how can I get my coworker to stop talking to me all the time?

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?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 58 comments… read them below }

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I don’t think she’s saying she’s being harassed. She’s offering it as evidence that the talking-talking-talking is now starting to spread to weekends.

      1. Meg Murry

        Also, this letter was originally written in 2011. In 2011 I really didn’t text much at all yet, and I’m pretty sure I was still on a plan where I paid by the text (or maybe got something like 100 to share with my husband). I think I also got my first phone that wasn’t a flip phone that year that had a keyboard, but I know many people that still carried flip phones.

        It wasn’t until about 2010 that I started exchanging cell phone numbers with co-workers, and even then we only used them in the case of truly unusual circumstances. As in things like “I’m stuck in the worst traffic jam ever and I know you are taking a different highway in, can you please meet my client who’s coming in at 8:00 and get them some coffee and let them know I’ll be there as soon as I can.” or “the building has no running water, stay home”. Not casual chatty texts or calls, and definitely not on the weekends.

        1. Not the Droid You Are Looking For

          This is a really, really good point.

          It’s easy to forget how even a few year’s ago, having an entire conversation over text was unthinkable and that messages were really for important things, not here’s a cat gif I found.

          1. the gold digger

            And then my brother in law put my mom on his cellphone plan, gave her an iPhone, and taught her to text using the microphone function.

            And my mom started texting me entire paragraphs.

            1. Not the Droid You Are Looking For

              I laughed so hard our admin just popped his head into my office to see what was going on.

              I tried once to have the text is not email convo…it didn’t go over well..

            2. Whats In A Name

              So my dad just got his first smartphone a month ago and only uses the microphone. Now all my paragraph texts also end with “love ya hun”, his standard phone sign off. Which is both sweet and mind numbing because I have to scroll through 2 screens to get to it!

              1. Elizabeth West

                Haha, I was doing something over Thanksgiving weekend and gave my dad my smartphone to play with (I showed him my Instagram feed) and he spent twenty minutes scrolling through it. My sister and I were like, “OMG now he’s going to want a smartphone!”

                He just turned 80 and has a flip phone; he’s not computer savvy but is sort of gadget-oriented, so it wouldn’t surprise me!

        2. KellyK

          Yep. I still don’t text casually. I will reply when people text me, but I always find it vaguely annoying. If I’m going to have a text-based conversation, I’d rather do it on Facebook Messenger or Google Hangouts so that if I’m at my computer, I have a keyboard. If there’s a “Mavis Beacon Teaches Texting” app, I should probably get it.

          1. JessaB

            If not Mavis, try one of the Samsung phones, mine has a lovely smart pen, that you can use to handwrite in texts. Very neat.

    2. Hooptie

      You can’t be serious? Yes, ONE text message is invasive. My time off is my time off…not time for someone to text me complaining about work.

      1. JB (not in Houston)

        Plus it’s not really fair to ding the OP for objecting to one text message in the context of her situation. It’s not a person who normally observes boundaries and then one time sends a text on the weekend. It’s part of a pattern, and the OP has every right to be annoyed when the problem that already exists during the work week starts spreading into her free time.

        1. LSP

          Especially since OP has already asked her to stop the emails at work, and then she starts getting texts on the weekend.

    3. Leatherwings

      It’s not even just one quick text message about a task – it’s whining about the boss! That takes emotional energy to worry about/consider how to respond, etc. Also “harassing” is in quotes, so I don’t think it’s necessary to pick on that language.

      1. Marisol

        For me the content of the text–the whining about the boss–is what’s troubling. Sometimes people can’t help but make an inadvertent complaint when face-to-face, but I would definitely not want an invitation to complain about my boss memorialized in text. I wouldn’t want to be associated with that, as you never know how it can be misconstrued.

    4. TootsNYC

      Also, ANY text message complaining about your/our job to me is enough for me to say: “I don’t ever want to get another one.”

      Combine that w/ the stuff AT work, and it’s pretty clear this is “problem creep.”

    5. Not the Droid You Are Looking For

      I don’t want personal texts from my coworkers on the weekend.

      Yes, I will occasionally get a text from a coworker about a project or something that impacts my day-to-day. But they are useful and pertinent.

      Also, I definitely don’t want a text bad mouthing my boss ever.

    6. jamlady

      Eh, your free time is your free time. And I don’t think the OP ever stated harassment or was dramatic in any way. This comment was kind of rude to the OP and definitely not productive.

    7. MashaKasha

      Yeah well. It just happens to be a message about how she cannot stand their boss. That’s unprofessional, invasive, and honestly I’ve had enough exposure to office politics to even consider the possibility that Texting Coworker is trying to set OP up.

  1. Zip Silver

    She’s trying to make friends with you, OP.

    If you don’t want to be friends with he, just tell her that you try and avoid office friendships. (although that sounds incredibly lonely to me)

    1. JB (not in Houston)

      The OP may not mind office friendships in general and just not this one (and plenty of people don’t do office friendships but aren’t lonely). The OP doesn’t need to say anything about not wanting to be friends, she can just stop responding to anything that isn’t work.

    2. fposte

      But it doesn’t sound like that’s the case–it’s that the OP doesn’t want the level of intimacy assumed by this particular co-worker.

    3. Anon 12

      You can’t fault the OP for not wanting to be friends with somebody who communicates with non-actionable complaints. And by the way, may get the idea that OP agrees (because that’s how one way communicators are). That’s a recipe for disaster.

      1. TootsNYC

        Especially so early on!
        Holy toledo, you both just got there! I can’t stand such a pervasive negative vibe.

    4. LSP

      This would be a bad way to make friends with me. Someone who just uses me to vent to, and doesn’t respect my requests to not be pestered by complaining emails during my work time would not get very far with me either.

    5. Not the Droid You Are Looking For

      This isn’t friendship. She’s using the OP as her work-therapist and putting the OP aim a position she is uncomfortable.

      Also, I draw a strict line with work and personal life. I’m friendly with my coworkers, but I don’t want to spend time with them outside of the office (excepting the occasional HH). I’m not lonely at work or at home, and don’t have to worry about the two parts bleeding over.

    6. Angela

      I have made the mistake of forming a work relationship based on complaining about others. It ended poorly when I realized that it was unhealthy and bad in the long-run for both of us. I didn’t handle it well from the beginning, which made it difficult (and honestly, a little unkind) to step away from the friendship.

      1. Not the Droid You Are Looking For

        I had two employees who were in this situation. One was a low performer who was upset she wasn’t promoted and the other was a good worker who justifiable unhappy about some short-staffing issues we were working on fixing, but hadn’t quite solved yet.

        Once the staffing issue was corrected, and the day today it got better for the strong performer she no longer wanted to be part of the circle of complaining and her former buddy did everything she could to try to tear her down.

      2. LBK

        Yeah, I made the same mistake, and it got really hard to undo once I no longer wanted to whine all the time (both because the things we were whining about had improved and because I was just sick of being so negative).

    7. AnonEMoose

      I generally avoid office friendships, too. I get along with my coworkers, I just don’t get personally close to them, on the whole. I like having those boundaries, and have plenty of friends in my personal life.

      I also don’t give my personal cell number to coworkers. But then, with my current job, there’s no need.

    8. Marisol

      She’s trying to bond over something that is personally unhealthy (indulging in gossip isn’t every really good, even if it is sometimes understandable) and may be professionally damaging though. It’s not something that should be easily overlooked.

    9. MsCHX

      Nope.

      1) Negative energy breeds negative energy. It’s fine if coworker isn’t happy with her job/manager/whatever but she wants to constantly complain to OP about it.
      2) OP has asked her to stop it. So coworker is now over the line.
      3) This isn’t friendship.

    10. Observer

      A number of thoughts here:

      1. I don’t think this is about friendship. Someone who won’t let you work when you have explicitly told them you can’t talk because you have things to do is not interested in “friendship.”

      2. It doesn’t make a difference if the co-worker is trying to form a friendship. Her behavior is invasive, rude and over the top.

      3. Even if the co-worker wasn’t being obnoxious, the OP doesn’t owe her friendship or any excuses. She doesn’t have any moral or ethical obligation to have an all or nothing policy on workplace friendships. It’s perfectly acceptable for her to become friends with some people and not others (assuming no conflict of interest or management conflicts).

    11. MashaKasha

      Why would it be incredibly lonely, unless you work 24-7 and have no free time, hobbies, family activities, etc. outside of work?

  2. rubyrose

    What I think I noticed in the response is to speak with her about these transgressions. Which I agree with. But if speaking with her several times does not do the trick, I think I would want to respond to one of her emails with the same message. By doing this, you get it documented that you have tried to stop the behavior.

  3. Catabodua

    Come up with a topic that she will just loath and blather on about it anytime she gets within 10 feet of you. Become a total bore about it and bring every conversation you two have back to it no matter how hard she tries to change the subject.

    She’ll probably find someone new to complain to fairly quickly.

  4. missj928

    I agree with Alison. Just keep shutting her down and hopefully she gets the hint.

    If she texts you on the weekend again, tell her “I don’t mind giving my coworkers my personal cellphone number for work-related emergencies during the week. Please do not message me with non-work emergencies on the weekend.”

  5. animaniactoo

    You need to shut this down – I mean, not just “not dispensing any opinions on that”. I mean actively pushing back when she does that via e-mail in particular.

    When they needed a justifiable reason to fire a good friend of mine, they took him and the person who sent him e-mails complaining about their co-worker out on the pretext of his participation. Their standpoint was that he was allowing it to continue by not shutting it down and that for all they knew he was just smart enough not to put his views out there in print, but was trashtalking verbally.

    1. Not the Droid You Are Looking For

      This. My old job used to comb through a fired employees email when they left and some managers took things more personally than others.

      It’s something you don’t want to be affiliated with.

    2. Faith

      I was thinking the same thing. If one of those emails where she’s trash talking your boss ends up on that boss’ desk, it will look just as bad for you as it will for her.

    3. Marisol

      I agree 100%. I think if I were receiving these kinds of messages, I wouldn’t just say “please stop doing that.” I’d preface by saying something like, “I completely disagree with your assessment of our boss. I think she’s great and I enjoy working with her” just so I looked good in the paper trail. Then I’d follow up with, “I am not comfortable with these kinds of messages so please don’t send them. Thanks.”

      This is just bad juju, something you really don’t want to get sucked into. Whether the coworker is intending it to be a trap or not, it is one.

    4. LBK

      And assuming you don’t completely agree with their complaints, it’s not like you have to lie about it either. I found whiners got really uncomfortable when I would present a possible other side of the story or just flat-out disagree with their view on something. The key was that I had to actively contradict them, not just give non-committal acknowledgments. Those half-replies can help you stay focused but they don’t usually stop the incoming flood of complaints.

      Establish that you’re not a whining well ready to accept any gripe tossed into you. It will make venting to you less satisfying for that person and they’ll start directing it elsewhere.

      1. Elise

        I like to assume that they are asking for advice (even though I know they aren’t). “Oh, you are upset that Cat never does this task properly? Have you talked to her about it?” Or “From the manager’s perspective, I guess it makes sense that she wants advance notice for leave.” I try not to lecture, but will casually make remarks like this. It really helped get a coworker to stop whining to me all the time recently. Maybe she moved on to someone else, but at least I’m free to get work done and be more positive.

        I admit there was a time that we would commiserate, but I realized that it clouded my outlook to be so negative. I felt a bit bad for leaving her without a confidant, but I tried to gently end the gripe sessions.

        1. LBK

          Yes! This is exactly the approach I used – treated their whiny rhetorical questions as serious inquiries about why someone may have done something or how something could have happened. Even in cases where I just flatly disagreed, I never did it bluntly, just something like “Huh, I didn’t think X was that bad actually” without looking up from my computer. I found it more successful at cutting the whiners off than giving vague “oh?” or “huh” acknowledgments, which people sometimes recommend.

          1. Is it Performance Art

            I do this with one of my coworkers too. This person isn’t looking for advice, just confirmation that whoever they’re complaining about is a horrible person and any problems surrounding the issue are someone else’s fault. When I try to help them find a solution instead, they just give up much faster. And if they complain about the same situation again, I can ask if they tried any of my advice.

  6. TootsNYC

    I agree that the OP should also push back on the types of communication: “I don’t like to get sucked into conversations complaining about the job. Please don’t include me in those. I can do the ‘how was your weekend’ stuff.”

  7. Cat steals keyboard

    In this situation I would keep pointedly signposting the person to the EAP for counselling until they got the hint.

    1. Marisol

      Ha ha! That sounds a little extreme to me, but I guess it’s as good a strategy as any. So responding to an email like, “coworker, this isn’t something I can help you with, but it sounds like you might benefit from some EAP counseling. HR can help you coordinate that.” Something like that?

  8. Overeducated

    Just be subtly unfriendly. Ignore the texts and emails, look distracted or keep glancing at your screen if she won’t stop talking in person, polite smiles and one word answers. It’s cold but eventually it works.

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