can I tell coworkers I don’t want to chat when I arrive early and am working on personal projects?

A reader writes:

I have a part-time job with hours that change day-to-day, but due to carpooling arrangements I usually arrive early. Because of this, I’ll bring my laptop and work on personal projects, freelance artwork, etc. One of my coworkers likes to arrive early too, but apparently for the purpose of socializing. She’ll walk up to me when I’m working on my computer and ask whether I’m “busy” and if we can chat — which often lasts until one of us has a shift, sometimes up to an hour. I have a hard time saying that I am busy since the stuff I’m working on is not strictly job-related, but I do count on these hours to be productive and make headway in my projects (plus her abrupt “okay-we’re-talking-now” manner makes me really flustered and nervous as it is). Do I have a right to tell her that I’m busy when what I’m doing is not related to work? Obviously it would be rude if I was just playing games or wasting time on the Internet, but I feel like this is in a bit of a gray area.

To be fair, some of the digital art stuff does supplement my income, but this coworker (and others) will watch over my shoulder if they see me drawing. It makes me really uncomfortable but I’m not sure if I can justify telling them to stop, since I am the one bringing non-work stuff into a work environment. I don’t want to come across as a recluse, but at the same time it’s hard for me to sit through an hour of small talk when I know I could be surging ahead on projects that are important to me. How would you suggest going about all this?

It’s completely reasonable to say that you’re busy and can’t talk. She’s even giving you a clear opening to do that, when she first approaches you and asks if you’re busy.

It sounds like you’re feeling like you might not be entitled to say that since you’re in your workplace but not working on work things … but it really is perfectly okay.

I bet you’d find this easier if you were doing were something you had to complete and weren’t doing for fun — if you were, say, finishing your tax return on the day it was due or had to finish reading a book for a book club meeting that night (okay, you’re supposed to enjoy that last one, but it’s at least somewhat obligatory). It might help to think of it more like that — you have obligations that you’re attending to, and you’ve set aside this time to take care of them.

But even when that’s not the case — even if you were just knitting or reading for pleasure or zoning out before the day started, it’s really not rude to say, “Oh, now’s not a good time. I’m doing X before work starts.”

In your particular case, I’d say, “Actually I can’t talk — I’m setting aside this time before my shift to get a project done. I’ll talk with you later today!”

Telling people not to watch over your shoulder while you’re drawing is a little trickier. That’s one of those things where if you’re doing it in a public place, it’s hard to tell people not to watch. But you could certainly say something like, “It’s tough for me to draw when people are watching. But I’ll show it to you when I’m done if you’d like!”

{ 74 comments… read them below }

  1. Partly Cloudy

    I think it’s totally okay to ask people not to watch what you’re doing over your shoulder. Personal space, people. It’s one thing to take a quick glance, but to just stand there and stare is rude on their part. OP, where are you doing your personal work? Is it at your regular workspace or a common area like a break room?

    1. Stephanie

      I was wondering that myself. If you’re in a break room or common area, could you go to your workspace or an empty conference room?

      1. MK

        Though you really shouldn’t have to be forced to do that. Standing behind someone and watching what they are doing (other than a quick glance) is incredibly rude, a sort of staring-by-proxy.

      1. Anx

        I don’t think that’s a good long-term suggestion, as it requires either making continuous purchases you otherwise would not or using a business’s resources without compensating them.

    2. Taryn

      This. I don’t actually think it matters if you’re doing it in public or not — it’s still rude (and super obnoxious) to watch what someone is doing over their shoulder. One thing to see it, say “Oh that’s cool!”, and move on. Another to just stand there and watch. It’s weird and invasive, public space or no.

      1. Myrin

        I’ve also never met a single person who is okay with being watched over their shoulder, so I’m quite confused as to why someone would think that’s not an extremely uncomfortable-making thing to do.

    3. Dynamic Beige

      Yes, it’s rude for them to look but they’re going to because people are naturally curious and when you are creative (and they aren’t) they are just really interested in how that works.

      If you don’t want them to stare over your shoulder, the best way to stop that is to put yourself in a place where they aren’t able to have access. You can request they don’t look, or that they leave you alone, but if your back is to a wall or in a corner, they can’t walk up behind you and start, which will head them off at the pass. I would also suggest that you get/bring some headphones and start listening to music (or an audiobook/podcast) while you work. If after all that, someone insists on bothering you, “Sorry, I can’t talk now, I’ve got to get this done/a deadline/this idea out of my head while I’ve still got it” or something along those lines. It’s your personal time to spend how you wish and if you don’t want to get sucked into idle gossip, you’re going to have to enforce that boundary. You might want to start dropping hints along the lines of “It kind of sucks to go in so early, but I appreciate the lift, plus it gives me some time to do some personal/freelance work without being interrupted by TV/the dog. It’s nice to unwind like that for a bit before shift” to whomever — like your carpool people. I doubt you’ll ever be able to get them all to just stop, or decide that they would like to be equally productive during their downtime, so you’re just going to have to push off those you can and endure those you can’t.

    4. INTP

      Agreed. Someone might be doing it unconsciously out of curiosity but they should take this well and be willing to stop looking.

      If it’s hard to say, you can frame it as “Sorry, I have this weird quirk that I just hate people looking over my shoulder!” or “Sorry, I’m about to do some bill paying and I’d rather keep my screen private.”

  2. Kateyjl

    It’s not at all rude to use that time for personal work, even games. You could be catching up on personal emails or general reading. You ARE busy and that’s okay. Invest in a privacy screen to keep people from watching

    1. LBK

      Agreed. I feel kind of bad when I ignore my coworkers to play games or read AAM on my lunch break…but also that’s my free time in the office and if I want to use it to introvert and refresh a little before I get back to work, I think that should be my call.

      1. Alexis

        This. I’m a teacher and I have one or two people who will come up and start talking when I’m clearly busy. Even on lunch I’ll be busy introverting and checking my phone or making a to do list. Still busy– just in a different way. It’s not rude because you busy is still busy. Politely stating so usually is well received (in my experience).

    2. ella

      This. I don’t think it matters whether you’re doing work for money or playing solitaire. You absolutely have the right to ask others to leave you alone (in a respectful tone, of course).

      I’m lucky in that I work with a lot of introverts, and we’re all pretty good about leaving each other alone on break, because even though I’m not clocked in and am just reading a book or listening to a podcast, I really need that time to be not socially engaged and not interacting with people. I would not be super pleased with a woman hanging out and chatting with me for an hour before work, especially if I’d had it planned to do work or not be social during that hour.

    3. stellanor

      A privacy screen might not be the best idea for digital art. I have one I use for work and it distorts colors and reduces contrast kind of a lot.

  3. Camellia

    At least she is asking and giving you the opportunity to respond. Practice saying out loud the response you want to make to her and you won’t get so flustered because you will be prepared.

    I had a co-worker once that would see me reading and say, “Oh good, you’re not busy,” and then just start talking.

      1. JMegan

        Seriously. I once had someone interrupt me doing a crossword with “Are you THAT bored???”

        No, I’m not bored. I’m actually doing exactly what I want to be doing during my personal free time alone. Go away!

        1. Phyllis

          Ooh, that would get the dead eye stare with a flat “I beg your pardon” in response.

        2. Tiffy the Fed... Contractor

          Hahaha this reminds me of the time I was at a casual family function, and I picked up an encyclopedia and started reading it. I was tired (pregnant, worked all week – it was a Friday), it was chaotic (I’m a definite introvert and find most of my extended family’s functions exhausting), but I didn’t want to leave because my son was having a good time. And, despite how strange it sounds, I find reading the encyclopedia very interesting.

          My SIL and BIL called me out on it and asked me if I found the family that boring. I just gave them a polite smile, said I enjoyed reading the encyclopedia, and went back to reading. At least my husband gets me. He didn’t find it strange at all.

          1. VintageLydia USA

            I used to do this as a kid. Mom would find half the alphabet scattered around my room, in the toy box, under the bed, in the dresser….

      2. ella

        I just finally got old enough that people stopped asking me if I’m reading, “For fun or for school,” (followed inevitably by incredulity when I answered “For fun”). Yes indeed, some of us read for fun, and don’t want to talk all the damn time.

        1. Marcela

          Hehehe. That reminds me of something that happened everytime we invited somebody new to my parents’s place. They had a big library according to Chilean standards for middle class. I guess they had between 500 and 800 books, which is not so much to me now. The library was the dining room, so every wall had a bookcase. Well, everytime somebody new entered the room, they opened their eyes and asked us if we have read them all. “Sure”, we would say. “NO WAY”, was the inevitable reply. I did read everything in there, including some very boring philosophy books :D

          1. Artemesia

            Our last home was like this and the first thing we did in our new tiny tiny urban condo was put in a wall of book shelves in our bedroom — We gave away 75 boxes of books when we moved (and I donated a similarly professional library that I had at work). And every person who ever walked into our living room at home with books on every wall asked that question ‘have you read all of these.’ Of course.

        2. I'm a Little Teapot

          I’m always mystified by people who are amazed that OMG people read for fun! Or that libraries still exist. Do they seriously not have friends or family who read?

    1. Cath in Canada

      Ugh, horrid!

      I had a grad student come up to my desk once and ask if I had time for a question. I said “not until tomorrow, sorry – I’m on deadline today”. She said “oh, this won’t take long” and sat down anyway to ask a very complicated question related to one of her classes – nothing at all to do with me. I was flabbergasted! After a few seconds I managed to pull it together and say “no, seriously, I don’t have time for this today. I have a grant due at 5”. It still took a while to get rid of her…

      1. stellanor

        When I was a TA I had a student ask me if he could ask me something and when I said no, I had to go somewhere but please come to my office hours or make an appointment, he decided he was going to follow me there and ask me anyway. His question took the entire walk and he wanted to keep discussing it after I had arrived at the meeting I was going to. And then he tried to tell the people I was meeting that it was okay if he delayed our meeting because he just had a quick question.

    2. Anonsie

      Yeah, I’m a very chatty person and I always ask if people are free to talk or busy on something else first even if it’s a work related thing. But there are plenty of people who feel like they can’t say no and are very put out by it anyway, which is aggravating.

  4. Anonymous Educator

    You’ve probably already thought of this (if it’s a possibility), but is there any way for you to get your work done not at your computer? I fully agree the best way is to be direct (“As a matter of fact, I am busy, but I’ll catch up with you later”). It’s good to explore other possibilities, though. Any place in your workplace with a closed door? A local coffee shop?

    1. Artemesia

      If I were you I would do this — check for a coffee shop near your office. If that is not possible, it is in one of those sterile office parks or something try to locate some nook or cranny where you can coop with your computer. If you must be at work then invent if necessary a deadline you are meeting and let it be done that you do free lance work. This does of course mean you can’t play solitaire — but it is a way to deflect Chatty Cathy without the message being ‘Your very voice is as nails on a chalkboard.’

  5. Amethyst

    It’s definitely not rude to say that you’re busy. Just because you’re in a work space, even if it’s a common room, doesn’t mean that your time is up for grabs. Even if all you were doing was checking your email. You’re not obligated to entertain someone just because you’re sharing space.

    You could also try wearing headphones while you’re working on personal stuff. It might, mentally, make it easier to say “Yes, I’m busy.”

  6. Jamie

    Like most people in IT I’ve developed some tried and true ways to deal with the over the shoulder thing:

    The Polite Query As soon as someone is watching over your shoulder your fingers leave the keyboard immediately. Turn and politely ask “what?” Can also use “Can I help you with something?” or “Do you need something?” Tone is unfailingly polite and it is key that you do not resume doing anything except giving them your undivided attention. The vast majority of the time people will walk away on their own. For the bold who say they just wanted to see what you were doing you give them an noncommittal but still polite “oh okay” and reposition yourself so they can’t see the screen if possible, or just sit in awkward silence until they leave if at a desktop.

    The Mildly Annoyed Request Tone of weary bemusement is key – do not attempt this if you cannot keep an angry edge out of your voice. Stop typing and then say “I’m going to need you to take two giant steps backwards and to the side.” This is said while smiling and your smile needs to convey that you know it’s hard to look away because both you and what you are doing is so very fascinating and all of mankind would feel the same…but as understandable as their fervent interest in you it still needs to stop. Like you’re asking them to stop accidentally stepping on your foot rather than addressing a deliberate act of rudeness. Resume working. If they don’t move you stop again and say “Seriously?” with a smaller, tighter smile. Do not resume working until they have left the personal boundry area. In all my years in IT I’ve only had to break out the “seriously?” maybe 3 times.

    The I’m Not Playing Directive Tone is brusque but not rude and completely professional; no condescension but also softening it with banter. Immediately stop working and not only are you removing your hands from the keyboard but repositioning yourself to face them and say “I’m working on something, I need to get this done.” And wait for them to leave. If they persist you ask directly, if there is something they need from you because you really need to get this done.” Eye contact is unwavering, no smile/no dirty looks…flat affect. The look you’re going for is someone who is illegally parked behind you blocking you in and you’ve already asked them to move their car nicely. And they said they will, as soon as they finish the conversation they are having about the Kardashians which does not seem likely to end in your lifetime and you are anxious to go home and deal with your goldfish emergency. The look that says “are you kidding me that I have to escalate the ask on this?

    For work situations unlike the OP it’s easier – you tell the shoulder breathers that if you can feel their breath in your hair they are too close, give them an ETA on when you’ll call them to let them know you’re done. Bonus if your job is such that you can ask them why they are watching you when they are behind in X – asked nicely of course – it trains them not to linger.

    Key to all of these is to train your fingers to stop moving as soon as you sense someone behind you. Like hardwiring a weird psychological security application in your head.

    1. Jamie

      no condescension but also softening it with banter.

      Sorry I meant NO softening it with banter. Sometimes all the words are important.

      1. TotesMaGoats

        I read “softening it with butter.” I’m not sure what that says about me.

        1. Artemesia

          As an oldie I find that I often read headlines with my own words — I don’t recall doing that so much when I was younger, but now I often seem to fill in the blanks and not really read the and sort of do a mental double take and go back and re-read.

    2. LQ

      The last one being able to do it without a smile and without laughing or being overly nice (which is different from polite) or cheerful or friendly is a skill they should teach everyone in school. Completely flat.

      I really like the way you’ve laid them out here.

    3. IT Kat

      I’m not only in IT, but a writer… and I have a weird hangup about people reading first drafts of things, and people always want to know what you’re doing (especially if you say “Working on my novel”). I love your ideas – I’ve done a variation of the Polite Query before. Except after the bold who say they just wanted to see what I was working on, I’ve done a raised eyebrows, slightly surprised expression, and “….okay?”. This seems to drive home that the over-the-shoulder spying is not only inappropriate, but that it’s Not Done.

      I’m definitely keeping the other two approaches in mind for the very persistent.

    4. Hazel

      My Mum used to stand by the computer, lean over my shoulder to see what I was doing, and then talk when her mouth was *directly* beside my ear. D:

  7. jhhj

    You are absolutely okay to say you are busy and to go on and do your work. This is fine and entirely acceptable and not at all rude. Your coworker has not been rude either, of course — she asks if you are busy, and when you say you aren’t, she chats.

  8. CoffeeLover

    I would give a more overarching statement. Something like, “Actually, I have a few things I’d like to catch up on, so I don’t think I’ll have time to chat before our shifts for a while.” This way she won’t ask every time, and it’s more likely to be “are you still working on that stuff?” which is easier to respond to.

  9. Student

    Is there any chance that you can spend your 1 hour before work in a more secluded location? That would solve a lot of your problems. Coffee shop down the block, park down the road, a little-used conference room at work.

    I suggest this mainly because I don’t think you’ll be able to stop co-workers from gawking at your art.

  10. Anonymous Educator

    I wonder if it’d be worth explaining the situation to your co-worker the way you did here. “Maybe we can chat some other time? Because of a carpool situation, I have to come here early, but I like to get some other projects done while I’m waiting for _____ work to begin.”

    1. Clever Name

      Sadly, this doesn’t stop some people who just really want to talk to you.

      1. NJ Anon

        I had a co-worker who, when I turned away to do work because he had been telling me some long story, actually moved into my line of sight and kept talking while I was trying to work. Fortunately, he was a temp so it didn’t last long but, yeesh!

      2. bkanon

        And it definitely doesn’t stop the people who remove your headphones. Yes, guy who pulled my earbuds out of my ears on the bus, there’s a reason I told you to leave me the expletive alone.

    2. OP

      I’ve tried headphones in the past, was not effective. For the record, I also am usually in a conference room with a closed door.

      (I should also note that due to the nature of my workplace, the conference rooms also function as offices, in a sense. Point being, there’s not really a better or more secluded place for me to go, and I don’t think choosing a different room than my usual one would change anything.)

      At this point I will take AAM’s advice and say I’m busy, or be clear about setting aside only 5 minutes to chat. I’m definitely a hardcore introvert so it’s tempting to just never talk to anyone, but since this is a more informal/communal environment I’d like to at least put a little polite socializing time in here and there. Regardless, communicating shouldn’t be a problem now that I’m confident my request for privacy is reasonable in the workplace. :) Thanks everyone!

    3. Windchime

      Headphones at my work seem to serve as a beacon….”Headphones are on! Now is the time to interrupt!” I only wish that people would respect the headphones. Mine are giant big things that cover my ears, so there is no way that people don’t notice that I’m wearing them.

  11. Sara M

    If possible, it’d help to find a secret place to do the work. A conference room where you can shut the door or something. (I’m a writer and have had this problem before. I really had to find a place where people didn’t look for me. If I sat at my desk, it looked like I was available.)

    I’ve used bathroom lounges/entryways, empty hallways, supply rooms… Copy rooms, if they have a couch. Quack. ;)

    1. M-C

      +1 Actually the other location would have another equally important plus: letting people know that you’re not ‘at work’ yet. In case anyone wonders whether you’re charging the company for the time where you’re clearly working on your own projects, which might be one of the background issues here. As a part-timer myself, I like to make clear physical differences of whether I’m at work, ie roughly at my desk, or not, like in the kitchen or conference room.

      But actually you might want to avoid mixing physical locations even that much. If I were you I’d investigate whether there’s any sort of cafe w/wifi in the area, and just go there till it’s time to go to work. Chalk up the coffee expenses as business ones, see it as an opportunity to stay in bed a bit longer since you can have breakfast at the place. It’ll make everyone happier.

      And be sure to go out of your way to chit-chat with the irrepressible one, so she doesn’t feel personally slighted. Make sure to slip into conversation how difficult it is for you to only have a ride that wastes an hour of your precious time dropping you off early, milk it for sympathy instead of looking like an anti-social boor/someone who doesn’t like her :-).

  12. Clever Name

    I realize that I am looking at this through the lens of my own personal experience, but your coworker is explicitly asking if you are busy, so please give her an honest answer. If you are busy and can’t talk, say so. You don’t want to be in a situation where you start to resent your coworker, and your coworker almost certainly doesn’t want to be in a situation where they find out later that they actually were bothering you.

  13. Chickaletta

    Ah, the trials of being a graphic designer. People assume that you’re always working on something “fun” and that it’s ok to observe. If someone was working on a spreadsheet or writing a technical doc would it be ok to watch over their shoulder? Of course not. If you work around graphic designers, please give them the same courtesy you would give someone in another profession while they’re working.

    The OP can head this off by treating their freelance work as professional work, not a hobby. So she should let her coworker know that she is busy without feeling guilty. She can also keep people from looking over her shoulder by angling her laptop away from view. That’s why we’re all sitting in the corner at coffee shops.

    1. esra

      So seconded. It’s nice that people are interested in what we do, but I really don’t love when people are watching/commentating while I hash my way through the first rough draft.

      First rough draft. That’s how bad it is. It needs three wishy-washy words as a title. Don’t look!

    2. Lindrine

      Thirded. Unless you are my boss and I am working on a work project, you don’t get free rein to comment. And make suggestions. And keep talking to me.

      I agree it may take some training of the other person if they have a habit now of talking to you in the morning. If you like them otherwise, maybe offer to catch up during a break sometime?

  14. Gene

    Obviously it would be rude if I was just playing games or wasting time on the Internet

    Nope. What you are doing doesn’t matter. It’s not rude to want to do your own thing, on your own time.

    That said, your coworker wasn’t rude, she asked. You are an adult, use your words.

    1. jag

      This.

      I’ll add that if someone is playing a very simple, diversionary game (such as solitaire) all the time and clearly prefers that to talking, it could be off-putting. It’s natural to think “Wow, they’d rather do something that simple than talk to me.” I’m not saying it’s right to feel put off by that, but that’s a natural conclusion because it’s true.

      1. FiveByFive

        It’s off-putting? Well too bleeping bad. Holy crime in Italy, what kind of ego do some people have, to think the greatest pleasures in life are a beautiful sunrise, winning the lottery, and having a conversation with them? And not necessarily in that order, I guess.

        Some people must really think mirrors are happier for seeing them. Geesh!

    2. TalleySueNYC

      I’m glad someone brought this up!

      It is not rude in the least to say, “No, I don’t want to talk. I’m unwinding with Panda Pop.”

      And then, “Please, I don’t want to talk. Go away.”

  15. grasshopper

    Remove yourself from a space where you are seen to be available. I don’t know whether that means sitting at your desk, or hiding away in a meeting room, or finding an unused spot in the lunchroom – that depends on your work environment. If there isn’t a spot like that in your office, go outside the building to a coffee shop or library or park and spend your time there. Yes, you will have to buy coffee at a coffee shop, but that might be worth it for the peace of mind and ability to focus.

  16. RL

    Hmm, this sounds like a problem that didn’t even need to be one. How is the coworker to know the OP is actually busy when the OP won’t say as much?

    1. OP

      Reading AAM has clued me in to the fact that some of my assumptions for reasonable work behavior have been off-base. It’s a little harder to trust your gut when your gut fails a litmus test or two.

      1. Meg Murry

        Not sure if you’re still reading, but if you wanted to give a little, when they say “are you busy?” you could say “I am right now [or some other form of your script], but I could stop by your desk/cube/office for 5 minutes at [10 minutes before the shift starts] if you want me to.”

        Then you can go to her desk, do a few minutes of socializing to make her happy, and you can walk away when you are done with the conversation, as opposed to being stuck there because she is in your space, but you don’t wind up socializing for an hour when you want to be working on your freelance projects (or vegging out and not socializing at all).

  17. mel

    Hmm would it help to remind yourself that idle chatter isn’t any more important than the work you’re doing? This is idle chatter right? She’s not arranging actual business meetings with you or anything, is she?

  18. Sally Forth

    Headphones will stop this behavior cold. You don’t even need to have something playing.

  19. Kat

    I have experienced this in my work place. I’m completing a masters degree and generally plan to get to work early so I can have a coffee in the nearby cafe and do some of my uni work before my shift. A colleague who started his shift earlier than me would be on his coffee break at the same time, and despite the fact that I had headphones on and looked busy, he would sit next to me and start talking non stop. It drove me crazy. It got to the point where I had to say something, because my time was being wasted. I just explained that I made an effort to come to work early specifically so I could get some work done before my shift because I didn’t have much time to complete it otherwise, and I also used the time to just enjoy peace and quiet, and have some ‘alone time’, because I wasn’t able to get any at any other time during the day.
    I was polite about it, and he acted all offended and moved, and now he doesn’t talk to me at all – which is actually a blessing because he is an absolute pest!
    You have to stick up for yourself. Your time is valuable, and projects like this are obviously important to you financially, and for the sake of your sanity. If your coworker doesn’t understand or respect that, then that’s their problem.

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