I need to interrupt the office chit-chatter with work questions

A reader writes:

My job often requires me to get input from someone who is higher up than me in order to complete my work tickets. Usually, I need a quick answer to a question or two.

However, he is very social and it seems like he is always chatting with someone, both work-related and a lot of chat about his kids/weekend/etc. What is a professional way to interrupt a conversation? Usually I just stand at a distance until he acknowledges me, and then I tell him I have a question and offer to come back at another time if he is busy. I feel less bad about it when he is going on about sports or whatever. It seems like instant messages would be perfect for a situation like this, but when I try this there is about a 50/50 chance of getting a response. He never has responded to my emails.

If he’s in the middle of a conversation that’s clearly social and not work-related, what you’re doing sounds reasonable — standing nearby until he gives you an opening to ask if you can interrupt with a question. It’s good to also say something like “I’m sorry to interrupt — can I ask you a quick work question?”

If he’s in the middle of a conversation that’s work-related and your question isn’t time-sensitive, I generally wouldn’t do that — in that case, you’d want to default to letting him finish the work conversation he’s in before starting a new one. But of course, if your question is very time-sensitive and needs to get resolved quickly, you may not have a choice but to wait for an opening to interrupt.

The other thing you can do is to ask him during a moment when he’s more free how he’d like you to handle this. For example: “I’m never quite sure if it it’s okay for me to interrupt you when I have something I need your input on. Is it okay for me to keep doing that, or would you like me to handle it differently?” (Although since this is someone who has never responded to an email from you, this might not be worth asking — because if he says “try emailing me,” you’re not going to want to actually follow that suggestion. With normally responsive people though, it’s always fine to just ask what they prefer.)

{ 57 comments… read them below }

    1. Kyrielle*

      “It seems like instant messages would be perfect for a situation like this, but when I try this there is about a 50/50 chance of getting a response.”

      Sounds like the OP has tried, and failed, with that solution. (Which makes sense – if he’s often chatting, he’s probably not watching his messages.)

    2. Fabulous*

      Even with Lync there is a chance the IM’s aren’t seen, especially if the person is inactive (and even if they ARE active). I know sometimes I don’t get a notification when a new message is received and the thing doesn’t flash, I’ll just see the icon glowing at the bottom hours later…

      1. LBK*

        Yes, this happens to me all the time with Skype – I’ll somehow completely miss an IM until I’m looking for something on my taskbar and see the blinking icon.

        1. zora.dee*

          it makes me In. Sane. that i can’t change the notification settings on Skype. I never notice the blinking icon in my taskbar, WHY can’t I have a pop up everytime someone sends a message, WHY!? it might be my biggest work pet peeve right now and I have several.

          1. Clever Name*

            Seriously! I have to work to shut the outlook notifications up, but a chat program’s notifications are so subtle that I routinely miss them.

          2. Kyrielle*

            This actually used to be something most IM clients did. They now _can’t_. Why? Because the API that let them do that in earlier versions of Windows was modified and can’t bring them to the foreground, as part of security upgrades (Windows 7, I think, was the first with this change), because viruses and malware could *also* use it to pop to the front … and refuse to get out of the way.

            The software I worked on up to about two years ago used this to bring one of its applications forward over the other, and to avoid the issue we would have whichever program of ours was in the front “push” the one we wanted to the front (which still worked). But Skype can’t make a program by another company do that for them; that trick worked for us only because it was usually one of our other programs in the front.

            That didn’t always work either. Sometimes we just had to minimize and then restore the window in question – which worked, but looked pretty clunky to the user, especially if animations were on.

            There’s probably still ways to achieve it, but – if one program can pop to the front when something’s happening, so can other programs, in theory.

            1. zora.dee*

              Outlook has small transparent boxes that pop up and then disappear every time I get an email. I don’t see why Skype couldn’t do the same thing.

              Or, like on the Apple OS, the icon at the bottom of the screen could bounce when a new message comes thorugh .There are ways Windows could allow us to customize the level of alerting we want from different programs, if they wanted their stuff to actually be useful. My conclusion is that they don’t care.

            2. KH*

              It’s also a usability thing. Apps stealing focus is really really annoying when you are typing something. When it used to be ok for apps to do that, I can’t recall how many times I accidentally accepted a question or closed a notification window because I was in the middle of typing something. (For those who don’t know – the “Enter” key accepts (presses OK button) for a dialog box while the tab key and the space bar can be used to select and execute any other button or field. – So just typing something can cause the computer to receive an inadvertent command.)

      2. EddieSherbert*

        I know for mine (Lync), if I don’t look at it within a certain amount of time (I’d guess within 1-2 hours?), it sends me an email (Outlook) saying I have a missed conversation.

        1. Kore*

          For mine it’s even shorter than that – there have been times I come back to my desk after a trip to the bathroom and have an email about a missed conversation.

  1. Cantility*

    Awkwardly standing around can make everyone uncomfortable – if the boss is having a business conversation and you are just staring at him, he’ll be distracted and probably annoyed. My boss would get annoyed with me because he’d often have to stop important conversations to ask if I had needed something important.

    A good thing for me is always just to go up to him quickly and say. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I want to let you know that when you have the chance I need to speak with you at my desk.” Which then he can simply nod me off and resume uninterrupted conversation or offer to speak with me then. If it is urgent then that is your chance to give him a chance to decide if he is going to deal with it then.

    When he is in his office speaking, I’ll shoot him an email essentially saying the same thing. If he is having a personal convo he’ll typically reply back and potentially resolve my issues right then. If he is tied up, he at least knows that I am waiting for him and can be easily given a summary of what I need.

    If my boss is with a coworker it is a thing in our office to email each other to get next in his line – so I can email Jane and say “Send Bob my way when you’re done with him.”

    If it is an emergency that is when you don’t just hover and wait about – you interrupt and make it clear that there is an emergency that needs to be addressed. We once had an employee sobbing alone in the break room because she didn’t want to interrupt the bosses meeting to let the boss know her father just died and she needed to take time off – that was when one of us interrupted and said “We have an emergency that needs you attention right now.” He was mortified that she didn’t want to bother him.

  2. boop*

    Is there any way at all to sit down and come to some arrangement to require fewer questions in the first place? Like getting preapproval for a certain level of permissive questioning, or having an independent source for informational questions?

    1. Meg Murry*

      Yes, how often you you need help and how time sensitive is it? If you usually need help 1-2x a day and it’s the kind of thing that can wait a couple of hours, could you get in the habit of going to ask a couple of questions every day around this same times (or even asking him what the best times are)? If he knows to expect you every day around 11 and 3, I feel like he would be more likely to wrap up his social conversation with an “excuse me Bob, I think Jane needs to talk to me”. Maybe not, but if nothing else that would mean you are only trying to get his attention occasionally, instead of standing there awkwardly multiple times a day. Is everything about your tickets electronic? One of the subtle ways in my office people show they are waiting to ask a work question is if they are standing there with a file folder, notepad, printout, clipboard or a physical teapot model, etc – when you catch the eye of the person you wish to speak to, holding that file/paper/notebook up generally sends the “I have a work question” vibe.

      Are you the only person at your level doing this work or needing his approval to resolve tickets? Can you ask your peers how they handle it – maybe one of them has found a way or timeframe that works best.

    2. NW Mossy*

      This is definitely worth exploring, because there may be other ways to address it, as Meg points out with her suggestion to have standing question times. Workflows work well if it’s a situation where you’re handing a task to someone else to work on after you’ve done your part. Things like e-signature and special system credentials can also help with getting approvals when you need them.

  3. Emma*

    Alison, would your answer be different if it is someone who reports to you that is chatting socially or for work? My secretary will often be talking to someone when I need something and even if it’s just social I feel rude interrupting, so I take the same approach and wait until she’s done. But it irritates me, particularly if it’s social, because I don’t feel I should have to wait. I guess maybe I’m just asking for confirmation that it’s not rude to interrupt your secretary for a work reason when she or he is chatting socially.

    1. Temperance*

      It’s not rude! I work in a law firm, and this is pretty standard. “Sorry to interrupt, Maude, but do you have X?” is standard here.

        1. Meg Murry*

          I agree. The only exception would be if it’s obviously her lunch break, in which case it depends on how time sensitive your request is – I’d save interrupting lunch breaks for only things that truly can’t wait and and you can’t handle yourself. Although I think waiting for a break in the conversation to say “Sorry to interrupt but, I have some questions for you, please pop by my office after lunch” would also be ok.

          Acknowledging the person the secretary is chatting with (at least with eye contact, smile and head nod, if not politely greeting them by name) also goes a long way to keeping you on the side of “reasonable, human boss who is just trying to get stuff done” vs the “brusque rude dragon boss that ignores all humans below him/her”.

    2. Chriama*

      Yeah, you’re the boss and she’s your *secretary* which is a support role, so you can definitely interrupt.

    3. MegaMoose, Esq.*

      Honestly, I don’t think you ever need to wait if someone’s chatting socially, but especially not in this context. I wouldn’t interrupt a sentence or act annoyed or anything, but honestly I wouldn’t know what to do with someone who didn’t acknowledge me pretty fast if I’ve got something work related. Most people seem fine with being interrupted when they’re just chatting.

      1. LBK*

        Agreed – I don’t think the etiquette convention about not interrupting applies in the office when it comes to interrupting social chat with work-related things, and I don’t think anyone but the most narcissistic people will be affronted if you cut in. We tend to chat a lot in my department and no one has ever expressed any annoyance about someone interrupting us to ask a work question.

        1. Kyrielle*

          This! I’m embarrassed if I realize I’ve been chatting socially while someone waited with a work question, honestly. (In the case of the most recent episode, the person waiting was behind me – I had no idea, though the guy I was talking with did, and was actually the person they were waiting for. I still felt a little awkward. I didn’t screw up – being psychic isn’t a job requirement – but still, I wish he’d felt free to say, ‘Excuse me….’)

    4. B*

      Interrupt away. I assist many people and they interrupt me whenever they need to. I have zero problem with this as I am assisting them. As well, the person I am chatting with understands why the interruption and we just finish it later. If I am speaking with someone and their boss interrupts, I walk away and finish the conversation later. That is the standard to me.

    5. Lily in NYC*

      Please interrupt her, because it’s not really fair to her if you are irritated over something because you feel too awkward to say anything in the moment. But if she sees that you are waiting to speak with her and she doesn’t stop talking right away, I think that’s a problem that should be addressed. I’m an assistant and always stop what I’m doing if it looks like my boss needs help or if she hovers near me.

      1. Ama*

        I’d also point out the assistant may not be sure if she is allowed to interrupt the person chatting to her. When I was an admin, colleagues would show up at my desk all the time and start into small talk after they’d ask their question – and my last boss was a big chitchatter herself. It was a relief when she told me it was okay if I excused myself to help someone else who had walked up if we weren’t talking about work things any longer.

    6. Marisol*

      speaking as an assistant myself, if I am talking with someone and I see my boss approaching my desk needing to speak to me, I immediately address his needs. Sometimes I might need to tell the other person, “sorry to cut you off, let’s catch up later” and then give boss my full attention, but often the other person just “gets it” and recedes into the background. In a workplace everyone should know how to gracefully interrupt or exit a conversation. The only time I wouldn’t prioritize my boss would be if I am talking to *his* boss, but that would be a quick conversation anyway.

      My point is, I think your assistant is remiss in not prioritizing your needs above anyone else’s and you are entitled to interrupt. Now it is especially gracious if you can feign like you are not pulling rank and with a smile say to her, “sorry to interrupt, but I need…” but that is just a nicety.

      1. Cassie*

        When my bosses approach if I’m talking to someone, the other person almost always starts to retreat. Especially students – they will automatically step back and the boss will either say “no, no, go ahead” or “Cassie, can you see me when you’re done?”.

        When I’m talking to a coworker, even if it’s work-related, I tend to retreat. My work is usually not time-sensitive – or we can talk about it in a few minutes. The professors may be on their way to class or the airport, and they might not be able to come back later. The only time I don’t retreat is if it’s pretty clear the “interrupter” is only asking a quick “just checking you received the documents I sent? You don’t need anything else, right?” and the interrupter is blocking the door so I can’t leave the office. Or if the coworker I’m talking to says to me (in a low voice) “don’t go” (for whatever reason she doesn’t want to get into a long discussion with the interrupter).

  4. arkangel*

    This is really helpful. My bosses do a LOT of talking and it’s not unusual for them to start up conversations that last for hours. It’s not unusual for this to happen in public areas I need to access. I’m free do make a fair amount of decisions for myself, so when I need to interrupt them to ask a question, it’s because I really need to. My supervisor doesn’t seem to like it when I do that. It’s good to know what I’m doing is normal, and I should ask her if she’d like me to approach the situation in another way.

  5. Hannah*

    Sometimes people are really maxed out and they are not able to respond to emails or IMs instantly, because the volume of chats is such that if they didn’t block some out, they would never have a long enough block of time to work on a deliverable. But if people hear their voice in the office, work related convo or not, sometimes they take that as their “opening” to get a faster in person response to a quick question and come running over. They seem to think that since the person isn’t heads down at their desk now, it’s a better time to interrupt. I’ve been on both ends, so I get wanting a fast answer and being frustrated when someone isn’t available. But make sure you aren’t habitually hearing that this person is having a conversation, and taking that as an opening to go chat with them about your question, because that could be a little pesky. Small talk and social connections are a part of working in an office, so don’t assume that if the person has time to chat, he should be prioritizing your questions first. That may or may not be true. I don’t see evidence that the OP is necessarily doing this, but just a general thought.

  6. That Would Be a Good Band Name*

    I think I’d just call since IM isn’t getting a response. Then he either answers his phone or not. VM is probably a waste of time since he’s not answering email/IM but I’d probably leave one if he doesn’t pick up. And then go back to Alison’s advice if the phone doesn’t work either.

  7. Birdie*

    This!! I have been waiting for someone to ask this question for months.. I don’t understand excessive office chit chatter (though excessive may not be the case for OP). I’ll also admit I’m not the friendliest or social gal in the office. I can’t stand it when I need work done and my coworkers are too busy chatting/gossiping to reply to my emails and instant messages.

    1. Lily in NYC*

      Can we please stop with the judgment of people who have different work-styles than ourselves? I’m sure you wouldn’t like to read about how difficult it is to work with someone is cold and unfriendly.

      1. DQ*

        Also, depending on how high up in the organization Boss is, this “chit-chatting” is likely part of his job, or more specifically, it is how he builds the social captial to be able to get the things done he needs for you and your team.

      2. Cassie*

        I think there is a difference, though – other people chatting excessively around me is distracting. Because of our office design, I can typically hear 3 or 4 conversations going on at the same time, and as hard as I try, I can’t not hear them. Honestly, I could tell you exactly what each conversation was about and who said what. There’s nothing I can do about it, whether it’s people discussing work, holding a conference call on speaker phone, or people talking about football. So I just stick my earphones in and crank up the music. It’s a bit of a pain, depending on what I’m working on.

        For Birdie, it looks like people aren’t responsive to emails and IMs which is impacting her work. Whether or not they would respond if they weren’t chatting – that’s debatable – they might be just as unresponsive if they were sitting at their desk not chatting.

        Is someone being cold or unfriendly disrupting other people’s work? Sure, maybe it’s a bit off-putting but it’s not really preventing other people from doing their work. They don’t have to do alter their behavior (e.g. wear earphones) to adjust to other people’s work styles.

  8. Joseph*

    It’s good to also say something like “I’m sorry to interrupt — can I ask you a quick work question?”
    The only note regarding this is that if you’re saying “quick work question”, make sure it *really* is a simple and quick question. Because when you phrase it like this, the other person who was talking to boss will usually just sort of stand to the side waiting to resume talking after you’re done – not an issue if it really is a quick minute, but awkward if your question is actually more detailed.
    If it’s a detailed work-related question, you’re still absolutely fine to interrupt if it’s time-sensitive, just make sure to use a different phrasing to clarify: “Hey, I need 30 minutes to chat about the ABC project. Is now a good time or can you come grab me after you’re done talking with Andy?”

    1. TootsNYC*

      I wouldn’t say those, because those are syllables that take up time. Make the interruption short! Say, “Sorry, I just needed to know X.” And then leave.

      On “sorry” is enough.

      If it’s a longer thing, say, “Sorry, I just wanted to ask you to come by my desk about the Firewater affair. I need your before I move on.”

      1. Katie from Scotland*

        +1 on the less words when interrupting.
        I never have a problem doing it but sometimes I wonder if I’m ruder than I think I’m being, so minimising the number of words makes it feel less awkward!

        1. Marisol*

          I agree with Joseph, and I think trying to minimize the syllables when interrupting someone is a little too self-deprecating for my taste. I guess it would depend on the company and industry culture, but I think if you have a bona-fide work question, then it is not necessary to optimize to the level of counting syllables. There is no shame in interrupting someone so long as you do it politely, and it is the job of whoever you are interrupting to field questions in the workplace. This sounds like the female tendency to take up as little space as possible when walking down the street, or to apologize when no apology is necessary.

          1. KellyK*

            I agree. I also think that just “Sorry” rather than “Sorry to interrupt” makes it less clear what you’re apologizing for, and could sound like you’re apologizing for having a question.

  9. Letter writer*

    Thanks for answering, Alison. I am kind of awkward sometimes so it’s good to know that I was following office etiquette. I did wind up asking the person in question the best way to get feedback from him, and he just told me to go see him in person, otherwise he’ll get distracted. So, now I feel more comfortable interrupting.

  10. AnotherHRPro*

    In addition to everyone’s great advice, I would add one thought. If this person has an assistant I would ask for their help in getting a response from their boss.

  11. Kms1025*

    Completely agree with advice to ask boss how he or she would like these kind of questions to be handled. Some people don’t mind the interruption…others resent it beyond proportion. I would always ask and then be absolutely certain to follow that direction except in cases of emergency or time constraints.

  12. SeptemberGrrl*

    “I’m sorry to interrupt — can I ask you a quick work question?”

    I would advise against interrupting a higher-up’s personal chitchat with the above because – while I’m sure it wasn’t intended that way – it would be pretty easy for that to get heard as shade:

    “I’m sorry to interrupt (your personal conversation that you are having on work time) — can I ask you a quick work question?”

    Pointing out that your question is work-related is a way of saying “And your conversation ISN’T”. I’m not sure that’s wise to do with a superior…or anyone for that matter. It’s passive-aggressive.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Eh, if you’re dealing with a reasonable person, they’re not likely to take it that way. If you’re dealing with someone known to be highly sensitive and defensive, sure, then you’d modify accordingly.

  13. TootsNYC*

    If he chitchats that much, I think you should just pleasantly interrupt him. Don’t hang back and wait to be noticed–just walk directly up to him, and wait for the tiniest gap, and then say, “Sorry, i just need to know XYZ.”

    Smile at everyone, ask your question directly without wasting time on lots of “I’m so sorry, hate to interrupt…” Zip in, zip out.

    Smile at everyone, and walk directly away and get stuff done.

  14. Marisol*

    At the risk of falling down the rabbit hole of feminism vs. sexism, I want to encourage women to interrupt with confidence. Sometimes it is necessary to do this in the workplace, and it is not rude. Yes, you should be able to read cues and have a sense of where your need falls on the hierarchical ladder. But whoever you are seeking to interrupt should also understand that dealing with interruptions is part of their job. So once you’ve determined that you need to interrupt, don’t be overly apologetic or timid or otherwise weird about it. Be direct. Apologize once as a social nicety: “sorry to interrupt, but I need an answer to xyz…” but don’t fall all over yourself apologizing and don’t slouch or act squeamish or teenagerish. If you observe your peers who are men, you will likely notice that they act like they have a legitimate right to interrupt, whereas it is the women who hesitate to interrupt and who speak timidly when they do. This is like women taking up as little space as possible when they walk down the street, while the men take as much space as possible. Women, claim your healthy sense of entitlement!!

  15. Student*

    OP –
    (1) Just ask the boss how he wants you to handle this
    (2) Look at how other people in your office handle this

    At the risk of over-generalizing and leaping to incorrect conclusions: You sound like a woman who’s trying to apply polite social conventions inappropriately to a business situation with a man who doesn’t care about said polite social conventions. This is practically a textbook “women don’t ask” situation. You’re agonizing over how to be polite and avoid ruffing any feathers ever instead of how to get your job done effectively. Sometimes, to be effective, you need to ruffle feathers.

    Sometimes, men have substantially different socialization expectations on manners than the women they interact with in a business environment (disclaimer: also varies on cultural background, personality, etc., not just a gender matter – but seriously gender correlated). When you are the subordinate, it’s incumbent on you to play by his rules instead of on him to play by your rules. For all you know right now, he’d rather you just come up and ask your question instead of lurking or avoiding asking the question. He wasn’t socialized to play under the same rules you’re playing under right now, or he’d respond very differently to what you’re doing. If he was following the same social conventions you are employing, he’d immediately interrupt his social chitchat to ask you what you need when you drop by. Sucks? Yes. Awkward? Yes. Potential to backfire? Yes. Worth the risk when it’s impacting your job performance? I think so.

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