how to handle nosy coworkers around the holidays

If you’re bracing yourself to deal with nosy coworkers at your company holiday party asking why you didn’t bring a date or when you plan to finally have kids, I have some advice for you on fending off the nosy and persistent!

I wrote a piece for Intuit QuickBase’s Fast Track blog on how to stand your ground when faced with intrusive questions. You can read it here. (It’s a repeat while my thumb continues to recover!)

{ 90 comments… read them below }

  1. Katie the Fed*

    You guys, someone asked me at work when my husband and I are planning to have kids (of course, now that I’ve been married two months). I gave a non-committal “oh, in a couple years probably” and she told me I should consider freezing my eggs.


      1. Katie the Fed*

        I just busted out laughing, because, seriously? And I said “ummmm let’s never discuss my eggs again, ok?”

          1. Katie the Fed*

            No, no she didn’t. She started in on discussing it more and I cut her off.

            People! They’re the worst!

            1. Mephyle*

              Amazing! (but perhaps not surprising) that “let’s not discuss my eggs any more” went from your mouth to her ear, and what went into her brain was “let’s discuss it more.”

    1. Diet Coke Addict*

      Oh my god, my boss’s wife has asked me that multiple times and I’ve been married since April. “So….when are the babies?” “Oh, hahahaha, umm….I’m just going to get a drink of water!” (But this is the same woman who came into the office over the summer and told me “Oh, my son and I just looooved your profile picture on facebook! I called him over to look at it!” [It was a wedding picture. He is ten.] And when I mentioned I was allergic to spinach, she said “Oh, so, what happens when you eat it? Do you die, or throw up, or what?” so let’s be honest, social graces aren’t paramount here.)

      1. ThursdaysGeek*

        I’d respond, “I die. And it’s already happened twice. I know better than to eat it again.”

        1. Not So NewReader*

          My thought exactly. I think I’d have some great white light story to tell that really rattle her.

      2. Night Cheese*

        Allergy questions are so annoying! I know what I can and cannot eat, therefore, nobody needs to be concerned about it except me and my allergist. Gosh.

        1. Formerly Bee*

          People ask me about lactose intolerance reactions.


          Allergy or sensitivity or whatever reactions usually aren’t pleasant to hear about!

          1. MinB*

            Right? My work has a ton of potluck parties where spouses are invited. My husband has celiac disease. It comes up every time and every time people want all the details on what celiac does to him. Seriously, we’re all standing around eating – please just take “oh, you don’t really want to know!’ as an answer!

    2. Cath in Canada*

      Oh, the joy of the “you just got married so of course you’re going to start breeding immediately!”

      I usually answer (for me, or for anyone else who’s being asked within earshot), “you, uh, you know that’s not actually compulsory, right?” In a tone of voice that makes it sounds like I suspect they don’t actually know that.

        1. AdAgencyChick*

          I wish I had had that response when I got married! One boundary-ignoring coworker kept pressing and pressing and saying, “You’re totally going to breed as soon as you get married! You’re 30, so don’t lie to me!”

          Yeah, five years later and still no kids. That’s what it took to shut him up (though my family won’t).

          1. Adonday Veeah*

            Sad but true — family never shuts up. My mom is still hoping I’ll settle down and find a nice man to take care of me. I’m 62.

          2. Not So NewReader*

            Or you could tell him you plan on having ten kids. It’s might be fun to watch the reaction over time, when that does not happen.

      1. Mike C.*

        It’s so creepy when people ask those questions! Then you get the snide “well when you have kids X/Y/Z will be different!!!1!” that come straight out of nowhere. Either that or “it’s going to happen at some point!!”

        Excuse me, what do you mean by “when”? Are you actively cheering for our choices in birth control to fail and for us to bring children into the world that we didn’t want nor plan for? WTF is wrong with you!?

    3. Darth Admin*

      Did you tell her that every time you try freezing your eggs, it makes it really hard to scramble them with cheese?

      Srsly tho – who is raising these yahoos?

    4. Kyrielle*

      …wow. Wow.

      I have a particular someone in our office (whom I actually generally get along with, and sometimes discuss non-work topics, so we are vaguely friends as well as coworkers), who keeps telling me I should have another child – preferably twins. Um, okay, that’s something my husband and I get input on (as far as the first part), and biology gets input on if we decide to try for another child (as far as both parts), and uh, you are not biology nor my husband.

  2. Jane*

    When I’m feeling saucy, I like to purposely confuse the person giving unsolicited advice by responding “thank you” and smiling in earnest. It really throws people off and they’re not sure how to respond.

  3. Joey*

    I’ve had the opposite problem- employees trying to tell me all about their relationship problems, dating exploits, family problems, etc… Someone once told me about how she wanted to “move to the next level” with the guy she was dating, but couldn’t until the pimples on her ass went away.
    Do I look like some sort of therapist or what?

    1. Not So NewReader*

      “Oh thanks so much for sharing that!”

      I have found in these cases that unsolicited advice helps to drive away people like this. Unsolicited advice does have a place and a purpose.

  4. Elle*

    When people ask when me and my husband are planning on having children I just look them dead in the eye and say, “We can’t bear children.” Normally people assume it’s a medical issue that I’m all torn up about and ever ask again rather than that we’re childfree by choice :)

    1. YourCdnFriend*

      A friend once responded to a nosy aunt “you can crate train children right? Like puppies?”

      She was never asked about her child bearing plans again.

    2. Lizzie*

      I have rarely been asked about my reproductive plans (I’m in a long term relationship but not married), but on the few occasions when it’s happened I say something to the effect of “Not until they perfect uterine replicator technology.”

  5. nep*

    Good advice — be direct. The response I like best is ‘Please don’t ask me personal questions like that.’ Full stop.
    No need to apologise or feel bad about shutting down a nosy person.

    1. Changing the Subject*

      Yup. The only thing that has worked for me personally (at work) is “I’m not comfortable discussing that.” Sometimes it results in an awkward silence but thankfully, my current coworkers seem to realize immediately that they’ve overstepped. They promptly change subject. As it is, almost all of them aren’t nosy. I’m very happy about that!

  6. soitgoes*

    I usually respond to comments/questions about my single status with, “If you know any single men around the age of 30 who are interested in being in a committed relationship, I’d be happy to take their numbers.” They usually dont; a good number of eligible men who are single at 30 are single by choice. It’s a bit of an emotionally raw thing to say, but the expectation that women my age should be hunkered down with husbands while my male peers can sow their wild oats (as if we’re not supposed to be dating EACH OTHER) is a contradiction that a lot of people don’t grasp on their own. It makes them feel stupid so they shut up.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Well played. Sometimes going to the next logical step in THEIR train of thought shows people how out of bounds their questions or statements are.

      1. soitgoes*

        No, because there are very few men in my age group who are single but looking for potential long-term relationships. Do you know any 30-year-old single men who want girlfriends? I’d actually enjoy meeting up with a new guy for a drink, if anyone wanted to initiate a set-up. I can’t tell you how many times someone has tried to set me up, but when I said, “First please ask him if he’s open to something real,” the response is, “Well….he’s not looking for anything serious right now.”

  7. Karen (another fed)*

    We’re having an SO-free holiday party. Not intentionally, they’re just all not coming. It’s kind of awesome. And there are only five of us, so conversations about reproductive habits aren’t likely to come up. (The trick will be to stop working and focus on Cards Against Humanity.)

      1. Sherm*

        Yeah, Cards Against Humanity is a little embarrassing to play even with close friends, so if you haven’t played before, go through a few of the cards and make sure it’s SFW (Safe For Work).

  8. nep*

    My being single is about as relevant in the workplace setting as someone else being married. Not at all.

  9. TheSockMonkey*

    My favorite response to when I will have a baby is 9 months after I conceive.

    Or, when I really feel like shutting someone up “well…we just tried last night.”

    I came upon my boss and some coworkers making bets about who would next get pregnant and go on maternity leave and those are the two answers I gave.

    Not anyone’s business.

    1. Karowen*

      Or tell them you’re practicing – you want to make sure you really have it down right before you start trying.

    2. dragonzflame*

      My stock-standard answer is, “well, not anytime within the next nine months.”

      I got asked AT MY WEDDING when we were going to start procreating. And it was literally right after the ceremony, you know when you kiss and everyone cheers and you go round hugging everyone. Jeez, at least let me get these bobby pins out before I have to think about any of that.

  10. Student*

    Am I the only person who doesn’t get embarrassed by saying, “I’m not having children. I don’t want them.” If curious follow-up questions come along, I don’t really mind telling nosy strangers that I’ve voluntarily sterilized myself and have no concept of how to raise children and no interest in learning.

    If that doesn’t make them slink away from me like I’m a hobgoblin, or at least shut up, I’ll even tell them some version of why I don’t want children, depending on how much I want to horrify them.

    1. tt*

      Some people respond to “I don’t want to have children” as an opportunity to argue with you about all the reasons you should have children. I’d prefer to disconnect from the conversation rather , than going into details of my reasons for not wanting children, at least with people I don’t know well. In a social conversation with coworkers (that I don’t know well) about marriage and family, I managed to nonchalantly say “children are a non-issue” and everyone just let it be.

    2. periwinkle*

      I’ve never been embarrassed to say that. Actually, my usual response to the kid question was, “ewww, no.” Oddly enough, only strangers and casual new acquaintances ever brought the topic up. Anyone who knew me at least slightly seemed content – nay, reassured – that I did not plan to breed. Hmm.

      My current co-workers are friendly and social but non-nosy. Every time I read AAM I feel a wave of gratitude for being hired into this team!

    3. Sidra*

      I’m with you. I don’t have any problem saying I am not having children by choice and I don’t really see it as this BIG DEAL that a lot of childfree people see it as. Honestly, most people just go “Oh, really?” or something else puzzled, but polite. I’ve only had two people I work with ever follow-up on that (months later) with a “Are you really not going to have kids?” I think it’s because I always say , “I love being an aunt, and that’s plenty for me!” or something similar. I often wonder if other childfree people get so much flack because they’re approaching it in an adversarial fashion.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I’ve come to believe that this must vary by region. I’ve always been matter of fact about not wanting kids and it hasn’t been a big deal (except for one uncle who lectured me on my “responsibility” to breed to pass along “our brilliant genes”). But I think there are areas of the country where it’s (a) seen as much more remarkable and (b) seen as something it’s okay for other people to express surprise/confusion/sadness about.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          And that whole conversation skates by the part that if you had kids you would probably not have time for this blog that touches the lives of millions. There is more than one way to pass on our brilliance.

      2. Pennalynn Lott*

        I’ve been told more times than I can count that by being childfree by choice, I am being “selfish”, “self-centered” and “immature”. I’ve also then had people who finally believe I really mean it when I say I don’t want kids, follow up by saying, “But if you do get pregnant, you’d still have the baby, right?” in a panicky voice that indicates they can’t bear the thought that anyone they know might get an abortion.

        I live in Texas.

    4. soitgoes*

      A lot of people see a plain “no” as an opportunity to engage you in a debate or to try to convince you that you’ll change your mind. It’s a hard conversation to have when you’re single and would rather be in a relationship; when other people act like it’s just so easy to get partnered and pregnant SO YOU SHOULD DO IT RIGHT AWAY, it can make you feel terrible, especially this time of year. It’s a personal bone of contention for me, but I know I’m not the only one who sometimes feels insecure about being the only single person in the office.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        This ticks me off when people are like that. A married person can end up alone tomorrow! We don’t know what tomorrow brings for anyone. Not that I wish anything on these folks but just because you have someone and/or kids does not mean you are set for life.

        1. soitgoes*

          Yeah, and they don’t realize that they’re not having the same conversation that I am. They think I’m against marriage because I’m not married, so they approach the discussion like it’s an academic debate. My stance is, “I’d actually like to be married eventually. You don’t need to change my mind. I already agree with you, and on top of that, now I’m sad too.”

          I’m taking this personally, and that’s the point. It IS personal.

    5. Kai*

      I actually don’t mind the question and have no problem telling people no, we don’t want children. But it’s the assumptions that really bug me. There is a big difference between “are you going to have kids?” and “when do you plan on having kids?” Never, thanks very much, and what made you think I had any plans at all?

    6. Mike C.*

      Friends of mine don’t give a shit, but lots of people are personally offended that you aren’t having kids just like they did. It’s not everyone, but it’s enough that it’s really irritating and you don’t really know how those judgements are going to come back at you. My wife has gotten her share of “she’s not living up to the highest calling of a woman” and similar shit, and I worry that I’m not going to be seen as “responsible” because I’m not “a good family man”.

      The fact of the matter is this – I don’t like children. I don’t want to be responsible for children. I hate media that is aimed at children. I don’t want to deal with it. I’m more than happy to pay for schools and the like for them because I support society as a whole, but quit telling me that I’m some failure of a human being because I don’t want kids of my own.

      1. nep*

        Let them tell you that all they want. Doesn’t make them right and doesn’t make you wrong.

        ‘I worry that I’m not going to be seen as “responsible” because I’m not “a good family man”.’ You really worry about that? You know who you are — why would someone’s thinking this have any impact on you?

    7. nep*

      Zero problem here saying ‘Don’t want children — never have.’ Not my responsibility or problem how that grabs people.

  11. Victoria, Please*

    Thanking heaven for my professional workplace in which the most personal thing that’s ever asked is, “Any fun plans for the weekend?” or, if someone has been out with a sick family member or whatever, “How’s your [family member]? Oh great, so glad to hear she’s doing better/oh dear, sorry to hear that she’s still sick, can I help you in any way?”

  12. Isabelle*

    Asking people when they are going to have children needs to become a taboo topic.
    It is disrespectful to those who are childless for whatever reason, and annoying for the childfree who shouldn’t have to justify their life choices. Most of all, it is horrible for people who had a child who died and who don’t need an insensitive person reminding them of their loss.

      1. Mike C.*

        It’s interesting to me that so many “Ms. Manners” sources say that it’s a taboo subject but so many ignore it. I wonder why that is.

  13. Lizzie*

    I love my job, but one of the major downsides of working in such a female-dominated environment (elementary education) is that things like marriage and babies – two issues on which I hold a minority opinion (“good for you, not for me”) – will almost certainly always be fair game.

    1. Rebecca*

      I’m an elementary school teacher to so I hear you there. Luckily it’s split at my school (most of us are between 22-35) between those who are married versus unmarried so that question hardly ever comes up.

    2. Mike C.*

      I always saw that as a student, but now that I’m an adult I just have to wonder why that is. After all, no one else likes to take their work home…

  14. Formerly Bee*

    I haven’t done it, but I’ve thought about being completely honest in responses to personal questions:

    “Why aren’t you drinking?”
    “Alcoholism in the family.”

    And so on. I don’t do it because I don’t want to be rude, but it would certainly teach people to stop asking personal questions!

    1. Maxwell Edison*

      For some reason I rarely get asked intrusive personal questions; I’ve almost wished someone would ask me if we were going to have another kid, because I would have cheerfully gone into the gory (literally) details of various gyn problems and why those made another kid impossible.

  15. Another Private Person*

    Nosy people are the bane of my existence. Unfortunately, I seem to attract them. The combination of being quiet and unconventional always gets them interested.

    The question is how do you get them to leave you alone when you’ve already tried asserting your boundaries in the obvious ways? Some nosy people just see that as a challenge and become more interested.

  16. Chiq*

    I got married at 19. From the day we announced our engagement, coworkers openly speculated that I was either pregnant or trying to get pregnant. They all thought it was very funny to ask nosy questions and make unfunny jokes about shotgun weddings. I didn’t have enough life experience to handle it well so it just added to the other stresses (organizing a wedding in another state; arguing with parents about location and style of wedding; finances; taking leave; guest lists; etc). As I got older I found that a pleasant “oh, plenty of time for that yet” usually shut people up when they asked when I was having kids.

    What really annoys me is that men never (or maybe v rarely) get asked this. Also there is no career impact on men if they answer yes/no/soon/etc, whereas The Nosy Ones are often sneakily trying to figure out whether women will still be working in a year’s time.

    Being now pregnant (10 yrs later) I’ve been surprised at how many people ask whether we have been trying for long or was it a surprise!! Seriously people, mind your own business. My response has been “that’s a bit personal” but one day I might just snap and ask the Nosy One how the hell they think any sane person is going to answer that one.
    The only tip I can give is that most Nosy Ones know they are nosy and don’t object to being shut down, or they are drunk and won’t remember the next day anyway. Don’t feel obligated to get into a conversation you don’t want to have.

  17. MaggietheCat*

    I feel like I have read this advice so many times on here and STILL failed when a nosey co-worker put me in this situation the other day. On her *first day* with our company I was showing her around and issuing her equipment. Some of it was over the weight limit for me to be lifting while pregnant so I asked if she would mind loading it by herself. I don’t think I am obviously showing yet and have only told a few people in the office (basically as needed, in situations like this). She asked me the following all in a row 1) how old I was 2) if it was planned 3) if it took a long time/was difficult for me to get pregnant and 4) if we we’re planning to have more . I was so uncomfortable and “why do you ask / that’s really personal” flashed in my mind but I felt like that was too rude to say. I ended up telling her my age (awkward! In the South that is so rude) and then saying that I was blessed with this child when I was intended to have them and that’s how I felt about future children. I really wished I had handled it differently, and let her know her barrage of questions was over the line. It was really awkward because I didn’t know her at all and had spent the day ensuring feel super comfortable/welcome on her first day. Any advice? Especially from people who are less direct/ maybe were raised in the South to be accommodating and “polite” in situations (to a fault / your own discomfort)?

  18. Chiq*

    Hi Maggie, some possible options for you:
    “I have another appointment so unfortunately can’t stay to chat.”
    “Actually I’ve deliberately avoided discussing my pregnancy journey around the office out of respect for those who have had real difficulty conceiving.”
    “I really need to focus on your first day’s schedule right now as we have a very busy day.”
    Or alternatively, readjust your mindset to give yourself permission to set boundaries, and just say “that’s very personal!” with a laugh and immediately change the subject. That person won’t ask again! Best wishes for your pregnancy.

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