how can I make my coworker stop talking to me?

A reader writes:

I recently joined a new company and got to know a colleague of mine, who happened to come on board on the same day as me. According to her, it’s for this reason that she confides a lot of her personal and professional matters to me during office hours. I even got a text message from her over the weekend, complaining about how she can’t stand our boss. Though I played smart by not dispensing any opinions on that, I feel that she has crossed the line of not knowing when to stop “harassing” her fellow colleagues about her personal / work-related issues.

How can I break it to her in a firm and yet polite way that I would very much prefer if she keeps her whinging to herself at a moderate level, and also not send me relentless e-mails (via our office email) to “chat with me” when I have specifically asked her not to talk to me while I’m trying to focus on my work here. She just doesn’t seem to get my drift. What should I do and say?

This is what I said to her when she tries to “chat with me” via our office email: “Please stop emailing me, as I’d like to focus on my work now. Thanks.”  I also said to her, “Please don’t send me work-related texts over the weekend. Appreciate it. Thanks.” I said this to her when she tried calling and sending me texts attempting to complain about her “discontentment” with our common boss. Were my two comments to her too rude, because I honestly think that she’s someone who only gets the hint with an “in-your-face” kind of comment?

It sounds like you’ve handled this exactly right so far: You’ve told her directly and assertively to stop emailing and texting you.  And I agree with you that when someone doesn’t respond to hints about this type of thing, you need to become more direct.

I’d continue being direct. The next time she stops by to chat, tell her, “Jane, I cannot chat during the work day because I need to focus on work.”  And say it every time until she stops — because if you’re inconsistent about it, she’ll probably keep trying.

Stop answering her emails (other than the ones actually related to work you’re doing, of course.) You can say to her at some point, “Hey, I’m not going to be answering these emails because I don’t have enough time during the day.”  Eventually, when she’s not getting any response, she’ll presumably stop.

You may need to repeat these strategies more than you’d need to for a normal person who responded to normal social cues, but this should eventually train her to leave you alone.

By the way, if you enjoyed her company and wanted to have a friendship with her outside of work hours, I’d say to ask her to have lunch with you occasionally … but it doesn’t sound like you particularly want to have that kind of relationship with her, and that’s fine.

There are some people out there who, if you give an inch, will take a mile when it comes to taking up your time at work. Unfortunately, all you can do is set and stick to firm boundaries. It sucks, because it can make you feel like you’re being overly harsh (note your questioning of yourself at the end of your letter), but you have to keep in mind that you’re doing it because that’s all the person will respond to.

{ 31 comments… read them below }

  1. Cannuck

    I once had a sweet, but chatty, coworker. We started on the same day and were both the youngest in the office. I ended up having to move to a different cubicle but he found me anyway.

  2. The Right Side

    Been stalking the page for quite some time but never posted before. Frankly, I think the OP was a bit rude in her responses but then again, I’m the type of person who prefers to put out there what I want to get back from the world and if you want to be cold and harsh, expect the world to treat you the same.

    You said you “got to know her” in the beginning, so it sounds like (and I’m not a relationship guru) you might have misled her and now you are turning around and just being, quite frankly, rude. There is nothing worse than working in a hostile environment and if you are too stuck on yourself to take 3 minutes 2-3x a day to listen, nod, and smile – well, I hope you find a job where you don’t need to work directly with human beings because you are incredibly inconsiderate and uncompassionate.

    Maybe she is struggling and you can’t take the time to say “Hey, I know that it can be difficult to learn the techniques of a new manager but what is it about him that you don’t like or are having problems with?” And maybe offer constructive criticism versus entirely blowing her off. If I hadn’t been blessed with the many of folks who offered up assistance throughout my career, I sure as heck would not be where I am today. The VP that I report to today is incredibly considerate and the day my husband left (for the 7th time) for the Middle East, I sat down in his office and let the tears fall. I’m usually not a crier but this day, I had just had it (I’m sick to death of the military) and he let me talk for a few minutes and regain my composure. I then apologized and of course he was incredibly understanding and even asked me the next day (and several times since – this was about a month ago) how I was holding up and how are my two young girls. I’m sure I stopped him from doing whatever he was doing that day but he, taking the five minutes he did, for me to have a “moment” was priceless. I was more embarrassed than anything but to be able to stop and listen to a coworker (people who see more than our spouses or children) for a couple minutes can mean the difference between a nervous breakdown and a job well done.

    Just getting to – don’t be so quick to blow people off. Someday you might need her for something (to fill in or answer a question) but you will have burned that bridge early on.

    And you do not have to respond to texts (how did she get your personal cell number, if I may ask??) or emails outside of work (although, being the go-getter I am, I am answering emails/texts nearly 24 hrs a day) but I don’t believe everyone has to. You obviously had her number, too, since you were able to identify the caller/texter. See? Sounds like you created a relationship with her and are now deciding you want nothing to do with her. I feel bad for her having to work with somebody so rude as yourself.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Hmmm, I think this advice is being misapplied here. Of course people should be there for others when needed, like your VP was for you — but you hadn’t been talking your VP’s ear off all the time before that day. Most decent humans will of course make time for people in need. But in the OP’s situation, the coworker is trying to talk to her all the time, even after being told that the OP needs to focus on work. So it’s different. I suspect that if the coworker hadn’t been soooo overbearing, the OP would be glad to talk with her on occasion. It’s the amount of interactions here, not the fact that it exists at all.

      1. The Right Side

        I’d still like to know why/when they exchanged personal cell numbers – sounds like there was a relationship initially. Plus, I do believe that the OP could offer her advice on how to handle her issues with the boss. “Talk to HR”, “Talk to the boss”, or maybe the other person is having a hard time understand the boss’ requests – what are the complaints about? I need more information. From what was received it sounds like she was talking to her about things and suddenly decided she didn’t want to. Not the best way to start off in a new work environment… I wouldn’t want to go into an office where someone already dislikes me. Politics – people. Smiles – wave – kiss the baby and pretend to be genuinely intrigued by everyone’s comments – smile – wave…

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          It sounds like giving advice would encourage the coworker to continue the problematic behavior (the constant distractions). Unfortunately, I think she’s forfeited the right to get advice from the OP by the boundary-crossing. The OP isn’t obligated by courtesy or general decency to open herself up to further boundary-crossing.

          (Re: the phone numbers, I’m assuming there’s an office phone list or the coworker just asked for her #.)

        2. Ms Enthusiasm

          I don’t think the OP is being rude. When they first met on their first day they probably did strike up a relationship and maybe even exchanged phone numbers. That was fine at first but now maybe the OP is realizing this person might seem a little unbalanced because of her constant complaints about the boss. The OP didn’t mention if she had any complaints or bad feelings about the boss. She mainly wants to distance herself from a coworker who is complaining and possibly bad mouthing the boss and company. I don’t blame her for wanting to get away from that. If the OP doesn’t feel the same way why should she be exposed to a bunch of negative remarks about a job she might love? Not to mention she might be worried that their conversations will be overheard or emails monitored and then she might get in trouble along with this other person.

          1. Jamie

            I don’t think she’s being rude, either.

            Texting even a trusted co-worker thoughts about the boss you wouldn’t say to her face is a really bad idea. Doing it to someone who isn’t receptive is crazy.

            People need to be able to take a hint – if they can’t then they need to deal with others being blunt.

            Personally I wouldn’t respond to any (non-work related) email or text. Alison is right – most people stop when they get no reply.

            Just a question – how familiar are you with your company’s IT policies? Most have some verbiage which makes it clear that there’s no right to privacy on the employers equipment or network. If she’s complaining about the boss to you, she may be doing it to others…if the boss gets curious a quick call to IT could give her some very unsettling reading. You don’t want any of it to have been generated from your email.

            Just saying.

        3. Long Time Admin

          Right Side, Lord but I’m glad I don’t work with you! Apparently, you’ve never run into the kind of person the OP is “working” with. This type of person doesn’t really want to work, doesn’t see anything wrong with constantly distracting others who want to work, and doesn’t get why people would rather work than socialize all day. Plus, she’s doing nothing but complaining about the boss. Possibly because the boss wants her to get to work!

          The OP’s replies are not rude in the least. This other chick, however, is completely without the social skills to get the message.

          OP, I think you should follow AAM’s advice. You don’t want people (especially your boss) to think that you’re as clueless and negative as your co-worker.

    2. Cassie

      I don’t think the OP is being rude. “Misled her”? It’s not like the OP offered to be the coworker’s stand-in therapist and is now reneging. I assume it’s normal that people are polite and courteous to their coworkers, maybe even becoming work friends, but some people just overstep their boundaries.

      I have a couple of coworkers that I have been friends with (although our “friendship” ebbs and flows) – for a while, we had lunch every day but nowadays, we go to lunch maybe once a month. They don’t seem to get the concept of me having work to do and not being able to chat with them. I was on the phone the other day when one of them kept trying to get my attention because she wanted some of the food I had on my desk. I wanted to yell “can’t you see I’m on the phone?!” but isn’t it just common sense not to bother someone who is on the phone?

      Besides, the OP and the coworker both started on the same day, so it’s not like the OP has a long history of dealing with the boss and can give the coworker advice on that.

      Anyway, back to the OP – I think it’s fine how she is handling the situation. Don’t reply to text messages, don’t reply to emails that aren’t work-related, and you might even want to not respond to work-related emails right away. What I mean is that email doesn’t need to be treated like IM where there is the expectation of a immediate response. Assuming the info isn’t needed ASAP, delaying a response for an hour or two wouldn’t be a bad idea. You’d be surprised at how often people can find answers themselves – it’s just most of the time, they think it’s quicker to ask their cubicle neighbor.

    3. Self Diagnosed Chatty Cathy

      As a self diagnosed chatty Cathy, I think you are dead wrong. Your advice has a weird blame-the-victim quality to it, for starters. You gave out your number… so no matter what you must take her calls? Er, no. Look, I tend to do this and I’m pretty aware of it. So, I know that it’s unlikely to be 3min, more like 20min. 20min x 3 is an hour which is extending that person’s day by 1/7 every day. That’s 20 unpaid hours every month because of their chatty colleague. That’s too much. Honestly, you sound like you might be a chatty Cathy too. And the worst part is that you also sound horribly judgmental. The problem with people, like you, who make their work network their support network is that they rely generally on people desiring to keep the peace not to obstruct their intrusive and overbearing nature. You sound like you expect, nay demand, everyone to support you, despite them only signing up to do their jobs, not be your friend/therapist/surrogate husband. Truth is… no one owes you anything.

  3. BiCoastal Curious

    What is Chatty Cathy’s agenda by bad mouthing the boss in writing via email and sms and trying to get you to respond? I work in a competitive environment where there is alot of game playing and personal agendas so I am naturally suspicious of talk like that. Coupled with constant negativity, I would keep away from her. This is a work place. Not a therapists office. You’re not required to talk to her about her feelings. If she has problems with your manager, keep it HER problem. Don’t let her suck you in and make it yours as well.

  4. Anonymous

    In the OP’s spot, I would have just ignored the emails and the texts. Just don’t reply. The best way to extinguish the behavior is to ignore it.

    For desk-side visits, when it’s obvious that the visitor wants to talk about non-work stuff, just say, “I’m sorry. I really don’t have time to talk right now,” and then go back to your work.

    Easy-peasy: no need to editorialize, get sucked into drama, be misinterpreted, or anything.

  5. Kelly O

    I don’t think the OP was being rude either.

    I have a couple of coworkers who talk way, way, WAY too much. I’ve found sometimes you have to physically just walk away, or flat out say “really, wow. Sorry to cut you off but I have to get X done” or something to that effect. At first I felt bad about doing it, because it felt like I was being rude but now I’m realizing that it’s either listen to this person go on about her grandson’s potty training, or another one going on about her son’s school issues, or get my work done on time. What matters in the long run for me at work is getting the work done.

    And when it comes down to it, we’re there to work. We’re not getting paid to play therapist, make best buddies, or even complain about things we could complain about. And in our office environment, the office doors that are open hear a lot of the chatter. I don’t want to be the one always standing around talking every time the CEO goes in his office.

  6. Joanna Reichert

    I’ve dealt with many long-winded talkers in my career, and the best thing you can do is be short, sweet and repetitive (though sometimes I’ve had to just walk away).

    “Well, hey, it’s been good talking to you.” – or – “Well, see you later.” Then go on your way.

    That’s about as concise as you can get.

    It’s not rude, it’s an absolute closing statement, and it’s not disingenuous – it’s not always ‘good’ talking to someone so simply use the second phrase. Since it’s technically rude to point out things in others that drive you crazy – even if they are a non-self-aware motormouth – you’re not guilty of it by wording your departure this way. If anything, you could accuse it as being a bit robotic – but that’s the point, to be non-engaging.

    I don’t think the OP is being rude. I am polite and cordial to everyone but I don’t want to be everyone’s friend – especially not at work. I’m here to work and get along with others – not hold hands, be a punching bag or be non-productive.

  7. Anonymous

    Ignore, ignore, ignore. Do not answer emails or texts unless they are work related, in terms of completing projects or anything that needs to be accomplished within the office setting. You do not need to be entrapped by her if she’s trying to set you up for failure by bashing the boss, and since you haven’t told anyone else, you are allowing her to continue.

    Might I suggest working with your cell phone company in getting a new number? If she asks why she can’t get through to you anymore, then just say you’ve been getting too much spam text messages and needed to change numbers. If she asks for your number again, explain again why you changed the number, maybe even being direct about it (“I’ve told you to stop texting me, but you refused to so I took matters into my own hands by changing my number.”)

    1. Samantha

      This – ignore, ignore, ignore. If you answer any non-work emails or texts all you do is tell her she needs to keep trying. You have to ignore them. Eventually she will quit because she’s not getting what she wants – any reaction from you. And I would also change the cell phone number.

      If she comes into your office wanting to talk to you just keep saying you don’t have time.

    2. Blanche

      Changing your number seems a bit drastic to avoid one person. I’ve never done it, but I think it’s possible to block texts/calls from certain numbers. Perhaps that’s what the OP should do instead of having to redistribute a new number to her existing (and presumably less intrusive or toxic) contacts.

      1. Joanna Reichert

        I agree.

        There’s no need to get this drastic over one person, a person who doesn’t pick up social cues and isn’t good with boundaries. Unless they’re being wackier than the OP is stating, this is mild compared to how crazy people can get, and can be circumvented with firm, kind, and repetitive actions.

      2. Anonymous

        I don’t believe all cell phone service providers allow/have the capability of blocking numbers. The last I heard, my provider doesn’t allow it. However, if anyone has AT&T and knows that we can, please let me know.

        You may think it’s a drastic measure, but I’m trying to give the OP another option in order to get this person off her back. I would stay away from a coworker who came to me to start bashing the boss. It’s an option, nonetheless.

        1. Cassie

          I think for smartphones, there are probably apps that will let you automatically decline incoming calls from a specific contact.

          Another option would be to sign up for a Google Voice number. Then give that number as your “new” cell number to the coworker. On Google Voice, you can set it up so that the coworker’s phone calls go directly to the Google Voice voicemail. (You can forward the Google Voice calls to your regular cellphone, but you don’t have to – especially if it’s only being used as a dummy number). You can even use Google Voice for text messaging.

        2. Anonymous

          AT&T can block up to a specific numbers (you have to call and put them on your ‘list’) and pay a fee. I can’t remember- it is somewhere between $5 – $15 a month.

  8. Anonymous

    There’s a woman at my workplace who is constantly trying to engage me in meaningless conversation when I’m trying to get work done. It’s very frustrating when I’m behind and trying like mad to catch up, and she comes in and greets me cheerily and expects me to turn around, face her, and participate in the conversation. She also interrupts meetings by phoning and knocking on my closed door, and has actually called my boss when I’ve told her (for at least the 3rd time) not to do that. The other thing is that I’m not really crazy about her work, either. She fills in for the best receptionist I’ve ever seen, and she makes all kinds of faux pas with customers and poor decisions with her work. I’ve tried the polite route, I’ve tried the humorous route, and I’ve tried sitting down with her in private to tell her why I won’t answer the door or the phone when I’m with someone, but her response tends to be clueless and childish. Just venting. Grrrrrr.

  9. Lynda

    The people who are advising OP to ignore, ignore, ignore are right. Just one addition – if you ignore repeatedly and then pay attention to your coworker, she’ll just think she needs to ask you MORE times to get a response. If you start ignoring, you have to follow through without even one mistake until she stops, or she’ll increase her behavior.

    1. Suz

      This whole thread is cracking me up. This is the exact same advice I got from a dog trainer regarding teaching my dog not to bark.

    2. Anonymous

      Most definitely. It is very difficult to ignore someone at first. It can take years, believe it or not, for someone to actually get the hint even if you never return a call or email. I know that for sure as I had to stop talking to someone seeing how toxic they turned out to be (thank God it was unrelated to work!).

      I see what you mean by ignoring and then paying attention. Perhaps ground rules should be set, such as telling the coworker, “I will only answer your emails or calls when it is a work project conversation – nothing more.” If she procedes to violate those terms and keeps boss-bashing, then you have to tune her out completely.

  10. Anonymous

    This is a very helpful thread, I don’t feel so alone with this issue! I have a coworker I have known for years from a previous company. She has recently been moved right next to me in an open office space. It is a small company and I rely on her to get product out the door. She works mainly in another area of the company but comes out to the office several times a day to check her email and “relax”. Unfortunately, I work at my desk all day and have alot of responsibility. She is a decent person and we have a long work history together, though she begins talking about her family and extended family and repeats the same stories over and over. She knows how busy I am, and has even asked me, “how can you do that?” (when I’ve been typing as she continues to talk). I have told my boss about the problem, as the coworker interferes significantly with my productivity. I’m too scared to be completely direct with her, as when you get on her bad side, there’s no returning to a respectful relationship. I have been better at continuing to type and trying to ignore her, but the direct side-by-side access makes it nearly impossible. She will get onto a site and download funny videos and say, “look at this guy, he looks just like my 3rd cousin” and other inane comments. I’m ready to look for another job – I know it sounds wimpy of me.

  11. sue

    I have a situation where myself and a coworker started working at the company at the same time. We have cubicles and this guy won’t shut up! He whines about the company, tells the same stories over and over, gives a negative opinion to everything say. The real problem is that I didn’t begin to realize this until I had become too entrenched in his toxic ways. I really want to completely pull away, but I fear that the abruptness would cause me alot of problems with this man. I happen to know he already talks behind my back; pulling out too quickly might put him over the edge and lead him to say horrible things about me to others. I just need him to back-off so that we can possibly move forward without too much fall-out.

  12. Ash

    I have recently been dealing with a very similar problem to the one raised here. My co-worker joined my team about 6 months after me, doing the exact same job, and it was left entirely to me to train him and show him everything, introduce him to everyone, etc. Given that we spent 8 hours together one on one, it was natrual for me to just be as friendly as possible, including some level of ‘personal’ conversation, and the exchange of phone numbers. I am natrually quite a friendly and open person but from this I have really learned a lesson.

    This person didn’t take long to step over the boundaries, started texting me at the weekend and evening, long long texts, sometimes work related, mostly not (but either way, I didn’t care to receive them), telling me a lot of personal things about his life (and it became clear he was a rather dark character) and trying to extract personal information about me all the time. I decided to stop responding to any texts and from that point he got quite nasty in the workplace, and starting sabotaging areas of the job, reporting to management things he felt I was doing wrong (without talking to me first) – a clear and nasty case of backstabbing. Thankfully the managers are on my side entirely and this is still going on, I now no longer even speak verbally to this co-worker as I have seen his true colours and I regret ever allowing the level of closeness we first had as it has been thoroughly used against me and I am clearly dealing with a person who is not playing with a full deck.

    Keep co-workers at work!

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