my coworkers keep talking to me when I’m trying to work

A reader writes:

I need help knowing how to politely say “go away.” I frequently get trapped in work conversations and can’t find my way out of them. Blame it on a lifetime of being a people-pleaser. Can you please give me a script I can use to extricate myself? Here are some recurring examples:

Example 1: A coworker passes my cubicle and feels the need to update me on the ongoing custody dispute with his child’s mother. I can’t leave (I’m already in my own cubicle) and no one interrupts his monologue (we’re in a semi-private part of the building). This happens two to three times a month for about 30 minutes at a time.

Example 2: A pushy salesman who used to have our business wants it back very badly. Every interaction with him has a sense of forced intimacy. He tells me about his kids, his weekend, his interests. He signs his emails “Your friend.” At the end of a meeting, he refuses to shake hands and hugs me instead. His company does a nice job but they’re not the cheapest and I have no wish to increase the amount of contact I have with him.

Please help me learn to be firm!

The great thing about being at work is that you have an easy built-in excuse that everyone will believe: You have work to do.

And really, you probably do have work to do, and your boss probably would not be thrilled to find out you’re having lengthy conversations about your co-worker’s custody battle multiple times a month. Or, depending on your boss and the type of job you’re in, maybe she wouldn’t care as long as you’re getting all your work done … but I bet she’d be concerned that you don’t feel you can erect boundaries to protect your work time.

Sometimes people in your situation — especially people-pleasers, but I think a lot of people struggle with this — get so focused on wanting to be kind or polite that they let it trump their obligation to use their work time on, you know, work. To be clear, it’s not that you can never chit-chat at work. Of course you can! But when you’re regularly letting yourself get drawn into lengthy conversations without knowing how to gracefully exit them, odds are pretty good that it’s bumping up against time when you’d be better off focusing on your job.

It really isn’t rude to protect your work time. No reasonable colleague is going to hold it against you when you explain you need to get back to work. Here are a few ways to do it:

Use a white lie. You have to make a phone call, have to prepare for a phone call you’re expecting in a few minutes, need to run to a meeting, or you’re on deadline. You can say “Sorry, I’m on a deadline — can’t talk much now!” or “Well, I need to get back to these numbers — thanks for stopping by!” with real warmth, and it will not be weird. (And while I think the interruptions you’re struggling to field aren’t about work, if people are interrupting you about work issues too, say something like, “I’m in the middle of finishing something, but can I stop by your office later when I’m at a better stopping point?”)

Set a time limit at the start of the conversation. When your chatty co-worker shows up in your doorway, say something like, “Just to warn you, I’ve only got five minutes before I’ve got to get on a call.” And if he’s still going when those five minutes are up, jump in and say, “Hey, sorry to cut you off. I’ve got to make that call. I hope this gets better soon — I know it’s been rough.”

Send physical signals. If someone stops by when you’re in the middle of something, saying “just a second” and continuing to type a few sentences before you look up will signal you’re not particularly free. Similarly, physically standing up when a conversation has dragged on too long — maybe with some papers in your hand or while saying that you need to grab something off the printer — will often bring the conversations to a natural close. And if you have an extra chair in your office where people often settle in for a long chat, it might be wise to get rid of the chair.

If you feel awkward about setting these sorts of boundaries, think about how you feel when someone tells you that it’s not a great time for them to talk. Assuming they’re polite about it, you’re probably not offended or put off, right? Same thing here — people are unlikely to think you’re being terribly rude simply because you need to focus on work.

If you’re worried that suddenly pulling back from long chats will come across as odd or chilly, when you didn’t used to object to them, you can address the situation more broadly. If you can credibly claim that you’re in an especially busy period, that’s one way to do it (as in, “I’m swamped these days, so sorry if I seem unavailable all the time”). Or you can just say, “Hey, just to let you know, I’m trying to focus better during the day so I probably won’t chat as much as we used to.”

And about that salesman: You don’t actually have to agree to those meetings just to be polite. Maybe it’s part of your job to meet with him periodically, but I’ve found a lot of people agree to sales meetings because it feels rude not to. If that’s the case with you and you know you’re not interested in giving work to him, it’s perfectly fine to say, “I don’t think a meeting makes sense right now” or “I’m swamped and can’t put anything on my calendar” or “We’re happy with our current vendor and plan to stay with them for now, but thanks for the offer.” In fact, I’d argue it’s actually considerate, not rude, to decline the meeting if you know you’re not going to give him your business; let him focus his time where it’s more likely to pay off. (But if you do agree to meet with him, you do not have to subject yourself to unwanted embraces. When he goes in for a hug, step back, stick out your hand for a handshake, and say, “I’m not much of a hugger, but it was good to see you.” You can say this even though you’ve hugged him in the past. It would be wildly inappropriate for him to give you a hard time about that and if he does, have no qualms about taking him off your vendor list.)

The point with all of this is that you are in control of your own time (and in the case of the salesman, space), and you are allowed to make the best decisions about it for your work. In fact, you’re really obligated to protect your work time, and thinking about it that way might make it easier to do.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

{ 150 comments… read them below }

  1. Snark*

    I get so excited to see the stock photo on the New York Mag articles, and they never, ever disappoint.

      1. Nanc*

        Oh it’s so 1980s with the wood paneling, monitor, hair, power suit–I took it that the poor woman has been stuck listening for 30+ years because she wants to be a people pleaser!

        1. The IT Manager*

          I was just thinking that these photos must be tagged ancient technology – look at that huge cream colored monitor.

          1. MashaKasha*

            I came to say that whatever the poor woman has been listening to must be extraordinarily boring, because even the plant is shriveling!

      2. Snark*

        This one isn’t particularly special, but they all seem to date to about 1990 at the latest and I treasure the flashbacks.

      3. Murphy*

        I think by itself, it wouldn’t do anything for me, but in the context of the letter it’s pretty great. I can just hear her internal monologue.

      4. a Gen X manager*

        omg, really? the woman’s expression perfectly (!) captures how I feel when dealing with a long-winded talker!

        Totally agree, Snark!

    1. FortyTwo*

      They pay the big bucks to use Getty Images. I’m glad to see they appreciate the depth of what’s available to them.

  2. Bookworm*

    I find it sometimes helps in these situations to imagine that the chatty (or pushy) person is behaving this way toward one of my colleagues. How would I expect my colleague to react to that?

    Often we put expectations on ourselves that we wouldn’t put on other people. When we imagine that this is our friend’s problem instead of our own, it can sometimes be easier to see how it’s reasonable for them to be kind but assertive in managing their boundaries.

    1. Sabine the Very Mean*

      This is great! I will be using this. I’m in counseling to learn to be more assertive and to stop avoiding confrontation–even positive/neutral confrontation.

      This is wonderful, thank you.

    2. Specialk9*

      Oh man, yeah! That’s amazing framing. I put up with so much I wouldn’t expect a friend to deal with!

    3. taco_emoji*

      This is so insanely useful in life in general. Say you’re beating yourself up about saying something stupid — how would you feel towards a third party who had said that thing instead of you? Are you maybe being way harder on yourself than you actually would be towards somebody else? Or you’re anxious about an upcoming deadline for school. What advice would you give a friend who was expressing those same feelings?

      1. Blue*

        When I started therapy, this is one of the things that came up a LOT. She probably asked, “Is that how you would respond to a friend who was going through the same thing?” more than any other question. I still haven’t totally internalized this idea, but I definitely agree that pausing and posing this question to yourself can be hugely helpful!

  3. a1*

    The hugging is weird and definitely over-stepping from the salesperson. I am a hugger now (grew into it, I suppose) but I never hug at work. It just seems inappropriate! Especially with a vendor/client relationship. Or actually, not especially, it’s just weird at work.

    1. JD*

      I have so many vendors, customers, etc. who hug. At first it kind of shocked me but now I just take it as they are so pleased with me that they would hug me, so that is way better than them not being happy with my work. I am a hugger by nature so it doesn’t freak me out like it does some people.

    2. Long Time Reader, First Time Poster*

      My way around this is to be very, very comfortable with handshakes.

      I am a woman, and I find that men are not always sure about shaking hands with a woman. As a young professional, I used to enter meetings and all the men would shake hands, and then look at me kind of lamely and say hi. So awkward! But even worse when a man would decide that the lady-friendly version of a handshake was a hug. Just, no. Would you be hugging another dude in this situation?!

      Anyway, now I am the first to put my hand out, and I have a nice, firm handshake. I go in for the shake enthusiastically, and make eye contact and smile. The eye contact is especially important to put off the hug — as you are looking them in the eye, ask a question like “how was your drive in?” or something and keep on looking at them. It helps halt the hug, because now you are already in a conversation. Take a step backward as you release the shake if you still think they’re coming in hot.

      1. nnn*

        OMG, that thing where men think it’s weird to shake hands with women but normal to hug is so bizarre! I’ve tried to ask people why they feel that way the few times the opportunity arose, and I haven’t been able to get an answer because they have it so deeply internalized. They just stare at me baffled, as though I’d suggested that they greet business contacts by throwing potatoes at them.

        1. Long Time Reader, First Time Poster*

          I think it’s because there are men that don’t understand that there is a difference between a *social* greeting and a *business* greeting. Socially, I don’t typically shake hands when greeting men or women. I will say hello warmly, or I will hug (or even kiss, depending on the relationship).

          But that’s NOT what’s done in a business context (in the US). Business calls for handshakes. If you think it’s *weird* to shake hands with a woman in a business situation, you need to check yourself, because it’s standard protocol. Hugging is not!

    3. Ess in Tee*

      My parents have used the same bank for decades, so while I was still living at home, I would use the same branch they did. My mom knows all the tellers by name and a fair few retirement plans and investments have been handled by said branch.

      I think financial advisor I was seeing therefore thought that her long term clients were like family, as she pulled me into a huge, unwanted hug at the end of one of my visits with her. I assume she wanted me to feel some sort of familial intimacy. Instead, I was deeply weirded out and felt like she was overstepping boundaries and being unprofessional. That, and her wanting to use my appointments with her as Old Friends Catching Up time rather than for talking about my investments, caused me to seek out a new financial advisor.

  4. JD*

    I had a salesman be pushy and he was the most expensive. I finally said “look here I can get this $8 cheaper at Costco so until you can match that I will buy it there.” That did it. He said he understood and would keep in touch should he ever be able to offer me a similar price. Seems once he saw that he truly couldn’t touch the price that as great of service as he could give logically I had to save that money.

    Then he did eventually stalk to me to the point of having a restraining order because he was obsessed with me but that is a whole other story.

    1. This Daydreamer*

      This comment would be perfectly at home in the thread next door! I hope the creep is very much in your past.

      1. JD*

        For sure. I did post it one time in some other related posting but I cannot recall what it was now. He is gone thankfully.

    2. Artemesia*

      I don’t understand why anyone is meeting with a vendor when they have chosen another vendor. No meeting at all would deal with the icky hugging.

      1. JD*

        I am not taking meetings with vendors, they often walk in and start their sales pitch. We do not have a receptionist so often I end up being face to face with them. Also I never said I find hugging icky, nor am I hugging the copy machine salesman who comes in that I have never met. We have long time vendors who sometimes do the hug.

        1. Artemesia*

          Sorry — I think hugging from vendors is icky. YMMV. I would turn such a salesman around immediately (have done so) with ‘I’m sorry but I won’t have time to talk with you as I am on deadline; we are satisfied with our current vendor and will let you know if that changes. ‘ One does not have to entertain pushy sales people. The most they can ask for is that you are pleasant while turning them away.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              But the first part of that line is perfect and exactly what you should be saying: “‘I’m sorry but I won’t have time to talk with you as I am on deadline.”

              You have control over your time; they don’t control it.

    3. Anony*

      Citing price does work a lot of the time. We have vendors coming by all the time trying to get us to switch to their product. Our go to response is “We currently use X and it works well for us. Unless yours is significantly cheaper we won’t be switching.” We either get a better price or they leave us alone.

      1. Tongue Cluckin' Grammarian*

        Agreed, this is a tried and true tactic for us too.

        I keep our pricing confidential, but I do give them a ballpark they would have to hit.
        (Also, if they’re willing to provide samples up front to use for validation, that helps us decide maybe to switch vendors.)

  5. fposte*

    OP, you are the boss of your time. It’s not your responsibility to listen to everybody who wants to talk to you.
    Think of it like money–you wouldn’t feel obliged (I hope) to give money to anybody who wanted it from you. It is up to you to budget your time and limit its access to people you don’t want to share it with.

    1. Myrin*

      You’d be surprised by how many people do indeed feel obliged to give money to anybody who wants it from them (or who at least have a hard time saying no even in such circumstances) – on two separate occasions I’ve had to physically drag the person I was walking with (once my sister, once a friend) farther along the road when a (different each time) sketchy dude asked them for money because they were squirming and clearly searching for some bulletproof reason for not giving the money. I’ve heard of and witnessed similar situations countless times. It’s really strange.

      1. fposte*

        Interesting. I think the time bit is really gendered–do you think the money situation could be too? If so, maybe there’s just a broader “women having the right to say no” message that could stand to get around more.

        1. Agatha_31*

          I think there definitely is a need for that. I’ve ranted about this with friends (or to friends who are guilty of doing it to me) many times. “No means no” is thrown about like candy re: sexual situations (finally – at last – kind of?), but in a LOT of other ways women are STILL being actively trained to not say ‘no’ to the most innocuous of things – even between women with other women – and then everybody’s all surprised that so many women still struggle to use a firm “no”. My mother can’t say no to anyone who asks her a favor, no matter what it is, no matter how much it inconveniences her but wouldn’t inconvenience the asker if she did say no. I have female friends and family who pressure me to change my mind when I say ‘thanks, but no’ to offers of food I don’t like, medication I don’t want to take (because it’s not mine I mean I won’t even go down that road), even just social invitations. Funnily enough, I think a lot of the above is wrapped up in the other thing women are trained in – “fixing” things for people! I mention I’m hungry and looking forward to lunch – “I have some food you can have!” I mention I haven’t been sleeping well lately – “I have some sleeping pills from my doctor you can have!” I mention I’m thinking of getting a new computer, I suddenly start getting emails sending me a bunch of “sales” that are not sales, for products I don’t want, and didn’t ask for. I also have issues with women trying to push my boundaries on things about myself that I am or am not willing to talk about. I have had LIFELONG issues with both men and women trying to suggest that I ought to act or respond or talk a certain way because of my gender. I mean admittedly I’m a fairly introverted person and extroverted people are sometimes baffled by why I dislike and don’t want the sort of things listed above, but for pete’s sake, I SAID NO. That should be the end of the conversation!

          … sorry for ranting at you. As you can probably tell, you hit on a pet peeve of mine. :P

        2. Myrin*

          Oh yes, I’d say so! Although the aforementioned friend is actually a man, but a very mild-mannered and accommodating (as in, has people-pleaser tendencies) one who also looks the part (like he’s very gentle and easy-to-fluster, I mean). With the people I’ve observed, it’s almost exclusively been women being targeted but now that I think about it, that certainly also says something about who gets approached about stuff like this in the first place – it’s usually young women, often even teenagers, whom I’ve seen at the receiving end of such shenanigans. I wonder if men were approached at the same rate, if they were equally shy to just say no and walk away – I’d guess not, at least not to the same extent as the women/girls, but I might be surprised!

      2. PainScientist*

        That bulletproof reason? The need to have it is at least half the reason why I don’t carry cash (the other (maybe not quite) half is that I’m bad with cash and tend to be more frugal with a card).

        1. PersephoneUnderground*

          Bulletproof reason for yourself: I don’t take my wallet out on the street. It’s a safety thing. For others the only bulletproof reason you need is “sorry, no” and to keep walking. Anyone who pushes isn’t getting it so you should just get away from them and stick with “can’t” or “sorry, I already said no”.

  6. Opalescent Tree Shark*

    In my office, my manager gave up all little stoplight thingies that we put on top of our monitors. Green means you can chat with me about something social. Yellow means you may only interrupt if its a work thing. Red means no interruptions under any circumstances. It took a little while to train the chattiest of people to look at the light before starting a conversation, but it has worked out really well. Even if someone does start a conversation without looking at your stoplight, its really easy to say “Hey, I’m red right now” and people immediately back off. (You just have to remember to change your light).

    1. a1*

      I love this! I’ll have to remember if and when I am an in a situation where I can use this. Right now, my work/chat situation is fine and seems to be for most team members, too, but you never know when that can change.

    2. Liz T*

      I love this but I think I’d be too worried about looking like a slacker to ever have it on green.

      1. Opalescent Tree Shark*

        Yeah, I think it only works because our office culture is such that no one is going to think less of you for having it on green and most of us have it on green most of the time. The only people that have permanent work stations are supervisors and managers and we want our staff to feel like they can come bother us at almost any time. (Most of the staff are pretty young, some are still in college, so they aren’t good judges yet as to what is important to tell your supervisor and what isn’t, so this method also helps train them on that.)

      2. MashaKasha*

        If you frame the green in terms of “I have the capacity to stop what I am doing and help you with your work now if you need help”, then it won’t make you look like a slacker.

    3. Jadelyn*

      Do you know where your manager got those? I’d love to have one!

      I just recently bought from Target in their Halloween stuff a sign to hang in my office window (facing into the hallway). The top piece says “The Witch is…” and then it has a second piece hanging from it that says “In” on one side and “Out” on the other. Being that I’m actually pagan, we have a running joke about me being the Office Witch, so I’m going to put that in my window half as a joke and half as a way to indicate whether or not I’m just taking a break at my desk vs working.

      1. Specialk9*

        Hey happy Samhain!

        (I’m so stoked that today I remembered and wished my Wiccan co-worker a happy Samhain. Though I fumbled pronunciation – “I know it’s not Sam-hane but forget how it’s said, shamane?” She is not used to people remembering.)

        1. Jadelyn*

          It’s the thought that counts (and it’s okay, half of the Wiccans I’ve met struggle with the pronunciation too) – even though I don’t celebrate Samhain exactly, being not Wiccan myself, but I do appreciate the thought behind it. :)

    4. SignalLost*

      We tried signs when I worked for an org that went open office. It … did not take. Most people either put the sign up once and forgot to take it down or put it up once with the intention of leaving it up forever, so people got into the habit of interrupting anyway. This is the kind of thing where you need a really firm office culture around such signs.

  7. Agatha_31*

    UGH. Speaking of “not being a hugger”, I’m NOT. At all. Even my immediate family are aware that I am just not a touchy-feely person. So, having said that: we have a business associate (an older man) who sends us clients regularly and who I thought was a nice, friendly guy (who is married and works with his wife). He calls me pet names whenever he calls which I hate but tolerate because y’know, they’re “a nice couple” (although I’m sure y’all will be wildly surprised to hear that he never ever calls my male co-worker pet names). Then he dropped into the office awhile back and when I reached out to shake his hand he *leaned across my desk and kissed my forehead*. UGH. WHO DOES THAT. WHY DO THAT. I didn’t even do anything in the moment because y’know, so ridiculously out of the norm that everything in your brain turns to WHATJUSTHAPPENEDWHYWHATDOWEDONOWWE’RENOTALLOWEDTOPUNCHHIMRIGHT?, but I had a mini-flipout with my co-worker later about how insanely, wildly, where-do-you-even-get-the-idea-that’s-a-good-idea, inappropriate I found it.

    1. Liz T*

      That is jaw-dropping. I think I would shove someone who did that to me at work.

      For the record I AM a big hugger in my personal life, and I would be HORRIFIED if someone at the office came up and hugged me. I have coworkers whom I would hug when leaving a work *party* but I would still be very uncomfortable if they hugged me *in the office.*

      1. Wendy Darling*

        I’m plenty huggy with people I am personally very close to but none of those people are at my work and I’m kind of unhappy that yelling “DON’T FREAKING HUG ME” is not appropriate in a professional environment.

    2. JD*

      This is kind of weird although I am italian so we do a lot of cheek kissing and hugging. I am not sure you can be italian and not hug according to my family. Someone doing that at work though, let alone leaning over my desk, whoaaa. Well, maybe that hot doctor I’d be cool with it. Mmmmm hot doctor guy.

      1. Specialk9*

        Hey just a heads up, comparing sexual harassment to sexual fantasy is really damaging. I did this, to my shame, to a friend when we were preteens and learned then how devastating it is. They’re not the same. Nonconsensual sexual behaviors are inherently not desired or sexy.

    3. SarahKay*

      He WHAT?!? That is so, so, so weird. I mean, that’s the sort of thing you do to your five year old, but beyond that…urggh.

    4. Specialk9*

      It sounds like this is a current situation, so please report it.

      Many moons ago we had a creepy VP who’d pull stuff like this. Kissing the *nape of the neck* of an entry level woman subordinate *in the public hallway* while she was facing away… That was the last straw. They fired him for that.

      This is not ok behavior. It’s wildly inappropriate. If you don’t have HR, your manager or a senior manager who manages their contract should know.

      1. Jadelyn*

        W H A T?

        Holy hell I might have turned around and punched him. At the very least there would be an unholy screech of “what the HELL do you think you’re doing?” loud enough to stop conversations on the whole floor of the building, and probably the ones above and below it too.

        Ugh, I feel like I need a shower from just reading about that.

      2. Wendy Darling*

        My eyes just got SO BIG. So. Big.

        Really though unless I am not breathing and you are giving me CPR there is no reason for anyone’s mouth to touch me at work, ever.

    5. Ess in Tee*

      My stomach did a somersault just imagining that. Ugh! In what universe does a grown adult think “yes, this is the best way in which to act around other humans in a professional setting?”

  8. Jenn*

    On learning to be firm, you have to learn to value yourself, your time, and your comfort over wanting to please others. I would never let a strange salesman hug me because I don’t care that my saying ‘I prefer to shake hands’ or ‘please don’t hug me’ would make him feel awkward for a whole 30 seconds. Lean into the awkward, it really doesn’t feel as terrible or as bad as you think it’s going to be.

    1. TeacherNerd*

      And so what if things ARE awkward? (That’s a rhetorical question; I realize that for many people it’s very unpleasant.) However: It’s temporary, and it’ll go away, especially if you proceed not to Make It A Thing.

      I understand that, even though I (as a woman) am not like this, many women seem to have trouble saying no or otherwise being assertive. It’s okay to be assertive, and it is the problem of those who dislike assertive women to deal with their own feelings on this matter, not you, OP. Life lesson #1: No one can read your mind, so it’s up to you to be up front about what you want. You can still be kind about it, but you can’t avoid never hurting anyone else’s feelings.

      1. Susanne*

        Yes! Exactly! So what that the pushy vendor / overly chatty coworker feels awkward for a minute? They’ll move on with their lives. What IS it with people who don’t ever want to make anyone feel uncomfortable, ever? They get walked on, that’s what.

        1. TeacherNerd*

          In my teacher education adolescent psychology class, I learned about the concept that teenagers often feel like everyone is watching and/or judging and/or thinking of them ALL THE TIME, when really the kids are so self-involved (not necessarily in a bad way; they’re just thinking about their own business), that they’re not putting forth the mental effort. I mean yeah, sometimes there are problems, but I see the lack of self-assertiveness as the fear that an action will be (mis)construed as rudeness or worse, and the other person will judge them harshly. And maybe they will, but again, if you’re not making an issue of something, just stating a need or request, the hurt feelings aren’t your problem.

          I still do awkward things on occasion – we all do – and I’ve learned that the kindest thing is to just be, “Hey, do/don’t do this,” and then drop it. “No, actually, my name’s Michelle, not Melissa” (inexplicably I got called “Melissa” a LOT throughout my life, even though my name is Michelle); the person is briefly embarrassed, I say, “Oh goodness, I have trouble with names all the time,” and move on. I really do think it’s fear of embarrassment.

      2. Specialk9*

        “It’s okay to be assertive, and it is the problem of those who dislike assertive women to deal with their own feelings on this matter, not you, OP. ”

        It would look great cross-stitched sarcastically on a pillow, but most women discover that we DO get punished for being assertive. We often have to learn ways to be assertive without ‘threatening’ male fragility. It can be exhausting but it’s a thing. Women didn’t create this dynamic and we are NOT TO BLAME for it.

    2. PersephoneUnderground*

      Yep- it’s a hard thing to learn for a lot of people (women in particular) but it’s important to learn that *it’s OK to be a b*tch* when necessary. I learned this in Paris on a college study abroad trip when I was being hit on constantly by pushy older men who thought American=will have one-night-stands with anyone at the drop of a hat because that’s how they are in movies, right? They wouldn’t go away when I brushed them off with an excuse or a nice, “oh, I’m flattered, but…” so I learned it’s ok to just shut that down cold. “No, you can’t buy me a drink. No, I guess I’m not that nice.” Boundary-crossers don’t deserve your efforts to keep things comfortable.

      This obviously has to be modulated for the situation and setting, but it’s very empowering to be OK with someone thinking you’re a b*tch. They’ll get over it. (E.G. In an office setting I might be just as clear but add a few softening words like “Sorry, I can’t talk right now.” “Sorry, we’re not interested in changing vendors at this time, we’re very happy with our current vendor. I’ll take your card/keep your name on file in case we are looking again sometime in the future, but right now we’re not interested.” End of discussion. Note how both contain “no” even if softened by “sorry”.)

      1. Cherith Ponsonby*

        “Sorry” is such a useful word. In the right tone it can mean anything from “I have done something terrible and need to apologise” through “this is nobody’s fault but I wish things were different” to “I regret that you have caused this unfortunate situation”, and for advanced users, “your behaviour has transgressed all known and unknown standards of decency and if you had a single shred of a conscience you would be the one saying sorry right now”.

          1. oranges & lemons*

            Or Canadian. We also use it to mean “could you please move out of the way” and “oh, you appear to have stepped on my foot.”

    3. Wendy Darling*

      I try to think of it as returning the awkward to sender.

      I’m not the one who made this awkward. I’m not the one who attempted to greet someone I barely know with a hug in that person’s workplace. If he hugs me I’m gonna feel awkward. By refusing I am merely returning the awkward to its rightful place with the one that brung it.

  9. Caledonia*

    I struggle with this because in our office of 4, two leave 30 mins earlier than my co-worker and I and then my co-worker wants to sit and chat. I can’t make up a call because she sits directly opposite me :(

    1. SarahKay*

      Call the speaking clock and fake it? I just wonder if it’s a matter of breaking her of the habit of seeing the last 30 minutes as chat time, and a few days of you ‘having’ to take a call during that time would do it?

    2. Tuesday Next*

      When people insist on talking at me, I just keep working and then look up vaguely and go “hmmmm?” as though I just realised they were speaking. Then, “sorry, I just have to finish this”. Repeat. Don’t say anything more interesting or rewarding. (This is for people who don’t respond to normal requests to be left alone to get on with your work.)

      1. oranges & lemons*

        I used to have a coworker for whom even this approach was too subtle. She would just stand there talking to me until I told her to leave. Then she would start talking to the person next to me.

  10. Liz2*

    I always say to people pleasers “You’re a people, too! If you don’t take care of yourself first, you won’t be as helpful to others.”

    And hugging without checking? Not cool. Just say no, hand out and ready to a proper shake and/or block.

  11. Bruce H.*

    Try this: I wish I had the time to visit with you, but …
    This has the advantage of being absolutely true. You do wish you had the time. You don’t need to share the fact that there are many, many other things you would do with time rather than visiting with this person.

  12. Tongue Cluckin' Grammarian*

    A small change that has worked really well for my office (part of a lab):
    Instead of “Just a second”, say “Just a moment”. It seems like a nitpick, but it actually does change perceptions. If you say “Just a second”, then people expect you to be ready almost immediately (even if they don’t think they do). With “Just a moment”, the time is more loose and people have less expectations. A moment can be a second, or a year.
    This small change has shown actual results for us in that people who must wait are far less impatient. Might work for your co-worker too. Make him wait a little longer than “a second” to really indicate your busy-ness.

    For the sales guy, I second just not agreeing to meetings. I handle vendors at my lab, and I’ve dealt with some pushy guys too. If they start getting aggressive/desperate/obnoxious/whatever after I have clearly stated that we’re happy where we are, or we’re not looking at new vendors at this time (definitely do that!), I have them sent straight to voicemail and flat out don’t engage. One guy stopped by after I clearly told him that I do not have time to meet and we are not accepting new vendors until the new year, and I did not meet with him! I didn’t even say hi. He was told that I couldn’t meet, and sent on his way.
    If you have someone that can help by way of reception or phone directing, enlist their help if direct words don’t work on your pushy sales person.

    1. Cherith Ponsonby*

      Re “just a moment” – that’s really interesting, thank you! I wonder if “Just a minute” has the same sort of effect?

  13. Scott D*

    Good ideas, but another thing that has worked really well for me, though you might not be able to get away with it in all offices, is to wear headphones when you have to concentrate on your work. I listen to jazz or classical (or sometimes nothing at all) but, when I have headphones on and am working people tend not to bother me.

    1. LA*

      I wish headphones worked for me. I swear sometimes it’s almost like when I have headphones on at work, people come out of the woodwork to interrupt what I’m doing.

      1. Jennifer Thneed*

        I suggest that you make it a pain for them to interrupt you.

        They say something. You “don’t hear it” and “don’t realize they were talking to you”. They repeat themselves. You (laboriously) take off the headphones (but keep them in your hand!), apologize, ask them to repeat themselves again. Respond to whatever and put those headphones right back on! Then they say something else. You don’t hear that *either*. Laboriously take off the headphones, apologize, etc, maybe while looking a little bothered.

        Even if they’re standing where you can see them well, you don’t have to accomodate them by taking off the headphones before they try to talk. If they do start to talk to you, start the laborious process again. And maybe only pull the headphone away from your head without taking it off at all.

        Obvs, don’t do this with your boss. Equally obvs, some people are going to make snarky comments. You have to be able to live with that. You’re training a behavior here and you need to be consistent, just like with a puppy or a toddler.

  14. Observer*

    OP – if the salesman actually refuses a handshakes and insists on a hug, you should take him off your vendor list, and let his boss and your know that you have done so and why. That is utterly inexcusable.

    If it makes you feel better, think of it as protecting other women who he may be victimizing.

    1. Artemesia*

      This. I cannot fathom why people think they have to put up with this crap. Sure some people are huggers, but they ought to pick up that you don’t want to be hugged when you signal or say that and leave it. If they are pushy about it, they are creeps. (and they are always pushy about it with women) They are DONE.

  15. Elizabeth H.*

    So the letter states, “I frequently get trapped in work conversations and can’t find my way out of them.” But these examples don’t actually seem to me like *work* conversations – one is a social conversation and the other is an unwanted solicitation, so it isn’t relevant to the OP’s OWN work. What about getting trapped in work conversations that are actually work conversations, and are not unimportant in their own right, but that are not extremely urgent and that are interrupting you from something else that is equally important (or sometimes even more important, it just happens not to be standing near you and talking to you, so it doesn’t “feel” as urgent). This happens to me all the time and I get easily derailed; I sit in an open-ish space so I don’t have a door to close when I don’t want to be interrupted, although my desk isn’t directly accessible and I usually wear headphones. I would love to hear strategies or techniques for ending, exiting or postponing WORK-related conversations you are getting trapped in when you want to be working on something else instead.

    1. nonegiven*

      Oh, I don’t have time right now, could you please shoot me an email with the information so I don’t forget?

    2. taciturn tracey*

      I, too, would love to know this. Sometimes the chatty person is my office-mate (and peer, and oft-times collaborator); sometimes the chatty person is my boss wanting to rant about how busy she is.

      1. LT*

        In social conversations that take place at work I practice the “backwards-step away” from the person engaging me in conversation, as usually it is when I pass them by that we end up having a conversation (or more like a monologue). I’d love to interject more often to say “sorry, but I have to get back to work” etc. but some people can be SO long-winded! How do you know when to interrupt them?
        Full disclosure, the job where I was really struggling with overly chatty coworkers is one I recently left, but there are people in any given work environment who will take any opening to talk and run with it. I’m still trying to figure out if there might be any of my new colleagues who would talk endlessly like at my old workplace, but so far people seem focused on their own work, leaving room to socialize, but it’s not like they just talk about non-work stuff all day.

  16. irritable vowel*

    The OP does not state their gender but I’m going to assume from the contexts of the interactions that they are a woman. To me, the examples of unwanted interactions have a gendered component that make them particularly offputting, especially the sales guy. They give me the impression that both these guys want more of a personal relationship than a business one. I wouldn’t go so far as to characterize them as overtly hitting on the OP, but the fact that the OP identified these two particular people as making her uncomfortable is significant, IMO. I’ve worked with/done business with guys like this and I’ve always felt like they would not act the same way with one of my male coworkers. That, for me, made it much easier to shut it down because it seemed pretty obviously about them wanting a man-woman interaction for whatever reason and not about either work-related camaraderie or business relationship building.

    1. PersephoneUnderground*

      For the record, my husband is a serious people-pleaser so I could see him getting caught in situations like this, though probably more often in personal life than professional. But I agree that this reads to me as more likely a woman than a man experiencing it. Even if they aren’t hitting on her, there are many men who know and take advantage of the fact that women are less likely to shut them down, or feel more entitled to a woman’s time than they would to a man’s.

    2. fposte*

      I think some of this is just the expectation that women give attention, too. It’s a double whammy when you’re in a front-line position where professional attention is part of the job.

  17. bacon*

    With coworkers who stop by for too-long chats: when all else fails, I excuse myself to go to the bathroom.

    1. Beancounter Eric*

      I’ve had people follow me and keep right on…..a few times followed me into the facilities.

      Yeah, good times.

    2. Jennifer Thneed*

      My go-to is to pick up my cup and state my need for a refill of (coffee or water, depending on whether it’s before or after noon). I ask if they want to come to the break room with me, and then head on over. Sometimes they don’t come with me, but if they do, I’ve now turned it into a break room interaction and I can say “Need to get back to my desk!” as I leave.

      1. Rebecca in Dallas*

        I’ve done this with both the break room and the copier. I’ll let them walk with me, then once we’re done there, I’ll say, “Well, better get back to my desk!” Or sometimes if they’re still talking, I’ll walk them towards *their* desk. “Well, I guess this is your stop!”

  18. Susanne*

    The LW writes: “I need help knowing how to politely say “go away.” I frequently get trapped in work conversations and can’t find my way out of them.”

    “I’m sorry, I can’t talk right now, I’m in the middle of Project X,” delivered with a friendly smile. There. How hard was that?

    1. saminrva*

      The subtext to this question, I think, is “how to politely get people to go away who don’t respond to normal human cues.” I’ve been around people like this before too and it’s not so easy. I even had one who would open my door when it was shut with a do-not-disturb note on it (so I started having to lock it when I was on a call etc.).

      1. Someone else*

        Yes and in this case the other issue is the examples given were people talking about personal crises, so it might seem unkind to cut them off in the normal way. There are polite ways to still cut people off, but I suspect that part of where the hesitation comes from, at least with these examples, is due to the nature of what the people are talking about, not just that they’re interrupting. You don’t want to seem not empathetic (or to be kicking someone when they’re down), but you do want to get on with your day, or just stop the spiel before it starts.

  19. Kate*

    OK, so what about the lovely coworker with whom I share an office and she talks too much. Sometimes not even talking to me, just… talking. For example, thinking out loud. Every. damn. thought. Asking me what she forgot (how should I know?), asking me who was the person she was talking to when I wasn’t even there, asking rhetorical Qs all the time and just generally saying what she’s doing at the moment.
    I try to tune her out. I sometimes tell her to pipe it down, but she easily gets hurt/offended by it. Today it got to the point I had to put in my earplugs with music turned up high, I could still hear her, but it was easier to tune it out. Then she started complaining (very loudly) to our 3rd coworker, who is a door down from us that I even put in an earplug because of her. So clearly, she is aware of what she’s doing is annoying to me. So I told her I can’t hear my thoughts, I can’t concentrate my work and when I usually try to tell her, she gets hurt (she was nodding at this). I’m much more productive when she’s off, but then I have to do her part of the work, too. So it’s not good.
    I want to be firm, but I hate that it feels like I have to walk on eggshells around her. Anyone had a similar problem? How did you handle it? What did you tell your easily offended coworker, so you can actually do some work? I want to remain with good terms with her, not only because I otherwise like her, but because we have to share and office space for who knows how longer (years, possibly) and I don’t want a bad atmosphere. I realize she’s making one by doing this, but… ugh, this is so annoyiiiiiing!

    1. Ramona Flowers*

      I think you may need to start getting used to the idea of offending her. If she is offended by a completely reasonable request – like not to distract you all the time – that’s actually not your problem.

      Wear the earplugs. Ask her to pipe down. If she complains tell her once, kindly but firmly, that you need to work. Her feelings are her problem. You aren’t needing to work AT her. Just say “Well I do need to concentrate,” on repeat.

      1. Kate*

        Thank you, Ramona. I needed to get things in perspective, and you’re right. I don’t like the idea of offending her, but she’s not making this situation easy for me, either.

        1. Ramona Flowers*

          I think it’s just not possible to have a perfect outcome here. Either she has her feathers ruffled or you keep being unable to work. You can pick only one. You are absolved from trying to please both you and her as it’s just not possible so it’s okay not to try!

          Easier to say than do, I realise…

        2. Rebecca in Dallas*

          I had a cube-mate like that. I’d just flat-out ignore her if she was talking out loud, or I’d put in my headphones. I would just remind myself that she was the one being rude by continually interrupting my train of thought. If she thought I was the rude one, oh well. Not my problem.

      2. Specialk9*

        I had that with a co-worker once. He never stopped talking, ever, even when I turned away and started typing (he talked at my back) or put on earphones! I finally had to tell him directly, and I warmly used the “I really want to know what’s going on with you but have deadlines to meet – can we schedule coffee at X time instead?” And then scheduled coffee. He was totally cool with it, he needed words instead of hints and body language.

        You’re using your words, and headphones, and body language though, as she gets the message but then complains loudly to others in front of you? This is not the same situation. This is knowing what she’s doing and thinking she’s more important than you, and that she can manipulate you into letting her dominate you. No no no.

        This situation needs a manager to step in (if your manager has a spine), or for you to switch offices or work remotely (an option to give a manager who doesn’t have a spine).

    2. Jennifer Thneed*

      Are your desks set up so that you must see each other when you’re working? If so, can you change that up? If you can avoid eye contact, she might not make as many casual comments to you.

      As to her talking to herself, you’ve just got to bite the bullet and tell her it’s distracting. And please don’t try to make about you being easily distractable because it’s just plain a habit she can choose to break.

      (Personal note: I write things to pay the bills. I often mutter to myself while I’m writing or editing because hearing a sentence aloud helps so much with getting it to “flow” naturally. It really is a mutter and not talking aloud, but that doesn’t matter. When I have to sit near someone, I make a point of telling them that sometimes I mutter to myself and PLEASE let me know if it’s getting loud. And then, of course, I still try to monitor myself.)

  20. Ramona Flowers*

    I used to have a huge problem with this except it was with members of the public. I have a listening face and people used to come up to me and tell me personal stuff. I did some work on it with my supervisor at the charity where I volunteered at the time and the thing he really got me to focus on was my body language and how I encouraged people to keep speaking by smiling, making eye contact, and so on. He got me to practise ignoring him and then to practise ignoring people in public.

    Based on that I wonder if it’s worth you looking at similar things with the workmates who hold you captive. And give yourself permission to ignore them. Carry on typing. Say “Actually I really need to get this done” and then look at your computer and not at them, until they go away.

    You have to give yourself permission not to listen, and not to deal with the ‘encounter stress’ involved. It’s okay not to. It’s okay to ignore someone who isn’t respectful of your time and space.

  21. Tuesday Next*

    In my office, headphones means “don’t disturb unless it’s important”. Most people respect that.

    1. Wendy Darling*

      At one of my jobs headphones meant that, and one guy further had a set of headphones with DO NOT DISTURB written on the headband. If he had those on you didn’t disturb him unless there was imminent danger to his life and/or someone VP level or above needed him.

  22. chnellociraptor*

    I have this same problem, but with clients. I work at the front desk of a small school, and parents who are waiting for their children will sometimes strike up conversations with me because they’re bored, their phone is dead, they didn’t bring a book, etc. It is part of my job to be friendly and approachable, and sometimes I don’t mind making a little chit chat, but some of them feel TOO comfortable and start to cross boundaries, or are just plain annoying after ten minutes.

    I do occasionally just find an opportunity to get up and walk away, whether I have a reason to or not. That at least breaks up the flow of the conversation and signals to them that they should go back to their phones/book/work/whatever. Other times I’m saved by the phone ringing. Most of them get the message, but there’s at least one regular who views me as her own personal entertainment unit. It’s really trying; beyond interrupting my work, it’s also just unpleasant!

    1. Specialk9*

      Oh see at a front desk, I usually chat, because so many people treat receptionists like robots. It’s about acknowledging people, and it’s something I was taught to do as a kid. I’m an introvert and would rather not, actually, but that would be rude.

      So if you need to chat and then get back to work, I suggest coming up with some warm scripts to say that, e.g. “it’s been so nice to catch up, I’m so glad/sad your dog is doing well/badly, I have a deadline I need to meet, but I’m so glad we talked.” Then stand up, even just if you put something in your trashcan or move something on your desk, and sit back and get to work.

      1. Jennifer Thneed*

        You really don’t have to have a conversation. Just actually look at the receptionist’s face and say good morning to them before you launch into whatever you need — that is plenty. That is acknowledging them as people.

        If it helps, remind yourself that they can’t leave the conversation the way you can, so maybe you continuing to chat with them isn’t actually the kind thing to do.

      2. chnellociraptor*

        It’s totally fine to smile and say hello, or goodbye, or even comment on the weather, but it’s really not necessary to keep making conversation beyond that point. Also, I’m only one person at a front desk, but one introvert to another – I truly, genuinely do not care if people walk past me without making eye contact or acknowledging me.

  23. Alli525*

    Boy do I hate pushy vendors. At a previous job, I worked in a big midtown-Manhattan building that had a security desk in the lobby (so you had to show your ID if visiting and they would call the relevant office to approve). Once, a sales vendor for an office-supply company rang our doorbell and asked for our office manager, because he had an appointment. I was on doorbell duty that day, and when I went over and asked her about it, she was completely baffled, so I turned him away.

    Turns out that he had apparently had a legitimate meeting somewhere in the building, but instead of leaving afterward, decided to ride the elevators with his prospect list and drop in unannounced. Once we figured that out, we called his supervisor and told them that we would NEVER switch to their company because we don’t put up with BS like that. Also, that’s a huge security risk, so f you, dude.

    I was also known around that office as the only admin who would Shut It Down with any particularly pushy phone calls, so occasionally I’d be asked to pick up a particularly annoying repeat offender. I always enjoyed that (it was a fun challenge to be professional while completely Shutting It Down).

    1. sometimeswhy*


      We once had a vendor reach out for an in person visit. The person he reached out to was on vacation and hadn’t gotten the email so Vendor just showed up and talked his way in. I (the person’s manager) got called and Vendor told me he’d made an appointment with StaffPerson for that day. Which was funny, because StaffPerson was still on vacation so that wasn’t even possible. Vendor kept trying to spin it into a misunderstanding “but while I’m here!”

      All the while, we were in the elevator headed for what he thought was our part of the building but instead I walked him to the front door, pointed him out to security, and watched him leave. After I sent a very pointed email to Company about it being unacceptable to stop in like that.

      Later that year the company in question did some other things that lost us forever as customers.

    2. Lissajous*


      We had a vendor trying to set up a meeting once. I’d already met with him once, mainly because he claimed to have an in with the client on my project at the time, so I knew we weren’t interested.

      Thing was, this was a very, very busy period. All of us on that particular project were working long hours. He sent a couple of emails to me and the project manager, and then when he didn’t get a response turned up without an invitation. Our receptionist was new, which is relevant only because she didn’t know how much pushback she could give yet, and know the managers would support her. (We have pretty good managers.)

      Receptionist told me this guy was here. I said we did not have a meeting set up, and I did not have time to meet with him just because he came to our office.

      The guy then said he wasn’t leaving until he met with someone. At which point I got rather furious, and fortunately I tend to go into iciness, not yelling. I went out and told him he did not have any right to our time just because he turned up, and that his manipulative actions to try and force a meeting had just guaranteed we would never seek pricing from his company. I may also have said something about next time if someone doesn’t have time to answer an email, take the hint that they don’t have time to meet, and also when a receptionist tells you someone is unavailable, accept it.

      He left. And then two minutes later came back to ask for his business card back from our receptionist. And then we never heard from him again :)

      1. TiffIf*

        GO YOU! That is awesome that you were able to articulate that when furious–I don’t go into yelling but I tend to lose vocabulary and coherence when I get angry.

  24. Just Me*

    I don’t think all that pretense and staging is necessary. Just be direct and truthful: “Sorry, I can’t talk right now.”

    1. Just Me*

      In fact, there have been many times I’ve simply help up my hand (as in a “STOP” gesture) and said, “Please! I need to focus. Thanks.” No one has ever gotten bent out of shape over that. They just too their chit-chat somewhere else.

  25. Mih*

    I have a chatty coworker who relatively often comes to my office for some work related reason but when that is sorted she will sit down and start chatting about anything not work related, often for lengthy periods of time. One trick I use to end the conversation if she doesnt take any other hints (she understands if I am on a deadline or on the way to a meeting, but most of the time I am not, I just need to concentrate), is to pick up my coffee mug while engaging in the conversation, get up and start walking towards the coffee area. Her office is on the way so either she will just walk into her office when we pass it or come with me to get coffee and then go into her office on the way back. Works every time.

    1. Just Me*

      Why is it better to use a “trick” that takes up your time and interrupts your work, instead of simply stating, “Listen, I’m busy and can’t talk right now. I’ll catch up with you when I have a chance.” Why would trying to wiggle out of something sneakily be preferred over being direct and straightforward? I just think all these tricks and make-believe excuses do no one any favors.

      1. Jennifer Thneed*

        Have you actually been in this situation, in an office setting? Hypotheticals are all very well, but we are human beans and we have emotions, like it or not.

        1. Snark*

          Maybe, but if your feelings are hurt by a coworker saying, “Listen, I’m busy and can’t talk right now. I’ll catch up with you when I have a chance,” when you barge into their office and start talking, then that’s for you to manage.

      2. winter*

        Sometimes it takes less energy to just get up and walk some steps than doing something that goes against what you’d naturally do. The latter takes effort.
        This is not a referendum on either of the methods, different things work for different people. But I know that when I’m stressed, I’d rather just get something new to drink, which I wanted to do anyway, than to find a polite way to shut someone off – that takes even more of the little remaining concentration I have.

  26. Mrs. Fenris*

    Oh, I had to just start walking away from one of our vendors. Like, turning around and exiting whether he was still talking or not. He got on my bad side while I was obviously critically busy…as in, critically ill llama on oxygen support might die any second. He eventually got the message and stopped pestering me.

  27. cornflower blue*

    This won’t help in the case of the isolated coworkers, but in general I’ve found it useful to have a “save me” signal with a work friend.

    This idea was introduced to me when I started serving at a small family-owned cafe whose clientele tended towards lonely, elderly regulars who liked to ramble. It was easy to get into the weeds when Ida wanted to talk about her heyday, so any waitress who started scratching the top of her head got an intervention from the floor manager who “needed her in the kitchen”. This worked because we weren’t supposed to be touching our hair and serving food, so it was a very clear signal.

    Now, in office work, I stake out a friend and agree to a sign. If either of us sees the sign, we go to am empty cubicle out of earshot and call the other with a fake urgency.

  28. Marie-Claude Bennett*

    Whenever I find myself in that situation, whether it’s at work or elsewhere, I always use the excuse of saying I have to use the washroom. It’s believable, can be “urgent”, and generally no one hangs around waiting for you to get back. Works like a charm.

  29. Ruby Jackson*

    My boss is the one who holds us hostage for sometimes hours at a time. It’s torture, and the red/green cards that admin gave us to help with this matter no longer work. Neither does holding up both hands and saying “Stop.” Nor, standing with your hand on the door knob on your way out, etc. etc.

    He has an incessant need to reveal every idea that crosses his mind, every interaction he’s had, and every behind-the-scenes development. His bad habit has at one time or another ensnared just about everyone in our institution. Everyone knows about it, but there’s nothing that can be done. It is truly the worst part of my job.

Comments are closed.