehow not in herself (one of the most twilight moments I’ve ever had was when she said “I’m SO glad I’m not like grandma in this type of situation!!”; I bit my lip and said nothing but it weird-haunts me until this day). But you couldn’t bring it up, either, because then she’d take your comment that she takes everything personally, well, personally.

      Reply
      1. Specialk9

        I have noticed that the two narcissists I know both loudly proclaim how different they are from their horrible narcissist parents.

        One is the mom of my friend who I was in the verge of breaking up with because my friend was starting to follow her mother’s and grandmother’s path. She reversed path due to a terribly difficult conversation with me, with me ready to stop being friends, and a husband who saw the same trend and pushed back. It does seem that trait goes in families, though I don’t know enough to know if that’s learned or genetic, or if I’m just extrapolating from too small of a sample size.

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        1. Artemesia

          It took me incredible decades to recognize that some of the defects of my personality that I actually prized were in fact defects. And they were the typical behaviors of generations back. It is sad that it takes us a lifetime sometimes to shape up. I would have had a lot happier career and youth and middle age if I had developed some of the insights I have now earlier.

          Reply
    2. Princess Carolyn

      That’s a great thing to consider. In this co-worker’s position, I’d be mortified and maybe even defensive in the moment, but ultimately glad OP said something. I have to suspect that this co-worker either doesn’t realize she’s doing it (like a nervous tick), or thinks she’s being far more subtle than she is.

      Reply
      1. Miss Nomer

        That’s my suspicion too, and it’s a difficult thing to hear but I would want to know. I think at worst I’d tell the person how embarrassed I was and ask for a moment to re-compose myself, but it would be so much better to know.

        Reply
  2. strawberries and raspberries

    I love how you give your nieces all the gross ones (making out, poop, and now boogers), but I’m also pretty immature.

    Also, *pick* your battles? That’s an extreme dad pun right there.

    Reply
  3. Cruciatus

    While it’s happening I would ask quietly “do you need a tissue?” which I would happen to have on me. It brings attention that you noticed but also isn’t totally awkward. A little yes, but you’re offering a solution (of having tissues*). And then if it keeps happening after that then… I’d probably just let it go. Or keep offering tissues.
    *And based on today’s earlier post and my experience at work places, you will need to supply your own tissues!

    Reply
      1. Mabel

        I was coming here to say this, too. I was picking something out of my teeth when a coworker asked if I needed a toothpick. Hint received!

        Reply
    1. The Optimizer

      I like this – I’d buy a 6 pack of purse packs and have one handy to pass to her every time I saw it happening. Perhaps by the 6th time, it would sink in…

      Reply
    2. Muriel Heslop

      I’m a teacher and this is what I do. Offer a tissue!

      Eighth graders are usually pretty good about telling each other to stop doing gross stuff, but still.

      Reply
    3. LSP

      This is what I do with my 3-year old. He has a tendency to always have his fingers in either his mouth or nose (and often – unfortunately – moving between them).

      When his hand is moving to his nose, I will ask if he needs to blow his nose, or if he needs a tissue. He knows exactly what I’m getting at and will either a) accept the offer of a tissue, or b) say no, but put his hand back in his lap.

      Reply
      1. Boogers

        Booger eating can boost immunity! It doesn’t need to be unfortunate as long as you do it in private.

        My mom tried your approach and I would always just say no and keep picking. Being around peers that made fun of me is what stopped my behavior, not my parents! Now I just do it in private. :)

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        1. Blue Anne

          I totally do this in private too. Or when I think people can’t see me. I hope they can’t see me…

          Sometimes there is just stuff up there that is uncomfortable and can really only be removed with a finger.

          Reply
    4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

      This is brill—if said kindly and, as you note, quietly, it can alert the coworker to the fact that she’s doing it and gives her a chance to decide how to go forward. And it minimizes awkwardness. I like it!

      Reply
    5. The Other Dawn

      I do this to a friend that licks her fingers while eating. Yeah, there are times when finger-licking is fine, like when eating ribs at a barbecue or something (because there are never enough napkins in the world for that), but not at a restaurant when it’s clearly not a messy food. She also does it at my house when I make homemade popcorn with butter. Drives me insane, so I always ask if she needs a napkin. Most of the time she takes it, but many times she tells me no, that she’s fine.

      (Maybe I’m just weird about this sort of thing.)

      Reply
      1. Turtledove

        Doesn’t seem weird to me – licking your fingers before diving back into shared food is….ergh. I know that I have issues with licking my fingers when eating finger-foods (things like cookies or chips or – yes – popcorn) because of the tactile sensation of Food Residue on my fingers is distracting enough that I need to resolve it quickly and I usually don’t have a napkin handy and don’t want to wipe my fingers off on my clothes. But, knowing about that issue, I make an effort to *not* be gross about it by taking the step of separating out a portion of the food for myself so that I’m not dipping my hands into communal food.

        Maybe you could offer your friend a separate bowl, when making popcorn?

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        1. JessaB

          This is exactly why if I have party foods and dips that I break out the amazing cheap condiment cups you can buy in the picnic supply aisle. Rather than let everyone dip or double dip or whatever, they have their own sauce – and if they like something weird like combining a hot sauce with ranch or something mild to cut the spice, they can do that, so who cares if they double dip. And a plate or bowl each to dish out whatever dipping things are available. I never got the idea of one giant bowl of pop corn or chips, to be used by all.

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        2. The Other Dawn

          We use separate bowls and napkins are always right in front of us. It just drives me nuts because rather than use the napkin, she runs her fingers together and licks them. Like I said, maybe it’s just me being weird. I guess it’s a pet peeve.

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          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

            I think it would creep me out, too, TOD. I used to have a professor who would get chalk all over his fingers when he wrote on the chalkboard, and then he would place all of his fingers (sans thumb) up to the second knuckle from his fingertips into his mouth and lick the chalk off. And he did it so often that it was almost like a nervous tic. It was really nauseating to watch.

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          2. Laika

            Eep! I’m a finger-licker and somehow, until reading your comment, I never realized how it looks, or that it’s a bit… icky (I can appreciate why, objectively). Thank you for the reminder to be more conscious of it when I’m out and about!

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      2. name needed

        Using chopsticks is a sanitary way to share popcorn, and it avoids getting the toppings on your fingers! For a special treat we sometimes make buttered popcorn with furikake (seasoned roasted seaweed) strips and arare (yummy rice crackers) and chopsticks are a lifesaver.

        The other benefit is … you totally avoid mindlessly putting duds in your mouth!

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        1. Talvi

          Haha, I use chopsticks to eat sour candy! I can’t stand the feeling of sticky on my fingers, and this solves that quite neatly.

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      3. Middle Name Jane

        No, you are not weird. I have a coworker/friend who does this. It almost makes me gag. I have to look away, honestly.

        My mother is like Emily Gilmore when it comes to etiquette, and I was never allowed to show sloppy table manners when I was growing up. I never got away with licking my fingers or slurping liquids or not having a napkin in my lap. At the time it was a pain to be corrected for everything, but she told me one day I would thank her for it. And I have. I see the value in it now.

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      4. PaperTowel

        Oh god, finger licking! I have a friend who licks and even sucks on her fingers after seemingly every dip into the bag of chips or bite of whatever she is eating, the sound and visuals of it makes me feel incredibly nauseous to the extent that I struggle to eat around her myself. I love her to pieces but much prefer going to proper knife and fork formal meals with her as I know if she starts with it my stomach will turn and I lose my appetite.

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    6. Bolt

      YES!

      This is how my teacher shamed me into stopping my nose picking habit. She straight out asked in front of everyone if I needed a tissue and made me aware that people were actually paying attention. I had done it once more weeks later and she nearly lunged at me with a tissue in hand saying firmly “I think you need this”

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    7. Cassie

      When I was in school (high school, I think?), a classmate offered me a tissue when I was sniffling – I don’t know if he was being nice and offering me a tissue or if it was a passive-aggressive way to say “stop sniffling!”

      Ironically, I find the sounds of continuous sniffling to be torturous. I’ve thought about offering people tissues (a 40- minute bus ride with repetitive sniffling from a fellow bus rider makes me want to scream), but I don’t have the courage to do so and I might come off as being annoyed rather than helpful.

      Reply
      1. PaperTowel

        Plus tissues often don’t work. I’ve had colds so bad that even holding a tissue under my nose doesn’t help. It’s so awful when you physically can’t stop sniffing and everyone on the train is glaring and you just want to say out loud it’s so bad you can’t physically stop but would if you could!

        Reply
  4. Snorlax

    I could barely read this letter because the thought of watching someone pick her nose brings me close to vomiting (and that’s not an exaggeration). I wouldn’t be able to be around this person while she picked her nose and would have to say something. I’d start by offering a tissue and if that weren’t effective, I’d say “please don’t pick your nose in front of me” and deal with whatever consequences occur.

    Reply
    1. Esme Squalor

      Yeah, I’m with you on this one. The idea of a chronic nose-picker haunting the office would make me feel weird about everyday interactions with door handles and communal surfaces–and I by no means consider myself a germaphobe. I don’t think we’re alone on that reaction, either.

      The OP finding a compassionate way to gently steer her coworker away from this repulsive habit could genuinely help her career. I mean, who wants to offer the habitual nose-picker a promotion to manage other people? And when her manager is doing her annual review, does the coworker really want the phrase “snotty fingers” to be top-of-mind?

      Reply
      1. AnotherAlison

        Boogers and snot trigger my gag reflex, too, and I’ve lived with unrefined men for 20 years. Nothing about bodily functions should phase me at this point.

        I’m kind of wondering where the boogers end up. She wipes them in her lap? Are these dry enough that they fall to the floor when she stands up, and there are stray boogers around the office? Or are they stuck on her pants all day? I can imagine a scenario where one gets stuck on her hand and then I have to interact with her with the dirty hand waving around while she talks. So, I land on the side of gently telling her, just so I wouldn’t have to worry about all these things anymore.

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      2. Zombii

        The idea of a chronic nose-picker haunting the office

        I can beat that story. At a place I used to work, there was a dude who picked his nose in the breakroom (not every day, but most days) for the entirety of his half hour lunch break and collected the, um, results(?) on a paper plate that he was also eating off of. No one ever spoke to him about it that I’m aware of and I assume he didn’t have any way to realize this was something not done in public by most people, because he was blind.

        Reply
    2. Zara

      Me too. This is the kind of thing that would make it difficult for me to interact with a person because nose picking makes me feel ill.

      Reply
      1. But you don't have an accent

        I’m with you here; also, unless she’s sanitizing her hands after each pick there’s the issue of spreading germs and other things to office supplies that may be for community use.

        Reply
        1. fposte

          I suspect it’s not an unusually heightened risk, though; people blow their noses without washing their hands afterwards to similar effect, and there’s all kind of mouth-touching involved in eating with similar potential. The heightened social grossness doesn’t necessarily correlate with epidemiological grossness.

          Reply
          1. But you don't have an accent

            I guess I should say the “perceived” issue of spreading germs. I am what my family has dubbed a germaphobe and this would make me feel the need to use hand sanitizer/wash my hands if I had to handle anything she did.

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    3. Lori

      I’m with you. This is disgusting behavior. Blowing one’s nose is in no way akin to this. I agree with the offering of a tissue. If that doesn’t work I’d go with a gentle”I don’t think you realize you’re doing this”. If that doesn’t work, I’d go with “please don’t do that in front of me”.

      This person is touching various and sundry surfaces all over the office. The thought of that is making me gag.

      Reply
    4. Julia

      I’m pretty sure Snorlax has some disgusting habits as well. I mean, stuff yourself with all the food you can read and then fall asleep on the spot and snore away…

      (For those who don’t get the joke, I’m not attacking the user Snorlax, I’m talking about the pokémon they got their name from.)

      Reply
  5. Teapot Librarian

    I would guess that the coworker knows that picking one’s nose in public isn’t a thing that is done, but that it’s an unconscious behavior on her part. She might even know that she does it and be working on stopping, but it’s really hard to stop doing something that you don’t necessarily realize you’re doing in the moment.

    Reply
    1. AnonMarketer

      Agreed. She might have rhinotillexomania—compulsive nose picking.

      (Side note: I agree it’s unsettling, but as someone who grew up with a brother who picks his nose and still does, this is not nearly as gross as I think it probably should be to me, haha)

      Reply
      1. Jesmlet

        I have trichotillomania (compulsive hair pulling) and I really don’t notice I’m doing it until after I’ve started – and at that point if I’ve found a hair I want out, it’s nearly impossible to stop. The odds of her having the nose picking equivalent is small but a lot of us unconsciously do things in public that we know should probably remain private even without having a specific diagnosis for it.

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      2. Soon to be former fed

        She could still use tissue and not bare fingers. The grossness factor would be greatly reduced.

        Reply
    2. Soon to be former fed

      If she is concious of the nose picking, she should never be without kleenex. Sorry, even kindergartners know that this is socially unacceptable behavior. At least cover it up and dispose of the used tissue in a sanitary manner. Ugh.

      Reply
      1. Laika

        That’s a tough one. I’m a nail-biter and while I know consciously that I bite my nails, it can take a few minutes before I notice that I’m actually doing it. Mindfulness of those habits is *hard*, especially when I’m focused at work and my brain’s on auto-pilot (doubly so if I’m chewing my nails because I’m stressed, because then it’s like a self-soothing thing and it’s even harder to stop). I’m definitely sympathetic to the idea that she might not even know she’s doing it at the time.

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    1. Zephyrine

      Yes! A. sounds delightful and I kind of want to hang out with her over coffee (do 13-year-olds drink coffee these days? good lord I’m getting old) or ice cream or something. I even promise not to pick my nose. ;)

      Reply
    2. Princess Carolyn

      Yes and no. Niece A is obviously quite smart and thoughtful — not just for someone her age, but for anyone. And her tendency to go right for the “Is this behavior actually causing a problem or do you just not like it?” approach is Alison’s positive influence, I bet.

      At the same time, I think issues of kindness and friendship seem clearer to kids. The older we get, the more concerned we become with other people’s motivations and finding ways to manipulate (for lack of a better word) people into changing their behavior instead of deciding to either address it or leave it alone. Or maybe I’m overestimating tweens on the whole and Niece has exceptional clarity on these issues.

      Reply
      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        I love that when the nieces appear, you all give me the credit for their smarts and maturity rather than their parents! I mean, I will gladly accept it but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t me :)

        Reply
        1. Princess Carolyn

          Do you have a parent who’s good at identifying the real problem (or lack thereof) in tough situations? Maybe it’s a family thing. :)

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        2. JessaB

          It’s probably a family thing, because the people who raised you, Alison are also the people who helped raise Niece. It probably runs in your family because this stuff is learnt early for someone to grow up in a similar way to you.

          Reply
    3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

      I always come away from the niece-letters thinking that they are exceedingly thoughtful and disturbingly wise beyond their years.

      Reply
      1. Specialk9

        Lol I was sitting there thinking she’s 13 going on 80. And who (esp at her age) *texts* so clearly and fully?

        Reply
        1. ancolie

          I assume Alison told her that her responses were going to be posted. It doesn’t surprise me that she’d make sure her comments were thoughtful and complete.

          Reply
  6. Probably not the OP's coworker

    I’m going anonymous with this for obvious reasons, but does anyone have any advice for how adults can train themselves out of habits like this, including scratching, skin picking, etc? I’m unconscious of it until after or while I’m doing it. I don’t know why I wasn’t trained out of it as a kid but it’s decades later now.

    Reply
    1. fposte

      They are technically Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors, along with hair-pulling; those aren’t all that uncommon. Cognitive and behavioral therapies can be generally helpful, and I found an online site called stoppicking dot com that looked interesting.

      Reply
    2. Hopefully not coworker either

      Thank you for asking this. I have some similar tendencies that I worry about & was debating asking.

      Reply
    3. AnonMarketer

      Fellow trichster (compulsive hair puller) here!

      the TLC foundation is the best resource. Finding a competing behavior or a fiddle toy is usually the preferred method for “in the now” things. Squeezing stress balls, playing with silly putty; generally just keeping your hands busy. It takes A LOT of time, effort, and self-awareness, but it DOES work if you keep at it. :)

      Reply
      1. Colorado

        Fellow trich here too. I feel so shameful about it and try very hard in meetings to rein it in but sometimes I catch myself unconsciously doing it. It’s something I desperately need to work on.

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        1. AnonMarketer

          The best thing I found was wearing a wig! It’s easier for me to remember it’s WAY more bizarre to take off the wig in the middle of work, so I can’t take it off to pull.

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          1. Elfie

            That wouldn’t work for me :( I pull out virtually every body hair except the ones on my head (although mostly eyelashes and eyebrows). It seems I replaced nail-biting (a bit yucky-looking, but not so socially stigmatised) with other traits (like scratching, biting my lips, pulling hair, etc).

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            1. AnonMarketer

              Have you tried falsies? I’m a scalp-only puller, but I have acquaintances have various degrees of success as eyelash pullers with falsies since apparently eyelash glue can be a bit uncomfortable to take off.

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    4. Princess Carolyn

      I have some similar tendencies. When possible, I use fidget toys (not spinners!) to keep my hands occupied. I like Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty, but regular old silly putty could work, or any number of other items.

      In situations where others would be distracted by me quietly rolling the putty in my hands (usually large, very formal meetings, possibly with outsiders), I’ll fidget with my ring or necklace. But not my earrings! Because that grosses people out.

      During standing meetings, I keep my hands locked behind my back like we learned in dance class and sorority recruitment.

      Reply
      1. Jesmlet

        Same! Plenty of things on my desk to occupy my hands with and I keep myself busy enough that there’s no relaxed down time for me to go off and start pulling my hair out. Also, sit on my hands during meetings or continuously hold a pen and notepad. I’m a rare case where I pull hair on my arms and hands over anywhere else (my vanity took over when I noticed a bald patch on my head but I do have to pencil in my eyebrows). Not sure if this’ll help depending on what the compulsion is but I also keep my computer and lights around me as dim as possible so it’s harder to see the stray hairs on my arms. Also, this is very unscientific but if I catch myself doing it when I shouldn’t be, I dig my nails into those fingers as a pseudo aversion therapy. I don’t know if that’s the best advice but I feel like it works for me.

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      2. MegaMoose, Esq.

        Does fiddling with earrings really gross people out? I wear long-ish earrings and fiddle with them not infrequently – it never occurred to me that it might be bugging someone.

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        1. fposte

          I think it can gross or distract people, especially if they’re studs; it’s related to the old prohibition against fiddling with your body in general (like, no fiddling with your hair, either), because it’s essentially part of your body now. Though I also think fiddling in general tends to be distracting even when it’s with a fidget tool or a ring, so I would try to avoid all of it in more public situations like meetings.

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          1. MegaMoose, Esq.

            Huh, the more you know. I do try and avoid fidgeting generally while I’m in a meeting or talking to someone directly, but sitting at my desk is a different story.

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            1. Anon Anxious Tactile compulsions

              Right? I’m discovering that I probably gross a lot of folks out with my variety of tactile compulsions… Whoops. I guess part of me assumed this stuff was universal. I have this internal rhythm I am constantly driven by; I tap it on keyboard keys when I’m not typing, I bite my teeth to it, my fingers or a leg will be going to the rhythm… And this is beyond playing with jewelry, cuticles, earrings, knuckles, hair… And yes, sadly, nostrils (constant dry flakes in there).
              The weird part is that I’ve only ever been called out on the finger tapping. I would be very glad to know in the moment if I was inadvertently gross. So from a person who does this kind of thing, LW, please say something! I wish I was more than minimally aware of what I am doing, but I’m not!

              Reply
              1. Anon Nailbiter Extraordinaire

                Yes, me too, this thread has me discovering all the vaguely icky things I’m doing every day! I would also like to know if it were grossing out a coworker but no one has ever said anything to me about my various fiddlings with earrings/piercings/nails/lips etc. Honestly having done it my whole life, I’ve been under the impression that most people are genuinely not observant enough to notice them.

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        2. Dr. Johnny Fever

          Color me one who is grossed out by earring fiddling. I know earlobes are remarkably floppy but I’d rather not see it in action.

          Reply
    5. Anon for this as well

      I have a problem with chewing/picking at the skin around my fingernails, specifically my thumbs. This mostly happens when I am stressed out or feeling anxious (I have a well-documented generalized and social anxiety disorder diagnosis). I used to feign all sorts of terrible office supply or art-related accidents for the horrible shape of my thumbs, but now that I’ve gotten really okay with my diagnoses, it seems to be enough to be honest and say, “Oh, I pick at the skin around my thumbs when I am stressed out. It’s a nervous habit that I’ve been working on, but it still happens sometimes.”

      The good news is, as I’ve gotten more okay with my diagnoses, the better my thumbs have gotten.

      Reply
        1. kitryan

          I used to have this issue and I’ve mostly gotten over it by having nail files and clippers nearby at all times, so if there’s anything there for me to worry at I can trim it off cleanly and I file my nails when they’re at all ragged. If everything is smooth and tidy the compulsion (for me at least) is minimized or gone.

          Reply
    6. Also Anonymous

      I’m also going anonymous for this comment, but I wanted to say that I pick the skin on my lips until they bleed. It’s a disorder called Dermatillomania, and is related to OCD (which I also have). I try really hard to be discreet about it, but I’m sure people have noticed. I use lots of lip gloss and try to pick the skin when others aren’t around. I don’t see me quitting this–I’ve done it since I was a small child. And–this is going to sound terrible–but I get a high from the physical pain of it and from the feeling of it being forbidden or whatever.

      So I don’t really have any advice on how you can stop, but I am aware of when I do it and I make a point to be careful that people don’t see me with a bloody lip.

      Reply
      1. ..Kat..

        If you exfoliate your lips at night (don’t over do it!) with an electric toothbrush and then apply lip balm, this will smooth your lip skin and hopefully eliminate the nubby dried skin that you pick at. This might help – if you are looking for suggestions.

        Reply
    7. ..Kat..

      I am late to the party, but I am going to reply anyway.

      For the specific letter writer’s question, I agree that the kind response of “do you need a tissue” is both compassionate and addresses the issue. And it might even help curb the behavior.

      But, I also wanted to respond to the people who are talking about their own compulsions and asking for advise. These are Body Focused Repetitive Behaviors (see www dot bfrb dot org). Such as skin picking, hair pulling, nose picking, etc. Many people don’t understand these and just see them as a disgusting habit. Why can’t they just stop? The misunderstanding stems from (I believe) the difference between a habit and a Body Focused Repetitive Behavior (BFRB). A bad habit, such as nail biting, is easier to break. A BFRB, which can also be nail biting, is a compulsive, repetitive, anxiety disorder – and is much harder to deal with. In a BFRB, the behavior temporarily eases the anxiety and even makes the person feel better. Part of the behavior is playing with what has just been removed from the body (or even eating it!). For example, the hair puller will play with the removed hair, feeling the texture of it. She may even rub it against her lips, feeling the nub of the hair end that she has just pulled out. It feels even more satisfying if the hair root came out with the hair. (The nose picker might lower her hands with her successful prize (the booger!) to her lap and play with it. While this behavior temporarily makes her feel better, it also makes her feel much., much worse. She sees the bald spot. She agonizes over stopping. Maybe she no longer has eyebrows or eyelashes and feels ugly. She wears makeup to cover this, but avoids swimming (or any activity that will sweat off her concealing eye makeup). I say this not to squick people out, but to hopefully promote some understanding and compassion.

      For someone who has such compulsions, the web site www dot bfrb dot org has a lot of info, including about how to work on ceasing (or at least decreasing) the behaviors and the associated anxiety.

      For someone who is grossed out, remind yourself that this person has a compulsive, repetitive anxiety disorder. It is not about you. And yes, I take this advice myself. When dealing with a compulsive nose picker (whose kindness towards me was epic!), I focused on looking into her eyes, focusing on our conversation, and ignoring all else. When sitting on a long flight next to a compulsive skin picker, who picked her skin, ate it, picked skin flakes off her sweater and ate them too, I kept repeating “she has a compulsive, repetitive, anxiety disorder. Being on an overcrowded airplane is no one’s comfort place. This situation is worse for her than me. Be kind. Ignore it.” With any luck, I may have earned myself a nicer seat in hell.

      Anyway, just wanted to offer some info that I hope is helpful.

      Reply
      1. Anon Nailbiter Extraordinaire

        Thank you, thank you, thank you, for these resources and also a wonderfully compassionate reply. :)

        Reply
      2. Anon For This Comment

        Thank you so much for this reply. I’d never heard of body focused repetitive behaviours before this thread, but I suffer from so many of them. I’m going to check out the website, and I’m also going to talk to my counsellor about them, because although she’s helped with my depression, I do still feel like there are some things I’d like to control better. A quick question though – does self-harm come under the BFRB banner, or is it something different? Because when I was younger I used to cut myself, burn myself, and bruise myself, and like the poster above, I actually masochistically enjoyed the physical pain (it was nothing compared to the emotional pain I was going through, which was because I was depressed). Now I’m on medication, the depression is much, much better, but the compulsion to self-harm (even though I haven’t done it in 15 or so years) has never really left me, and I’m wondering if the BFRB behaviours are a less extreme form of that (I will often do it until it hurts). Or maybe I should just talk about it with my counsellor, instead of trying to diagnose myself on the internet!

        Reply
      3. DDJ

        Wow, thank you. I’m actually going to check that out.

        And I also realize I need to give my FIL (a “dig it out at the dinner table and eat it” nose-picker) a bit of a break, because the way he picks his nose and rubs his face and picks at his skin, this might actually be a compulsion rather than just a gross habit. I will try to be more compassionate, given that I have a similar issue – chewing the skin around my nails/cuticles and tearing it off (often to the point that there’s blood as well).

        I’m horribly self-conscious about it and I personally wouldn’t want to shake hands with me. I wash my hands constantly so it’s not like I’d be shaking someone’s hand after having my fingers in my mouth. But still…try as I might, I haven’t been able to stop it yet. I’ll go through good periods, but right now it looks like I jammed my fingers into the blades of a lawn mower.

        I didn’t even think that something like nose-picking could fall into the same category. I’m going to look up that resource you provided as well. Thank you.

        Reply
  7. Katie the Fed

    there’s a definitely cultural difference here – I’ve been really surprised in Africa and parts of Asia where people just openly pick. So it might actually be a kindness to pull her aside and suggest maybe she’d prefer to use a tissue for hygiene reasons.

    I’ve gotten much more comfortable with awkward conversations lately. I had to ask a chain smoker to change seats last week in a really strange seating arrangement (three of us were on one of side of a table as a panel, and I was on one end and he was in the middle – I needed him to be further away from because the smell was making me sick). And I’m about to ask the coworker who sits next to me to chew with his mouth closed because the sound is really gross.

    Reply
    1. DouDou Paille

      Yes it’s amazing how cultural practices in some other countries can vary so widely from what we in the U.S. consider “acceptable.” I once was at a huge trade show in South Africa with booths representing various countries around the continent. When I approached the Nigeria booth the gentleman at the front had his finger so far up his nose I thought he must be touching his brain. He saw me, continued to vigorously dig for about 20 seconds, then very matter-of-factly reached out his hand for a handshake. Eeeeeewwwwww

      Reply
    2. Connie-Lynne

      It’s so interesting to me that there’s another place where it’s considered acceptable in public– when I go out to work for Burningman in the summertime, nose picking becomes a completely acceptable behavior. There’s something about the environment that causes gigantic, stony boogers to build up in your nose, and if you don’t keep up, they can make it difficult to breathe or get kind of painful.

      So, people just pick their noses when it needs doing. Part of it, I think, too, is that there’s also not really a private spot to go away to that wouldn’t be really obvious and strange. But, as a friend once put it, “Burningman is the only place where you can be talking to someone you’re really into, and they’ll totally pick their nose, and instead of being grossed out, you think ‘Oh, I need to do that, too.'”

      Reply
  8. On The Road Again

    A similar situation recently arose in my workplace. A teammate was observed (by multiple people, repeatedly) picking his nose and, ugh, eating the contents. He displays other physical behaviors that make people uncomfortable, in particular flexing and popping his pecs and arm muscles (he’s a body-builder). Our lead addressed it in a routine one-on-one (which we were all getting) by saying “Some people have observed you doing this. Whether you are or not, that’s the perception. Do with that information what you will.”

    We travel to vendor sites for months on end, so ‘perception’ is really important for our team. We represent the company as a whole, so we have to be aware of the “shadow we cast” all the time. I’m sure you can imagine how it’d reflect on the company if this is our representation in the field.

    I don’t think our lead handled it perfectly, but I thought his comments gracefully addressed the issue while somewhat sidestepping it. Since he’s not this person’s direct supervisor, it wasn’t his place to necessarily tell him what to do; it was more of a feedback session after a week-long training. I’m not sure if I’d recommend this exact approach, but maybe a jumping off point for those awkward conversations.

    Reply
      1. On The Road Again

        This guy has been spotted doing it since that conversation, so I don’t think it really stuck. Honestly, he has a really odd personality on top of his physical, um, quirks, so I’m not sure what it’ll take to change his behavior. His direct supervisor isn’t exactly the most forthright, so I’m just kind of doing the wait-and-see. The best thing was when our director (so like our boss’s boss’s boss) sat next to him during a team meeting and he was doing it right then! Like, he clearly has no sense of himself if he’s willing to do that. Yuck!

        Reply
  9. Dolorous Bread

    I’d say something, worded as gently as possible (I like the “Do you need a tissue?” approach) because this is extremely unhygienic. I wouldn’t want to touch papers, etc that this person had touched after a good pick. Or if they’re OOO and you need their computer for something (which happens), I’d have to lysol wipe the keyboard before doing anything. I’m sure there are more people in the office who feel the same way.

    Reply
  10. Nathaniel

    It should be addressed as it is a hygenic issue. In private, the employee should be advised “I have noticed a behavior that should be corrected. Picking the nose must be done in a restroom and then you must wash your hands. Please do not do this in a general use area or in your workspace. Otherwise, things are great with your work. Have a nice day”

    Directness wins the day.

    Reply
  11. Anxiety Anonymous

    I agree with you and your niece (AAM: The Next Generation!).
    I wonder if the nose picking is a nervous habit. Which doesn’t necessarily mean she’s nervous- could be bored, daydreaming of a sort. Similar to biting one’s nails or even smoking. One trick is to find some other way to occupy your hands.
    I do hope the OP will talk to her coworker.

    Reply
    1. Specialk9

      Or if the co-worker has allergies or something that swells the nasal passages so anything in there is irritating.

      Reply
      1. fposte

        The thing is, 1) putting your fingers in your nose doesn’t help that much anyway and may make it worse and 2) that’s not enough to make it okay to do that in front of other people.

        Reply
  12. FDCA In Canada

    I’ve mentioned before that I work at a nonprofit employment centre focused on getting people back into the workforce, changing jobs, or entering the workforce for the first time. This has come up with shocking frequency, including people who will come into the office for an appointment or interview prep and just sit there casually rooting around inside their nose. (Or, occasionally, reaching into their clothing to scratch something else.) The phrasing we end up using is “I noticed [or notice] that you’re picking your nose, and I need to let you know that in most workplaces that isn’t acceptable. It can be very off-putting to people and it’s not very hygienic. In the future, please don’t do that at work.” That’s not something you could say to a coworker, of course–in that case I’d definitely go with the “do you need a tissue?” remark–but this is something that comes up with alarming frequency and I would have never, ever thought of it before.

    Reply
  13. A. Nona

    I have a therapist who plays with her nose a lot during sessions. It’s not REALLY annoying or anything, and she’s not picking it, she’s just playing with it. Anyway, I don’t address it with her because that would be so awkward.

    Reply
    1. Obvi Anon

      I appreciate this community because people (usually) take the time to post something thoughtful instead of being compelled to post an immediate reaction with no further insight that adds nothing to the conversation and may as well have been canceled instead of posted.

      Reply
  14. Emily

    I would absolutely want to know if I had a yucky habit like that.

    She clearly doesn’t realize that it’s considered gross.

    Reply
    1. Anon for this!

      This may not be true! My partner knows that their various picking habits are gross, but they have ADHD and other brain issues that mean I sometimes have to gently remind them they’re doing it. They appreciate the reminders and are worried that their coworkers secretly think they’re gross, but no one ever says anything, so they don’t even know if anyone’s noticed. I think it’s kind to keep in mind that a lot of habits like this are subconscious.

      Reply
  15. Anon for this

    Honestly this could be about me, I’ve always picked my nose because I’m unable to blow it and it’s often the only relief, but it’s also a compulsion. I can avoid doing it at work in an open office but then I’ve made my nose bleed during bathroom breaks because of the mounting irritation at not touching it. I never notice if anyone else is doing it but I know others do notice. If no ones said anything I’d just leave it because she might not be able to change and just end up self conscious instead

    Reply
    1. fposte

      It’s okay if she’s self-conscious, though. And it sounds like maybe you could use a little help with loosening the compulsion–have a look at the resources mentioned upthread.

      Reply
      1. Zombii

        Dear Alison,
        My otherwise lovely coworker keeps using a neti pot during meetings and it’s very distracting. What should I do?

        ;P

        Reply
  16. Death Rides a Pale Volvo

    Just so you know, I’m at my desk singing “Return of the niece” to the tune of “Return of the Mack.” Enjoy getting that earworm out of your head!

    Reply
    1. Specialk9

      Awwwww man. Those are the only words I know, too, so it’s an especially dire earworm!

      Return of the Mack, Return of the Mack, Return of the Mack, Return of the Mack, Return of the Mack, Return of the Mack,…

      Reply
  17. Jill

    The nose picking is a gross situation that you can deal with diplomatically, for example, as others have suggested, by offering tissue in the moment.

    But how do you handle the person in the restroom that you can clearly hear….voiding themselves….but who then does not wash their hands after?

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      We had a highly contentious letter about this years ago. I maintain that the proper response is to assume that there are all kinds of disgusting germs around your office (whether you see their source or not) and conduct yourself accordingly.

      Reply
    2. BananaPants

      I have several coworkers who use the bathroom and don’t wash hands. I can tell who it is because we don’t have a lot of women, and we tend to wear more distinctive/unique shoes that prove identifying when seen under a bathroom stall door.

      Two are originally from the same country and I’ve been told by a friend who’s been an expat there that many public restrooms have no running water or soap, and smell so awful that you’re not staying in there for long. She carried packets of wet wipes with her everywhere.

      Reply
    3. DDJ

      I assume (for the sake of my sanity) that they use hand sanitizer. Either directly outside the bathroom or as soon as they get back to their desk. Could be because the soap in the restrooms irritates their skin (or they have an allergy), could be because they find the idea of a public sink/tap/soap dispenser gross (especially if it’s not all turned on by motion sensors). But I have to believe, deep down, that they’re doing something.

      Reply
  18. Miss Ann Thrope

    I agree with others who say that she might not even know she’s doing it. When I’m thinking, I like to take out my nose ring and put it back in and/or twirl it around on my nose (it’s a stud that has a curved end that is inside my nose). I imagine that people think I’m picking my nose, so I try not to do it when I’m not by myself or at home, but it’s just something that I do while lost in thought or concentrating on something. It may be either of those or a nervous tick.

    Reply
    1. Anon Anxious Tactile compulsions

      Yup, me too, except I’m playing with gauges and a lip ring. I pinch the ring between my fingers and play with the cbr ball :-)

      I’m super relieved to hear from more people like me who have similar habits/compulsions because upthread I was starting to feel like gross-y gross-pants mcgrosserson. Doesn’t mean I don’t want to do better (and I would 100% be okay if someone spoke up), just means I’m not there yet.

      Reply
      1. DDJ

        I used to do that with my lip ring all the time. But I’m also quite…fastidiously clean, let’s say, so every time I realized I’d touched the lipring, I had to wash my hands.

        Reply
  19. Colorado

    I would have to say something in the moment because I would be dry heaving. This is one of the top things that sparks my gag reflex, this and snot spits (I’m actually gagging at my desk thinking about this). I would not be able to bear letting it go.

    Reply
  20. Soon to be former fed

    She should definitely be told about the nose picking, just like people should be told about broccoli on their teeth or men with open zippers. It’s mortifying when people let you engage in embarrassing activity because it’s a bit awkward to tell you. It’s a kindness though, just do it quckly and matter of factly.

    Reply
  21. SlickWilly

    Originally from China? I’ve had enough Chinese immigrant acquaintances pick nose in front of me that I assumed it was a normal thing in their culture. Also, no big deal unless they’re really mining for gold…

    Reply
  22. Wren

    I’m not sure I’d necessarily wait until I heard other people mentioning it. I think I’d try to say as kindly and gently as possible in a private moment, “Hey Friend, this is a kinda awkward, but I think maybe you don’t realize that you’re not as discreet about picking your nose in meetings as you think you are. Maybe you want to avoid doing that unless you’re truly in private?” I think this is gentle and not overly critical of nose-picking itself, and if she was not in fact aware that flagrant nose-picking was not a done thing, you’ve told her in a face saving manner.

    Reminding me of the time my husband told me that he grew up chewing with his mouth open until a friend in university told him he should keep his lips closed while chewing. I immediately sent her an email to thank her!

    Reply
  23. Rana

    Is anyone else feeling very itchy after reading all these comments? ::goes to look for the tissues::

    Reply
  24. Middle Name Jane

    How?? I just don’t understand how an adult sits around openly picking their nose in the workplace. And call me mean or insensitive, but I don’t think I could be friends with someone who does this. Just…gross.

    I like the idea about asking the coworker if she needs a tissue, but I wonder if she would take the hint and stop picking her nose in the future.

    Alison, I love your conversation with your niece.

    Reply
    1. Anon for this!

      It’s fine if you don’t want to be friends with a person who does this, but the answer to your “how?” is generally different brain wiring. The people I know who have “gross” habits like skin picking, trichotillomania, or nose picking are aware of their habit, embarrassed by it, and work hard not to do it in public so as not to bother others.

      Reply
      1. Middle Name Jane

        I read additional posts up thread about how nose picking can be considered a body focused repetitive disorder like skin picking or trichotillomania, and it makes sense. I hadn’t thought about it in those terms. My initial reaction to an adult openly picking their nose in public is negative, and I don’t think I could spend much time with someone who does this in public. It almost seems like the coworker is unaware that others see her or it doesn’t bother her. That’s why I think it would be kind of the OP–as her friend–to offer her a tissue. This is the kind of thing that could impact the coworker’s career advancement if her manager has noticed it.

        Reply
  25. EEW

    People harbor all kinds of bacteria in their noses, particularly MRSA & Staph. This problem should definitely be addressed to prevent her from spreading germs she may not even be aware she carries. I’m just disgusted thinking about her keyboard, mouse, and even her cell phone…yuck.

    Reply
    1. Middle Name Jane

      Very good point. I got a staph infection in my nose once that was caused by plucking a couple of hairs that had gotten too long and were sticking out of my nostril. It took several weeks and two different antibiotics to clear up the infection. Lesson learned–don’t mess with the nose!

      Reply
  26. Meg Danger

    I like A’s approach a lot. I would make one modification: Please don’t invoke other people (ie don’t mention other people talking about the co-worker’s nose picking). I think social pressure like that can make awkward feedback even worse, and you run the risk of taking focus from the behavior (nose-picking) and putting it on the co-workers relationships (Are my co-workers talking behind my back?). That said, however you deliver the feedback, it is more likely to be well received if it is delivered with kindness the way A suggests.

    Dad joke: You can pick your friends, you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose.

    Reply
  27. Kelly

    I. Would. Barf! Seriously, I’m super queasy with anything having to do with blowing nose when I’m eating, picking boogers, snorting nasal contents down one’s throat … ugh ugh ugh gag gag gag! If I witnessed this you wouldn’t have to say anything — my immediate retching would give it away in a nano second.

    Sorry, you have to tell her that’s inappropriate .. and WTF with putting them ON HER LAP! OMG!!!! NFW! Vomit inducing! This is worse than the lady who cleaned her dentures at her desk and combed her hair with a fork!

    Reply

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